Why does NGA need to innovate?
Vinci: I’d like to step back for a second on the principles of why we are here. Intelligence agencies are here to provide the best information we can to decision-makers. And that decision-maker might be a President who needs to know what to do about the South China Sea; or it could be a soldier who needs to know whether to kick down the front door or the back door. It’s our job to provide the best information — GEOINT — to those decision-makers.
The additional duty, the unsaid duty, is to continuously improve that information that we provide to those decision-makers. We already provide them a really good product, but there should never be a place of stasis. We should always be thinking of ways to improve. That is what innovation is, always coming up with new, better ways to do things.
What is the goal of the Office of Ventures and Innovation?
Vinci: The goal of the Office of Ventures and Innovation is to think about, develop and support that constant process of improvement across NGA.
We’re still standing it up and still figuring out exactly what it will be, but what we initially decided to do is to change the way we think about Innovation. It isn’t just an internal thing like organizational change, or just an external thing like acquisition reform. It’s not just a technology thing, and it’s not just a people or a process thing — it’s all of those things combined.
Who will run the Office of Ventures and Innovation?
Vinci: We’ve asked David Bray to join NGA and run this office. David is coming to us from the FCC, where he is the chief information officer, leading FCC's IT Transformation since 2013. David has a history of being a change agent, bringing change to the government. He combines that with a long history of working in government and understanding its needs and the processes and how to make real change.
How do you see the role of the Office of Ventures and Innovation changing over time?
Vinci: In many ways this office is practicing what we preach, it’s a new office — an innovation in itself. We’re going to test it and try it out, and go through a process and iterate to develop it the best we can, so you’re going to see it evolve. It may not be as standardized and stable as some people are accustomed to in an NGA office. The agency itself is changing and the needs of the office will change, and so we’ll have to adapt.
Do you feel resistance to change from the NGA workforce?
Vinci: This is a really important one to me — just because it’s a new idea doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a good idea. It’s not just about innovation for innovation’s sake. Sometimes innovations just don’t work and the people doing it the old way are right.
I think there’s a perception of an ‘us vs. them’ scenario. There are some people who want to change and some people who want to keep doing things the old way. Really, I think both sides want to do the right thing. We’re all trying to accomplish the mission, and I really believe that.
My goal and the Office of Ventures and Innovation’s goal is to figure out what change is net good and make that happen.
Creating a standard program
If the first steps are finding new technologies and capabilities and adopting new ways of doing business, what’s the next step, the ultimate goal?
Vinci: The eventual goal is to become a standard operating procedure; to become a program.
How do we get from A to B? If it’s a piece of technology, how does it become something that’s used first in NGA and eventually by the entire NSG? What is that path? What is that process to get there? That’s what the Office of Ventures and Innovation is going to help figure out.
I see a valley of death between the incubation stage and that program stage, where it becomes a standard tool — whether it’s a technology tool or work flow. This isn’t just an issue at NGA, it’s an issue with any large organization. It can be difficult to get from that idea stage to that program or standard tool stage. This is a really hard challenge for us because it is not just a technology issue, it’s a people issue, and a process issue all together. I think this is an area the Office of Ventures and Innovation can help with.
There are a lot of pieces that need to be coordinated. This office is meant to figure out how to adopt new technologies and new processes that help support our mission, and it’s doing that by providing the pathway and the process for which these new innovations can be incubated and adopted and made standard.
What’s success look like? Creating a standard program and process for implementing new tech?
Vinci: We’ve gone through three steps; incubating, adopting, and then creating a standard program. The last piece of the innovation process is decommissioning.
If you come up with a new piece of technology, a new process or a new work flow, it’s to replace some old process or work flow. Decommissioning, in many ways, is the most difficult thing to do because we don’t always have control over the situation. Often times it’s our customers who are using these specific programs or technologies.
We have to be very strategic and very understanding when decommissioning. We have to understand what our customers want and we have to work really closely with all the relevant NGA offices so we’re understanding as an agency what our customers’ expectations are, what their needs are, and to plan ahead as far as possible.
In some cases it might mean planning years ahead for decommissioning a legacy piece of technology that’s in use. Sometimes a piece of technology might not be updated consistently, it might be updated every five years, so you really have to plan ahead.
What do you want readers to remember from this interview?
Vinci: It’s not innovation for innovation’s sake. It’s innovation as a means to support mission, as a means to help improve what we do, what products we make and how we make them.
It’s not just about technology, it’s about people and it’s about processes and it’s about work flows.
It’s really important to take away that the innovation itself — the ideas — will happen throughout our agency. The Office of Ventures and Innovation is there to help support and coordinate that innovation.