13 minute read 15 June 2023

Spurring innovation in government agencies through trust

Trust is central to creating and adopting innovative ideas. But how can government organizations scale a personal relationship like trust? Social networks may just provide the answer.

Kelley Lane

Kelley Lane

United States

Joe Mariani

Joe Mariani

United States

Bruce Chew

Bruce Chew

United States

Alan Holden

Alan Holden

United States

A 3,000% improvement. How could any innovation get stuck in pilot purgatory and struggle to gain traction with such a margin of success?

Consider the story of “continuous aim” naval gunfire. For much of naval history, sailors had to take into account the roll of the ship and trajectory of shells to guestimate where to aim their shots. That all changed in 1898 when British Admiral Percy Scott realized he could use existing tools such as the elevating gear and the telescope sight in a new way that automatically compensated for the roll of the ship. This system of continuous-aim gunfire allowed gunners to hold aim on the target even while the gun was fired, meaning they did not have to re-find the target and re-aim after each shot. Admiral Scott repeatedly proved his system in real-world tests, which showed a more than 3,000% improvement in accuracy.1 While the British Navy was slow to move from prototyping to adoption, a few key Americans realized the opportunity for continuous aim within the rapidly growing American navy.2

While stationed in Hong Kong, Lieutenant William Sims, a young American officer, met Scott and observed British continuous-aim cannon trials firsthand. Lieutenant Sims excitedly shared the data with his superiors back home. To his surprise, he received no response. So, he tried again using a bolder approach and shared the data with other officers in the fleet. And while this did elicit a response, it was not what he had hoped: US Navy leadership asserted that continuous-aim gunfire was “impossible.” It wasn’t until Sims skipped several layers of the chain of command and wrote directly to President Theodore Roosevelt that the innovation ultimately trialed and scaled.3

The story of continuous-aim gunnery helps illustrate that innovation takes more than good ideas, good technology, or even good results. It takes the right people in the right roles trusting each other. Admiral Scott was a visionary innovator, Lieutenant Sims a gifted connector of ideas to resources, and President Roosevelt an unparalleled influencer. Yet, none of these individuals could have driven the innovation to success on their own. They needed to trust the unique talents and position of the others to make progress, essentially establishing a network of trust.

Driving innovation through trust networks

History is littered with innovations that seemed promising but failed to be adopted at scale. Ultimately, innovations succeed not because a single person develops an innovative solution, but because many people—a network of people—elect to adopt and use that solution. And while accepting a disciplined approach for piloting and scaling a solution is an ingredient of this adoption, it is not sufficient in isolation. Each phase of the innovation lifecycle can be enhanced by the establishment and management of innovation trust networks.

1. Trust empowers innovators to create

Even 100 years after the introduction of continuous-aim gunfire, we can learn an organizational truth: Innovations are successful when a shared vision permeates from the top-down through effective leadership and is evident from the bottom-up through employee empowerment. The culture of an organization is not read in a mission statement or heard in a townhall but is rather reflective of the behaviors and mindsets of the individuals who make up the organization. In many organizations, including government organizations, there may be a lack of trust on the part of innovators and early adopters that leaders will support novel, agile, or imaginative solutions to challenges that may ultimately fail.

In the annual Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey, among large agencies, those with the highest “innovation” rankings correlated closely with employee perceptions of “effective leadership” and “empowerment” in their organization. For example, National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), Intelligence Community (IC), and Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) were the three highest-ranked agencies for “innovation”; they also ranked in the top three for “empowerment” and “effective leadership”(figure 1).4

Through these traits, these agencies are likely fostering trust in a way that promotes innovation by 1) encouraging employees to try better ways of approaching a problem and 2) inspiring employee trust in an organization’s efforts to maintain motivation, high standards, honesty, respect, and workforce support—which ultimately contribute to the agencies’ ability to innovate.

2. Trust improves information flow

Empowering employees to identify and solve problems is critical, but it is not the only ingredient necessary for innovation. After all, no single individual can know everything. It is unlikely that someone could know both an organization’s problems in detail as well as all the cutting-edge solutions in academia and industry that may be able to solve them. Therefore, information flow is another important part of innovation. And trusting the person you are getting information from only helps speed up and spread information flow.

Trust comes down to the person-to-person social connections of each individual, and so, individuals playing key social roles are critical to the development of innovations. Research on the spread of hybrid seed corn among American farmers in the 1930s to 1950s established that while the diffusion of innovation is observed at the aggregate level, it is shaped by circumstances at the individual level.5 Innovations are adopted by individuals who will be impacted by their specific interactions with an innovation, their expectations of an innovation, and their contributions to an innovation—and each of these individuals is linked to networks within an organization. It is these individual, influential, person-to-person connections, which are based on trust, that can boost information flow within networks.

Establishing networks can help facilitate relationships in a way that encourages more innovation in an organization. Networks provide structure so that ideators know who to share an idea with, who to ask for resources, who can help develop a prototype, and who can provide an honest go/no-go decision.

3. Trust supports adoption

Given the often-rigid personnel policies of the public sector, taking a risk on a successful innovation is unlikely to make an ideator or connector the next C-suite executive; so, it’s important to recognize its other incentives. In government, broad trust in the benefits of an innovation can be critical for adoption. Leaders can instill trust across siloes, create space for risk-taking, and mitigate fears around an innovation’s impact. These actions can be key to offsetting the disincentives of adopting a new process or technology—namely, having to make changes. By creating a greater willingness to take risks, trust can support the diffusion of an innovation and subsequently help increase the probability of scaling innovation.

Person-to-person trust networks are essential for spreading an innovation across an organization, each of which may adopt at various paces. Identifying influencers across different networks can spur a greater breadth of adoption and help reach acceptance across segmented groups throughout an organization.6 Influencers (figure 2) can help to diffuse innovations because these individuals are trusted by their colleagues. As an innovation begins to be adopted, an ideator can become more reliant on networks of managers to share the benefits of the new technology among employees.

How do we scale networks of trust?

From continuous-aim gunnery to NASA, trust clearly plays a central role in the success of innovation. But this can present a dilemma for leaders: Although trust is fundamentally one individual’s perception of someone else’s reliability, innovation often requires it in massive scales. So how do you scale trust to the sizes needed for modern innovation? In other words, trust operates at the level of individual human relationships—between one individual and another or between an individual and an organization—but innovations often operate at the level of groups, organizations, and even whole industries. So how can the success of one individual be replicated at those massive scales?

What you should not do is the same thing you did to earn the trust of one individual. That is because different types of trust can be needed at different stages of innovation. At ideation, individuals need to trust the organization not to jeopardize their careers as they innovate. In the prototyping stage, leaders need to trust the idea enough to commit the organization’s resources to it, while in adopting, other workers need to trust leaders and influencers enough to begin using the new solution. Merely copying what worked in one stage will not ensure scaling to another.

First, understand innovation roles

So how do you scale individual trust to the scale of an entire industry? The answer lies in understanding people’s roles.

In innovation, we have already seen how different roles are needed for an innovation to succeed. Different individuals playing different roles are key at different stages of the innovation lifecycle. Take the example of continuous-aim gunfire: Admiral Scott was the innovator fostering trust among a small group to create a new idea; Lieutenant Sims was the connector who linked a problem with a promising solution; and President Roosevelt was the influencer who could marshal enough support for the innovation to take hold.

But these roles of innovator, connector, and influencer are not unique to specific individuals. Different people can be ideators at different times, and the same individual can be a connector in one group and an influencer in another. And importantly, for scaling, the characteristic relationship patterns of these roles seem to appear at any scale of human interaction.7

Nor are these roles fixed within a network. People’s relationships can change over time, which allows them to play different roles.8 For example, as a person gains more and more connections within a close group, the more effective they can become as an influencer. And when someone from a densely connected group gains connections with outside groups, they can begin to play the connector role quite effectively.

So, by understanding the key roles needed as innovations are ideated, prototyped, or adopted, leaders can find or train the right individuals to fill those roles. That way, leaders can ensure that innovations are developing the right type of trust, with the right people, and at the right time, no matter the scale (figure 2).

Developing individuals with the connections needed to play these roles can require both informal networks (e.g., people at work with whom innovators have a relationship or shared interest) or formal networks (e.g., an agency-created innovation network with roles carved out to develop an innovation). Regardless of informal or formal networks, for an organization to innovate systematically and repeatedly, a network of supporters is needed to create enough momentum to push ideas forward and avoid stagnation.

Second, adapt to each stage of innovation

The type of trust will shift as innovations move from ideation to prototyping to adoption, but the roles of ideator, connector, and influencer remain the same. Consider the following example.

First, let’s focus on trust shifting across the stages of innovation: ideation, prototype, and adoption (figure 3). After sunsetting the Space Shuttle Program in 2011, NASA shifted toward a public-private partnership (PPP) model for transporting crew to the international space station. Within this structure, NASA sought industry to develop solutions for the new concept of commercial crew transport and began to work with connectors to find out what was feasible.9 In the ideation stage, NASA shifted to leveraging external companies such as SpaceX and Boeing who became the ideators to design potential solutions. While creating new rockets and spacecraft in the prototyping stage, the companies in turn trusted NASA executives to play a connector role to influencers in Congress to deliver steady funding and regulatory approvals. By shifting ideation and prototyping outside the organization, NASA is also shifting risk outside of the organization. In this, NASA trusts industry’s process and is steadfast in its PPP arrangement, despite inevitable early prototype iterations. Finally, adoption has taken hold across the space community with the successful launch and return of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 in 2020 in conjunction with nearly 160 launches overall.10

Now, to focus on roles. The role of ideator shifted from NASA to industry as the emphasis shifted from creating a new concept of space travel to creating physical spacecraft—but the role of ideator still exists. By paying attention to roles, government leaders can help ensure that the right people are in place at the right times to build the trust needed (figure 4). Even organizations built for innovation, such as NASA, could fail if there isn’t trust in place. But by using roles to help build networks of trust, an innovation can garner buy-in across siloes and can be spread throughout an organization.

Want more insight on scaling innovations? Deloitte has a previous work dedicated to scaling innovations in government, which can be found here: Success at scale: A guide to scaling public sector innovation.

Recommendations for instilling innovation in your agency

If you’re a manager reading this, you may be thinking about potential pitfalls. Pitfalls can arise when there is a breakdown in trust between people. But remember, trust is founded on person-to-person interactions influenced by capability, reliability, humanity, and transparency.11 While trust starts between just two people, our recommendations for spurring innovation hinge on using trust to activate networks of trust. Networks can help amplify ideas and diffuse innovations across an agency for adoption (figure 5).

If you’re struggling to spur innovation in your organization, it might be time to examine your innovation structures and trust networks. To begin spurring innovation through trust, organizational leaders should:

1. Define what’s important: Innovation efforts rarely fail because of lack of good ideas. Rather, they can fail because organizations lack structure in their innovation process—getting a random barrage of good ideas instead of a pipeline of ideas that are organized around organizational goals. Structure starts with defining what is important to the organization. What is the goal that an innovation seeks to achieve? This will help determine the type of innovation (disruptive or incremental) the organization should pursue. For example, are you looking for improvements to the efficiency or effectiveness of current processes? Or are you looking for entirely new ways of delivering on the mission?

The right goal can help create the incentives and metrics needed to guide its achievement. Metrics and incentives are critical to driving the type of innovation behavior that organizations seek. Incentives are the monetary and nonmonetary rewards that help spur an organization’s workforce and external partners to actions needed for innovation. Metrics, on the other hand, help leadership track both internal and external progress toward innovation goals.

2. Manage talent by role: With the right goals established, leaders can turn to individuals who will carry out those goals. Leaders have long known that having the right person with the right contacts in the right position can make or break a project. But often, placing these key workers is done based on personal knowledge or intuition.12 Understanding the role that someone will play in an innovation ecosystem can help leaders put the right person with the right connections in the right position or, alternatively, help a person already in that role grow the right connections to succeed. For example, a leader who identifies that a given position in the organization tends to function as a connector between scientists who create new ideas and mission end users who apply them can use organizational network analysis to find candidates for the job who may be able to best bridge those two groups.

3. Continually measure trust: Finally, with the goals, metrics, incentives, and people all in place, leaders need to make sure the ecosystem is functioning properly. For innovation, this means that the players trust each other enough to create or adopt a new idea. Existing frameworks can help leaders select the right metrics to monitor the particular trust dynamics important for their innovation processes. But this is not a one-time action. As innovations move through the stages from ideation to prototyping to adoption, the type of trust needed evolves as well. Therefore, leaders should continually monitor trust metrics within the organization with an eye toward the specifical innovation goals and stages they are dealing with.

Getting started is often the hardest part. That’s why this article is designed to be an actionable guide you can take and implement. Individually, bringing in any part of these tools can help move the needle, but by compounding several of tools we’ve discussed—networks, structures, empowerment, and effective leadership—organizations can build layer upon layer of trust, which will ultimately bolster an organization’s chances of turning one person’s idea into an organizationally supported innovation that can create value at scale. Build the momentum and build the capacity for innovation in your organization.

  1. Elting E. Morison, “A case study of innovation,” Engineering and Science 13, no. 7 (1950): pp. 5–11. 

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  2. Ibid.

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  3. Percy Scott, Fifty Years in the Royal Navy (London: Nabu Press, 2010). 

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  4. Best Places to Work in the Federal Government, “2022 best places to work in the federal government® rankings,” accessed June 2023. 

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  5. Zvi Griliches, “Hybrid corn: An exploration in the economics of technological change,” Econometrica 25, no. 4 (1957): pp. 501–522. 

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  6. Eric Abrahamson and Lori Rosenkopf, “Social network effects on the extent of innovation diffusion: A computer simulation,” Organization Science 8, no. 3 (1997): pp. 289–309. 

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  7. Holger Ebel, Jörn Davidsen, and Stefan Bornholdt, “Dynamics of social networks,” Complexity 8, no. 2 (2002): pp. 24–27.

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  8. Rob Cross, Heidi Gardner, and Alia Crocker, Networks for agility: Collaborative practices critical to agile transformation, Connected Commons, March 2019. 

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  9. National Aeronautics and Space Administration, “Commercial Crew Program – Essentials,” accessed June 2023. 

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  10. SpaceX, “Falcon 9: First orbital class rocket capable of reflight,” accessed June 2023.

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  11. Deloitte Digital, “A blueprint for building trust,” accessed June 2023.

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  12. For a description of just one example of how a leader’s intuition helped put the right person in a connector’s role, see Stanley McChrystal et al., Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World (Portfolio, 2015), p. 179. Our goal with this research is to make this process more regularized so that leaders can put the right person in the right role without having to follow a hunch or a guess. 

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Cover image by: Sofia Sergi


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