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The 4 Winning Government Innovation Strategies You’re Not Using—Yet

Since finding my way into government 15 years ago, I’ve had the opportunity to experience many facets of its operations. I’m so impressed by the commitment of the people who serve our communities—but, I also know we can do better. You know it. I know it. It’s okay to say it.

Many times, what stands in our way is the same thing that frustrates our residents: bureaucracy. We are the ones with the power to change it. It’s time for a shift. It’s time we stop accepting the things we can’t change and start changing the things we can’t accept. And, we have to acknowledge the uncomfortable truth to do it.

"The real risks come from doing nothing."

Government is, by its very nature, risk averse. We build rules for the 1 percent of people who might defraud the system instead of the 99 percent who won’t. We’re surrounded by residents who have strong opinions on both sides of an issue, often using government employees as the punching bag for their frustration and fear. And sadly, people are afraid of their government. In fact, government corruption is the number one fear for the past three years running according to the Chapman University Study of American Fears. That fear has only gotten worse over the last three years.

Chapman University Survey on American Fears

What this means is we have to change how we do business. We have to innovate. We are the thing standing between America and its greatest fear. We have the opportunity to change that—one wildly creative idea at a time. So how do we do it? Why, I’m glad you asked.

To build sustainable innovation, we need to shift our thinking about risk. Doing nothing has serious consequences and we dramatically underestimate the risk of “the way we’ve always done it.” The real risks come from doing nothing. The world is changing. Infrastructure is aging. Communities are growing. Some are winning, some are losing. Innovative, high-performance government can be the bridge between an average community and a thriving one: communities with a vision of the future and the courage to execute it.

"Innovative, high-performance government can be the bridge between an average community and a thriving one."

We also need to lose the fear of failure and understand this work doesn’t come without risk. Consider: if you don’t take risks, you’ll likely mess up twice a year. If you do take risks, you’ll likely mess up twice a year. But, I promise you’ll succeed far more often than you fail because our ability to succeed is intrinsically linked to our willingness to fail.

Here are four ways your organization can begin to infuse innovation into your organizational DNA:

1. Aggregate Risk

During my experiences as a chief innovation officer in government and my time working with communities across the country, I know one of the most powerful deterrents to innovation is the fear of failure. A wily way to reduce the fear of failure is aggregate risk.

When all risk is individual, there’s a huge personal barrier to trying something new. Some are willing to take this risk regardless, but most are not. Especially if there’s a large penalty for failing, such as the loss of a job or public humiliation.

One way to aggregate risk is to use an innovation fund to aggregate ideas and fund pilot programs that test ideas. This shared organizational risk reduces individual risk, creates funding for innovation, produces a pipeline of pilot projects, allows for better oversight, and focuses organizational effort. The fund should be large enough to fund serious pilot projects. I would recommend between $15,000 and $100,000, depending on the size of your organization. Anything larger encourages out-of-cycle budget requests and anything smaller doesn’t demonstrate an organizational commitment to innovation.

Over three years through the Adams County Innovation Academy, we funded 22 of 26 projects that were put forward. The recommended projects were presented to leadership, and risks were defined and understood. While some of the projects didn’t work as hoped (treadmill desk, I’m looking at you), some of them were wildly successful and fully funded the following year. One even went on to be adopted as a state-wide best practice.

Clothing, Accessories, Shoes, and Hygiene Closet, or C.A.S.H. Closet, is one of the Adams County Innovation Academy's wildly successful pilot projects that has grown to become a state-wide adopted initiative. 

Yes, some projects don’t work as you intend, but the willingness to take risks generates better results than you might think. Out of the 22 funded projects, 18 were considered successful as intended. The remaining four yielded valuable lessons for an organization looking to innovate, and allowed us to refine our process and improve. In essence, they were all successful in different ways—an important element to framing innovation in your organization.

2. Disaggregate knowledge

Beyond aggregating risk, we can disaggregate knowledge. An important part of employee development should involve training your employees to be teachers. We spent time training people how to train others, and dramatically increased our rate of quality knowledge share by turning trained employees into teachers.

"We spent time training people how to train others, and dramatically increased our rate of quality knowledge share."

We expanded our educational opportunities by over 75 percent in one year and nearly 150 percent in two. We used events like “What If Wednesdays” and innovation academies to spread ideas and techniques to enhance our organizational creativity. We all have something we know that is worth sharing. Sometimes it’s professional, sometimes it’s personal. Allow employees to share both—this knowledge share breaks down silos, increases employee morale, and reduces barriers to communication. This is a powerful tool to encourage innovation and increase the rate of knowledge share within the organization.

3. Destroy disincentives

Think about what organizational incentives or disincentives are in place around innovation. Is there a high price to pay if you fail? Is there an equally captivating incentive if you succeed?

Explore how you can reduce the personal risks and increase the individual and team incentives to create better balance. Evaluate or establish your employee awards program. Talk about your organization’s innovation efforts, its successes and failures, with pride. Acknowledge your organization is willing to take chances for the betterment of the community, and that involves risk.

4. Surpass structures

"We need to build our personal armor and construct strong, blame-free pilot programs."

Beyond these institutional tools to develop sustainable innovation—or Sustainovation™ as I call it—we need to empower our staff with creativity techniques. We need to help them become better at implementing their ideas. Creating strong structures is only one part of the journey—we need to reboot our innovation skills.

These skills are not often trained but are highly prized in creating innovation inroads. That’s why I wrote my first book, Sustainovation, a collection of practical personal techniques we can use to foster sustainable innovation and become stronger community champions through implementing creativity. We need to get to the root cause of our problems, build momentum, and succeed at selling our ideas. We need to build our personal armor and construct strong, blame-free pilot programs.

In short, there’s much more we can do—too much for just a blog post. But, ending America’s greatest fear, government, is our opportunity, and we are the only ones who can do it. Reframe your risk. Expand education. Increase incentives and destroy disincentives. Start today; the time is now, and you’re not alone. Team us!


Note: This article was originally posted on the International City/County Management Association's (ICMA) blog. Check out the ICMA blog site to see the original post and other great articles on what's happening in today's local government.


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