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How to be an innovative fed

With all the buzz surrounding innovation in government, how can federal employees overcome some of the red tape and get to the actual innovating? Hint: It’s all about persevering and thinking ahead, says Tom Fox, vice president for leadership and innovation at the Partnership for Public Service. He spoke with Management Watch to share his insight on how feds can bring their ideas into fruition and what agencies can do to foster a culture of innovation.

Q: How do you become an innovative fed?

A: I think that the first thing is to have the characteristic of persistence. Oftentimes, folks are under the impression that innovation is about the next big idea. You can’t overlook the importance of creativity. But I think that the trait that distinguishes folks to deliver results is persistence [despite] indirect or direct opposition.

Q: How do you best implement and realize an innovative idea?

A: If you want to try to implement an innovative idea, you have approach it almost like a second job. Recognize that you probably have to go beyond your traditional duties to work on this. In the federal space, they want to know how much does it cost and how will they take this idea into implementation? So you actually have to invest ahead of time to think through the sort of questions other folks will be asking.

Q: What are some of the hurdles feds have to overcome in terms of pitching their ideas to management?

A: The first thing is the fear factor. A lot of times, folks are afraid. Someone might not like their ideas, so overcoming that fear factor is the first thing. Have some recognition that the idea is good and worthy. The second thing is, before you go and pitch an idea to a leader or senior executive, share your idea with some other folks. Approach colleagues whose opinions you trust and who would give you honest feedback. A trait of really successful innovators is that they share ideas readily with people.

Q: What areas in government are in most need of innovative ideas? Is it mostly where there’s money to be saved or where something can be made more efficient?

A: I think it’s hard to separate the two. Certainly, you’re more likely to get an audience for your idea if it will increase efficiency or save money. Look for the $25, 24-hour solution. Just try something out and see what works and collect ideas from other people. Get their feedback and see how you might be able to refine your idea.

Q: How can agencies best foster a culture of innovation?

A: There are a couple of things. One is for senior leadership to let folks know that, ‘we’re really hungry for your ideas right now.’ Oftentimes, folks don’t realize just how much flexibility they already have and they think they have to ask for permission. Really try to set boundaries as to where people need to ask for permission and where they can just go and do things differently. The second thing is to reward folks for their innovation. And by reward, I don’t mean necessarily mean a financial reward; it could simply be recognition that someone is helping the agency.

Q: Who are some of the most influential government leaders who could serve as inspiration to current and future innovators?

A: I think Todd Park [CTO at the Department of Health and Human Services] needs to go on that list. I think he has the impact and influence beyond his title or his agency. When we talk to folks all across the government who are doing work that’s described as innovation or innovative, everyone says is that [federal CTO] Aneesh Chopra is one who is providing all the support in the system folks need to push the boundaries. But beyond that, there are a lot of folks who are trying little things at different agencies and oftentimes that work is never labeled innovation. So often the greatest inspirations are folks like our Service to America Medal winners. You look at what those folks are doing and it’s exceptionally innovative and results driven. But they’re just doing their work -- they don’t see it as innovation per se.  


Posted by Camille Tuutti on Oct 13, 2011 at 12:19 PM


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