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Innovation: Is there a recipe?

by on December 20, 2013

In a recent post on the National Archives’ Internal Collaboration Network, Dannielle Blumenthal, Digital Engagement Director, recently asked the question: “What is the “most important advice for an innovator at NARA?”   She wondered whether “outside” advice would be applicable, and was especially interested in hearing specific examples in the agency where innovation attempts have worked or failed, and the reasons why.  Several staff members shared their insights and advice, based on their experiences both within NARA and outside.


We’re forging new ground at the National Archives (National Archives Identifier 558303)

In terms of specific advice on how to innovate at NARA, several themes emerged.  The conversation flowed around the following ideas:

Challenge rationalizations

  • Christopher Canarina:  “Most of the time real innovation comes from the “new guy” because that person hasn’t set their routines in stone and can often see the flaw in a process everyone else is following without question.”
  •  Shelby Derieux:  “Things that made perfect sense 25 years ago, with changes in technology, are now horribly obsolete.  NARA’s segregated structure (individual cost centers) lent itself to a wild west mentality where everyone ‘did their own thing’.  That’s why we have so many different IT systems at NARA! ”
  •  Atiq Warraich:  “Think as a customer/user and how would you like to be served or what process you would like to have improved or done differently”

Be willing to say “yes”

  •  Steven Flowers:   “I do think challenging rationalizations, being willing to say “Yes, and” and playing the long game are critical to moving the needle.”

Bring together influence, motivation, and resources

Steven Flowers shared a model of change reactions, and stated that you need the following three things in order to execute change.

  1. Influence:  The change has support or control by people who can make it happen.
  2. Commitment and buy-in:  Folks at all levels have an incentive to see it through.
  3. Capacity:  There are enough resources (tools, time, money, skills) to carry it out.

He noted, “I posit that where these three characteristics overlap, sustainable change is possible.”

Others also noted the need for motivation and buy-in:

  • Christopher Canarina:  “I think the best change comes from the bottom up instead of the top down.”
  • Paul Wester:  “Ensure that collaboration, participation, respect, and sharing are built into how innovation happens.”

The thought that we should focus more on idea execution and spend less time on idea generation resonated with many staff. To accomplish this, it is important to make incremental changes:

  • Steven Haversack:  “From my experience at the Archives you’re more likely to get support for incremental changes that may blossom into bigger changes.”
  • Paul Wester:  “Start small and build incrementally”, “but also have some urgency in accomplishing things.”
  • Steven Flowers:  “A series of small measured changes to an entire system.  This seems to be the most sustainable way to approach larger (or possibly wicked) problems.”

Keep a positive attitude and persevere – be persistent – keep a long-term perspective

  • Allison Olson:  “One thing I have seen at NARA is a positive change is talked about, but doesn’t really take off at first.  Then two years later, the change occurs almost natural as the people who are directly affected see that it will benefit them to make the change”
  • Christopher Magee:  “I think getting innovations into NARA practice (and the government workforce in general), the greatest assets are perseverance and positivism. In conversations, focus on what can be done constructively (maybe next week, the month after, and over..and over…and over again), eventually a person can get enough kinetic energy to get new practices in place.  The reality is bureaucracies can move slowly. By remaining positive, it can help deal with processes that aren’t moving at the speed at which you’d like.”
  • Paul Wester:  “Be persistent” and “Create a positive outlook and an upbeat environment, as assumptions and other things are questioned.”
  • Atiq Warraich:  “Never let people drag your ideas/thought down or discourage you,” and “Put some time aside for “Innovation” thinking about how can I do my job better.”

Celebrate successes

  • Paul Wester: “Celebrate successes (especially the small ones) when they occur,” and “accumulate and appreciate successes and consolidate gains.”

Steven Flowers illustrated the fact that change is not easy or comfortable with a pithy quote from Machiavelli’s The Prince.

“There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things. For the reformer has enemies in all those who profit by the old order, and only lukewarm defenders in all those who would profit by the new order, this lukewarmness arising partly from fear of their adversaries … and partly from the incredulity of mankind, who do not truly believe in anything new until they have had actual experience of it.”

Final comments by Shelby Derieux go to both the difficulties in making change, but also the positive outcomes that are already underway at NARA.

  • “The Transformations goal of One NARA is slowly taking hold and we are questioning some of the old habits, that at one time ‘worked’.… The people that work here are fantastic, and I have no doubt that the winds of change will start to feel more natural as we start poking the holes.  Hurts at first.”

One thing is clear: in order to achieve innovation, we need strong leadership and the confidence to succeed.  The thoughtful conversation generated by this discussion proved that National Archives’ staff have the ideas, the vision, and the energy to move us forward.


Note: This post was slightly edited January 6, 2014.

We are citizens constantly on the move.  As so much of our communication and information needs increasingly turn mobile, we at the National Archives recognize our role in providing information while engaging citizens and staff in this growing mobile space.

Atiq Warraich, NARA’s new Web and Social Media Director, spoke at the AFCEA (Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association) conference yesterday on Standards-Driven Application Development for Workforce Mobility.  In this panel discussion, Atiq stressed the importance of finding ways to give users the information they need, anytime, anywhere, using any device quickly and efficiently.

Panel discussion with Atiq Warraich
Panel (in the photo, from left to right): Keith Trippie, DHS; Frank Chad Hoeppel, USDA; Jacob Parcell, GSA; Mike Pulsifer, Department of Labor; and Atiq Warraich, NARA.

As government agencies increasingly work together to meet the information needs of citizens, a standard approach toward building mobile apps and engaging in responsive web design is essential. This is where the idea of the “carwash”  methodology will drive us forward, encouraging different agencies to use and share the same framework for mobile app development, and then customize apps to suit their individual needs. This allows multiple apps to be built for lower cost.

In the Office in Innovation, we are always looking at creative ways to serve our customers and increase access to and delivery of records through all forms of media.  One of these initiatives looks toward citizen engagement; harnessing the mobile citizen workforce with initiatives like the Citizen Archivist Dashboard, where we look to knowledgeable users to help us tag records and images in our holdings, transcribe documents for greater accessibility, and contribute to articles.

Additionally, Atiq weighed in on the continuing debate over the benefits of developing native mobile apps versus mobile-optimized websites. While we need to look at the needs of our users and goals of the app on an individual basis, he sees the trend moving more towards mobile web/responsive web design because it is easier, faster, and standardized.  Our focus should be less on the device being used, and more on the content and the best way to share that content with users.

Another focus is on the importance of building API’s. Through API’s, we unleash our data to the public, enabling greater access and more freedom to build apps and reuse our data in new and creative ways.

We look forward to seeing what we can build together!


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