Want real innovation? Don't start from scratch!

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In today's austere budgetary environment, does anyone have the time or resources to invest in the latest trends recommended by management thought leaders? If you are like me, it's hard to muster enthusiasm for yet another "big idea," but doing nothing is hardly a recipe for success either.

Thankfully, there is another way for the federal IT community to innovate -- it just requires a different perspective.

Instead of coming up with a new program or blue-sky vision for the future, let's first look back. Consider what we have accomplished, move it to the forefront, and then determine what is good, worthy or in need of improvement. We will need to define programmatic missions, functional requirements and stakeholders, then factor in recent technology advancements (cloud, mobile, social, etc.) and partner with program stakeholders to "innovate."

That's it. My apologies to the management consulting industry, but that's really all there is to innovation. Of course, "simple" does not equal "easy." There is plenty of work to do.

That work is worth the effort, though, if we keep two important principles in mind.

1. The approach to innovation should capitalize on what came before by redefining and giving it new meaning. For example, it's not that enterprise architecture was a bad idea. On the contrary, EA is integral to well-managed IT infrastructure and governance. But rather than making it the construct by which departments are structured and their processes defined and managed, with or without business buy-in, it seems to me that EA needs to be redefined.

Frankly, we need to do a lot of redefining. Given all the policies, memoranda, structures and methodologies that have been developed, I question how a federal CIO organization could even make sense of it all let alone establish governance and be confident of compliance. But don't throw out the 25-point plan for reforming federal IT and start over. Today's innovators must retool, not reinvent.

2. Innovation should not focus solely on IT but rather on the intersection of IT and business. Too many in this community think that IT is in itself innovative -- a belief that I find a bit self-centered. And truth be told, innovation has its roots in the business side of the house. It grew out of the "design thinking" community. In case you missed that one, it detailed the corporate creative process and how to foster it, and morphed into a larger concept that speaks to enterprise strategy and competiveness.

It's hard to muster enthusiasm for yet another "big idea," but doing nothing is hardly a recipe for success either.

The book "Making Innovation Work" by Tony Davila, Marc Epstein and Robert Shelton speaks well to how an organization should manage and measure the three phases of innovation: generation, conversion and integration. It's easy to imagine where problems might lie for government. We have plenty of smart people who are fully capable of generating good ideas, yet converting those ideas into practical innovations that can be integrated into the government environment is remarkably difficult -- far more challenging than in the commercial sector.

But again, the alternative of not innovating is no alternative at all. And in today's challenging budget environment, good ideas that promote efficiency or effectiveness will be well received by business leaders. Let's not wait on grand reforms that might or might not get implemented in our lifetime.

As chair of ACT-IAC's Institute for Innovation, I would like to explore where government has successfully innovated and hear whatever advice innovation leaders in government would like to share with the rest of us. Let's work together in the coming months to avoid chasing the latest trends and embrace a better brand of innovation.

About the Author

Andrew Robinson is senior vice president of ICF International.


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