Federal agencies seeking to modernize are often faced with two all-too-familiar dilemmas. Legacy procurement practices, designed specifically for the acquisition of tools, all too often work against their modernization efforts, and teams are often hampered by an aversion to risk. The former doesn’t fit with agencies’ desires for increased flexibility and agility, while the latter can impede innovation.

In a traditional procurement process, an agency issues a request for proposal with detailed specifications and requirements, contractors respond with quotes for delivery of goods, proposals are scored, and someone wins the bid. The contract binds the two parties into an agreement that requires contractors to deliver working goods according to the specifications in the RFP, on time and under budget. This works fine for tangible goods, but modern government is driven by intangible solutions — platforms, cloud and cybersecurity services, and so forth.

Further, traditional procurement cycles posit failure as something to be feared, causing teams to be afraid to take risks. But failing and taking risks help teams learn from their mistakes, which allows them to improve upon processes. Being afraid keeps teams from breaking out of the boxes and patterns that stifle opportunities for innovation.

Breaking out of the boxes

It simply no longer makes business sense to spend months-to-years defining specific solution requirements to make a multimillion dollar upfront investment via the tangible goods RFP buying model. Agencies can save money, accelerate innovation and modernization, and improve service by spending a fraction of that upfront cost and breaking out of their boxes.

Embracing the innovation processes of the commercial sector, such as the design thinking and lean startup methods, is an ideal place to start. In effect, design thinking and lean startup comprise a “pilot and prove” approach that emphasizes a core focus on customer needs and a commitment to continuous testing, measurement, and building.

Design thinking involves shifting toward a user-centric, action-oriented mindset that revolves around understanding the user’s true needs, brainstorming ideas, and putting the best concepts into practice. The idea is to let creativity flow and develop a range of solutions, but having those concepts tie directly back to what users actually need. The solutions can then be prototyped and measured for success.

Lean startup builds on design thinking through a method that favors experimentation, feedback gathering and iterative design. Lean startup forgoes the traditional risk-averse mindset (“Whatever we do, we cannot fail!”) in favor of a “learn-build-measure-repeat” workflow that emphasizes learning from mistakes in order to make things better.

An example of design thinking and lean startup in action

At the beginning of the procurement process, instead of sending out a traditional RFP an agency may issue a business problem statement or statement of objectives. The agency could then ask potential contractors to respond with a short concept paper. Those with the best potential solutions should then be asked to build a proof of concept to demonstrate the potential for the idea.

This design thinking approach enables the agency to quickly evaluate new, creative ideas from industry partners on how their problem could be solved, and receive proof that it will work before scaling up its investment. The teams can then decide to move forward or shift gears. They can work with contractors to build a potential solution, try it out, measure the results they achieve, and quickly learn from the process. Agency teams will no longer have to wait six months to a year to see if a particular concept or solution works — they can usually see results in weeks.

It is true that teams may fall short at first, but within that failure there lies the opportunity to learn what will work. After all, if they ultimately come up with a solution that works when it is implemented, on the schedule they’ve agreed to, they’ve achieved their objectives with far less risk. That’s the iterative power of the lean startup methodology.

Agencies and contractors no longer have to fear failure. Instead, they can plan to build, measure and learn in quick iterative cycles, knowing that failure along the way is the quickest way to learn what will work. What’s more, they can rest assured that their bosses understand that failing quickly is part of the innovation process. With the fear of failure lifted, they can focus more on iterating to generate solutions to the business problems they face.

Following innovative processes delivers value

The common belief in government is that innovation is simply acting upon inspiration. But as innovative commercial companies know, innovation comes not through magic, but by following innovation processes.

But the combination of design thinking and lean startup methodologies offers the prospect of true innovation. They reflect an outside the box mindset that can help government agency IT teams bust through the barriers of tradition in favor of more efficient and effective approaches. In turn, they can reduce risk, accelerate results, and achieve greater value from their technologies and contractor relationships.

Jake Bittner is CEO of business intelligence and data management firm Qlarion.

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