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January – Three Phrases Killing Innovation at your Workplace

This new 2018 brief article by Johansson in a Fast Company email caught my attention. His article is worth thinking about, even if I may not agree with it all.

He suggests that most of us want to work in an innovative workplace but often the culture squelches creative thinking. My recent studies of planning and community department suggests:

  • Yes, some do, but most are more comfortable just doing what the department has always done.
  • Technology may be an exception. Many staff have personal technology and programs that are better than those furnished by their department. This is demoralizing and saps innovation.

Looking at his three phrases:

  1. Best Practices

He suggests that in focusing on Best Practices, all you are doing is looking at what others have been doing and they may be several years old. This is likely true for the private sector, but I question it for the public sector. For the public sector, I believe Best Practices can be a good starting point, since many organizations have a long way to go, even to get to Best Practices. I like to tell my clients, here is our Best Practice recommendation, but don’t stop there, if you have an even better idea – go for it. Johansson does suggest that Best Practices can be useful if you look at another industry, and I agree. A good example would be how checklists have proven to save lives in the operating room. Of course, they have been used by airline pilots for years. So, why do so many planning and community development departments not use them?

All of this reminds me of experience from my last government planning directors job, San Diego County. I belonged to the California County Planning Directors Association but found that those of us in urban counties had little in common with the rural counties. So, I suggested the six southern California urban counties meet once a month, only the directors, and we share what we were doing and our good ideas. I agreed to host the first meeting. In telling the story of what we were doing, I put together a notebook of what eventually became my first book, The Management Idea Book. This was the first and last meeting of this group. I have yet to figure out why planning departments are so reluctant to reach out and learn from others.  Much of what I considered Best Practices are still valid today.

  1. Return On Investment

Johansson suggest that ROI can be smart business, but if you tie it to innovation, there may be no way of knowing what it will be. Talking about ROI shuts down innovation. I found this to be true in introducing technology to government.  So, for this one I tend to be on Johansson’s side.

  1. When I Worked For

This has two aspects. In can be a negative in innovation when a person will say, we tried that at ______ and it didn’t work. But, how was it actually done and what were the circumstances? The positive aspects can also be negative. People get tired of hearing about what you did in your last job. What are you doing for us today?

  1. Try This
  • At your next department retreat, spend a day just brainstorming about innovation;
  • Set aside a few hours each week where everyone just thinks outside the box;
  • Start reading a new relevant book together, take turns at the weekly staff meeting with someone making a 15-minute presentation on an innovative idea covered in the book;
  • Visit other agencies;
  • Keep reading my emails and critique them, offering your own Best Practices; and
  • Buy my new best seller, What Kind Of A Planning Director Will You Be This Year?

The Management Doctor

December – Digital @ Scale

This new book by Anand Swaminathan and Dr. Jurgen Meffert struck a real bell with me. Zucker Systems continuous to analyze the process and organization of planning and related departments throughout the United States. We normally complete four or five studies each year which has resulted in over 170 cities and counties in 33 states. Each contract, I am amazed to discover how slow most planning departments are about making the transition to the digital age. One of our current clients asked us to take a look across the U.S. to find the best in class or Best Practices. What we found is that most places are talking a good game, but few are performing. Even those who have purchased a multi-million-dollar permit system have yet to fully transform to Internet plan submittals and electronic plan check. Although we have not surveyed the use of social media in planning and development, we believe we will find the same slow trend of arriving at the digital age.

The authors suggest:

  • Everybody talks about digital. But few talk about scaling a full-blown transformation and what it takes. This is no longer about how to quickly grab the attention of the customer or clean up the back office. Organizations need to unlock the full value of digital to reap its true benefits. Companies (including government – my addition) need to rethink their entire business models. The entire ecosystem of the company is affected, including employees, customers, suppliers, and partners. Digitization thus changes structures, processes, and IT as well as the people who live and work in this new reality.
  • Customer behavior had dramatically changed in recent years. Consumers want everything, anywhere, anytime: In 2016, 83 percent of consumers possessed a smartphone. Speed is the hallmark of the digital world.
  • To switch your business to digital, three fundamentals are needed: (1) recruit a team that’s as enthusiastic as it is technically proficient and (2) that values speed above perfection, and (3) introduce milestone-based project management. The new culture may include flexible working hours, an office landscape in which teams feel at ease, and technical equipment that is not only up to the task, but is fun to use.

How are you or your city or county doing? Please share your stories with me and our readers.

The Management Doctor 

Reader Response

The City of High Point NC (112k) bit the bullet and made a complete transformation to electronic in August 2015. We went from several legacy systems dependent upon paper plans & permits to total electronic submittal, plan review, permitting, and inspections. We have modules for board cases (zoning, special use variance, etc.) land development (site plan, subdivision), permits, and code enforcement. They are all processed digitally. Customers still have the option to walk-in, submit paper applications, and obtain approvals; however, we convert all paper submittals to electronic form and all staff reviews and approvals are in electronic form. Customers have an on-line portal to submit, monitor progress, and obtain approvals. Inspections can be requested through the on-line portal or through an IVR. Inspectors use laptops & Ipads in the field to research inspections and pull up electronic documents when needed. Permits and COs are issued electronically and pdfs are attached to the record for the customers to download. Customers can submit applications, request inspections, and view approvals 24/7.

We totally restructured and streamlined processes where possible. Where it used to take 5 permits (building, electrical, mechanical, plumbing & fire) to construct a commercial building, it is now accomplished with one record and one permit. All the inspections are added to the one record. When the customer obtains their permit, it states the required inspections on it.

Overall, we condensed the number of different permit types to limit customer confusion. A number of approvals were moved to an over-the-counter permit process where a contractor submits on-line and a permit specialist reviews the application to validate the contractor and insure the application is complete and then requests fee payment for the permit. This internal review and request for payment only takes a couple of minutes. Once the contractor pays the fee, the permit is automatically issued and inspections are automatically assigned to the permit record.

These changes not only resulted in improving process times, they resulted in savings for customers. No longer do they have to make multiple sets of paper copies and have a runner to go back and forth…or have someone come down to City Hall to submit and come back to obtain a permit.

To say the least this was a huge culture change for us. The biggest learning curve was with staff and motivating them to change. We are not where we would like to be with changes, but after 2 years it is continually improving. We created a webpage ( to guide customers and we are continuing to look at ways to improve it. Internally, our conference rooms were equipped with monitors and each staff member has dual monitors to improve performance and limit paper. Our walk-in traffic decreased dramatically and we are re-thinking how to improve that internal space for the customer. With the data available in the system, we are focusing on reporting and measuring ways to improve workflow performance. With a recent software upgrade, we are looking at a smartphone app that the system provider has that will allow customers to monitor progress, access project contacts, and request inspections. We realize that process improvement is a continuous effort and it is never done. Amazingly, over 50% of our customers submitted on-line immediately after go-live. Now, after 2 years we are about 92% for on-line submittals…that is for all applications (rezoning, subdivision, site plan, permit, etc.) Overall, this has shown to us that the customer definitely prefers digital processes.


We are using Accela Automation with Laserfische as the document management system, with the plan review and mark-up conducted in Adobe instead of Accela’s document system.  We also have an IVR for customers to call in inspections, but the majority of customers use Accela on-line access which allows them to request a future date for an inspection rather than next day only.