There is No Box: Uncertain Times Demand RAPID Innovation!

“Every act of creation is first an act of destruction“.
Pablo Picasso

Conventional wisdom has been summarily discarded during these unprecedented times. Government leaders accustomed to relying on traditional tools to remedy temporary financial blips – increasing taxes while cutting expenses – have experienced a sobering realization that the current climate in most places around the U.S. is not receptive to raising taxes and reducing expenses can only stretch a dollar so far. Furthermore, other solutions targeted at rising citizen demands for services including adding more members to the government workforce along with purchasing new and improved equipment are relics from a bygone era.

What’s a government leader to do to counter such trends? First we must arrive at the realization that outside the box thinking is not even an option… because there is No Box! A daunting but true proposition that can unhinge even the most seasoned leader.

Government leaders must escape the tendency towards “bureaucratic gravity” – the re-synthesizing of past solutions to impact current and future problems. While not readily available as they once were, even use of these options would not generate nearly the impact they once did – their influence has waned. The notion that the only way public services can be improved is by increasing the size of the workforce is a myth that must be overcome. It assumes every employee is working at an optimum level, which isn’t the situation. There is entirely too much emphasis placed on well written job descriptions as the primary predictor of employee effectiveness. Many factors influence employee productivity including policies and procedures, management practices, performance measures and organizational structures; when these are well synchronized an organization’s performance improves.

Second, government leaders must embrace the onset of rampant ambiguity and become fluent in change management. As Ben Franklin aptly put many years ago, “the only things certain in this life are death and taxes.” Demonstration of the ability, by those government leaders who can manage this perplexing paradox, to stay focused on today’s business while building tomorrow’s – is essential to lead their community and workforce effectively and manage their budgets prudently. If this ability is executed well, those communities will emerge from this financial crisis more successful and better prepared for whatever the future holds.

Third, money is not your agency’s most precious resource today – time is. A perfect illustration to reinforce my point is to consider that some employees in your agency are working right now to generate reports that no one reads! When leaders redirect the time and efforts of employees to provide more value-added services, better outcomes will be realized. Sounds simple but why is it so difficult to achieve? Because most people struggle with change, but that’s a topic for another article.

What employees are spending their time on, to provide which services, to whom and at what level should be the focus of your efforts to optimize resources. The stronger the alignment between employee time and value added services, the more effective your organization and the faster accrual of social capital. Financial resources ebb and flow, but paradoxically time stands still while moving more quickly than in the past. Organizational leaders who can, with a laser-like focus, redirect the time of their workforce will ensure quality services are being provided.

How can this be accomplished without “the box” used in the past? Remember that as much as inside the box thinking worked, it also became a straight jacket to the introduction of new ideas and potential new solutions. So after rejecting the conventional wisdom which offered comfortable solutions and accepting that ambiguity prevails, what should government leaders pursue to leverage these forces for change? Great question. The optimal solution is: RAPID Innovation. RAPID arrives at the convergence of two emerging maxims – playing it safe is no longer playing it smart, and old mental models won’t work in today’s times. Based on extensive research, I developed RAPID, a bold, forward-thinking, powerful, practical and productive mechanism designed to generate, identify, select, implement and evaluate contemporary innovative solutions.

RAPID is an acronym for:

  • Ramp up the Idea Generator
  • Analyze the Impact
  • Put into place – implement
  • I – realize progress is iterative
  • D – do it again

RAPID features a five-step approach, organizational leaders can repeat over and over again. No additional funds are needed to purchase a software program, since RAPID Innovation is essentially a fresh, problem solving tool designed to generate immediate dividends all through the directed efforts of your workforce. Waiting for serendipity to occur with innovative solutions as the outcome is entirely too random and unreliable, and exceedingly risky in today’s climate. Instead leaders need an approach that’s sound and designed to produce innovative solutions intentionally, not by chance. Research shows that most employee suggestion box programs rarely work and even with the best intentions, employee task forces convened to focus on innovation lose their energy after the initial launch. RAPID is designed to embed innovation within the very fabric of your organization – your workplace and your workforce.

I have developed a ½ day workshop to introduce the power of RAPID Innovation and have presented it for the City of San Jose, California and at several conferences of government professionals including the National League of Cities and in September 2011, the ICMA Conference.

The premise of RAPID is that the source for innovative ideas necessary to positively impact today’s public policy issues confronting governments reside in the minds of existing elected and appointed officials, along with members of their workforce. The key to unlocking the straight jacket and unleashing leaders and their employees to engage in real talk about real change and introducing an innovative approach that disrupts the status quo thinking reflected in the “we’ve always done it that way” refrain too often repeated inside government organizations everywhere. A RAPID approach is all about smart risk-taking crucial to addressing today’s extraordinary challenges.

There exist an abundance of opportunities to make radical changes and while leaders need to possess the appropriate levels of courage and confidence that are fundamental to driving successful change, they also need a new tool; RAPID Innovation is just that tool!

Leaders today must be effective catalysts and translate the forces for change into better local government. They recognize “doing things different and doing different things” is a prerequisite for innovation and create a climate that seeks to permeate the traditional risk-averse culture which limits progressive thinking desperately needed today.

Innovative leaders realize that slashing budgets as a cutback measure is the equivalent of a person who decides to eat less – the person may lose weight, but he/she doesn’t necessarily improve their health. They contend that traditional innovation gives way to duplication and makes an organization less distinctive. Consequently, these leaders recognize their agency has a host of competitors in the service delivery business and adopt a ‘next practice’ approach over the best practice approach.

Innovators understand their organization needs talented people more than talented people need their organization. Public service is about having a positive impact on the world around us, where everyday matters. Skilled, passionate people don’t simply want a job, they want to work for a cause and local government is at its core, a cause – forging an emotional connection with residents to enable government to improve the quality of life. Innovators foster a work environment so dynamic that most employees would be hard-pressed to find a similar environment somewhere else. Even though hiring freezes have become all too common, retaining top flight talent is more crucial today than ever especially when their roles and responsibilities have expanded with little to no increases in their compensation.

Innovative leaders think differently about the business of continuous improvement and invariably talk about it differently as well. Conversations are the oxygen of priorities and if an organization truly wants to adopt and practice a more innovative like approach to their organization, they begin by inserting new words into daily discussions and steer people into a new way of thinking

Finally, innovative leaders embrace originality as the litmus test for better government and want employees to be idea entrepreneurs and flourish in a work environment that provides them room to maneuver. Ultimately, innovators understand that we’re only limited by our imagination in solving today’s unprecedented challenges.

You finished reading this article and now are energized to move ahead but aren’t sure how to embark on your innovation journey. Let’s talk so we can explore how RAPID Innovation can provide the booster shot necessary to catapult you and your organization forward in all directions!

Patrick Ibarra is an “entrepreneur of ideas” and architect of innovation who takes the headwinds governments are facing about the current climate of unprecedented changes and translates them into a tailwind with practical, tactical and impactful solutions that can be used immediately. A former city manager, Patrick owns and operates The Mejorando Group consulting practice (www.gettingbetterallthetime.com). Mejorando is Spanish for “getting better all the time” and Patrick’s firm partners with governments helping them increase employee performance and organizational effectiveness by providing consultation, facilitation, and training. His firm also has a national reputation for designing award-winning Succession Planning Programs that provide a systematic approach to talent management. Patrick regularly speaks at conferences and is well-known as a dynamic and engaging presenter who imparts a thought-provoking message and a series of powerful tools to the audience. For those agencies interested in immediately improving your organization’s performance, Mr. Ibarra can be reached at 925-518-0187 or [email protected]gettingbetterallthetime.com.

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Andrew Krzmarzick

Great post, Patrick. Do you have any examples or case studies of cities that have used the RAPID road map to achieve innovation? Might make for a great follow-up post!