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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

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...

Planning Is More Important than Plans

I've never heard anyone complain about how short government documents are. In fact it’s the opposite. You often have to wade through dozens if not hundreds of pages of text to decipher the gist of a document. Most people just don't have the time. Most people don't even read short blogs much less multi-page documents.

Nowhere is this situation more prevalent than in government strategic plans. They cover multiple years and run on for pages. After you put in your fifth appendix, it's time for a reality check. It could be that the tech editor and the author are the only two people who have ever read the full document. However, agencies and programs should not take the lack of readers as a reason to stop planning.

First, one of the most valuable aspects of creating a plan is the process of planning itself. In the best case, government leaders are able to talk with stakeholders and staff. They seek out information and data from a wide variety of sources. They spend time thinking and prioritizing. These activities are invaluable. The tragedy of five-year strategic plans is that many leaders view them as one-time exercises...

Agencies Can Seed Future Success With Creative Investment

For several decades, government investment in research and development has been on a downward trajectory. Federal R&D spending now accounts for just under 1 percent of GDP versus 2 percent for private sector R&D. As a result, it is more important than ever for government to partner with the private sector and leverage its investment. In fact, the most successful R&D programs focus on creating communities of actors from academia, the commercial sector, and at times even hobbyists, who can work together to revolutionize technology.

This approach has several advantages. Government funding can seed a topic area and attract attention and effort from private industry and academia. For example, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency followed this strategy with its DARPA Grand Challenge. Over several iterations in 2004, 2005, and 2007, DARPA sponsored a driverless car challenge, first in the desert and later in an urban environment. It didn’t go well initially. No team could even qualify in the first round. No car made it more than than 7.5 miles. However, very quickly the technology developed.

DARPA tweaked the criteria and in the end spawned an industry that now looks like the future of transportation...

Be Prepared: Disruption Is Coming

We see a lot of headlines in the commercial sector about the consequences of technology disruption. Barnes and Noble disrupted the local book store and then Amazon disrupted Barnes and Noble. Apple disrupted music and the personal camera market, which had already been through a disruption as film gave way to digital images. The list goes on with taxis and Uber, hotels and Airbnb, and in countless other arenas.

We often think government is somewhat immune to this form of disruption. It is true that government moves a bit slower given divided powers, rules and regulations, and bureaucratic inertia, but that doesn’t stop disruption from happening. Terrorists and adversaries find asymmetric ways to cause havoc, and criminals have embraced the disruptive technologies of the Internet and the cloud for their own ends. Citizen expectations of what government can and should be able to do, and demands from industry for better and smarter regulation, are also driven by disruptive technological innovation. No one is immune.

In our work with federal programs and agencies, I’ve seen many struggle with aligning their missions and visions in an era of technological disruption. The programs that successfully embrace the change will survive and...