Don’t make them ditch the hoodie

Meagan Metzger, founder of Dcode42, continued her discussion Erwin Godoy, the Chief Innovation Strategist at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency’s (NG...

This is part 2 of a discussion Meagan Metzger, founder of Dcode42, had with Erwin Godoy, the chief innovation strategist at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency’s (NGA) Enterprise Innovation Office. In Part 1 of their discussion, Metzger and Godoy talked about what can be done to bring industry and government closer together to achieve mutual goals.

Why have the federal government and the technology industry had so much trouble connecting and working together? One of the biggest obstacles in government working with “non-traditionals” is the question of risk. Government’s low tolerance for risk-taking is well-known, but understandable. Government employees may be more sensitive to the consequences of failure than those in the private sector for a variety of reasons.

What’s more, those in government tend to move within government-centered circles, and they’re often unaware of what technologies are available. Godoy singled this out as a major issue. If no one gets outside of their office and no one leaves the building, nothing will change because “you can’t innovate without leaving your desk.” Without knowing what solutions exist, the tendency is to go with the known entity, assuming it’s less risky. The problem is, it’s not necessarily less risky, and adhering to the status quo won’t bring about transformative change.

Build it, and they will come? Not exactly

The good news is there are ways to overcome these challenges, but it might involve compromise and tweaks on both sides.

“Who is bending to whom?” Godoy asked. “If we want innovation, the government needs to ‘bend’ to certain nontraditional industry practices so that the two sides can operate at the same speed. This entails doing some things that the government is not used to doing, such as going to paid tech conferences to engage with the nontraditional community. Don’t rely on staying in the building to wait for the industries to approach first.”

Government should also be sensitive to the culture differences, and not dismiss a promising company for trivial cultural details (try to overlook the hoodie-wearing CEO, for example).

Godoy also suggested that government can take a page from industry’s book.

“Some of the great iconic companies have fought off competition time and time again for many decades,” he said. “They did that by adapting and changing. The government needs to do the same.”

Five things agencies can do to change

Fortunately, Godoy’s recommendations aren’t pipe dreams. Initiatives are already popping up all over the government to encourage collaboration between the two sides. Some government agencies, particularly those with a defense or intelligence focus, have already recognized that they can operate at their best by bringing in some of the best ideas and technologies from the private sector.

In 2015, for example, the NGA launched its GEOINT Solutions Marketplace, an online system that allows industry innovators to connect with the agency directly. In the marketplace, companies can post their company’s capabilities or respond to opportunities posted by the agency.

Some tactical changes agencies can make:

  1. Get out of the office. Innovation isn’t happening in a cubicle.
  2. Rethink “requirements.” Tell industry what problem you are trying to solve, not what you think you need.
  3. Use lean startup principles in internal organizational practices. This helps agencies’ innovation efforts show quick success and scale.
  4. Move from project managers to product managers.
  5. Engage with government-focused accelerators and incubators: they can provide a world of insight.

Connecting the two sides

The private side is also working hard to bridge the gap and bring innovation into the government. Godoy stressed the importance of programs such as Metzger’s Dcode42 accelerator. Dcode42 recognizes the drastic difference between the two sides and works to help the agencies and nontraditionals “speak the same language,” as Godoy described it. Most of the work needed to encourage further collaboration comes down to the demystification of each side of the division to one another. As each side becomes less mysterious and more understandable to the other, so too will the government’s uncertainty regarding procurement from non-traditionals.

Meagan Metzger is the founder of Washington, D.C.-based accelerator Dcode42. She has worn many hats in the government market — from software design, quality assurance, operations, and program management, to developing go-to-market strategies, crafting marketing campaigns, and performing business development.

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