NGA’s new CVO outlines structuring innovation throughout agency

The U.S. defense and intelligence communities face a time of unprecedented technological upheaval. Unlike civilian agencies, however, their responsibilities include dealing with asymmetric threats — hostile adversaries using commercially available technologies that, in many cases, are far superior to what the government has on hand.

This is the “Red Queen Problem” from Alice in Wonderland, as described by Steve Blank: “[O]ur systems, organizations, headcount and budget — designed for 20th century weapons procurements and warfighting tactics on a predictable basis — can’t scale to meet all these simultaneous and unpredictable challenges. Today, our DoD and national security agencies are running as hard as they can just to stay in place, but our adversaries are continually innovating faster than our traditional systems can respond.”

Christina Monaco, the chief ventures officer at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency since October 2017, told Federal News Radio this is the imperative behind the creation of her office.

“What we’re really trying to inculcate in the NGA business processes and culture [is] the imperative to continually replenish our capabilities to match the threats,” Monaco said. “If you aren’t stepping away from time to time from the day-to-day, you’re going to fall behind.”

The Office of Ventures and Innovation (OVI) that she heads is not about centralizing innovation in a single directorate, Monaco said, but to foster the innovation taking place throughout the agency. The mission statement for OVI is “to create partnerships and steer pathways and solutions to improve existing, invent new and imagine transformational geospatial intelligence capabilities,” she said.

The submission phase just closed for a program OVI has started called the NGA Innovation Experience. “It builds on some efforts [under way] in a more decentralized fashion in a couple of our operational directorates. … It puts a formal program around some bottom-up activities, ” Monaco said.

For instance, the NGA Source Directorate had the Source Intrapreneur Challenge, while the Analysis Directorate had the Analysis Innovation Experience. They served as the basis for the broader agency program.

“We’re asking for that bottom-up innovation from the people who know best what’s needed,” Monaco said. “It’s our analysts innovating on their own work flows, or coming up with new and inventive ways to depict their intelligence or bring other intelligence to bear on their problem sets.”

Ideas submitted to the NGA Innovation Experience will go through a down-select process; once the ideas are chosen, the individuals are given permission to step away from their day-to-day responsibilities to work on their innovations.

Monaco said these “problem owners,” as she termed them, are encouraged to assemble integrated product teams and apply lean start-up methodologies to the challenges they’re addressing.

“It’s mostly analysts. As they put together their teams they may have pulled a developer, someone from research … [and] they build their team based on the problem they’re iterating on,” she said. Then as a project moves through different phases, the teams will draw upon other expertise, such as a systems engineer.

“Just yesterday we held an event, speed-dating with our integrated program offices — they need to understand these teams are working on capabilities that could eventually align to those offices,” she said.

Monaco said next week the folks who work on the requirements process for NGA are going to the West Coast for a “technical terrain walk,” to talk to people who may have similar challenges. “They’ll come back and do a problem-curation sprint.”

While NGA is part of the intelligence community, the intelligence it gathers is used by other agencies — its customers. This poses a particular challenge when proposing innovations to the agency’s processes because those customers may have processes of their own that would have to change.

“Decommissioning is a thorny problem because our customers may not be ready for it,” she said. “The programs of record that they are maintaining may rely on an old means of delivery that we can’t walk away from.”

Monaco said another question is how to turn process savings into resources that can be used to tackle new challenges.

“Many of our innovations are to save time; for instance, a particular innovation means it takes an analyst two hours rather than 14 hours,” she said, “but if there’s a sustainment tail to that capability, how do we fund it? How do we turn that time savings into the funding we need for that sustainment?

“If this saves you this much time, pay us back in time or in manpower,” Monaco said. “We can start looking at creative ways to move resources around.”

Patience Wait is a freelance journalist.