#BeyondtheBox 1 : 6 insights on how innovators in the government are bringing change

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How do you bring innovation into industries that seem resistant to rapid change?

Let’s admit it. Bringing innovation or any level of change is hard in a highly bureaucratic organization. It takes time to process it, implement it, and understand its value. It also does not help that many immediately judge you for a lack of flexibility. This is the case for many of those who work in the government, real estate, law, food, and media. There is a strong perception that they lack creative thinking or the ability to embrace uncertainty. But is this entirely true?

While there are limits, we have seen some notable changes in these industries. I wanted to take a closer look at this because it’s easy for us to judge others when we don’t know enough about them. Most often, what we know is from media that highlights the worst or the best moments.

InnovatorsBox has teamed up with WeWork this summer to debunk these perceptions and will co-host a speaker series, “Beyond the Box,” in Washington, DC. We are hosting innovators from five industries, who have demonstrated daring changes and entrepreneurial thinking to engage and share with local professionals how to bring innovation to their industries.  

Our goal for #BeyondtheBox is to begin demystifying people’s perceptions about innovation in these five industries, learn from local innovators about how they effected change and innovation, empower participants to embrace creativity, and celebrate small milestones to bring greater change.

After each #BeyondtheBox session, we will highlight key takeaways from the conversation. Below are the some of the insights from our first session.

#1 Beyond The Box: The Government, July 7, 2016

Our series began with an exploration of creativity and innovation within the government. Today, there are more innovation labsinitiativesfellowships, andcollaborations in the U.S. government than ever before. Yet, there is a perception that the government is far behind other industries.  Having worked in government affairs for 7+ years myself, I was excited to learn from these speakers how they embrace innovative thinking for the government:

 

  • Amy J. Wilson  is a user-centered product designer who integrates communications and technology to solve complex challenges and serves as a Presidential Innovation Fellow at the White House.
  • Jeffrey Chen is the first Chief Data Scientist of the U.S. Department of Commerce and integrates data sciences across the DoC and leads new data science product developments.
  • Rob Baker is a technologist and product manager who explores emerging digital innovation as the Lead Technologist in USAID’s Global Development Lab.
  • Alex Wirth is the co-Founder of Quorum and integrates his passion for government and technology by helping Congress and state legislators make better decisions with better information.

Each speaker had a unique perspective to offer. All four have seen, worked with, and continue to tackle challenges and opportunities in the government in different ways. Yet, their patterns and insights were fairly similar. What did they do that made them different? Within 90 minutes, even as the moderator, I filled 7 pages of my mini WeWork notebook from this conversation. 

This is what I learned:

  • Find your allies and like-minded innovators

While not everyone may believe in your ideas, continue looking for those who do. Particularly in the face of challenge, seek out those like-minded colleagues that support “out of the box” thinking to back your positions, hold you accountable and encourage you to seek new solutions to complex issues. So before you give up, find your allies, early adopters, believers, and get your buy-ins early. As Jim Rohn had famously said, “we are the average of the five people we spend most time with.”

  • Count the small wins & focus on solving one problem at a time

One of the reasons why bringing change in the government seems difficult is because we expect large-scale impact and small or slow change is less recognized. In reality,  incremental change can lead to a greater impact when led with consistency and  intention. Instead of always seeking the big win, find an area in your work routine where you can bring new change. Start asking, how can I communicate differently? How can I improve my project implementation process? Find one niche you want to focus on and be persistent in solving that problem. Celebrate those small wins, too.

  • Seek and take feedback constantly

Since government employees are paid with taxpayer money, it is understandable why they can be risk-averse. Being accountable for every dollar spent can stifle creativity and support the status quo. One of the key elements of an entrepreneurial mindset is to understand that one’s best ideas are a result of imperfect ideas, coupled with constant feedback and testing. As an innovator, it is important to recognize that initial ideas are imperfect and you must be willing to actively seek and adapt to feedback. If you fear rejection or constructive feedback, your ideas will never reach optimal impact. Even Einstein had to fail 99 times to find the perfect formula. While being mindful of taxpayer money is important, it is critical to foster a space for feedback, criticism, and evaluation to generate changes to better utilize government resources.

  • When providing a solution, identify the users, talk to them, and get them involved

Creating products and solutions that are ‘user-friendly’ is a popular term in the entrepreneurial and design thinking spaces. The idea is that since customers using the product or services would best understand what they need, how they might use it, and how they might like the tools, it is important to ask for their perspectives, input, and direct feedback in the process of creating a solution. If you ignore the users, you have a higher chance of creating something that is not useful nor practical for your target audience.

All panelists indicated how this mentality was key when promoting new initiatives and ideas within the government as well. To understand what impact your solutions and insights can have, it is crucial to talk to the target user, ask them questions and involve them throughout the process. Instead of making assumptions about why someone does not support your project, ask them. Why do you not like the project? What are you worried about? How might the project help you with your needs better? What would you like to see more? They might see you as an outsider bringing change that could damage their routine, which one couldn’t understand as a short term visitor.

So, get to know your users and ask them how you can truly help. Identify an ally among the users, too. They can be your new supporters in moving initiatives forward and vouching for your project. In all, it is critical to reach out to the users who will use the product or idea and have them proactively involved.

  • Be inclusive and share credit throughout the process

It is natural that we want to pat ourselves on the back when we accomplish something. It is also easy for us to not like those who take all the credit for collaborative efforts. Knowing these two psychological norms, the panelists highlighted including a variety of opinions as crucial. Hearing the voices of both supporters and opposers and sharing credit with others throughout idea development has a big impact on the success of the final product.

Listening rejection and receiving criticism is hard. Still, it is critical to “get the pain upfront” and permit critics to voice their opinions instead of ignoring them. Thank them for their thoughts and ask them how they might want to improve this with those new insights. In this way, now you are not only sharing credit, but have involved them in the process. It is easier to say no to the people who may disagree with you. Being willing to listen to them and working with them takes more courage, but also creates more opportunities to make new initiatives.

  • Don’t give up!

And of course, the key element to all of this is to be persistent, determined, and deliver consistently good work for your team and department. Your willingness to learn, adapt, and stay proactive when facing these challenges and limits is the greatest stepping stone in fostering innovative thinking. It will take months or even years for some of your work to shine, but don’t give up. Don’t simply criticize the system without creating an action plan.

 

Do these 6 approaches regularly, and you will start to see a new spark in how you face challenges within the government. Ask your team to start thinking about these perspectives to foster a more creative thinking culture. With intention and consistency, new possibilities will develop. We are grateful to have great innovators like our panelists who are proactively initiating change.

And so can you.

Thank you for reading. I look forward to your thoughts!

Friends: We look forward to seeing you at the next Beyond The Box on July 21 evening. We will meet four innovators from the real estate community and explore how they build creative communities by utilizing spaces in new ways. Tickets are free, but please RSVP to participate. See you there!

See you there!