Innovation Tips from the First U.S. CTO

The Lean Startup Conference, a five day gathering of entrepreneurs, is held at the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco from December 8th through December 12th 2014. (© 2013 Photo by The Lean Startup Conference/Jakub Mosur and Erin Lubin)
Photo credit: The Lean Startup Conference/Jakub Moser & Erin Lubin

Imagine that you’ve just joined a 233 year-old organization, with more than 4.4 million employees, as the very first CTO. A few weeks into the job, you’re asked to take on a complex project that touches the lives of six million people each year. Your timeline is 90-days, and there’s absolutely no wiggle room because you’re CTO of the United States, and your direct supervisor is President Barack Obama.

In April 2009, the Obama Administration appointed Aneesh Chopra, Virginia’s then Secretary of Technology, to be the first CTO of the United States. Soon after, Chopra found himself immersed in a billion dollar immigration project, a program to help Veterans retrieve healthcare records faster, and an initiative to help accelerate approval processes within the gold standard of bureaucratic organizations—the FDA.

Success, according to Chopra, wouldn’t be as simple as creating an MVP. The Federal Government can’t afford to make mistakes. The stakes for Chopra and the Obama Administration were high, because if something did fall through the cracks, it would end up on the front page of The New York Times and impact millions of Americans.

Under these tight constraints, Chopra learned a powerful lesson—that innovation and bureaucracy aren’t mutually exclusive. Watch the video below to learn how he applied Lean Startup within the U.S. government:

Some Highlights:

  • Using customer development to prioritize product development. Entrenched in a multi-billion dollar transformation project, Chopra’s team knew that they wouldn’t be able to fix the underlying system overnight. With a deadline of 90 days to fix a key problem, Chopra relied on customer development to figure out where to prioritize his team’s efforts. His team pinpointed one ‘blockage’ as a starting point for ‘unclogging the arteries.’
  • Asking before mandating. With one of the first iterations of, Chopra and his team found that health insurance shoppers wanted plan data that wasn’t yet available. Instead of mandating and requiring insurance carriers to share this information, Chopra and his team illustrated demand based on user search data. From this process of learning, the team positioned itself to make iterative changes and improvements.
  • Untangling politics. In federal government and healthcare-related government arms, there are many stakeholders and variables at play. In the webcast, Chopra explains how his team navigated these often-competing forces to push initiatives forward.

Love what you’ve watched and read? Come join Aneesh Chopra at the 2015 Lean Startup Conference from November 16-19, where he’ll talk about leveraging Lean Startup principles in public/private partnerships, alongside entrepreneurs like Ryan Hoover of Product Hunt and corporate innovation leaders like Janice Semper of General Electric.

If you can’t wait until November, check out our next webcast, “Speed as a Competitive Advantage”, featuring GE’s Lean Startup Methodology with Eric Ries and Mark Little of GE by signing up here.

This post was written by Ritika Puri, resident storyteller at The Lean Startup Conference.