Innovation 101

in·no·va·tion noun \ˌi-nə-ˈvā-shən\

1: the introduction of something new

2: a new idea, method, or device : novelty

From <http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/innovation>

Over the last several weeks, I have found myself challenged to be INNOVATIVE as an Innovation Fellow.  Sure, the job is challenging and figuring out the complex equation that is a MAGI eligibility determination shared service for state Medicaid agencies is not trivial, but that is not what I mean.  In this case I struggle with what it means to be innovative.

First of all, INNOVATION is an overused buzzword, especially in government circles.  I do not mean to be negative or to take away from all of the good work being done by the  Innovation teams here in the Fed, but, if I had a dollar for every time that I heard a reference to innovation…well, you get where I am going.  It’s hip and cool to be seen as innovative, to “think outside the box”, to be “disruptive” or to be a “change agent”.  But what does it really mean?  And who decides?  And what if the obvious answer is notinnovative?

I suppose the reason that I struggle with it is, with regard to our project, the RIGHT solution, the OBVIOUS path does not seem all that innovative.  The best answer to our problem is staring us right in the face, has been exclaimed by many others before us and is not hard, not a new idea and is not novel as Merriam-Webster defines innovation.  Earlier this month, when meeting with Bryan (Sivak) to discuss our project, I made this observation to him.  That “I struggle with the natural solution to our equation because it is not really innovative.”  To which, he challenged my own definition (and Merriam-Webster’s for that matter), that it should be a “new” or “different” idea.

Bryan’s rebuttal gave me a brief flashback of my early work in Louisiana.  In late 2010, I landed right off the train from Microsoft R&D and found myself in the midst of public sector sludge at Louisiana’s Department of Health and Hospitals.  It was my first job in government and I found myself very frustrated at the slow adoption of technology.  They were still using Windows XP on the desktop, most of the backend systems were ancient mainframes and introducing anything modern was met by a myriad of excuses.  I was used to working with tools that made it easy to communicate, collaborate and get things done and now I had to hunt people down and wait hours, sometimes days for an interaction that I was used to having over a quick IM conversation.  Compared to the “eat-your-own-dogfood” environment at Microsoft, I had gone from Disney World to Dicken’s World (for the reference http://www.dickensworld.co.uk/).  Soon I realized something very cool about this situation, though.  By making incremental advances that, to me were obvious and had marginal benefit, I was able to gain trust to make even more impactful changes.  I was sometimes seen as an innovator although I did not believe that what I was doing was all that innovative.  It was the opportunity to work in the private sector at one end of the technology curve and then step into the public sector at the other end of the curve that allowed me to be “innovative”.

Later, Chris (Lunt) and I were chatting further about the definition of innovation and he came up with another really great definition.   He defines innovation as “the ability to have one foot in one world while having the other foot in a different world and leveraging lessons learned across the divide.”  What a great observation!  We have seen examples of this many times over, whether it is crossing over from the consumer market to enterprise market, the automobile industry to the banking industry or the banking industry to healthcare, some of the greatest innovations of the last century can be resolved by this definition.

In the present case for me, I am able to bring my experience from a State Department of Health/Medicaid perspective and cross the divide to implementation at the Federal level.  Certainly it is a similar case for Chris who has spent his career in consumer internet technology.  The divide he is straddling is certainly wider than mine and that gives him a completely different lens in terms of innovation.  Where some of the challenges that we face may seem daunting or of questionable value by some of my colleagues at HHS, the answers are more obvious and unquestionable to me.  Whether that is innovative or not, I will let others decide, but it has certainly helped clarify my present dilemma.  I’m interested, How do you define INNOVATION?

And now for my quote of the day:

“Nothing is so embarrassing as watching someone do something that you said could not be done.” – Sam Ewing