Minnesota Cities Magazine
More from May-Jun 2016 issue

The 6 Qualities of Innovation

By Karen Thoreson

Ever wonder why some cities seem to win lots of awards— or are constantly showcased as having outstanding programs? Over the last five years, the Alliance for Innovation and Arizona State University’s School of Picture of light bulbs to illustrate innovative ideasPublic Affairs have studied hundreds of local governments that won national, state, or local awards, seeking to find out if there were some common denominators that these lauded organizations shared. This study revealed six qualities of innovation.

Of course, sustained innovation in any organization requires a commitment to change, a process to sustain change, intent to implement change, and the people to carry out change. Still, there are certain attributes that make organizational innovation more likely.

1. Inclusive Leadership
“Never before in history has innovation offered promise of so much to so many in so short a time.” –BILL GATES

Not surprisingly, having a key leader (or leaders) driving change within the organization makes a dramatic difference. That leader could be the manager, or it might be a key elected official or the whole executive team. The important thing is not necessarily who the leader is, but the type of leadership that person or group embodies.

Leaders in innovative organizations are visionary, inclusive, proactive, and organization-centered, rather than leader-centered. These leaders promote innovation by working to develop leaders throughout the organization.

These are “unselfish” leaders, who share credit, recognize contributions, and make leadership development a higher priority than celebrating a single individual. In his book Good to Great, Jim Collins called this “Level 5” leadership. Organizations that cultivate inclusive, sustained leadership have a head start on producing great results.

Although all six qualities of innovation are important, perhaps the most critical is leadership, as it sustains the effort, rightly manages risk, and propels the morale of the group at all levels in order to achieve greater and greater success.

2. Relentless Creativity
“Problems cannot be solved by the same kind of thinking that created them.” –ALBERT EINSTEIN

While brain science tells us that only about 20 percent of humans regularly think in creative ways, organizations that engage the entire workforce to achieve their potential are able to beat those odds. To harness its employees’ talent, an organization must offer processes and policies that allow employees to give their best while on the job.

To do this, you need to create an environment that isn’t satisfied with the status quo. Ask these questions: Could this be better? How have others solved this problem? Is there a different approach that would yield better results? These questions are great starts toward increasing the creativity of your team.

Critical to encouraging creativity is allowing for failure— because not all new ideas will work. Organizations need to have some good “failure and risk” conversations in the workplace. This will build employees’ confidence in trying new things, and let them know that their new ideas are welcome.

3. Extensive Internal Collaboration
“The secret is to gang up on the problem, rather than each other.” –THOMAS STALLKAMP

Over the course of a couple of decades, many local governments have crawled out of their silos and begun to see the value of working in cross-functional teams. In successful innovative groups, we see a real disrespect for silos. Instead, they have non-hierarchal teams charged with solving problems outside of their individual expertise—because those employees can bring fresh ideas and help rethink a problem or challenge.

The organization that identifies a problem in public works, for instance, will experience a direct benefit in bringing in non-public works staff to brainstorm solutions. It is surprising how often a diverse team of insiders and outsiders can collectively review, ask probing questions, make suggestions, and implement change.

Of the six qualities, this one has perhaps the lowest up-front cost and the fewest downsides. It is also the easiest to implement. By simply forming a team from various departments and helping them define and investigate a problem, you can grow staff engagement and morale.

4. Robust External Partnerships
“The strength of the team is each individual member. The strength of each member is the team.” –PHIL JACKSON

Public/private partnerships have been around a long time. But the partnerships seen in this quality go beyond the normal quid-pro-quo approach. Public partnerships have long relied on a standard of “I give you a dollar and I get a dollar’s value back.” But these new partnerships are built on a platform of community benefit, rather than an individual organization’s return.

Successful external partnerships look at a variety of unique factors:

  • Do they further one another’s goals?
  • How do they expand beyond the simple economic-benefit criteria?
  • Can they develop common missions, visions, and values for the project?
  • Do they focus on common interests rather than differences?
  • Do they address ground rules, evaluation, and how to manage conflict?

Organizations that use these more unusual criteria are frequently able to craft partnerships with one or more external partners that benefit each other and the community as a whole. These partnerships are not easy to establish; it requires a willingness to trust and take risk. But it’s worth it because organizations that use these approaches are able to craft partnerships—like city/school joint facility agreements or economic development projects—that are much more comprehensive and impactful than what a single organization could undertake.

5. Authentic Community Connections
“A dream you dream alone is only a dream. A dream you dream together is reality.” –JOHN LENNON

After more than 100 years of the government reform movement that moved political decisions out of the smoke-filled back rooms and created a system of nonpolitical, professional management, have we become a victim of our own success?

There was a time when residents happily embraced the formation of their city because it symbolized improved safety, security, utilities, and other services. Today, though, many residents feel cut off from their local government leaders, and may have the sense that these leaders would prefer to have their own experts solve community problems.

Innovative governments have shown community and organizational benefits when citizens are authentically welcomed into the deliberations on local priorities and neighborhood improvements. Fundamental questions to test your organization against include:

  • If I come, will you listen?
  • If I speak, will you consider what I said?
  • How and when will I see action?

Employees, citizens, and businesses need to connect not only with their local government, but also with each other. Local governments can provide the connection points, the tools, expertise, and resources.

6. Reality-Focused, Results-Driven
“Start by doing what’s necessary; then do what’s possible; and suddenly you are doing the impossible.” –ST. FRANCIS OF ASSISI

Box that says, In the end, innovation for its own sake is simply play. Organizations that care about innovation, care about results and take the time to measure whether a new practice is producing better results and for whom.

Truly innovative organizations make time at the start of a project to think about what results would signal success. They build in checkpoints beforehand to make sure a project is on track, and try to have any failure early, so that course corrections can lead to earlier success. They focus on innovations that will make a difference, that are sustainable, and that are constantly being reviewed, changed, and updated.

So, which of these six qualities of innovation do you think are strongest in your city—and which areas might you focus on to see improvement? How can you focus on one or more of these areas to map out a brighter and more successful future for your city? By making these areas an organizationwide focus, cities can reinforce the rewards of innovation. It only takes the will to start the process.

Karen Thoreson is president of the Alliance for Innovation.

This was adapted from an article that originally appeared in ICMA’s Public Management magazine in 2012.

Read the May-June 2016 issue of Minnesota Cities magazine.

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