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Why Government & Innovation Don't Mix

Art by Barbara Kruger at the Hirshorn Museum in DC. Photo by me.

Of course they can mix. 

But it's not natural. On a routine basis, the term "government innovation" is an oxymoron. Government is defined by rigid and measurable definitions and processes while innovation means defying everything that existed before.

The Partnership for Public Service's  "Federal Coach" Tom Fox was on the news last night talking about 2013 survey results on the topic. He said Feds overwhelmingly try to be innovative but are successively less likely to feel encouraged for the endeavor, or rewarded. 

Agencies know they have to innovate. They also know the bureaucracy makes it almost impossible - culturally and practically. That is why they are creating separate institutional structures dedicated to the function.

We should try to get actual innovation happening. Of course. But to make the transition to a style of government where innovation is routine, we must also ask ourselves what kind of structure is optimal for promoting innovation. And whether the works in progress are helping, hurting or doing nothing very meaningful to make a difference.

On this topic, for me, there is no neutrality. I work in one such office now. But insofar as I can, I hope to share lessons learned as I learn them. (Speaking as myself, not for anyone else, as always.)

The other bias is my cognitive style. I have a predisposition to architecting "the perfect system" when incremental steps forward might be just as good. 

Despite my acknowledged non-objectivity I still believe that innovation requires above all things a focus. Personally the "garage" approach makes sense to me: Go away, make a thing, do a pilot, iterate and mass produce. 

I also think it is important to distinguish apples and oranges. Innovation is not synonymous with operations or mission support functions. It broader than tech. It is not about making employees feel good. But it feeds all of these things. And government has a tendency to fudge boundaries and "just make it work," so things get mixed up.

Yet long-term paid brainstorming in government is not practical. You have to be successful on multiple fronts. Mission, economic stewardship, employee development to be specific. And process matters above all. You have to make it happen in a way that is rational, repeatable, and useful.

Also, government culture isn't warm to constant experimentation, When you change a lot, the ship rocks.

Here is what I do know. We can decompose the innovation process into parts and manage those distinctly - from initiation to completion, feedback and moving a finished product to the showroom floor (the public).

We can pay more people to innovate, to teach the tools and techniques of innovation. 

We can wholesale reduce, automate or eliminate everything that gets in the way - administrivia. 

We can think of government enterprise as a rational, scientific, meritocratic enterprise above all - today's Starship Federation. 

Through a focus on innovation, we can get away from everything that distracts us from our #1 job. Serving the people.

And because we are the government, and are so process-driven, may actually come up with models that are useful to those most comfortable in the garage.

* All opinions my own.

You Always Have More Support Than You Think

Is it me or has 2014 been a really tough year? In my world alone there's been pests, sickness, physical suffering and unfortunately a death in the family.

When you're going through it you don't think about the pattern. Instead you only see that moment. And you tend to think it's just you. Alone.

What I want to say is that you have more support than you realize. When my husband's mom died I was overwhelmed by the expressions of love from people who rarely had anything to do with us.

Over and over again, no matter what the situation, I have read, observed and experienced that people genuinely reached out to say "I care." Not because they're saints, but because we are all human beings and in some way that makes us connected.

If you are suffering and alone in some way, know that the world is here to support you. You don't need to do anything special, either - the sentiment is already there.

Special thanks this Mother's Day to my own mom, who is always on the other end of the line when I call her, ready to offer a sympathetic ear.

* All opinions my own. 

Innovation Above Litigation

For better or for worse, American culture is defined by extremists. We are fascinated by criminals and geniuses.

Sometimes they are one and the same.

Look at Steve Jobs. Brilliant innovator. And as numerous reports have suggested, and as we've heard over and over again, he believed "the rules just didn't apply to him," (biographer Walter Isaacson, in the New York Times.)

In plotting to prevent Apple employees from working elsewhere, Jobs was a blatant white-collar criminal. And his power, and influence, stretched much further in the industry. As the New York Times reports, in effect Apple and others established a management culture within which employees - on threat of firing or banishment from the industry - learned that obedience to the company doctrine was blind, regardless of the law.
"In 2007, he [Steve Jobs] threatened Palm Inc. with patent litigation unless Palm agreed not to recruit Apple employees....That same year, Mr. Jobs wrote Eric E. Schmidt, the chief executive of Google at the time, 'I would be extremely pleased if Google would stop doing this,' referring to its efforts to recruit an Apple engineer.

"Mr. Schmidt forwarded the email, adding...: 'I believe we have a policy of no recruiting from Apple and this is a direct inbound request. Can you get this stopped and let me know why this is happening? I will need to send a response back to Apple quickly so please let me know as soon as you can.'

"When Mr. Jobs learned that the Google recruiter who contacted the Apple employee would be 'fired within the hour,' he responded with a smiley face."
- New York Times, May 2, 2014
Edward Snowden is an innovator as well, but he has decimated U.S. national security through his actions. Why did he turn? 

According to the Vanity Fair story that came out this month, Snowden had once been proud to work for the CIA. According to VF it was Snowden who said:
“They’re like WikiLeaks…. They’re reporting classified s**t. Who the f**k are the anonymous sources telling them this?....HELLO? HOW COVERT IS IT NOW? … THAT S**T IS CLASSIFIED FOR A REASON.” 
But then he worked for the CIA in Geneva, and saw agents get someone drunk then use that information to turn him into an informant. (And other incidents.) This seemed immoral and turned him off.

He also got in trouble with his boss's boss - for being good at his job.
“Snowden resigned from the C.I.A. The circumstances remain in dispute….Snowden gave his version to the Times in an online interview: while angling for a promotion, he had gotten into a ‘petty e-mail spat’ with a senior manager over flaws Snowden had discovered in the C.I.A.’s human-resources software.

“His immediate boss told him to back down, but then allowed him to test the system. Snowden said he altered some of the code in an attempt to highlight the software flaws; his boss signed off on it, but the senior manager became ‘furious’ and took his revenge in the unflattering personnel comment. The incident convinced him, Snowden says, that trying to work through the system would lead only to reprisals.”
- Vanity Fair, May 2014
In life it is not always clear what is right and what is wrong.  Some of Tyler Perry's movies innovatively ask the same question over and over: What is morality really? How do you know? When is it right to break the rules? How do you recover when you've made a terrible mistake?

Perry has transformed his own pain through art. I think he is trying to understand how people can act so incredibly bad: His own father who beat him so badly he tried to kill himself and he was molested by a friend's mother and several men.

In Perry's Good Deeds breaking the rules is the right thing to do - walk away from everything and start fresh. In Confessions of a Marriage Counselor it's wrong and life-destroying.

The question is what do we as a culture do with people who break the rules. How do we use their gifts, while preventing their excesses from destroying themselves and others?

We haven't answered that question yet.

* All opinions my own.

How Modular Thinking Can Dramatically Increase Our Actionable Innovation Rate

Look at all the problems we've got to solve. The old ways aren't working, right? We need new approaches, new ideas, new technologies, new solutions. Break the mold, think outside the box, go where no wo/man has gone before, land a spaceship on the moon.

Oh and while you're at it, get some coffee at Starbucks so we can have another brainstorming session in the afternoon.

If you look at innovation this way, it can seem exhausting. And it's easy to see how people would do that. Think about the world of fashion design, where the "best" designers are often conflated with those who show us something we've never seen.

The truth is that innovation isn't about coming up with new ideas all the time. And if you're thinking that it does, you should stop wasting your time on innovation. Because you will never get anything meaningful done.

So maybe you are thinking that I advocate spending more time on operations and less time on coming up with new ideas. Not necessarily. 

Of course innovation does take time to implement. But given sufficient resources with which to do both, it's not really a choice of one versus the other; they're different disciplines. Again, let's go back to fashion design as an example. The designer first sketches the idea. Other professionals support the initial sketch with fabric, model fittings, the runway show, and eventually the version you see in stores.

This is the important process through which the original idea becomes usable. Yes, you have to follow it. No, it does not take away from the importance of generating new ideas continually.

And if you have limited resources you might actually have to stop innovating for awhile in order to see a really good Big Idea through.

But I'm focused on something else entirely. And that is:

How do we establish a methodology through which large numbers of actionable innovative ideas can be generated in the first place?

The answer is modular thinking, in which we decompose the aspects of a thing in order to re-compose it in new ways. 
  • Modular programming - develop blocks of code that can create multiple application functionalities. 
  • Modular cooking - use blocks of pre-made food that power an original recipe. 
  • Modular design - use blocks of design elements and put them together in different ways to create original looks for a room.

In the realm of cooking, otherwise untalented chefs learn to become talented and original by first studying established frameworks. Example, by nationality: Chinese, Italian, Indian, Jewish, Mexican. Or you can look at what celebrity chefs do: Rachael Ray, Bobby Flay, Julia Child. You can even watch your elders cooking as a child and learn from them.

You decompose what these chefs do, add an element of your own or shuffle things around a bit, and you are now original.

The modular approach has three layers.

The base layer is your meta-framework for innovation. 
  • For example, you may be a situational innovator. This is what you see on Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives with Guy Fieri, where locals who are in the right place at the right time are featured. They didn't have a master plan, but everything just "came together" the right way.
  • You may be a technical innovator with a cause, such as Edward Snowden. If you read "Snowden Speaks: A Vanity Fair Special Report", it is clear that he had incredible technical skills that enabled him to shift his approach on the fly despite the best efforts of the government to stop him.
  • You may be data-and-evidence-driven, and use methods such as competitions and cash challenges to determine which "crazy ideas" are worth pursuing. "Esther Dyson's Healthy Investments," in the Wall Street Journal.

The second layer consists of the building blocks that make sense within the base layer. For example, for a situational innovator, these will consist of whatever ingredients are around for a recipe. A technical innovator will, for example, use modular blocks of code or known technology pieces for a different purpose. A data-and-evidence type will reduce their field of vision to experiments that have a tangible result.

The third, or top layer is where the inspiration is. This is the indescribable, inescapable, hard to duplicate spark that requires individual genius. By supporting this layer with pre-successful methods, it has a far greater chance of success and we are able to support many more experiments with problem-solving.

* All opinions my own.