Why government agencies should make products of their work outcomes
Innovative solutions to social problems or innovations in service to citizens developed or initiated by government agencies are often considered to be in the class of disruptive technologies that has characterized major innovative shifts in society. The more powerful the innovation is, the more disruptive it tends to be. Furthermore, the more disruptive the solution is, the more change is required to adopt it. The government innovator’s dilemma then, is that the value premise of a new solution or service is directly proportional to the degree of change required to scale up adoption.
Governments at all levels are risk adverse and change adverse. A federal agency that engages in the development of a new solution or service and seeks to encourage its widespread adoption is faced with mounting challenges as the level of change required for implementation increases. Even minor or marginal improvements are challenging if their adoption requires significant change in policy or practice.
Overcoming the resistance to change is the purpose of turning outcomes of work into products that can be made easier to implement given variations in operating environments, policies and practices. Products are combinations of technologies, methodologies, practices, training materials and documentation that at best allow a practitioner to put the solution or service into practice without external assistance. The most wildly successful products have been packaged with whatever supporting materials are necessary to make them easy to implement without external help.
For successful products, industry has developed a product life cycle methodology that is remarkably consistent across industries and disciplines, and has in itself become a discipline that is subject to the award of advanced degrees. For a government agency to adopt the methodology of product life cycle management and the product thinking that accompanies such a policy, the reward can be greater scalability and sustainability of the work outcome so encapsulated.
The principles of product life cycle management are every bit as important in government as they are in industry. In industry product work, the most important first step is to clearly and accurately define the problem that the product is intended to solve. A portfolio of government projects should be similarly focused. A metric for measuring success in industry of any given product is the return on investment generated from the product. While in industry the measure is defined by profitability, there is an equally strong need in government to define an outcome measure and consequent return on investment that is influenced by the work accomplished and made into a product.
In the product life cycle management methodology, the product features and functions are defined by focus groups of actual consumers (users) of the product. Tests of use are conducted in alpha tests (pilot projects) and beta tests (tests of replicability). Innovative solutions and service products developed by government should be exposed to the same kind of customer input in the design phase and the testing before deployment. It is generally recognized that no product should be rolled out without the needed accompanying documentation on how to use the product and how to get help if needed. Again, this principle applies to government work products equally well. A planned introduction to inform the user community about the availability and very existence of the product (sometimes called marketing) is as important in government as it is in industry.
Customer operational and technical support facilitation is a key component of product life cycle management and also is important in the release of products emanating from government innovation research and development. Without this critical function, the work often atrophies and is neither scalable nor sustainable.
Thinking in product terms leads to more organized portfolios, where individual projects are clearly linked to their contribution to the product vision or end game. In the context of bringing a product to market, the steps that are essential can be planned with a richer understanding of their contribution to a successful product rollout.
One of the major advantages of using this framework for government work is that there is a large body of knowledge and principles that have been proven to help make products successful and fulfill the dreams of the innovator. The components can be listed, studied, and incorporated in project plans and evaluation studies to make sure that the work of the agency is taken full advantage of by all potential adopters.
The business of government deserves to have a rich and robust methodology to act as a framework for designing portfolios and work objectives around meeting the needs of society for innovative solutions and systems. The product management life cycle is one of the most useful frameworks for designing the work of government.