Fort Belvoir, Virginia –
When most people think of boot camp, they think of military trainees going through grueling physical exercises while instructors bark at them. Defense Logistics Agency Information Operations recently put a new spin on boot camp; instead of physical exercise, senior leaders went through three days of mental exercises to stretch their minds and challenge the way they solve problems.
The Senior Leader Innovation Boot Camp was the latest effort by DLA Information Operations to establish a culture of experimentation and innovation. The organization needs to stay ahead of emerging technologies and ensure the agency is ready to fulfill its mission of supporting warfighters, said Robert Foster, deputy chief information officer.
“We are facing an innovation — almost a tsunami — it’s coming so fast,” Foster said.
Although Information Operations deals with technological change every day, its customers don’t, he explained.
“So how do we deal with leading them into the technology change as it comes down, helping them understand why it’s important and why change is needed, and making the right choices with technology?” Foster asked.
DLA Information Operations held the event last fall in partnership with MD5, a Defense Department collaboration with research universities to promote innovation in the government. Experts from the University of California at Berkeley led the participants through sessions covering innovation psychology, technology literacy, iterative problem-solving, lean methodology and prototyping, among other topics. It included lectures, discussions and group activities related to real-world problems and situations, with techniques that forced the group to think creatively about solutions.
“What we’re doing is we’re taking the group through a series of innovation processes, so they get a better feel for what innovation is,” said David Charron, a lecturer from the University of California at Berkeley Haas School of Business, who led the second day of the boot camp. “Part of that is the ability to take time and to address ideas in a creative, problem-solving manner.”
Charron challenged the leaders to think of “how might we” statements to think of solutions to problems DLA faces. He then guided them through an exercise to better understand customers’ needs by looking at the use, usability and meaning of potential solutions.
This exercise forced participants to look beyond the usual solution set and think about multiple outcomes and potential impacts to customers, he said.
Once ideas are proposed, “you turn around and say, ‘Well, we can’t take them all forward. How do we figure out which one we’re going to go forward with?’” Charron said.
The participants had to quickly write down ideas, develop them and share them with partners. By the end of the three days, they were even pitching ideas to the group using a technique they learned the day before.
Taking these leaders out of their routines to look at problems a different way was a key aspect of the boot camp, Foster said.
“Our distinguished lecturers have walked us through a process that … drives us to look at more types of ideas, because we in [DLA Information Operations] are so focused on solving the problem and solving it quick,” he said.
“But the quick solution isn’t always the best solution. So what we learn in here is, take the time you need to look at different types of solutions, and maybe that will allow us to come up with a better solution.”
These innovation events started in 2016 with the formation of a team that held an innovation idea contest last March. It yielded 91 ideas from the DLA workforce.
Senior leaders chose to move forward with nine of those ideas; six ideas are still in development or implementation. DLA deployed one idea that modified the Enterprise Dashboard and lets DLA users easily see the availability of software programs they use.
In November, the team launched another contest soliciting ideas for intelligent automation. Employees submitted 44 ideas for how the organization could use automation software to increase efficiency and streamline processes. These include automating system administration tasks, creating a workflow process for requirements fulfillment, establishing an automated chatbot for employee access to current Information Operations processes and automating common Enterprise Helpdesk troubleshooting tasks.
“So far, we’ve learned a lot from the contest,” said Adam Price, the innovation team member who designed the idea contests. “In some cases, ideas from the contest led to the discovery of ongoing efforts in [the Department of Defense] that we can leverage.
“In other cases, the progress made to implement an idea gave us a jump-start on other emerging requirements, like a proposed guest wireless network that will vastly improve the agency’s mobile capabilities.
“We’ve also learned that many of our internal processes, while sometimes necessary … are not always conducive to rapid testing and evaluation of experimental pilot projects. We’re looking at streamlining some of these processes, which will improve ‘time to implement’ for new capabilities and technologies across the agency,” Price added.
DLA Information Operations plans to hold regular crowdsourcing challenges to encourage employees to think creatively and participate in innovation, Price said. The team established a virtual development lab that will allow employees to collaborate on projects in a test environment with the support of co-workers and technical experts.
Foster said the innovation team is planning additional workshops and events this year, because establishing a culture of innovation means all employees need to be ready to adapt.
“Certainly, the goal is to get this type of training to the entire workforce,” he said. “Those are the folks that actually work with our customers, and they make these solutions become reality. We would like to spread this training down to the lowest level throughout the [DLA Information Operations] workforce.”
The organization also plans to host “development sprints,” a technique used by companies in the private sector, said Craig Gravitz, who arranged the first boot camp.
“The objective of the sprints is to flesh out some of the more complex ideas from the original boot camp and contests, and implement rapid solutions we can test and learn from,” Gravitz said. “Our aim is to continuously build on our progress.”
The innovation team partners with many organizations from DoD and the private sector.
“These partnerships are crucial because they allow us to keep pace with where the world of technology is going, and to keep it relevant to the warfighter mission,” Gravitz said.