Focusing on six words: Helping government do its job better

More on the government innovation oxymoron video

with 5 comments

I’ve been getting a lot of comments about the video I pointed to yesterday called “Stifling Innovation.”

In fact, I’m re-posting the video again for those of you who may have missed it.

The video made me ponder — as I think it made many of you ponder as well. (I’ve been getting a lot of comments about it.) I think it touched so many people because it is not unique to government contractors… it is not really unique to government, in my opinion. But one government person, posting onFacebook, said:

The video portrayed a contractor shut down by govvies, but it happens to govvies too, and I believe there are innovative govvies out there. Though the video is true in a lot of cases, I believe there are those in government who do innovate, despite the resistance.

And I think he is right on. In fact, I think this is true at many organizations.

I mentioned that I spoke to the Web team over at HHS last week — and I’m just about finished with a post with lessons learned from our conversation. But I told them that one of my least favorite phrases in the world — and you often hear it in government — is, ‘That’s not the way we do things.’ They are seven words that sap the life out of any innovation whatsoever. Yet, when I was talking to them about the EPA plan to seek additional public comment on rules, I could see it on their faces — ‘That’s not the way we do things.’ One person even said, ‘What if we get 10,000 comments?’ YES — wouldn’t it be great if some government rule generated 10,000 comments? Isn’t that something that we should celebrate? In fact, I think agencies should allow those comments to be posted in a public way so people can rate other people’s comments the way asks you if a review was helpful.

Change is so difficult. We all understand that. And change in government is particularly difficult for a whole lot of reasons including the ‘that’s not the way we do things’… including the lack of ability to tolerate mistakes… including the iterations of stovepipes at almost every level… There are many reasons that this is difficult.

Back to the video… the first posting of the video was apparently over NASA’s Wayne Hale’s blog — and you have to give credit to NASA for allowing this to be posted. (Want to see the power of blogging? Talk about starting a conversation with a post.)

I feel like the early civil right pioneers must feel; the overt bad behavior is gone underground. People say the right things in public discussion of how they should act, then behave in the bad old ways in small or private settings.

Since these behaviors are still being practiced at NASA, here is what I believe managers need to do

1. Break out of the sandbox. Even if it is not your area, the agency needs the best ideas to succeed in our goals. If you have subordinates who have ideas for improving other areas, it is important to get those ideas into the open where they can compete in the marketplace of ideas, or at least get a technical review.

2. If subordinate has an idea that has been tried before and didn’t work, consider that times may have changed and it might work now or with improvements that you know of. In the final extremity, your subordinate needs more than the curt dismissal that its been tried before and didn’t work – you need to explain it to them.

3. Managers at all levels need to provide safe places and times for interaction that skips levels in the chain of command.

“The video portrayed a contractor shut down by govvies, but it happens to govvies too, and I believe there are innovative govvies out there. Though the video is true in a lot of cases, I believe there are those in government who do innovate, despite the resistance.”

Read his full post here.

Hale has also thought about the video — and the comments — more… and he had this follow-up post :

One of the reasons that the video so powerfully affected me was that I have been on both sides of the table. Oh yeah, I have stifled plenty of dissent and innovation in my time. Some of it even recently. I believe that I am a better manager and leader than I was five years ago, or even one year ago. And, God willing, I will be a better and more open manager next year or five years from now. So if you hear stories about “bad Wayne”, well, they are probably true. I wish they weren’t. But my goal is to be better tomorrow than I was yesterday. And I am daily astonished and amazing by learning something that I didn’t know the day before.

Finally, I would like to say that my purpose in writing these blogs is to help NASA become a better place. Sometimes that takes the form of telling a story from the ‘old days’ — but always a story with a point. Sometimes it is describing a good example of leadership; sometimes it is pointing out a bad example — to be avoided. Sometimes a post is merely an attempt to explain some arcane aspect of what we are doing to the general public in a way that I hope is comprehensible to the layperson. So my post on stifling dissent is nothing more than an attempt to help the NASA culture become better than it is.

With the greatest of respect to all my colleagues, I think NASA is the best hope for our country and our world. If the current organization is less than perfect, that is because it is made up of fragile and limited human beings. Every one of those NASA employees that I have met have only one goal: doing what is best and most productive to explore the universe. We don’t always succeed, and we certainly don’t always agree on the interim goals but we are united in a common purpose. There is nowhere else I would care to work.

Read the full post here.

More comments… and seeking your assessment of it… after the break…

One other post I recommend on this subject

I watch this video and I’m thinking about the GoC’s efforts at integrating GCpedia and other social or 2.0 tools into it’s culture. I imagine that the managerial types represented here would have a hard time accepting unstructured, participatory and open collaboration implied by wikis and other social software tools. Weird paradox though, isn’t NASA big user of such tools? (Not to mention that how this internal video was released to YouTube points to NASA’s at least partial adoption of a 2.0 attitude)

I’m still seeking your assessment of the video — how accurate is it?

Written by cdorobek

February 10, 2009 at 10:55 AM

5 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. Chris:

    This is exactly what one of the IAC transition papers is talking about.

    Click to access Returning_Innovation_to_Gov_with_IT_final_draft.pdf

    Roger Baker

    February 10, 2009 at 3:51 PM

  2. […] More on the government innovation oxymoron video « […]

  3. […] ever wanted to tell you in an Internet video, but you were afraid to ask. Also, more videos like this one, the Rat […]

  4. Hey there thanks for the link. This video has given me much to think about also.

    What Hale said about needing to create “safe places and times for interaction that skips levels in the chain of command” – strikes me as very wise. Excellent technique for encouraging innovation – it’s a delicate balancing act, especially given that a large % of [insert name of large org here] will resist change.

    Agree also that it doesn’t matter whether the innovator is a contractor or full-time employee. This distinction is not a reliable indicator of openness or resistance to innovation. You’d have to look at other personality traits or characteristics to size up an individual’s innovation-readiness.


    February 11, 2009 at 3:42 PM

  5. […] — and I hope they are working on that, but, as I’ve said before , I think that blogging can be very powerful. Having the OMB director post is a powerful toward transparency — and of opening the […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: