Is Your Agency Ready to Solve Its Problems?

A Stanford faculty member says agencies need a specific infrastructure to support innovation programs.

A Stanford University team has come up with an algorithm assessing whether agencies are ready for solutions to the challenges they face.

Federal agencies have no shortage of problems but articulating them is another one, according to the team that developed the “Hacking for Defense” and “Hacking for Diplomacy” classes, which operate at Stanford and various other institutions nationwide.

Retired Col. Pete Newell, former director of the Army's Rapid Equipping Force, and Steve Blank, credited with launching the lean-startup methodology, run the classes that invite students to come up with solutions to specific government problems. Federal agencies leaders contribute challenges to a pool that students can work toward solving. The CIA, for instance, is looking for a way to manage institutional knowledge.

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But not all problems are ready to be solved. Newell said his team has come up with a formalized system for assessing whether agencies are prepared for innovation-themed programs, including submitting challenges to the Hacking for Defense or Diplomacy courses. His team has accepted about 219 problems, about 48 percent of the ones agencies submitted. The program selects new problems based on their predictions for the viability of a solution’s success in an agency.

First, Newell said, the person submitting the challenge should be their agency’s expert on the issue—not necessarily the most senior leader.

“We want to know that the organization the person works for is backing that problem, and that problem’s experts,” he told Nextgov. Before the Hacking for Defense or Diplomacy teams start attacking a problem, Newell said he wanted to ensure student teams aren’t “waiting outside the building, trying to get somebody to talk to them.”

Instead, he’s looking for leaders who both know about the problem and have enough authority to dedicate federal resources to solving it, he said.

“We want to make sure that we’re not wasting everybody’s time filling out the answer to a white paper that’s not going to go anywhere.”

Newell’s team offers a “problem curation seminar” for agencies who participate in Hacking for Defense or Diplomacy, and also for agencies that want to stand up their own internal innovation-themed program.

As part of that seminar, Newell’s team instructs agencies on ways to talk about their problems to commercial businesses. A common pitfall, he said, is agencies looking for specific solutions to their problems, involving certain buzzy technology that’s popular today.

A problem ripe for innovation teams, he said, helping agencies move away from prescribing a set of requirements. “[We] don’t want a solution disguised as a problem,” he said.

“If they’re not deeply embedded in an environment like Silicon Valley,” or tech hubs like Austin and Boston, “it’s highly unlikely they have a good grip on the speed of change in technology,” he said.