For creative ideas, ask front-line IT workers

Any time an organization is not performing as well as it should or old approaches no longer solve new problems—situations that apply in spades to most government agencies—the organization needs creativity to come up with ways to do a better job.

Creative ideas involving the use of information technology are high on a list of ways to make government work better and cost less. Yet the general perception is that government agencies do not spawn creativity. What can we do to create more creativity in government?

The book Corporate Creativity: How Innovation and Improvement Actually Happen (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 1997) provides inventive answers to this question. Although the title refers to corporate creativity, it offers lessons that are relevant to government organizations.

Authors Alan Robinson, a management professor at the University of Massachusetts, and Sam Stern, an education professor at Oregon State University, offer a simple but powerful message. Most of the knowledge about an organization's problems and potentials—and, hence, most of the possibilities for creative ways of dealing with those problems and potentials—lies with the workers on the front lines.

Virtually every employee within an organization knows something that is relevant to the organization's performance that nobody else knows. If a feature of the organization's performance about which only one employee is knowledgeable is to be improved, the idea for improvement will have to come from that employee. Furthermore, people are more likely to work intensively on projects they find interesting; therefore the most sustained attention to moving an idea forward is likely to come from people who've chosen the project because it engages them.

If organizational creativity is left to top management or staff units whose job description includes "developing innovative approaches to organizational challenges," then the organization inevitably will miss out on the vast majority of opportunities for creativity. It is only by tapping into the creativity of those whose job descriptions do not include "being creative" that an organization can realize its creative capability.

Robinson and Stern cited a study of Japanese companies that examined projects that had received creativity awards from the government's Science and Technology Agency and from the Japan Institute of Invention and Innovation. The study found that more than half of the winning projects had been initiated by individuals rather than growing out of any organized company effort to develop creative ideas. "Furthermore," the authors wrote, "the novelty and impact of these self-initiated projects far exceeded that of projects initiated by management."

In many cases, innovations were developed by people who had not been regarded as being particularly creative, and they often were undertaken as "unofficial activities" outside the innovator's everyday job responsibilities.

Robinson and Stern present a fascinating example involving Kathy Betts, a part-time worker at the Massachusetts Department of Public Welfare. Betts' knowledge of some of the arcane details of Medicaid reimbursement rules allowed her to come up with an idea that made Massachusetts eligible for $1.4 billion in additional Medicaid payments.

"Before her remarkable discovery, no one, including herself, would have identified Kathy Betts as an especially creative person," the authors wrote. "Gov. William Weld got the bonanza he needed from where he least expected it—a part-time, job-sharing, young, working mother well down the state government hierarchy. He might have been less surprised if the $1.4 billion idea had come from a cabinet member or a senior administrator. But Kathy Betts may very well have been the only person in the commonwealth of Massachusetts who could have known enough to do what she did."

Robinson's and Stern's prescriptions involve ways to design and manage an organization so as to increase the probability that people on the front lines will generate "unplanned creativity." First, they argue, don't assume that creativity is best created in offsite brainstorming sessions. "Creativity does not happen magically when people are taken out of their work place and a procedure is invoked to set up a special environment where creativity might flourish," they wrote. "The work place itself is alive with the unexpected; when employees interact with it, it yields provocations no one can possibly expect."

Instead, they argue, have your organization allow time to be spent on activities through which people may generate ideas. That includes providing tools or equipment, such as a software program, for people to use that may not be officially needed for their jobs.

The authors recommend that organizations take steps to encourage the cross-pollination that often produces creativity, such as providing cross-training in areas not directly related to people's jobs or in encouraging communication across organizational boundaries.

These recommendations sound like tall orders for many bureaucracies. Maybe that's why we don't generate as much creativity in government as we should. But if agencies need to be more creative, maybe we need to take the unusual steps necessary to engender that creativity.

--Kelman was the administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy from 1993 to 1997. He is now Weatherhead Professor of Public Management at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.


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