Launching Innovation

It shouldn't come as any surprise that government agencies aren't exactly known for being the most innovative organizations out there.  There are many reasons for this, including the public's lack of tolerance for risk-taking and mistake-making with public dollars, even if that is an essential part of the innovation process.  However, during a recent branding study, our district learned that the one area where we have disconnect between what our community wants in an ideal park district and how they actually see us is innovation.  And, during our last strategic planning process, innovation was also identified as a value and one area staff really wanted to improve on.  

The consultant who was hired to lead us through our strategic planning process emphasized that a lot of organizations talk about innovation, but really never do anything actionable to make it happen.  I'm pleased to say that our district has made some pretty incredible advances in this area over the past few years, at least internally, which has definitely helped us serve our customers better externally.  However, this past summer, our management team felt that there was still more than could be done.  Some of the ideas that surfaces during the brainstorming session included:

  • identifying an innovation champion/innovation team for the district
  • developing some sort of idea folder to collect good ideas for reference later
  • offer more opportunities to share ideas accross departments
  • dedicating resources to good ideas that need some help to get started
  • recognizing when staff take a risk to try something new, even if it doesn't work out as planned and sharing the successes so that other staff can copy the good idea
  • rewarding staff for being innovative or coming up with good ideas

I was (happily) charged with leading this initiative and formed an innovation committee to get started.  Reading through lots of reports on how to have a successful innovation team, some common themes started to develop.

  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 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 get out of the way.  Although one person should be in charge, everyone on the team should be able to step up and lead initiatives when it makes sense.
  3. Set 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.

We had a great kick-off brainstorming session to identify what we wanted to accomplish over the next three years, and put a major focus on the work for our first year, which was to develop some program that would incorporate staff's requests.  We developed a charter, which was approved by the director, that gave our group the authority to move quickly when needed and make decisions without needing constant approval from district leadership.

Fast-forward a few months to last week.  After an insane amount of searching, we found a website services that we could actually afford that allows staff to post ideas, comment on other's ideas, vote for ideas that they like and also allows the innovation team to update staff on which of the ideas have been selected for development.  The team came up with an awesome name for the program and we unvieled it at our all-staff meeting.  We've decided to call it Launch Pad, because it's all about "helping get good ideas off the ground."  I also really like the analogy to launching a space shuttle because it takes a ton of work to get to lift-off, a lot of effort and focus to make sure the mission succeeds, and just as much effort to bring it back home safely and evaluate how it went.  

To kick it off, we had all of the staff come up with one quick idea, write it on a piece of paper that I designed with a space shuttle-themed pattern and "launch" it.  

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. 

One week later and almost half of our staff have signed in to Launch Pad and we've had 12 ideas, 15 comments, and 18 votes.  Overall, I'm pretty pleased with the initial participation, but am already trying to figure out how to keep the momentum going.  

Does your organization have an innovation program like ours?  Any advice on what did or did not work and how to keep it going?