Building an open environment for innovation

Federal IT leaders can more effectively promote innovation at their agencies by promoting an organizational climate that is open to risk and change.

Shutterstock image (by Ismagilov): young woman thinking about the future.

(Ismagilov / Shutterstock)

Federal agencies currently face pressures from all sides to innovate, improve digital services, boost operational efficiency and spur economic growth. Although the responsibility to innovate does not lie exclusively with IT departments, so many citizen services are now delivered via digital platforms that information and technology will invariably be at the core of 21st-century innovation.

The prevailing operating environment in government IT, however, lacks the flexibility and creativity to meet current demands to innovate.

For years, federal IT departments have emphasized a standard, stable and secure technology portfolio. Although that approach has been an effective way to promote efficiency gains from process standardization, it has been insufficient to meet the challenges of innovation.

CEB research shows that 68 percent of IT employees across industries and IT functions fit a behavioral profile of risk aversion. That finding is echoed in the Office of Personnel Management’s 2014 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey, in which only 35 percent of federal employees said creativity and innovation are rewarded in their organizations.

Traditional approaches to driving innovation fail to counteract those impediments. Dedicated innovation teams cannot keep up with the enterprisewide demand to innovate. Building an innovative workforce by hiring new employees or providing training takes too long. Attempts to shift organizational culture, which involves the deeply held assumptions and beliefs of an organization and its employees, are also notoriously challenging and slow.

Unlike culture, the climate of an organization can shift significantly in the short term. Organizational climate refers to employee perceptions of their work, which are influenced by factors such as process and practices, signals from leaders and the permissions managers grant. We have found that when those signals and processes emphasize openness rather than standardization and risk-aversion, IT is three times more likely to deliver value to the enterprise. A climate of openness treats collaborative work as the default, sees opportunity in risk and uncertainty and is receptive to new ways of working.

IT leaders can take the following actions to increase their organizations’ climate of openness:

  • Foster networks to help employees adapt to change independently. Employees are more likely to adapt to changes when they can access networks that support them in problem solving and allow them to understand how their daily work connects to organizational success overall. The best organizations encourage employees to participate in team-level discussions and set individual goals to connect strategic priorities to daily activities.
  • Share lessons learned from failure stories to increase employees’ openness to risk. Many IT employees fear the negative consequences of volunteering to work on a high-risk project. However, by avoiding risky projects, they miss out on potentially high-value innovations and crucial learning experiences. To encourage more risk-taking, IT leaders should not only focus on success stories but also the near misses that led to valuable lessons learned.
  • Change the message communicated by IT’s score card and objectives. The performance metrics that IT leaders communicate to their workforces shape IT employees’ perceptions about what is rewarded on the job. Standard IT metrics, such as percentage of projects delivered on time and on budget, can have a negative impact on openness. To encourage a climate that values innovation, IT leaders should tailor score cards and employee objectives to emphasize speed to delivery, mission impact and talent development instead of a singular focus on operational and project performance.

Fostering an open climate in IT means that leaders should encourage their employees to be innovative in their processes, take calculated risks and adapt to strategic changes.

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