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Building Your Agency’s Innovation Quotient

Government tends to operate from a preponderance of caution and constancy to ensure that laws are followed and that democracy is honored and preserved. However, this has translated into bureaucratic red tape and inefficient systems that bring frustration to both citizens and employees who want to do better. So how do you build your agency’s innovation quotient so that powerful change can happen?

We know that innovation blossoms when creativity and openness are encouraged. And despite the institutional barriers that must be maneuvered, some government entities are beginning to embrace innovation as a means of achieving better services and swifter processes. This is especially important because the traditional ways of doing our work are beginning to fall by the wayside, and we haven’t quite figured out how to meld real innovation into government.

My state agency has begun exploring ways to bring a more systematic approach to our innovation efforts. We invite employees to openly bring forward innovative ideas via a software program that allows for idea entry, as well as viewing and commenting by all staff. The ideas are also reviewed by a diverse and rotating panel of agency employees. All ideas are brought forward to senior leaders with suggestions and recommendations. While still in its infancy, this new approach has led to good discussions about how to further weave innovation into the fabric of our culture.

But a system that captures ideas is just part of the innovation quotient. The other necessary components are expanding your employees’ ability to think of bolder and bigger ideas and implement the best ones.

So, how do we become effective idea-generators? Thinking outside the normal and expected confines of our jobs isn’t easy to do. It takes deliberate actions and activities to open a pathway to true innovative thinking. I suggest building opportunities for employees to be creative and explore options without fear of judgment or punishment. Offer resources and time that employees can use for this explicit purpose. Provide unbiased facilitation that encourages and then captures ideas.

“Innovative” activities worth trying to help generate bolder and bigger ideas include:

Jam sessions

These are free-flowing, open-discussion sessions about ideas – similar to how musicians hold jam sessions. A facilitator can help guide the sessions to keep conversations productive and capture the ideas for further development. This activity builds energy and excitement among participants as each finds ways to contribute their unique perspectives to the session. Innovation can flourish in this environment.

Idea boards

This large-format visual display of ideas allows others to contribute information. Ideas that are still in need of further exploration and comment can begin to grow into actual projects. Often, an initial idea comes from just one individual who likely hasn’t had time to thoroughly flesh it out. If the idea has some legs, then broader input from others will help develop its body. That readiness piece is important for growing ideas into viability. Staff can add their thoughts to the board after they’ve had time to ponder them. Think Pinterest on steroids.


I first learned about brainswarming at a technology conference. The idea behind it is that participants don’t speak at all, unlike a typical brainstorming session. Instead they write down a problem they’re trying to solve on a large sheet of paper and then attendees add their written ideas about how to solve the problem. Others continue to build on what’s already been written by providing additional input. This method helps introverts feel equal in the process and uses the full knowledge of the participants to build possible solutions.

I’m curious to know what activities you have tried for building your agency’s innovation. Please share them in the comments so we can all learn from each other. Together we can move toward greater innovation in government.

In next week’s blog I will address the implementation aspect of government innovation and what it takes to work within the confines of limited resources and make those great ideas come to life.

Kimberly Nuckles is part of the GovLoop Featured Contributor program, where we feature articles by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Contributor posts, click here.

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Nya Jackson

At GovLoop, we have a shadow week/shark tank competition twice a year where we’re paired in groups of two (typically with someone we don’t work with on an everyday basis) to come up with new program ideas or tweaks to current programs. We usually have a week to work on it and each pair presents their idea at the end of the week. Then our leadership team discusses all of the ideas the following week and chooses the ideas we’re going to flesh out and pilot as a larger team. It’s worked pretty well for us so far.