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Demystifying Innovation: Explaining Innovation in Plain English

Posted on July 25, 2019


steve pleasant

Today’s #ELGL19 #InnovationSummit follow-up post is by Steve Pleasant, the Innovation Team Lead for Hillsboro, Oregon. Want to write for this series for ELGL? Sign up to contribute a blog post here and let’s keep the great conversations from Durham going.


What I’m listening to – On Pandora, Dean Lewis going through a tough breakup learns it’ll Be Alright from his mates. And apparently, love him or hate him, Post Malone is the only person on the radio these days.

What I’m watching –About a million how-to videos on YouTube and, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse on VuDu. Again, Post Malone, Sunflower on the soundtrack. What is happening?


Stay with me for a moment while I get my bearings. I’m a child of the 60s and 70s, tail-end of the Boomers.

I grew up watching a pretty eclectic array of television programs: First, shows like Gunsmoke, Laugh-in, The Carol Burnett Show, and Captain Kangaroo. Later, programs like The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, MASH, and Saturday Night Live were staples.

My thinking has been influenced by the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr., Winston Churchill, George Carlin, Reverend Billy Graham, Stephen Hawking, Queen, and John Belushi, to name a few.

To paraphrase a Mark Ruffalo quote about Loki, my brain is often a bag of cats. It is for this reason that I crave and embrace simplicity when attempting to learn new things or to share information with others. I didn’t say I was great at simplicity. I have “opportunities to improve”. 

I’ve seen incredible changes happen in this country over the course of the last 40 years. While doing some research around simplifying our data privacy messaging, I learned of the Plain Writing Act of 2010, which requires federal agencies to write “clear government communication that the public can understand and use”.

That was a “Eureka! Moment” for me and I realized I wasn’t alone in feeling like my head was going to explode from all the information coming at me. Thanks to advances in technology our world offers near-instant access to more information than any human can process in a lifetime. No citation is needed. You know.

We wade through this information – flooded with jargon, couched in complexity, or buried in the sheer volume of data – to find those nuggets of wisdom needed to move our cities, and lives, forward.

While I never write external blog posts, the opportunity to share a few of my own tactics for dealing with the need for clarity and simplicity when talking about innovation was too good to pass up.

Here are 17 simple steps to bring clarity. Just kidding! How about three?

First, consider what is important to you, right now. Ground yourself in real life. That means resisting the urge to change your messaging based on the next push notification that hits your wearable.

You should not expect to sway others’ behavior by sharing innovation in a way that they cannot understand or relate to a current, relevant need in their life. 

Relate to your audience’s shared experience. Impossible, you say? We don’t all share anything? Okay, what’s that you’re breathing right now? How far to the nearest restroom? How did you get to work today?

Back to instant relevance: the quality of our air is important. How long can you go without? Access to vital services might be imagined as, “where is the restroom”; are there any barriers to using it? If you met with coworkers today, you likely have a way to support yourself with a living wage. 

Empathy begins when we ourselves experience the challenges felt by our communities. This is the essence of “human-centered design”, but I didn’t use that phrase until you clearly understood communicating shared experience.

These are not complex theories. These are simple examples of what challenges might be important in this moment.

Relating our experiences to those of others becomes the backdrop for a conversation on innovation.

Second, passing along information like some Outlook rule causes pain for you and your audience. Okay, probably too strong and maybe you don’t all use Outlook.

I’ll tell you a story that explains what I mean: I once read about a professor whose first year teaching at state college resulted in a 50% failure or early drop rate. Must have been a lot of dumb students in his class.

After three years, he had better than an 85% pass rate for students taking his classes. Must have found some smarter students.

Actually, the professor said rather than just forwarding whatever was in the text, he began to internalize the information so that he could break the material down into bite-size nuggets.

Using this approach, he felt he could teach the concepts to a five year old, because he was so familiar with the material that he no longer needed to fall back on technical textbook definitions.

For my fellow innovators, how can we understand or explain concepts like behavioral nudges or choice architecture if we haven’t experienced designing an experiment and testing changes?

I’d suggest you either limit the information you share on innovation to things you’ve experienced first-hand, or be very clear with your audience that you hope to explore something new together. Allow them to be prepared for some discovery, clarification, and errors along the journey.

When you describe innovation, there is no substitute for authenticity.

Last, with complete transparency, I’ve spoken to you about techniques to explain innovation in plain English, but I haven’t done that for you. It’s not enough to say, “Focus on the most important problems facing your community or your team”.

It’s not enough that we’ve experienced “innovating” first-hand.  What I offered to provide was a plain English explanation of innovation. At the City of Hillsboro, we researched innovation teams for some time before we launched our own.

We wanted to be sure we had the best chance of success and could provide something for our City that wasn’t being achieved already. To be honest, that was a pretty difficult goal in this organization.

We have incredible people doing amazing work. One of our first challenges was defining what we meant by “innovation”. How would a team dedicated to driving innovation improve outcomes when innovation is already identified as a core value and happening all around us? Here is how: bring direction and clarity to the conversation.

Innovation is bringing about change that disrupts or transforms service delivery in a way that benefits our community members.

Whether we change a product or a service, we strive to ensure we are changing something the community wants to see improved. Some people think innovation is simply being creative. It is not. 

Municipal government is here to serve the community’s real needs. Creativity without customer demand is a hobby.  We distinguish innovation from continuous improvement.

Continuous improvement brings incremental changes to existing products and services over time. The changes are not usually disruptive and may be welcomed by those charged with maintaining stability and reliability in daily operations.

While this is an important component of your work, it is not innovation. I believe innovation disturbs the status quo. For that reason it’s not always welcome. It’s essential, though. As stewards of the well-being of our populations, both current and future, it’s our responsibility to prepare for what’s next.

I’ll leave you with a quote from Sir Winston. “Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.”

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