I Have to Ask: Innovation

Posted on December 22, 2019

Tina Wahla

In this series, guest columnists respond to one of three topics selected by ELGL co-founder Kent Wyatt. This week, Tina Walha, Director of Innovation and Performance at the City of Seattle, highlights examples of innovation.

When I first started my job with the City of Seattle, I found myself cringing every time the word innovation was used. I’d go out of my way to avoid saying it, only to be foiled by my title, team name, and email signature. As the buzzword to end all buzzwords, innovation meant something different to everyone and it was exhausting to explain “Yes, I want government to be innovative” but “No, I don’t build apps”.

What I’ve come to appreciate is the value in having different definitions and concepts for what is innovative, particularly in local government. For me, innovation is a deviation from the status quo that improves results. Last week, innovations in my life included designing a new way for our team to partner with a City department on a problem they’re trying to solve and helping my 4-year-old daughter pick out the next day’s clothes before bedtime. Both examples helped to improve outcomes – for a partnership or a smooth morning routine.

Working in Seattle, there are a number of approaches my team and I have developed that help to challenge the status quo and improve results. Here are three that can be used at different points in a project lifecycle to spark innovation.

At the start of a project, consider secondment as a way to provide a new opportunity for strong performers outside of your department and to bring in a new way of approaching your work. In our work on police recruitment and retention this year, our project manager Kathryn was a loaned employee from the department for education and early learning. While the subject matter was completely different, her skills and capabilities were transferrable and valued. The end result was stronger for having someone from a different background at the helm of discovery, idea generation, and implementation planning. Kathryn wasn’t shy about asking questions and digging into the ‘why?’, which helped to unlock opportunities for improving processes and interactions for police candidates. Plus, it provided her with the chance to try something new career-wise. 

During a project, we emphasize regular engagement with senior stakeholders – our clients – to ensure they are not just a decision-making body, but also co-designers of the programs and services we ultimately recommend. This may take the form of soliciting their key takeaways from our data analysis, engaging them to generate ideas, or identifying ways to test ideas. Engaging senior leaders in a different way, in addition to staff from all levels, brings in voices with different perspectives on how to get better results from our City investments. It provides them an outlet for ideas they’ve been mulling over on how to disrupt their own bureaucracies and forges strong collaborative partnerships.

At the end of a project, my team and I make time for reflection sessions. We get into a room and identify key project phases or milestones, setting aside wall space for each. Next, we turn on some good music, grab a stack of Post-its, and get to work identifying what worked, what didn’t work, and what could’ve been better during each phase. The combination of first working independently to reflect on our own experience and then walking through each phase as a team to discuss one another’s takeaways allows us to identify different ways of working together on our next project. With the intentional diagnosis of problems and missteps, we’re more likely to avoid them next time and see better results in terms of project outcomes, partnership, and sustainability. It also provides an ever-important opportunity to celebrate the team’s hard work and project success!

My gut tells me that these approaches can work for cities of any size, but I’m eager to hear from ELGL members. Try them out and send me your reflections on what worked, what didn’t work, and what could’ve been better.

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