Disruption and its Discontents re:Government

Derek Khanna explained the “Innovator’s Dilemma” in his article covering the clash between tech startup, Outbox, and the US Postal Service. In it Khanna added to Harvard Professor, Clay Christensen’s theory of “disruptive innovation” by clarifying why government agencies in particular struggle to benefit from the private sector model:

“Christensen’s findings were that if a large successful company refuses to innovate and is satisfied with its steady return, it will often be displaced by these underdogs, and therefore the mantra for a dynamic market must be “innovate or die.” Entrepreneurs across the country know how important ‘disruption’ is to offering consumers innovative and useful products and services…. [however],the market forces that lead to innovation and growth in the free market are completely missing in DC bureaucracy.”

So this begs the question, if market forces alone will not make government bureaucracy innovative, is it still possible to recruit and retain leaders in government (and around government) who embrace private sector innovation as a necessary tool for the public sector mission? Are the right kinds of innovation too disruptive to be welcome?

In the US Intelligence Community there have been countless initiatives to embrace innovation especially following the 911 Commission Report, as with the appointment of LTG Mike Flynn to the position of DIA Director. LTG Flynn had placed his career on the line when he penned his CNAS report, Fixing Intel: A Blueprint for Making Intelligence Relevant in Afghanistan. But instead of ruining his career, it branded him as a disruptive leader. Many of the ideas articulated in that report did in fact lead to system wide reform and garnered Flynn popularity as the kind of leader that could propel DIA towards a new vision. From 2012 to 2014 he implemented a number of changes that would, in his words, “flip the organization on its head” and ultimately lead to his early retirement. He retires on August 7th.

For my part I have seen many leaders in and around government attempt to embrace innovation via public-private partnerships. ISC and FINND are just two great examples. Lately, any government or military trade-show seems to have the word “innovation” plastered on every booth. However, the word “disruptive” is still a lot less common inside the beltway with mil-gov types. It carries with it a connotation of upsetting the apple cart, as perhaps it should. Disruption is embraced in tech and entrepreneurship, so we should anticipate a trend towards using the term around here just about the time it goes out of vogue in Silicon Valley.

The government chases innovation, which in turn chases disruption, which in turn nips at the heels of the government. It is a bit of a vicious cycle. When leaders encourage the cycle either by welcoming disruptive thinkers into the government decision making process or by opening various innovation gateways, a lot of good things can happen, but nothing comes easily.


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