Innovating Made Easy: Advice for Government Employees

By Candace Thorson, Senior Staff Writer, GovLoop

Beyond meeting the everyday demands of their jobs, government employees feel pressure to innovate, to come up with a novel way of doing something better and further proving their own worth. But how does someone go about it, regardless of title or where they sit within an agency?

During our NextGen online training, “Create Your Spark! How to Cultivate an Innovative,” Arianna Montero-Colbert, the Governor’s Management Fellow at the Tennessee Office of Customer Focused Government (CFG), laid out what innovation looks like. First of all, she said, the ground rule is that “you define your own leadership legacy” and shouldn’t feel constrained by the title on your name badge.

Montero-Colbert offered a few guiding approaches for innovating in government.

Enough of the Brooding Genius

We have this image, she said, of a genius working long hours, all alone, in a dimly lit garage (think, Jeff Bezos as he created the behemoth we now call Amazon). That’s a misplaced notion, she advised.

“We really need to retire the archetype of an independent genius and need to enable processes that enable innovation to occur,” she said. Being inventive doesn’t require a high IQ; it requires a culture that fosters creativity. “There really isn’t anything new we’re coming up with. It’s more about applying old ideas in new contexts and building from them.”

Your Third Idea Is Your Best Idea

The Tennessee official’s lesson on generating the best ideas was voted most helpful by attendees at the online training. Essentially, she counseled people to forfeit their belief in the brilliance of their ideas. Individuals “really need to get used to the process of getting rid of [their] innovation ‘babies’” and willingly allow colleagues to scrutinize their thoughts and “completely tear them up.”

According to Montero-Colbert, “You need to divorce your understanding of a good idea from the value of the idea itself.”

During the session, Montero-Colbert also broke down ways that different types of employees can innovate and foster creativity in others. For instance,

  • Mid-level managers should listen to direct reports, define pipelines and create an idea archive.
  • Senior leaders should incentivize and encourage innovation by incorporating it into a performance management system.
  • Junior employees should document the actions they took, the roles they played and the things they learned. They should focus on the things in front of them and update their portfolios.

What if day-to-day tasks bog you down and sap your creativity? Montero-Colbert suggested implementing things you already know will work in a given situation and, oh yes, paying attention to your surroundings. It also helps to learn the language of the leadership around you.

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