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Ken DunlapBy Ken Dunlap

Organizations these days spend a great deal of time trying to determine the best way to become more innovative. They look westward toward Silicon Valley and ask, “Why can’t we be more like them?”

Having been involved in a number of transformation exercises over the years, I can tell you that the answer is not found in placing employees in a room and telling them to be innovative and think big. This nearly always results in great ideas being poorly executed by an organization not ready for them.

So how can we ensure the best possible outcome for the new TSA Innovation Task Force announced by Administrator Neffenger?

In this ongoing series, we are looking at the key reforms needed to create a better Transportation Security Administration, or TSA 2.0. Next on the agenda is innovation. The single most important act of leadership for DHS and TSA with regard to the Innovation Task Force is to select the innovation vector upon which this country will defeat threats to the aviation system and charter the Task Force to structure their work around it.

There are four types of innovation, according to Geoffrey Moore in his landmark book, Dealing with Darwin. He says something that is applicable to our discussion: “The single most important act of strategy leadership is to select the innovation vector upon which your company will develop its sustainable competitive advantage—its core.”

Today, DHS and its Science & Technology Directorate seem to focus on what Moore calls “Product Innovation.” In this, existing products are improved through functionality and usability for existing markets. Success is achieved through time-to-market and patent protection. Put another way, the government sets the requirements, performance standards, and then writes the check. DHS seems to have this model under control in the current acquisition process. And we seem to keep pace with the bad guys, or stay a bit ahead, and you can’t fault that. But frankly, this model for innovation hasn’t produced much in the way of game-changing advances.

There is, however, another model Moore refers to and that’s “disruptive innovation”— products and services create technology discontinuities and new market categories. Existing standards and value chains are over-turned in favor of new approaches.

TSA 2.0 needs to think, look, and award contracts more like DARPA. This type of innovation is independent of a contracting process and encourages the pursuit of the question, “How can we press the boundaries?”

This kind of innovative thinking is found in universities, in airlines and airports, it’s within the labs of the vendor community and a host of other venues where the next better thing is being thought about. I believe that disruptive innovation will keep us ahead of our adversaries by a larger margin. That’s where the Innovation Task Force should be focusing in TSA 2.0.

And that brings me to a final point on strategy and innovation—the problem posed by the increasingly sophisticated attacks we are facing and the nexus with innovation strategy. The innovation process cannot focus solely on security capabilities and strategies aimed at the new and novel attack while neglecting the low-tech attack. As we focus on DARMS, detection technology, automated passenger profiling, surveillance systems, and automated behavior detection, we cannot divert our attention away from issues such as access control, boots on the ground, credentialing, perimeter security, checkpoint procedures, and the employee security culture. Our continuing vulnerability remains low-tech and will remain that way for the foreseeable future.

What we need to be doing is developing disruptive technological tools that support our workforces in carrying out the vitally important task of physical screening. We should be focusing on technologies that make screening procedures and equipment easier to understand, learn, and implement. User interfaces need to decrease workload and reflect the experience that today’s wired employee sees on their I-device. Such focus will result in technology that supports continuous improvement in our workforce and help us understand the performance of our screening equipment. That’s TSA 2.0

In many ways, how we innovate is more important than what we innovate. Providing the Task Force with a framework will help them focus. Providing the TSA staff with the rationale behind how the Task Force operates will assist them in executing (and contracting) the great ideas this group hopefully generates.

Up next in this series: Outcome-Focused Risk Based Security.

Ken Dunlap is a Senior Fellow at the George Washington University Center for Cyber and Homeland Security. For more than a decade, he led many of the International Air Transport Association’s (IATA) key government affairs activities relating to airports, passengers, cargo, and security. He launched and guided the Checkpoint of the Future program for IATA, and he has testified on global aviation security issues before the U.S. Congress and Canadian Parliament.