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!


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.

Modernizing America

Let’s start by asking the question: What does it mean to modernize the country?

Modernizing a nation involves making holistic changes across our most fundamental national focus areas so that the country, at its foundation, is anchored in systems ready for the 21st century.

Metaphorically, it’s like looking at a house that was built in 1900 which then received continuous updates in electrical, plumbing, added bathrooms, and redone kitchens…but which still has low ceilings, a boxy construction layout, has an awkward flow due to the multiple piecemeal changes, and is based on building codes from the past that are not ready for today’s threats.

At some point, it is no longer reasonable and more importantly, it is not wise, to keep making small edits. Rather, it becomes necessary to tear down the old and rebuild using a modernized design.

So what does this look like at the national level? It is easy enough to imagine a tangible thing like a house that gets demolished and rebuilt. But a whole nation? Where would you even begin? There are so many moving parts: human systems, business and market systems, government, academia, environment, and defense. But even that isn’t enough – because then there are the disagreements about how to achieve the changes to these systems that creates political and decision making issues that can undo any element at any time. Further, how do you even find a visionary that can create – more importantly, that wants to create – such a system-level, holistic national change?

The answer is: You don’t. No one person can do this alone. Instead, it has to be a group effort – a nationally coordinated plan that incorporates the best and the brightest people and ideas across the country – and then executes together.

To say this is a daunting task, is a supreme understatement. And yet….it is a necessary task.

Here are my recommended steps:

  1. Conduct a full review of the executive branch and its connections to the legislative and judicial branches, academia, Americans, businesses, and internationally. This review should be aimed at finding brilliance – or those groups/people/systems that are working well. Doing so will allow for replication and sharing across the system.
  2. Determine and re-imagine the most fundamental system that creates the tools for the necessary redesign: Education. Our education system is what underlies everything, what makes progress possible. It needs to be life long, emphasize American personal exceptionalities, and be aimed at providing Americans the tools they need to be successful cognitively, emotionally, socially, and physically.
  3. Connect issues and ideas across the nation – We need to connect the parts of the nation where great things are happening to those areas in need and all of it needs to be better facilitated by government (not regulated).
  4. Execute – plan the work; work the plan – the nation needs to unify to modernize!

We are a nation not build by any single entity. Diversity and creativity are our strengths because together, we can accomplish anything!

Photo by Sophie Potyka William Zhang William Zhang on Unsplash

Laws and Design

In a recent tweet, a senator shared with the nation a new bill being proposed to help regulate and control those that exploit the medical system. But the response from many Americans was very negative – not because they dislike this person based on political party but rather, because it appeared the person hadn’t done their homework about how the bill would affect multiple communities. In other words, this bill would help solve one issue and simultaneously create another.

For all the resources our congress has and in spite of most of them being there to help, rather than harm, Americans – how does this happen?

My experience on the Hill may shed some light. As an executive branch employee, I was amazed by how difficult it was to get information to/from Americans and Congress. When we had the opportunity to attend discussions with lawmakers, we quickly learned that they weren’t very interested in what anyone was creating/building/developing for Americans – what they cared about were dollars and cents…and particularly, how that money was being spent in their districts. Government programs were literally showing maps of the U.S. to highlight where dollars were being expended and then I watched as lawmakers gravitated to only those programs in their districts. I learned many, many lessons through these observations.

A second lesson was learned when talking with staffers – these are the people that help the congress people do, basically, everything. When asked how they decide to write a bill or vote on a bill, the overwhelming answer was: we google for information, we ask around our staff (who was generally an average reported age of about 25), and we try to determine the number of people in our district that will be happy or unhappy about the vote. When asked why they don’t ask the executive branch’s expert in the areas in which they vote – they said they don’t have access and wouldn’t know who to ask.

The punchline here is this: When Congress approves a budget, the executive branch spends the money to either a) provide services to/on behalf of Americans or b) investigate (research/innovate/problem solve) solutions….yet almost none of this information circulates back to Congress to ultimately improve national decision making.


*Photo by Helloquence Hey Beauti Magazine on Unsplash

Where’s the power?

I just finished a tour in the executive branch of
the U.S. Government and one of the questions I really wanted to better
understand is: where is power centralized? We all assume it’s within the
congress, the president, vice president, and cabinet. But in total, there are
only 552 people in that group. However, across, the executive branch, there are
2.4 million workers.

We don’t hear from these people and they don’t hear from us or even from congress.

Indeed, in order to get or send information from/to congress, executive branch workers must send information through legislative affairs. Imagine you are one of these workers and you are congressionally mandated to “create a sports program” (just an example). Which sport will you choose? What age group? How many teams will you set up? How will you hold tryouts? Will you even have tryouts? What plan do you have for the people who don’t make the team but feel they were supposed to? You can’t have access to an attorney very easily and it’s not in your mandate but still, what if someone sues because they didn’t make the team? How do you make the tryouts fair? Transparent? Account for all special needs and accommodations? What if you don’t know anything about sports? Or about injuries? Or about legal issues? Or about accommodations?

When you can’t share information, ask questions, or
even work with others who have expertise you need – you are left to guess, do
your best, and hope you keep your job. The wisest course of action is to not
get noticed in these situations because if your teams make the news, you’ll get
no reward – congress will. If your teams make the news with problems, you’ll
lose your job.

When we put our government workers in a vice, the system itself, by design, handicaps brilliance.

We need to reconsider the talent support we give our government workers and hold our elected officials responsible for ensuring that the management of the executive branch is a meaningful part of the presidential discussions. If we don’t address these issues, the power of change will be lost in the design of the system and we will forever be scratching our heads about why the government isn’t meeting our needs as we would hope.

Photo by Ferdinand Stöhr and Florian Hahn on Unsplash

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.


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.


Helping the middle class

We’ve been hearing a lot of politicians talk about fighting for the middle class and certainly, we need to help control the balance of power because the division between the haves and the have-nots creates a myriad of problems. Oftentimes, the discussion though focuses on a goal of regulating fairness and that if people are nice or rich, they are obligated to help those less fortunate. An important question to ask though is: Do we believe as a nation that government is allowed to tell us how to live our lives?

But there’s also another question and this one often goes overlooked: Is regulation the most effective way of supporting the middle class?

There are times that we simply have to put rules and laws in place for safety purposes and to deal with individuals who are intentionally lying, cheating, or stealing. But it becomes less clear when we consider individuals who enter into the highest income spaces if they got there through genius or family history. Should these people also be told how to spend their money? Are they morally obligated because government says they have to share their wealth?

In a socialist society it is expected, or rather, required but in a capitalistic society it is generally not.  Why? Because the assumption is that if we limit the height of achievement, we inadvertently reduce motivation to compete and more than that, collectively, we lose out on the ideas those high achievers share, even if they don’t share their fortunes.

Further, I would argue that opportunity alone does not support the middle class. It’s akin to putting a child in a resource-rich classroom but without a teacher to guide them. In technical terms, this is called discovery learning and it has been debunked in science because basically, when the blind lead the blind, erroneous outcomes are expected. People at the highest levels of income don’t get there simply because they worked 40 hours in a low stress job nor because they followed the typical rules of liner job progression. They get there because they think outside the box, work crazy hours, make connections with people, are confident, resilient, goal-oriented, and determined. Yes, some of it is due to opportunity. Yes, there is also generally a bit of luck involved. Yes, coming from a resource-rich family helps. But none of these things alone guarantees success.

So if the only answers we have to help our middle class are to give them opportunities and force the highest income earners to share their money – I think we will be in a perpetually vicious cycle that creates a pathway for a few individuals but never manages to empower all.

Instead, let’s develop the tool kits of all our people and help our nation appreciate the diverse capabilities and interests of each individual. The benefits of a collective mentality aren’t supported by a socialist, forced system. Rather, they are enhanced by helping every individual shine in their own brilliance and making the national connections that benefit everyone.