Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said today that the Pentagon, as well as the rest of the Federal government, needs to adopt a problem-solving mindset in order to succeed in innovation in a rapidly changing technological landscape.

When trying to solve a real-world problem, Chairman Smith advised the Pentagon to stay focused on the threat at hand, and use innovation to its advantage in order to “win the fight.”

“What this all comes down to is something very simple: problem-solving,” Rep. Smith said Oct.19 during the Network Modernization Summit hosted by Defense One and Nextgov. “That’s the way we need to teach people to think: what is the problem that we are trying to solve, what are the resources that are available to us to solve it, and what are the liabilities and challenges that stand in the way of it?”

“And too much of what happens at the Pentagon, too much of what happens in industry, and too much of what happens in Congress is, ‘I don’t care if we succeed or not, I just want to be able to say that I checked the boxes correctly so no one can blame me.’ That is what we need to change,” he emphasized.

However, Chairman Smith and other panelists acknowledged that the Federal government is not always a conducive environment to a problem-solving mindset. Innovation involves experimentation and failure, but the stakes are much higher for the Federal government than they are for the private sector.

“There is a conversation with Congress that says look, by definition, if you’re doing an agile approach and you’re working in this way, you’re going to have some failures. There are going to be some things that don’t work out and we will learn from those and then we’ll get back up. And that will improve our next steps, but there has to be a greater risk tolerance on both sides,” said Michèle Flournoy, co-founder and managing partner at WestExec Advisors, and co-founder of the Center for a New American Security.

“I think a lot of what scares people in the acquisition community is the idea of being hauled up before a committee and being just roasted on national television for a failed investment they made because they were trying to be innovative and they were trying to move fast,” Flournoy, a former under secretary of Defense for policy, added.

Rep. Smith agreed with Flournoy that Congress still has some work to do in order to make it a safe environment to experiment and fail in – both of which are paramount for innovation.

As for his own committee, Chairman Smith said he and the committee’s ranking member, Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Ala., are both “unhappy with the grandstanding” and are trying to change the environment to make it a safe space for failure and experimentation.

“We’re trying to basically be exactly what Michèle said, you got to be safe to fail and if someone wants to come in and Monday morning quarterback it… yeah, that’s a huge problem,” Chairman Smith said. “You need to support people certainly when they succeed, but you also need to give them enough support when they don’t, so that they’re willing to take the chances.”

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Grace Dille
Grace Dille
Grace Dille is a MeriTalk Staff Reporter covering the intersection of government and technology.
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