If asked to name innovative organizations, how many government entities spring to mind? Not enough in my opinion. This does not mean, however, that there is a shortage of innovation in government. I was recently introduced to two government organizations whose focus is innovation – Boston’s New Urban Mechanics and the North Carolina (NC) Innovation Center.
The New Urban Mechanics was established to pilot experiments that aim to improve the quality of life for Boston's residents, while the NC Innovation Center is transforming government through technical proofs of concept.
Nigel Jacob, Co-Chair of the Mayor’s Office of the New Urban Mechanics and Deante’ Tyler, Director of the NC Innovation Center, shared with me their tips for fostering innovative environments within government. Three consistent themes emerged: utilize the community, create safety and build momentum:
Utilize the Community
In today’s complex government environments, the ideas to provide better public services are not only in your team’s heads, but within your communities. As Deante’ stated this starts with “knowing your community." The NC Innovation center taps into other states, municipalities and counties within North Carolina, along with local universities and private sector organizations. They have designed collaborative work spaces that welcome external partners to work together on solutions. This mindset is similar to the City of San Jose’s philosophy of rolling out the red carpet to the community as I shared in a previous post.
Nigel views the “resources we have are the whole city of Boston." Pairing his team with the community results in many new ideas for addressing public service needs. His experience has shown that individuals and organizations outside of government “are motivated to help make impact in their own community” and are very interested in contributing.
The more brains you can utilize the better ideas you will have. Think of a challenge you are currently addressing and consider, "Who from within your local community may have the knowledge or ideas to help?"
One common mistake that Nigel noted is the thinking that innovation is a product or thing when “actually it is a process which comes from people." As a result of her extensive Multipliers leadership research, Liz Wiseman (recently named to her 3rd Thinker50 list) uncovered that teams are willing to conceive and try innovative ideas when they are given permission to make mistakes. Innovation does not happen without taking risks and making mistakes along the way. Leaders need to carve out areas for teams to explore – aka “Make space for mistakes."
Because the NC Innovation Center kicks the tires with new technology before implementing on a large scale, Deante’ views their failures as successes. If demoed technology does not meet the state’s need, the Innovation Center avoids potentially costly purchases for the state.
When the New Urban Mechanics partners with other city offices, they take on the risk which relieves the other offices of this concern. Nigel helps to create this atmosphere across his team by referring to them as “public entrepreneurs,” which conveys permission and safety in risk taking. But as Deante’ is quick to point out, unlike the private sector, government groups “need to be good stewards of public funds." Therefore, it is important for leaders to clearly identify situations in which teams can experiment and where they need to be cautious.
Both groups were established under a mission of experimentation and serve as a safe space. You can start in your own agency by designating an initiative or function where your teams can experiment.
Be patient. Building a creative environment takes time. Nigel adds that long-term momentum is partially the result of “rethinking the management and expectation of people” along with the realization that “innovation comes from investing in people and giving them freedom."
As Deante’ recommends, “Encouraging change with the understanding that it does not happen overnight." His tip for building momentum is to start with small, incremental wins. He advises finding a key problem to solve for your leadership; this can provide a lot of momentum and executive support.
Ultimately, momentum is sustained through passion. Both and Nigel and Deante’ are very proud that their groups have continued to flourish, especially during times of political change experienced by all government organizations. Igniting a team’s passion combined with the freedom to try new things will result in developing new and better public services. Since the New Urban Mechanics were established, not one person has left the group. Nigel delights in having a team that “chooses to be with us” in fulfilling our mission.
Deante’s mindset mimics that of his team, “I am a state employee and citizen." This clearly demonstrates a passion to improve services to their communities.
These are just two examples of government organizations driving innovation, but there are many more stories to be shared.
What passion can you ignite and apply toward a meaningful win for your agency? What leadership tips for driving innovation in government would you add? Share in the comments below.