Rules for IT radicals

A pragmatic guide to realistically disrupting the federal IT space.

Don't be a cog in the machine

In 1971, Saul Alinsky published Rules for Radicals: A Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals. It is considered to be the seminal work on “disrupting” the status quo in order to bring about needed change.

With a nod to Alinksy, we need to focus on another kind of disruption -- the way government leverages IT to serve its citizens. If you believe change is needed, and want realistic approaches to transformation, here are seven important Rules for IT Radicals:

1. The platform is the thing

Just as in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, where the “play’s the thing” that reveals a hidden truth, the platform is the foundation of disruptive innovation. In fact, the platform is the innovation. It is the new business model. In 2016, four of the top five members of Forbes’ list of most valuable brands were platform companies. Amazon, Uber and Airbnb are all examples of premier platform-based companies that disrupted their industries.

Government has been slow to get there, but companies like Salesforce are making critical headway. There are many different kinds of platforms (for example, services, products, communications and payment) that, when leveraged in unique ways, will disrupt government services and product delivery.

2. Learn to see what others cannot

In Originals, Wharton professor Adam Grant’s book on how non-conformists move the world, he writes about how people are motivated to rationalize the status quo as legitimate -- and in doing so, justify the default situation. Breakthrough ideas come when we “question the default.”

Therefore, instead of taking the status quo for granted, question why it exists in the first place. Grant contends that non-conformists generate lots of ideas, expand their frame of reference to form new mental associations, and seek lots of feedback before they confirm the disruptive idea on which they will focus.

3. Target those who have a vested interest in the status quo

Pay particular attention to incumbents on large IT operations and maintenance contracts. According to Clayton Christenson, the thought leader behind disruptive innovation, these companies tend to ignore the markets that are most susceptible to disruptive innovations. They hang onto their margins, trying to be as efficient as possible in the existing business model, instead of completely re-thinking the model or constructively integrating newer innovations into the market. In these situations, there often are opportunities for dramatic performance improvements, cost savings or both.

4. Be clear on just what is being disrupted

In most cases, what we care deeply about is disrupting is the government’s traditional relationship with its citizens. How can we create more value for citizens? Think of the veteran who can access medical care from her home by video chatting with a doctor on her smartphone, instead of travelling four hours to a VA hospital. How can we create more value for our soldiers? Unmanned Aerial Vehicles have been used in surveillance for a while, but are now being used to re-conceptualize supply delivery to our soldiers, enabling them to move more quickly and less encumbered.

5. Think like a customer, but one that has the same business model knowledge you have

We often hear the term “the art of the possible,” but most customers don’t have the same level of insight and knowledge as disrupters do into what is possible in these new business models. As a result, customer feedback is often centered around doing the same things, only more efficiently. The classic example of this is attributed to Henry Ford: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

To invoke real change and help optimize citizen service, IT radicals must listen closely to customers in order to discern what the potential need is, but then apply human factors and design thinking to identify disruptive solutions. Disrupters then should develop prototypes to help the customer engage meaningfully and follow-up by iterating the development of the product or service.

6. Achieve transformation through advanced data and analytics

As platform-based solutions become more prevalent, data quality and access issues will become more transparent and resolvable. Add in artificial intelligence capabilities, such as machine learning, and the resulting analytics will explode the possibilities of new services delivery.

7. Help Decision-makers embrace disruption

Realistic disrupters want results and that means working with people in leadership positions who are typically the most resistant to adapting the status quo. These are change management challenges that require comprehensive strategies to address “resistors.” All parts of the organization must have a stake in the success of the effort. As Christenson points out in Innovator’s Dilemma, there are common strategies that can be employed to integrate disruption into the corporate culture, for example, creating whole new organizations for the disruptive technologies that do not have the same revenue targets as the existing accounts.

What does all this mean for IT radicals bent on changing the world? It primarily means that knowledge of digital technologies alone is not enough. Disruption requires a wide variety of capabilities and skills. Spanning from the visionary to the coder, all have key roles to play in creating the new business models that deliver enhanced value.

Ultimately, disruption is a team-based undertaking in the context of a culture that values reinvention, change, and dramatic results. If you are going to change the world, you need to find your fellow IT radicals.