Federal Coach: Yul Williams on fostering innovation at the NSA

Yul Williams, the technical director for the National Security Agency/Central Security Service,who works with computer scientists, mathematicians and engineers to develop new technologies in the cybersecurity field, speaks with Tom Fox.

(Fox's Federal Coach column was originally published on The Washington Post On Leadership site.)

Yul Williams is the technical director for the National Security Agency/Central Security Service, working with computer scientists, mathematicians and engineers to develop new technologies in the cybersecurity field that will assist the agency in its intelligence operations. In a conversation with Tom Fox, Williams described an NSA idea incubation technique that has led to many innovations. Fox is a guest writer for On Leadership and the vice president for leadership and innovation at the nonprofit, nonpartisan Partnership for Public Service. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

What is your main area of focus at the National Security Agency?

My work is centered on cybersecurity, and it’s mostly of a defensive nature. We are trying to gather ideas from the workforce that we can develop and implement to enhance our overall mission. Our CYBERx incubation model provides a venue where anyone in the workforce can present concepts to an audience of senior leaders that may have the potential to affect the manner in which we conduct business.

If I am an NSA employee and I have an idea, how do I get it to you?

We developed a crowdsourcing tool that is available to the NSA workforce. The workforce can look at the idea submitted and vote for or against it. They can leave comments saying why an idea is great or that it has been tried before. Afterward, a group known as the Innovators In Residence reviews the idea and decides how we can bring it into the incubation stage.

What happens next?

We guarantee the idea champion will have an audience within four weeks with the Innovators in Residence, which will make the determination whether the idea should move to the next stage. The group makes a list of all the good and bad things about the idea. The focus is mostly on the negative comments because they surface the institutional fears as to why the idea hasn’t been implemented before. Our emphasis is on proving why those fears are unfounded. If the idea champion cannot overcome those concerns, the idea dies on the spot. We refer to this concept as a “fast failure,” and it limits the energy expanded on ideas with low mission potential. If the idea has merit, the group helps the idea champion develop a pitch that can be used to convince the organization of the value of the idea to the bottom line.

What happens if an idea passes that phase?

The idea champion is given an audience with the RIP or the Resource Investment Panel that is made up of NSA senior leaders who run organizations and have staff. Instead of giving funding for the first round of development, we ask the RIP to loan a resource to the project. For example, a resource may be an analyst who might have skill in microelectronics or optoelectronics. Once the RIP concurs, it provides resources to the idea champion who then has up to five months to conduct experiments. During that phase, the idea champion must periodically meet with the RIP and explain the experiment’s status. If all of the requirements are satisfied, the idea champion meets with the same panel, now called the Strategic Investment Panel or SIP. The SIP must come to a consensus about turning the idea into a product and deploying it.

How many ideas on average go through this process?

There are around 117 ideas percolating in the crowdsourcing process.

Can your approach be adopted by other agencies?

I would strongly encourage other federal agencies to adopt an incubation model. I am shocked at the amount of interest employees have in lending their ideas to make us a better agency.  You should see the passion that people bring to the table and the pride they have when their idea makes it to the end of the incubation model or is even considered. We don’t attribute failure of an idea as a personal failure. We celebrate that the person was willing to step away from what they do on a daily basis and take an idea through the process.

Tell me about your management philosophy or management style.

My leadership style is to respect the professionalism of the people I work with. I learned long ago that if you’re working with low-skilled people, it is more direction-oriented. In this environment, we have very professional people, so you want to leverage what they have to offer and challenge them to do things that they did not believe were possible. I find that people always exceed their own expectations.

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