By Steve Kelman

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Need out-of-the-box ideas? Look beyond your experts

shutterstock ID: 309062636 by lightspring

I am currently co-teaching, together with my Kennedy School colleague David Eaves, a course called "Averting Digital Disaster" that is built around the 2013 fiasco. I taught a session last week called "Choosing a vendor" to discuss how the government could increase the chances of choosing good contractors. The students had to prepare presentations on what factors they would look at in source selection for a vendor to develop a mobile app allowing people to buy mass transit tickets using a smartphone.

In class, all said they would factor in what I would call past performance, which they generally called "checking references." Part of the ensuing discussion involved what kinds of reference contracts bidders should submit and how the government should gather information about them.

In the middle of the conversation, I called on one of the students in the class, Deepti Kanneganti, who is in our two-year master's in public policy program. Her suggestion: "Ask the bidders to talk about a failure they've had."

I was taken aback by her out-of-the-box idea. I had never thought before about the government making such a request, and said so. Then the conversation went on.

Afterwards, I spoke to Kanneganti about what prompted her to make her suggestion. She came up with the idea in real time in class (not surprising, since this was not posed in advance as a question we would discuss).

"There were two things I was thinking of," she said. "One is that we had just been talking about the danger of giving bidders too much leeway in choosing contracts to submit as references, because they would cherry-pick successful ones." So she was thinking about how to avoid too much of a rosy bias in the information the government got. "Then I thought of job interviews." (A number of students in the class, going to situations with which they were familiar, had analogized source selection to job interviews.) "In a lot of job interviews, you are asked to talk about a failure you have experienced and what you learned from it."

I am not going to spend time writing about whether Kanneganti's idea should actually be tried out by government. I would be worried about making it required, because most bidders, told to say something negative, would respond with an apparent negative that is in fact a positive. (Richard Nixon would on occasion apologize, though these were not his exact words, for loving his country too much.) However, as a voluntary option for a bidder, this question definitely intrigues me. It could provide information not currently available to the government in the procurement process.

More important than the exact content of the idea, however, is its source. Obviously, Kanneganti, a 26 year-old student, is not an expert on government contracting.

Expertise definitely has its advantages. Non-experts are highly prone to ignorant mistakes, and experts know what ideas have been tried in the past. They know more about whether a new idea is likely to work and how to implement it.

But expertise also can come with limitations in terms of generating out-of-the-box ideas. Experts are often part of a community that regularly collaborates and comes to share many values and approaches. This can make expertise a constraint, resulting in suggestions that are too conventional and not daring enough. If you want to think about how outsiders are often the ones to come up with out-of-the-box ideas, think no further than the success of Donald Trump in 2016.

So Kanneganti came up with this idea. I, the procurement expert, did not.

All of us in our organizations should give more consideration to out-of-the-box ideas from people in the organization. Informally (say at lunch) we ought to pose a question we are facing to non-expert colleagues.

But in talking with Kanneganti after the class, I learned something else. It turns out she had worked before coming to the Kennedy School at a small eight-person firm that did healthcare consulting at the state government level. With eight employees, each needed to be a jack of more than one trade. "My knowledge of procurement is from responding to procurements at the state level," she said. "I'm a novice, but I'm not completely absent from the space."

So Kanneganti may actually be in the creativity sweet spot. She knows enough to make it less likely for her to come up with ignorant or unbaked ideas. But she doesn't know so much that she has become a prisoner of the way the experts think about problems.

Any agency want to give her idea a try?

Posted by Steve Kelman on Mar 11, 2019 at 7:45 PM


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