Innovating That Doesn't Suck

I have had the great privilege of working as a civic innovator and sustainability champion for both a conservative city and a liberal county. I have also consulted and worked with a number of municipalities, schools and large bureaucracies to help improve the overall innovation evolution and I've come to several, inevitable conclusions about the nature of effective and sustainable innovation programs. Here are a few of the keys to being sure that your innovation efforts don't suck:

Know Thy Landscape

Look, being effective in almost any role requires awareness of the political landscape. Without it, you will find your language stops conversations before they start, your ideas fall flat and your voice gets drowned out. Its important to know the difference in how to communicate to invite people into the conversation you want to have. For example, in a conservative, military community, "energy independence" will sell, whereas "greenhouse gas reductions" will not. Effectively, these concepts are interchangeable in many ways, but in terms of reaching an audience with your message, its important to craft carefully. And there is a big difference between passion and zealousness my friends. Passion invites. Zealousness rejects. So be passionate and know your audience. Who are you talking to? How can you invite them in?

Pilot Everything

I credit my good friend Jay Anderson for this. Put a sunset on every innovation effort. This means that every single effort is successful. Sure, maybe not in the way you might hope, but it allows you to say, sincerely, that you are just trying an idea out to see if it floats. Without this, you will encounter much more resistance to your ideas. Major systems changes have built-in barriers with existing systems, staff and acceptance. Piloting helps you to move around these barriers, learn lessons and decide whether an idea is worth taking to the next level. And if it doesn't work, then you tried--and that is the point of a pilot.

Ask Forgiveness, Not Permission

Now this isn't for every situation, but it certainly makes a difference in the right situations. Many people's default condition is to ask "can I do this" and seek permission from others when faced with risk. We learn to ask permission at a young age, and that is reinforced throughout our education, but when it comes to innovation, this can be a killer. We are hired to do a job. Asking permission indicates you don't necessarily trust the concept's validity and gives someone the opportunity to stop an idea before it begins. Asking forgiveness says you are capable and trust your own judgment enough to take a chance on yourself and your own skills.

To illustrate this point, from 2004-2006 we ran a large-scale biodiesel program. For those that don't know, biodiesel has significant environmental benefits (unlike ethanol) and is a great way to reduce emissions. In 2004, there were not a lot of regulations about biodiesel quality and unfortunately a batch of bad biodiesel early on shook confidence in the concept. From then on, there was a group of resistant and reluctant users who regularly bashed the program. But we made adjustments and persevered.

Then in September 2006 the price of biodiesel soared and it became cost-ineffective, so we put the program on a hiatus, always intending to pick it back up when the price came down. But in December 2006, there was a bad cold-snap and several diesel units wouldn't start. Most drivers didn't know we had discontinued the program temporarily, and there was an outcry that it was because of the biodiesel program. Their worst fears and best hopes were confirmed: This program was a failure.

However, as it turns out, it was actually a bad shipment of diesel fuel that created the issue because of the loss of refinery capacity after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita and much of the state was impacted. It was a problem with the diesel, but we got a good glimpse into some perception challenges about the program. People were waiting for it to fail. Despite meetings explaining this to our customers, there was still a lingering "certainty" that it was the bio program that created the issue. Perception was reality. But in February 2007, the prices had come down and we decided to re-implement the program without telling anyone. If we told people, we would have faced significant opposition and resistance. It likely wouldn't have gotten off the ground. We double-checked the supply quality with our vendor and put the bio in the ground. After running it for 6 weeks, there were no issues with the fuel. By the end of 2007, we ran the largest municipal biodiesel program in the nation and every user was part of the success. Everyone was a fan. Had we asked permission, it wouldn't have happened. But we were willing to ask forgiveness if it failed--and that allowed it to succeed.

Haters Gonna Hate...

That example is also a good reminder that sustainable innovation requires you to recognize, accept and even embrace the fact that "haters gonna hate". People don't like change. Some people don't like new ideas. And still others will do anything in their power to stop them. So here's my advice: recognize that haters are gonna hate, grow an extra inch of skin and plow on. You will no longer be able to be universally-liked if you want to be effective. Let it bounce off you and move ahead with resolve.

But There's Hope!

These haters are balanced out in many cases by a smaller group of people who have been craving change, are excited to try new ideas and who embrace possibility. These are your warriors. Find them and ask them to join the fight. Don't worry, they will eventually. And this army will grow over time. You can harness their ideas, creative talents and reach. You can help them implement their ideas and call upon them for support on yours. They exist in every organization and are waiting, just waiting, for someone to ask them if they're ready to do something amazing.

In The End

Ultimately, in order for innovation to flourish, you need to know your environment, start pilots, ask forgiveness, get thick skin and find your army. If you can do all this, you can create an environment where innovation not only happens, but thrives.

Go Back