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Here’s Why ‘Disrupting’ Government Is Such Hard Work

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By Winston Chang August 27, 2015

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Winston Chang is a director at The Ambit Group.

Government agencies can learn from leading commercial companies that have embraced a culture of innovation and entrepreneurship to transform their industries and ignite employee passion. These companies have proven that harnessing the innovation and passion cultivated by a startup culture can produce extraordinary effects.  

In startup cultures, developing and implementing innovative ideas are a badge of honor. Take Uber and Lyft. Their revolutionary service has disrupted the organizational, technological and process models embraced by the rigid taxi industry. Similar disruptive innovations have reshaped entire industries, from music distribution to energy production.

The government, however, cannot simply “disrupt” at will. Dramatic change may negatively affect many stakeholders, both in the public and private sector, producing unwanted repercussions.

Still, a balance is possible, where creativity and innovation can thrive alongside stability. The government can start to shift its workplace culture toward this balance by focusing on two key areas of entrepreneurial culture: embracing risk and igniting passion.

Entrepreneurs have a reputation for taking bold risks. A more accurate representation recognizes that entrepreneurs are experienced in managing and leveraging risk. They learn to fail quick and fail cheap. This strategy enables them to test and refine innovative ideas, moving quickly through iterations of products and processes while pursuing fast-moving targets. Failures aren’t treated as disasters, but as essential data points that ultimately lead to success.

In the government, a fast-paced approach into the unknown and undefined can be difficult to promote, much less adapt. Failure can be a four-letter word in the public sphere, and embracing failure requires a 180-degree shift in thinking.

The best way to shift organizational culture is with small, autonomous, high quality teams running fast-paced, highly focused projects, then using their successes and failures as a means to demonstrate the advantages of the approach. Allowing the team to prove how quickly and cheaply iterative steps (i.e. small failures) drive toward an optimal solution establishes a developmental foundation for a culture that leverages risk to their advantage.

The term civil servant is well deserved. The government exists to serve the people and that passion for service resonates with the entrepreneur’s passion for their idea.

The culture of entrepreneurship involves full ownership of an idea worth spreading, which ignites passion in a mission beyond self and money. The passion of the startup culture is foundational to innovation because it requires a huge amount of sweat equity to be successful. Without passion, the wheels of innovation would lose steam.

Much of that passion is gained from ownership. In a startup, the entrepreneur has total authority and responsibility to achieve their idea. Federal agencies can seed a culture of passion and innovation in the government space by providing ownership of their mission to their staff, empowering them with the authority and autonomy to pursue innovative problem solving.

There are a few federal agencies in Washington already adapting techniques and mindsets from the startup world. These include accelerators in the U.S. Agency for International Development and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and “intrapreneurs” (internal entrepreneurs) at the Federal Communications Commission.

It is exciting to see startup-based programs and roles blossoming and becoming a priority in the government, driving innovation and rethinking how they think about risk. These leading agencies are taking the initiative in nurturing a new style of government innovation.

Government is seeing a mission field that demands increased and higher-quality services while operating on reduced resources. These are the same demands that inspired the creative approaches of pioneers like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. The entrepreneurial spirit rises to meet challenges and will equip government with the flexibility and innovation required in the future.

In my next column: specific techniques for porting lean startup methodology into a government-friendly project management framework.

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