October 7, 2020

Applying Silicon Valley’s fast-paced, risk-taking approach to the government is like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. Many Lean Startup attempts have crashed and burned trying to replicate that model within the very different world of government agencies. So how can the public sector successfully adopt innovative practices?

Lily Smith and Randy Silver invited me on their Product Experience podcast recently to discuss the growing use of internal accelerators within government. This model helps large organizations gain the insights needed to make rapid progress on strategic initiatives. We also discussed essential tactics to keep in mind that are particular to the world of government innovation — many of which I learned the hard way.

Taking the first steps

The hardest part of working with a government client is often the first part: guiding your customer to understanding why they are undertaking this change. Government agencies tend to be risk-averse for various reasons, so the first step should be to help these departments weigh outcomes. In partnership with the customer, we consider a variety of questions: What’s riskier: changing or remaining the same? What will happen if nothing changes? Have we lined up executive sponsorship to overcome bureaucratic hurdles? How much time do we have until this opportunity becomes a crisis?  

We ask these questions to build a deeper relationship with the customer and to ensure there are no red flags. Going over these questions also helps the government team come to these conclusion on their own. From there, the next focus should be on how to get to that better place. It’s a mistake to think what works outside of government — whether it’s software tools or complicated workflows — can automatically fit inside of it. Instead of imposing solutions on the problem, we make an effort to fully understand the existing challenges and all the stakeholders who are affected. Then our team at BMNT can start working on how to get them there. 

Building an internal accelerator vs. anything else

There is more than one way to create structures that produce innovation, so which is the best way to go? 

A lot of people automatically think about specific activities, such as brainstorm sessions, a hackathon, or Design Sprints. And these activities are useful. They can be great places to get a sense of who's interested in a specific topic. Still, generally speaking, unless there are a group of engineers working on a bunch of engineer-oriented problems, hackathons won’t generate a solution. 

Incubators are great for building businesses, while accelerators validate investable opportunities that leverage many types of tools and methodologies. An opportunity that's worth investing in, as a customer, does not always have to be in company form. An accelerator is a team of people trying to solve a hard problem, which could be wrapped in a business. But it could easily be a government team and one that develops both the workforce and problem-solving processes.

A funded internal accelerator (and everything that comes with it) can be useful for a niche problem that isn’t immediately solvable, or for a situation where people from different departments haven’t typically had to work with each other, and have a short window of time to solve a problem. 

It makes sense to involve external consultants when the problem requires specific expertise not found within the organization. There are benefits outside of that expertise — for example, professional growth and workforce development. In our experience, it’s clear that creating these microcosms of innovation also do great things for employee morale, their sense of belonging and purpose, and pave the way for a culture of innovation. Internal accelerators teach leadership new methodologies they can continue to use down the line (along with the satisfaction of solving a difficult problem).

Achieving success with an internal accelerator starts with separating what you need to make progress on the internal accelerator from what your goals are:

  1. Clearly identify the problem you want to solve and where it exists across the organization. This will establish a value proposition.
  2. Understand the accelerator's cultural benefits. Outline how this will help build a more cohesive cross-team culture and improve employee retention.
  3. Hone in on the tools the organization already has to help solve the problem. Silos often mean that organizations are not aware of all the various tools (i.e., software programs) available to them.

Meeting these goals can ultimately help your customer decide to throw more weight (and investment) into solving the problem.

Understanding “innovation load” and leadership's role in program success

There's always some turbulence in innovation, so it’s key to build a support system for internal teams that will see them through iteration and pivots. The foundation of that support involves:

  1. Genuine comprehension of the undertaking. One powerful tactic to achieve this is to impose fake urgency and imagined deadlines.
  2. Buy-in from the executive level. This is huge for team morale in the face of hurdles, but also for adaptation of the solution itself.
  3. Reinforcing the mindset that unexpected changes are wins, not failures. Through the process, you will have to evaluate if something worked. Sometimes the answer will be no, it didn't quite work for us but we learned a lot. This means the second time around will be significantly better, and by the third time we will have a well-run machine. 

Even within these frameworks, fostering innovation within rigid government systems is, in a word, hard. But we’ve found that applying certain structures can circumvents the typical cycle of (actual) failure: creating incomplete innovation teams; under-resourcing them; and isolating them so that they work on siloed solutions.

For more about internal accelerators, listen to my full interview with Lily Smith and Randy Silver here, or skip to the time stamps below.

6:00: How to set upon change and mindset shifts in government

10:15: Forcing solutions: what we learned from our mistakes 

12:00: Building an internal incubator vs. an accelerator

14:05: When an internal accelerator is the way to go

17:19: When to bring in external team members

19:15: The three goals of an internal accelerator

23:38: Accelerators vs. hackathons vs. design sprints

27:00: Understanding the “Innovation Load”

33:48: The power of effective leadership in accelerator success

35:30: Iteration is not failure

40:44: Getting executive leadership on board

Photo credit: Sergei F/Flickr