Six Qualities of Innovation

The Alliance and ASU School of Public Affairs, have developed the Six Qualities of Innovation, which is the result of hundreds of case study reviews of local governments


Innovation is recognized as the cornerstone of success for local governments that are navigating through these uncertain times. The luxury of simply cutting budgets by predetermined percentages is no longer the norm. Studies indicate local governments that will successfully survive the economic crisis will be ones that find innovative ways to provide high-quality services through their professional staff. The Alliance for Innovation and Arizona State University, School of Public Affairs, have developed the Six Qualities of Innovation, which is the result of hundreds of case study reviews of local governments across the United States and Canada.

Here are the six qualities:

1. Inclusive Leadership: “Never before in history has innovation offered promise of so much to so many in so short a time.” —Bill Gates

Innovation is a word that we all use and most would agree it is a positive, but difficult to describe, idea. The word “inno- vation,” like “leadership,” however, seems to defy a commonly accepted definition. This is evident as innovation and leader- ship are closely related. Leaders in innovative organizations are visionary, inclusive, proactive, and organization centered, rather than leader centered. Jim Collins, in his book Good to Great, expressed this as “level five leadership,” expressing the qualities of the leader to be focused on the organization’s success rather than personal benefit. Although all six qualities of innovation are important, perhaps the most critical is leadership as it sustains the effort, rightly manages risk, and propels the morale of the group at all levels in order to achieve greater and greater success.

2. Relentless Creativity: “Problems cannot be solved by the same kind of thinking that created them.”—Albert Einstein

When leadership is welcomed from all levels in an organization, creativity likewise will be found at every level within an organization. In organizations where creativity is encouraged, more staff members develop an appetite for trying new ways of undertaking everyday activities. These organizations are always looking for new internal leaders, new ideas, new solutions, and ultimately better practices. Creative organizations learn to manage risk and plan to mitigate consequences; they expect some failures and learn from their mistakes. The innovative local governments we reviewed were never satisfied with a single success. They were constantly looking for improvements, revisiting what they had already done, and examining new methods to address a problem. Creative organizations also multitask by looking at a series of issues and problems simultaneously. They take a holistic approach and find that problems are connected by common internal processes or related external factors.

3. Extensive Internal Collaboration: “The secret is to gang up on the problem, rather than each other.”—Thomas Stallkamp

Significant improvement in local government’s ability to generate solutions is realized through internal collaboration and problem solving across departments. The organization that identifies a problem in public works, for instance, will experience a direct benefit in bringing in non–public works staff to brainstorm solutions. It is surprising how often a diverse team of insiders and outsiders can provide the right recipe to collectively review, ask probing questions, suggest, and implement change. Collaborative communities, according to Paul Adler, Charles Heckscher, and Laurence Prusak in an article in the July- August 2011 issue of Harvard Business Review, are organizations “that encourage people to continually apply their unique talents to group projects and to become motivated by a collective mission, not just personal gain or the intrinsic pleasures of autonomous creativity.”

4. Robust External Partnerships: “The strength of the team is each individual member. The strength of each member is the team.” —Phil Jackson

While external partnerships in local government are nothing new, innovative partnerships that look beyond one another’s boundaries—beyond the quid pro quo—are quite different. Successful external partnerships look at a variety of commonalities:

  • Do they further one another’s goals?
  • How do they expand beyond the simple economic-benefit criteria?
  • Can they develop common missions, visions, and values for the project?
  • Do they focus on common interests rather than focus on differences?
  • Do they address ground rules, evaluation, and how to manage conflict?

Organizations that use these more unusual criteria are frequently able to craft partnerships with one or more external partners that benefit each other and the community as a whole. Such organizations are also able to tackle much more complex problems than a single entity would be able to address.

5. Authentic Community Connections: “A dream you dream alone is only adream. A dream you dream together is reality.” —John Lennon

Following a hundred years of the reform movement that created a system of nonpolitical, professional management, are we becoming victims of our own success? There certainly was a time when residents happily embraced the formation of their city or county because it symbolized improved safety, security, utilities, or improved public transport. Today, however, many residents feel cut off from their community and perhaps rightly perceive that the local government would prefer to have its own experts solve local problems. The innovative organizations we have studied have shown community- wide and organizationwide successes when citizens are authentically welcomed into the deliberations on community priorities or neighborhood improvements. The fundamental questions to test your organization against are: “If I come, will you listen?” “If I speak, will you consider what I said?” and “How and when will I see action?” Employees, citizens, and business alike need to connect not only with their local government but also with each other. Local governments can provide the connection points, the tools, expertise, and resources.

6. Reality Focused, Results Driven: “Start by doing what’s necessary; then do what’s possible; and suddenly you are doing the impossible.” —St. Francis of Assisi

Results-Based Leadership by authors Dave Ulrich, Jack Zenger, and Norm Smallwood advances that effective leaders do more than master the attributes of leadership. They know how to connect their attributes with results. We found in studies of local governments that effective leaders focus on outcomes; they care much less about whose fault it is when things go wrong. It has been said that innovation is only play unless you measure the results of your efforts. Leaders who focus on re-sults concentrate on innovations that will make a difference, that are sustainable, and that are constantly being reviewed, changed, and updated. In closing, we provide questions that you and your teams might ask in order to start the conversation about innova- tion qualities in your organization:

  • Which of the six qualities is our strongest?
  • Where do we see the most opportunities for change and innovation?
  • Who are the leaders in our organization? Can they be found at all levels?
  • Where are we successfully collaborating internally?
  • Can we identify unique external collaborations?
  • How do we engage the community? How do we measure results?

We know organizations can implement change and improvement by focusing on one or more of these areas. By making these areas an organization-wide focus, local governments can reinforce the rewards of innovation. It only takes the will to start the process.

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