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Refocusing on Innovation Counts Today and Tomorrow

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Christine Springer
October 1, 2014

Nurturing continuous innovation and renewal in public agencies is not only important but critical. There is a growing recognition that fostering a culture of innovation is critical to organizational success.  Creativity, mental flexibility and collaboration have displaced one-dimensional intelligence and isolated determination as core ingredients of individual and organizational success.

I recently surveyed and interviewed 100 government leaders representing more than a dozen nationalities. The leaders ranged in age from 42 to 66, 55 percent were women and 45 percent were men. All of them held many and varied positions across more than 30 countries.  In doing so, I discovered some consistent guiding methods and mindsets for individuals and a set of ideas and practices for generating new value in the form of innovative programs and services. Leaders must hire, inspire and develop innovative people while stirring curiosity, creativity, relationship building, global awareness and integrity.

Springer octoberBy developing and supporting  innovative  personalities that often include citizens, we as public managers are able to support new concepts so that they live long enough to make a difference in improving organizational processes and outcomes. To keep moving ahead, organizations will have to keep rethinking and redefining their systems because few of the traditional, orthodox methods and systems will be enough to carry us through this century and beyond.

To do so, those interviewed indicated requires the energizing of others, asking questions not just coming up with answers, embracing others’ aspirations, collaborating with others and taking action.

First, we need to understand that we as public managers don’t have all of the answers.  Several accelerating forces are influencing the innovation gap. The ubiquity of technologies that enable global collaboration and increased accessibility to new ideas and opportunities in emerging markets. There is also an adoption of open-innovation practices and a tendency to develop capabilities with individuals and groups outside their own organizations. Citizens have never had so much information or so many options. They want to be involved in the creative process and, with the ability to post reviews, they can collectively bring a governmental organization up or down based upon how compelling the story associated with its mission and service is. Innovation is creativity in action. Everyone can be creative and contribute to innovative outcomes that create economic value and competitive advantage. Innovative leaders nurture, act upon, implement and take creative ideas into breakthrough change. It’s not enough to be ambitious and determined anymore. Leaders must hire, inspire and develop innovators in their organization.

Second, leaders need to constantly sustain and grow the energy of others in the organization by:

  • Creating and communicating a compelling vision of the future.
  • Conveying that others are making meaningful contributions.
  • Identifying and conveying a clear sense of progress because constant progress and work  hold meaning for individuals, making consistent and measurable steps forward daily.
  • Fully engaging during every interaction so that every person involved feels as if they are the most interesting, important and valuable person in the room.

Third, it is important to ask creative questions that will drive innovation that is meaningful and valuable rather than to use answers that apply to previous situations. We have to nurture curiosity to enable creativity to emerge. This is done by remaining open to all ideas and new ways of seeing the world. Experiences, emotions and the understanding of information that confronts us tend to converge in our minds as we try to make sense of it. Yet innovative ideas and solutions often require our thinking to diverge out from a central idea or experience. To do so requires us to change our approach by stepping out of our cognitive rut and embracing divergent thinking without fear. This also requires us to allow all ideas to surface without bias, pursuing innovation, choosing ideas carefully and exercising optimistic thinking.

Fourth, aspiration is one of the most powerful ideas leaders can give to others by sharing truths which are often hidden.

  • Making it personal to heighten aspirations.
  • Offering hope to those around us rather than pandering to those above us.
  • Focusing on the team and not the boss because doing so often results in paralysis since people have not been involved in the development of outcomes.
  • Playing to individual aspirations and strengths so that things get done using individual energy.
  • Expecting the best of everyone because that allows individuals to live up to that higher expectation by responding to body language, nonverbal cues and vocal intonation.
  • Developing leadership in others by tapping into the intrinsic motivation to build an eternal legacy of wisdom, leaders see clearly that they have a path to create a legacy and preserve their own immortal wisdom through others by changing the shared aspiration of the organization and changing the behavior and outcomes of those within it.
  • Developing higher aspirations for the organization as a whole so that the shared aspirations of those within it expand and their behaviors and outcomes drive greater social and environmental outcomes.

Fifth, collaborate to innovate by connecting with people who can bring new insights and skills to bear on the innovation challenge. Only by reaching beyond and creating bridges from our own immediate domain of expertise to cross-pollinate ideas, processes and components can we move forward. Thinking, planning, making decisions and working out action plans are all best done through teamwork. To truly connect with people in the organization, we should spend more of our time and energy as leaders asking them to examine more closely how they perform their tasks and collaborate as teams and how the organization as a whole operates. Successful teams are the result of hiring the right people, building relationships among them based on trust and concern, creating a shared vision of mission and keeping communication open. Diversity is the mark of great creative teams, where differences are strengths not weaknesses.

Sixth, put the words, values and ideas into action. All the curious inquiry, deep exploration, thoughtful conversation and mindful reflection by individuals in the organization won’t amount to any kind of innovation without action and public managers being willing to accept the consequences of doing so. Many innovation journeys stall because of failure to put pen to paper, build the prototype or otherwise get our hands dirty. One of the most important drivers of innovative outcomes is action that is novel and unique. Unfortunately, a characteristic of being human is a persistent sense of overconfidence when it comes to habitual activities. However, there are a few actions and behaviors that help overcome decision overconfidence:

  • Solicit the opinion of a larger group than was initially involved.
  • Solicit your own second opinion to see if you come up with a different conclusion.
  • Consider the extreme positive and negative boundaries of these outcomes.
  • Separate our deciding self from our doing self so as to act on that decision and to also remain optimistic, focused and steadfast in supporting the doing self.

In the final analysis, it is important to connect with the why of what is happening and being done. Innovative programs and services that have lasting value in the world must be connected to a lasting purpose and one that serves the community. With purpose, we bring something of greater value to our community – local, national or global. Remaining curious and growing a repertoire of ideas with others is the new path to innovation that leaders in government must take. The path leads to taking bold actions that create new value and requires leaders and public managers to step boldly.

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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