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The Very Busy Process of Delivering Innovation

From brainstorming to "ideation" to troubleshooting, a city's Innovation Delivery Team has to cover a lot of ground--and do it quickly.

Paras Desai's schedule looks like a government innovation immersion course.

Desai is the director of Chicago's Innovation Delivery Team, one of five such units that are working within city governments in a project funded by Bloomberg Philanthropies. Desai's team currently has more than 20 initiatives under way, at a range of different stages, which means that Desai gets to experience every aspect of the innovation process--from "ideation" to evaluation--all at once and pretty much all the time.

The former McKinsey consultant's background serves him well in his current post as his time entails creative brainstorming, a lot of project management and troubleshooting, and some high-level presentations.

A typical week starts with check-ins with the project managers and analysts working on each of two priorities--energy efficiency and small business--to discuss the progress that's been made and to work on any challenges that have arisen. For example, at a recent check-in, a team member reported that the team was gathering great data on its efforts to target consumer fraud but that it needed to figure out how to highlight the most important information for the mayor and others. So Desai and the rest of the group brainstormed ways to make the key details pop.

Next, Desai might bring that same kind of open, guided problem-solving approach to a local community meeting, as he did when he facilitated a discussion in Bronzeville on the city's South Side. Desai was there with his team's small-business leads not only to learn what the city could do for the neighborhood but also to see how the team could apply that knowledge to other neighborhoods and city priorities.

The community members were interested in finding innovative ways to develop their neighborhood, and had come armed with ideas, one of which was to create a pop-up shopping mall in the area. The team liked the idea, so Desai and the others immediately began to brainstorm, not only about how to do such a thing in Bronzeville but also about how to create a template that he could hand off to the right department and publicize to other neighborhoods so that the idea could be quickly and easily replicated.

Another stop might include a roll-up-the-sleeves problem-solving session around a project that is a bit farther along, such as the city's business-enforcement initiative. Before Desai and his team started their work on this project, the city's approach to enforcement had been simply to respond to each complaint, no matter how small--a receipt did not include the date and time of purchase, or a planter at a sidewalk café didn't contain enough plants. The pursuit of such complaints absorbed a good deal of time and money and made it so easy for someone to sic the city on a business that it left the system open to abuse. What was needed was a way to prioritize the enforcement efforts to ensure that resources were focused on fraud and other significant wrongdoing, so the team and the city's Business and License Enforcement Division had created a triage unit to do just that.

But before that unit could begin its work, Desai had to help hammer out the details at meetings like this one, where he was working with his colleagues on the nuts and bolts of exactly how the prioritizing would be accomplished. The team had already prototyped and tested a complaint-scoring system and had gotten suggestions from the enforcement work group to improve it. Desai and his team now assumed the role of innovation scientists tinkering in the lab, using the feedback they had received to refine and improve the model they had built.

Then, at some point, Desai might find himself in the spotlight, presenting a progress report on one of the team's initiative that is up and running. The Innovation Delivery Teams do this through what are called "stocktakes"--meetings with all the project principals and Mayor Rahm Emanuel to assess and evaluate the initiative.

At a recent meeting to discuss the city's restaurant startup program, for instance, the first order of business was a progress update. The "owners" of the project--deputy commissioners from the buildings, public health, business-affairs and zoning departments--reviewed the metrics, detailed their achievements and gave an overview of the initiative's unresolved challenges. They reported that they had seen more restaurants embrace team-based inspections--an innovation intended to streamline and simplify the inspection process--but that the city hadn't reached its goal of 50 percent participation. They talked about ways to improve the numbers and to discuss at a subsequent stocktake whether those strategies had worked or not.

Before the meeting broke up, the mayor mentioned that he thought the program was great for restaurants--so great, in fact, that he wanted to extend it to every other business in the city, starting ... now. Desai and his team left the meeting tasked with creating a timeline for making that command a reality.

Next week was already starting to look busy.

A clinical professor at New York University
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