February 5, 2020

You might say the seeds for Teresa Smetzer’s 36-year career as an innovator were planted on a neighborhood hill in suburban Ohio when she was in second grade. Determined to learn how to ride her bike without training wheels, she figured out how to remove them, then launched herself downhill over and over until she mastered the task. 

Teresa laughs now telling the story, but it turns out that experience sums up one of her defining traits: “Tell me I can't do something. I just dare you,” she says. 

Teresa’s determination has helped propel her through a career focused on modernizing the business of intelligence. A former innovator with the CIA who also worked in the private sector and ran her own management consulting company, Teresa is now director of national security programs for Salesforce

On a recent episode of The Innovators Radio Show and Podcast, Teresa traced her entrepreneurial career -- from two tenures with the CIA to her work today -- and shared her thoughts on how the process of innovating has changed over the years.  

Mastering the art of the possible

Teresa’s experience working within large organizations to drive change has given her key insights into what makes a good innovator. 

“Everybody thinks they're an innovator, right? It's like beauty. It's in the eye of the beholder. But this description I thought was pretty good: It's one part creativity, one part problem-solving and one part some domain or functional expertise. It's really the ability to see the art of the possible, to see, ‘Hey, this is how this might work and how do we get from where we are to where we need to go.’” 

The fearlessness Teresa embodied as a kid is also key, but perhaps not in the way one might think: “Fearlessness is the ability to say, ‘I don't have this all figured out, but it's really interesting and something that I'm passionate about. I'm going to get a good diverse group of people around me to tackle this problem.’ ”   

The way large organizations approach innovation has changed considerably since 1983 when Teresa stumbled into her first innovation role at the CIA as a new college graduate and “got hooked” on problem-solving. “Early on in my career, innovation often meant, ‘Let's document all the requirements for how we do things and figure out a better, faster, cheaper, cooler way of delivering.’” 

Today, that requirements-centric approach has given way to “How do you solve mission challenges? How do you put things in the context of what makes mission better and more relevant? Helping government folks think about new technologies and new capabilities, and how to be agile enough to be able to adapt accordingly. That's something I found was really highly in demand when I went from industry back to government the second time.

Starting now, she says, “The people that are really going to make a big difference are the ones who figure out how to make mission impact clear, and also manage resources and people and capabilities, in a responsible way.”

Her advice to other innovators? “Better be agile and able to adjust. It’s going to get interesting.” 

Hear more of Teresa’s insights in her full Innovators Radio Show and Podcast interview here, or skip to the time stamps below:

4:08: Landing a job at the CIA

6:32: How Teresa navigated a tough judgment call to leave a government role—and how that decision empowered her to return

10:18: What makes a successful intrapreneur

16:12: How the concept of innovation has evolved within the government

18:33: Why access to diverse experiences makes a better innovator

21:52: How to know if a government career is for you

25:49: Why everyone can’t be an intrapreneur 

29:49: The shift in workplace standards is good news for everyone. Here’s why

42:38: How to have a more diverse workforce 

49:09: Here’s how to encourage an innovative culture in your organization  

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The Innovators Radio Show and Podcast co-hosted by BMNT CEO Pete Newell highlights the best and brightest mission-driven entrepreneurs — people dedicated to making the world a better place. The show airs Mondays at 11 am PT/2 pm ET on Stanford University radio station KZSU, 90.1 FM, and is streamed at kzsu.org. Past episodes are archived here.