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Alan Pentz on building new strategies in an era of disruptive change and rapidly advancing technology.

Not All Innovation Projects Are Born Equal

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I often see government programs using a one size fits all approach to managing innovation efforts. Every project has its milestones planned out three years in advance and of course all the right metrics to prove how appropriate the investment is. It's every project manager's dream. Unfortunately, real innovation doesn't work that way. The rise of agile development, minimum viable products, and quick pivots has made this kind of thinking obsolete.

On the other hand, government programs live in a world of scrutiny. Companies might have some central functions that act as watchdogs but government programs have management, inspectors general, auditors, watchdog organizations, and Congress, not to mention citizens themselves. There are a lot of people looking for things that are going wrong, so a litany of failures isn't going to be seen as brilliant pivots based on market feedback. So what is a government leader to do? Long term planning has limited usefulness in today's world, and high levels of scrutiny punish those who experiment too much. The key, in my view, is balance across the spectrum of projects and phases of development.

Successful government agencies and programs manage a portfolio of innovation projects. Some are exploratory and minimize investment while proving out a concept, while others have reached the full scale execution phase and require more detailed planning and higher levels of investment. At Corner Alliance, we recommend that government innovators manage their projects consciously as an innovation portfolio based on our research into best practices in public and private research and development. Much as a venture capitalist manages a portfolio of companies, government innovators can provide minimal proof of concept funding and gate further investment based on a few key milestones. We break initiatives and projects into six phases. You can group some of these to simplify this further but this gives you the basic categories:

  1. Explore: This is the broadest type of initiative and largely focused on research and basic information gathering. You are essentially exploring an entire area for what is relevant to your program. For example in this phase you might be asking how the cloud impacts your domain.
  2. Identify: Based on that exploration, you can begin to identify some priority areas that your particular program or area deems the most important and compelling. At this phase, those gaps might not be realistically addressable but they should be priorities.
  3. Define/Refine: Now you are prioritizing and trying to qualify your key gap areas and assess the feasibility of making a meaningful impact in that area.
  4. Target: In the target phase you are establishing your investment criteria and using them to focus on only the most impactful gaps. At this point you are envisioning actual solutions and project milestones.
  5. Execute: As the name implies, this is the implementation phase. Here you are standing up project teams, letting contracts, and monitoring a development or project implementation plan.
  6. Achieve: In the final phase, you are focused on sustaining your investment if appropriate and assessing the impact and learnings from your projects.

While you might have additional phases or different names for phases, this is a basic list we've found to be effective in government innovation efforts. The key is managing your investments as a portfolio, constantly assessing each effort and right-sizing the investment to the appropriate phase.

Alan Pentz is the CEO of Corner Alliance, a Washington-based consulting firm that focuses on helping government leaders manage innovation. He is a former Capitol Hill staffer and holds an MBA from the University of Texas at Austin. Contact him at apentz@corneralliance.com, or follow him on Twitter at @apentz

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