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Making Your Organization More Nimble: Encouraging Agility and Innovation in People and Process

A note for our readers: the views reflected by the authors do not reflect the views of ASPA.

By Troy Holt

Many people believe government is broken. And it is — to a point. But local government is vital to the very existence of our daily lives. To survive, we need things like running water, electricity and a functioning transportation network. We all want government that is responsive, agile and creative. And it can be. Governments that are faster, more flexible and more responsive will achieve better outcomes for their citizens.

People and Process

holt mayHow quickly can your government agency respond to changing conditions, or capitalize on opportunities? Does the slowness with which your agency operates frustrate citizens, or even members of your staff? When diagnosing problems that inhibit agility, we can start with two major areas: people and process.


There is no shortage of negative stories about inefficient government bureaucrats – those people who operate with rigidity and who are unable, or unwilling, to consider alternative solutions or innovations to problems. How can we encourage the people in our agencies to break out of this stereotype? Here are some ways to start:

Be a Learning Organization – Edgar Schein in his 2010 book, Organizational Culture and Leadership, Fourth Edition, posed the question, “Is it possible to imagine a culture that, by its very nature, is learning oriented, adaptive and flexible? Can we stabilize perpetual learning and change? What would a culture look like that favored perpetual learning and flexibility?” Continuous improvement through continuing education can help alleviate stifled, inflexible thinking. Agile agencies commonly encourage a full range of training and professional development activities for the entire organization. Courses typically include topics such as supervisory and management skills, communication and interpersonal skills and personal development workshops. Some agencies also send employees to “training of trainers” programs to develop in-house capabilities that help provide training and development broadly and deeply throughout the organization.

In the 1999 book, Positive Outcomes: Raising the Bar on Government Reinvention, Ted Gaebler wrote, “A ‘learning’ organization is one that does not merely react to changes that happen to it but is a proactive agent that can initiate change in its own environment. The organization needs to see itself as part of its environment and not only an objective observer of it.” The investment in learning should also come with an increased expectation of high performance and ability to take on greater risk-taking assignments.

Encourage Risk Taking – We should encourage our employees to take smart risks. One definition of a smart risk could be that for which employees look at options, believe the risk is worth the gain and can live with the consequences. In her article, “Four Reasons to Encourage Employees to Take Smart Risks,” Shellye Archambeau, writes, “…risk and opportunity are two sides of the same coin. Striking the right balance requires taking calculated risks where the upside far outweighs the downside.” It is important that we reward smart risk taking, no matter how it turns out. We should make it clear that we understand that not every risk succeeds.

Create a Zone of Innovation – Innovation comes through looking at a problem through a different lens. We should encourage our employees to stretch beyond their comfort zones. Help employees understand that it is easy to operate within a safe box that represents the limits they place on themselves. It takes the same amount of energy to reach the perceived edge as it does to continue the momentum to reach maximum potential.

Create a “Zone of Innovation” that includes the chief executive and a few key advisors. Hold regular meetings (perhaps once or twice each month) that allow a forum for employees to pitch their innovative ideas. Set clear guidelines on how to make a presentation and the level of research expected. Nothing kills innovation so quickly as the consistent response of “go study that in more detail.” Let employees know up front the type of preparation you need from them in order to make a quick decision. Remember, the Zone of Innovation applies to you as well. Reward employees for reaching full potential, but expect employees to operate consistently in the area between the perceived edge and true potential.


Beware of Bureaucracy – There was certainly a need for structured bureaucracy to break the dysfunction in government agencies that prevailed in 19th century American government. While, historically, the implementation of bureaucracies insulated against political corruption, bureaucracy is no longer considered by modern, American society to be the most efficient way of operating government agencies. This is an American paradox – we (society) want governments to have limited powers and yet be efficient. Inefficiency is part of the price we pay for having a government designed to be incapable of the tyranny of kings. Because of our fear of government power, we have designed our governments to be costly, slow and inefficient by insisting on separation of powers, checks and balances and federalism.

With the evolution of society and government agencies, there have been departures from the original thinking of organizational structure pioneers such as Max Weber in his book, Economy and Society. We now understand the negative consequences of bureaucracy in terms of costly inefficiencies that impede progress.

Eliminate Silos – Departmental silos are at the center of bureaucratic constipation. Narrow functions and responsibilities within your departments could lead to situations such as a requirement for review by multiple departments before a piece of correspondence can see the light of day. This perpetuates the perception of slow, unresponsive governments. Silos beget turf wars – they can create an environment in which departments become rooted in protecting their territory rather than focusing on the quality, efficiency and creativity of outcomes. Matrix teams are effective at eliminating department silos. These teams foster a culture of self-discipline, empowerment and motivation for employees to proactively take leadership roles to solve problems and move toward common goals with strategies that cross departmental lines. More information on matrix teams is available in this July 2013 PA TIMES article, Matrix Teams in the Public Sector.

Create an Innovation Salon — Develop an experimental working environment that encourages employees to explore new ideas and possibilities. That could mean giving them a few hours a week or perhaps one day a month to work on projects for which they are passionate. Encourage employees to establish an “innovation salon” in the spirit of the 18th century coffee houses.

Steven Johnson, in Where Good Ideas Come From, investigates the environmental spaces that have historically led to unusual rates of creativity and innovation. Johnson discusses the benefits of creating spaces where ideas can mingle and swap, and slow hunches can collide to form new and innovative ideas. Create the space and opportunity for employees to find missing pieces of information that could complete the ideas they’re working on or to stumble serendipitously across some amazing piece of information that they can use to build on and improve their own ideas. Take an available conference room or perhaps a corner of break room or patio and turn it into an innovation salon that encourages employees to talk about their new ideas that will improve creativity, innovation and productivity.


We often hire exceptionally bright and wonderfully creative people, and then place bureaucratic handcuffs on them that stifle their ability to be creative and innovative. Remove those handcuffs by deeply examining the environment in which employees are operating. Leaders need to set the example by creating learning organizations, encouraging risk taking, establishing zones of innovation, reducing bureaucratic constraints, eliminating silos and creating innovation salons. The result will be engaged and motivated employees who are more productive and produce outcomes that lead to greater citizen satisfaction.



Author:  ASPA member Troy Holt, MPA, has 25 years of public agency management experience in departments ranging from Police, Public Works, Transportation, Administrative Services and the City Manager’s Office. He is a graduate of Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government Senior Executives in State and Local Government program, and he is currently the Director of Communications and Government Relations for the City of Rancho Cordova, Calif., the first local government agency to earn the distinction as a Fortune Great Place to Work. He is also a member of the ICMA Advisory Board on Graduate Education and can be reached via email at [email protected], followed on Twitter at @TroyGHolt, and LinkedIn at linkedin.com/in/tgholt.

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