An employee innovation contest brought leaders in Defense Logistics Agency Information Operations the expected array of creative ideas for improving their services, but they also learned how their employees think and what they value.
A contest that features crowdsourcing, workforce voting, a judging panel along the lines of television’s “Shark Tank” and pilot projects isn’t typical for a government organization. But that’s exactly why DLA Information Operations used that approach for its first Innovation Contest in March.
“We knew that engaging our workforce and tapping into their collective genius was the key to making innovation work for our organization,” said Kitty Eisler, leader of the DLA Information Operations Innovation Team. “So we simply asked folks for their ideas, designed a way to make it easy and fun and, most importantly, gave them permission and incentive to think out of the box.”
The contest started when DLA opened an online portal where employees could submit ideas. DLA Chief Information Officer Kathy Cutler established “hunting grounds,” areas she views as ripe for improvement, with goals focusing on each one: Improve End-User Experience, Improve Connectivity/Reduce Latency, Mobile Platform Applications, and Quick Development/Deployment.
“I wanted employees to focus on areas that would have a near-term positive impact for our customers,” Cutler said.
It was clear early in the two-week submission period that the workforce was very interested in contributing innovative ideas. In total, employees submitted 93 ideas covering all four hunting grounds.
That strong engagement continued through the voting period, when employees could choose the top three ideas they thought would have the greatest impact. Employees cast more than 1,000 votes, a number that demonstrated the power of directly involving the workforce, said Craig Gravitz, the partnerships and contracts lead for the Innovation Team.
"The most exciting outcome of the challenge was workforce engagement,” Gravitz said. “The number of idea submitters and voters showed that our organization is full of people who want to contribute to our mission beyond their everyday jobs.”
In addition, many of the ideas were about increased collaboration, he noted. “People are proud of DLA Information Operations and want to work together to further improve things."
Adam Price, the inventor of the contest, noticed the same thing as he evaluated every idea and communicated with each submitter. Most ideas focused on improving ways for employees to communicate and collaborate to make the organization better.
“That was the ‘a-ha’ moment,” Price said. “When we finished going through all the ideas, we saw that people really want a way to communicate with each other, help each other, and learn from each other. We got great ideas, but we also learned a lot about what was really important to our workforce and what was going to make our organization a more effective and innovative place to work.”
Being part of meaningful change was a motivating factor for many employees who submitted ideas. Tim Braxton is an information technology specialist on the four-person team whose idea won the second-most votes. He said DLA Information Operations already promotes teamwork and listens to employee concerns, so innovation can come from any level in the organization.
“The answer to the question never asked is always, ‘No,’” Braxton said. “If we want to improve our organization, we must use our voices. Our leadership definitely supports open channels for process improvement.”
Communication and collaboration became a theme during the submission and vetting process as well. As the Innovation Team noticed similar ideas coming in, its members encouraged the submitters to form teams to strengthen their idea and move it along in the process. That’s how Braxton’s team was formed, along with several others, and the process of working together on an idea was rewarding, said Gordon Parker, one of his team members.
“The team effort has been amazing,” Parker said. “I’ve been amazed by the productivity and willingness of the team to work together to achieve a centralized goal in the development of our idea.”
During voting, DLA Information Operations employees chose the top three ideas they believed would have the greatest impact on the organization. Those ideas, along with several others, were chosen by senior leaders to move on to face an in-person judging panel of DLA senior executives.
The panel consisted of Cutler, Eisler, and Deputy Chief Information Officer Robert Foster. Idea submitters had 10 minutes to present their idea, how it would be implemented, resources needed, and potential roadblocks.
“We told them to get creative, and they did,” Foster said. “We had traditional presentations, but we also had live demonstrations and videos with music. The idea submitters really went the extra mile.”
Several teams presented their ideas to the panel at the same time and, in the spirit of the contest, used that opportunity to collaborate even further, Foster said.
“It was really fantastic. In the middle of these presentations, right on the spot, people were forming their own teams, across ideas, offering to help each other,” he said.
Cutler said she and the other leaders were impressed enough by the presentations to allow all nine ideas to move forward to research and development.
“We saw some great thinking that really showcased the creativity and knowledge of our employees,” Cutler said. “We’re going to engage people to help us completely revamp our collaboration, communication and knowledge management systems as a result of what we learned from this contest, and that will generate more great ideas.”
The nine pilot projects that came out of the contest are very different, so the first stages of implementation are also different. (See sidebar.) The submitter or team of submitters will lead each idea, with the help of executive mentorship.
“We want employees at all levels of the organization to participate, so we insist on mentorship to take some of the ‘fear factor’ away, and to make sure folks get the resources they need to succeed and a safe place to fall if their idea just doesn’t pan out,” Cutler said.
Accepting and embracing failure as an opportunity for growth is a key tenet of the entire innovation effort in DLA Information Operations, Eisler said, but one thing is not acceptable:
“We can’t use the status quo to combat these new ideas,” she said. “In a government organization, employees are taught to follow certain rules, which have a useful and sometimes vital purpose. But this contest was designed to let employees think outside the box and imagine solutions without constraints.
“It’s important to give people permission to come up with big ideas and from there to figure out how to work those ideas into our system — as opposed to avoiding those ideas because of the system,” Eisler continued. She noted some ideas may be stockpiled for later use or modified so they can be put in place.
DLA Information Operations senior leadership is staying involved during the pilot process, providing resources and sponsorship and keeping submitters accountable by requiring regular updates.
“Innovation is a priority for this organization, and we’re all committed to keeping ourselves relevant and ready as new technology advances,” Cutler said. “While it’s only one aspect of our innovation efforts, this idea contest proves our employees are enthusiastic about innovation and have the skills necessary to keep us ahead of the cutting edge of technology.”
The goal is to have all the pilot projects implemented within six months. The Innovation Team plans to host another contest, and the team members are excited to see the results, Eisler said.
“We learned that if you give people an invitation and a voice, they will show you how unbelievably smart they are and how determined they are to work together and create change,” she said.