Innovator’s Toolbox: Building Community

Being an innovative person in any organization, usually starts off as a lone wolf. A trailblazer looking for impactful low-hanging fruit to harvest and convert into initial value to justify your title. While you may have a title, initial project, and some leadership support, that doesn’t automatically translate into being greeted by an open armed organization. Usually, you are looked at in quite the opposite fashion. Apprehension about some outsider coming into my daily work environment to “innovate” what I do, has to mean more work for me. Opposition and hesitancy reign from the start and building trust and community within the organization is paramount.

Government’s default is to put innovators in the box of their main or key project, which limits the impact and value others in the organization place on them. Innovators fall into an unknown, uncharted and undefined “silo of excellence.” Every project I have been assigned to work on has been narrowly seen as the only value I have to the organization. This is not a bad thing, but takes getting used to as most everyone else has a “silo” of clearly defined roles, duties, and responsibilities. The role of an innovator is to transcend this way of labeling functionality and to exemplify Systems Thinking and Design Thinking.

You cannot put innovation into a “silo”.

While your co-workers may associate you in name and function with your key project, its up to you to change their view of your value and purpose. Take the time to understand each persons role and “silo” that you are working with on your project. Draw connections between their “silo” and others. Meet each of them where they are. Ask more questions than you answer. Research projects and initiatives related to their job function and find innovative options to problems they bring up. Show them that innovation, while part of everyones job and duty, usually falls low on the totem pole of priorities. Your role can support them and highlight the importance of innovative ideas becoming reality. Lastly, find ways to include your role of innovation into their “silo.” As innovation is fundamentally part of everyone’s job, be the resource and means in which to make it possible. Innovation is part of every “silo,” make it your charge to find ways to support making that happen.

Start cultivating and harvesting ‘low-hanging fruit.’

As you begin navigating the current list of projects and initiatives that are on-going, planned, and needed across the organization, you begin to learn about the challenges inherent to the organization. These are key moments to identify “low-hanging fruit.” These are the ideas that have been in a subject matter experts mind for years, but were never given the time of day to be expressed. Ways in which to make their job easier, increase efficiencies and effectiveness. These ideas have conversely been mentioned before, but fell upon uninterested ears and ignored. I have found the most usual reason there was minimal if any progress, was due to the limited capacity in the organization to champion and lead the effort to completion, usually citing limited resources or lack of vision into the overall benefits, both are elements you can change and address.

Let’s go back to the tree example. A key reason why there was opposition to this project was due to several past experiences between the “silos.” There had been an effort over a decade ago, to consolidate Urban Forestry to include both Parks & Rec staff with Public Works staff. There was a stand-off of ownership of this proposed new agency, mostly centered around funding and staff, that ultimately created tension and hostility among the ranks of both departments. The jurisdictions of each “silo” became the paramount boundary between them. Since the end of the attempted coup d’etat of consolidation, every time a ticket for a tree to be planted was sent to the incorrect department by a unknowing citizen, the boundaries of jurisdiction flared the smoldering flames of the past. Unknowingly, the Sustainability Officer’s new project to plant trees placed them at the crosshairs of the past battle.

It’s important to note the role of an innovator in this example. Picking sides would be a project limiting move that would result in damaging your team-building efforts in both departments. By understanding the Systems Approach to this project, you begin to pull back the layers of the past that express the importance of the jurisdictional boundaries that must be respected. By applying the Design Thinking approach, you realize that by defining the customers in each component of the process, their needs and expectations are defined. Now for the final piece to draw it all together, you’ve reached out to personally the most senior staff of each department involved and built some rapport.

Community Building Exercise: Take time to visit people involved on a project, face-to-face, in their office, unannounced, as a follow-up to an email, meeting invite or other communication. Touch base, ask for their input about the project, get their opinions, and ask what they would do.

You’ve learned about the past tension, you’ve learned about their past differences, and have been expressed a valuable ‘low-hanging’ fruit opportunity as an innovator. Territory is important to all involved. Do not start to break down the walls immediately, that takes time. Start by looking at simple ways in which to incorporate solutions that can support their needs of defining territories for each customer. You’ve learned that the process of planting trees is the same for all involved, the only difference is where. There are great public engagement platforms such as SeeClickFix, PublicStuff, and OpenTreeMap that all provide options for which to incorporate territory defining means to support the different “silos” of customers. These platforms create an added operational improvement neither of the “silos” could implement alone, but together with this initiative to plant 1,000 new trees, it is finally justified. As an innovator, researching and providing options that support the “silos of excellence”, Systems Thinking and Design Thinking, you can begin to provide value to this and other projects all while building relationships and community about your value.

It is through these relationships you build that your project’s become valuable and successful. You have to find the benefit and value for those involved to which you can provide an innovative solution. Finding their pain points and frustrations add to your value beyond the project. Then you can begin to break the barriers of their defined “silo of excellence” for innovation into a much broader purpose.

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.