Katherine Tobin

Breaking Down Barriers to Accelerate Innovation

Katherine is helping the Intelligence Community learn to fail faster--and fail better--in order to meet the challenges of a 21st century world.

As a branch chief in the CIA’s Office of Advanced Analytics, my job has been to develop tools to help people think about data, and how they can use it more effectively to do their jobs—job number one for all of us being to protect our national security. Folks in OAA like to say, “we’re the ones who can help make innovation stick.”

And this is not just a service we provide. It’s a set of skills we teach, rooted in human-centered design. Basically, that’s creating things—whether they’re a physical product or a tool or a policy—that actually serves people. Human-centered design acknowledges that there are many ways to solve a problem. You have to look at the assumptions underlying how a given problem is defined, and really dig in to work with the people involved to figure out a way forward.

Katherine Tobin talks storytelling and innovation at SXSW 2019

Katherine Tobin talks storytelling and innovation at South by Southwest Interactive 2019

Putting humans at the center of our process has its challenges. Let’s face it, people are weird. People are often wrong. They often don’t understand, or can’t predict, their own behavior. And that’s OK. That’s where we come in.

To be successful, we have to realize that we’re building something for other people. We’re not building it for ourselves. So we should really figure out, “Who are those people?”, “What do they actually need?” Getting to the truth means knowing that the truth is not always the same, depending on who you talk to. Making the effort to figure out who to talk to, getting the right stakeholders in the room, makes all the difference.

"If I’ve learned anything, it’s allow yourself to be surprised. Also, allow yourself to be wrong. The best plan just kind of goes to pieces as soon as it hits reality."

Innovation is about change. Whether big or small, change can be scary enough to accept, but the prospect of failure is even more daunting. Failure can be embarrassing and costly, especially in the federal government. I teach people how to manage risk during the innovation process so failures aren’t such a setback. This gives people the confidence to try new things, knowing they can handle hurdles along the way.

Part of this is moving away from a culture where there is a single outcome that means success. “When is it done?” The real answer is probably, “Never!” because the world keep changing and the work keeps changing.  If we’re lucky and we’re good, with sustained effort, we stay ahead of it. 

"Let’s face it, people are weird. People are often wrong. They often don’t understand, or can’t predict, their own behavior. And that’s OK. That’s where we come in."

Success, then, isn’t a predictable, final destination. Instead, it’s the often surprising result of consistent hard work. You can’t predict exactly which bit of work is going to yield great success. Or how all your tough experiences are going to pay off later on. But you have to put in the effort for a long time, so you’ll be ready with lots of different experiences that could yield success. You don’t always know when this is coming.

tobin bike to work day

Katherine Tobin celebrating "Bike to Work Day" 2019 at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence

It’s the same when I’m training for a triathlon. I’ll be working out, really chiseling against a metaphorical boulder, and it will seem like I’m not making progress and I’ll start to wonder why I thought I could ever break through. But you trust the process and you keep going. And suddenly, unexpectedly, a chunk breaks off. Something clicks. You can carry your speed up the hill, or hold a faster pace on a tough swim. And then that’s it! You own that progress and you can keep going—more chiseling, more work to be done.

Either way, it’s the little things that I know will just add up. And in both cases, I have confidence that while the timing and nature of it will often surprise you, success is inevitable.

Shaping the Future

Shortly after shooting this video for Intel.gov I learned that Office of the Director of National Intelligence—my home agency—was planning to create a new Office of Transformation and Innovation. So, I left the CIA to return to the ODNI, where I now lead the Intelligence Community’s work on lateral innovation.

The IC is made up of 17 different offices and elements. It’s critical to our success that we share what works, figure out the realm of the possible, and break new ground together where the circumstances demand it. I’m thrilled that my new gig puts me at the center of this work every day.

"Success...isn’t a predictable, final destination. Instead, it’s the often surprising result of consistent hard work."

What is lateral innovation, you might ask? I'm in charge of accelerating the pace of innovation across the IC by connecting innovators and innovative practices across the IC. After all, innovation in a bureaucracy is hard enough. My team is here to make it a little easier.

What does that mean in practice? Here are a few examples of things we are doing:

  • Creating an online platform so innovators can find each other, ask questions, share materials, and advertise upcoming events and opportunities.
  • Leading human-centered design sprints to help the IC pressure test and (in)validate some of their initiatives, and
  • Expanding a program that makes it easy for the private sector to have technical discussions about research and development with the whole Intelligence Community.

It has been a wild ride so far, working in a startup environment within a bureaucracy! I got to share a little bit about the experience at South by Southwest Interactive and we’ll be sharing even more on dni.gov, so you can follow along in the fun.

And if this does sound like fun to you, we’re always looking for talented people who bring diverse perspectives, people who are willing to take risks, and who can manage them smartly.

That’s what led me to join the IC in the first place. And I’d love to see you do the same.  

- KT