Innovation can mean a lot of things to different people, especially if you work in government. When you mention the word “innovation,” you might see a mix of eye rolls and wide-eyed colleagues, all of whom bring their own outlooks and past experiences to a project or initiative.
But have you ever considered if your perception of what innovation means or could mean is incomplete?
“Innovation doesn’t mean you have to build something net new,” said Dr. Rebecca Laborde, Master Principal Scientist, Clinical Innovation at Oracle. Innovation makes space for creativity, and that could be repurposing something that worked in the past and applying it to a new problem or deconstructing a process and rebuilding it in new ways.
Ultimately, innovation is about solving a real-world problem, said Kristen Honey, Senior Advisor to the Assistant Secretary for Health; Executive Director of Data Operations at the U.S. Health and Human Services Department.
During GovLoop’s recent virtual summit, Honey and Laborde led a joint panel, which explored how they are turning good ideas into tangible results. Below we’ve highlighted their best practices around innovation that you can put into action now.
1. Make problem-solving the pillar of innovation.
Innovation is not about finding an approach and then identifying a problem to apply it to, Laborde said. First, you have to understand the problem and all the options on the table for finding a solution. It’s vital that the right people are involved throughout the entire process.
2. Seek top cover from leadership.
You can’t reach across silos and try new things if you don’t have leadership top cover, Honey said. The other element that’s necessary to innovation — but often lacking — is the ability to reduce or eliminate read tape. Honey highlighted the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which is credited with paving the way for the modern internet, as an example of what’s possible when red tape isn’t a barrier.
At DARPA, employees have the ability to move fast, respond to needs and reach across silos. The same is true for the United States Digital Service (USDS), which is situated within the purview of the White House and works on high-impact, public-facing projects. USDS has direct access to leadership at the White House and federal agencies, which has been vital to its success.
3. Solve problems that matter to the community.
“Innovation is really problem-solving issues that matter to the community, issues that people know best,” Honey said. The higher up you get, the more removed you are from understanding the problem that everyday constituents and frontline employees best understand. Leadership must find ways to stay connected with those most impacted by the problem and to co-create meaningful solutions with them.
4. Be open to a new path forward.
Sometimes you have to set aside existing processes and find a new path forward, Laborde said. That’s why it’s critical to have key stakeholders who are going to lean in and be champions of this new path forward, including those from the leadership level. Although innovation often involves a lot of people, all of them may not be able to focus on a single project for a sustained amount of time. Identifying the people who will pull something all the way through to the finish line is critical.
5. Ask for forgiveness and not permission.
That isn’t a blanket license to do whatever you want. Instead, innovating with this mindset requires an understanding of what lines you have to stay within so that you are innovating in a secure way to achieve goals, without being too disruptive, Laborde said.
Honey’s advice: Always keep the problem that you’re trying to solve at the forefront. That is your North Star. No matter which direction Agile sprints, user feedback or co-creation takes you, the goal is to move the ball down the field in a coordinated approach. Ask yourself:
- Where are we going?
- What is the long-term goal?
- What is the strategic priority?
Don’t let urgent matters crowd out the important ongoing work that’s necessary to drive progress, said Honey, and don’t let creativity take you off in a different direction.
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