How to Spark Innovation at Your Agency

Quick, be creative! For most people, this is a tall order. Thinking creatively on-demand is not an easy task; in fact, it can be outright intimidating. But, according to four experts in the field, it’s also probably not a necessary one for innovation. Results from OPM’s 2014 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey indicated that nearly 91 percent of federal employees are looking for ways to do their jobs better, yet as many as 65 percent of those same employees don’t believe that creativity and innovation are rewarded in the workplace.

As public servants, Jeff Press, Noha Gaber, Andreas Addison and Laura Kunkel work in a number of government agencies where creativity and innovation are in high demand. In their NextGen panel, “Government Innovation is Alive,” each person discussed five ways that even the lowest-ranking federal employees can spark innovation in their agency.

1. Focus on Outcomes, Not Innovation

If you go into your agency with the intention of being innovative, you probably won’t come up with many ideas. That’s both the irony and intimidating aspect of innovation: it has to be inspired. According to Gaber, rather than trying to force creativity, employees should start by looking at existing problems.

In her time at the EPA, focusing on outcomes rather than innovation has helped Gaber address many of the agency’s biggest internal communication problems. Instead of going in with the goal of being innovative, ask yourself what problems already exist in your agency. Taking creative approaches to existing problems is a much easier way to be innovative and can remove some of the pressure that comes with being creative.

2. Assess the Culture to Change it

Once you’ve identified a real problem within your agency, Gaber suggested that individuals truly assess their organization’s culture. What is your agency’s mission? What are its priorities? Understanding these elements of your organization can help you assess what changes to the work culture would be the easiest and most effective to implement. In her time at HUD, Kunkel has found that tying your ideas to your agency’s mission can help convince those with more power in the organization that your suggestions are good ones. With those in power on your side, your innovative ideas are likely to go further toward changing your agency for the better.

3. Look at What Others are Doing

Addison argued that regardless of the organization or department, the key to being a good innovator is looking at what others are already doing and assessing how you can adopt those practices. As Civic Innovator for the City of Richmond, Addison has found the most impactful projects to be the ones that facilitate open dialogue between agencies.

“We all have ideas of how we can make it better. We all face challenges in the basic functionality of our jobs every day,” he said. Because many of the problems agencies face in the day-to-day are similar, looking to other organizations and creating an open dialogue with them can help facilitate innovative solutions to those problems. “That’s the beauty of innovation. It’s not just what I built,” Addison said. It’s the path that you leave behind for others to make things even better in the future.

4. Don’t be Afraid to Fail

Easier said than done, right? According to Press, the key characteristic of any innovator is the ability to learn from failures. Tackling problems head-on, putting different ideas together in unique ways, and challenging the status quo are all essential elements of innovation. However, all of these approaches are inherently risky.

Press urged that the employees have to be willing to experiment. But, more importantly, to come up with the best ideas, they have to learn to celebrate the lessons learned from failure just as much as the ones learned from success you’re your agency walks away with lessons for next time, there’s no reason to fear failing.

5. Remember the Power of Collaboration

It’s not about you, it’s about the power of your community,” Gaber said. Everyone has ideas, and at the end of the day, results are the most important outcome of any idea. “Anybody, wherever you are, can be an innovator,” Kunkel said. When you have a problem, talk to a coworker or colleague, brainstorm ideas to address it and build on them. It’s not easy to make the changes that matter, but with the right focus and reasoning, even the smallest innovations can transform into worthwhile endeavors.

From July 20-21 we will be blogging from GovLoop and YGL’s Next Generation of Government Training Summit. Following along @NextGenGov and read more blog posts here.

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