The world is changing rapidly, and countless powerful new tools and capabilities are hurtling into view all around us. Yesterday, it was the internet, the cloud, and smartphones. Today, it’s artificial intelligence, automation, genomic editing, everything-as-a-service, and adaptable architectures. Tomorrow, it will be 3D printing, blockchain, and quantum computing.

With unprecedented opportunities coming from emerging and maturing technologies, innovation is more critical than ever for achieving its potential. Leading organizations, regardless of their mission or business focus, are proactively exploring these new tools and capabilities with fresh thinking and leveraging them to devise new, better approaches to the challenges they confront.

For commercial companies, the drive to innovate is about unlocking new revenue streams, achieving greater efficiencies, and re-imagining existing business models. For federal organizations, however, innovation is key to taking on some of our nation’s biggest challenges:


  • The Defense Department and Intelligence Community view it as a critical strategic pillar in their efforts to maintain a clear strategic edge.
  • Federal healthcare agencies’ efforts to achieve better healthcare outcomes and more efficient payment models.
  • The EPA’s desire to transform sustainability and environmental protection.
  • The U.S. Agency for International Development’s search for new solutions to global development challenges.
  • FEMA’s mission of building greater preparedness and resiliency across the country for when disasters strike.
  • And the Agriculture Department’s goal of increasing food production and last mile delivery to meet U.S. and global needs while reducing agriculture’s environmental footprint.

Get disruptive with your DNA

In these examples, an agency’s innovation DNA identifies where it has an imperative to pursue new, more disruptive approaches as well as unique strengths to leverage. This becomes their north star guiding innovation. Having this focus and deliberate approach is critical given the challenges that organizations face in harnessing innovation, which include today’s accelerating pace of change, uncertain planning horizons, and increasing organizational complexity.

What has the potential to accelerate or amplify this process is the convergence of three underlying trends: digital technologies that enable more fluid and adaptive operations; scientific advancements that are blurring traditional boundaries to create new fields of study; and emerging DARQ (Distributed ledgers, Artificial intelligence, extended Reality and Quantum computing) technologies that can be a force multiplier by enabling new approaches to problem solving.

Forty-six percent of federal executives believe that these scientific and technology advances are poised to disrupt government. By embedding this DNA into their organizational fabric, agencies can harness these disruptions to advance their mission.

Shubber Ali

Managing Director – Strategy & Consulting, Innovation & Accenture Startup Corps Global Lead


Christina Bone

Senior Manager – Accenture Federal Services, Growth & Strategy


Tim Irvine

Managing Director, Lead – Accenture Federal Digital Studio


Kyle Michl

Chief Innovation Officer – Accenture Federal Services

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The government’s innovation track record

Every presidential management agenda in recent years has emphasized the need for more innovation in government. And it is hard to find an agency that has not stood up an innovation office or launched an innovation initiative of some kind. But how much progress—and success—are agencies having as they try to incorporate innovation into their day-to-day activities so they can more effectively address today’s complex challenges? What we see today are pockets of innovation across government, but with few organizations achieving widespread success at adapting and scaling innovation across their enterprise.

On the surface, this track record may seem at odds with the government’s rich history as perhaps the biggest innovation engine in the world. After all, nuclear energy, the moon landing, the internet, supercomputers, stealth technologies, smartphone technologies, and untold numbers of medical breakthroughs and cures, among other innovations, can all be traced to federal research and programs. In fact, a quarter of the 270 Americans that received the Nobel Prize for innovation and ingenuity in the last century were federal employees.

The problem, as some government innovation experts have noted, is not that federal agencies lack the ability to come up with innovative ideas and approaches. Rather, legacy operating models make it difficult to grow and sustain this innovation. As Steven Walker, the former director of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, explained it, the hard part for agencies, is “organizing, training, equipping—taking that new technology, that new innovation, and making it operational. That’s the hard part. That’s where we’re struggling.”


The problem is not that federal agencies lack the ability to come up with innovative ideas and approaches. Rather, legacy operating models make it difficult to grow and sustain this innovation.

Improvise, adapt, overcome

The Defense Department’s National Defense Strategy acknowledges this shortfall. “Success no longer goes to the country that develops a new technology first, but rather to the one that better integrates it and adapts its way of fighting,” the strategy says. “Our response will be to prioritize speed of delivery, continuous adaptation, and frequent modular upgrades. We must not accept cumbersome approval chains, wasteful applications of resources in uncompetitive space, or overly risk-averse thinking that impedes change. Delivering performance means we will shed outdated management practices and structures while integrating insights from business innovation.”

Across government, agencies have often found their efforts to adopt new approaches and technologies stymied by various constraints and challenges, including outdated policies and regulations, inflexible procurement processes, unsupportive leadership, a risk-averse culture, skills gaps, and more.

It is increasingly important that government agencies overcome these challenges because citizens and federal executives alike see just how critical modern technologies are in our lives—and the important role that innovation plays in tapping into those technologies.

Tips for developing an innovation DNA

So how can federal agencies do better at developing a culture and metabolism for innovation that enables them to continuously evolve and thrive in our increasingly complex, digital world and effectively take on the big challenges of today and tomorrow?

There are six foundational ingredients needed to build a successful innovation-oriented enterprise: Vision, Community, Governance, Tools, Skills, and Network. Here are some suggested steps that can help federal agencies with each:

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74 percent of federal executives surveyed believe that the stakes for innovation have never been higher — and that getting it ‘right’ will require new ways of innovating with ecosystem partners and third-party organizations.


01 Vision

Establish a vision to prepare for, measure against, and inspire with.
Goals give organizations a shared objective to align around. Agencies can use their vision to define their innovation goals and set corresponding investment priorities. There should be a strong emphasis on measuring innovation success and value realization, with a particular focus on evaluating short- and long-term milestones for transitioning or scaling initiatives.

A good place to start would be to define and demystify the word innovation itself. Definitions vary widely across government, so aligning around a common definition is foundational to building agency processes and culture around innovation. Innovation is not technology adoption or even digital transformation (although digital transformation is often necessary to unlock and scale innovation). At its core, innovation simply means coming up with a new way of doing something that solves a problem or adds or unlocks value.

Foster a culture of innovation through continuous engagement with all stakeholders.
Agency employees and stakeholders need to play active roles in thinking creatively about how the agency could improve and solve problems. Employees can be an especially rich vein of innovation because of their front-line insights and experience of meeting mission and business needs, often in the face of budget or other constraints. Agencies will need processes in place that encourage, incentivize, capture, cultivate, develop, and reward those ideas so they keep coming.

Organizations must focus on building their innovation communities through a constant process of identifying, mapping, and connecting key players in the community and be mindful throughout that the most effective innovation cultures champion diversity, inclusivity, and multidisciplinary team environments. Once those communities are established, agencies must also prioritize engagement, motivation, and communication.

Teams should be encouraged to learn fast through experimentation and responsible risk-taking as they continuously ask and answer the question, “What if?” Agencies should be prepared for periodic failures and regard those failures as valuable investments in learning and progress.

Scaled innovation requires a defined management process.
From collecting ideas and managing the pipeline to maintaining milestones for key decisions in the process, an organization’s governance model ensures that ideas come to fruition in an effective and secure way. Organizations must also understand and manage funding from innovative idea to scaled deployment. Lastly, establishing executive-level support is crucial for a successful innovation engine.

Invest in new skills to deliver the innovations that are right for your organization.
The integration of science and technology is creating a number of new interdisciplinary fields, such as the use of brainwaves to interface with computers. This means agencies should reexamine the skill sets within their workforce and consider adding emerging disciplines that can serve as a catalyst for innovation. For example, the Department of Veterans Affairs recently launched the National Artificial Intelligence Institute (NAII) under the leadership of Dr. Gil Alterovitz, an expert in biomedical engineering, to explore how AI can be used to address veterans’ issues.

In terms of how agencies innovate, design thinking techniques can be powerful tools for viewing old problems from a new perspective. Developing these skills offers teams a shared methodology for pursuing innovation. Agencies should adopt a mindset of continuous learning that occurs both formally and informally. The rate of technology change and the demands on governments are increasing—the workforce must be agile and nimble to maintain the skills to be innovative.

At the same time, the federal government should shift some of its focus from project management to product management. Instead of developing skills solely for on-time, on-budget delivery, consider developing disciplines around building solutions that uniquely address a Big Hairy Audacious Goal like sending an astronaut to the moon and back safely.

Leverage the right tools to incubate, assess, and scale innovation.
Purpose-built tools can help agencies manage and track ideas, facilitate collaboration, prototype solutions, and scale programs. A growing number of on-demand platforms make these tools accessible and affordable for even early stage ventures.

A large federal agency worked with Accenture to create an Innovation Hub, a dedicated space at the Accenture Federal Digital Studio optimized to foster innovation and continually bring emerging capabilities forward. The first of its kind in the federal marketplace, this Innovation Hub enables the agency to ideate, design, and test disruptive, boundary-pushing ideas—including artificial intelligence (AI), optical character recognition (OCR) and next generation UI/UX. Using a rapid prototyping model, the agency can quickly prove the desirability, feasibility, and viability of cutting-edge solutions for real customer needs.

The world is awash in data and federal agencies are no exception: over 59 zettabytes (ZB) of data (IDC) will be created globally in 2020 with the next three years seeing more data generated than the previous 30. Investing in tools to mine that data for insight can lead to innovation, such as curing disease or identifying new energy sources, and should become a core competency for federal agencies. For example, the U.S. Postal Service is investing in AI at the edge in an effort to process packages 10 times faster with higher accuracy.

Innovation cannot happen in a vacuum—it requires strong relationships and an understanding of the broader ecosystem.
Organizations need to establish how they will identify trends and use them to inform overarching priorities. Establishing a process for evaluating and building relationships with ecosystem partners is key. When it comes to growing knowledge, organizations should look outside their typical peer set in building out their innovation network. Seek out and learn from leading organizations that are solving similar problems and emulate their best practices.

Create effective partnerships and tap into broad ecosystems that will help you better understand how new technologies and approaches can enhance your missions. Your agency’s ability to innovate around multiple innovation frontiers will depend on looking outward and understanding advances that are happening. A strong set of partners is necessary for this to succeed. This may also require new business models and performance-based contracting that incentivize risk-taking and allow partners to capture realized benefits.

A recent example of this is NASA’s partnership with Virgin Galactic to explore more economically and environmentally viable approaches to high-speed technologies and applications. The work aims to advance today’s capabilities of producing ultrafast, next-generation flight vehicles capable of point-to-point air travel across the planet.

The always on innovation engine

Ultimately, innovation must be championed at the top if it is to become a priority. Leaders need to set clear objectives, assign responsibilities and accountability, and get buy-in from key internal and external stakeholders. Agencies can do this by emphasizing the importance of fostering innovation as they promote, hire, and develop their leaders.

The impact of COVID-19

One consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic is forcing organization to more carefully consider what they previously thought of as unimaginable. Going forward, business continuity will require a greater emphasis on resiliency, agility, and the ability to quickly reinvent oneself.

In the short term

Agencies should consider viewing the pandemic as a stress test for their ability to innovate. Nearly every federal agency has needed to rethink or reimagine a core business process in response to the pandemic while shifting to a new virtual operating model. Agencies should take stock of what has worked and what hasn’t and adjust accordingly.

In the long term

Agencies must embrace more agile and intelligent operations to thrive in a more dynamic world. Governments have long faced asymmetrical threats, but what is changing is the speed at which those threats and changes can propagate. Having a strong innovation DNA will be fundamental to surviving in this new world.

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