Make Your Organization Open to Change

Not every new idea is a good idea, but new ideas are nevertheless essential to being an adaptive agency.

In a 2016 article, the Centre for Public Impact, a government consulting firm, said that “the future public servant will increasingly need to think and act like an entrepreneur.” If it isn’t here now, that future is coming fast. Government employees must be proficient in navigating, generating and implementing new ideas in a fast-changing world.

Enter public entrepreneurship, the process of introducing innovation successfully through the creation and adoption of new ideas in government. Anyone who has tried to propose an innovative change before knows how difficult it can be because it requires an openness to failure.

“Sometimes that’s not something that feels comfortable in the public sector,” said Phoebe Peronto, California’s Deputy State Chief Technology Innovation Officer. “But we promise it’s possible.” Peronto and Rick Klau, California’s Chief Technology Innovation Officer, spoke on the topic at the 2022 NextGen Training Summit in May.

Some of the main benefits of using public entrepreneurship strategies are the following:

  • They allow agencies to keep up with the current rate of change, technological and otherwise.
  • They enable leaders to solve more complex and cross-functional problems.
  • And they empower the workforce to meet the public’s expectations.

In California, a number of initiatives such as the first digital vaccine card, digitized forms and infrastructure modernization were results of public entrepreneurship at work. Here are the obstacles and best practices that Peronto, Klau and the Office of Enterprise Technology (OET) learned about navigating innovation through public entrepreneurship strategies.

Obstacle 1: Colleagues Are Opposed to New Ideas

Best practice: Pick small and smart wins.

When people say, “We’ve always done things this way,” it can mean two things, Klau said. It can mean that they are risk-averse, sometimes to a fault, but it can also mean that the path is well-worn for a good reason.

That’s why Klau and OET often focus first on introducing change to “greenfield areas,” or areas that don’t fundamentally redo or undo the way something works, especially if there is unpredictable risk involved.

The digital COVID-19 vaccine card was one greenfield area the team worked on. There was little opposition to having an alternative, non-paper-based option for COVID-19 vaccine information. So with the success of the digital vaccine card, it built trust for the team to try pushing the envelope a little further next time.

“What we did with the digital vaccine record last spring and summer unquestionably gave us credibility that allowed us to ask other questions in other venues,” Klau said. “[W]e had proven that given a little bit of time … we could build things that worked, that solved the problem that we had promised and have an even greater outcome than we had predicted.”

Obstacle 2: Senior Leaders Are Reluctant to Introduce Risks

Best practice: Take a step back, and get curious.

In many ways, introducing change is riskier than staying with the status quo. So how can people best advise senior leaders, who are most responsible for risk, to take a chance on something new?

“Take a big step back,” Peronto advised.

“Someone is not going to trust you to try something new if they don’t know what you’re trying to solve for, who you are, what your motivations are and if you care about what they care about,” Peronto said.

Therefore, step one is to ask questions. Observing and stating that something needs to be different is not as effective as asking, such as through surveys or one-on-one interviews. Getting curious uncovers insights around what should actually be changed and what people need. This is, in a sense, gathering data that can help build your case for change. Even the best memos are not as compelling as data, when you can say that a legacy process takes this number of hours and costs that number of dollars — all of which can be saved through the implementation of a new process.

More than just making a compelling argument, however, listening to others also provides people a sense of ownership and peace about a change, because their opinions were asked. “There’s this new bond that is formed … that helps with laying the groundwork around introducing new ideas,” Peronto said.

This article first appeared in “Your Guide to Becoming an Adaptive Agency,” from GovLoop. For more insights on embracing agility, download it here.

Image by kalhh from Pixabay

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