Sticky notes are the coin of Zvika Krieger’s realm.
They don’t just line the walls of the State Department’s Strategy Lab; they bloom, swirling out of flow charts and circle graphs into a neon vortex of foreign policy strategy cross-bred with Silicon Valley-styled innovation.
“A lot people see the sticky notes and think it’s all about fun and games,” said Krieger, the lab's director. “There’s actually a real substantive reason why we use so many.”
The Strategy Lab, part of the department’s Bureau of Political and Military Affairs, is where Krieger strives to cultivate new solutions to a vast array of challenges facing the nation. It’s an open space, populated by dry-erase boards on wheels, chalkboard-painted columns imbued with quotes about new thought and inventing the future and yes, sticky notes.
The lab began as a way to bring innovative thought to solve the government’s problems, from piracy in East Africa to security cooperation with allies around the globe.
The adhesive color palette of notes is how Krieger trades in ideas. Small enough to keep the thoughts crisp and not bloated with policy-speak, the notes represent a meritocracy of thought on how to solve problems crafted from small teams of thinkers that Krieger selects.
“You don’t know who wrote that idea,” he said. “It could be from the most senior level person in the room. It could be from a secretary or intern, and that really gets at the core of what we believe in, that brainstorming and innovation needs to be about meritocracy, that the best ideas win.”
Krieger, a former foreign correspondent, came to State from the Department of Defense, where then-Deputy Secretary of Defense Ash Carter was looking for new ways to develop strategy within the department.
“[At the Defense Department,] they are very comfortable with thinking about innovation in terms of technology, but there hasn’t been much thought about how you bring innovation in terms of policy,” Krieger said.
So the DoD tasked Krieger with studying how the private sector was employing new strategies to solve complex problems. What he found was the freedom of design thinking.
“What I learned is innovation is not this fairy dust you sprinkle on projects and they become innovative,” he said. “What the private sector learned is that you can teach innovation, you can teach people to be more creative to think outside the box and challenge conventional wisdom.”
Design thinking is built around the concept of an open forum of ideas, where creativity is emphasized and solutions evolve through prototyping and modification.
Krieger faced the challenge of taking strategies usually designed for product development and retrofitting them to the complexity of government. The State Department took notice and brought him in to design its Strategy Lab within the Bureau of Political and Military Affairs, which helps build strategic partnerships across DoD, State and other partners.
“The idea was to really make this into a hub for innovation and creativity across the national security space,” Krieger said.
A year into its existence, the Strategy Lab makes the walls of its office a thought palette, where complex issues like security partnerships are tackled by a diverse team of thinkers.
“I strongly believe you need new people, new voices and new perspective,” Krieger said. “If you have the same people around the table, you are going to get the same ideas.”
So Krieger brings in the experts, but also adds a mix of what he calls “wild cards”, thought leaders from outside the conventional wisdom to shake up the ideas.
“We had a workshop on counterterrorism and how to improve our threat assessments, and we brought in people from the econ office, the educational and cultural affairs and the consular affairs office,” he said.
The blend of subject matter experts and new voices provides more experience and new thinking in a carefully balanced caldron to hopefully apply new solutions.
“I call it ‘collisions’,” Krieger said. “You need people who don’t normally talk to each other to collide … it’s the intersection of one experience and another experience that will actually create new ideas.”
Those collisions have been constructed to find solutions for helping build partner countries’ militaries, battle ISIS and develop counterterrorism strategy, and even partnered with the Rhode Island School of Design to address climate change.
The Strategy Lab has also set up collaborative workshops where government officials team with tech sector experts and human rights NGOs to tackle issues like maritime security.
The ultimate goal of the lab, Krieger said, is to open channels across partners so that new solutions can be found. Because as the challenges get more complex, it will take more points of view to solve them.
“Government is so siloed,” he said. “You don’t have people from other agencies talking to each other. And from within government, we are siloed from the private sector. So much creativity is happening on the outside. If we don’t take advantage of that, then we are missing out.”