Turn your own IT vision into a work in progress

Walther R Houser

Ever have a great idea that begged to be implemented? Maybe it's a publication to address nagging issues in your program. Maybe it's a software application that fills a need that no one but you recognizes. Or maybe it's a new process that could dramatically cut backlogs while improving customer service.

Many, perhaps most, information technology innovations began as personal projects. Engineers in a lab working on really neat stuff created the IT field. Visionary individuals who took on the job of webmaster contributed mightily to the Web.

So what are the circumstances that foster innovation? The first ingredient is time'time to think and to work on your pet project. Regrettably, the ever-shrinking federal work force is finding think time scarce. Therefore, you will need to develop strategies to carve out time to nurture your vision into reality.

To gain time out from the mountain that is your inbox, recognize that the workload is rarely distributed evenly across the office. The hard workers get more work, and more is expected of them. Efficiency and long hours are rewarded with increased expectations and demands, while colleagues next to you tread water.

Quietly survey the output of your colleagues and adjust yours accordingly. Keep a steady routine, balancing work on your innovation with the never-ending production line, never too far ahead or behind.

If you are innovating for personal gain, don't. You will eventually be caught. This is hazardous to your career and the careers of honest innovators. If you plan to sell your creation, do the work away from your day job. Otherwise, your efforts become the property of the government and in the public domain for use by anyone.

But if your unauthorized efforts can produce demonstrable office improvements, you will not only avoid being fired, you could stand to receive an award.

Abstaining from a busy office social life requires willpower. Beg off the water cooler chitchat.

On the other hand, if your inspiration requires the support of your colleagues, you may be obliged to socialize. To limit the time spent, set your cell phone to ring at your desk so that you can excuse yourself under the cover of taking an important call.

Unless your project can be completed without help, you will need a mentor or champion. This is typically a senior manager who has a track record of sponsoring innovation. A champion can help you tap into significant institutional resources.

To groom your sponsor, casually introduce yourself, without mentioning your idea. Do this discreetly, because any supervisor or manager between you and your potential guardian angel will do his or her best to thwart such out-of-channel communication. Once this connection is established, briefly outline the idea. Then negotiate one of the following approaches:

•'Your sponsor drafts you to work on his new project. The fact that it was your idea will be forgiven if you agree to implement it.

•'Your angel may concoct a cover story that frees you to work on your project, away from the jealous eyes and wagging tongues of supervisors and colleagues.

Now that you have escaped the organizational quagmire for the independent life of a project team, recruit others who share your vision. Accept only those who are passionate and committed. Beware of aspiring hangers-on who cannot help or serve the effort. By offering only hard work and long odds, you can keep your team to a manageable size. Don't rule out going it alone.

Avoid asking permission of anyone for anything. You are the expert about your innovative project, not the many other busybodies who claim authority. Get your sponsor to pitch the project to top management. Then, when cornered, bludgeon the skeptics with name-dropping: The assistant secretary would not want to hear of someone not cooperating with his project.

But never name-drop to anyone who might actually talk to the assistant secretary. Instead, remark, 'Joe, the assistant secretary was really keen on this project when Bill [your sponsor] briefed him on it.'

Perhaps you have some useful tips for guerilla project management. Drop me an e-mail at, and I can revisit this stealthy innovation topic.

Walter R. Houser, who has more than two decades of experience in federal information management, is webmaster for a Cabinet agency. His personal Web home page is at

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