Steve Blank identified the problem of "Innovation Theater." "Accelerators, hubs, cafes, open-sourcing, crowd-souring, maker spaces, Chief Innovation Officers, etc. . . . lots of motion but no action. Great demos are shown and there are lots of coffee cups and posters, but if you look at the deliverables for the mission over a period of years the result is disappointing."
So it's appropriate that Blank and his co-conspirator Peter Newell, recently have come up with a solution to the theatrics.
In “The Innovation Stack: How to Make Innovation Programs Deliver More Than Coffee Cups,” Blank provides a recipe for getting beyond the single passionate innovator battling hierarchy and the tyranny of the current business model aided by the heroic internal entrepreneur slaying the dragons of complacency and existing priorities. These tales generally ended in frustration and exhaustion.
That’s why Blank and Newell first developed the innovation business/mission model now employed by the National Science Foundation Innovation Corps (I-Corps), the National Security Agency I-Corps, and Hacking for Defense. They could see that the tools of innovation employed by startups didn’t defeat the frustrations of intrapreneurship. Instead, they all too often became innovation theater—lots of talk, little delivery. Instead, they taught teams, not just individuals, a formal process for testing the feasibility and viability of their ideas by getting out and interviewing more than 100 potential users and stakeholders to refine their minimally viable products, understand the obstacles they face and get real about the resources needed to deploy a product.
While the I-Corps and H4D raised the quality of innovation, they have not overcome the challenge of getting from idea to at-scale delivery. Blank blames two hurdles: One, is lack of connection: The teams and their parent organizations wind up speaking two different languages, existing priorities continue to take precedence and there is no budget slack for new ideas, no matter how good. Two, there is no mandate, time or budget for building a pipeline to take innovations from idea all the way to integrating the prototypes into production. So Blank and Newell created an innovation pipeline (see drawing). But they also realized that it never would become institutionalized without the backing of senior leaders. And those leaders only become interested in innovation when it delivers products or services that matter to the mission at speed. Only then will they change the processes and procedures in the way of the innovation pipeline.
So the most important insight is that in large organizations where there is no mandated innovation pipeline—which is just about all of them—the bold must identify operational groups—those with “visibility, credibility and most importantly direct relevance to mission—to take up the innovation pipeline approach. These 25- to 100-person groups must be led by entrepreneurs and have budget and authority to solve critical problems. Newell has defined entrepreneurs in the DoD setting as: “experienced in the tools of search and discovery needed to build pathways and are well versed in measuring risk against opportunity. They have the respect and trust of their supervisors built on years of experience in their organizations.”
The other requirement for the operational pipeline pilot groups is that they be fed up with the status quo—facing a persistent problem or seemingly insurmountable workload or a step change in operating environment that leaves them ready to try something new. Being operational, however, they will not be interested in innovation theater, but rather need an end-to-end solution, like the innovation pipeline, that delivers at scale. As such groups adopt the pipeline and succeed at innovating with it, they will reach critical scale, a tipping point that will grab senior leaders’ attention and win institutionalization of the pipeline process.
Newell recently has proposed that the pipeline should be applied not only to defense technical and tactical problems, but to policy and strategy as well. Policymakers also need to get out of their offices and go to where the potential problems are unfolding. They should curate possible policy solutions via survey and interviews, prioritize them and test them using the same mission model canvas used by H4D and the I-Corps. This application to policy and strategy is necessary, says Newell, for the United States to catch up, keep up and prevail in this era of renewed near-peer national security competition. “It is the actor who identifies and refines the problem, rapidly iterates and innovates, and then brings a coalition of partners together against the entirety of the problem who will gain the strategic upper hand,” he writes.
This extension is hopeful, as are the appearance of Hacking for Diplomacy and for Energy curricula in U.S. universities. But let’s hope now that Blank and Newell have refined the process for success in large organizations, they extend it and their attention beyond the military and intelligence community across the rest of government.
There is little doubt that federal agencies need help learning how to formulate problems for efficient translation to potential solvers in industry and elsewhere. The deficiencies of “requirements development” are a bête noir of contracting. And, as the new President's Management Agenda makes clear, the innovation imperative knows no governmental boundaries.
The Innovation Pipeline