4 Keys to Sustaining Innovation

I recently had a very enlightening conversation with Alliance COO Kim Bradford about the biggest challenges she sees our Members facing when they take on a commitment to innovation and transformation. The following summarizes what I learned from her decades of experience in this field.

At Alliance for Innovation, we have the privilege of working with hundreds of the leading local governments across North America. These counties, cities, towns, and villages are varied in their qualities, the dynamics of their community members, and are each unique in their charm and appeal.

But what brings them to join the Alliance, is that they are also very similar in terms of their purpose and what they strive to achieve – a community that is a great place to live, work, and play.

Thinking about how we have partnered with our members to accomplish this over the years, being innovative and evolving to meet the current demands is no longer something “extra” or “nice to have” when we have time. It’s fundamental to how we deliver service and essential to accomplishing the goals of our members.

The good news is, there are too many success stories to count – organizations that are innovating and making progress. Often times, the creation of cross-functional innovation teams is at the heart of these efforts, which is a great start. It should be celebrated. But it can’t be where the work stops.

How to Balance the Demands of Time and Money vs. Sustaining Efforts

In the day-to-day work of our service to our communities, there are two enemies we battle every step along the way – time, and money. These two come disguised in many different words or issues, but when you dig deep, they are always there at the core.  Innovation Teams alone cannot fight this battle.

With the benefit of experience gained working with over 1,000 local governments, we have seen some forward progress that resulted in backslides, some progress that becomes stalled, and some efforts that fade into the background as more pressing issues surface.

We all want sustainability of our efforts; there’s nothing more frustrating than making progress and then suffering from the Sisyphus-like punishment of rolling the boulder up a mountain only to have it roll back down again.

So what is the difference between quick wins, short-lived wins, and long term sustainable efforts that continue to build on each other? What separates a splash in the pan from a true transformation?

This is what we have learned over years of working with communities across North America to support their innovation efforts…

Four Keys to Long-Term Innovation Success

Here are four factors to focus on right now to improve your chances at long-term success and support those who are passionate about driving innovation in your organization.

  1. Start with Why. Why is this work is so important to the organization? This sets the stage for everything that follows! Refer to your strategic plan, your values, and other fundamental building blocks.
  2. Define the Value and Impact. Articulate the value of efforts and the difference it’s making (hint: cost savings and efficiencies are nice, but don’t forget about the value to customer service and organizational culture). Remember that money/value issue? This is how you come armed when challenged to defend the investments made toward innovation work.
  3. Focus on the people! By linking innovation work to your people systems (employee performance goals and recognition programs) you create a natural priority.  Focusing on the people also creates space to focus on storytelling – innovations that worked, those that didn’t and what was learned, and sending a message to all that this is how the team works.
  4. Create long-term structure for innovation work. Having a system to support innovation work (ideas, communication, brainstorming, testing, dedicated space, workshops, pilots, etc.) is critical to sending the overall message that team members do indeed have time to do this work – in fact, we expect it.  A great place to start is to leverage existing teams or meetings and incorporating innovation tools and experimentation.

Sustaining innovation work will never be easy. To quote head coach Jimmy Dugan from A League of their Own, “It’s supposed to be hard. If it wasn’t hard, everyone would do it. The hard is what makes it great.”

Joel Carnes is a GovLoop Featured Contributor. He has spent his career in innovation, and has experience at every level — with products, teams, organizations and entire communities. While he’s always been a technologist, he’s much more interested in the impact on real human lives than the technology itself — a passion that inspires him to work with local governments and communities across North America. Joel has held senior executive roles at XPRIZE, Activision, SecondMuse, and Disney Imagineering, and has become a thought leader in connected innovation — where individuals, teams, organizations and businesses come together to solve a problem, going beyond what any single entity could accomplish on its own. With this strategy, Joel has built relationships across sectors, industries and political boundaries, creating entire innovation networks that continually produce solutions to real-world problems. You can read his posts here.

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Uyen Nguyen

This is a great post! I think people, myself included, would tend to overlook the need to create a long-term structure for innovation. It may be hard and time-consuming, but makes the rest of the process(es) so much easier.

Steve Palmer

It’s so true, Uyen!

The most common complaint that I see when it comes to a “structured approach” to Innovation is that Innovation isn’t something that you can “standardize.” Each innovation is different.

And what Joel is spot on about, it isn’t the individual innovation that you look to manage. It’s the approach to innovation. It’s the measuring and the governing of innovation that’s as important as the actual innovation.

One innovation will support your constituents for the next 8 to 10 years. Maybe. Continually being innovative will allow you to provide support indefinitely.