Some Agencies Are Talking, But Not Walking, Innovation. Why?
Perhaps the bloom is off the federal acquisition innovation rose a bit.
Recent weeks have seen a spate of publications referring to various behaviors that all loosely fall under the definition of "innovation theater," a term coined by serial start-up founder and author of the book that started the lean startup movement, Steve Blank. He describes innovation theater as: "great projects, wonderful press releases about how innovative the company is, but no real substantive change in product trajectory"
"Accelerators, hubs, cafes, open-sourcing, crowd-souring, maker spaces, Chief Innovation Officers, etc. are all great but they tend to create innovation theater – 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. Most of the executors and operators have seen little or no value from any of these activities. While the activities individually may produce things of value, they aren’t valued within the communities they serve because they aren’t connected to a complete pipeline that harnesses that value and turns it into a deliverable on the battlefield where it matters," Blank says.
A recent anonymous article by a high-flying Air Force officer who is packing it in rather than accept a promotion to flag officer, points out how innovation theater accompanied the innovation craze as it crossed into government and the military. Here's the anonymous take:
"The most successful high-potential officers are those who make their seniors look good in shallow pursuit of the latest fad, thereby avoiding potential mistakes that could result from taking actual risks to advance the mission. For example, if an officer today is 'innovatively' using “spark tanks” to “enable multi-domain command and control,” chances are they are on the track to early promotion."
Ouch! That's pretty harsh, especially in view of the fact that the Air Force has become a hotbed of innovation with its AFWERX offices across the country and yes, Spark tanks and Kessel Run. Anonymous contends all of it adds up to innovation theater: all Spark and no fire.
"The Air Force has so many innovation fora and so little actual innovation," because "risk avoidance and innovation are mutually exclusive." Senior Air Force officers "sit on truly innovative proposals for no better reason than fear of making a mistake," the officer writes.
"If they were truly interested in innovation, senior officers would actively remove the barriers to innovation currently restricting airmen. Instead, many senior officers support the barriers as a means of reducing their personal risk. The irony is in avoiding personal career risk, such officers place U.S. national security at greater risk," the nameless writer says.
Richard Dunn, former DARPA general counsel who leads the Institute for Strategic Innovation in Government Contracting, a consultancy focused on all things other transaction authority, put his finger on another reason that government organizations talk innovation but don't deliver: They can't escape the vernacular and practices of the traditional federal procurement system, so they simply mouth innovative words, but use them as new labels for the old FAR medicine.
"When I teach [other transaction] courses I often find students who are steeped in the procurement system cannot 'hear' what I am saying," Dunn writes. Everything must filter through their prior learning."
"Listeners think they are hearing and learning when in fact the overlay of previous received beliefs is so profound they absorb only a distorted view of OTs corrupted by their own preconceived notions."
And just a day after Dunn published his essay, Chris Klan, a former Air Force and Veterans Affairs Department information technology leader, wrote a perfect example of Dunn's hearing problem applied to agile development, coincidentally one of the key elements in Steve Blank's lean startup method.
"But you can almost see the wheels turning inside of the program manager's head; to him the equation is so simple," Klan wrote. "He thinks Sprints are nothing more than management reviews, and those are done monthly. Scrums are just daily staff meetings. Stories are program objectives. And in his process of playing mix-and-match-the-terms-with-what-I-already-know the wonders of Agile become absorbed and dissolved into the same cultural status-quo soup."
My question is how much of what is being promoted as innovation and innovative in federal procurement today really is just innovation theater? And what is or can be done to call or root it out? Or maybe it's better to just let it play on in the hope that even getting people to talk the talk helps create cover for those who want to walk the walk?