What Silicon Valley Can Teach Feds About Innovation

A culture that promotes collaboration and tolerates failure is critical.

Wired Workplace spent the day in Silicon Valley on Thursday checking out the work spaces and work cultures of some of the nation’s most innovative companies, like Facebook, IDEO and Kaiser Permanente. I’ll have more on my visits next week, but I wanted to share a few of the key things I learned that I think are important for federal agencies: 

The work culture in Silicon Valley is completely different than what most federal employees are used to, and it’s going to take at least some level of culture change for government to attract and retain these highly-skilled workers and perhaps come up with more innovative ways of solving challenges. Young employees in particular are looking for work spaces that facilitate collaboration, and so many of these top companies have created collaborative spaces that are functional for employees – with wheeled tables, chairs and whiteboards that can easily be rearranged. Companies like Facebook also have created lounge areas in spaces where employees often cross paths. The Office of Personnel Management visited these three companies and several others in Silicon Valley in deciding how to design OPM's innovation lab, which it hopes will bring a more collaborative, innovative culture to the agency and its employees.

Agencies should not automatically assume that telework is the key to attracting the younger generation of workers. Most workers at Facebook and IDEO almost always commute into work every day. What’s more important to them is having the ability to collaborate with other workers and to work where and when they want. Workers at IDEO do not have a designated desk space, meaning employees use their laptops and mobile devices to work in the company’s café space, outdoors or even in an old VW van that has been transformed into a conference space. At Facebook, employees can come to work and leave work when they want, and a large portion of the collaborative work they do is around 12:30 p.m., when almost all employees gather in one of the company’s trendy cafeterias or restaurants.

One of the key themes at all three of these companies is “fail fast, fail early and fail often,” a motto that is not so widely shared in government, and often for good reason, as federal employees are accountable to the taxpayer. But the experts I spoke to at Facebook, IDEO and Kaiser all emphasized how some element of failure is necessary to making every innovation a success and in many cases yields an even better return on investment. Not to mention, the ability to collaborate, innovate and sometimes fail is what keeps many employees at these companies from jumping ship. The government, however, has some room to improve when it comes to inspiring and rewarding employees for creativity and innovation, according to a report released last year by the Partnership for Public Service and the Hay Group. While 91 percent of federal workers are looking for ways to perform their jobs better, for example, only 39 percent believe innovation and creativity are rewarded.