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Making innovation happen – a practical case study

 

This article, written by Glide, appeared in the magazine Statewide, which is a publication of Local Government Professionals WA, in 2015.

 

The City of Boroondara in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs started to raise innovation to a focal point in 2013 when Phillip Storer was appointed CEO after 25 years at the council. He saw that change was happening faster than local government could keep up – and that more was coming.

Rowena Morrow was appointed from outside local government to fill the new role of Innovation Leader – and a transformation began.

Rowena saw her main challenge as being to engage staff. “More engaged staff results in better client services, better support to the community and more quality outcomes,” she explains.

“Innovation must be bottom-up,” Rowena believes. “And it has to be collaborative.”

Coming from a business background, Rowena was quick to learn that local government is strongly hierarchical, with entrenched “silos”.

Another culture clash was that trying new things necessarily involves risk and inevitably – even necessarily – failure, while local governments are strongly risk averse.

Fortunately she was backed by a senior management commitment that she describes as “brave and courageous”.

 

New ideas begin on the frontline

Innovative ideas are mostly to be found on the frontline, Rowena says, but people can quickly give up on expressing those ideas if management knocks them back.

“We didn’t have a way to capture new ideas, to very quickly prototype them and test them, to see which ones should go forward. We needed people to feel safe about putting up suggestions – to give them a permission space in which different ideas were welcome.”

The first step was an off-the-shelf, cloud-based software package where any staffer could put up ideas. On the “ideation portal”, every idea is tracked through a transparent process, beginning with an innovation matrix – a set of guidelines applied by a changing group of two directors and three staff.

Approved ideas then go to a pilot stage where an agile design approach is used to break the concept down into smaller parts that can be pilot tested quickly and cheaply. The teams volunteer to undertake each pilot. They come from several departments not necessarily related to the task, but have to collaborate to get it done and the different perspectives they bring lead to a greater variety of new ideas.

Teams get facilitation help from the Innovation Leader and Innovation Projects Facilitator, but they have to do the project themselves, including working out the concepts: the process avoids moving up the management tree to become top-down.

There is an emphasis on taking a customer-centric view that tracks the customer experience and focuses on making the process transparent to them from the beginning.

There may be several pilots, testing different situations. The final step is “diffusion”, where successful ideas leave the portal and are adopted throughout the organisation; they transition from a possibly challenging new idea to become the new status quo.

 

Surprise, courage and success

“I think people were really surprised that they were allowed to do it,” Rowena says.

The first year, 2013/2014, was largely taken up with setting the structure and building staff commitment. To speed things along, senior management committed to accept every idea put up on the portal in the first year. That was the “brave and courageous” part, Rowena says.

One idea was a bring-your-dog-to-work day. “No-one was excited by it except the person who put it up,” Rowena recalls. “The Matrix really wanted to say no, but it passed the matrix and our Executive Leadership Team and went into pilot for three months.” Evaluations of the pilot were overwhelmingly positive and now the idea is approaching diffusion, to become approved practice.

 

Success rate continues

In its second year the portal attracted over 80 innovation proposals and 73% of these were funded through to pilot, after passing the innovation matrix.

Some of these projects are already making a big difference to staff morale, operational efficiency and client satisfaction at Boroondara.

Small things work the best

Rowena’s persistent observation is that it is often the smallest, easiest projects that have the most impact.

‘Random acts of coffee’ is an idea that Rowena implemented from discussions she had on arrival at the Council that indicated people were unaware what others did in the organisation. Each fortnight up to 80 participants opt in to be randomly assigned into pairs, who spend 20 minutes having coffee (or a beverage of their choice) together. As Boroondara has about 1,000 staff, very often people meet with someone they have never met before or only know by sight – and it might be a director, or the CEO. While there are no restrictions at all on what they talk about, people are usually keen to find out what the other does.

 

Innovation in Council processes

Many projects are about improving Council processes, including breaking down the silos.

The ‘open days’ project has Council departments showcasing what they do for two hours, with displays, talks and Q&As. There is one every six weeks. Typically 80 to 100 people turn out to see what their colleagues are doing.

“The showcases have been absolutely fantastic. People are so proud to show what they do and tell about it. People are meeting each other and that helps with collaboration.”

Another project has looked at approval processes and the forms and information an applicant needs to make the process more understandable and predictable to the customer.

 

Enriching lives

Rowena is especially proud of a project which asked older ratepayers about the books they most remembered from their childhoods and then introduced those books to the library’s pre-school groups, involving the books’ original fans in a cross-generational reading experience.

“This is a most beautiful project...that really enriched people’s lives.” She emphasises again, “it’s the simplest, cheapest projects that often have the most impact.”

 

Cost effective

Perhaps surprisingly for a new project with some potentially open-ended commitments, Boroondara’s innovation project came in under budget each year.

“Mostly it turns out not to be about money,” Rowena says. “It’s often not money that is the main impediment.”

The emphasis on piloting concepts in small segments means that instead of launching straight into, say, a $150,000 project, it can be tested with perhaps $15,000 at risk.

These are the figures for the concept which won the Council’s recent Community Innovation Tournament, for ‘pop-up’ councils to deal with local issues. Rowena thinks she will probably underspend the $15,000 pilot budget.

 

Making a difference the real reward

Risk aversion may have been a cultural negative for an innovation campaign, but another solid part for local government culture turned out to be a real positive.

“Most people are in local government because they want to make a difference,” Rowena soon learnt. “The innovation program gives them a chance to do that directly.”

In the first year she offered incentives for participation, like gift vouchers.

“People said to me, ‘Why are you giving me this? I’ve already been rewarded.’”

Now the added rewards are team lunches.

Other powerful incentives include recognition, through mentions about projects in the staff bulletin and the CEO’s practice of sending congratulatory emails to people.

 

Measuring success

KPIs being used for the project include the number of staff members involved in innovation projects and the number of projects that go on to become standard practice. There are also regular ratings measures of how staff feel about the project.

A very real-world test of success at the client interface is looming.

Starting next year, Victorian local governments face rates caps, which limit increases to the CPI or other external measure. “We won’t be able to adjust our income to match our expenditure,” Rowena notes. While some surrounding councils have already begun cutting staff, Boroondara – two years into its transformation – believes that innovation will deliver the cost efficiencies it needs.