Igniting Innovation at Our Agency

It shouldn't come as any surprise that government agencies don’t have a reputation for being the most innovative type of organization.  So when our management team determined that they wanted to put resources behind supporting new innovations within the agency, it was important to me that the process itself didn’t include any of the stereotypical bureaucratic red tape either.

Developing an Innovation Team

With support and funding for the program from leadership, an Innovation Team was developed.  The following points were key in setting the stage for success:

  1. Pick the right people for your innovation team.  They shouldn't just be the creative, big idea people, they need to be the ones that have demonstrated the ability to take an idea and make things happen. Staff from all levels and departments of the organization with diverse backgrounds and those who have big networks will be especially valuable because they have more experiences, places, and people to pull ideas from.  It seems ridiculous to say, but many organizations will put "tried and true veterans" on their teams, sometimes to keep the big-thinkers in check.

  2. Pick a leader, give him/her the authority and resources to meet the team's goals, and let them get to it.  A charter was developed, which was approved by our Director, that gave the Innovation Team the authority to move quickly when needed and make decisions without needing constant approval from district leadership. However, although one person should be in charge, everyone on the team should be able to step up and lead initiatives. The point of an innovation team should be to enable innovation, not simply "manage" it.  And that means that within the team itself there should also be the opportunity for members to develop their innovation enabling skills, regardless of job title.

  3. Set realistic goals and measure progress.  The innovation team should have a shared vision. And just like any other initiative, it's important that the team and the people outside of the team know where they're going, how well they are doing, and when they get there. A great brainstorming session was held with Innovation Team members to identify a 3-year plan, with the focus of the first year largely being on getting the “idea funding” initiative off the ground.  However there were some pretty off-the-wall (yet amazing) ideas for Year 3 which I'm equally excited about eventually rolling out.

Not Another Grant Application

When the idea for this innovation-funding initiative was initially developed, the idea was that it would mimic what many agencies currently do – an application would be developed for staff to submit to apply for funding for their idea.  However, we quickly realized the downsides to re-creating this type of system, including:

  • Good ideas are forgotten quickly if they are not captured right away. The work involved with an application may deter the idea from ever being documented.
  • The line between a good idea or improvement and an “innovation” is a grey area.  If the application process was based around funding new innovations, it may discourage the collection of ideas and improvements that don’t require funding to implement.
  • Everyone’s strengths in regards to developing and implementing ideas are different.  Some are great at generating ideas, but don’t necessarily have the skills to see them to completion.  Others aren’t so great at coming up with new ideas, but are great at refining them.  And many times, staff have great ideas for another department or something completely outside of their job scope, but not as many for their own.
  • Application processes are not interactive, nor are they innovative.

Keeping this in mind, we determined that the program would focus less on innovation funding and more on idea management (although with an innovation funding component in the background). After some work, a solution was determined that would address all of the concerns identified above.

The Launch Pad Program

We named the new initiative "Launch Pad" with the idea that it was all about “helping get good ideas off the ground.”  The analogy to a space shuttle works for other reasons as well.  While a lot of programs to fund new innovations and initiatives are often focused on the application and selection process, Launch Pad recognizes the work it takes to get to lift-off, but also the effort and focus needed to make sure that the mission succeeds, and just as much work to land the pilot project safely and evaluate how it went.

In order to encourage participation in the program across the organization, we developed an online idea forum and guidelines for the program. The design of the Launch Pad program philosophy matched with the technology allows staff at all levels of the organization the ability to participate in Launch Pad however they are comfortable.  For example, staff can:

  • Post an idea with links, photos, or videos to supplement the description from their desktop or any mobile device, 

  • Comment on co-workers’ ideas, helping further develop them, expand upon them, or share examples of where a similar idea might already be in place or in the works in another part of the organization,

  • Vote for an idea (giving it a thumbs-up) that they like, and

  • Review any previously posted ideas when going through planning processes such as capital improvement plans, budgets, etc. to include any ideas in planned funding.

Staff use the Launch Pad forum for cross-departmental idea sharing and development. Challenge questions posed by “Mission Control” (the Innovation Team) help spur discussion. 

Staff use the Launch Pad forum for cross-departmental idea sharing and development. Challenge questions posed by “Mission Control” (the Innovation Team) help spur discussion. 

Launch Pad also allows the Innovation Team to:

  • Respond to questions or concerns regarding any ideas, or ask further questions to prompt more conversation around an idea,

  • Use a widget to incorporate the idea forum at places where staff may have come across some new ideas, such as at the end of staff post-training surveys,

  • Update staff of the status of any idea by marking it as “Under Review,” “Planned,” “Started,” “Completed,” “Already in Place,” etc. and post information and photos of the progress of that idea as it is implemented, and

  • Post challenge questions to spur creative ideas in a particular area, and

  • Assign Innovation Team members to be “project mentors” and assist staff in rolling out the ideas, which encourages cross-department collaboration and gives staff across the agency valuable project management experience, even if on a small scale.

(I know that when people read about some of what we've put together, they start seeing $$$ and assume that their local government would never have the resources to afford something like this, but our solution only ended up costing us $108/year and required zero technical skills beyond incredibly basic computer know how and a little bit of HTML design work for branding and design customization.  Idea management software can be a little pricey and if you have the resources to be an off-the-shelf product, more power to you!  But, you'll be much better off if you start with the assumption that there is always a solution to your problem and you just haven't found it yet rather than taking a look at the price tag of the first few items that you find in your Google search results and deciding all hope is lost.  Be creative in your quest to problem solve! Be innovative about the way you innovate!!!)

Staff "launched" their ideas and closest to the Milky Way bar won a prize.  The good news is that our staff had a ton of great ideas to get us started.  The bad news is that our staff is severally lacking in paper airplane making skills. 

Staff "launched" their ideas and closest to the Milky Way bar won a prize.  The good news is that our staff had a ton of great ideas to get us started.  The bad news is that our staff is severally lacking in paper airplane making skills. 

Launch Pad was unveiled at an all-staff meeting.  To kick it off, staff were challenged come up with one quick idea, write it on a piece of paper designed with a space shuttle-themed pattern and "launch" it.  Since then, the Launch Pad website has been the main tool for collecting and communicating information about the program, but it's also been incorporated into orientations, staff meetings, through e-mail, and even creating a type of challenge graffiti wall using some of our white board painted walls.  We keep momentum going with on-going updates and making sure to recognize those that participate and talk about good ideas that both worked and didn't work.

Less than a year later, over 150 ideas have been posted and 25 new initiatives have either been completed or are in the works.  Ideas selected for implementation have ranged from incredibly simple – such as installing benches and coat hooks for customers to larger scale capital improvements such as cisterns to collect water from splash pads to re-use for irrigation.

When some people from other agencies hear about some of the "innovations" that come from our program, I occasionally get the skeptical "Is that really an innovation?" look. I think that those people are missing the point.  The real innovation that is taking place is the culture shift among staff, evidenced by the increase of new ideas being implemented outside of Launch Pad as innovation becomes more a part of daily life at out agency.  It just goes to show that the true benefits of a well thought out innovation program don't necessarily come from the ideas themselves, but from getting staff to practice thinking critically and fleshing out ideas while motivating them to constantly improve.