Stories from the Academy

The Alliance Innovation Academy is causing transformations both technically and culturally with local governments across the County. In this interview learn about the experience of Charlottesville, VA and their future endeavors post graduating the program and steal some cultural enhancing takeaways for your organization!

ARTICLE | Sep 5, 2017

Charlottesville, Virginia

Why did your organization join academy?

  • Leadership was familiar and interested in the Alliance for Innovation and integrating innovation into Charlottesville’s culture. This led to tying innovation to the strategic plan, organizational values and vision statement. 
  • With this increased focus on innovation, it led to engagement with the Alliance and the Innovation Academy as a way to advance this goal. Team leads were selected and worked to recruit team members to participate. This involved engagement with leadership, as well as employee emails and newsletter recruitment. There was a fair amount of interest, and ultimately a cross-functional team of 10 employees was selected. 

What project did your team choose to complete and why?

  • The team was able to define the project they would work on. With the cross-functional nature of the team, it was discovered that many didn’t know each other or have the ability to interact on a day-to-day basis. With an employee base of about 950 people, the group felt that in order to build a culture of innovation, the project should focus on ways to help employees build relationships and understand how different areas do and can work together. 
  • The team created the City Compass program, centered around employee engagement and building relationships and a sense of unity among new and existing city employees. The initial phase of the program centers around mentorship for new employees, creating opportunities for networking and learning from new employees who volunteer with the program. This includes introducing the program at orientation and one-on-one meet ups to give a peer-to-peer perspective on city programs and departments.  

What cultural shifts or “aha” moments did you experience while participating in the Academy?

  • Charlottesville had two goals at the beginning of the academy: Completion of the program and the project, and also the creation of an Innovation Team (or i-TEAM) in the organization to deepen and sustain innovation efforts. The ongoing nature of the i-TEAM has really helped to institutionalize innovation in a more formal way. 
  • There are no “dedicated” staff who have innovation as their primary job responsibility; rather the team is made up of employees from across the organization that are engaged in innovation efforts. The team meets monthly, and they have seen participation and interest grow as time goes on. Like many other organizations, the biggest barrier to not moving faster is that working on the proactive and new ideas competes for time with the day-to-day work to be done. But, they are fortunate to have a team of motivated people willing to help drive this forward and employees who want to contribute. 
  • At the same time as the organization was participating in the Innovation Academy, they also had some leadership changes which also influenced the culture, the focus on innovation, and buy-in to the employee engagement initiative.
  • The i-TEAM not only focuses on the City Compass program, but also on supporting other innovation ideas and projects (open data portal is an example, as well as an event for pitching new ideas which saw 30 employees engage with the team to move ideas forward).
  • The "aha" moment of it all: the Academy curriculum that focus on the element of failure being a part of innovation and forward progress. Local government can sometimes be resistant to change due to fear of failing. But, the Charlottesville team learned that thinking through ideas, taking smart risk and learning and evolving ideas from what works AND what didn’t is a critical part of innovation. Also, leadership buy-in and support for operating in this way is critical.

What are the next steps for the project you completed?

  • City Compass: Looking to expand this to include in-depth tours of the city with department guides to show employees around and answer questions. This may also include open houses. Also, looking to expand this to current employees (beyond just new employees).
  • Looking to continue the "Pitch an Idea" event and host these on a regular basis (considering a fall/spring time frame and looking for ways to encourage employees to bring forward “quick wins” ideas).
  • Also, will be evaluating ways to recognize the employees that work on driving innovation forward, both on the team and in bringing ideas forward or serving as department guides. Through all these contributions, Charlottesville is able to continue to grow their culture of innovation.

Any advice on how organizations can begin transforming their culture of innovation?

  • Embrace failure, it doesn’t have to be smooth right away
  • Buy-in support and leadership is critical. Continue to educate and engage leadership on direction and results and the importance of an innovative culture
  • Have a mindset at the beginning of the Academy that this is the first step in a long-standing innovation journey. 
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