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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.

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.

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


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