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The Relativity of Innovation, Mind Over Matter

Posted on October 25, 2019


Sarah O'Brien

What I’m reading: Chuck Marohn’s new “Strong Towns-A bottom-up Revolution to Rebuild American Prosperity.”

What I’m listening to: Go Cultivate’s latest podcast “Are we doing this right- Tiny Homes Edition.”

What I’m watching: I haven’t watched TV in almost two years, but I am currently people-watching in Chattanooga, TN at the International Placemaking Week Conference at the Read House Hotel.


I do not consider myself an innovator. I don’t have any new ideas. I don’t create innovative processes. I am not responsible for putting together fancy widgets, although I have always dreamed of working in a widget factory. I am not the best or the brightest on any topic or subject matter. I have friends and colleagues who are far more qualified than I am on a variety of innovative topics. I do a lot of things well, but I am not an expert on anything except generalities.  I am merely an expert generalist. I also screw up all the time. I used to tell my staff that if I didn’t make at least one noticeable mistake a day, I wasn’t working hard enough. I most certainly wasn’t innovating great change on a day to day basis.

Innovation. Does innovation even exist? Does it merit the attention it gets? Does it mean what you think it means? New ideas are a rarity. Some people, including myself, say that there are no new good ideas out there. And I have said that more times than I can count, to hundreds of individuals. So as one might imagine, when I sat down to brainstorm what I should contribute to this innovation-focused space, my struggle bus showed up almost immediately. Thankfully I have learned just what to do when that oh so familiar struggle bus shows up in my head. I am quick to remind myself not to get on the bus but to turn around and walk back to kindergarten class. In order to solve the real problem, I need to return to a place where things were simpler. I have to uncomplicate matters by going back to the basics.

Local government is focused on innovation because we have to be, we don’t have any other choice.  ELGL attracts innovative minded leaders because we recognize the urgency for which we must do differently. I suspect that most ELGL members have worked with countless public servants throughout their careers whom, do not see innovation the same way they do. Depending on who you ask or where you look, you can find multiple definitions of innovation. It’s no wonder we all view it differently. Human nature and the natural make up of our brains, allows us to comprehend and understand on a variety of levels. What is innovative to you might be antiquated to someone else. One should consider the fact that innovation is all relative. Relativity can be defined as a lack of standards or universal application. It’s safe to say the existence of relativity in local government is abundantly present. Too little innovation, too much relativity.

One of the issues that keep me up at night is this: If innovation has traditionally been scarce and relativity is typically abundant in local government, but our need for change so great, how do we affect change on the scale for which local government needs in this era of disengagement and divisiveness? We need resources to prioritize innovation and capacity for implementation. How do we engage the disengaged when we need their support to turn the tides?

Storytime. I have worked for three different municipalities and four communities throughout my 15-year local gov and NGO career. At the start of my short-lived tenure at one municipality, I oversaw multiple departments, programs, and facilities — my first local government role with so many responsibilities. I will never forget the day I received my budget preparation packet via interdepartmental mail. I suspect everyone remembers those “sustainable” brown envelopes? And many of you probably still receive several every week. (Why? Why are we still using those things?) This was my long-awaited budget packet; I had been anticipating this packet, albeit anxiously because I knew I was going to need to spend considerable time on my first big girl budget process. I will never forget opening the documents up at my newly decorated office. I WILL NEVER FORGET.

CONTINUOUS FEED CARBON PAPER. FIVE DIFFERENT SETS. Is this freaking carbon paper? Wide bar, green and pale green stripes, perforated edges, grey and difficult to read print on freaking triplicate carbon paper? Is this a joke? Wait. They are serious — instructions outlining how to request line item changes.  The instructions were so simple, yet I had never been more confused.  We had to put a star or a minus sign next to each category that we would be requesting a change. Next to the symbol, we were asked to place the dollar amount. No narrative. No justification. No forecasting. No historical data. We certainly didn’t have access to budget software that I knew of, but carbon paper?  Couldn’t I just use a computer and an excel document for this budget process? What in the world is happening here? Is someone trying to prank me? Is this a joke like the fax machine memes my friends always tag me in? Just like there is no need for anyone to send me a fax, (EVER) there is certainly no need for carbon paper in municipal budgeting, right? Unfortunately, while I didn’t, and still don’t, have any need for such an antiquated budget method, other city leaders did. And it was non-negotiable.

I digressed with storytime to highlight the importance of defining what it is we are talking about, and to showcase relativity as far as innovation is concerned. What may seem like antiquated operations to most of us, municipal budgeting via carbon paper is embraced by others, for years longer than it should have been. To those who can only see budgets on carbon paper, innovation, can’t be diffused and shouldn’t be encouraged. They must fight it off like an impending siege in an attempt to protect their shell of relativity.

The challenges that face local government innovation at almost every turn are abundant. And for far too long the innovators and innovations have been warded off and scarce to find.  The intention of innovators and the purpose of innovation is simple and undeniable. At its most rudimentary level, to innovate is to change. One thing I do know for certain is that change can be good and bad. It is often easy yet difficult. It can seem appealing and frightening. It is relative and innovative. Why? How can we each view change and change agents, innovation and innovators, differently? Mindsets. I have spent considerable time over the last year researching mindsets. While some think tanks use different terminologies, I am talking about scarcity vs abundance.  There are only two types of people in this world, those that have an abundance mindset and those that don’t. Two types of people, those that embrace change and those that don’t. Those that support innovation and innovators and those that don’t. So while I don’t believe in all things innovation per se, I wholeheartedly support it. And I applaud those of you are who are working in the trenches tirelessly day in and day out to bring about innovation in your community, organization, and cities. Unfortunately, we need more of you in local government where scarcity thinking has traditionally dominated process, policies, and the way we plan and manage.  We have to innovate the institution and our cultures.

So how do we equip local government leaders with the tools they need to innovate on such a scale? I believe we have to inspire, enable, and foster a culture of “enoughness.” We have to empower those in our care and hold our people accountable. I think that ELGL is doing great work in this regard. I hope that the next generation of local government leaders don’t have to focus on being innovative or ponder blog topics on innovation like I did today. Our current culture has suffered from the repercussions of generations of fixed mindsets, those same mindsets that contributed to my great continuous carbon paper debacle of 2015.

I remain optimistic that we won’t always need innovators or innovation as desperately as we do today.  Let’s imagine a local government space where we aren’t suffering from our failure to innovate, but leading through continuous change. A space where ”innovation” is irrelevant because change is embedded in our cultures.  A culture where solutions develop before the problem.  A culture that is unique and honors its origins. A culture of authentic relationships and sincere engagement. A culture where everyone’s innovative spirit is encouraged and valued. It doesn’t matter whether you are considered an innovator, change agent or expert generalist, to be successful your mindset makes up your view of the culture. And those mindsets can either catalyze or suffocate innovation at every level.

How do we adapt to, and understand mindsets in order to change our culture? If the adage is correct and ultimately our mindset determines what matters, shouldn’t this be our priority? How do you effectively train and mold local government leaders in recognizing, managing, and changing mindsets? Since I am not the innovator or psychologist (that’s my sister, Dr. Karen O’Brien) I honestly don’t have all of the answers, hence these topics keeping me up at night. However, I do know the answers must be out there. For instance, Collective Impact research provides solutions to shifting mindsets during the collective impact process, and I think that they transcend to our local government culture. So in the spirit of collaboration and collective impact, I’d love to ask, what do you do to change mindsets?


This guest blog is brought to you by Sarah O’Brien from Collaborative Development Collective. Connect with Sarah on LinkedIn or Facebook.

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