Stories from the Innovation Academy: Guilford County

Guilford County uses the Innovation Academy to empower staff to knock down barriers and create added value in their organization.

ARTICLE | Jun 5, 2018
by Jason Jones, Analytics and Innovation Manager, Guilford County, NC
Guilford County

I think it is important for me to first recognize and mention that innovation is not a foreign concept to Guilford County Government. We have tremendously talented and creative employees that have been innovating for a long time all throughout the organization. They have been doing more and more with less resources in an environment that is subject to the close scrutiny of state government, local elected officials, and over 500,000 residents. For anyone unfamiliar with county government in North Carolina, I would encourage you to take a look at how complex it can be.

Something that may be a bit foreign to us, is the idea that all of the roads we are separately heading down need to converge at some point. As I once heard it stated, we really like to operate in our “cylinders of excellence.” Facilitating the convergence of departments, people, and ideas is why I think we originally joined the Innovation Academy. I think we saw the Academy as an opportunity to bring the organization a step closer to a vision of institutionalized collective impact. This obviously is not something that happens overnight. Change is slow and at some point you have to decide what part of the metaphorical elephant you want to chew on first.

Open-Sourcing Innovation

It is one thing to dream - what did we actually do? Our team’s project was titled “open-sourcing innovation.” Open-source promotes universal access to a products design or blueprint. If that is going to be the model and innovation is our product, then every employee in the organization should have access to the blueprint. That may sound fancy but the concept is beautifully simple. We built team consensus around two core concepts. We wanted to have a broad positive impact on culture and we wanted every employee to feel empowered to be a creative problem solver. We drafted our approach with two very broad strokes. Talk to employees about what barriers existed to innovation and then eliminate those barriers. Recognizing our time limitations, we decided that we could at least get through the first half during the Academy. We decided to gather qualitative and quantitative data about our innovation culture and then synthesize that into something actionable that could be carried forward.

On the qualitative side, we had informal conversations with co-workers and we spoke with approximately 30 employees during our ansWEr Labs. In a nutshell, we asked people to describe what they perceived as barriers to innovation and what they would change if they could. On the quantitative side, we conducted an internal innovation culture survey with 468 employees respondants. This provided us with scoring across six building blocks that include values, behaviors, climate, resources, processes, and success. Once we gathered our data, we came together and attempted to synthesize it into something meaningful.

The Innovation Continuum

We were able to develop a solid understanding of how we are approaching innovation. It is helpful to think about it as a continuum where we start with developing capacity to be innovative, then work to empower employees to implement innovative ideas, and then reward/recognize employees for the added value.

We realized that the weakest point along this continuum was empowerment. The greatest barrier to the open-source innovation culture we imagined was employee well-being. Deficiencies in the pillars of well-being (physical, emotional, social, career, and financial) consume time and energy, which has a direct impact on an employee’s capacity to be innovative. It is important to also acknowledge that innovation typically requires some sort of additional effort. Angela Duckworth argues for the multiplicative impact of effort in her book Grit. An employee’s well-being will most definitely impact level of effort.

So Where Are We Now?

The team has made a couple of solid recommendations that we are working to move forward with. First, it was recommended that we invest in well-being while recognizing the uniqueness of each employee. Different employees will require support in different areas to feel more empowered. Second, we need to begin to recognize employee well-being as a critical input to innovation. Well-being is an important ingredient and you will definitely taste it if it is missing.

I am incredibly excited to announce that, as a next step, we are collaborating with the Master of Public Policy program at Duke University and The Center for Advanced Hindsight on a summer innovation fellowship that will work on well-being barriers to innovation. Hopefully, by the end of the summer we will have one or multiple concrete projects moving forward to try to address our findings using behavioral economics.

Some Useful Advice

I do want to close with what I hope is some useful advice to others thinking about innovation or maybe even future Academy participants. Don’t complicate things. Listening to Bill Greeves from Wake County Government recently, I heard probably my favorite and least complex definition of innovation ever. They define innovation as “new ideas that create value.” How wonderfully simple is that? Innovation is whatever you want and need it to be. Recognize how incredibly contextual innovation is and just embrace it.

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