How culture drives innovation
Top executives share their views on tech disruptors and how people really drive the change
- By Nick Wakeman
- Sep 16, 2021
Innovation is one of the biggest buzzwords in today’s public sector marketplace as government customers are looking for new solutions that promise efficiency and better mission outcomes, while contractors tout their ability to deliver those solutions.
Technologies that fuel the innovation are constantly evolving and creating a challenge for government contractors as they develop new solutions and try to differentiate themselves from their competitors. In reviewing corporate marketing materials, it seems many companies tout similar skills and offerings. That compounds the differentiation challenge.
One key question is what does innovation look like and how does a government contractor ensure that they deliver real results as well as separate themselves from their competitors. Much of the answer lies not in technology, but in culture and people.
To explore this issue deeper, Washington Technology convened a roundtable of top executives in the market to share their insights on innovation and culture. Also on the discussion agenda was what they expect from themselves and what they look for from their customers.
Our discussion was on the record, but we operated under Chatham House rules in that comments by executives will not be attributed to them or their companies. See the sidebar to view those who attended.
To look at the current and near-term innovations that are disrupting the market, we started by looking back at the evolution of cloud computing and how that has changed the market over the last decade.
“Fundamentally it has transformed the enterprise,” one executive said. “It has transformed how we develop software and how we deploy software.”
Broad shifts away from data centers and into public and private clouds have been the innovation driver of the last decade as it has changed roles and responsibilities of IT personnel, plus forced government customers to change how they buy and procure technology.
“The government had to go through a big learning curve on how to even buy it,” said another executive. “Some basic assumptions around how long it takes to do things and how to account for success from your suppliers really changed in that cloud paradigm.”
Cloud's continuing rise offers lessons and warnings for newer technologies such as artificial intelligence and machine learning. Several executives described cloud as "still in the early innings," which means it isn’t done as a disruptor.
But the cloud is certainly enabling and driving the adoption of commercial technologies and open architectures.
“There is a general trend toward commercial technologies that are widely used, are open and can be leveraged across many programs,” an executive said.
One lesson learned from cloud adoptions is that customers and contractors alike had to weather the hype cycle. For example, an early sales pitch for the cloud was the money it would save but the cost savings never came.
“The cost savings was pitched as so high, but we couldn’t hit them unless we were at scale and you can’t just jump to scale,” one person said.
Agencies pushed back when those cost savings didn’t emerge. The industry shifted its focus to outcomes and the impact on the mission as well as cybersecurity. Cloud's use grew, albeit over years, once people changed how they talked about it and their expectations.
That’s a lesson these executives carry with them as they advance new innovations.
“We should remember that its going to be hard for us and for our customers and it takes sustained effort,” an executive said.
At the heart of enabling and adopting new innovations are culture and people. One positive trend in the market is that as the government moves to the leading edge of technology adoption, younger workers are drawn in by the opportunity to work with these technologies and serve the critical missions of many government agencies.
The challenge with people remains getting them to change, particularly when in looking at government customers that want to hang onto to their turf.
“The most important part is to focus on the mission outcome you are trying to achieve,” an executive said.
Internally, companies need to work on developing an innovation culture. “You have to foster a culture where the best idea wins,” one executive said.
To get there takes time, patience and effort. “It’s got to be a culture. It can’t be an individual trying to be a hero and change things,” this executive said. “It’s got to be a groundswell coming from the bottom up, coming from the top down and it’s got to be pervasive.”
Chief Technology Officer, Healthcare Management Solutions
CEO, Serco Inc.
CEO, NCI Information Ssytems
Chief Technology Officer, LMI
Chief Technology Officer, ManTech International
Principal, The Chertoff Group
Chief Technology Officer, CACI International
Chief Technology Officer, Parsons
President, Peraton Labs
Chief Technology Officer, Calibre
CEO, Wolf Den Associates
Chief Growth Officer, Linquest Corp.
Vice President, federal channel and FSI sales, Dell Technoloogies
Senior Director of data center sales, Dell Technologies
Note: Washington Technology Editor-in-Chief Nick Wakeman led the roundtable discussion. The July virtual gathering was underwritten by Dell Technologies, but both the substance of the discussion and the published article are strictly editorial products. Neither Dell nor any of the participants had input beyond the comments at the July event.
This part of the discussion sparked talk about the importance of diversity and inclusion for some of the executives.
“At the end of the day, I need the best talent and I can’t achieve that if my company is perceived as one that favors people of a particular race or gender,” one said.
Once that talent is in house, they have to be on an equal footing to share ideas and their experiences that contribute to a solution.
“If I’m not fostering a culture of inclusion, then I’m not going to get the best idea,” said an executive.
Diversity and inclusion also is more important with emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence and machine learning that can create ethical issues, another executive said.
“It is really critical to bring a lot of diversity into your design meetings and discussions because issues can get through that might be detected by people looking at it from different walks of life and perspectives,” that executive said.
A second people and culture issue that is critical to innovation is an atmosphere where it is OK to fail. That brings into view the concept of failing fast.
“The ability to fail fast is absolutely important and it is a concept that we need to inculcate with our all our talent,” an executive said.
“We have to accept failure and not just say, that was bad; we shouldn’t do that again,” another said. “But we have to learn from the experience and create a culture where people are allowed to experiment and learn.”
Related to this is creating a culture where people can disagree, and as leaders it is important to listen.
One executive shared that when there is a meeting in the conference room, everyone should sit at the table. People early in their careers will often sit along the wall.
“I asked them to come to the table,” that executive said.
A second technique is to make sure everyone speaks.
“If we invited you to the meeting, we want to hear from you,” the executive said.
The executives offered these other pointers on building an innovation culture:
- Hire people who are curious by nature and help them find their voice.
- Use internship programs to infuse talent and new ways of thinking.
- Convert interns to full-time employees.
- Connect early career folks and experienced employees with reverse mentorships where the younger person introduces the older one to new technologies and concepts.
Building a culture takes leadership but one executive laughed about CEOs who come in and say they are going to change the culture. CEOs alone don’t change cultures.
“You change the behaviors around how receptive you are to ideas,” an executive said. “It's the culmination of those behaviors that change the culture.”
Nick Wakeman is the editor-in-chief of Washington Technology. Follow him on Twitter: @nick_wakeman.