13 key ways for federal agencies to innovate

By Henry Feinstein | December 18, 2019

Following last week’s post on significant barriers to innovation in the federal government, we offer strategies to advance innovative ideas, so they lead to powerful results.

The following strategies come from resourceful federal employees and teams with experience in advancing innovation:

  1. Define the problem – Focus on the needs of the customer or user. Too often, teams seek to create solutions to a problem only to learn it is a symptom of a larger underlying issue.
  2. Accept the possibility of failure – Some projects and ideas will fail, but the lessons learned from taking early calculated risks can help agencies correct course early to improve the innovation.
  3. Seek executive sponsorship – Getting buy-in from leadership provides a leg up at every stage of the innovation process.
  4. Envision the finish line before starting – Create clarity on what success looks like and how it will be achieved. This will enable you to communicate and measure progress more effectively.
  5. Establish dedicated funding – Predetermined funding provides the incentive for future implementation teams to take on a new project.
  6. Create a sustainability plan – The skills needed to design and test an innovation often differ from those needed to put the innovation to use. Because the funding model for implementation can vary as well, agencies need to plan for how they will maintain the innovation into the future, considering the right team and funding models at each new stage. 
  7. Manage stakeholders – Find ways to create a sense of ownership among all individuals connected to the project, especially those people who could derail your work.
  8. Create metrics – To broaden the scale of the innovation, both success and failure must be quantifiable and team members must be held accountable, receiving recognition or constructive feedback for their contributions.
  9. Accept competing ideas – Just as there are competing projects and ideas in the private marketplace, federal employees also benefit from testing competing approaches to innovation.
  10. Develop simple prototypes to test solutions – For a more powerful presentation when soliciting feedback and building buy-in for new concepts, offer tangible proof of concept—even if it’s a small mock-up or a skeleton website—instead of having theoretical discussions. Multiple iterations will keep stakeholders engaged and ensure people still support the final product.
  11. Market your impact – Build internal and external consensus around an innovation’s value by demonstrating how the new or improved approach, product or service improves outcomes for users. Do not focus on the tool or program itself but, rather, on how it benefits users.
  12. Embed “doers” across the organization– Placing people with the appropriate skills, knowledge and experience in positions that enable them to try new approaches, helps drive change, particularly if expanding the innovation triggers resistance. Well-placed employees can help bring other individuals along and improve the chances of lasting success.
  13. Use existing internal processes – Identify how you can make innovation a priority, such as including it in the agency’s strategic plan, budget requests to Congress or other critical management documents.

Now we want to hear from you. What other strategies deserve to be on the list?


Henry Feinstein