What I Wish Someone Had Told Me Then: Creating Innovation In Public Sector Organizations

Sabra Horne

July 14, 2022

Several years ago, while I was at the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), my boss asked me, “What would innovation look like at CISA?”  He charged me with thinking about the various innovation approaches used at other components in the Department of Homeland Security, Department of Defense and other government agencies, researching successful programs and developing an innovation framework that would meet the specific mission challenges that CISA faces—an enormous mission with relatively few resources to address the vast number of cybersecurity threats that we face within the government and in the public.

With only a modest understanding of how to create an innovation organization within a government agency, I scrambled to pull together sources of information, people I could speak with, references I could read, and other agency innovation efforts I could research to craft both a solid foundation in innovation and a template for how innovation would support CISA mission.

Thankfully, I quickly stumbled on a foundational blog post by Stanford adjunct professor Steve Blank, creator of the Lean Startup movement: The Red Queen Problem: Innovation in the DoD and the Intelligence Community. The blog discussed the significant challenge of trying to innovate in government, quoting Alice in Wonderland, “… it takes all the running you can do to keep in the same place.” I promptly called Steve to learn more. Our conversation was a powerful introduction to how government can emulate the models of startups, using speed and effective risk-taking. In our discussion, Steve mentioned that Hacking for Defense, the academic course he co-created with BMNT CEO Pete Newell, would be a great model. It was then I came up with the idea for the Hacking for Homeland Security program, now in its fifth semester.

What I didn’t have available to me at the time was a primer on the concepts of innovation and how these methods could be employed to drive government and public sector mission. I wish someone had handed me a book all those years ago that could have jump-started my program, given me ideas from across the government to serve as good examples to emulate, shown me use cases from a variety of agencies to help me understand what worked—and what hadn’t.

Purchase on Amazon or Barnes & Noble

So, I joined Pete Newell at BMNT and I wrote that bookCreating Innovation Navigators: Achieving Mission Through Innovation, just published by BMNT, provides a great resource for innovators at any level—whether you’re bringing about innovation within an existing organization, joining an innovation team, or standing up a new innovation effort. It covers topics foundational to accelerating innovation: how to build innovation organizations; the necessary functions and resources for innovation; ways to measure progress, metrics to show impact within an organization; and how to communicate successes. And it features BMNT’s core “operating system,” the Innovation Pipeline® that shows how to achieve mission repeatedly and at scale. It’s available here and here.

What’s been even more fulfilling than writing the book is teaching principles from the book and other lessons learned to government innovators at BMNT’s Innovation Navigators Course. I and my BMNT colleagues had the honor, with the long-standing support of the Office of Naval Research, of teaching the U.S. Navy’s Unmanned Task Force how to use innovation to speed delivery of unmanned vehicles to support sailors, and in supporting NavalX, the US Navy’s premiere innovation effort, in developing a common language and set of processes. The 3 ½-day, in-person course focuses on incorporating innovation principles and processes into public sector organizations and working to solve important problems using these processes.

Watching both NavalX and the Unmanned Task Force tackle the tough challenges of how to achieve mission more quickly, answering real warfighter needs, and coming together to solve common problems was more than inspirational to me. It confirms for me the power of being a public servant and struggling to make great things happen for our neighbors. I’m looking forward to being part of the Innovation Navigators teaching team as we assist other public servants in helping make good things happen.

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