Utilizing Prize Challenges In the Government

You may not associate prize challenges as a technique commonly used by the government to accelerate innovation. However, since 2010, over 690 prizes from 98 federal agencies have offered more than $220 million in prize awards. The concept of running prize challenges in the Federal government is not new. Some prizes stem back several centuries, such as England’s Longitude Prize of 1714. This was a time when maritime trade and exploration were unable to accurately navigate their ships. It was a clock maker by the name of John Harrison, who developed a marine chronometer – the winning solution. This unlikely suspect earned upwards of $2 million in today’s currency and revolutionized subsequent marine travel technology. Even the most unlikely individuals create innovative solutions to the world’s most difficult problems. A major benefit of running a prize challenge is being able to expand beyond your usual audience, and attract diverse talent from a variety of disciplines who come together and solve a problem. There, you can find the most unlikely suspects. Some of the other benefits to running prize challenges are: Running a prize challenge greatly accelerates the timeline of finding innovative solutions to the problem at hand. Rather than investing in one group’s ability to solve a problem, such as with a grant, prize challenges invite many different groups to solve the problem resulting in a wider range of innovative solutions. In addition, prize competitions allow agencies to only pay for winning solutions. Perhaps you award first, second, and third place winners, but you do not need to compensate other participants for their solutions. Prize challenges are cost effective in that agencies are presented with many solutions, and can pick and choose the ones that most closely meet their criteria. Prize challenges help stimulate the market and private sector investments. Depending on intellectual property provisions and the goal of the prize challenge, solutions can be further developed and implemented into the market after a prize challenge has ended. Additionally, winning solutions are not the only solutions that may be developed. Runner ups can also be developed further and create additional investment opportunities. Successful prize challenges thrive from cultivating a collaborative community dedicated to solving important issues. Crowdsourcing and open innovation allow for communities to come together regardless of competition. Teams are able to be formed through networking and community engagement opportunities. There are many benefits to running a prize challenge, however prize challenges are complex and involve much time and effort. They are not a “one-size-fits-all” to every problem out there. Running a successful prize competition requires a significant amount of research, planning, & resources. Unless your agency has an established prize competition team already, internal resources are not typically well-versed in prize...

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Innovation Is About Process As Much As Ideas

When we think about change and innovation, we tend to think about the idea or the inspiration that drives that change. We think that if we can just find the perfect goal, then everything else will fall into place around it. Based on my experience working with multiple leaders across government and in my own work leading a company, nothing can be further from the truth. Ideas and inspiration are important, no doubt, but without a disciplined process to put that idea into action, you really have nothing but words. As you create a strategy, spend 10% of your time on the vision and 90% of your time building the structure to implement it. Most likely the vision will morph and change as you go through the process of implementation so you shouldn’t spend too much time perfecting it up front. One resource that has shaped the way I approach implementing change is a popular business book called, Traction. I’ve adapted some of the lessons from the book for my own company, Corner Alliance, and I regularly apply its lessons to client environments. Here are four lessons that I have seen help my own and many other organizations in implementing new strategies. Right People, Right Seats: I’ve yet to meet a leader who doesn’t think that having good people isn’t important or more accurately the most important priority for an organization. Traction takes that idea one step further. You should seek out people who fit with the skills needed and the values of your organization, but you should also pay close attention to whether those people are in the right positions. You’ll often find someone who is a great cultural fit and is strongly aligned with the organization’s vision but they struggle in their position. At other times you might look to the outside for an “experienced” resource when an internal candidate without all the skills could be a more effective option. Hire for fit and train for skill as they say.  It could be that by allowing a current employee to explore other roles or adjusting his or her responsibilities could yield tremendous benefits. Would the person with an internal compliance role be better off in the field with stakeholders or vice versa? Would someone be more effective with fewer staff management responsibilities or more? A key difference maker for organizations it to make sure the people you have aligned with your organization and its goals are in the best roles for them. As a leader, it’s far more important that you look around the table and feel confident that you have the right people in the right seats than it is to have the most optimized strategy. The one-page strategy: Don’t...

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Technology is Converging

“Today we’re introducing three revolutionary devices; an iPod, a phone, and an Internet communications device. An iPod, a phone, and an Internet communications device. Are you getting it? These are not three separate devices. These are one device and we are calling it “iPhone.”  This is how Steve Jobs introduced the iPhone in 2007 and it perfectly encapsulates the trend that is changing our world: communications or technological convergence. Traditionally, we see many technologies as distinct silos. You received phone calls through dedicated phone lines. You bought a single purpose camera. You watched TV on something with rabbit ears. Now each of those things are done with “apps” and on a single device.  This is the reason why technology companies continually invade each other’s markets. It’s hard now to completely distinguish the markets Facebook, Apple, Google, Amazon, and other tech giants inhabit. Economist compared their competition to the HBO series, Game of Thrones. At the beginning of this century Amazon was a seller of physical books and other retail items and now it is the largest provider of cloud computing services to corporate America. Before it competed with Barnes and Noble, Walmart, and Target. Now Amazon has added IBM, Google, Microsoft, and others to its list of competitors not to mention Apple with whom it competes on selling media content and devices like the Kindle. These examples show how technological convergence disrupts traditional silos. The process is now profoundly affecting government. Cloud computing and cyber security are now primary concerns of government IT shops. Most agencies are working to adapt to the changing way their customers and stakeholders interact and consume information with new digital initiatives.  For example, my company, Corner Alliance, does a lot of work in the public safety communications space. For many decades, first responders felt that voice was separate from data. The data services available were slow and of limited use. Now broadband networks and the potential created by the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) are converging these technologies. Voice will soon be just another “app” that a responder uses. In fact, mirroring what is happening with the commercial Internet of Things, most “communication” for responders will be between devices or “things” like sensors, cameras, and analytical engines. That is not to diminish the importance of voice communications to responders. It is still essential that when a responder is in trouble they have the ability to talk. However, technological convergence and advancement will reduce the need, provide redundancy, and automate procedures to improve safety. Public safety communications is just one example of where the phenomenon of technological convergence is transforming government. As a government leader, it’s important to keep in mind that the traditional silos that kept IT issues separate from policy issues are breaking down. New players who you never considered before...

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Research and Development takes a Community

Research and Development (R&D) is a function of government that has been transforming over the last several decades. Federal R&D now accounts for just under 1% of GDP versus 2% for private sector R&D. As a result, it is now more important than ever for government R&D to partner with and leverage its commercial equivalent. In fact the most successful R&D programs focus on creating communities of actors from academia, the commercial sector, and at times even hobbyists, who can join together to revolutionize technology. This approach has several advantages. Government funding can seed a topic area and attract attention and effort from private industry and academia. For example, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) followed this strategy with its DARPA Grand Challenge. Over several iterations in 2004, 2005, and 2007, DARPA sponsored a driverless car challenge first in the desert and later in an urban environment. It didn’t go well at first. No team could even qualify in the first round. No car made it more than 7.5 miles. However, very quickly the technology developed.  DARPA tweaked the criteria and in the end spawned an industry that now look like the future of transportation. Companies like Uber and Lyft and Ford are exploring ride hailing services with autonomous vehicles that could eliminate the need to own a car reducing carbon emissions and traffic congestion. In fact, Tesla already has a driverless capability operating in its cars right now.  We went from 7.5 miles in a desert to a car driving itself down the George Washington Parkway in live traffic conditions in 11 years. DARPA effectively seeded the market with its competition. It rewarded a few teams to keep them going but also attracted other teams who used their own resources. It iterated and accepted failures along the way. By providing focus and proofs of concept, it was able to build the critical mass to attract large commercial R&D investments. Now we are at a transformational moment and it was done at a fraction of the cost and with a far broader set of contributors than a wholly government-driven effort could have supported. DARPA is now attempting a similar methodology with its Robotics Challenge.  The rise of prize competitions across the government is a promising sign. However, programs should make sure they have thought through how to build a sustainable community around their efforts. More successful efforts will allow for iteration and adjust over time. They will seek to bring in outside players who might not actually receive funding from the government and they will work to create an industry rather than just a one off...

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Be Prepared: Technology Disruption is Coming

We see a lot of headlines in the commercial sector about the consequences of technology disruption. Barnes and Noble disrupted the local book store and then Amazon disrupted them. Apple disrupted music and the personal camera market which had already been through a disruption as film gave way to digital. The list goes on with taxis and Uber, hotels and Airbnb, and in countless other arenas. We often think that government is somewhat immune to this form of disruption. It is true that government moves a bit slower given divided powers, rules and regulations, and bureaucratic inertia, but that doesn’t stop disruption from happening. Terrorists and adversaries find asymmetric ways to cause havoc and criminals have fully embraced the disruptive technologies of the Internet and the Cloud for their own ends. Additionally,citizen expectations of what government can and should be able to do and demands from industry for better and smarter regulation are also often driven by disruptive technological innovation. No one is immune. In our work with federal programs and agencies, I’ve seen many struggle with aligning their missions and visions in the face of technological disruption. In my view, the programs that successfully embrace the change will survive and thrive and those that don’t will find themselves starved for resources or on the chopping block with little stakeholder support. The successful leaders I’ve worked with do at least three things to manage this process. They see the world through the eyes of their customer. Inside a federal organization it is too easy to slip into the trap of seeing the world from your own perspective. You have reporting demands from higher ups, the daily grind, and internal staff issues to deal with. Seeing the world from a different perspective takes a good deal of effort. I recommend that you spend some time with your customers. Find out what their needs and concerns are. If you aren’t regularly checking the pulse of these core stakeholders you need to find the right mechanism for you. Is it networking at key conferences, putting together working groups on core issues, building personal relationships with key stakeholders, or some combination of each? Know the broader climate. The government leaders who stay on top of the key trends and drivers in their space are far better positioned to respond to technological disruption. The micro trend of today could be the disruptive force of tomorrow so you need to stay on top of a broad range of issues. Of course, regularly taking the pulse of your customers helps with this process but in some cases they aren’t even aware of how innovations in adjacent spaces are poised to affect them. Remain curious about the...

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