Internet co-creator Vint Cerf argues that discontent, the ability to fail, and the environment where managers can say “yes” are among the key ingredients for leaders to foster innovation in government.
Let me start by making an observation: Progress doesn’t happen unless somebody is discontented.
I’m almost speaking in praise of discontent. I don’t want people to be discontented utterly. But unless somebody is not satisfied with the status quo, nothing happens. And in many ways, that’s key to allowing innovation to happen.
But it also takes the freedom to fail. That is utterly critical to stimulating innovation. There are many places where that freedom is not granted or at least it may not be explicit or very implicit, so the people with new ideas are not looked on with favor.
Lots of people resist innovation because it might mean they have to learn to do something new and different. It’s sort of like the new telephones we’re using. You have a 35-page or 50-page instruction book to figure out how to use a telephone when it used to be you just dialed the number literally. In fact, in the earliest days, the telephone user interface was pretty good: You talked to an operator and she figured it out.
But this idea of freedom to fail is really, really important and the willingness to encourage innovation even if it means change is important.
Another thing I’ve learned in my career, even though I’m an engineer – a computer scientist by training – is it’s necessary to sell your ideas. It’s critical to persuade people if they want to be part of that innovation, if they want to contribute to it, if they want to adopt it.
And I can tell you that any large-scale initiative requires a lot of collaboration, a lot of cooperation among lots of people, often in many different dimensions. So it’s not just the technical guys, it has to be the financial person, the sales person, marketing person and so on. All of them have to cooperate – so the initiative is something that they want to have happen and they therefore are willing to contribute to it.
The other ingredient in all this is to bring people together who would not naturally be part of a common team. That may seem counter-intuitive. But real innovation rarely springs from what is intuitive.
Let me turn to Google for a moment because it’s a company that has innovation very much in its DNA. Its origin, as everyone now knows, comes from Larry Page and Sergey Brin who decided they would do something fairly audacious. They wanted to index the entire internet. In order to do that, they had to download the whole thing. By good fortune this was 1998 and internet was much smaller than it is now.
This is like a little kid who’s just complaining about having to memorize the names of all the presidents and father says, “Well, I was able to do that when I was your age,” and the kid said, “There weren’t many presidents then, dad.”
This audacious idea led to some pretty spectacular results and both Larry and Sergey and Eric Schmidt, our most senior people in the company have been conditioned to encourage innovation. They introduced this notion of “20% time,” and gave people the freedom to try things out even if they didn’t necessarily have assurance that it would work. On his desk, Eric Schmidt has a little placard that says, “If at all possible, say yes,” which is of course better than saying no.
So if you’re interested in facilitating innovation, it’s often very important to have the ability to say yes.
I was thinking about this in my days at DARPA many years ago when we were assigned a budget that we were able to spend on the projects that we had been given responsibility for. And having that budget was a way of being able to say yes because if it was going to cost money, you had a checkbook, and we were able to say yes as long as it fit within the budget. And I can’t imagine a more important capability to facilitate innovation. If all you have is the ability to say no, then it’s very hard to innovate.
One of the pretty stunning examples of that at DARPA was the creation of stealth technology. You can just imagine the conventional reaction to what they were proposing to do: To reduce the radar cross section of the aircraft by either producing radar-absorbing paints and materials, but also changing the topography of the aircraft.
The conventional wisdom was that aircraft like the B-2 flying wing and the F-117 tactical fighter was that they can’t fly. But the people who were doing work are a quintessential example of people who are willing to break all the rules in order to achieve an objective. I was very proud of the fact that DARPA was willing to support that kind of advanced and out-of-the-box thinking. We need a lot more of that and we certainly need it in government where we easily get trapped doing the status quo.
Another point about innovation: It’s been observed by others and I’ve taken up the mantra that innovation without adoption is really sterile, it’s stillborn and the ability to get an innovation to be adopted is probably the most crucial thing about it. It’s not just coming up with the idea. How many people have said, “I thought of that 20 years ago,” and your reaction might be yes but did you do anything about it or did anyone adopt your idea?
So the ability to get these ideas adopted is what makes them valuable. Too much focus on innovation without understanding the dynamics of adoption really can be a misplaced focus of attention.
But how can federal managers put those ideas into play given government’s stifling bureaucracy? And how do you break through stubborn problems and come up with creative ideas?
One of the things that cause change to happen is economics; and when there is a dramatic change in the economics of something, it often creates an opportunity for significant change.
One place to begin is to ask “Can I do what I need to do in a way that’s less expensive? Can I create something by adopting alternative techniques?”
That’s what Vivek Kundra was trying to do as the CIO at OMB in pursuing cloud-based computing which has different economics than having to buy, build, and operate the infrastructure.
Another example would be to think about things that CIOs or CFOs can do together in a government setting as opposed to thinking solely in terms of the silo of your own responsibility. And here is where things like the CIO Council or CFO Council could be a useful platform in which to explore the sort of joint activities because an investment by a multiagency government group might actually have more negotiating power, it might be able to drive cost down if they have to acquire the use of cloud assets, for example, as a group rather than individually.
Another approach is a peculiar technique which has been used at Google with some interesting effects. It’s called the “unconference.” I’m sure that this didn’t originate at Google, but you gather a group of people together, you select a general area in which one wishes to focus. You make conference rooms available and then you let people put up ideas on the whiteboard or claim various spots in the time schedule and then you see who comes.
This certainly works, of course, if you have a particularly energized group of people who want to pursue new ideas. While I was quite skeptical, the idea that you can self-organize around an idea actually works. If you have someone who is capturing what happens at these various informal or impromptu discussions, you can have quite a bit of innovative discovery.
The other ingredient in all this is to bring people together who would not naturally be part of a common team.
That may seem counter-intuitive. But real innovation rarely springs from what is intuitive.
Vint Cerf, who with Bob Kahn, developed the protocols that launched the Internet, is Chief Internet Evangelist for Google. His comments were told to and edited by Breaking Gov Editorial Director, Wyatt Kash.