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The Public Manager Magazine Article

7 Steps to a More Innovative Team

Finding creative solutions to challenging problems requires teamwork. The former director of OPM's Innovation lab provides seven steps for getting your staff ready to innovate.


Mon Oct 10 2016


Finding creative solutions to challenging problems requires teamwork. Here's how you can get your staff ready.

7 Steps to a More Innovative Team-164b73fbc0d6b558a07a1dd12588b2d1fd78e37fdf672144e05bdfa761f3ef13

As a public manager, you have probably heard the word innovation many times. But because there is a lot of ambiguity around the word, you may feel confused about what it really means. You may feel pressure to innovate but are not entirely sure what that looks like in practice, how to get your team excited about it, and how to make it happen.


The Lab at the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) is the federal government's center for building public sector capabilities in human-centered design, which represents the leading edge of innovation in organizations. The Lab at OPM partners with many different public sector organizations, each of which has a unique organizational culture and operational mission, to help those organizations build their capacity for innovation so they can solve their complex challenges. As a result of our work leading public sector innovation practices, we have identified seven things that you can do to build a more innovative team.

1. Ask Why

Bringing any new practice or mindset into your team means introducing change, and change is tough no matter how positive its potential effects. As a manager, you are the linchpin in shifting your team's culture. So before you tell your team about your intention to build a more innovative team, pause and evaluate your motivation.

What do you hope to accomplish with this change? Are you hoping to fix an underlying problem (such as negative team dynamics and unmotivated staff) by introducing something new? If so, it is better to resolve those issues first, or they will persist and potentially jeopardize your efforts to build an innovative team. Perhaps, instead, your goal is to introduce new technology into your work environment. If that is the case, be aware that technology alone will not get you to your goal of creating an innovative team.

Innovation is fundamentally about approaching problem solving differently. It involves shifting your mindset to create room for creative delivery of more effective policies, programs, and services. Becoming innovative often requires a transformational shift in an organization's culture. By honestly assessing why you want to build a more innovative team, you will be able to determine whether this path is right for your team at this time and, if it is, what the best way forward will be.

2. Make a Case for Change

Begin by helping your team understand why you are introducing this change. It is important that team members understand what you think could be better and why building a more innovative team is the answer.


Next, clearly describe your vision for the future and what you think the path is to get there. Team members must see themselves in this vision. If they believe the perceived challenges of adopting these changes outweigh the benefits, they will most likely not adopt the new innovative mindset and may even develop workarounds.

3. Co-Create Innovation

When using human-centered design-based innovation, co-creation means bringing the people for whom you are designing into the process so you can better meet their needs. The immediate audience for designing more innovative work is your team. Talk to staff members one-on-one and make sure they get a chance to voice their perceptions, anxieties, excitements, and ideas. What are their impressions of the state of the organization and the need to try new ways of working? Having this conversation and building this understanding helps your team feel valued as individuals and a part of the decision-making process.

Next, bring the entire team together to talk about the future and design together what it will look like. This is a great time to have the team openly share ideas and collaboratively build a shared goal. Perhaps ask them to draw (using "art" as simple as stick figures or basic shapes) what innovation means to them and how they think innovation will affect the policies, programs, and services they deliver in the future. The team can then build off of each other's ideas to co-create a shared vision for the team.

4. Give Them Tools

If you put your team in a room and ask them to start innovating, it will not happen automatically. Building an innovative team requires adopting a mindset and method that lead to new ways of solving problems, increasing creativity, and improving team collaboration. To approach problem solving differently, your team will need to learn different approaches to assessing and understanding root causes of successes and challenges in your work. The team also will need to creatively think about how to deliver better services, test those ideas for feedback, and implement them.

There are many helpful innovation practices you can focus on as a team. The Innovation Lab primarily uses human-centered design, but data analytics, challenges, and prizes are also options. When choosing an approach—or several approaches—commit some time and energy to learning about these methods. You might learn about them as a team or have different members of the team concentrate on learning one or two methods and share their experiences and recommendations with the team.


Whichever innovation methods work for your team, it is critical that all team members are formally trained in the method, no matter how often they will be engaging in the work. Learning the ins and outs of the method together gives your team the ability to customize the approach so it works best for your culture and mission. It also gives everyone confidence and a common language for building your team's innovation DNA.

5. Reinforce Innovation Visually

Organizational mission, vision, and value statements are often written down to serve a key role in communicating an organization's culture. However, nonverbal cues are equally important and often overlooked. If you want your team to be more creative and innovative, you need to deliberately build opportunities for creativity and innovation into meetings, individual work time, and other team interactions.

If you do not have the resources to redesign your office space to look like something from Silicon Valley, fear not! There are many simple ways to accomplish some of the same impact. These are a few examples:

  • Instead of having one small whiteboard on a wall in a conference room, cover the walls with whiteboard paint from floor to ceiling. Having a bigger space that uses the wall somewhat unconventionally encourages the team to think bigger and bolder rather than feeling confined to a small board.

  • Reconfigure the team's working space for more interaction. For example, take down some walls to create different uses for some of your cubicles, or separate cubicles with rolling whiteboards that can create different patterns and spaces as needed.

  • Give all staff members a small budget to redesign their cubicles. You could even make it a contest so everyone gets into the spirit and feels empowered to do something really different.

  • Change the color of the walls, carpet, and curtains.

These small changes can make a real difference in encouraging the team to embrace the new innovation method. Seeing their work space in a different light can help to reinforce the different mindset the team is working to embody.

6. Start Small

When bringing innovative methods into an organization, start by applying them on smaller, less risky issues instead of trying to tackle the organization's biggest challenges. The "small bets" approach allows the team to practice in a real-world environment where they can make mistakes and generate quick lessons. Practicing on smaller-scale projects helps the team directly experience why this approach is different and what kind of impact it can have.

Make sure your team knows it is okay to make mistakes, and share what your expectations are when mistakes happen. This gives team members the freedom to push themselves and generate more confidence in their ability to work in this new way. Once they complete their first trial run, they will have concrete examples they can use to improve during the next opportunity.

7. Celebrate Wins

As the team begins adopting and applying a new innovation method, reinforce positive behavior changes when you see them. In the beginning, the team will most likely be unsure about what to do and wonder if it is really okay to approach work and collaboration differently. Take note of the changing behavior you observe and celebrate it both with the individual and publicly with the team. This recognition can be as simple as a public thank you, a handwritten note, or a more formal award. Continuous recognition reinforces the message of change and gives your team members the boost they may need to continue.

As public servants, we strive to make the world a better place. By adopting innovative and creative ways of delivering services to the public, we can increase our ability to deliver government programs and services effectively and efficiently. These seven steps will help you get there, so try them out!



The Lab at OPM

The Innovation Lab at the Office of Personnel Management partners with public sector organizations looking for new approaches to their most complex challenges. We are the federal experts in teaching and applying human-centered design to help solve complex public and cross-sector challenges. The lab brings together private sector fellows, public servants, and students who collaborate to design new solutions based on the needs of those we serve. We use three strategies to accomplish our mission.

  • Strategy 1: Leading Public Sector Design. We regularly bring innovators together to share insights on the growing movement to bring design into the public sector. We also produce publications on the public sector design movement, including the results our partners are achieving.

  • Strategy 2: Doing Public Sector Design. We work with public sector organizations to conduct design projects that explore root causes of public sector problems and design services, policies, and programs that address them. Examples have included including improving the USAJOBS website, building human-centered design capacity at the Veterans Administration, and working with the Millennium Challenge to conduct ethnographic research into root causes of poverty in the Philippines.

  • Strategy 3: Teaching Public Sector Design. Our three-day Human-Centered Design Fundamentals workshop teaches the theory and practice of human-centered design. Participants learn why, when, and how to apply human-centered design to their public sector work and leave the workshop with a toolkit of human-centered design methods. The lab also offers one and two-day versions of the workshop and is developing additional curricula to build more specialized skills.

Human-Centered Design

Human-centered design is a creative and strategic approach to solving challenging problems to meet people's real needs. A blend of design, strategy, qualitative research, and entrepreneurial thinking, the method puts people at the center of the process, taking into account their complex behaviors, mental models, and needs. Using this approach helps teams identify and address the root causes of problems, rather than the symptoms. Through human-centered design, teams can quickly generate ideas and test new prototypes that meet people's true needs and, as a result, create and implement high-impact and sustainable solutions.

Case Study: The USDA School Lunch Program

Run by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), the National School Lunch Program provides healthy, low-cost or free meals to more than 30 million children each school day. The Lab at OPM partnered with the USDA to apply human-centered design to reduce obstacles in children's access to healthy meals.

We planned and conducted design-based research, including ethnographic interviews and observations with parents, lunchroom staff, teachers, principals, and district-level administrators. By going into the schools to observe the program in action, we were able to identify and deeply understand the systemic challenges and unmet individual needs hindering enrollment in the program.

The team then quickly developed and tested a new application for parents and guardians enrolling their children in the program. In April 2015, the new application was made available to all 14,000-plus U.S. school districts running more than 100,000 schools. As a result of the application redesign and related efforts, the USDA anticipates $600 million in savings across the program by the 2019-2020 school year while ensuring more children who are eligible for the program will have access to the healthy meals they rely on.



ATD Resources

ATD's Best on Innovation (ATD Book)

Essentials of Creating a More Innovative Workforce (ATD Education Program)

"A Space to Innovate" (TPM Article)

"Can Design Thinking Revolutionize the Citizen Experience?" (TPM Article)


Listen to an interview with Stephanie Wade on The Public Manager podcast.

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