Federal Coach

By Tom Fox, VP for Leadership and Innovation, Partnership for Public Service

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Federal Coach: How an Olympic flop can inspire innovation

(Fox's Federal Coach column was originally published on The Washington Post On Leadership site.)

 Are you familiar with the Fosbury Flop?

In the 1960s, a track and field athlete named Dick Fosbury developed a new high jump technique because he consistently failed to clear the bar using traditional methods. This unique “back first” approach helped him set an Olympic record and win the gold medal in 1968. This summer, virtually every high jumper will use his Fosbury Flop in the Olympics.

There are lessons to be learned for federal leaders from Fosbury’s experience. He was not content with the status quo and the lack of success. He showed ingenuity, was willing to take a risk, had supportive coaches, withstood criticism and ridicule, and in the end, was rewarded for his effort.

I share this example because my organization, the Partnership for Public Service, and Deloitte derived some similar lessons from our latest Best Places to Work in the Federal Government analysis of innovation in government. We found that federal employees want to be innovative — to improve, adapt or create something new to benefit the country and their programs — but they often lack leaders’ support.

Based on our review of the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey, we found that 92 percent of the respondents were looking for ways to perform their jobs better, but only 59 percent said they were encouraged to come up with new and better ways of doing business. Even fewer (only 39 percent) said that creativity and innovation are rewarded in the workplace.

Of course, there are notable exceptions. NASA, for example, ranked first among our list 30 large agencies. But it doesn’t take rocket science to help your team and your agency to replicate this kind of success. As a leader, you simply need to focus on a few fundamentals.

· Ask your employees for help. As a starting point, talk with your employees about the innovation imperative facing your agency. Whether it’s the slow pace of change, ongoing problems or steep budget cuts, you need the best thoughts your employees have to offer. You’ll never know what they might come up with unless you ask. The more direct you can be the better. Don’t simply send an email or post to your intranet. Talk with them face to face.

· Support employees who generate ideas. Fosbury may not have weathered the criticism he faced if not for his coaches’ support. Similarly, you need to be your employees’ best advocate when they offer ideas. Once the ideas start rolling in, make sure to identify a few quick wins you can implement. And for those ideas that may just never work, be direct with your team. They may not like the result, but they will respect your honesty.

· Develop a plan and move quickly. If some of the new ideas require significant changes in the way business is done, bring managers and employees together to surface the issues and how they should be tackled. Brainstorm solutions, develop an implementation plan with a tight timeframe and hold all of the parties accountable.

· Shine a spotlight on the best, most innovative ideas. Call an all-staff meeting, print up a nice certificate and feature those employees who are generating results and cost savings. They’ll be all the more motivated to keep up their great work, and you will inspire others in the process by recognizing and showing respect for those who have contributed creative ideas and improved agency performance. Just be certain to find the best technique for your agency culture. The Surface Transportation Board — the top-ranked small agency on our innovation list — presents “genius” awards annually to innovative employees.

The writing is on the wall. Federal leaders don’t have a choice when it comes to doing more with less. Encouraging new and creative approaches won’t cost you a dime. You’ll simply need to invest some time and effort. What are you doing to create a culture of innovation for your employees? Please share your ideas by emailing me at fedcoach@ourpublicservice.org.

Posted by Tom Fox, VP for Leadership and Innovation, Partnership for Public Service on Aug 07, 2012 at 4:02 PM

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