The FBI: Tomorrow's Leading Innovator

05/15/2015 10:38 am ET | Updated May 15, 2016

Innovators, beware: The FBI is watching you. Happily, it's making major strides towards combating terrorism and driving game-changing breakthroughs in national security as a result of these efforts as well. Credit the agency's recent establishment of a new internal innovation team designed to address the increasingly complex challenges of battling criminal elements in an age of big data, online communications and social media. (And the organization's burning desire to better understand tomorrow's fast-changing business and high-tech environments.) Over FBI 250 employees and contractors are now assigned to better comprehending the role that current and futuristic communications networks will play in tomorrow's world, how to analyze the mountains of raw data they'll generate, and how the use of more innovative concepts can help the agency more successfully navigate these waters, and defuse terrorist threats. We recently sat down with Jane Rhodes-Wolfe to find out more about the FBI's interest in the space, and its singular approach to staying ahead of the curve.

Q: How and why is the FBI embracing the concept of innovation -- and what does this mean in practical terms (implementation)?

A: The FBI's Counterterrorism Innovation Team is always seeking for better ways to identify and address terrorist threats, often in a fast-paced, dynamic environment. In a world where virtually everyone communicates across the digital spectrum, those challenges are made exponentially more difficult when you factor in the complexity and dynamic nature of current communication tools, changes within the telecommunications industry, the use of social media, etc. To maintain our ability to identify and address threats nimbly, we must always be seeking to leverage the latest technology, and always in a manner that respects privacy and the rule of law.

Q: In what ways is the organization itself like a startup, and what lessons in leadership and entrepreneurial thinking are you learning from leaders in fast moving, highly competitive industries that are being applied back to bureau operations?

A: Although we have been "in business" for 107 years, we are constantly responding and adapting to new threats and national security concerns, just like successful industries that change over time. Over the years the FBI's priorities have diversified and evolved, from organized crime, drugs, financial fraud and other criminal enterprises, to today's focus on threats to national security. This flexibility stems in large part from our ability to adapt along with a dedicated workforce and sense of public service. Today's counterterrorism threats include activities at home and abroad, so innovation, ingenuity, imagination, and teamwork are the key components needed to be successful, as is the case with most successful corporations.

Q: You've mentioned the importance of learning from leaders in private sectors -- why is this important, and what types of initiatives are underway?

A: Defeating terrorism requires incredible focus, efficient use of resources, adaptive and creative thinking, and collaboration. Successful industry leaders also exhibit these traits and are always seeking to improve their business processes. While not a business, the FBI is no different in that we are constantly seeking innovative solutions to challenging problems. Just as industry leaders focus and prioritize resources to respond to the needs of the marketplace, we in the FBI focus and prioritize our resources in the defense of the country. Industry and government also face the common challenge of recruiting and hiring unique skill sets across various demographics. Innovation in recruiting and hiring the "best of the best" is a worthy challenge both industry and government must rise to meet in order to achieve our respective goals. We value our partnerships with members of the private sector for the insight they give us. The FBI, in turn, seeks to educate industry leaders about threats relating to their particular sectors, and through this education process, both government and industry are better able to align resources to achieve their goals.

Q: What sectors -- technology, big data, communications, etc -- are of most interest to the bureau as of late, and why?

A: Within the Counterterrorism Division, we are focused on quickly identifying and disrupting terrorist threats. This job has become increasingly difficult given the advances in technology, pervasiveness of digital communications and worldwide reach of the internet. To that end, we work closely with all sectors to understand the threats unique to each, and leverage their experience in addressing a common goal. Like many other government agencies and private sector enterprises, it's important to develop and maintain communication and understanding across all sectors in order to address an ever evolving and complicated threat.

Q: How has the pursuit of innovation provided benefits to the bureau in the past, and what sorts of advancements has it produced? What sorts of benefits do you see this process providing?

A: Our internal innovation team was formed earlier this year and we are confident this team will allow us to more quickly and efficiently respond to terrorist threats. A collateral benefit includes a better educated workforce empowered to effect change and implement solutions.

Q: What does the FBI's internal innovation team look like, and what are some of the sorts of types of initiatives it currently has underway?

The team is comprised of agents, analysts, technology experts and contractors, some of whom have been in the FBI or government for more than 30 years, others just six months. Their combined skill, experience, vision, determination and dedication combine for an effective force. Over the past few months, we have already implemented minor changes and enhancements to our processes based upon cross-pollination of ideas and disciplines within our section. Education is also a key component of our team as we combine skill sets from disparate areas of expertise and duties. I am confident the small changes will lead to major improvements both within the Counterterrorism Division and across the FBI.

Q: How has today's operational/business world fundamentally changed -- and how has it fundamentally changed the way the bureau operates?

A: International connectivity combined with digital communications are two significant changes impacting our organization. In order to be successful in defeating terrorism and protecting innocent lives around the world, we need a deep understanding of both issues in order to adapt and respond. These issues are common in many agencies and sectors, yet the implications associated with national security matters raises the stakes for our workforce.

Q: Which approaches to innovation and leadership around managing change have you found to be most effective?

We have adopted a "flatter" structure to our team where everyone's voice is heard regardless of seniority or title. The exchanges provide unique viewpoints from a wide variety of perspectives. The team recognizes they serve as consultants on current issues and future planning, enhancing the sense of ownership and pride in their efforts.

Q: Something most folks would never suspect about the bureau, and why innovation is now a priority, would be?

Innovation and change are a rich part of our heritage. By example, many forensic protocols and techniques were developed by the FBI over the past 107 years, creating the standard for law enforcement agencies around the world. Our recent efforts and creation of the Counterterrorism Innovation Team highlight unique technical challenges combined with the significant talents and capabilities of our employees and their desire to serve our country. I think most people would also be surprised at the level of cooperation that takes place amongst ourselves and our federal, state, local, tribal and international partners. Fighting terrorism truly is a joint effort.

Q: Any tips/insights for driving successful change and innovation you've learned through these efforts that organizations in the private sector should know?

A: We look to the team members who are excited about opportunities and potential change and don't attempt to force the concept on others. Over time and with successful implementation of team suggestions, we expect to see more involvement and improvements.

Q: You're operating in not one but dozens of landscapes evolving at breakneck pace -- what's the best advice you'd give leaders today hoping to stay ahead of the curve?

I believe looking outside of your environment is key. We have seen great benefit in working across internal programs and with expanding partnerships and liaison effort.

Q: Anything else we haven't touched on that you'd like to?

At the FBI's Counterterrorism Division, we must identify and defeat attacks before they occur, and bring those responsible to justice. However, the safety and security of our country is a shared responsibility by all, so we need the help of the American people and business community to be vigilant and help us defeat these threats.

The public may visit or contact their local field office or United States embassy to speak to an FBI employee.