Innovation is About More Than Technology – It’s About People

We talk about innovation all the time on the DorobekINSIDER. Innovative apps. Innovative procurements. Innovative technology. But we rarely highlight innovative people who are doing things differently. The Partnership for Public Service operates the Excellence in Government Fellows Program. It’s a leadership development opportunity for GS-14 and 15s that prepares leaders to be more than just managers.

Tom Fox, Vice President of Leadership and Innovation at the Partnership for Public Service, told Chris Dorobek on the DorobekINSIDER program that strong and innovative leaders are often hard to find in government.

Every year the Office of Personnel Management surveys the federal workforce and comes up with the data on the best places to work. One of the big takeaways from this year’s survey was that many feds feel innovation is missing from their offices.

“I think that innovation is being thrown around as a buzzword an awful lot,” said Fox. “Innovation is touted as the solution for every problem, which it is not, but it can help agencies deliver the value. Innovation is about improving existing processes, adopting best practices, or even doing something entirely new. There’s a whole spectrum.”

Innovation factored into the annual Federal Viewpoint Survey that is given to every federal employee by the Office of Personnel Management. There were three questions in particular that showcased its importance:

  1. Are you (as an federal employee) interested in doing things better and differently? “What’s really fascinating is that we have a highly motivated federal workforce,” said Fox. “Somewhere in the neighborhood of 90% of employees are interested in doing a better job.”
  2. Do you feel encouraged? “The percentage drops down from 90% to roughly half,” said Fox. “So only about half of employees feel like their leaders actually encourage innovation.”
  3. Are you recognized for your innovative work? “The number there drops down to a third,” said Fox.

But what is innovative thinking? Steve Jobs said innovation has nothing to do with how many R&D dollars you have. He noted that when Apple came up with the Mac, IBM was spending a hundred times more on R&D. It’s not about money; it’s about the people you have and what they can do with their resources.

“Innovation actually loves constraints,” said Fox. “If you look in the government and the innovators who have succeeded, or the private sector examples of Apple, they are succeeding despite the obstacles.”

Geoff Colvin’s book, Talent is Overrated, echoed Jobs. Colvin found that in order for innovation to happen, there have to be some constraints – in fact, people need the constraints to thrive. “When I talk to folks in government who throw their hands and say they don’t have funds to innovate, I give them the counter examples of the agencies that are succeeding despite funding shortfalls. It’s not about the money, it really is about the people,” said Fox.

PPS recommends that in order to create a culture of innovation, the entire agency needs to buy into the innovative mentality. “The best environment for innovation is both top down and bottom up. Leaders need to set the tone,” said Fox.

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