The Challenge of Making Sure Innovation 'Sticks'

The original champions of change might move on, but their ideas don't have to leave with them.
February 12, 2015
Machiavelli argued there was nothing more difficult than "initiating a new order of things." Today, we call it innovation. Everett Historical
By Ron Littlefield  |  Senior Fellow
Ron Littlefield, a former mayor of Chattanooga, Tenn., is a senior fellow with the Governing Institute and its lead analyst on the City Accelerator initiative. A city planner by career, he also consults to government through Littlefield Associates.

In 1532, the much-maligned and mostly misunderstood Niccolo Machiavelli published his infamous book on political process: "The Prince.”

In it he made the following sobering observation:

It must be considered that there is nothing more difficult to carry out, nor more doubtful of success, nor more dangerous to handle than to initiate a new order of things.

Frankly, not much has changed in the last 500 years. Innovation means change (i.e. a new order of things) and change is not always welcome -- particularly within the comfortable bureaucratic cocoon of public employment.

By attempting to weave a culture of innovation into the somewhat rigid and ragged fabric of government it must be considered that we are setting the stage for continuous change and, therefore, continuous resistance.

So, the big question when we successfully innovate is: How do we make it stick?

The short answer is that it won't be easy and it certainly won't be automatic. No matter how needed or necessary there is always a tendency for change to relapse and people to resort to the comforts of the past, the status quo, the good old days or the way things used to be back before the change or innovation took place.

However, here are some words of advice to help ensure the sustainability of your project, initiative or change.

  1. Start early. It's important to realize that nothing lasts forever, and this means the tenure of you and your colleagues. Time will march on and new leaders will come, bringing with them their own ideas and intentions. It's also necessary to be aware that a culture of innovation in any organization -- particularly governments -- is more difficult to maintain than it was to create it in the first place. Efforts at innovation should start early on in an individual’s tenure and go beyond the first tier of leadership.
  2. Make a concerted effort to identify those unique, creative, innovation-oriented individuals among present staff. Look for the true believers -- the champions. In almost any organization, there are those employees who see things differently and look for new ways to get things done. Find them and put them in critical positions where their special talents can thrive and influence others.
  3. Recruit creative thinkers. Fill in gaps within your organization or agency with individuals that bring an innovation-oriented mindset to the job.
  4. Build a coordinated network of outside contacts, influencers and advisors. These individuals should be people outside of the organization so that it becomes part of a larger innovation-oriented community. Close ties with nonprofits, chambers of commerce, local universities and academic institutions and other such organizations can be very useful in making a cultural change last beyond the current administration.
  5.  Recruit volunteers -- particularly those with special, creative skill sets and make them a part of advisory councils and commissions. Celebrate these moves publicly.
  6. Budget for continuation. Lay out a multi-year financial program with a realistic way to pay for the changes that have been put into place. Things won't last if there is no money.
  7. If possible, meet and engage the new leadership. In political transitions following elections, this is absolutely essential -- even if the transition is not totally friendly. Give the new leadership room to do their own thing and retain flexibility in simple things like program names. Arrange terms of service on related boards and commissions, and memberships of committees so there will be available vacancies and space for the new leaders to begin to make their own mark without wiping out the established culture and institutional knowledge that already exists. Expect that new leadership will want to put their own brand on things, so arrange for it in advance.

It’s important to note that even after implementing the suggestions above, making things stick often comes down to a matter of personal and political pride. All leaders have egos and those with strong, self-confident personalities are more likely to build rather than destroy. We have all seen good examples of transitions where the new administration kept the best and took the opportunity to move things to the next level. And then there were those that simply wiped away most everything that had been accomplished and reset the clock back to an earlier, outdated and discredited time. Rome wasn't built in a day, but it didn't take long to burn.  Unfortunately, changes in the personalities of leadership are not easy to predict or control and that's why it's so important to make changes systemic -- an integral part of the whole organization rather than dependent on a single champion or a small group.

No, not much has really changed since Machiavelli wrote his political primer.  Modern practitioners inside and out of city government are at pains to avoid the label of being or acting Machiavellian but there are things -- positive things -- that we can learn from his approach.  Indeed, the new demands of today’s rapidly urbanizing world and advancing digital age will not allow us to stop employing innovation and trying to create a new order of things.

Be part of the campaign for civic innovation at the City Accelerator, presented by Citi Foundation.