This series examines how teams need to work closer with senior executives as allies. (see part 1)

In “The Innovator’s Dilemma” Clayton M. Christensen says that organizations often fail because of good management, not bad. “The very decision-making and resource allocation processes that are key to the success of established companies are the very processes that reject disruptive technologies.” When an organization pursues a new initiative to change the organization, it is met with systemic barriers that undervalue, slow down or impede success.

To work around these systemic barriers, Clayton recommends “pulling relevant people out of the existing organization and drawing a new boundary around a new group.” These people form teams that are dedicated to the challenge, facilitate new ways of working together, and that within them, “each member is charged with assuming personal responsibility for the success of the entire project.”

The goal is to make strategic decisions based on user feedback. This requires the tightest possible feedback loop between a cross-functional product team leading the work and a small group of champions overseeing its success. Otherwise, you’ll spend more time justifying the work rather than doing it.

A cross-functional product team:

  • Consists of five to nine dedicated people, with the user research, design, content, software development, and/or security skills necessary to get the job done
  • Has a full-time product owner leading the team, who can make decisions and is accountable to the team, organization, and end users
  • Focuses initially on understanding user needs, validating the path forward, assessing risks, building the new product, and validating and testing the product strategy
  • Costs between $1-4M in the first year (depending partly on whether they need clearances). A more detailed cost estimate is in 18F’s guide to de-risking government technology projects

A small group of champions:

  • Consists of four to five senior executives, with organizational, financial, technical, human resource, and program expertise
  • Gives the team credibility, strategic clarity, and confidence
  • Holds the team accountable to the objectives and outcomes of the initiative, not deciding if the button should be blue or red
  • Communicates progress out and connects the product team with additional stakeholders and subject matter experts
  • Clears organizational roadblocks for the product team

For example, this is the Champions group the Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division established to support our work with them.

Role Accountable for
Chief Operating Officer Budget and Org success
Director & Deputy Director of Human Resources Staffing
Chief Information Officer Technology and Security
Senior Advisor of Innovation / Special Projects Program success

After using this approach to lead the launch of several important Department of Justice (DOJ) products, Daniel Yi, Senior Counsel for Legal Innovation, reflected, “a champion’s best role is defining what problems are worth tackling, defining what success looks like if we solve that problem, and what indicators are convincing enough to show success. Then leave the team alone.”