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No Budget for New Ideas? Innovation is Free!

Let me know if this situation sounds familiar to you. You have what you think is a great idea for moving your department, agency or organization forward. Maybe it’s a software recommendation that would take hours off work off of the plates of hundreds of employees each month. Perhaps it’s another kind of innovation that you know will make a positive impact.

You enthusiastically prepare your business case and make an appointment to share your idea. With your heart racing and the butterflies in your stomach threatening to fly right out of your mouth, you make the presentation. They love it! Everyone you speak to about your idea thinks it’s a winner! You leave with your achievement ribbon attached to your chest and your head high but it doesn’t take long until your joy is smashed by just a few small words from a superior; “We don’t have the budget for your idea.”

In an era where slow revenue growth and tight budgets have become a way of life, it’s hard for leaders to make investments in innovative ideas, even if they can see the benefits of doing so. It’s just too tight.

It reminds me of a scene from the 1995 blockbuster film, Apollo 13. A malfunction aboard the spacecraft has left the lives of the astronauts aboard in jeopardy and a group of NASA scientists back on earth have to find a solution. The scientists dump out several boxes of random equipment on a table and one announces they have to make an air filtration system work out of only what’s available on the shuttle — which is the pile of equipment before them. Of course, if you’ve seen the film you know they find a solution and the day is saved. For anyone who hasn’t seen the film, I apologize for the spoiler!

We’re not necessarily fighting to save our own lives here in 2019, but we are facing another kind of crisis: the need for innovation without the benefit of fiscal resources to call upon. What do we do? Here are a few ideas. Feel free to add your own ideas in the comments!

  1.  Start smaller. In reviewing your overall plan, is there something you can do to build momentum that’s a little smaller in scope? Let’s say your idea is to upgrade workspaces to increase efficiency, but there’s just no budget for this kind of upgrade to the facilities. Perhaps you could talk with your leaders about rearranging the existing furnishing, to begin with, until the budget funds are available.
  2. Reach outside of your immediate team, department, agency or organization for volunteer help. In a recent post, I shared some thoughts about working outside of our own silos. This is a great opportunity to put some of those ideas into practice. You may find a small army of colleagues who share your perspective and who are willing to pitch in a few hours to help.
  3. Use what you have. Recently a colleague who is now occupying a job I once held asked if I could come to give them instructions on how to use a 2-track audio mixer I had acquired when I held the position. My successor had an idea for adding audio to some web-based presentations and knew they would likely be unable to purchase new equipment to do so but discovered the equipment I had left behind in a drawer and was willing to give it a try. Maybe there are things available to you that can help with your idea. They may not be the latest and greatest, but making use of them to show your leaders what you can accomplish may be just what you need to push your idea forward.
  4. Look for free or low-cost options to get started. I wanted to start a podcast for the State of Nebraska Training and Development team but there were several barriers to overcome because of potential cost and tight budgets. After doing some research I was able to find a cloud-based planning app, audio editing software, and a podcast hosting service – all for free. The setup isn’t what I had pictured, but we will record our 4th episode this week and soon we will be officially launching the podcast.

Of course, all of these suggestions will require you to have conversations with your leadership to make sure you’re not in violation of organizational policies and rules. Take your time, think through the options, do your research, and find ways to innovate in spite of the budgetary constraints.

I’d love to hear stories from you about what you’ve been able to accomplish by innovating around issues such as a tight budget. Leave your thoughts in the comments.

Lisa Menke is a GovLoop Featured Contributor. She is a digital media developer who is passionate about the intersection where opportunities for professional growth and participatory culture meet. As a training specialist for the State of Nebraska, Lisa is currently responsible for the creation of digital media in support of agency training & development, and communications. Read her posts here

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Avatar photo Blake Martin

These are wonderful tips, and I’d certainly like to double-down on using what you have. We frequently do more with less these days, and innovating within your org is no different. Great piece, Lisa!