Don’t Let the Fire Burn Out

Ten factors of a successful innovation team and five ideas for how to sustain it from guest blogger Greg Stopka.

ARTICLE | Oct 16, 2017

How to Keep Your Innovation Team Energy Growing to Change the World

During the summer of 2014, I was honored to participate in the Senior Executive Institute at the University of Virginia as part of International City/County Management Associations’ Leadership ICMA program. In addition to making amazing professional contacts and friends, I also learned about how to build a high performance organization. Without getting too far into the weeds, the general idea around building a parallel organization is that all staff, from executives to front-line staff, engage in technical work (day to day work) but all employees work should also include management and leadership. By teaching team skills (TS) such as facilitation, conflict management, project management, etc. everyone in the organization is capable of leadership work. Why is this important? Because strategic-thinking throughout an organization is a pre-requisite for innovation.

Many local governments have recognized the importance of incorporating cross-functional teams to address challenges and discuss possibilities. For example a department representative will collaborate with another department representative to develop a new solution to a challenge the organization faces. These teams combine the leadership of coming up with new solutions and the management work of testing out the new ideas. 

Role of an Innovation Team

But how do you encourage this behavior throughout and make it part of the culture? Many local governments have adopted an innovation team, a group of cross-functional employees to develop new ways to promote and encourage innovation. At the Park District of Oak Park, we have instigated an innovation team to discuss strategies to promote more innovation internally and engage employees in the process. One of the key responsibilities of the Team was to “launch” a new idea management system called Launch Pad to gather ideas and increase creative capacity in the organization. Another example of an innovation team comes from Richfield, MN who built a model around multiple innovation teams to engage all staff around pertinent topics such as technology and employee engagement. Successful innovation teams like the ones above include the following 10 factors:

  1. Have a Champion: An innovation team requires a leader and manager of the process. While not every organization can hire an innovation officer or manager, they can empower a staff member to have that role in the organization.  Identifying a chief ambassador through the Alliance for Innovation is a great way to informally do this.  In addition to managing the innovation team, the champion can keep innovation in people’s minds such as a monthly innovation tip, holding webinars, or organizing a book club.
  2. Move beyond the Team:  Where innovation teams can sometimes fail is when the rest of staff perceives the responsibility of innovation is solely of the innovation team.  While our innovation team often submits ideas to Launch Pad, we are constantly encouraging employees to participate through orientation, our employee newsletter and all staff meetings, spreading the word that innovation is not our job but the organization’s.
  3. Engage Department Directly: By engaging departments directly you can show how innovation can directly benefit them. At the Park District, I plan to connect with department heads to discuss what problems they are facing and working with their staff to develop new solutions.\
  4. Share Results: To build buy-in for innovation across an organization, you need to show the results and how it improves outcomes. At the Park District, we determine what outcomes each new idea we consider and track whether it was successful or not. Once we determine success on a pilot, we can include funding in the overall budget to fully implement and institutionalize the idea.
  5. Recognize Innovators: By instituting a reward or recognition program for you top innovators, you’ll create an incentive for more to innovate. At the Park District, we are planning to introduce inexpensive trophies for each idea implemented and recognize our innovators at every all-staff meeting. Hopefully, we start seeing offices filled with them.
  6. Volunteer not Voluntold: While representation is important, it’s more important to have a committed group that believes in what you are doing. At the Park District we have introduced an application process for all of our committees. 
  7. Benefits the Individual: If you are going to avoid the voluntold model, it’s important to articulate the individual benefits of participating.  How does participating on the innovation help in both professional as much as organizational development?  Can you incorporate innovation training tools as part of your team such as facilitation, lean, design-thinking, project management, etc. In addition to tools, are their events or workshops that you can send your team.  Encouraging your team to attend the Alliance’s Transforming Local Government Conference (TLG) is a great way to do this. 
  8. Provide Support in Developing the Idea: Whether the idea requires funding or not, ensure you provide the management support to develop and test the idea out.  After deciding to fund a new project, our innovation team engages the employee who submitted the idea to determine what outcome we are trying to achieve, what’s the deliverable, how does it fit our priorities, what support does it require, and how long until we determine success?
  9. Internally Developed: The structure, process and purpose around teams wasn’t bought on a shelf but developed through internal discussions about how the team has in building a culture of innovation. Have the team work with staff to define what innovation means, and
  10. Identify Specific Projects: After discussing what innovation means and what an innovative culture looks like, identify some areas that team wants to tackle. By focusing on these areas, the team can build a purpose for why they meet and work toward agreed upon outcomes. Richfield did this extremely well focusing on areas of customer service, technology and social media.

One challenge that all innovation teams face is the sustainability of their efforts. Common questions I used to hear while working with the Alliance for Innovation were, "how do we maintain our innovation team with staff turnover, how do we keep the momentum of the group going, and how do we get more employees engaged in the process beyond our “usual suspects?”  The challenge with innovation teams, traditionally, is they start out with a ton of energy and enthusiasm but struggle to spread the energy beyond the team and slowly the flame that started so strong loses some of its spark. In order to overcome the sustainability challenge, organizations need to focus on building capacity. Here are my top 5 ideas on how to do that:

  1. Measure the Culture: Developing survey questions and/or focus groups can help determine how innovative the culture is and how successful the innovation team is. You need to know employees’ perceptions around how innovative the organization is, management’s desire for employees’ ideas, risk tolerance, etc. One powerful way to do this is through the Alliance for Innovation’s innovation assessment.
  2. Consider an Academy instead of a Team: By moving away from a static innovation team, you bring new energy and staff into the process. An Academy or programmatic approach can ensure more and more employees aren’t just learning about innovation but applying it into their work and the culture. You also encourage employees, who may be wary of signing up for a permanent committee, to participate. 
  3. Connect Your Smart City Efforts to Culture: Many organizations have built “sandboxes” to bring together stakeholders to discuss building a smart city. Don’t forget about the culture! By connecting your technology groups with the innovation team, you can ensure the technology doesn’t leave the culture behind.
  4. Build a Regional Innovation Cohort: By having a regional group or cohort of innovation teams, you can share challenges, practices, and ideas on a regular basis to grow your innovation teams’ efforts. The Alliance for Innovation’s ambassador forums are a great foundation to build these connections.
  5. Think Bigger than Just your Organization: If you are successful in the above, then you’ll eventually run out of new employees for your Academy/Team. Consider expanding your program to other groups in your municipality. In this way you are not only building capacity for innovation in your organization but expanding your efforts for the entire community.

While local governments have made progress in moving toward having a high-performance organizations, building capacity is still a struggle. There is much we can do to keep the energy and momentum of innovation alive and growing. Measure the culture so you know the effort you are putting into your team is working; consider turning your team into a program or academy to ensure new staff can participate and connect your technology efforts to your innovation team so the technology doesn’t leave the culture behind. As you grow think bigger than just your organization such as building a regional innovation cohort and/or incorporating other community institutions in the process. These changes are important as innovation can’t just be seen as the “program of the month” but the foundation for how we do everything.

By continuing to build on the success of innovation teams and growing capacity, we can move to solve the BIG problems, the multi-faceted, complex ones that extend beyond our organizations such as, "How do we ensure every child in our community is prepared for the future world?" These are the types of questions that extend beyond the park districts, city halls, schools. They are the ones that connect our communities so we can leverage our resources and expertise to truly develop innovative solutions. In this way, we can move beyond building high-performance organizations to high performance communities. Then we can begin changing the world.

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