On Leadership: The Federal Coach

Federal Coach: Innovation in the public sector

Friday, March 4, 2011

The nonprofit Partnership for Public Service and The Washington Post's On Leadership site jointly produce the Federal Coach, hosted by Tom Fox, director of the partnership's Center for Government Leadership. The goal is to "engage, inspire and learn from you, the federal worker, whether you are a new hire, a contractor or a manager at the highest level.

Fred Dust is a partner at Ideo, a global design and innovation consulting firm that takes a human-centered approach to helping organizations innovate and grow. At Ideo, Dust and his team assist clients in solving large, systemic challenges. He has recently worked with the Social Security Administration, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the U.S. Agency for International Development, the Office of Personnel Management and the University of Phoenix.

What are the barriers to innovation and how can federal agencies overcome them?

The barriers to innovation are the same in the private sector as in the public sector, such as the fear of failure. The notion that government has more fear of failure than the private sector isn't true. Everybody hates to fail.

There are built-in structures within government that make things, in some cases, more difficult to innovate than in the private sector. One example is the two-year fear. Everyone keeps saying, "We have two years," or, "We have 12 months left." It's really interesting in the private sector, because we would typically look at deadlines and the need to move quickly as a great motivator for innovation. But is that actually a good thing in government? Does it become an inhibiting factor to be so aware of the deadlines that are looming? Because of that, there is a notion of "quick wins" versus "Are we making lasting change?" The question is not whether you can get innovation to happen, but whether you are innovating the things that really matter.

How can federal leaders create an innovative work environment?

When we envision an innovative leader, we often imagine really intense people who are motivating their people forward. However, the places where we've seen great change are places where people are really good at understanding the historical emotional landscape - the brand or culture of the places they're coming into - and beginning to work with that. Innovative leaders are really good at gauging the emotional context of where they are working.

We've seen interesting examples of this within government, such as Director [John] Berry with the Office of Personnel Management. From my perspective, he's an eclectic thinker who brings in an interesting assortment of people to engage in a problem, and that's one of the things that we see as the hallmark of an innovative thinker. We think the best investment around innovation is creating long-term sustainable innovation cultures.

How can an organization, either in the public or private sector, create an innovative culture?

In the private sector, cultures are built on myths - good myths. Whether it's Ritz-Carlton, Wal-Mart or Nike, there's a common myth that allows people to coalesce toward a goal. One of the things I wonder is whether or not we let ourselves explore that myth as much in the world of government, because sometimes those myths are tied to words that we don't like to use, like "brand." But in fact, myths can really make a community move forward in a different way, so a big way of breaking through and building a common culture is creating a common mission.

One of the things we use as a powerful tool of innovation is an incredibly compelling story. One amazing story about how something changes can motivate a group of people way faster than all the rhetoric or nice words that you put out there. That's something I think could be developed further within government: How are we telling the stories internally to ourselves to motivate us and help us move forward?

How can federal leaders use innovation in the midst of budget cuts?

I think there's this kind of commonplace belief that there are innovative companies and non-innovative companies. What we've seen through our history working with companies that want to become innovative is they actually do so at a moment of serious pivotal reflection. They are concerned about whether or not they're going to be viable in the worlds they exist in. It may seem like a cliche, but crisis suggests that you have no choice but to think differently about the ways you do things.

I think with the rapid cycle of change we see happening in business, nonprofit, social and public sectors, that by not innovating, it actually renders you obsolete more quickly. There are changes that must happen to make any business relevant, and I think the same thing applies to government. If you don't make moves now, it will be too late.

Visit On Leadership at views.washingtonpost.com/ leadership/fedcoach. There are three weekly installments: Mondays: "Getting Ahead" - advice on "leading up." Wednesdays: "View From the Top Floor" - interviews with federal leaders. Fridays: Answering questions about navigating the federal workforce terrain.

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