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Fresh perspectives from the frontlines of Federal IT

Posted Aug 04, 2015

Fresh perspectives from the frontlines of Federal IT

By Stephanie Brown, PIC Staff

A group of  IT professionals attending the IT Solution Challenge this summer

If you were asked the question, “what is the one thing that if implemented could make work life easier for you and your federal colleagues,” what might you say? This question was on the mind of the Federal CIO Tony Scott when he invited the Performance Improvement Council to partner with the CIO Council to facilitate the IT Solution Challenge this summer.

The IT Solution Challenge is an initiative to engage GS 9 - 13 level rising stars in the IT and IT acquisition community in answering this question. Over a 6 month period, 39 participants from 19 agencies formed cross-agency teams to explore a shared challenge, interview users, and build prototypes. At the culmination in October, each team will have the opportunity to pitch their solution to Tony Scott and Anne Rung, the Administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy. This initiative has allowed the CIO Council to “tap into the hands-on experiences of the front lines and find innovative solutions based on their fresh perspectives”.

You might be asking how does this relate to the PIC’s mission to advance and expand the practice of performance management and improvement? The PIC team believes that small groups of empowered, impassioned, and curious people can make a huge impact by solving performance challenges collectively. The Collaboration Studio at the PIC helps to bring together people who have a cross-cutting challenge to build a shared understanding of the problem at hand, provide a structured approach to identify choices, and facilitate decision making that ultimately will improve government performance and service delivery. We focus on working with the teams charged with implementing the Cross Agency Priority Goals and Agency Priority Goals. This initiative supports the development of top IT and IT aquisition talent inside Federal Government, a key priority within the Smarter IT Cross Agency Priority Goal.

Something else we really believe in here at the PIC is data. In this case we are looking for data on a very human scale - individual stories about people and their needs.

As the facilitator for the IT Solutions Challenge, it has been exciting to see how gaining insights from users drove the teams through multiple iteration cycles and has helped them to build higher fidelity prototypes. Teams interviewed colleagues and gathered data - listening for attitudes, values, and examples of challenges faced. The goal was to identify unmet, unarticulated needs that might help them craft a compelling new solution.   In just a few months the teams will pitch their ideas to the decision makers who have the power to put these insights into action across Federal Government, and participants will return to their home offices with powerful new insights and new knowledge that I am sure will inspire action even beyond the projects they have worked on during the Solutions Challenge.

Does running an Innovation Sprint like the IT Solution Challenge sound like something that would benefit your team? You can get started by asking yourself these questions:

What is the problem you are trying to solve? Define your design challenge in human terms (rather than technology, product or service functionality). Is your design challenge broad enough to allow you to discover the unexpected? Is it narrow enough to make the topic manageable?

Who have you talked to? I can’t say it enough, get out and talk to people! Believe me, it will foster powerful insights.  Expert interviews and surveys alone are not a substitute for talking with your users. Often experts develop their own assumptions, biases or have been denied in the past in ways that stifle their innovation today. Your real experts are the people you are designing for, ask them about their needs.

How might we…?  After synthesizing your interview data to identify themes and patterns from what you heard you can start identifying opportunity areas. Opportunities are the springboard for ideas and solutions. Frame opportunities with the phrase “How might we…?” to suggest a mindset of possibility. A key part of creating innovative solutions is preventing yourself and your team from jumping to conclusions. Listen to the data...from the user perspective.

If you would like to learn more about the Collaboration Studio or running an Innovation Sprint, reach out to and read more about the IT Solutions challenge on the GSA DigitalGov blog.