This One Thing Is The Key To Driving Innovation Inside Government Agencies

Creating an innovation doctrine will encourage creative problem-solving

Daniel McCoy

September 8, 2023

When I started work as Chief Innovation Officer at the Transportation Security Administration in May 2020, it was the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic. We had gone into lockdown. The aviation sector was really hit hard. And we were struggling with how to support terminal security officers in the field who were still making sure that the airways were safe as passengers traveled during the pandemic. In addressing that challenge we were able to build an enduring innovation program inside the agency. 

Recently, I spoke with Billy Mitchell, host of The Daily Scoop Podcast, about how we did it and how I’m taking those lessons into my new role as Head of Business Development at BMNT.

Some takeaways from our conversation below. 

Making the case for having a Chief Innovation Officer

A Chief Innovation Officer (CInO) has a fundamental role in building a system that innovates organically and consistently long term. 

A CInO creates the fertile soil that enables ideas to flourish and focuses on creating the operating environment to curate ideas, bringing in tools, training partners, and developing the technology to allow more people to innovate. A CInO can also assess the structure of the organization and ask the valuable questions, like “Are we rewarding behaviors of innovation or reprimanding them?” 

Early in my time at TSA I focused on developing the foundation of what a CInO does to establish repeatable innovation programs and grow the capabilities of the TSA. 

During the early part of the COVID outbreak, we built changes that could meet immediate needs while persisting beyond that emergency. A key part of that effort was to develop an innovation doctrine that encouraged the right thinking at one of our agency’s most difficult times.

Building a culture of innovation through doctrine 

A leader-sanctioned innovation doctrine is a great blueprint for any government agency that wants to encourage creative problem-solving among its workforce. 

Innovation Doctrine serves as a “Bill of Rights” for employees and industry partners, declaring the thoughts and principles leaders espouse that will create innovation, from trust and transparency to the willingness to fail fast.

At TSA this translated to giving everyone in the organization the power to spot, curate, develop a problem statement, and begin the innovation process on their own; and it brought us profound results in the form of new programs like the LIFT program to push innovation to the edge. We used the timing of a global pandemic to drive a workplace culture that rewarded ingenuity and supported creative problem solving.

Developing an innovation doctrine for the TSA remains one of my biggest points of pride during my TSA tenure. It brought tangible progress for the Agency, at a time when progress was slow for the transportation industry across the globe. 

Two key qualities for leading innovation 

I have recognized two attributes required for anyone leading innovation. Whether managing a global crisis or not, you’ll need grit – to tirelessly pursue and manage your challenges, keep iterating discovery and continually drive your solution forward. 

There will be barriers to success at nearly every turn, from the procurement and acquisition processes, to IT constraints, and, in our case, a traumatizing pandemic that crippled the systems we were charged with supporting. You need the persistence to continue to push against all those odds. 

The second is empathy. This is critical for anyone successfully innovating in the government because you’ll need to connect people across all levels and backgrounds. It's not just empathizing with the person who's experiencing the challenge, but also understanding the realities for the people that you're working with to solve it who may become an obstacle. It’s important to consider that every person you engage with to solve a problem is operating under their own constraints, with different reward systems and perhaps punishments for working outside a certain framework. 

Empathy in innovation translates to teaching others while being open to learning from them, then putting those lessons to work throughout the entire innovation process. 

From TSA to the public sector at large

Now at BMNT, I want to continue other agencies/organizations, policymakers, and the larger government ecosystem navigate their innovation journey. 

I hope to take all that I learned from my role at TSA during an historic time in the Administration’s history to help other government agencies be able to respond to their own challenges with invention, creativity, and repeatable innovation. 

Hear my full conversation with Billy here or skip to the time stamps below. 

3:27: Why government agencies need a Chief Innovation Officer

4:59: Successes in innovation at the TSA 

6:15: Creating a culture of innovation that persists

8:05: What should an innovation doctrine look like?

11:33: How to removing bureaucratic barriers to innovation

13:35: This is the biggest obstacle to innovating at speed 

14:29: The two most important qualities for CInOs

16:12: Looking ahead in my new role as Head of Business Development at BMNT

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