by Jackie Burns Koven

5 lessons the DOD can teach you about innovation

Mar 15, 2016
BudgetingInnovationIT Leadership

While it might not always seem like it, Washington, D.C., is no stranger to cutting costs. At one of the branches of the Department of Defense, in fact, lowering the costs of failure can bring innovation, even in times of budgetary belt-tightening.

The Intelligence Community’s (IC) IT budget is flat-lining. Like most other federal organizations facing successive years of budget constraints, the IC has been continuously challenged to do more with less. One former IC executive quietly implemented innovative solutions that yielded millions of dollars in government savings by basing his strategy on Joi Ito’s maxim: “If you want to be innovative, lower the cost of failure.”

In just two years as the Defense Intelligence Agency’s CIO, Dan Doney spearheaded a number of initiatives revolutionizing rickety processes and tech. He explains that enabling the government to be innovative was not about bright shiny objects, but streamlining processes to discover, evaluate, integrate and acquire emerging ideas – big or small. The secret, he says, is to be “systematically opportunistic.”

Using simple platforms that could be adopted by most federal offices, he optimized how innovators interface with government, and how the workforce surfaced needs and solutions to mission problems. Here’s how:

1. Help wanted: post IT needs clearly and openly

In order for outside developers to address IT needs, they have to be able to find and understand them. The cumbersome online federal IT bidding system is its own worst enemy, keeping new solutions from getting in, and cutting-edge startups from even trying. Proposal and business development often introduces years of technical diligence, compete periods, government review and funding allocation. Typically, these delays are only financially feasible for large companies with a robust commercial client base.

Doney established the more user-friendly acquisition interface, NeedipeDIA, enabling outside developers and small businesses to easily discover and address DIA needs. He also launched the Open Innovation Gateway – an online environment simulating DOD IT environments so that companies could develop to DOD specifications and allow DIA to rapidly test and field the most promising capabilities.

[Related: Government websites best Amazon, Google in user satisfaction]

2. Form a DIY ‘Shark Tank’ to expedite acquisition decisions

Quick decisive action is required to onboard transformative ideas, Doney says. Multi-year government budget cycles and planning prohibit this approach, so he developed an internal venture capital mechanism at DIA to provide in-execution-year fiscal agility and crisp decision making to respond to new opportunities or mission needs. The process aimed to induce agency decisions within one month and 6 month pilot delivery timelines. “Agencies abhor a decision as nature abhors a vacuum,” he says.

His “Ideas to Action” process designed to move quickly from idea, to decision, to execution, short circuited normal agency decision making consisting of over 140 agency boards. One such pilot delivered a workforce idea simplifying the transfer of unclassified material to classified networks, resulting in an estimated savings of $40 million and costing just $325,000 to execute. This process helped launch the IC’s first operational Top Secret wireless network and set the stage for broader adoption across the IC and DOD.

3. Don’t be a ‘brand snob’

Though difficult to imagine now, there was a time when nobody knew who Microsoft or Apple was. Distrust of outside ideas and not always knowing what to ask for are also endemic in centralized institutions. Doney says that innovators submitting unsolicited proposals and disruptive technologies often fall through the cracks. “Evaluating emerging technologies through a paper proposal process is a fool errand’” he says. He gave the example of an obscure business that approached DIA through NeedipeDIA claiming it could process data faster than IC systems. Doney recalls many dismissed it (including himself), but proffered them access to the Open Innovation Gateway. Sure enough, the company outperformed government tech.

[Related: Government wants to increase IT spending 1.3% in proposed budget]

4. Psst! The best solutions may reside in the floors below the executive suite

Top-down government acquisition processes run the risk of spending millions of dollars on multi-year contracts for tools the workforce does not want or need. So Doney helped launch the “Nerd Brigade,” a nod to the Geek Squad, composed of coders and technicians to streamline and automate workflows for what he calls “the disenfranchised end-user” with tasks not viewed sexy or important enough to receive funding.

Together technologists and end-users could ideate and iterate unique tools. He recalled that the Nerd Brigade built a solution in just two weeks for a group of analysts burdened with manual data entry that saved 65 percent of an analyst’s day. “The problem was never that there were not enough ideas,” Doney explains. “There are plenty of ideas, but no mechanisms in government to enable them to surface.”

5. Adjust expectations of IT without lowering standards

With low costs to execute and low risk if they fail, lean IT solutions should be an attractive option across government; however, each of Doney’s initiatives met resistance. Some argued that securing funding and in-house-expertise to maintain custom IT solutions would be too problematic given tenuous budgets. Doney proposes the need for a new delivery model disrupting this mentality – disposable IT. With an IT landscape that transforms every couple years, federal processes that require years to plan and deliver cannot succeed. “We must learn to deliver capabilities in weeks that aren’t intended to last years – by design.”

Any organization is capable of democratizing processes to execute “crisp decisions,” as Doney refers to it, and give voice to the mundane and unsexy workflows. Empowering the government workforce may be the most innovative solution yet. IT can only fix so much if bureaucracy won’t let it help itself.