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What product managers can learn about innovation from the U.S. government’s innovation efforts
Today we are talking about building more innovative organizations. To help us with that, we have the author of Creating Innovation Navigators: Achieving Mission Through Innovation joining us. That is Sabra Horne, who is Entrepreneur in Residence at BMNT, where she supports the development and deployment of government innovation efforts.
Before joining BMNT, she was Chief of the Innovation Hub, responsible for envisioning, establishing, and developing innovation efforts in the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Previously, she served the National Security Agency (NSA) as Deputy Chief for Information Sharing and Collaboration, facilitating sharing of NSA’s most highly classified intelligence.
Summary of some concepts discussed for product managers
[1:59] What is the state of innovation in government organizations?
We probably think of the government as a bureaucratic mechanism that is slow and lumbering, but there are many innovative organizations within the government, such as NASA and DARPA. In many cases, the government can be somewhat slow, and we intentionally bring people to the government who are not experts in innovation—people who are great at following processes and strategies so we have repeatable efforts consistently focused on making the best use of taxpayer dollars. The challenge is balancing the responsibility of being methodical and precise with having innovative tactics. Every individual within the government has the ability to be more innovative, if we think about what that might look like, how we could achieve that, and how we’re going to achieve mission impact even more effectively.
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[5:38] Are we competitive in innovation across the U.S., and are we able to make the best use of innovation across entire organizations?
We are able to do some amazing things that people could never imagine. We realize there’s a great nation race, and we must keep on top of that. It’s important for us to figure out how we can bring emerging technologies to bear as quickly as possible for mission impact. Using commercial and emerging technologies as effectively and quickly as possible is critical. But there are a lot of different ways we can bring about innovation within the government, and by focusing only on emerging or commercial technologies, we’re missing a lot of what we can make happen. We can also look at strategies, processes, policies, or ways of communicating, and rethink how we do those things so we are being more effective and delivering mission impact. Innovation is not just about technology. It’s important for everyone to see their own role and how they can rethink what they’re doing and make it easier and more effective.
[9:42] How can we do a better job innovating?
One way to achieve innovation is by using innovation methodologies and tools. For example, the U.S. Navy’s Tactical Advancements for the Next Generation (TANG) program uses a human-centered design approach to thinking about mission problems and being able to connect with end users so they understand the problem and are able to create solutions that are more effective in bringing mission impact.
It’s also important to look at innovation strategically. For example, when I was at the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), I was charged with standing up the innovation hub. First, I asked myself, Why do we need innovation within CISA and what are our challenges and strengths? CISA is challenged with a mammoth mission of informing the 4.7 million owners and operators of critical infrastructure about cyber threats and keeping the .gov domain safe from cyber threats. We only have 2200 people to achieve that mission. The last thing we needed to do was load more work onto these incredibly overworked people. If I was going to bring in innovation, it was critical I found partnerships outside of CISA. One of the programs I stood up was called Hacking for Homeland Security, which makes use of university students who are working to solve innovation problems in an entrepreneurship course. We worked with students from Carnegie Mellon who spent time thinking about how we might assist small and medium-sized businesses who have few resources to better keep themselves safe from cyber threats.
[13:32] What is the innovation pipeline?
The innovation pipeline is a process in which we find new opportunities where we might bring in innovation. We want to look at the problems the workforce or our end users are having and how we might create a solution. The innovation pipeline is a five-step process to understand from the end users what their problems are:
- Sourcing problems in the widest manner possible and understanding the wide range of problems we have to work on
- Curating, prioritizing, refining, and ranking the problems so we know we’re working on the most important problems
- Exploring possible solutions by looking in-depth at pain points
- Incubating the solution and understand how it is going to be effective in meeting the needs
- Deploying the solution into an operational solution
It’s important to spend resources on projects that matter, so understanding what is needed from a strategic perspective in innovation is fundamental. That’s why the first step of the process is understanding what we’re trying to achieve in the organization and how we can use innovation to achieve that. Understanding end users and their problems is central to innovation. It’s important to talk to them, ask a lot of questions, and understand their challenges to develop a solution that answers everyone’s needs.
Get people to support your innovation efforts—advocates who take action to support you.
Action Guide: Put the information Sabra shared into action now. Click here to download the Action Guide.
- Check out Sabra’s book, Creating Innovation Navigators: Achieving Mission Through Innovation
- Learn more about BMNT and read Sabra’s blog post, “What I Wish Someone Had Told Me Then: Creating Innovation In Public Sector Organizations”
“This is the true joy in life, being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one. Being a force of nature instead of a feverish, selfish little clod of ailments and grievances, complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy. I am of the opinion that my life belongs to the whole community and as long as I live, it is my privilege to do for it what I can. I want to be thoroughly used up when I die, for the harder I work, the more I live.” – George Bernard Shaw
Thank you for taking the journey to product mastery and learning with me from the successes and failures of product innovators, managers, and developers. If you enjoyed the discussion, help out a fellow product manager by sharing it using the social media buttons you see below.