Innovators Toolbox: System of Systems

Here we go again. Another meeting of circular conversations by subject matter experts, managers, and directors about a problem we are having with a project proposal. These meetings contribute more to global warming due to the amount of hot air being expelled than exhaust from rush hour traffic before a long holiday weekend. I’m not downplaying that there is an issue, but each participant is only complaining about their insular part of the entire process, which complicates and convolutes the ability to get to the actual issue at hand.

Pontificating on effects will never expose the cause.

I predict this meeting will lead to several more before we even begin to make progress on outlining real recommendations, let alone a solution.

As an internal change-agent and disruptor of the status quo, a Civic Innovator’s role is to see beyond the effect of a situation and find the true cause of the problem. Frequently, there are times when issues and challenges are raised that, while important and real, are only symptoms of a larger, more complex issue.

A personal mission of a Civic Innovator is to remove the bandaids on a wound that needs surgery.

One mentor refers to government as a collection of silos. In each silo is a function, a core purpose and operation, that by itself works smoothly (this by no means assumes efficiently or effectively, but the job will get done. Eventually.). He calls these “Silos of Excellence.” When a “silo” in government is asked to work with another “silo”, things tend to get overly complicated and mountains are made out of molehills.

The Sustainability Coordinator wins a federal grant to increase the City’s tree canopy by 1,000 trees. Within the walls of government, there is a system of systems for tree maintenance: Public Works manages the trees on public right of way — sidewalks, medians on streets, and alleys; Parks & Rec is responsible for the trees in (yep you guessed it) parks; and the Sustainability Coordinator needs information about the trees in the city to meet the political targets of CO2 reduction efforts. This system of systems works fine in their own separate defined “silo”, meaning that if left alone the trees under the jurisdiction of Public Works and Parks & Rec will be taken care of (eventually). When you add the goal of planting an additional 1,000 trees with a federally funded grant, in the middle of a budget cycle, with a turn-around goal of 9 months, those “silos of excellence” quickly become “mounds of excrement”. Complaints about current staffing levels, available resources, inability to comply with the timeline, plus the federal funds don’t account for potential overtime needed to meet this goal.

A civic innovator must be able to see the systems within the system of Urban Tree Management at play in this problem and understand their dependent, interdependent and independent operations. Each “silo of excellence” in managing the trees in our city operates competently in its own manner. Each party in this scenario is important, each issue and complaint is founded, but not at the expense of the overall purpose, which is to create a bigger tree canopy that can reduce our carbon footprint as a city.

“The good of the many, outweighs the good of one.” Spock

In this scenario, the role of an innovator is not to own or manage the project, but to navigate the operational complexities with quickly adaptable solutions and recommendations. A Civic Innovator needs to see the forest through the trees (pun intended) and be able to breakdown the problem within the system to support its proposed future operation. Make the target of planting 1,000 trees manageable. Find out the weekly and monthly capacity to plant new trees by each agency. Project the potential over-time if there really is any (this is frequently used as an excuse without hard evidence). How many trees are scheduled to be cut-down? How many trees were planned during the fiscal year to be planted? Can we push those back until the spring, prioritizing this initiative in the interim? Would temporary staff be a possibility? If so, how many? Can we plan for tree planting locations across parks in the city and plan Saturday Tree Planting parties with neighborhoods to get the work done? What liability would that pose? You get the idea. Throw solutions out on the board and see which ones stick.

Understanding the system of systems philosophy, analyzing each system within, and minimizing the normative self-protectionist mentality of each “silo of excellence”, a Civic Innovator can become an invaluable resource to support innovative and collaborative approaches of government operations.

Recovering bureaucrat. Pioneered as Civic Innovator. Now serving a second term on City Council in Richmond, VA. Words are my own.

Recovering bureaucrat. Pioneered as Civic Innovator. Now serving a second term on City Council in Richmond, VA. Words are my own.