Making It Stick: Applying HHS IDEA Lab Principles for Lasting Change
Like others who have participated in HHS IDEA Lab programs like the HHS Ignite Accelerator, I felt refreshed and inspired after learning the entrepreneurial, lean startup based concepts that are taught to teams. I practiced them regularly during my time in Ignite, but after the program ended, I felt the natural tendency to revert to the status quo back at my office. And I really didn't want to let that happen. So, I didn't.
To give a bit of context, I have been working as a software development project manager at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) for seven years. In 2013, I had the good fortune of being part of a project team that was selected for the Ignite Accelerator. Our project involved prototyping and then building an online repository for biomedically-relevant, 3D-printable files, called the NIH 3D Print Exchange. My responsibilities included fulfilling many of the project management duties for the team, but given the short timeline and the freedom to experiment within the Ignite framework, I was able to work in a less formal way than I normally had for my previous projects.
At some point early on in the Ignite program, I had a revelation. I think it had something to do with realizing that I was doing something for years that could be done differently (and done better). Or maybe it was that the methods being taught were becoming commonplace in the business world, and I learned that it was possible to adopt and apply similar ways of working within a government setting. Whatever it was, I decided to completely change how I go about my day-to-day work. And since 2013, I've diligently been trying to bring these changes into my organization. My primary motivation was that my old way of working was simply less effective than what I was doing within Ignite - and it was something that I never wanted to go back to.
Ignite's "lean" approach may seem intuitive, but it was very different than the way I had been trained and even had become certified to work as a Project Management Professional. In the past, I would often painstakingly conduct upfront planning, formally gather requirements, and rigidly set schedules and budgets before starting a project that might last many months or even span years. I would follow standard processes and document everything meticulously. Yet, months into the projects, I would find that I had eschewed my plan, that my requirements had changed, and that I wasn't meeting the original schedule and budget milestones. I often felt discouraged, and assumed I needed more training and practice. So I focused on trying to do the same things, but better.
My experience in Ignite made me realize that I had been working to refine what was, at least for me, the wrong approach. The formal processes simply didn't fit with me or my organization, and I have come to accept that both I and my projects are better off if I adopt a new way of thinking and working.
So I shifted my focus to Ignite-based principles, and especially on spending time early on in projects doing the following:
- developing clear problem statements and value propositions for stakeholders
- creating, testing, and refining hypotheses continually
- building prototypes or minimum viable products, using design thinking and related techniques, with the goal of getting the most critical components of the system "right"
All of this this led me to have more regular and meaningful communication with prospective users of the systems my teams were creating, to regularly solicit feedback from stakeholders on prototypes, and to reduce project risk by developing software in more bite-sized chunks rather than trying to build the entire system at once.
Around the same time as my Ignite project, I also came across a movement called agile software development that was gaining traction among professional software development groups, and that was related to lean startup. (Those practicing this methodology even have a manifesto!) Everything in my professional life started to converge, and my eyes were opened to what was, to me, a much more practical and effective way to do my job.
Looking back, I can say that these principles not only feel right, but they actually work! The NIH 3D Print Exchange project was developed more quickly and became more successful than any other project I've worked on. (In fact, it won numerous awards, was covered in dozens of media outlets, and even resulted in an invitation to an event at the White House to showcase our work!) Over the past few years, I have coordinated other development teams that have created other products using these Ignite-inspired approaches, and each has unequivocally displayed enhanced outcomes.
Based on this success within Ignite, I lobbied for broader adoption of these approaches across my 40-person office at the NIH, which has led to group training sessions, adoption of tools and techniques to support our new way of working, and the certification of multiple employees in the various roles associated with agile software development. I'm extremely optimistic about what our organization can achieve as we establish better ways of working by understanding our users and by applying agile, startup-based methods to our work.
I certainly cannot take full credit for this transformation, and I readily admit that I am very fortunate to work in an open, risk-tolerant work environment, with colleagues and managers who were receptive to, and who have become champions of, these new ways of working.
I urge those of you who have participated in Ignite - and even those who haven't - to consider questioning the status quo and being open to these refreshing ways of working. While adopting lean/agile and design-thinking-based approaches may be uncomfortable at first, you just might find that something "clicks" for you as it did for me. If it does, I encourage you take the initiative to find ways to make these changes stick in your organization. While they won't come overnight, I think you'll learn a lot and ultimately find great benefits in making a similar transformation in your work!
If you want to explore this further, including additional strategies and examples of other transformations toward more lean and agile ways of working, both inside and outside the federal government, please sign up for the HackRedTape email list. Also, don't forget to learn more and consider applying to the Spring 2017 round of the HHS Ignite Accelerator! (Applications are due November 14th!)