Jul 27 2015

What Feds Can Learn from Startup Investors

The Lean Canvas template has benefitted the startup community. Will it work for government?

It’s time for the federal government to take another page from the nation’s startup community.

For the past 12 years, federal leaders have used the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) 300 template to make the case for more expensive technology investments. When the template was conceived, it was a great idea; however, much like the technology base back then, things have changed. It is well past time for the template to mirror the realities of today’s technology environment.

We should look at our friends from the entrepreneurial space and borrow a popular template known as Lean Canvas, which helps startups create an action plan for getting to market and securing funding.

Few commercial investors — other than lawyers — will take the time to read 100 pages, so why would government agencies and OMB? The documents used now provide little value to decision-makers and simply take too much time to produce.


The number of federal IT projects, out of 760 submitted for funding review in 2013, that focused on development; the remainder focused on legacy systems*

SOURCE: Federal News Radio, “OMB kicks off reforms with Smarter IT Delivery Agenda,” May 2014

Inside Lean Canvas

Lean Canvas represents an updated version of the business model template and typically accompanies the Lean Startup business model, from which the government has increasingly borrowed best practices in recent years.

The OMB 300 template typically runs between 50 and 100 pages, with included data varying from submission to submission. Rarely do original cost estimates and performance targets match what actually happens. The Lean Canvas model is easier to use than the OMB 300 template, but also forces users to think about their pitches more succinctly.

The Lean Canvas template is similar in appearance to a one-page PowerPoint document, divided into nine sections with labels such as problem, solution, key metrics and unique value proposition, among others.

The beauty of the template is that it leaves no room for bloviating. I have written three since leaving federal service, and it is not as easy as it sounds. Each applicant must carefully and thoughtfully condense a program into one page.

While the template is intended for the business world, it could easily be modified to fit government needs by including categories such as acquisition strategy or must-build (to justify why an agency cannot use an existing solution instead of the proposed plan). A new template would also provide program managers with a way to offer clear and concise investment submissions that fall within the federal Planning, Programming, Budgeting and Execution process.

Investors will read a Lean Canvas template from an entrepreneur or growing company when looking for the information they need to make a decision to start the investment process. Otherwise, it’s filed in the circular bin.

Why not try the Lean Canvas model on new IT projects and then expand as it proves successful? In recent years, the federal government has shown its willingness to borrow from the nation’s entrepreneurs. Here’s another way to do so effectively.

Bryan Mullennix/iStock/ThinkStockPhotos