How was HRSA’s Innovation Accelerator Pilot? Here’s A Preliminary Recap.

In case you missed it, the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) has been running a pilot innovation accelerator of their own called the HRSA IdeaSpring. Modeled after the HHS Ignite Accelerator and building on a HRSA innovation blueprint put forth by Senior staff within the agency, the IdeaSpring is a competitive internal program to help HRSA staff take their ideas from conception to early-stage prototype. The HRSA IdeaSpring is being led by 6 HRSA staff going through a mid-level leadership training

photo of the HRSA IdeaSpring's program team

IdeaSpring’s program team (from L to R): Desha Anderson, Katrina Jones, Lennie Green, Candace Webb, Erica Grover, and Terri’ Richards.

program. These sensational six are: Terri’ Richards, Candace Webb, Erica Grover, Katrina Jones, Lennwood (Lennie) Green, and Desha Anderson. The HRSA IdeaSpring just wrapped up their pilot round with their very own Demo Day. We emailed the team a few questions and asked them to write up their collective responses to share out some of their experiences and to give us a sense as to what’s next.

What’s the short history of how you all came about launching your own internal accelerator program?

The HRSA IdeaSpring team participants are part of the 2015 HRSA Mid-level Leadership Development Program. As a part of our leadership curriculum, we are engaged in an action learning project. Our team sponsors, along with HRSA’s leadership, challenged our team with researching and developing initiatives that encourage and reward employee engagement, creativity and innovation at HRSA. This led to us attending the Summer 2015 HHS Ignite Boot Camp, connecting and partnering with the HHS IDEA lab, and developing HRSA’s version of an accelerator program we call the HRSA IdeaSpring.

Tell us a little bit about the HRSA Idea Spring, it’s design and the overall goal of the program.

The HRSA IdeaSpring is a two and a half month program pairing teams with the resources to grow their ideas for improvement of HRSA products, services, and processes. Like the HHS Ignite Accelerator, the IdeaSpring provides its teams with the tools to explore their ideas by introducing concepts such as design thinking and lean startup, as well as methodologies for customer discovery, problem identification, and the testing of their ideas.

Before launching, did you have a definition of success? What were you trying to test / accomplish with this first round? (And do you think you accomplished this?)

Quite honestly, with aggressive time commitments and an unorthodox approach to problem solving in government, the HRSA IdeaSpring team was hopeful in getting just one team to apply.  However, the interest and responses we received well surpassed our expectations: The HRSA IdeaSpring Pilot Program received 23 applications from teams across HRSA with a wide range of project ideas. Through the pilot we hoped to test and establish the HRSA IdeaSpring as a means to engage HRSA employees in a creative problem-solving process.  The hope was that even if the idea didn’t take off, the participants would still walk away with new knowledge and skills to empower them to further HRSA’s mission and vision. This pilot emphasized the fact that there are so many great ideas within HRSA, and people are hungry for the time and space to dedicate to creative problem solving.  This underscores the value of our agency’s leadership and commitment to innovation.  On February 24th we hosted the first HRSA IdeaSpring Demo Day. It was incredible! Our seven teams pitched their ideas to six panelists who selected one team to move on to the HHS Ignite Accelerator program.  (see details below).  

Give us some of the particulars, some of the mechanics of pullings this off – How many people are devoted to running the Idea Spring? What percent of their time is going towards this?

The Pilot Program was implemented by a team of six people, with approximately 20% of each person’s time dedicated to the HRSA IdeaSpring.

Walk us through some of the programmatic metrics: How many HRSA projects got submitted? How many got in? How much money did you put towards the program?

We launched the HRSA IdeaSpring application in October 2015. An astounding 23 teams submitted applications that represented project ideas from across the Agency. Due to limited capacity of both our teams and mentors, we were only able to accept seven of those teams to participate in the pilot round of the HRSA IdeaSpring. We were rather optimistic in stating there would be no costs involved in implementing the HRSA IdeaSpring pilot program.  However, that is one of our lessons learned throughout this process.  With a bit of funds, we are certain the HRSA IdeaSpring would have been able to support more project ideas, beef up our technology to improve remote participation among our HRSA colleagues out in the field, and possibly hire a staff to coordinate the program.

What were the biggest challenges with this round – was there one or two things that you really wanted to make work but weren’t able to?

We definitely feel that this pilot program was a huge success. Given the success of the program we did experience some challenges. Our two biggest challenges were the short amount of time we had to coordinate the program and not being able to fully engage our remote participants. At times it felt like we were scrambling to find resources to meet the needs of the participants and mentors.  In addition, we experienced some technical glitches during our Demo Day.   Now that we’ve gone through a whole round, we will better be able to anticipate the need for resources, support, communication, and advance testing of technology. It was evident during the Boot Camp that we struggled with catering to our remote participants.  We had a few people that were not able to attend the two-day Boot Camp in-person.  We attempted to bring them into the training using a conference line and Adobe Connect.  It was difficult to make them feel included in all activities and we struggled a bit with the audio and video feeds.  These are a few items that we will revisit in planning future iterations of the HRSA IdeaSpring.

And then what’s the biggest success, the biggest surprise?

The biggest success has been the level of support and interest we’ve seen in coordinating the program. We were definitely surprised by the level of interest and support shown by all HRSA staff and management. In addition, we were thrilled to have this opportunity to provide a platform for HRSA employees to showcase their ideas and creativity and offer them the  opportunity to explore new methodologies for problem-solving.  HRSA employees have so many awesome ideas to improve efficiencies and further the mission of the Agency.  They just need the time, space, and support to pursue those ideas.

There are others across HHS and indeed the federal government looking to launch similar programs. What practical insights (pick 3) would you offer those individuals based upon your experience with the HRSA Idea Spring?

  1. Just do it! Your employees deserve it!
  2. Spend time building support within your agency.  Fostering buy-in (at all levels) and identifying mutual benefits are essential to sustaining support throughout.  
  3. Identify dedicated staff to lead and coordinate the program.

Now, tell us about your first Demo Day. Results for those who didn’t get to follow along?  How do you think it went?

We are still celebrating the success of our first Demo Day. Our two speakers, Jim Macrae, HRSA’s Acting Administrator, and  Susannah Fox, HHS’s Chief of Technology, discussed the importance of encouraging innovation in government. Seven teams enjoyed sharing their ideas with six panelists who were high-level influencers. The teams did an amazing job pitching their ideas. They each had only four minutes to sell their idea! One team, the Improving Utilization of Data in Organ Transplant Decision-Making team, was selected to move onto the HHS Ignite Accelerator. Another team, the HRSA Public Health Learning Opportunities team, won the online Viewers’ Choice Award. All seven teams advanced the mission of HRSA by pursuing their ideas and inspired their colleagues to do the same. We’re excited that our project teams gained knowledge and experience that will influence their work contributions and personal competencies. The impact will continue beyond their work with the HRSA IdeaSpring and complement their role in attaining organizational goals and objectives.

Do you think there will be another round of the Idea Spring in the future?

We certainly hope so! HRSA leadership has been extremely supportive of this pilot program. We are hopeful that the success of all the HRSA IdeaSpring teams and Agency-wide interest will help us make the case to continue the effort.  Our team will be presenting our recommendations to HRSA senior leadership in the next month, so stay tuned! Watch the recording of HRSA IdeaSpring’s first Demo Day here