Success Story: “Into the Belly of the Beast.”

By | April 27, 2017



April 24, 2017


Maura Sullivan was restless.  After graduate degrees at Stanford and Emory University focusing upon predictive modeling of casualties and earthquakes, she spent eight years in Silicon Valley  building predictive models “of things that could basically kill lots of people or cause people to live a long time…or cause major market disruptions.” Eventually she realized that there was more to life than helping start-ups make money.  She was looking for new challenges.  What she didn’t know at the time was that Wicked Problems were calling.

In 2013, when the opportunity for a White House fellowship came along, she accepted it;  and during that year became convinced that real progress isn’t achieved by either research or business, but is “catalyzed at the intersection of research, business, and government.” She knew a great deal about research, and had spent years making contributions in business. Now it seemed to her that government was the last frontier.

At the end of the fellowship, she decided not to return to the private sector or to accept a position in academia. When she was recruited by the Department of the Navy (DON)  - “handpicked to transform the Navy’s use of IT and data” –  and after she looked into the challenges inherent in the job, she accepted a position at the Pentagon. When asked why she chose the DON, her answer  tells us a great deal about what kind of a person she is: “When I first got here and looked at the Department of the Navy network, it looked to me like the biggest catastrophic risk I had ever seen.”  It was just what she was looking for. “You go where the problems are the biggest and most complex,” she said later.  ”This is very much like going to the belly of the beast of government…If you’re going to find a problem and make an impact, you might as well pick the biggest and most complex and thorniest you can find.”

Wicked Problems in the Department of the Navy

And the  problems she found in the belly of that beast were not just big, complex and thorny, they were also wicked:  ”Some problems are wicked,” she told an interviewer from the online site NextGov. “They’re not meant to be solved; they’re meant to be managed.” Early in Sullivan’s career, when she was working on predicting earthquakes and on the complexities of energy engineering, she discovered that some problems were wicked:  ”Earthquakes aren’t a problem that’ll be solved, energy isn’t a problem that’s solvable.  It’s a wicked problem.” This knowledge changed her life.

Early on, Sullivan discovered  that there were three “messes” that the Navy was struggling with, and from which she would have to formulate actionable problems:

Linear Thinking:  When the Navy made the decision to go nuclear, they also made the decision to cultivate, recruit, train and promote linear thinkers.  ”The truth is,” said Sullivan,” we live in a much different world now, especially with the physical-digital intersection.”  When the problem requires flexibility, agility and creativity, linear thinking …”is an enormous problem…”

Bureaucratic Organization:   Sullivan quickly learned that in government bureaucracies there were many stakeholders but no owners.  Her challenge was daunting: “How do you find a way to bring stakeholders together in such a way that you convince everyone to say yes when everyone wants to say no?” She had found a quintessential wicked problem.

Hierarchical Structure:  Being part of the military, the DON was extremely hierarchical.  Decisions were made at the top, often with insufficient data, and then the lower levels were informed and expected to implement them.  For Sullivan, this was frustrating.  She was used to a culture  ”where everyone is the captain of their own ship.”  Once in the Navy, however, she learned that even though she and others could “aggregate” data, they had no opportunity to interpret the data or make decisions based upon them.

Sullivan Attacks Wicked Problems at The DON

Once Sullivan had drilled down into the culture of the DON, she discovered that the most important wicked problem situations that were relevant for her mission were also part of the foundation of the organization:  how people thought; how they were organized; and how power was distributed and decisions were made.

Her challenge was to find ways to attack them.

She  began with three overarching principles:  First, people in the organization from the highest to the lowest levels should be “owners” of these problems; second, she was committed to bringing conversations about these problems “out in the open;” and third, she would encourage “buy-in” from employees at all levels.

Working within the bureaucratic structures and procedures of the DON at the Pentagon she quickly learned that she had few levers she could bring to bear upon ineffectual norms and practices of the system.  Working with her team, they “identified four major tools:  policy changes, seed funding, best practice promotion, and thought leadership.”

She Made Structural Changes First:  Keenly aware that the DON was a system that was both bureaucratic and hierarchical, her first target was the structure:  ”I started by reorganizing the management organization to bring the Chief Information Officer (CIO) and business functions closer together.”  Her next step was to create a strategy and innovation office that “could scan the horizon and figure out how we [could] incorporate emerging technologies…”

She Created an Inclusive Task Force:  “And after that,” said Sullivan, “we kicked off Taskforce Innovation…a nine-month effort across the organization to simultaneously make changes in how we think about workforce information processes… in order to cut horizontally across the organization.”  The efforts of the Task Force were impressive: During the first two months her department was able to solicit ideas from 30 organizations resulting in 150 credible, specific policy or project ideas.  ”This helped to greatly decentralize the innovation platform and remove hierarchical blockages that were hindering experimentation due to rank or location,” said Sullivan.

She Introduced a Collectively Sponsored Form of Participation:  As Sullivan became more familiar with how the DON functioned, she became aware of a critical gap – one that occurs in most organizations – between the people who have the knowledge and the people who hold the power.  Her response was to turn to crowdsourcing.  In order to encourage conversations about the problem and bring them out into the open, Sullivan designed and implemented the Massive Multiplayer Online Wargame Leveraging the Internet (MMOWGLI), a system-wide simulation that encouraged wide-spread participation and involvement of thousands of employees.

Information was sent to all inviting them to “Play the Game: Help the DON Adapt to the Future in the Information Age .”  The wicked problem at the center of the simulation was identified as the “Data Dilemma: Sharing vs. Silo.” People were encouraged to “Join the Data Dilemma (Sharing vs Silo) MMOWGLI game” and were promised that they could help “Determine how the Department of the Navy (DON) should use data to drive mission success, fuel innovation, and adapt to the future.”  ”Your opinion matters” they were told, “and you can help influence change.”

“She “Lit People’s Fires:” “You are in this traditionally controlled and rigid governmental environment,”  stated the interviewer.  ”How do you encourage bold thinking and how have you gotten stakeholders to buy into the ideas you’ve had?” ”Sometimes, you have to light fires,” was Sullivan’s answer.  Instead of bringing in a problem and talking about it – something that didn’t work well in an environment where the senior leadership’s rank unduly  influenced the conversation – she used an approach that could be described as “Careful, Cautious, Confrontation.”  In order to demonstrate how failures in technology affected the system, she would present a very tangible example.  She would bring an IT product into a meeting and demonstrate in front of the leadership “how the system is very much not working.”  By eschewing traditional approaches  -  Power Point slides and lectures – and choosing a “show rather than tell” approach, she was much more successful in getting the attention of the senior leadership.

Honors and Promotions

Maura Sullivan’s approaches in tacking wicked problems in the Navy have been recognized and rewarded.  The position of Chief of Strategy and Innovation was created for her, and she was  given the mission to oversee technology and map it into a strategy for the future. In addition, Sullivan’s courage and creativity were honored outside of the Navy.   She was awarded the ACM Grace Murray Hopper Award, honoring an outstanding computer science professional under the age of 35, and for her creative efforts in designing and implementing MMOWGLI,  Sullivan was one of 10 federal employees honored with Nextgov’s Bold Award, proving that the federal government is full of “bold, innovative federal employees who are disrupting the status quo.”

 Away, Against, or Toward Wicked Problems

Three choices open up for people when “called by wicked problems:”   Move away, move against, and move toward.

 Away:  People move away from wicked problems by  ”getting out of town.”  If possible, they delegate them to someone else.  If not, they either pretend that they don’t exist or if that’s not possible, argue that “if we leave them alone, they will go away.”

 Against:  Others deal with wicked problems, not by addressing the problems themselves but by aggressively attacking the idea of wicked problems and often the people who express concerns about them.  They prefer to see problems as superficial and simple, and  the solutions they support as shallow and simple-minded.  The possibility that there are complexities below the surface and that drilling down into the problem to take account of these complexities is beyond their comprehension.  In Rollo May’s insightful phrase, “they make molehills out of mountains.”  Rather than examining carefully the nature of the problem and enlisting others in “finding solutions,” they bloviate about how they can solve it themselves and quickly.  Listening to the noise, one is reminded of MacBeth’s description of life as “A tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”  Loudly insisting that they are qualified and competent problems solvers, they are more recognizable as drugstore cowboys who, in Texas-talk, are”all hat and no cattle.”


Most people avoid getting down into the “belly of the beast” where the problems are messy, complex, and often politically risky.  For Sullivan, however,  it was the opportunity she had been looking for. When she heard  wicked problems calling, she was quick to answer.  From the beginning, she understood that the problems she would face were wicked and not tame, a perspective that made a difference in how she attacked them. She moved toward them, embraced them, and addressed them with creativity and courage.  She involved others and encouraged them to become participants and “owners” rather than observers or critics. She experimented with innovative ways of coming at problems from different perspectives and unusual angles,

And she not only survived but flourished.  She found ways to make bad situations better, and in the process changed the culture of the Department of the Navy by leaving in place new knowledge and better strategies for dealing with complex, messy and thorny problems in the future.














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