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How government can innovate: Lessons from Fred Dust of IDEO

Fred Dust.jpgFred 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 U.S. Social Security Administration, The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, U.S. Agency for International Development, Office of Personnel Management and University of Phoenix.

What are 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 twelve 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 around? 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 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 cliché, 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.

Who inspires you to continue to innovate?

One thing my dad still continues to ask me is, "When you're going forward, are you afraid?" His point being, if you're not afraid, you're not doing something that actually feels like you're pushing forward. That's been an incredible point of personal inspiration to continue to say to myself, "Am I just afraid enough to actually feel like I could fail?"--which means I'm actually doing something outside the limits of what I typically do.

I also get to work with so many clients who are trying to make change. It doesn't matter if they're working in the field of luxury, education or social innovation. Most of our clients are trying to stand up and make change, so I sort of fall in love with my clients, because they're doing these incredibly strong, powerful things.

Federal leaders, on Thursday, March 10, the Partnership for Public Service and Hay Group will release Innovation in Government, a new report that studies the unique attributes of federal leaders who have successfully promoted innovation. To learn more, please click here.

By Tom Fox

 |  March 2, 2011; 7:35 PM ET |  Category:  View from the Top Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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Hey WAPO:

Why don't you do some real reporting instead of cheerleading for these Beltway Bandits. At the end of this article it says, "Federal leaders, on Thursday, March 10, the Partnership for Public Service and Hay Group will release Innovation in Government, a new report that studies the unique attributes of federal leaders who have successfully promoted innovation." The Hay Group web site says, " In the public sector, Hay Group clients include virtually all branches and departments of the federal government, and hundreds of state and local government agencies."

I love it. They get Federal contracts, then sponsor an event honoring -- you guessed it -- Federal managers.

Employees of the Hay Group contributed about $40,000 to Federal candidates in recent years. How about some investigative reporting on how much the Hay Group and IDEO have been paid for consulting with Federal agencies since Obama took office.

Posted by: Chippewa | March 6, 2011 3:40 PM

Some pretty dopey comments on this board. The primary barrier to government innovation is the U.S. Congress with their amendments, directives, etc. Also I don't think the government needs to emulate the creative "innovations" of such private sector stalwarts as Enron, AIG, Goldman Sachs, and so on and so forth.

Posted by: RobRoy1 | March 6, 2011 11:01 AM

Hey WAPO:

Why don't you do some real reporting instead of cheerleading for these Beltway Bandits. At the end of this article it says, "Federal leaders, on Thursday, March 10, the Partnership for Public Service and Hay Group will release Innovation in Government, a new report that studies the unique attributes of federal leaders who have successfully promoted innovation." The Hay Group web site says, " In the public sector, Hay Group clients include virtually all branches and departments of the federal government, and hundreds of state and local government agencies."

I love it. They get Federal contracts, then sponsor an event honoring -- you guessed it -- Federal managers.

Employees of the Hay Group contributed about $40,000 to Federal candidates in recent years. How about some investigative reporting on how much the Hay Group and IDEO have been paid for consulting with Federal agencies since Obama took office.

Posted by: Chippewa | March 6, 2011 10:30 AM

Please, enough of this BS. Federal Agencies just need to do their job as prescribed by the statutes that empower them for the least cost to taxpayers. You can start by firing 25% of those at the agencies and stop allowing agencies to hire consultants like this guy, stop the convention and meeting travel, no free cars and quit advertising on the sides of stock cars, etc.

Next he'll tell us how Amtrak can be made profitable through innovation on 150 year old right of ways.

Posted by: wesatch | March 6, 2011 8:51 AM

The role of government is not the same as the role of business. It's not the role of government to brand itself or to make a profit. While efficiency and creative thinking in government agencies is always a good thing, you obscure more than you clarify if you transfer business jargon wholesale without taking note of the important differences in aims, dynamics, and public accountability.

Posted by: jdmere | March 5, 2011 12:39 PM

There is absolutely nothing that any government can do as well as the private sector. Cut the size of the federal government by 2/3 and watch the economy take off, freedom return and America return to prosperity.

Posted by: hammeresq | March 5, 2011 7:48 AM

Cyclemadness: You're right. Ideo is wonderful. It must be true because it says so on their web site.

And darn it, you caught me redhanded. I am, indeed, a "paid commenter." I have several clients. In this case I'm actually getting paid three ways for commenting. First, the Association for Consultant Eradication (ACE) pays me $100 every time I post something critical of consultants. Additionally, I'm paid $200 per comment by VRWC, LLC (Vast Right Wing Conspiracy) for every negative comment about Democrats. You remember VRWC, the group that spread the vicious lie that Bill Clinton was involved with Monica Lewinsky? And finally, VRWC pays me a $300 bonus every time I irritate someone like you so much that they post a rejoinder. Please keep those replies coming, I need a new set of spinners for my Escalade.

By the way, have you ever noticed that consultants always say they use "powerful tools?" Mr. Dust used that phrase in the article, and here are three gems from the Ideo web site: (1) "understanding people can be a powerful tool for revealing new opportunities;" (2) "Spatial memory is a powerful tool;" and (3) "Design thinking can be a powerful tool in addressing the complex challenges in developing countries." You'd think they'd come up with new buzz words now and then. One of the articles on their web site offers the following brilliant advice: "Have the facilitator write the flow of ideas down in a medium visible to the whole group. IDEO has had great success with extremely low-tech tools like Sharpie markers, giant Post-its for the walls, and rolls of old-fashioned butcher-shop paper on the tables and walls." Wow, I never would have thought of doing that. Brilliant, I tell you, brilliant!

Posted by: Chippewa | March 4, 2011 3:05 AM

I am a retired civil servant. I think a big obstacle to innovation is the apparent need of many civil servants in leadership positions to put too much effort into assuring that any innovative ideas are first thoroughly vetted through political appointees (who generally do not have a long-term perspective).

One of my best experiences occurred when I was on a team that decided to draft proposed rules to revise totally how certain "outages" greatly affecting the public are to be reported. We proposed a far more sensible way to define significant outages that should be reported and expanded the requirements to cover a wide range of more recent technological advances. Only with a firm proposal in hand did we take the matter to the politicos for the first time. Our proposal then met with great success.

One other success is worthwhile mentioning. I remember when, as a new branch chief, I discovered that my staff seemed to be suffering from group "shell-shock" and "writers block" -- not drafting their best stuff because they believed that whatever they drafted would be criticized, edited, and thrust back at them. I told them to just provide me with their best stuff, and that, if the powers-that-be liked it, it's because they did a great job -- but if not, then it's because I did a lousy job of editing it. The turn around in group performance was immediate and dramatic, and the branch was soon recognized for superior productivity!

Posted by: EuripedesSmythe | March 3, 2011 11:03 PM

When is the Post going to pull the plug on this column? A ceaseless stream of tepid drivel. Your content sharing agreement with the Partnership for Public Service? It's sorely lacking in... content.

Posted by: civildisservice | March 3, 2011 5:52 PM

The thing I learned from this article is that I REALLY need to become a management consultant. Because if this is what passes for insight in that field...

Posted by: Aerowaz | March 3, 2011 4:28 PM

I think zhenge221's post at 1:56 a.m. had more interesting and insightful things to say about government than Fred did. Yet another private sector consultant and "expert" who has no idea of how things work inside government, but thinks "innovation" and "branding" will improve it. Yeah, right. That's what we need (fair disclosure: I'm a government drone): more innovation, and more branding. (Strange how an expert in branding would recommend more branding.)

Posted by: curmudgeon6 | March 3, 2011 11:16 AM

Chippewa: Seriously, a total contribution from IDEO of $8,500 has some relation to this story? Either you are incredibly cynical, or, as I suspect, a paid commenter. IDEO is legit, the real thing, whatever term you want. They have done incredible work to help many companies become something better than they are. I'd suggest people go to the IDEO site to find out the truth, or just type IDEO into Google and see what you find. And, no, I don't work for IDEO and never have.

Posted by: cyclemadness | March 3, 2011 10:29 AM

Sure, but what good are innovations for creating millions of good-paying American jobs, if those are just used for mass productions overseas? That is, innovated in America but made in China doesn't create much jobs for the Americans.

Posted by: TalkingHead1 | March 3, 2011 9:25 AM

Guy thinks Berry is ecletic.. says it all.

Posted by: jrwute42 | March 3, 2011 5:55 AM

Another consultant who borrows your watch to tell you what time it is.

For further insight, go to the Federal Election Commission database of campaign contributions, put "IDEO" in the employer/occupation box, and see what you get.

http://www.fec.gov/finance/disclosure/advindsea.shtml

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Posted by: zhenge221 | March 3, 2011 1:56 AM

The act of "branding" is a natural part of the economic process of creative destruction, whereby companies that have outlived their productive lives are destroyed and new companies arise from the ashes.

Does anyone remember DeSoto autos, or Nash Rambler, or the food Junkit Rennit Custard? Or for that matter GMs Saturn brand.

These were big brands in their day. All now dead.

Government agencies can never truly "brand" because they can never undergo creative destruction, because they can never die, to be reborn as something better.

You can't just be cool or with it and say government can do better by branding. That is just flip and shallow. If you want to brand, you have to agree to someday undergo creative destruction.

Posted by: cpameetingbook | March 2, 2011 8:20 PM

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