Recently during a Lean Startup workshop with several intelligence agencies, a question was posed by the audience: What makes it more difficult to innovate within the government than in the private sector?

In response, the usual answers were provided: government is too bureaucratic, too slow to make changes, inundated with security protocols, heavily reliant on outdated infrastructure, and so on. High profile product launch failures (e.g., Healthcare.gov) seem to have contributed to the perception that innovating in the government is far more difficult than in the private sector.

The narrative outlining the complexity of government entities, to this point, has been a pessimistic one that requires government officials to begin conversations on simple initiatives with, “the thing about working in the government is…[insert bureaucratic jargon].” At times, the negative tone around government process constraints has led to the misconception that there is a direct correlation between level of bureaucracy and innovation capacity.

This post was prompted by the next question from the audience when a government intrapreneur asked, “What makes us unique? It’s easy to look at the negatives, but what are our unfair advantages?” Sure there are unique challenges to innovating in the government, but contrary to popular belief, there are also benefits.

Sure there are unique challenges to innovating in the government, but contrary to popular belief, there are also benefits. Click To Tweet

Over the past year, while working on innovation transformations with the Department of Defense and various intelligence agencies, we’ve seen some significant successes, demonstrating unique advantages to innovating at scale in the Federal government. Here are a few reasons for those successes:

Mission Criticality

Purpose matters and whether your purpose is directly related to counter-terrorism, providing the backbone to the mortgage industry, or supplying disaster relief, you can bet there is an added motivation to solve the right problems with the right solutions for the right customers. I would argue that when compared to the private sector, the workforce at the Department of Defense is disproportionally more mission motivated and outcome driven. Sometimes, this results in wasted resources or inefficiencies as “pivot, persevere or kill” decisions are delayed, but the intent ultimately drives successful mission execution in most cases.

Sustainability over Acceleration

The government can’t go out of business and, as such, sustainability is the name of the game. Where a company may need to create inorganic growth or apply extreme cost-cutting to increase shareholder value, these agencies can stay mission focused and avoid the market trappings that often doom startups and enterprises. In other words, the Department of Defense is intentionally non-profit, which can open up a wide array of opportunities to deliver successful outcomes.

Community

Perhaps one of the most surprising and compelling advantages these agencies have in innovating, is the cross-agency community that intrapreneurs can tap into, both within the U.S government and in working with allied nations. There truly is a network of like-minded people across the world driving towards a common purpose. This is not to say there is not diversity of thought. Across the intelligence community, agencies are complementary, so you can encourage learning from each other’s successes and failures.

Perhaps one of the most surprising and compelling advantages these agencies have in innovating, is the cross-agency community that intrapreneurs can tap into, both within the U.S government and in working with allied nations. Click To Tweet

We’ve observed, first hand, the adoption of innovative problem-solving methods applied at various agencies within the Department of Defense. The ability to scale these approaches, is in part due to the aforementioned advantages. It’s time we remove the pessimistic lens through which we view innovation in the government, and perhaps start trying to apply some of these characteristics more consistently in the private sector.

Thank you to Monte Warren for contributing this piece. If you seek to bring the entrepreneurial spirit to your organization, we can help.