The Virtues of Government Service – The Second Virtue: Creativity

Leading Government Innovation – Awakening the Innovator Within (Part 1 of 2 Blogs).  First, “Getting Your Head in the Game” to be followed by, “Getting off the Bench.”

“Innovation is the process by which we improve the world.”

–  Carl Bass, CEO Autodesk

Innovation. WIRED magazine called it “the most important and overused word of the decade.” Leading innovation is tough. Yet leaders must be creative thinkers and doers because innovation is critical to the success of every 21st  century organization. At the organizational level, successful, sustained innovation is predicated upon top-down support. Leaders must set the stage. A “culture of innovation,” one that nourishes and celebrates innovation at every organizational level lives or dies based on top-down support.

 The #1 Factor in Future Business Success – IBM Study

A few years ago, IBM did a study of thousands of senior managers across industries, governments and academia. They asked these leaders to identify the primary factors that drive success today. What was and is the number one factor for organizational success?  Creativity. Creativity and innovation are indispensable to each other (assuming you want to get value from your good imagination and great ideas. Innovation implies creativity. So, if everyone agrees that innovation is critical, why is it so difficult? Let’s look at what gets in the way of innovation.

Barriers, Barricades and Battles to be Fought on the Front-lines of Innovation

If we’re going to advance innovation, we must go into the fray knowing the obstacles facing us. What are the foremost barriers to innovation? Specifically, what are the barriers to sustained innovation – a culture that supports, promotes and celebrates innovation? And why start with “barriers”? Isn’t that kinda negative? Well yes and no. Remember the first virtue – courage.  It’ll take a little courage and a little faith. But back to the question. Why start with barriers? First, we will advance faster if we know the obstacles and can plan to avoid them or mitigate their impact. Next, it helps to realize that most people, including your bosses, peers and subordinates are probably comfortable with who you are and what you do as you are now.  And, if you start to “rock the boat” with new ideas, you may put them on the defensive. They’ll resist your ideas and attempts to improve. So, forewarned is forearmed. Tread gently but don’t be denied. Start with some “micro-innos.”  But, first, here are some barriers you’ll likely face.

Top Barriers to Innovation:

“We have met the enemy and he is us.”

At the personal level, when it comes to workplace creativity and innovation, we are often our own worst enemy. The biggest barrier to innovation is often ourselves. We think (incorrectly) that “We’re not the innovative or creative type.”  We all have tremendous powers of imagination which spur good ideas. But, for the most part, we keep them to ourselves. These ideas never see the light day. Why? In part, it’s our “system” – the way we are raised and socialized. Our educational systems, family systems, societal systems, business systems, etc. all compel us to conform, not create. Don’t give in! It’ll take some courage but the rewards – personally and professionally – are repaid in spades by the investment of your ideas, initiative and perseverance.

1. Often, the biggest barrier to innovation is the person, usually a senior manager or executive, who doesn’t want to know the barriers within the organization. It’s the person who refuses to “look in the mirror” or take the pulse of themselves or their own organization. This person is afraid (because it’s true) that they and the policies and protocols they promulgate are the biggest impediments to innovation and progress. Until this situation (or person) changes or is removed, there is little hope for much forward movement. He or she is like the person who goes to the doctor for a checkup because they’re in lousy shape. But then, they don’t listen to the results much less take the doctor’s advice!

2. People who (think) they have a vested interest in “business-as-usual” are people who often feel threatened. They are motivated to resist based on fear. This is the prototypical bureaucrat who says, “This is the way we’ve always done it” and/or “this is spelled out in the regulations.” Hey, regs can change!

3. People who feel like they are the only ones who ever had a good idea have the “Not Invented Here” syndrome. The boss (actual or perceived) is insecure and afraid (threatened) by anyone who might have a better way of doing something – no matter how insignificant that new idea may be. If he/she didn’t “invent” it, it ain’t worth a damn.

4. A poor or mistaken “attitude” thwarts progress. Without a positive, optimistic attitude – an “attitude of innovation” that says, “We can do this!” – progress will be hindered.  You’ll hear words like, “I’m not the creative type” or “It’s not in my job description.” These statements uttered out of ignorance, laziness or fear must be combatted with overwhelming logic and a mindset that says, “Nothing can stop me!” Soon, that feeling of helplessness and despair will disappear.

These are just the initial barriers you’ll face. As you make some progress, these barriers will fade but new challenges will arise. Keep a positive attitude. Take assurance in the fact that, having faced and overcome initials barriers, you are better prepared to confront and overcome the inevitable internecine battles and barricades ahead.

Final Word

As you consider how to bring innovation into your workplace – no matter what your job title is – keep the following thoughts foremost in your mind. First, think hard about your agency’s mission. Why does it exist? How do you bring value to your constituents? Your ideas must support and advance that purpose. Make the connection as solid and tangible as possible.  Now you’ll see what Steve Jobs meant when he asked, “How will you put a dent in the universe?”

Good luck!

 Rick Pfautz 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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Sherie Sanders

I am impressed by how thoroughly you nailed the barriers! Especially the first, we all have had our own creative impulses devalued in our youth! And the second, the boss or senior co-worker who feels that if it is not their idea, it should be shot down. Been there – have been prevented from doing that!