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.

Read More

The Door to Innovation Swings Both Ways

My role in helping lead innovation at my agency can be a tricky one.  On one hand, there is the out-of-the-box, big dreamer, inspirational, anything is possible, cheerleader side of what I have to do in order to get staff engaged and involved in the process.  On the other hand, there is absolutely no point to wasting time coming up with ideas that never see the light of day.  So I also have to be the realist, hard-nosed, deadline-setting, "No, we can't wait any longer" project manager as well.  It can be hard to balance those roles and not come across as disingenuous when I'm in "We can do it!" mode or as abrupt and uncaring when I'm in "Get it done" mode.

I came across a quote the other day though that struck a cord with me - possibly because I was finding myself a little frustrated with the opposition to a few ideas we were trying to role out from our idea management program.  

The one who says it cannot be done should never interrupt the one who is doing it.

Although it helped with my frustration in the moment, I also realized that sometimes I'm the one interrupting or slowing down innovation at our agency, even if it's for good reason, as I've been equally frustrated a few times this week when I wish someone would have put the brakes on a new idea so that we could have collaborated to make the end result a little better.  No wonder this innovation stuff can be so hard to nail down.  In any given situation it could be equally valid to stop and listen as it may be to tell someone to (respectfully) get out of the way.

Should I Stay or Should I Go?

When you are rolling out a new project, initiative, or innovation and are faced with some sort of opposition or never-ending input/suggestions, how are you supposed to know which response is appropriate to make sure that you get the best possible result?  The two most likely scenarios that you will face include the following:

  1. You had an original idea in mind and agreed upon, but once it got moving, suddenly everyone had something to add to it.  In Project Management, we call that "scope creep," which results in extra work that usually requires additional time or extra money to implement.  Your options are to agree to the additional ideas in hopes that they make the final project better, or put a stop to them, which in the real world we refer to as "dream crushing."  
  2. You had an original idea in mind, but once it got moving, suddenly everyone had something negative to say about it.  There's no official term for this in Project Management other than "reality."  Your options are to try to assuage them which could completely derail the project or move forward despite their concerns.

Luckily, the best course of action to either situation, whether to be open to the new perspective or move forward without it, can be determined by answering the following questions:

Did I do an adequate job of getting input from all of the stakeholders at the beginning? Stakeholders aren't just you and your boss. They should also include the users of the final product, the people responsible for management/maintenance of it, etc.  Did you remember to consult IT?  Did you actually take the time to talk with the future users beforehand or did you assume that providing training after the fact would be enough? If the answer is no, then take the time to listen to their ideas and concerns and be prepared to delay the project to implement a few of them. This will go a tremendous way in increasing buy-in for the innovation and success of the project once it's rolled out. If however, you did your due diligence in providing stakeholders the opportunity for input and have communicated any changes along the way (and assuming the idea isn't a fantastic one worth delaying for), gently thank them for the input, but move on.

Does the person offer a perspective vastly different from mine?  Even if you will be a user of the innovation just like the rest of your co-workers, if you differ in position, department, education, gender, race, family status, place of residence, or other way, it may be worth hearing them out. Of course, you'll always be able to find some difference between yourself and everyone else, but your ideas will be better if they've been vetted by a more diverse group of people.  I hate to admit it, but when I'm rolling out new innovations for our customers, I find that it's really important for me to get the "mom perspective" since I've never experienced the joy of trying to use our services with three little kids pulling on my sleeves. It's a good lesson for me to make sure that I include the perspective from the beginning, but if not, it's on me to delay things a bit if they make a valid point.

Is the idea or concern related to the original goal for the innovation?  Let's say that you're rolling out software to assist with the hiring process.  When you're about to put on the final touches, someone has an idea to add an extra feature to the mix that allows you to also use it for a staff satisfaction survey.  Should you stop?  Depending on the amount of work necessary, probably not, since it really won't help you would with the original intent of the project.  But that doesn't mean that it couldn't make a fantastic addition to version 2!  Likewise, let's say that you're purchasing a new piece of equipment and running into some resistance from a staff member who will be responsible for using it. Determine if their cause for concern is related to the reason for purchase (for example, they've used that brand in the past and found it less reliable than other manufacturers) or is it something unrelated to the goal that you're trying to accomplish (they are scared that they will have trouble using the new equipment or are annoyed that they have to add an extra responsibility to their plate).  If the concern is directly related to the goal for the project, you may want to hear them out.  Otherwise, it's important to acknowledge and show that you understand their concerns and can work with them to address them, but not at the expense of delaying the project.

Coming up with a well-defined set of objectives for any project is critical to avoid these types of issues.  For example, when I was leading our website redesign, we decided it was most important to focus on 1) driving sales, 2) making basic info about our programs and facilities as accessible as possible, and 3) having a content management system that make updating the website much easier for staff.  Anytime new ideas that we presented that may have cluttered the website, we asked ourselves if it would help us accomplish one of those three objectives.  If the answer was "no," then we left the idea to possibly tackle after our initial re-launch.

Does the new idea undo work or just make completing the work less convenient for you?  Or, if the concern turns out to be valid, it is easily addressed after the innovation has been rolled out? We all know that it doesn't make a lot of sense to undo work that's already been completed unless necessary. But we also know that the cost of fixing something that wasn't done correctly in the first place is equally wasteful. For this reason, it's important to take a good hard look at yourself and determine whether or not your own resistance to others' new ideas or concerns is because it would be inconvenient for you.  Sometimes when you're leading an innovation and are in the homestretch, it can be easy to keep your gaze fixed on the finish line and ignore what could actually be some quick last-minute improvements or last-minute opportunities to avoid a big mistake.  Don't become one of the naysayers that you claim to be annoyed with simply because it wasn't originally in your timetable.

How This Applies In Real Life

Sometimes when we think of project timelines and delays, we think that it has to involve a massive initiative like constructing a building or creating an entirely new product.  But in reality, sometimes it seems like the small tiny innovations can be as easily derailed by endless ideas and concerns.  Here is a real-life example from my world:

The Innovation: Staff noticed that we had many parents with small children sitting in the lobbies of our recreation centers while they were waiting for the older siblings to complete a lesson of some sort. Wouldn't it be nice to offer some activity kits to help occupy the small children while they waited?  Easy, right?

Along the way towards implementing this, we spoke with facility and customer service staff in order to try to address any ideas or concerns that they had.  Out of that, we decided to start slow with coloring sheets that visitors could grab straight off of the counter so that no one would need to wait in line during busy periods (it is summer at a recreation center, after all). There would be no stickers, glitter, or other super messy items.  Most concerns were noted and addressed and one of our staff even went the extra mile to create an activity sheet featuring our mascots.  We were nearing completion of the project though and the following concerns and new ideas were presented by various staff:

  • New Idea: Why don't we add coloring sheets for adults too?  Parents need a break too and some of the top selling books on Amazon are adult coloring books. (Seriously!) Result? We took the time to add it. It went right along with the goal for the innovation (doing something nice for our customers by providing some passive recreation while waiting) and even though it required me spending my lunchtime searching for "adult coloring pages" online, it didn't slow us down by much.
  • Concern: Crayons could be too messy with small children.  What if they color off of the page?  What if they use them to color on the walls?  Result? Keep moving forward. The concerns are related towards extra cleaning that staff may have to do, not about better serving our customers. And, if it does turn out to be valid and the crayons result in too much additional mess, the work required to fix the problem (remove the crayons and stick with colored pencils only) is very easy to address.
  • New Idea: Because the crayons that we are using are the little 4-packs that we're expecting (and totally okay with) parents and children possibly taking them with them, why don't we put a cute sticker on them with our logo and something like "Making Your World a More Colorful Place" for marketing purposes. Result? Keep moving forward.  Cute idea!  But it really doesn't add anything to the original intended goal for the project.  Plus, that could easily be added at any point.  There is no reason to delay the project to wait for this to happen.

So how did it turn out? Here's a photo of the final product!

This project reinforced needing the "mom perspective." We've been complemented multiple times for spending a few extra pennies to get Crayola crayons and how it reflects that our agency cares as about the quality of our services. Who knew?

This project reinforced needing the "mom perspective." We've been complemented multiple times for spending a few extra pennies to get Crayola crayons and how it reflects that our agency cares as about the quality of our services. Who knew?

Okay, I get it. This type of project is almost certainly not what you think of when you think of "innovation" or even of project management. But no matter what you're implementing, you're bound to face these exact same struggles of managing constant new ideas and concerns throughout the life of any innovation. Whether it's about crayons or construction, people want to have input, and want to be understood.  

The Door to Innovation

As I work to reinforce a culture of innovation at our agency, I designed the following little reminder for our staff regarding this, in the form of a door hanger.

Sometimes you need to keep the door open...

And in other circumstances, it's time to close the door.

The search for perfection can be one of the greatest hindrances to innovation. We always need to be open to new ideas and perspectives and admit that we don't know everything. But there also comes a point that we need to press on, whether from concerns or an endless list of possible additions to your project.  And if you're truly dedicated towards implementing new ideas at your organization, you'll find yourself opening and closing the door on input about as often as you open and close your own office door.

Have you had any other similar situations?  How did you address them?  Any questions or considerations you've found helpful in these circumstances that I should add to the list?

Break for Innovation

We're only days away from moving back into our renovated administration offices, and as much as I've enjoyed being temporarily relocated to one of our recreation centers, I don't think that my current takeover of the pool cashier's office will be very welcome come May.  With our agency's additional efforts to spur innovation underway, I was tasked with turning our small conference room into a space to help support that goal.  Do a web search for "innovation spaces" and you'll find some beautiful rooms, none of which will fit within the size of our room or the size of our budget.

An alternate approach was to decorate the space to inspire innovation, and while I'm all about a good quote on a wall, I don't think that just trying to inspire innovation and hope that it happens is enough.  A lot of people struggle with how to turn these abstract concepts like innovation, creativity, etc. into reality, but it really doesn't have to be that complicated.  It really comes down to the fact that if you want innovation (concept), you need to give people the space and resources to innovate (verb).  You can't have outcomes without action.  So what tools help people innovate?

  • Time.  People always think about those lengthy brainstorming sessions when innovation is brought up.  And if done correctly (I would argue that most managers are severely lacking in group facilitation skills), they can actually be productive, but people also need the flexibility to step away from their day-to-day tasks for 5-10 minutes to recharge. And most importantly, they need the time to follow-up and actually put any good ideas in action.
  • Space. Areas for collaboration can help team innovate.  They should be flexible to fit different group activities and should be stocked with tools to spur, capture, and narrow down good ideas.  Also helpful is just a change of scenery - working in a new space or even taking a quick walk can work.  Why do we always get our best ideas in the shower or while driving to work? It's because we have the time and space to let our mind wander a bit.
  • Support.  Ultimately, if organizational leadership doesn't actively and consistently encourage employees to take advantage of time and spaces for innovating, it won't happen.

My attempt to help create a distraction-free zone when needed.

How did we decide to roll this out?  Well, like the renovations to our facility, it's still a little in progress, but we've settled on a few things.

  • We're using magnetic paint and white board paint to turn an entire wall of the conference room into a giant magnetic white board. 
  • We're stocking the room with a supply of dry erase markers, post-it notes, and other brainstorming tools so that its ready whenever inspiration strikes.
  • We've mounted a TV on the wall and are incorporating technology that will allow anyone with a laptop, iPhone, or iPad to mirror their screen for everyone to see.
  • We've bought some wall-mounted flip up tables to install in the building where gathering spots seem to naturally occur.  Come up with a good idea while chatting with a co-worker and flip the table up to take a few extra minutes to start fleshing it out.

One of the things that I'm a little excited about though are the "innovation stations" that I've come up with.  I wanted to provide tools to help staff take some breaks from work to recharge and get refocused.  Unfortunately, our conference room is too small to store many additional supplies, and I wasn't entirely confident that if someone needed a break, a conference room would be the first place that they would head.  Instead, I'm putting them out in key spots throughout the building, so that they're readily available when and where they're needed.  And they're packaged easily enough so that someone can grab them to bring them into a meeting whenever needed.  From initial reactions and my own internal testing (admittedly one of the more fun projects I've been tasked with), the Spirograph will be the biggest hit.

Giving staff the tools to recharge throughout the day and spur creativity at meetings.  

Why are these "toys" important?  Well, besides the fact that I work for a park & recreation agency which understands the value of play, there are actually scientific reasons why taking a 5 minute break is good for business.  These breaks don't distract us, they actually help us refocus, help us retain information, and help us make sure that we're working towards the right things in the right way.

Okay, I will admit that while I'm pretty excited about all of this (partially because I'm also getting a white board wall in my office for my own projects), nothing we're doing is anything groundbreaking.  It might be considered a little creative for local government, but that's about it.  So why do I think it will actually make a difference?  Because we're got the most important of the big three needed for innovation - support from leadership and my own dogged persistence to keep the momentum going.

Has your organization done anything to incorporate employee innovation into the design of your work spaces? (And has it done any good?)  What's your favorite way to "break for innovation?"

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?