Innovator: A Definition


Innovation in government only sounds like an oxymoron to people who haven’t kept up with the work of government employees at all levels.

The distinct challenge of nurturing innovative ideas in the public sector made my job description so interesting when I applied. Last month, I celebrated two years as a government contractor and communication lead — chief storyteller, if you will — working with the innovation team in EPA’s Office of Research and Development.

Observations from the past two years have formed my definition of an innovator. First, though, here are some lessons for innovation that are relevant across all levels of government, regardless of the agency or office.

Find opportunities to be creative.

At its core, almost any job is about problem solving. And every work environment has gaps that creative thinking might solve. Processes could move more efficiently. Ideas and practices from outside industries can be used in new ways. Actively look for opportunities where you can exploit your broad experiences and apply those in new, creative ways.

Don’t fear failure. Have a bias toward action — keep trying, testing, iterating.

In his TED talk, Sir Ken Robinson provides one of the best explanations for why children impress and inspire. Children, he notes, are not afraid of being wrong or blurting out an incorrect answer. Fear of failing keeps people from starting a new project. But failure is merely a temporary setback. Failure is an integral step in the innovation process. Then you move on to the next improved iteration.

Work around the bureaucracy and scale successes with minimum delay.

Innovation often means challenging the status quo. Pilot projects serve a wonderful purpose here. They allow you to test your ideas in a way that minimizes risk for your supervisor or organization. In this way, employees get a little freedom to invent and tinker without a major hit to a team’s time or resources.

These lessons help construct a common profile for people who bring innovation into their workplaces:

Innovators are curious, passionate problem solvers: starters not afraid to explore new paths and finishers who get the job done despite obstacles.

Dustin Renwick works in conjunction with the Innovation Team in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Research and Development. The opinions expressed here are the author’s and do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action. EPA does not verify the accuracy or science contained here.

Dustin Renwick 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.

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Catherine Andrews

This line is so true: “Innovation in government only sounds like an oxymoron to people who haven’t kept up with the work of government employees at all levels.”

In my short time at GovLoop I’ve heard more stories about amazing innovation at all levels of gov than I can count. The stereotype that innovation in government isn’t happening is so untrue – thanks for helping us disprove it!

Dustin Renwick

It’s as easy to write off “government” as it is other nebulous umbrella terms: media, corporations, etc. You have to look at the people, not the monolith.