a building of government innovation

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Government innovation—isn’t that an oxymoron?

September 7, 2018


Welcome to my favorite citizen pickup line. Depending on the countenance and demeanor, this usually leads to one of two responses on my part: a swipe left and a look of pitying incredulity; or a robust, impassioned diatribe about the value and role of government innovation and how we create it. I often choose the latter.

As a former Chief Innovation Officer and founder of two civic innovation offices, I have spent 15 years working with governments and helping them unlock the power and potential of their employees. What I’ve learned is the people serving our communities got into their jobs to help their residents and neighbors, but are often constrained by outdated laws, regulations, policies and divisive politics.

Not to mention a healthy dose of skepticism and scorn that seems to accompany the word “government” these days. That’s a hard mantle to bear – and the minimum price to pay – for well-intentioned people looking to serve others and make their communities better.

What I’ve learned from years of unlocking employee creativity is that, despite a passion to serve, efforts to innovate crash against the rocks of bureaucracide. This is true in many large, heavily regulated bureaucracies – schools, hospitals, libraries, etc.

The idea of Sustainovation
However, this passion to serve can be kindled into a burning fire for betterment. We can harness this energy into a sustained innovation program – or Sustainovation, as I call it. So, how do we create the space to innovate with so much stacked against us? And how do we move around bureaucracy when structures don’t support us?

First, I use the definition that “innovation is creativity implemented”. We must acknowledge that we’re fighting against our basic instincts when we innovate, meaning it is not easy – especially when our “failures” might make the front page! In addition, as we get older, we tend to be less creative but more able to implement our ideas. In essence, when we’re younger, creativity is less of a problem and as we get older, implementation is less of a problem.

That means innovation occurs where there is a nexus of uncommon levels of creative ability meeting with uncommon levels of implementation ability – the innovation paradox. Also, we need to understand innovation is not only a process, but also a philosophy in how we approach innovation. Therefore, it is both counterintuitive and philosophical at times.

Innovation is creativity implemented
To understand the principles of creativity, it is critical we understand “why”, learn skills related to changing our perspective, improve our brainstorming process and learn how to effectively pilot projects. When implementing, we must learn how to build momentum (a philosophy I call Team Us), take action, build our armor against personal attacks and learn how to sell our ideas.

We can also create structures around these principles to help reinforce them, moving them outside the control of the political winds, and minimize the risk of innovation to our government employees. We can define and refine Innovation Value, decentralize our training efforts to activate more employee-teachers and crowdsource knowledge, create an innovation fund to defray individual and organizational risk, and use innovation academies to train our employees how to be better innovators.

We can use well-crafted pilot programs to change the cultural conversation from “Who said you could do that?” in a culture of no, to “You don’t even want to try?” in a culture of yes.

We can move organizations from change capable to change ready. That shift is how we deal with entrenched bureaucracy and get to a place where innovation is encouraged, not evaded. To begin, as individuals, we must understand the River of Our Experience is how our life’s knowledge stacks against us over time, creating the perception that there is a “right” way to do something.

This is useful when tying your shoe as you don’t have to relearn tying it every day. But, when it comes to innovating, this is counterproductive. Think of raindrops hitting a hillside and carving a deeper path as they continue to hit in the same place. This is like how our brains function, and as we get older, these Rivers tend to get deeper and deeper.

So, we must learn to shake ourselves out of the River of Our Experience. We must create small, false traumas to shake off this River. We can do this by engaging in simple activities that shock our minds just a little every day:

  • driving an unusual way to work,
  • activating our other senses – smell, touch or taste,
  • laying flat on the ground for two minutes,
  • or writing a poem at midnight.

These repetitive micro-traumas create resilience of our mind, making it easier to shift out of our River and into new, creative thought processes.

These things may sound silly, but that is often the precursor to great innovation. A willingness to embrace the unusual and bizarre and ask others to join. After 65 pilot projects and three national awards – including a few highly publicized failures –, I have learned that those without vision should never tell those with vision what to do.

To build Sustainovation into our governments, we must:

  • reduce the risk to individual innovation
  • defray organizational risk
  • train our employees how to be creative implementers
  • build individual resilience
  • improve organizational readiness

We must un-train, de-train and re-train our employees to embrace creativity and teach them how to build their ideas. We need to kindle the fire of passion for our communities and institutionalize innovation, while subverting a culture of “We’ve always done it that way”. And do it all while there is immense public scrutiny. Because it matters.

So civic innovation is no longer an oxymoron – and its time has come.

Former Chief Innovation Officer, award-winning civic innovator and author of the bestselling government innovation book Sustainovation, Nick Kittle has established two government innovation offices from scratch and worked with many more. He has over 15 years’ experience in changing government and now trains on the principles of Sustainovation and building high-performance government across the US. Nick is a TEDx speaker (Life 2.0), keynote, artist, mentor, BBQ pitmaster and avid disc golfer.

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