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