Innovation: From White House to C-Suite

Health-care reform was a tale of two Presidents.

The first, President Barack Obama (circa 2009), had the expectation that health-care reform could be driven through Congress and straight to his desk with little more than his mandate that it get done. Last summer, he demanded a bill on his desk by Labor Day.

Washington laughed.

His leadership was in question. The innovation that got this little-known senator from Illinois elected was nowhere to be seen.

Facing failure, President Obama (circa 2010) remembered the skills required to cajole a team into working together. He recalled the leadership and creative innovation necessary to craft a workable bill. In February, he held a televised address with GOP leaders at a Conservative conference. He crossed the country to attend Town Hall meetings and other public forums. He took an Ohio woman who lost her health insurance before being diagnosed with cancer and made her the face of reform.

On Mar. 21, Congress passed the Health-Care Reform Bill.

Though some people debate the comprehensiveness of the reform, and some lament the backroom politicking that seemingly went on, friend and foe alike have commented on how the President's resurrected leadership guided this measure through.

Innovation at the White House

Innovation has been a key ingredient of the Obama Presidency. Last September, his office drafted the "Strategy for American Innovation." The document paper called for "agencies to increase their ability to promote and harness innovation by using policy tools such as prizes and challenges." The State Dept., the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, NASA, the Energy Dept., and the Environmental Protection Agency have so far risen to the challenge. Each is using prizes, grants, and recognition to encourage private-sector participation in a greater innovation renaissance and public-private partnership. President Obama set a goal and communicated it across governmental agencies.

Transfer that thinking from Pennsylvania Avenue to Main Street, from Inside the Beltway to the Halls of Corporate America. Envision each of those departments and agencies as silos within a company. Each is charged with serving the greater corporate good by developing innovation.

The White House is driving inspired innovation. You can too. Here are four ideas to bear in mind when looking to implement innovation within an organization.


With the President's and White House's support, independent agencies are charged with seeking innovation—and to encourage it in others. That's the CEO's role, too. Corporate chiefs have to inspire and lead by example. When Obama faced stern opposition over the health-care bill, he led by example, walked the talk, and stayed engaged throughout the process.

Net Results / Net Rewards

In March, the Office of Management & Budget released a memorandum, Guidance on the Use of Challenges and Prizes to Promote Open Government. The document outlined the "potential benefits of prizes" to pay for results, to highlight excellence and to motivate, inspire, and guide others. In addition, prizes "further a Federal agency's mission by attracting more interest and attention to a defined program, activity, or issue of concern." Does your organization reward innovative employees with encouragement, recognition from management, or the chance to lead a team or project? These simple nods can be powerful motivators.

Value Creation

No leader is an island. Nor is a government agency—or corporate department. Successful innovation starts at the top and then trickles down throughout an organization—all with the aim of creating value. For-profit corporations find value in supporting the bottom line. Does your innovation have its focus there?


Success—whether it arises in innovation that leads to new product development or a system that streamlines an organization—must be observable and measurable. It must stem from accountability and lead to tangible results. Leaders lay out their goals, inspire their team, and set a common, results-focused goal.

For Chief Innovation Officer Obama, inspiration, rewards, value creation and results were key imperatives on the path to the successful passage of health-care reform legislation. Do you employ the same imperatives?

—With Jeff Zbar

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