Management

Sticky-note strategy: How federal innovation labs borrow from Silicon Valley

The framework for an integrated security solution in the Philippines is built on a bedrock of sticky notes. So is the strategy for combating piracy in East Africa and a handful of other plans that Zvika Krieger is crafting in a cauldron of collaboration within the State Department.

More specifically, Krieger, a senior adviser for strategy within the department's Bureau of Political-Military Affairs, is working in the bureau's Strategy Lab, just one pocket of federal government where a Silicon Valley-playbook for innovation is being used to develop policy solutions.

"What the private sector has learned is that you can teach innovation," Krieger said. "You can teach people to be more creative, to think outside the box, to challenge conventional wisdom. And so, we started taking lots of those classes to see what we could learn."

How it works

Krieger and a host of other policy thinkers learned a new way to channel innovation for policy solutions called human-centered design, or design thinking. While arguably new in government, the framework has long been in use by the tech sector to design products that will serve the needs of their customers. The strategy of group thinking towards a policy — which is more what these innovation labs seek to achieve — has been used before as well.

"If you go back to the Cuban Missile Crisis or the Solarium Project, people were doing the kind of non-linear thinking to try to solve tough problems," said Josh Marcuse, senior adviser for policy innovation at the Office of the Secretary of Defense. "We just have a new vocabulary and a new rationale from Silicon Valley, but being a creative problem solver, it's an essential human trait."

Why the State Dept. Strategy Lab uses sticky notes

Zvika Krieger tells Federal TImes why the State Department's Strategy Office and Pol-Mil Strategy Lab uses sticky notes. (Daniel Woolfolk/Staff)

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A former strategic adviser to then-Deputy Secretary of Defense Ash Carter, Krieger began studying the methods the private sector used to develop its out-of-the-box solutions. But instead of using them to produce an audience-designed product, he sought to apply the philosophies to policy strategy.

"In the Defense Department, a lot of times people associate innovation with new weapons. F-35s, cyber tools, lasers, drones and things like that. So they are very comfortable thinking about innovation in terms of technology," Krieger said. "There hasn't been much thought about how you bring innovation in terms of policy, in terms of how people approach complex challenges."

The core tenet of HCD is to establish a meritocracy of ideas that is both empathetic of thought and immune to hierarchy. In order to get innovative solutions for a complex problem, Krieger forms a team of experts and stakeholders. He then mixes in outside thought leaders he calls "wild cards" to give the group outside perspective.

The delicate balance opens discussion and the mix of ideas ultimately form a strategy for handling the problem. That strategy might involve a technology; but it could also be a new partnership, a new function within an office, or a new acquisition program. Because the team is comprised of multiple experts, it can navigate the complexity more thoroughly, and the wild cards can offer their expertise to provide solutions the stakeholders may not have considered.

"We had a workshop on counterterrorism, like to improve our threat assessments," Krieger said. "We brought in people from the econ office, we brought in people from the Educational and Cultural Affairs office, from the consular affairs office.

"They don't need to have the subject matter expertise, but they can be in the room and say, 'Hey this discrete challenge that you are dealing with, we dealt with a similar challenge in our space," he continued.

The currency of Krieger's realm is often the sticky note. Small enough to keep the ideas concise and anonymous enough to ensure they are not defined by seniority, the notes lacquered the walls like pastel feather, swirling and spiraling throughout whatever strategy the lab is working on.

If the concept is to open up innovative thinking, it's often aided by an open space. The Strategy Lab, like many HCD labs in the federal government, is décor on wheels. It's an open space with moveable dry erase boards, moveable tables, sticky notes and strategies taped up on walls that can be easily adapted, scribbled on and moved. No matter the problem, the solution is always evolving, changing to better serve its functions, growing and receding as needed to address its complexity.

A certain set of skills

Human-centered design has been working its way through pockets of the federal government for a few years now. The Office of Personnel Management opened its Innovation Lab in 2012 and was tasked with improving the USAJobs website. The Department of Health and Human Services opened the IDEA Lab in 2013 to address innovation in its mission. The Department of Veteran Affairs has a Center of Innovation to identify new approaches to meet the current and future needs of veterans, and the departments of Defense and State both have innovation labs tackling policy solutions.

The concept is gaining momentum. This fall, the Obama administration released a strategy report calling for a network of innovation labs throughout federal agencies to develop new policy solutions through HCD.

"I think the word is spreading. It's kind of like a whisper campaign, in the most positive way," said an administration official with knowledge of innovation labs and HCD strategies, who was not authorized to speak to the press. "I think, again, the only constraint here is that we don't have enough of them to be able to imbue this knowledge across government. We need many more people."

A March 2014 GAO report said that the OPM Innovation Lab had not developed consistent performance targets that would allow it to assess the success of its projects. The report recommended more consistent milestones to assess progress, which the agency addressed through a series of pilot programs.

The meritocracy structure of HCD, along with its embrace of iterative plan development, can also stand at odds with bureaucrats accustomed to the structure and airtight strategy development often practiced within federal agencies.

"There's no question that there's a lot of resistance to this," said Marcuse, who pointed to individuals that dismiss the concept and refuse to get on board. "But there are also people that say this made them want to stay in government longer because they were hungry for something new to challenge them."

Another challenge for HCD adopters is accessing the training to channel innovative thought. While constraints are removed for participants to speak their minds and get creative with solutions, HCD facilitator have the onus of shepherding the discussion towards an actionable solution.

Marcuse, who leads the Office of the Secretary of Defense's Policy Design & Innovation Practice, said training HCD leaders is important to fostering the practice effectively.

"You really need to have a set of skills around communication and interpersonal skills that are independent of design," he said. "You have to have the ability to read people and their emotional state, understand the commonality of their interests and goals within that group, and perceive when certain people feel like their voices are being silenced. You have to know how to bring them in in a way that's collaborative."

What's the point?

In the State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, an innovation lab called the Collaboratory is in its second year of existence, using HCD strategies to improve projects like the Fulbright program and other educational diplomacy efforts.

The Education Diplomacy initiative, for example, used HCD to devise ways to increase education access abroad using State resources. Defining U.S. embassies as the end user, the Collaboratory then analyzed the areas of need at the installations and began crafting policies.

"We identified a couple of area where we thought we could make substantial gains quite quickly and in a budget neutral way," Collaboratory Deputy Director Paul Kruchoski said. The process allowed multiple stakeholders like the U.S. Agency for International Development, Peace Corps and the Department of Education to help craft the policy and create what Kruchoski called "feedback loops" to refine throughout the embassies.

"There's a sense that human-centered design is about democratization; I would agree with that," said Amy Storrow, director of alumni affairs for the ECA and former director of the Collaboratory. She pointed to proven success through HCD in her work on a people-to-people diplomacy exhibit. Storrow created personas for likely visitors to the exhibit to give designers guidance on what it should include.

"In doing that, we would say, 'I don't think Brad would like that part of the museum, but Kay would love it,'" she said. "We made it real for ourselves, but it just wasn't three people with a narrow perspective thinking about what folks would like to see. Instead it was a much broader group that we consulted at every stage in the process."

While the HCD is bubbling up in small innovation labs, Marcuse said that doesn't mean that design thinking is only applicable to small-scale policy.

"There are certain types of problems that it lends itself to and there are some that it does not," he said. "But at the same time, I also believe that it has a very powerful, democratizing force and that anyone can learn to be more creative, to be more expressive, to tap into their insights and have more empathy for others."

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