Driving innovation from the middle

phototechno/getty images

COMMENTARY | NASA's Jennifer Elkins is an example of how senior civil servants can affect change in large organizations.

We often think about innovations in organizations as being driven either from the top or the bottom — a top leader who inspires or drives change, or young new employees with a fire in their belly. In a Kennedy School executive education program for GS-15s in which I just taught, I got to know a woman who was leading an innovation effort from neither of those positions, but as a non-supervisory procurement analyst at NASA.

Jennifer Elkins came to NASA headquarters two years ago to take charge of a cross-agency Integrated Product Team to promote innovation at all NASA centers. Before an executive education program starts, I always read through the biographies of all the participants, to see what kinds of interests they have and whether there are any common connections (often I know some other folks at their agency). In her bio, Jennifer described herself as working on something called the “acquisition innovation launchpad,” which she described as ”providing avenues for managed risk-taking through the submission, review, prioritization, approval, and measurement of agency testbed efforts submitted by Innovation Champions from across the enterprise.” I immediately told myself I wanted to talk, and after I was done doing my teaching in the program during the first week, I asked her if we could meet after her classes one day were done. We ended up sitting down together for several hours, and it was time well-spent.

Jennifer Elkins, NASA
Jennifer Elkins (U.S. Government photo)

Elkins works as a program manager in NASA headquarters. For many years, she worked in Defense Department, with her last job there as Director of Acquisition and Contracts Policy for Missile Defense Agency. Her first exposure to innovation was working as an Army civilian on a contract under the Small Business Innovation Research program, and she got hooked. When the Army got the authority to do “other transactions,” which allowed freedom from many procurement regulations, the senior procurement executive was looking for somebody to work on this for him, and she volunteered. She worked on establishing an Army-wide integrated product team with representatives from a large number of Army installations to work on innovations.

At NASA she successfully competed for a job to coordinate innovation activities at all the NASA centers. Since arriving, she has eliminated stovepiped meetings of the various functionals in her IPT — the way many government IPT’s unfortunately operate — and replaced this with more brainstorming sessions where IPT members talk with each other. She has focused on use of new contract types and new incentive arrangements to improve contractor performance.

One thing that made an impression on me was that she said that her most-important source for innovative ideas was something called the periodic table of acquisition innovations, a document developed through a partnership between ACT-IAC and the Chief Acquisition Officers Council and first published in 2020. The table lists about 20 different innovative techniques, such as reverse industry days and (a long-time favorite of mine) using challenges (also called contests) as a way to bring forth innovations in the procurement system. Wilkins also adopted the emphasis in the periodic table on pre-RFP market research that existing procurement regs call for but has often in reality been a formalistic paper exercise. The same periodic table Jennifer noted also caught the eye of the White House in a procurement innovation update published a few days ago.

Jennifer is an example of someone I’ve repeatedly encountered in dealing with government folks, but which gets little attention — civil servants trying to innovate and make a difference. My hat off to her and those like her.