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ATD Blog

Innovation as Part of the Government L&D Equation

Friday, February 10, 2023

The end goal is to be able to innovate, but you have to start with the right talent.

To innovate in the public sector requires more than permission to think outside the box. It requires hiring and developing individuals with diverse backgrounds, belief systems, experiences, education, and needs. In short, building an innovation team requires a composite of exceptional minds, encouraged to expand and multiply their ideas through discussion, analysis, and extensive questioning of each other.

To accomplish this task, hiring and assignment practices must be designed to identify and attract key skills, knowledge, and other attributes that enhance the mix of teams built for innovation. In theory, this sounds easy: Determine the skills you’re seeking, write the position descriptions accordingly, and then advertise in like-minded groups and spaces. Unfortunately, this process has an inherent key flaw: It assumes all people qualified for innovation groups have followed a similar education and life process that provided the same opportunities to all people. This false assumption means purpose-built innovation teams rarely reflect the composite diversity that is their crucial ingredient.

Awareness of opportunities is a gift of the privileged. Simply knowing that educational, experiential, or networking situations exist and how to apply for them is the first element of taking advantage of such programs. Other systemic requirements such as resume structures, letters of recommendation, and access to the physical and social network can further impede potential employees’ ability to participate. In turn, this lack of awareness keeps these government programs from being able to effectively develop these important skills. This lose-lose scenario must be addressed.


Redesign Your Talent Hunt to Drive Innovative Practices and Outcomes

How can the L&D community help? Ironically, the solution to this challenge mirrors the problem itself: We need to innovate! Several key areas of focus and improvement:

1) Define innovation teams not solely by knowledge or skill sets but also by experience, mindset, beliefs, and backgrounds. Make diversity a purposeful requirement, and seek individuals who represent these differences.


2) Recruit in unorthodox places with atypical processes. Colleges and universities may be great places to find emerging talent, but innovative minds often do not follow typical educational pathways and therefore may be working in small business, tinkering in their garage, or studying—but in a field considered unrelated to your topic of focus. Looking at the problem from different perspectives can yield enormous benefits but can only be accomplished if different vantage points are represented.

3) Cultivate brilliance. It’s naive to think that our most innovative minds will simply find and develop themselves. Rather, we, as a community, need to think differently about how we encourage innovation in the early years. STEM programs have made great strides in encouraging American students to focus on math and science. But next level innovation, questioning the status quo, and learning in different ways or in atypical spaces is not universally supported. How do we connect with, build up, and sustain our talent pipeline of innovators in childhood to create pathways for them today and consistent opportunities for them tomorrow?

Promoting innovation, especially in the public sector, requires several key ingredients, but the most important is talent identification and development. As the L&D community across both the public and private sectors embraces this belief, we can use our awareness and knowledge to evolve practices across the enterprise. If we choose not to, we will recreate the same ideas that slow or even cut progress and global competitiveness.

Disclaimer: The findings, interpretations, and conclusions expressed in this work do not necessarily reflect the views of the Department of Defense, US Government, or other governmental entities.

About the Author

Karen Fray is the Chief of Staff of the National Security Innovation Network (NSIN).

Fray brings a decade of experience developing pipelines for new, diverse, and inclusive talent initiatives in support of national security. As Chief of Staff, Fray serves a critical role in ensuring the smooth day-to-day operations of NSIN and providing a leading strategic voice in the organization's direction.

Previously, Fray served as the Director of NSIN’s Talent Portfolio, where she was responsible for providing flexible pathways to official service within the Department of Defense (DoD). As Director, she helped create new opportunities for national service that account for cultural differences between the military, academic, and venture communities.

Before NSIN, Fray worked for the Advanced Information Systems Group (AISG) Inc. where she developed diverse talent, led education training, and supported program contracts for the Military Sealift Command (MSC). She also served as president of Central Florida’s Women in Defense (WID) chapter.

Fray also sits on the National Defense Industrial Association (NDIA)’s Interservice/Industry Training, Simulation, and Education Conference (I/ITSEC) training subcommittee, where she creates effective training solutions through innovative concepts, methods, and technologies.

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