Creativity in Government: Find Your Inner Genius


This year’s MacArthur Foundation Fellows have just been announced. Better known as the “genius grants,” these individual awards are aimed at “celebrating and inspiring the creative potential of individuals through no-strings-attached fellowships.”

They include a painter from Los Angeles for “visualizing the complexities of globalization and transnational identity in works that layer paint, photographic imagery, prints and collage elements;” a human rights strategist from Florida who advocates for “transforming conditions for low-wage workers with a visionary model or worker-driven social responsibility; and a designer and urban planner from New Jersey, who is creating “vivid and witty strategies to design and build places that are more democratic and accountable to their residents.”

These pursuits strike me as some of the most interesting, creative and important undertakings. I am glad to know that there are geniuses out there working on them. But I also wonder if there are ways to capture that spirit and apply it on a daily basis to public policy and the work of the public sector.

How do we bring the spirit of exploration, risk and creativity to public-sector institutions that are so often muscle-bound, sclerotic, and risk averse?

I spent a long time thinking about this question, as a federal manager, an instructor of strategic leadership and as an executive coach. In the classroom, training sessions or with clients, I will often ask  “Where are you most creative?” The answers are surprisingly similar:

  • “When I am working out.”
  • “During my commute.”
  • “Right before I fall asleep.”
  • “Just when I am waking up.”
  • “In the shower.”
  • Only once did someone say, “At my desk — at work!”

These answers are not surprising. Brain science backs it up. It turns out that the part of the brain responsible for meaning, thinking about the future, memories, metaphor and humor becomes more active during periods of relaxation and meditation. But how do we organize work in a way to take advantage of conditions when we are at our creative best?

First, create the conditions for creativity to blossom. In the offices where I worked, I found that it was possible to introduce small innovations and opportunities for creativity. It started by setting out to be a learning organization – one in which processes are evaluated on an ongoing basis. We regularly used internal and external surveys, listening sessions, facilitated discussions, after-action reviews and “hot washes – the immediate feedback session after a particular activity or engagement. We then documented decisions and the reasons behind them for later reference. Learning needs to be built into the culture.

Second, experiment and make small bets. As a leader, it also meant opening up space for experimentation and failure. A leader and manager should embrace the idea of “small bets”  – calculated risks with relatively small investments that turn out to be failures only if the organization fails to learn from them.  Most importantly, a leader must be prepared to take responsibility for failure rather than play “gotcha” or say “I told you so.”

Third, have fun. “Mandatory fun activities” can induce eye-rolling and, if one is not careful, a complaint to the Inspector General! I have used breathing exercises and tai chi to shake up a training exercise or strategic retreat. Inserting a walk after lunch or doing volunteer work as part of an office retreat helps colleagues to bond and let their minds wander. A leader can create these kind of opportunities to stimulate wide-ranging discussions where colleagues can embrace new perspectives or make connections that wouldn’t necessarily occur in a cubicle.

Fourth, script the question, not the answer. It is no shock that government does not have all the answers. More and more, public-sector solutions are being actively worked by coalitions and partnerships that span the public and private sector as well as reaching into the academic, philanthropic, arts, think-tank and NGO communities. Federal agencies are experimenting with using their in-house brain power to identify the key questions or challenges and then asking for proposals for approaches to address them, harvesting the best ideas and then choosing the most promising approaches. This approach multiplies the number of problem solvers in a competitive process and brings value to the taxpayer.

Fifth, start small. Recognize that bureaucratic practices do exist for a reason: organization of work-flow, fairness, accountability – particularly where taxpayer money is concerned. Government can be – and in many cases should be –  resistant to change. Counterintuitively, introduction of these constraints can serve as a spur to creativity.  “We need this project on time and under budget.” As a former soccer coach, limiting the size of the field or number of touches a player could use always improved players’ skills and on-field performance. When a group is given a constraint along with the freedom to experiment, creative solutions can be released and given a chance to grow.

The public sector will never have the “no strings attached” freedom of a genius grant. But finding solutions to increasingly complex challenges demands that we foster conditions for dynamic, creative approaches to today’s problems.


Neil A. Levine is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

Leave a Comment

Leave a comment

Leave a Reply