Innovation is Not a Thing. It is What We Do.

Posted on November 27, 2019

Do good things board room

This guest blog is brought to you by Jamie Eustace, Director of Community Engagement at the Sterling Municipal Library in Baytown, Texas.

Reading: Wild Game by Adienne Brodeur and The Great Pretender by Susannah Cahalan

Listening to: Death, Sex, and Money podcast

Watching: The Morning Show

Recently, I was participating in a discussion about leadership in local government.  One of the books on the discussion block was Marcus Buckingham’s Nine Lies About Work.  Have you read it?  No? Well, let me skip you ahead to the final chapter. This is where we find lie number nine… Leadership is a Thing!  Marcus and his co-author Ashley Goodall argue that leadership, that thing we have all been working so hard to be good at, is not a thing at all.  

After studying great leaders across industries, the authors discovered that the only thing that the men and women who we so admire have in common is…are you ready for this…they have followers. Other than that, there doesn’t seem to be a magic formula. There is no definable set of skills, specific behaviors, or a master list of attributes that make a person a good leader.  

The irony of the assertion was not lost on members of our discussion group who had gathered for the specific purpose of dissecting the recipe for leadership.  Were we barking up the wrong tree? If leadership is not a thing… what is it? What should we be striving for? Even if there is not a formula… surely there is something semi-definable that we can put our finger on? More on that in a minute.

Fast-forward a day or two and I found myself in another discussion. This time about Innovation. Our leadership group (yes- more irony) was debating which department was the most logical fit to “own” the city’s growing innovation efforts. After tossing a few ideas around, someone finally burst out with, “Wait!  Innovation is not a thing.  It is what we do.” A silence fell around the table. Could this be true? Innovation is simply what we do in the course of our regular work? It is not separate?  It is not special? It is not something we develop entire conferences and departments around? Hmmmmm.

Could it be that government organizations have long-suffered from a reputation of being the opposite of innovative—uncreative, uninspired habitual, workaday, worn (yes—I used a thesaurus) — that when we decided to step up our game and be more responsive to our customers we had to name it and make it a thing?

To press pause on my mental gymnastics surrounding the “thingness” of both leadership and innovation, I am going to borrow a phrase from Supreme Court Justice Potter Steward who famously said, “I’ll know it when I see it.” This works, right? You know there is a good leader when you see that people are inspired to follow.  You know innovation is happening when you see that the customer experience is improving. Boom- mystery solved.

Leadership and innovation are a means to an end. They are moving targets. In high performing organizations they are so integral to the day-to-day that blend into the fabric of the culture. In low performing organizations, they are noticeably missing and their absence translates into employee and customer dissatisfaction. How do you move your organization along on the spectrum? I’ll answer that question with another famous quote… “It takes a village.”

How to build the village in local government?  I think I’ve stumbled on the topic for my next blog (or book).

Jamie started her career as an elementary school teacher through Teach for America. After a brief stint career-hopping, she landed her dream job in a public library. Co-founder of Baytown’s Process Improvement Academy and advocate for innovation and engagement at all levels, Jamie lives with her dog, Charlie, and two cats (because a real librarian can’t have just one).

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