An Inside Look at Our Summer 2015 Ignite Accelerator — The HHS IDEA Lab

by Read Holman, HHS IDEA Lab

We are a few weeks into this current round of our 3-month Ignite Accelerator, and the teams in our Summer Ignite Accelerator are hard at work!

These teams, made up of HHS staff and collaborators from outside HHS, are testing solutions to some of our most vexing operational and programmatic challenges. From experimenting with new human resources practices to diving into the weeds of Medicare payments, the 11 project teams are exploring a broad range of areas where meaningful impact could be made.

This post is meant to provide a glimpse into what they’ve been up to and where they’re going.

A 3-Day Boot Camp

The teams all came together for three days in early June for a kick-off Boot Camp that mixes training with work time to accelerator their project progress. For the teams who were not in the DC area (and we have 4 teams from Regional Offices this round), we flew a couple people to the Nation’s Capital so that the full benefits of in-person training and group work can be realized.

Faculty from the University of Maryland’s Academy for Innovation & Entrepreneurship were the primary instructors. The training incorporates themes from the worlds of Design Thinking and Lean Startup, both modified to apply more directly to public service-related projects.

The workshops incorporated some of our key methodological concepts such as understanding your customers (Customer Segmentation), building early, rough versions of possible solutions (Prototyping), and beginning to understand the larger ecosystem of supply and demand forces at play (Product-Market Fit).

Here are the training / instructional slides that were presented:

UMD Overview & Team Introductions Slides (PDF)

Intro to Design Thinking (PDF)

Customer Segmentation & Value Proposition — Introduction (PDF)

Customer Segmentation & Value Proposition — A Deeper Look (PDF)

Applying the Scientific Method to Customer Discovery (PDF)

Intro to Customer Interviews (PDF)

Interview Template for Consideration (PDF)

Interview Synthesis (PDF)

Quick Build Prototyping (PDF)

At the end of the 3-days, the teams presented their work and what they presented was really interesting. Each team had made some real progress in terms of better defining their project and its specific goals. A number of the teams had actually shifted their approach altogether, having realized that their original idea didn’t quite make as much sense as they thought they did.

This was our third boot camp, and we think this was our best boot camp yet! We’re constantly tweaking the boot camp. In fact, we’re already thinking about how it can be improved for the next Round.

Squiggles: What Working in Ignite is Like

Some people think that there’s a magic formula to ‘innovating’. But there isn’t a defined pathway. Much of this is built on the back of the proven principles of the Scientific Method: controlling variables, running experiments, gathering evidence. But the real world is much messier than the a lab. The entrepreneurial spirit that drives innovation is part data-driven and part hunch-driven. You dive into a topic area, trying to understand a particular problem that a specific stakeholder has, only to find that you’re exploring the wrong thing altogether. So you come out of that rabbit hole and then go somewhere else to try something new.

Thus, while the mind seeks a linear path, the real path forward ends up involving many squiggles.

Their First Monthly Report Out

Each team in Ignite presents on a monthly basis the progress of their understanding and work. This is in addition to office hours, which the Ignite instructors hold every week. And in addition to any check-ins they may schedule with their mentor. These Monthly milestones provide opportunities for us at the IDEA Lab to assess where the teams are. They also provide markers to the teams to suggest where they should be.

Today, the teams give their first Monthly report-out. They’ll be using this template:

These report-outs are meant to be fairly conversational. The goals are for us to understand where they are in their project progress so that we can determine how to best support them moving forward.

Working towards their Demo Day: September 17th!

The Ignite Accelerator is deliberately a short program. These tight timelines pressure cook an idea and the kernel either pops or it is declared a dud. And by the way… Either of those outcomes are great! Even the ideas that don’t pan out contribute to our collective knowledge of what works and what doesn’t.

There are 2 months left in this Summer 2015 Ignite Accelerator. Each team is building towards, ideally, a big pitch to their local leadership. The teams’ goals in their time remaining is to further hone the scope of their efforts before testing their ideas in a way that they help build the business case for their idea.

And then… Mark your calendars: On September 17th, we’ll bring all the teams back to DC for them to present what they build and what they learned. Stay tuned! We’ll keep providing updates so that you can learn with us along the way.

Ignite is our competitive 3 month internal innovation accelerator that gives HHS staff-teams the opportunity to test innovative solutions to some of our most vexing challenges. Whether it’s designing a new program, improving an existing process, or developing an innovative product, selected teams are focused on how to make their patch of government work better. The Summer 2015 Accelerator is the 4th Round of the Ignite program. Learn more about the HHS Ignite Accelerator here.

Originally published at on July 7, 2015.

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