Lean Lessons From the Government (No Joke)

When looking for a growth model for enterprise, government might seem to be too slow to learn from. To Kara DeFrias, former Director of UX for The Obama White House and part of the inaugural class of Presidential Innovation fellows (PIFs), this is a tired trope she and others hope to change. In fact, she says, there are numerous lessons enterprise can learn from government.

“One of the biggest myths is that government is old and slow. It can be fast, and when it is fast, the impact at scale is unparalleled in enterprise and the private sector,” Kara says.

While the PIFs came to Washington back in 2012 to serve their country, they brought an outside perspective that included Lean Startup and Human Centered Design among other methods. She says, “The media narrative was that Silicon Valley was coming to save government. We never liked that narrative because we knew it wasn’t true.”

She took away some key lessons from her time in government that can make enterprise stronger:

Look for the champions

In any new business there will be steep learning curves and obstacles that mount frustration. Kara and her fellow PIFs experienced this when they first came to get work done. “We got bloody and bruised because we’d see a wall and kept running into it,” she says. They soon realized that there were people within these agencies who wanted to help, who had even, in fact, been waiting for an opportunity to work on the very projects the PIFs were bringing to the table. “If you can find those champions they can help you climb over the wall or walk around it—because you didn’t know it was an option.”

Never lose your naiveté

This is a fancy way of saying that sometimes not having answers can be a strength so long as you remember to seek those answers. Kara recalls one of their advisors telling them, “The best tool you have is the fact that you don’t know how government works, so ask the questions you would normally ask.” Asking questions is at the heart of Lean techniques, after all.

Be agile and flexible

18F and the United States Digital Service (USDS) started in 2014, two years after the PIF program. This trifecta of digital services organizations made up a digital coalition of sorts at the federal level. Having three distinct organizations had its advantages as the PIFs quickly realized that they would have to take several approaches to get the work done across government. This ranged from embedding in agencies next to civil servants to being brought on to work as an agency employee to doing a fee-for-service model. All had their advantages and disadvantages, but with the same point: be flexible to the agency’s needs. “The lesson for enterprise is: Don’t build a model and try to run the same play everywhere,” she advises, because it won’t work. “That’s not agile. That’s not Lean.” A key part of their success was to build a model that is “flexible to the people’s needs.”

Not all wins are big

“One of my biggest a-ha’s coming out of government is that it’s not all about the home runs. Sometimes the biggest victories are the base hits,” she says. She gives an example of herself and two other PIFs embedding at FEMA during Superstorm Sandy in 2012 “side-by-side with incredible civil servants” who were trying desperately trying to figure out the ins and outs of the catastrophe. “We started unlocking gas data and school data and connecting that to people who needed it, and using social media to get the data out,” she recalls. These small actions had huge implications: can I send my kid to school or is there mold damage? Where can we get gas so we can get our families to safety? Another example she gives is of 18F working with the Federal Elections Commission to update the website and streamline the data so that people can explore campaign finance data.

Feedback never fails

Kara scoffs at the idea that government’s goals and enterprise’s goals would be two different animals. “What part of talking to users doesn’t work for your business?” In a recent talk she gave, an audience member wasn’t sure if they had the time and budget to talk to their users. “I pulled out that Steve Krug quote that says talking to one user is better than talking to none.”

There are numerous ways to get feedback on what you’re creating and building, she insists. For example, early in the PIF fellowship they needed feedback on a paper prototype for a new government service they were creating. They happened to be stationed right across the street from George Washington University in Washington, D.C., so they figured out what times the students changed classes and parked themselves outside of Starbucks, where they’d bought $5 gift cards, to do some “rapid paper prototyping.” They took the feedback, made changes, and came back for another round of feedback on the next version of the prototype.

“The likelihood of people using the service between round one and round two went up 77 percent,” she says. “Your research doesn’t have to be in a sterile lab behind a one way mirror. You can just go out and ask people.”

What works for government can work for enterprise

In her Nov. 2 panel at the Lean Startup Week, Kara will bring together a reunion of people who are coming together for the first time since the Obama administration ended to talk about their triumphs and failures. She describes her fellow panelists, Mariana Martin, Tiffani Ashley Bell, Vivian Graubard, and Eduardo Ortiz, as having achieved the seemingly impossible through passion, human centered design, and “Lean, scrappy methodologies.” They’ll speak to lessons “that you can immediately apply to your organization, whether you’re a team of one or one in a company of thousands.”

She thinks that if the private sector hears stories of people who, against a lot of odds, succeeded at their goals, “they’ll be inspired to go back to where they come from—whether it’s self-employed, at a company, at a non-profit—and say, ‘If they can do it, I can do it.’”

To learn more about how what the private sector can learn from Lean government agencies, join us at Lean Startup Week October 30th – November 5th in San Francisco. Kara DeFrias will be joined by a panelists of Lean government experts to discuss lessons learned and never before heard stories from the trenches. Register before midnight PT October 15 to save 10 percent with our Fall Sale.

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