Driving government innovation through chance encounters

GovLoop - January 17, 2018

What do Bell Labs, Apple, the State of Rhode Island and Wake County, North Carolina have in common? They all created environments that facilitate interdisciplinary connections to drive new ideas, based on the understanding that innovation is most likely to happen through collaboration as opposed to the lone inventor working in isolation.

Bell Labs was one of the first organizations to facilitate these connections by designing long, straight hallways that ensured scientists could not walk through without meeting and engaging with others.

Steve Jobs used a similar tactic by designing an open atrium and centralized office plan at Pixar to facilitate different cultures working together, such as allowing computer geeks and cartoonists to more easily collaborate.

Government organizations have developed their own methods for facilitating connections, including the State of Rhode Island and Wake County, North Carolina. These two organizations focus on connecting people from different agencies across the County or State to facilitate creativity through chance encounters similar to Bell Labs and Apple.

Rhode Island’s Innovation League

“Creativity does not happen alone,” acknowledges Kevin Parker, the Director of Government Innovation for the State of Rhode Island’s Office of Innovation. To address tough agency problems by facilitating creative solutions, the Office of Innovation combined a version of Google’s 20 percent time with a cross-agency-cohort program to develop the Innovation League. The Innovation League is comprised of employees from various state agencies who work with the Office of Innovation for 8-10 hours per week over a nine-month period. Their first two cohorts have included 40 League members, representing 18 agencies/departments.

Participants are charged with tackling a key challenge from their agency through a six-month prototype project. The Innovation League has already resulted in identifying new citizen-focused digital products. Another crucial outcome of the program according to Parker is that participants “discuss their projects and get input and feedback from their cohorts which builds rapport and breaks down silos between agencies.”

Essentially, the Innovation League is a designated safe sandbox for participants to experiment with limited investment. A key ingredient to the initial success is that the Office of Innovation has “created the sandbox but does not manage the sandbox,” according to Parker. Instead he and his team along with the cohort peers act as mentors and coaches.

As a result of her extensive Multipliers leadership research, Liz Wiseman uncovered that teams are willing to identify and try innovative ideas when they are provided with a defined space for experimentation. These carved out spaces make it safe for individuals and teams to explore new ideas and solutions.

Wake County’s CREATEspace

“Innovation can come from anywhere across Wake County” notes Bill Greeves, Chief Information & Innovation Officer at Wake County, North Carolina. To tap into the collective intelligence and creativity, Wake County has developed a state of the art Innovation Lab know as Wake County CREATEspace. This space is not for one team or department but has been designed for employees across the County to collaborate on problems that are bigger than any one department.

The role of the lab is to provide employees “with the time, freedom and physical space to try new things” according to Greeves. At the heart of the lab are tools to help employees think outside the box, such as a technology tool that allows data from across the County to be readily available on a unified platform. These tools allow Data Scientists to better access combined data which “enables curiosity” according to Paula Richardson, Assistant IT Director – Solutions Development.

The magic begins when Data Scientists from different Departments then gather to compare notes and uncover starting points for solving similar problems. As Greeves notes, these tools allow employees from different agencies to “connect the dots between services to create enhanced benefits to citizens.” As a result, conversations are facilitated that uncover simple solutions as opposed to massive projects which is especially critical when public sector funds are limited.

Similar to Rhode Island, these connections break silos by creating relations across groups that would not normally interact. Richardson sees employee motivation skyrocket when projects are tied to civic good such as enhancing Food Assistance Programs and notes that without these connections, the “projects would be harder to sustain.”

Innovation results from tapping into collective intelligence. Operating under traditionally hierarchical models, the challenge for government is how to bring brains together both across and within agencies.

The State of Rhode Island and Wake County are two inspiring examples of overcoming this challenge through chance encounters.

How has your department or agency approached facilitating innovation?