In March, I wrote a blog post about “building an innovative government” (check it out here) and it’s a concept I’ve grown increasingly passionate about over the past several months. While the points I made in March still hold true, the details about how an innovation program could be structured were somewhat overlooked in favor of discussing some general best practices when developing a culture of innovation. I touched on the fact that innovators need a place to bring their ideas or problems, but what should that place look like?
First, should that place have a physical space dedicated to it? Many programs have invested in a lab or office space that would be used solely for cultivating innovation and the activities associated with the program. Most of these labs have open floor plans, plenty of wall space with white boards to help visualize and flesh out ideas/concepts, and furniture that can be easily moved around to work in groups and collaborate in different ways depending on the exercise. The walls are colorful, and there are Post-its and markers EVERYWHERE.
While not all successful programs have a physical space, it can be useful to announce the program’s intent and Department’s commitment to innovation. The investment itself shows that senior leadership is committed to innovation, which goes a long way to demonstrate the importance to employees and clients. Also, given that most innovation programs host in-person events and trainings, a physical space designed for these events seems to make sense.
OPM’s Innovation Lab (or “lab@OPM”), shown above, is considered the gold standard for government spaces. It was built in 2012 in the sub-basement of the OPM headquarters in Washington, D.C. and its services are available for any government agency to use for innovation or design related events. [Photo of lab@OPM, credit to OPM]
Whether you have a physical space or not, a dedicated team to manage the program is a requirement for success. Central to any innovation program is a repeatable, trusted process for developing employee ideas or proposed solutions, and a team is needed to facilitate that process. In my previous blog post, I mentioned a gateway review, which scratches the surface of such a process. There are many different program approaches that have been created over time to foster innovation within organizations, including start up accelerators, “shark tanks”, open innovation, partnering, embedding innovators into key areas, internal venture capital programs, and other various competitions and events that try to inspire new and creative solutions to issues.
While the details of the approach can vary greatly, the ideation process to develop the innovators’ ideas generally has five steps:
Step 1 – Solicit ideas. In this step, or stage, the agency performs some level of outreach to gather ideas, concepts, and initiatives that require innovative solutions from its business units or customer base. The organization can issue memos from senior leadership (such as Director, CTO, or CIO); announce an event like a design workshop to a targeted audience; or request ideas through an elaborate marketing campaign, through online sources, or even physical posters, depending on what makes sense for their organization.
Step 2 – Review and select. Not all ideas can or should be pursued. All innovation programs should have a decision making group, led by a senior leadership chair who can make decisions on strategic direction of an innovation’s proposed impact. The decision making group should include technology, business users, and financial (business viability) stakeholders because successful innovation is when all three of these areas meet in the middle, as illustrated below.
This group should have clear criteria for determining which ideas should be pursued and what the expectations are of the innovator. The decisions should also be transparent to the organization to ensure accountability of the process. In some programs, initial “seed funds” are provided to the innovator to explore the concept in more details.
Step 3 – Design. In this stage, the idea begins to take shape, and the innovator identifies the proposed solution’s constraints, dependencies, and projected benefits. Applying Human Centered Design methods will ensure the customer is fully engaged and the proposed solution is actually meeting their needs. At the end of this stage, the goal is not to have a working prototype. It’s to have made a clear and compelling business case, based on customer discovery, to warrant additional seed funds to develop a prototype or minimal viable product.
Step 4 – Prototype. The innovator at this stage develops some kind of working prototype of the proposed solution. Most innovation programs have stressed that a successful prototype is not one that is ready for market, but one that clearly shows how the solution would work. Gartner suggests that a culture in which people feel they must perfect early prototypes before showing them to management is wasteful. Low-fidelity prototyping should be encouraged. In fact, many successful innovation prototypes are crudely drawn cartoon storyboards to show how a process will work or a series of papers taped or stapled together to show how a user would interface with a new website or IT solution. Before the organization can consider scaling the solution, the prototype must accepted by the customer, and it behooves the organization to avoid major investments to prove it.
Step 5 – Deploy. An idea or solution becomes an innovation only when it’s widely adopted by its proposed customer. In this final stage of the repeatable process, the organization plans out how the solution can be scaled, developed, and deployed, which should not be part of the discussion until this final stage. In too many cases, ideas are initially judged on how they could scale across an organization. This stifles creativity and takes a good idea out of context by asking the wrong questions too soon.
Every agency has different processes for moving projects from development into operations. In this stage, the innovator also works through its agency’s pre-defined security and implementation requirements to bring the proposed solution to their thankful customers.
The details of these steps may vary across top government, academic, and private organizations with successful innovation or ideation processes, but this basic approach gives you a framework for a trusted, repeatable mechanism for developing ideas into solutions that provide value to your users and customers.
At eMentum, we’d love to hear your thoughts on innovation programs and continue this discussion based on your feedback. My team and I are visiting lab@OPM in mid-October, and I will update this post with a quick after visit report. (Please let me know if there is anything in particular you’d like to know by commenting below.) More importantly, let us know your thoughts!
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