Five Pieces of a Five-Thousand Piece Puzzle

World Puzzle Colors

It is unavoidable in the United States today to not see the severe divide growing between and among our people. With change always comes friction but the challenge today is that the ability to determine what is real, what is ground truth, and who is trustworthy is nearly impossible to determine. The rapidity of information sharing now possible through social media has overloaded not only data systems but also our minds.

And yet, how different is today from history? Sadly, there is little difference in the activities being undertaken and the goals that people hold; however there is an exponentially higher rate of spread of information and disinformation that categorically changes and elevates its impact. One the biggest findings of my tour was that people are hungry for information and by and large, Americans want to know the truth. The challenge every citizen faces is trying to figure out where truth lies and who to trust.

And yet, I’d challenge the question and rebut with the notion that while we are all searching for as much accurate information as we can gather, the reality is that the information we seek is not publicly available – whether for security reasons or by design. National security demands that information be withheld from the public. There is no surprise in that notion – surely, no coach would show the opposing football team their plays before the game began. Similarly, our military and security sector agencies must keep the majority of information, goals, and innovations close hold. But it is the other, the lack of information or release of misinformation by design that has contributed to the dividing beliefs of our country.

I had no trouble, ever, throughout my travels explaining to citizens that the real truth lies in a space to which few, if any, have full access. We are all holding, at best, five pieces of a five-thousand piece puzzle and then trying to draw conclusions and make decisions based on this limited intel. And the truth is, we can’t – at least not with any trust in accuracy.

And yet, what choice do we have? It is important to acknowledge that each of us is forced to make the best decisions we can with the limited information we can access because the one thing we can control is our respect for our fellow citizens who are trying to make sense of the same messy and absent information we are. Our differences, therefore, our born out of the different pieces we hold, which provide us access to different parts of the larger picture. Our differences are not true differences but rather perspectives that have led us to defend, as different realities, separate sections of the real picture. And if we, the people, can see that, acknowledge that, we can share our pieces and gain knowledge.

Strategic Design: Why do you care?

It often feels like selling broccoli to a three-year old. It’s not that the youngster is unintelligent, it’s just that they haven’t lived long enough to understand the long-term effects of choices and they lack the knowledge to understand concepts like “health” and “nutrition.” In three-year old terms, broccoli looks weird, smells bad, and tastes strange so what’s the upside? Compared to cotton candy or spaghetti which fill their bellies and taste delicious, broccoli seems like an unreasonable leap with only the benefit of a concept that one can’t appreciate for many years if not decades.

Strategic design and subsequent planning feel similarly to many people. It’s not a lack of intelligence that keeps decision makers from buying in, it’s a lack of understanding of what is gained, avoided, or more efficient that is unclear. Add to it the cost and most companies and especially public agencies will avoid the metaphorical broccoli for the immediate outcomes gained by short-term, clearer solutions. Yet, like with all good metaphors, just as too much sugar and carbohydrates will eventually negatively affect a body, so too will a lack of insight, understanding of the enterprise, and planning eventually result in metaphorical “health” problems across the ecosystem.

This is what is happening in our country today. For too long, we’ve refused the discussion of politics in “polite” conversation – it’s seemingly reserved for argumentative sport. In doing so, we’ve failed to model healthy behavior in debate and allowed those with the loudest voices, but not necessarily the most informed or even the most interested, to direct platforms. Further, with the monetary incentives and the cyclical nature of the political game, short-term wins create sound bites for campaigns and the goal of winning has an unintended consequence of skipping the vision, strategy, and long-term planning needed for the country to do the maintenance work required to endure. We’ve allowed erosion within the governmental systems to go unchecked and unaddressed. We’ve eaten too much sugar and not enough broccoli. It was not only predictable, but it is now also inevitable, that there will be substantial prices to pay for these choices – and avoidances.

The irony though is that it won’t be those who made the decisions in the first place that will be affected, it will be those with the least knowledge, awareness, and resources who will be the carnage.

It begs the real question: Will we recognize the error of our ways and choose to lead a healthier lifestyle of broccoli and exercise or will we ignore the warnings, blame others for these predictable but indirect issues, and allow rot to set in? There’s no avoiding the price anymore, there’s only an option to lessen the consequences.

Creating an Intellectual Force

To date, we have necessitated a military defense force that can operate with physical strength, stamina, agility, and demonstrate all these abilities consistently under extreme stress. At the highest level, a strategic mind has always been necessary. In many positions within the military branches, the same holds true. There have traditionally also been positions where physical prowess was the primary capability needed.

As we move further into the 21st century, we will see increasing demand for intellectual-only positions. We will see the need for drone operators, cyber security analysts, and psychological specialists. In many ways, the intelligence community has been the driving operator in this more purely intellectual space but the future battlefields are increasingly requiring not only the intellectual capability and knowledge but also a warrior mindset. It begins to move out of the deep analysis space and into the intellectual warfare space where battles are fought through non-co-located reality or virtual reality. As we progress as a world into this nebulous battlespace where there are no boundaries, visual information is limited or absent, and where the human body is not required to be at the highest level of readiness, we begin to see the need to consider with a wider swath of eligibility requirements for military service.

Do you need to be fully able-bodied to fight war from a desk? Do you need additional skills, capabilities, and training to be cognitively agile? Intellectually stealth? Have high attentional stamina?

Much research within the U.S. Department of Defense as well as in other militaries across the world are asking these questions, developing proposals for improved talent management systems and requirements, and taking action to curate the latest research in cognitive science to inform the creation of an intellectual soldier – one that optimizes mind capabilities but perhaps not physical skills.

Photo by Alina Grubnyak on Unsplash

Saving the Environment: But how?

The verdict is clear: the earth is changing. The questions that are debated are: 1) Are we the culprits and 2) Can we stop or reverse the changes? But these are only the surface questions. The underlying, often unstated questions are: 3) If we are the culprits, what are the top priorities to address and 4) how do we mobilize to create change?

So working through these questions….

  1. The science is profound – the earth goes through cycles over millions of years but also, we are speeding up our own demise. This duality though, creates confusion and argument and at the national level, also handicaps us from making changes. This is most pronounced in two areas – when those changes require individuals to do things that are inconvenient and when they require businesses to spend money or lose revenue. It means, we need to find ways to a) make individual changes easy and b) create new revenue streams for businesses that allow them to change course without cost, or at least minimize it
  2. The priorities are not clear – the reports and activists emphasize everything from fixing soil water absorption to dividing opportunities for our people to affecting military spending. When everything is a priority, nothing is a priority and more importantly, spending decisions get divided to the point of losing impact while individuals strive to ‘do the right thing’ but without being sure that what they are doing matters. We clarity in our messaging across the variety of goals.
  3. Defining the priorities requires deep understanding – with so many scientists and activists available to get involved, we have the opportunity to deep-dive into the key problems. However, we need a connecting agent that can both understand the science and make the difficult decisions about how to determine the top 5 issues for individuals and for businesses. The challenge is that it makes a leader unpopular – perhaps then the better goal is to triage. Rather than choosing what gets address, choose what gets addressed first.
  4. Mobilizing change has less to do with regulation and more to do with facilitation – When congress tries to regulate fairness, what results is more and more rules. When the nation chooses to work together and people or businesses choose on their own to make change, those changes are much more likely to be successful and sustained.

So the right questions are: 1) How do we clarify for individuals and businesses the easiest ways to make changes? 2) How do we clarify what to change first? And 3) How do we facilitate throughout the nation without focusing solely on regulation? This is how we focus our efforts and this is how we will better serve the nation connecting individuals to activists to businesses to scientists to government to the world. THAT is our goal. THAT is our mission.

DC: The land of power

We say by the people, for the people. But do we mean it?

Perhaps at one point, or in a vacuum, we did….or at least we try to tell ourselves we do. But the reality is that nothing happens without money, ideas, influence, and systems of people working together. And with time and energy in short supply, we turn to the easiest, clearest, fastest methods for making change. Change plans then tend to reflect these thought processes. Accordingly, DC culture tends to start with a power assessment: It almost feels like being scanned by a laser – The questions are: Who do you know? and How much money do you have? These are the easy questions, the fastest ways to make change.

But there’s a glitch – true change doesn’t occur when these direct power lines are used because at their core, they are superficial – they don’t represent anything new, anything exceptional, or garner any true connection. They are simply transactional – what can you give me and what can I give you?

True change can only come from a swell of influence and chosen buy-in from individuals, groups, and communities because otherwise, the brittle nature of the transactional relationships ensures that a) you’ll never reach sustained change, b) you’ll never create meaningful change, and c) you’ll have to keep feeding the bear, so to speak. In other words, you’ll continually have to make deals in order to sustain your perceived level of power.

I stand by the belief that “It doesn’t take an act of Congress to fix the nation; it only takes a whole lot of Americans to work hard, together.” We have more power than we realize – but we need to know how to exercise it.

We’ve been taught that our vote is how we spread our influence. When that didn’t work, we turned to activism. When that didn’t work, we focus on our communities and things we can change quickly and without too much oversight or overbearing influence. But even this hasn’t worked – else we wouldn’t be a nation so angry and intra-fighting at the moment.

What we must do is to come together – not because a politician says so – not because we want to argue – not because we want to be heard – but because we want to save this nation for our children. We have to decide, together, to create a culture shift that balances power across our people. It’s wonderful to say that we lift up people who need help because we’re nice but in actuality, the reason we need to lift up this entire country is because when we are all working at our best, our nation has unbelievable power to be the iconic dream of freedom, creativity, innovation, and leadership.

If we don’t shift from a top-down power structure to a web-of-influence structure, we will collapse while entrenched deeply in our own biases. Change is possible but it requires everyone to participate – and everyone to recognize the power they have.

Defining National Readiness

One of the golden rules for Government is: If everything is a priority, nothing is a priority. It’s an adage used widely, far more than government, but it is a particularly important one when it comes to the executive branch. Why?

The bottom line is that there are an infinite number of issues a country as large as ours faces and as a result, it is easy, and frankly, predictable, that all of us get focused on those priorities that are important to us personally. However, working in the executive branch is a job, not a personal piggy bank. And that job requires workers to expend finite resources to solve infinite problems – with varied solutions – that make some people happy and others varying levels of unhappy.

By design, the government system is set up to be a moderator across the states and be a visionary for the country. The goal, in other words, is to determine the top priorities across our country and then determine how we can best solve them. But defining which problems those are can be difficult when we are constantly pulled in different directions and distracted by personal goals at local levels. I am not saying that those personal needs and local efforts are not worthy – they are extremely important. What I’m saying is that not all of them are national priorities and we need to keep those lines clear.

When local goals are mixed with national ones, it means everyone is fighting fires but no one is overseeing the forest. We need both fire fighters AND strategists.

So how do we do this? How do we determine our top priorities? Well, I can share with you my process:

  1. Step 1: Determine the national goal. In my mind, the goal at the federal government level is to build a nation ready for the future – ready for life, ready for work, ready for natural disasters, and ready to defend our country
  2. Step 2: Determine 5-7 key capabilities needed to ensure that the nation is ready for these known challenges – Environment, Healthcare, Defense, Education, and Employment/Economy
  3. Step 3: Determine a methodology to address these issues – Innovation – Thinking outside the box can help us approach these problems that have plagued us for years from new perspectives

When we define a goal and the pathway to get there, we increase our ability to achieve success 10-fold. Let’s apply these same methods to our national priorities and if we do, we’ll create a national readiness index that exceeds anything we’ve seen before. We’ll become proactive instead of reactive.

Photo by Alvaro Reyes on Unsplash
Photo by Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash

Education for the Future

****The U.S. Government has just released a book entitled, “Modernizing Learning: Building the Future Learning Ecosystem.” It is an implementation blueprint for how to re-build our education system to help Americans prepare for the future. The book can be downloaded for FREE here:
https://bookstore.gpo.gov/products/modernizing-learning-building-future-learning-ecosystem ****

Decades of education reform have focused on fixing, controlling, and standardizing K-12 education practices. What has resulted is a rigid system that is struggling to prepare students for the future world of automation, globalization, and multiple careers across their lifetimes.

The military, in particular, is recognizing and highlighting these concerns. For example, only 25% of Americans are currently eligible for service. Also, the Army has recently elongated basic training because they see a need for more training to develop readiness. And to quote Gen. Dunford, “We can’t buy our way out of many of the challenges we have, we have to think our way out of them.”

But how?

We connect. We empower. We focus on the whole person.

A learning ecosystem, by design, not only requires but is actually enhanced by multiple communities participating in its design, as well as its execution. So rather than focusing solely on researchers or K-12 teachers or university leaders or even the business of education, we focused on the entire system.

Modernizing Learning is not an academic exercise, it is an implementation blueprint for senior leaders across all communities involved in education. It expands the idea of learning from focusing mostly on pK-16 to placing emphasis on learning and development across the lifetime. Significant recommendations additionally recognize and define key skills needed to thrive in the 21st century, the need for emphasis on social, emotional, and physical health and development in addition to cognitive development, and recognition as well as measurement capability creation for learning that happens outside the classroom.

Combining input from a star-studded list of education leaders across the nation, this book defines the pathway and change needed to the system of education, starting with policy enhancements, collaborative development needs, and technological infrastructure improvements across the nation that will enable learning to be formally recognized anywhere, anytime, and personalized to individual needs. Shifting the focus from standardization to empowerment and making it possible for all students, of all ages, to access and benefit from learning opportunities will further add to national readiness. Finally, by creating an ecosystem, rather than continuing to make incremental changes to the linear, standard progression currently followed, it allows for future advancements to seamlessly connect to existing opportunities. In other words, this blueprint creates a living, actively evolving system that can grow as our national and individual needs change.

Ultimately, this book aims to re-imagine the U.S. education system to promote creativity and the benefits of diversity for making America ready for the future.

Government of the Future!

https://bookstore.gpo.gov/products/innovating-government-re-designing-executive-branch

Administration after administration has complained that implementing change is hindered by bureaucracy, siloed structures, inefficient funds from congress, and archaic, burdensome practices.

While true, no one has asked the people in the system how to fix these very problems…until now.

Innovation Fellows are Americans with special expertise that are now being brought into the executive branch to address these root issues. Though not often recognized, innovation in the U.S. Government has historically impacted 60% of economic growth, enabled the superior capabilities of our defense program, and solved problems facing our nation ranging from healthcare to the arts. But now, government innovation has a new goal: modernize the executive branch for the 21st century. The question is: How?

News, politicians, and bureaucrats alike have focused on congress and the Administrations to make the major changes and improvements to the government but all have missed a key, important point. These groups add up to only 552 people. Compared to the 2.4 million executive branch employees, their impact can only be, by design, limited.

But what if we designed solutions from within the branch? What if the employees shared their views on how to improve the system? What if we listened to the true experts in the U.S. Government?

Through a review of the expansive innovation programs working to solve national issues, a book recently released to the public, Innovating Government, provides a voice for many of the 2.4M executive branch employees…or who I like to call, America’s unsung heroes. These workers make the daily decisions, decide expenditures, and do the work. This is a rare glimpse inside the executive branch, the innovation happening in our nation, and how all this work can be used to re-design the government for the 21st century and prepare our nation to be ready for the future. It provides clear solutions that address root issues, define policy change recommendations, and even design improved communication structures that can better connect Americans to programs and executive branch innovators and directors to congress.

Ultimately, this re-design plan has been informed by the very people who are most deeply involved in the government: those who know the real issues and the solutions they need. Contrary to popular belief, government workers are incredibly dedicated employees that are here with one joint purpose: to do the very best work they can for the American people they serve. This book aims to elevate their voices to maximize their efforts for nation.

System Change

One of the greatest mistakes we all make when we are young is to believe that our great idea is either a) totally brand new and/or b) that everyone is as excited about it as we are. It’s not surprising because we spend our early years oftentimes being praised whether it be at home or in school. Alternatively, those not being praised, must expend enormous amounts of personal energy to get the inertia needed to leave an oppressed environment. But those that do, will likely believe the former fallacies as well because they’ve proven to themselves that even without help, they can compete at the top.

And then we move into adulthood – we go to college or get a job, we move away, we get hit, hard, with the realities. Not everyone is excited for you. Not everyone wants to hear what you have to say. Not everyone believes in you. Not everyone even wants you to win – especially if your success somehow diminishes theirs. The real world can be much tougher than we are led to believe as children, regardless of background.

So what are some key lessons I’ve learned working in one of the most entrenched systems we have in this nation: The federal government?

First, listen. I can’t foot stomp this enough. If you don’t know what people want, how in the world are you going to convince them that your idea is something of interest to them? In military, we say WIIFM: What’s in it for me? No one can answer this question without first listening to the very people to whom you want to send your message.

Two, make the pathway to yes/agreement easy, clear, and beneficial to them. It is easy in any system but especially in one where we feel passionate, such as helping our children or protecting our nation, to feel the compulsion to defend and explain why our ideas are the best ideas. It is easy to fall into the trap of excitement and share all the details. Rarely does anyone want to hear them all – not because they aren’t excited for you or supportive of your idea but they have ideas and tasking of their own. It is presumptive to assume or suggest that your work is more important than theirs. Rarely is it the case that this is what we mean but nonetheless, this is where we accidentally, but commonly, misstep being lost in our own enthusiasm. Stay focused on gaining buy-in through collaboration over explanation.

Three, name your target but don’t create a rigid pathway to get there. Be open to others’ ideas for how to achieve the same goal. You might find they add substantially to either the quality or completion of the goal.

Always remember, when people are part of creating the solutions, they become your champions – but when they are the recipient of your plan, they become your critics.

-jjoy

Federal workers: America’s Unsung Heroes

I just finished my last days as a federal government employee – wow, what an experience! Inspired by the 2016 election, I wanted to better understand why we’ve become so messy, so angry, so unable to understand what our government is doing…

I’ve worked on government contracts and grants for years supporting our amazing military, answering the hard questions in education, and working with teams of scientists to tackle a wide variety of issues but this past election was so intense, it drove me to do something different. So I quit my job, walked straight into government, and started asking the hard questions.

But when I applied for a human innovation fellowship, I had little idea of what I would experience. I was asked in my interview to come into government, observe patterns of behavior, and make recommendations about how, from a human-perspective, we could re-design the executive branch. To say that it was a daunting concept to try to imagine would be a significant understatement. But also, to assume that one person could have all the ideas needed or even just new ideas that haven’t already been tried, would be equally unwise. As such, I spent a significant portion of my first year in this branch simply observing – just as I was asked to do.

My first observations, on my very first day, were of a group of people that conducted the on-boarding trainings I had to attend. These were some of the most enthusiastic, dedicated employees I had ever met. They exuded what I had hoped, but held little to no faith, existed across the rest of the government. One man in particular stuck out. He was the person in charge of ensuring the building was, and remained, vermin free so that we could be enabled to do our job. This man, who came into our meeting almost at a run and with a smile that lit up the room, literally offered us his cell number to call him any time of day or night, to ensure we had the best work space available to us at all times so we could serve America. All I could think was, whomever hired this guy was a genius! Even in a tie he’s offering to hunt vermin!

As my journey progressed, I met people at the lowest ranks who made sure my medical paperwork was signed and personally expedited if needed and other individuals at mid-ranks so eager to talk and share their work that it was almost impossible to end conversations because their enthusiasm to serve was so heartfelt. I traveled the world and met delegates from other nations who gave me insights and viewpoints from their own cultures and so many Generals and Admirals that wholly supported multi-national defense efforts. I met bright-eyed young people ready to shape the future and yes, I learned that rules and regulations – and many, many attorneys – exist among the ranks. But I can honestly say that I was not only surprised and impressed by these workers at every level, across every department, I was truly blown-away by the dedication to work, to serve, and to help others they displayed.

Simply put, I was inspired.

Innovation isn’t about re-inventing the wheel, it’s about simply connecting the dots and in that vein, I learned that our federal government is made up of over 4 million dedicated Americans willing, able, and enthusiastic about serving our nation, our people.

It has been my honor to serve among these unsung American heroes – I hope my experiences gives you hope and faith that while we may only see the arguments of our politicians on TV, there is an enormous force of individuals who are working hard for all of us, every single day.

-JJoy