Fostering Innovation

How federal IT managers can encourage their employees to think outside the box.

In government circles, innovation often can be seen as a dirty word, something to treat with caution, perhaps even something to avoid. Innovation generally comes partnered with risk-the bane of civil servants and their managers. Risk of failure, risk of wasted time and resources, and worst of all, risk of having your name associated with a project that went nowhere. Finding a way to encourage innovation among staff is one of the more difficult tasks that federal IT managers face. The barriers are numerous, the process of getting ideas and funding approved is long and arduous, and recognition often is nonexistent.

"There certainly are some things about government that make it hard or challenging to innovate," says Alan Balutis, director of the business solutions group at Cisco Systems Inc. and former chief information officer for the Commerce Department. "One is the sheer size. The IT budget itself is $700 billion." He also talks about issues of accountability and how they discourage innovation. "One of the things that's valued in government is continuity and predictability," he says. "There are lots of forces that work toward keeping things the same and predictable and argue against things that are new and different."

Organizational culture can be a major factor is this resistance to change, according to Emory Miller, senior vice president at Robbins-Gioia, a program management consulting firm in Alexandria, Va., and a federal employee for 36 years. "Someone might be hindered because they've done something for the past 20 years and are not aware that the world has changed dramatically," he says. "Often after people go to training and are all pumped up, they say they can't apply the new ideas because of their organization's culture."

One of the key elements of that resistance is government's aversion to risk. "I think the risk-averse nature of a lot of federal managers creates a barrier to success for them," says Andre Etherly, vice president for federal solutions at Keane Inc., an IT global services firm in San Ramon, Calif. "A lot of them view their career as being adversely impacted if they take a wrong step."

A final barrier to innovation is the nature of the federal budget and acquisitions processes. "You've got programs on annual appropriations cycles, then agency strategic plans and IT strategic plans that are intended to be forward looking one to 10 years out," says Dan Chenok, senior vice president and general manager with McLean, Va.-based Pragmatics Inc., an IT solutions provider for federal government.

Leading From the Side

So how can an IT manager overcome these barriers and encourage innovation among employees? It all starts with the people at the top.

"Today's manager needs to understand that we don't manage as we have done in the past, through a hierarchical structure. We accomplish work by influencing people and leading from the side," says Miller. His belief that a culture of innovation is something that must be created by senior-level executives was echoed by several other sources. "Leaders have to think differently today," Miller says. "They can't simply replicate past success, but must be thinking and must look for ways to take what we have and achieve our mission objectives."

A major part of creating a culture of innovation is establishing a tolerance for risk and being able to justify that risk up the line to senior and politically appointed leadership. "Part of your role [as IT manager] is being a buffer, an interpreter to create an environment to foster innovation," says Balutis. "You're the one that might take some of the slings and arrows that come from outside."

Protecting employees who take calculated risks sends employees a message about the priority of innovation versus avoiding blame. "Innovation lots of times means risk. I think risk is good, it's important," says Miller. "We must take risk smartly, manage our risk, and we must have an environment where we are free to take risks and be innovative."

Sometimes failure can be an option. "I think part of it is not punishing failure, not shooting the messenger. If someone is creative and taking a risk, they are going to fail," says Balutis.

Being adaptable is another way to change an organization's culture. "Folks need to accept that only a certain percentage of projects will make it to the finish line as conceived," says Etherly. As an example, he used the eMerge2 program at the Homeland Security Department, which attempted to unite the disparate agencies within DHS under one core financial management system. According to Etherly, after about a year, DHS did an assessment, realized the program was not feasible and decided to cancel it.

Still, taking a risk on a project and being willing to shut it down can run contrary to the traditional mind-set. "In the federal government, it's really hard to stop something once the upfront costs have been spent. There is a tendency to continue on to the end," says Etherly. "At some point it's OK to say we invested $2 million to $3 million, it didn't work, so let's can it and move on to do something else. People need to be able to do that without their careers getting derailed."

The most important step federal IT managers can take to encourage innovation is to recognize employees who come up with new ideas. "Creating a culture that celebrates innovative ideas is something that's instructive," Chenok says. "People who are thinking about creative technical ideas are motivated by the ability to share those ideas, have time to pursue them, share them with other technical professionals and broadcast them."

Balutis also emphasizes the importance of recognition, pointing to his own time at the Commerce Department. "You can give small amounts [of cash], and do so in a matter of days," he says. "You don't want to go through a process where you've had a good idea, and nine months later you get an award and think, what was this for?"

IT managers can work around some of their budget and scheduling constraints that hamper innovation in the federal government. Balutis recommends that agencies set aside grant money-$500,000 to $1 million-for employees who come up with innovative ideas and solutions. He advises using a panel of experts from inside and outside the agency to evaluate proposals and approve the awards.

Strong program management principles are an integral part of fostering innovation. "No innovation will carry its full weight unless it's carried by strong program management and strong processes," Chenok says.

While it might seem like everything is set up to discourage creativity, by recognizing employees who do think innovatively and by encouraging communication and cooperation both inside and outside their agencies, federal IT managers can eliminate some of the roadblocks and get their agency back on track to finding tomorrow's solutions.

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