Silicon Mountain
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Silicon Mountain

Threatening Innovation in the DoD

The innovation project was canceled? I see…

There is a persona you probably know I love, ‘his’ name is Bernard. This guy is a stalwart at the organization, knows their stuff and has made those mistakes before. Even more important, Bernard is still engaged. Bernard still cares about the outcomes of the work they do. Interested in learning more about Bernard? Read this earlier post.

Bernard remains positive, optimistic, and is open to challenges, even if Bernard may be slow to adopt. Bernard has a close cousin, and Bernard’s cousin is the immovable object. For the sake of conversation, let’s name this persona Smykowski (yes, like the “jump to conclusions mat” character from Mike Judge’s Office Space movie). In fact, if you track Smykowski’s character he represents a lot of what this persona brings to the table in the world of innovation and change. Smykowski has spent decades at the company. Smykowski has moved up through luck, achievement, politics. Let’s assume the promoting was all done for positive reasons.

Along the way Smykowski learned risk aversion. Smykowski learned a fixed mindset that reinforced a belief that their achievements, the way they achieved, would be predictive of how future achievements earn recognition. This cycle creates a scenario where we should empathize with Smykowski. Has this persona done anything wrong? Are we to blame for reinforcing the task or the strict behavior and not the underlying behavior that lead to accomplishment?

The Environment

The Department of Defense (and its peer civilian agencies) have a strong history of building on Microsoft’s preloaded suite of tools (especially Outlook, PowerPoint, Word, Access, and Excel). Why? Mostly because they are available and paid for by someone else. The delivery teams are often far removed from the decision to use Microsoft. With systems that are often subject to uptime and other reliability issues, innovative behaviors often exist at the user level, in the field. These users are subject to secure systems requirements that are ‘met’ by Microsoft’s implementation for their organization. I use quotes on met, because it also is most likely that PII or CUI are shared using Microsoft Excel or Outlook, and pretty regularly without encryption. Need an example? Physical security requests often use a combination of a PDF form, Outlook email, and Excel ‘database’ for a lack of a better, more secure way to approve base access with rotating authority at scale. And yet we would likely be held to a higher standard to replace an Excel-based process that might hinder its potential to make it to production all together, circling back to the beginning of the cycle.

Everyone who has spent at least three years in service of government customers is aware of these types of micro-innovations. These emerge out of a need, a lack of funding, and likely result in an unsupported production system tackling critical activities for the field team. Imagine this happening tens of thousands of times a year, throughout all of these agencies. In my limited experience, I can say with some certainty that an estimate on that caliber seems reasonable.

A Hypothetical, How it Happens Story

Let’s move to a hypothetical for our persona, Smykowski. Twenty years ago Smykowski built one of these random tools and was rewarded with recognition. That recognition matured into a promotion with greater responsibility. Smykowski interpreted the reward to have a correlation with capability and luck, and planted a seed that these were fixed characteristics of Smykowski’s personality. As Smykowski continued in their career, more confidence grew in the random Microsoft product expertise and how they can apply their practical career knowledge and solve just about anything with Office tools.

Smykowski’s behavior becomes risk averse. That is not uncommon in the government space. It is high impact and high visibility at times. Risk takers often depart for commercial opportunities where the reward for that behavior is reinforced. Furthermore, Smykowski starts to develop an understanding of the world reinforcing the ‘special’ characteristics Smykowski has as a long-term servant. Reflecting throughout a career that only knows government service, Smykowski is thankful for Microsoft tools. In other cases, Smykowski may have managed a large contractor’s program for the government, in that experience he learned to trust the establishment, they have the tribal knowledge and are worth the extra cost.

Also, Smykowski checked boxes to rise the government ladder. Certified in this, PhD in that, this many years of service, etc. Sometimes it makes one wonder if the reinforcement is for test-taking and pure stability.

It is pretty easy to empathize with the situation. The challenge is that we probably reinforced the wrong thing throughout many careers. We reinforced stability. That stability reinforced the inertia of status quo. We learned language to sound Agile, sound innovative, sound agreeable, when in reality all we wanted to do is protect the kingdom we built. Whether it be saving face, a reputation and a career, the desire to leave a legacy, it is irrational — as are most things. Even my own perspective is irrational, I just believe it to be rational based on my surroundings and experiences.

Immovable Object vs. Unstoppable Force

If you were into comics in the 80’s and 90’s you probably have seen this theme emerge in a couple of classics. Imagine the Blob vs. the Juggernaut for example.

There are many, many Smykowskis sprinkled through the employment ranks. I do not wish poorly on any of them. In fact, I wish on them the greatest possible opportunity, embrace what really was the cause of success. Embrace that there was risk involved. Embrace that ambition and innovative spirit were the underlying fuel for the resulting successful change. Embrace the failures that preceded any victory. Look at those who are trying to do something different and instead of feeling threatened, remember that their services are likely to end up leaving the government if we continue to fight the unstoppable force that is change.

What happens, though? Smykowski feels threatened. Smykowski lashes out and knows how to politically kill things. The talent of saying ‘no’ is strong within the risk averse nature of government. Smykowski may sabotage an opportunity with potential. Sure it may have failed anyway, but it did not have to fail. Smykowski is smug in knowing that they were able to cut down a threat to their kingdom. To see another change fall to the wayside seems like a larger waste than perpetuating the status quo. Most of these innovations do not come out of ‘how can I slow down responsiveness and effectiveness’ anyway.

Smykowski sees innovations that may overlap with what is being done, or was done previously by Smykowski as a threat. It is easy and reasonable to say, that may cost more than supporting our current solution. In fact, it might. It also might be easy for Smykowski to suggest that revisiting this is a waste. Smykowski has the power of a working system to use as a challenge for spending money on innovation. As a result, there is increased likelihood of success for the defensive position. Smykowski beats innovation in the Department of Defense. There is plenty of bureaucracy on Smykowski’s side protecting their interests in existing investments. Also, I like to imagine Smykowski’s meeting with the Bobs in this hypothetical, where he gets steaming mad that the efficiency experts cannot understand that he’s a people person.

However, systems are replaced rather rapidly in our evolving economy. The previous solution might not be built to scale appropriately, it might not be built flexible enough for evolving needs. Heck, it might even be entirely irrelevant. Without accepting the inevitability of change, we may prefer the status quo in lieu of taking a relatively inconsequential investment to perform appropriate discovery and design activities as a part of continuous improvement feedback loops.

Evolving Leadership

I would hypothesize that Smykowski would benefit from a mentor or sponsor that looked at behaviors rather than simply output or individual achievements. In fact, the mentors I respect the most did not settle for the immediate success. If you participated in sports, the best coach is not the one that goes undefeated one season, it’s the one that teaches life skills and appreciates the benefits of the loss. I bet the Alabama Crimson Tide will gain far more from losing to Texas A&M last weekend than they would have from an undefeated, championship season.

Smykowski needs programs within the government that measure innovative behaviors, change tolerance, risk taking more than pure output. We should strive to have a method and an organization that values change, which is inevitable, rather than protecting the status quo. What happens with the status quo? It is defended, often beyond its usable period. Behaviors that threaten change, that attack innovation and experimentation should be addressed directly. If you do not understand something, it should not threaten your lifestyle, your family, your income. If you are unwilling to understand something, well, perhaps that behavior should have consequences. How else should we expect growth and progress?

Note on Microsoft

I do not hate Microsoft. Many of my friends have or do work at Microsoft. They earned their stripes and have a few products that until recently could not be touched, such as Excel’s flexible spread sheet tool, and Outlook’s calendar and email integration. My perspective is that their tools are stretched to their boundaries and beyond due to risk avoidance, funding bad status quo programs, or purely innocent need to build an example to justify further investment and innovation. We should strive to use the tools for their best purpose. PowerPoint is not a ‘how many words can I fit on a page’ tool. Excel cannot drive complex data hierarchies efficiently or effectively. Outlook is culturally abused worse than any, we abstract our humanity from communication behind the keyboard.

In conclusion — I believe that the government has cultural inertia to continue to work with this big contractor, keep that old system, do what we know. I think the biggest threat to innovation in the government is the culture enabled by the government itself. Without rapid, continual change, though, the pillars of the status quo will erode as well.

As always, find me on LinkedIn if you have thoughts, and I welcome conflict.




Silicon Mountain is a small company based out of Denver, CO with multiple SBIR awards. We deliver DevSecOps as a service to enable our employees and customers to own their mission success.

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Michael Downard

Michael Downard

Michael works for a small business as Principal Investigator for multiple SBIR awards and earned a part-time MBA from George Mason and is both a PMP & PMI-ACP.

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