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Q&A: Managing the Pentagon's 'Wicked' Problems

Brian A Jackson/

Nextgov's Grace Hopper Award winner Maura Sullivan is no stranger to thorny problems. At Stanford, she focused on energy engineering and climate modeling and went on to get a Ph.D. from Emory in predictive modeling of casualties and earthquakes.

Sullivan spent eight years in the private sector focusing on catastrophe risk assessment in Silicon Valley for customers in the insurance and financial industries. There, she built predictive models “of things that could basically kills lots of people or cause people to live a long time and it could fundamentally cause major market disruptions,” and then created instruments that could transfer that risk.

It was a 2013-2014 White House fellowship that drove her into government, or more exactly to the Department of the Navy. Among her achievements as chief of innovation and strategy, Sullivan designed the Massive Multiplayer Online Wargame Leveraging the Internet, to get ideas for how the DON could balance data sharing while protecting information.

Sullivan talked with Nextgov about innovation and the challenge of “wicked” problems. This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

NG: You were handpicked to transform the Department of Navy's use of IT and data. How did you tackle that when you came on board?

MS: When I first got here, it was very clear that the DON has some first-principles issues, on how they were organized in the IT and data space. … If you look at the world of catastrophe risk, you’ve got to reduce correlation. For network threats, cyber and infectious disease, your organization has to be around surveillance and resilience. When I first got here and looked at the DON network, it looked to me like the biggest catastrophic risks I’d ever seen in the network space.

In terms of implementation . . . I started by reorganizing the management organization to bring the CIO and business operation functions closer together and we created a strategy and innovation office that could act a little like the CTO and scan the horizon and figure out how we can incorporate emerging technologies but at the same time have some of these debates around the value of data, what that means for our models, what that means to our regulations or our accreditation processes.

And after that, we kicked off Taskforce Innovation, which I was executive director of. That was a nine-month effort across the organization to simultaneously make changes on how we think about workforce information process in order to move some of the technologies and concepts of the physical-digital intersection and cut horizontally across the organization.  

NG: Because of your academic background, NOAA might have been a more logical step for you, so what was it about DON that made you feel you could make an impact?

MS: You go to where the problems are the biggest and most complex. This is very much like going to the belly of the beast of government. The Pentagon where I work is where the vast majority of the dollars flow through. If you’re going to find a problem and make an impact, you might as well pick the biggest and most complex and thorniest you can start.

Some problems are wicked problems. They’re not meant to be solved; they’re meant to be managed. Earthquakes aren’t a problem that’ll be solved, energy isn’t a problem that’s solvable. It’s a wicked problem. A lot of the Department of Navy and national security problems are very wicked, so it’s really about how can we manage these and how do we find balance so we end up in a good space for the overall strategy objectives.

NG: On the topic of innovation, which you you recently wrote about, what have been your biggest challenges there?

MS: The DON is a really interesting organization. It did make a conscious decision when it decided to be a nuclear Navy, that it was going to cultivate, train and promote linear thinkers. … The truth is, we live in a much different world now, especially with the physical-digital intersection. There’s a huge amount of embedded momentum with regards to the linearity with which people progress or are trained to think. That is an enormous problem in this day and age.

This is a more straight government problem; in a bureaucracy, you have lots of stakeholders but no owners  . . . how do you find a way to bring stakeholders together in such a way that you convince everyone to say yes when everyone wants to say no?

This is a military organization; it’s extremely hierarchical -- decisions are made hierarchical and decisions have also been made in the dearth of data. When you come from a culture where everyone is the captain of their own ship, now you have the ability to aggregate data but you have no real skill set in being able to interpret or make decisions. We now actually have a much better ability to execute hierarchically . . . but that’s culturally not what this place was used to at all.

NG: How do you personally approach innovation in solving a problem? What was the process like when you came up with the idea for the MMOWGLI, “Data Dilemma: Sharing vs. Silo"?

MS: The truth is when we think about the issue of data, you realize there’s a huge number of stakeholders and you also realize that lot of the people with the knowledge are not necessarily the people who are in power. The leadership doesn’t necessarily have the native ability with a lot of the tools we’re using in the data space.

There’s a lot of organizational discussion going around -- and this is a very difficult problem -- nobody really fully understands what data security means, what data rights mean and a variety of other things.

I think what we wanted to do was bring the conversation out in the open so using a crowdsource methodology was a good way to do that. We wanted to be able to take away the hierarchy so we could do this in an anonymous fashion. We wanted to be able to have a fairly open and robust discussion that could be asynchronous . . . and we wanted to steer the discussion but not control it. So, this led us to the ability to look at something like a crowdsourcing platform.

I’d seen . . . what happens when you get various people in a room and the dynamics that go on there, so we were really trying to find a way where we could facilitate the best discussion and get people on a level playing field to really get the best ideas to the table. When we finally did bring people together in person, they were their ideas, not the person behind it.

NG: What were some of the key takeaways from that particular project?

MS: It has led to a sustained institutional crowdsourcing capability. In general, we’ve really made more of an effort to be agile and scalable and less hierarchical about how and with whom we solve problems. Which is not to say we’re doing perfect; we’re still working on [figuring out] exactly how that works. We do have a lot more active crowdsourcing capability than we had before.

We also had a lot of tangible suggestions and we were able to fund some pilots, looking at things like how we could be more mobile, or how we could use autonomy better. And how we’re able to kind of incubate ideas is also what came out of that, so we’ve developed a better system for how we can connect people and incubate ideas.

We have a very difficult IT infrastructure to work with at the Department of the Navy and the Department of Defense, so being able to facilitate connection, especially in a hierarchical organization, is very powerful.  

NG: You are in this very traditionally controlled and rigid government environment, so how do you encourage bold thinking and how have you gotten stakeholders buy into the ideas you’ve had?

MS: Sometimes, you have to create fires. One of the things I like to do is pick a very tangible example of a much much bigger problem. For example, the accreditation framework for a lot of our systems doesn’t apply to a lot of the platform-as-a-service type of approaches and we don’t have a good risk framework to evaluate those. Instead of bringing that as an arbitrary question, we actually worked on getting a product into the Department of the Navy and demonstrating sort of the failures to the system through a very tangible example.

I’ve used that in some of the workforce reform that we’ve done, too: to demonstrate how a system is very much not working in front of leadership because they don’t necessarily have that tangible feel for it. And when you show them, it’s a show rather than tell approach. Oftentimes, you can get much better attention.

Another big one is to do what you can to really promote and knit together the ideas of others. I can come up with an overarching strategy, but I’m not going to be advocating for any particular way to get it done. I’m really looking for other people to have ownership for how that execution happens and really legitimately trying to support it.

(Image via Brian A Jackson/

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