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5 lessons the DOD can teach you about innovation

Jackie Burns Koven | March 16, 2016
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.

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.


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