Guest column: Presidential Innovation Fellows: a model for impact and change

Adam Dole Adam Dole is currently participating in the Presidential Innovation Fellows program, working on MyData Initiatives at HHS.

Adam Dole, presidential innovation fellow working on the MyData Initiatives (Blue Button) at the Department of Health and Human Services, is a FedScoop contributor.

I remember the day I received the call informing me I had been selected as a presidential innovation fellow. Becoming a fellow would mean putting my life “on hold,” requiring I leave my work at the Mayo Clinic, move to Washington, D.C., and live apart from my wife and better half, Kyoko (whose career is based in California).


However, becoming a fellow would provide a unique opportunity to make a meaningful difference in the lives of others by bringing private sector entrepreneurship to better enable government agencies to fulfill their mission on a national scale. So, I knew things would change, but I could not have predicted how big a change this would have on my life and future career aspirations.

How the fellows work

Changing government from the inside out, one PIF project at a time, might seem like an unrealistic and frustrating proposition. Frustrating? Perhaps. Unrealistic? As I would learn, no. During the fellows’ inauguration, I remember questioning whether I was really up to the challenge and even whether I deserved to be on the same stage at the White House with the other fellows, governmental agency department heads and U.S. Chief Technology Officer Todd Park.

For those of you familiar with flow theory and optimal performance, I was out of my comfort zone wondering if the relationship between challenge and ability would ever come back into balance. As I would quickly learn during my first few weeks, innovation meant more than just coming up with new ideas to solve important problems on a large scale. It was about putting those ideas into immediate action, learning and relentless iteration to achieve maximum impact. A critical success factor was the opportunity to work as a member of a high-performance team of talented and passionate fellows, supported by leaders and advisers across government agencies.

Impact is the product of mass and velocity


As a fellow, I had the opportunity to personally experience how the core of the PIF mission can be used to drive change on a large scale. Based on a Newtonian physics analogy, Todd Park emphasizes that socio-economic impact is the product of velocity and mass. The entrepreneurial, start-up approach is based on speed (velocity and acceleration). The government provides a platform for achieving scale by accessing mass. My experience is that pairing private sector entrepreneurs with government innovators on high-priority projects can achieve high-impact results that make a difference. The success of each of the PIF projects can be attributed to achieving both velocity and mass. Another aspect of achieving mass and velocity was recognizing that “no matter who you are, most of the smartest people work for someone else,” as Bill Joy, co-founder of Sun Microsystems famously said. The success of any PIF team critically depended on the team’s ability to develop external collaborations and build platforms that facilitate interactions among government agencies, private sector businesses/services, entrepreneurs and startups.

Success requires focus and broad perspective

One of the unique and important aspects of the PIF program for me was the opportunity to develop a deeper understanding of the problem I was working on through first-hand experience with different parts of a more complex system. In our team’s case, it was the health care ecosystem. Being able to actively engage with key stakeholders and decision makers in health care (patients, providers, pharmacies, diagnostic labs, technology developers and vendors and third-party payers) provided new collective insights resulting in collaborative solutions to achieve shared goals. This experience was invaluable in our efforts to facilitate and expand individual access to electronic health records to enable patients to better manage their health and coordinate their healthcare.

The PIF program changes things

When I started in the PIF program nine months ago, it was with the expectation I would try to change things to make a difference in the lives of others. Reflecting on the last nine months, although there is more work to be done, I believe our team has achieved what we set out to accomplish and perhaps more than we thought possible in a short period of time (by leveraging both mass and velocity).


What I didn’t anticipate was the impact the program would have on me. I had expected being a PIF would be a meaningful “detour,” and that I would return to my previous life at the point where I left off. But something has fundamentally changed, and I am no longer on the same trajectory as I was before. In short, my sense of what is possible has redefined my future aspirations and goals.

Editor’s note: April 7 is the deadline to apply to the program. Click here to do so.

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