To counter arrogance and increase program value over time, solicitations and program delivery structures must include an innovation imperative.
There is a fine line that separates competence, confidence, and certainty from arrogance. The current contracting paradigm across much of the federal government, while seeking assurance of outcomes, often works to promote and reward arrogance by omitting an innovation imperative from the project plan requirements and bid scoring process.
Let’s take a hypothetical, multi-year solicitation seeking program design and implementation services. In what segments of today’s society can you confidently define beyond about 12 months how outcomes should be achieved to maximize returns per program dollar invested? Rapid technology evolution, emerging paradigms for how to empower societies and modern workforces, and the ability to solicit innovations from the crowd (e.g www.challenge.gov and www.globalinnovationexchange.org) suggest the need for more adaptable implementation frameworks. Requiring definitive project plans can quickly stray from being a useful mechanism to convey a contractor’s competency to stifling potential innovations that could bring greater long term program returns on investments.
Advocating for innovation in the abstract is not controversial – operationalizing innovation in contracts and program delivery expectations is much more difficult. Several efforts are underway across government to identify and overcome obstacles to better integrating and operationalizing innovation in program delivery. Some examples include:
· The USAID Global Development Lab releasing a Request for Information to engage the professional services community in a discussion on how to encourage contractors and implementing partners to propose and integrate innovation in their proposals/applications and activity implementation.
· The recent USAID solicitation for Famine Early Warning System support includes four primary pillars of activity. Pillar 4 is a cross-cutting effort emphasizing the need to continuously identify and incorporate new technologies and innovations to increase the efficiency, effectiveness, insight, timeliness, and impact of FEWS NET 7 products and services. It creates a dedicated project swim lane and mandate focused on ensuring that the program keeps pace with rapid technology and process evolution over time.
· The National Cancer Institute released a solicitation for Contact Center support that includes an explicit requirement for the development of a Contact Center Innovation and Strategy Plan. The requirement notes that over the life of the contract, it is important to demonstrate innovative communication technologies and strategies to advance Contact Center operations and efficiency. The management section also clearly indicates demonstrated skills and ability to work in a fast-paced environment requiring flexibility and innovation as a requirement.
· A federal research lab focused on advancing cyber capabilities uses a formal change control board comprised of client experts to review new ideas from the contractor to improve the way products or processes are delivered. The standing committee meets monthly but can be convened more frequently if urgent needs arise. Reviews are merit-based requiring strong evidence of likelihood of success and understanding of practical implementation and operational considerations. The panel serves to maintain a robust line of communication between contractor and client to propose and approve approach changes mid-contract in a rapidly evolving technical and process environment.
· The ACT-IAC Institute for Innovation is convening a series of workshops for government innovation leaders to discuss common challenges and to share approaches that have been tried within their agencies. Among the opportunities identified is the need for more robust and candid pre-solicitation discussions between agencies and their oversight bodies to define the acceptable tradeoff between potentially improved outcomes and perceived or actual increase in risk as the innovation imperative is introduced into program delivery.
Across all of these initiatives, there is an implicit recognition that not only innovation but also maintaining the status quo brings risks.
The strict adherence to past methodologies and established technologies introduces as much or more risk of not achieving desired program outcomes in a rapidly evolving world as an innovation imperative does.
While the needs of individual agencies will vary, there a few practical steps that can be taken in the near term to begin driving an innovation imperative to counter the risks associated with arrogance:
· Solicitation Scoring: in evaluating the management section of proposals, review teams should assess more than just quality management (i.e. ensuring the delivery of outstanding work on time and on budget) and risk management (i.e. proactively identifying and mitigating issues that can compromise the ability to achieve outcomes). They should also explicitly assess innovation management (i.e. systematic approaches to identifying, testing, and scaling new products, processes, or business models over time to continually optimize program returns).
· Innovation Review Committees: to ensure that programs are not just delivering on current needs but are also continually looking to the future, programs can establish standing innovation review committees comprised of client and contractor staff and appropriate external stakeholders. These committees should be focused on how to optimize the delivery of the current business model, what activities/resources from the past may be losing relevance or value and need to be re-allocated, and what signals of future needs are being observed that indicate required program evolutions. The committee should meet regularly and have a clear path to contract oversight to enact formal change management procedures when warranted to capture the value from innovations.
· Measurement and Evaluation: ultimately, what gets measured and incentivized gets done. Agencies can work with their oversight bodies and measurement and evaluation firms to define and explicitly value quantitative and qualitative innovation metrics that are considered in the overall assessment of value delivered and outcomes achieved per program dollar invested.
By taking steps to foster an innovation imperative that counters arrogance throughout the program solicitation, program delivery, and program evaluation phases, agencies can change the playing field by establishing an environment that not only supports and encourages but actually demands and requires robust innovation management. The proper integration of an imperative for innovation management to continually drive the optimization of outcomes per program dollar invested will allow agency programs to benefit from the latest innovations without requiring the agency itself to perform the nearly impossible task of predicting long-term winners in a rapidly evolving world.
What do you suggest agencies do to take tangible, near-term steps to drive an innovation imperative in their projects and programs?
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Dr. Michael “Whit” Whitaker is Vice President of Emerging Solutions for ICF International. He is responsible for fostering a culture of innovation where creative thinking, experimentation, prototyping, rapid iteration, and deep understanding of markets, clients, and end-user needs are used to develop new solutions that drive growth and customer satisfaction in rapidly emerging markets. Follow Whit on Twitter or connect on LinkedIn