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Encouraging Innovation In Government

Creative Problem Solving

Creativity is a skill many employers are looking for when hiring employees. Given the slow and bureaucratic way that many government programs work the public sector could use some creativity as well Buffalo in many ways is ground zero for creativity training that has spread around the United States. Buffalo State College has been offering creative studies classes since 1967, making it the nation’s oldest creative studies program. Buffalo also hosts an international yearly conference on creativity at Buffalo State College.

As pointed out in a recent New York Times article:

In 2010 “creativity” was the factor most crucial for success found in an I.B.M. survey of 1,500 chief executives in 33 industries. These days “creative” is the most used buzzword in LinkedIn profiles two years running.

While some people are certainly more creative than others, tools and techniques for encouraging creative thinking can be taught. The New York Times article highlights some of the methods taught at Buffalo State College:

In Dr. Burnett’s Introduction to Creative Studies survey course, students explore definitions of creativity, characteristics of creative people and strategies to enhance their own creativity.These include rephrasing problems as questions, learning not to instinctively shoot down a new idea (first find three positives), and categorizing problems as needing a solution that requires either action, planning or invention. A key objective is to get students to look around with fresh eyes and be curious. The inventive process, she says, starts with “How might you…”

As the importance of creativity grows in the private sector, the public sector has not been as quick to encourage creative thinking. I have studied the lack of new ideas and initiatives being proposed by elected officials in the Buffalo area. While the public sector in Buffalo has been slow to embrace creativity, other communities such as Denver are leading the way. 

Michael Hancock elected as Denver’s Mayor in 2011, led the charge to create the Peak Academy as a way to train and encourage city employees to be more innovative. Some communities are proud of having a suggestion box for new ideas, but Denver has created a process to solicit new ideas and to make them happen. According to a Governing article, So far about 2,000 employees from 25 city agencies have undergone at least the basic two-day training from the academy. Nearly 300 have taken the week long course, which requires graduates to generate at least three ideas that would make their departments run more smoothly.

Denver spends $750,000 per year to run the Peak Academy which consists of eight employees. Denver’s budget office estimates that the ideas implemented from the Academy have saved the city $3 million. To encourage participation among city employees, the city committed that no one would lose their jobs as a result of efficiencies they proposed through the academy. Employees’ jobs might change, but not their employment status. 

The training provided by the Peak Academy borrows heavily from the Lean business management model pioneered by Toyota. The Lean method has been used successfully by many private and public agencies. Lean focuses on eliminating the steps involved on a process with a focus on customer satisfaction. The goal is to save money and time without sacrificing quality.

The Governing article highlights some of the money saving ideas that Denver employees have implemented. The article also ends with a great quote from Ashley Hand the Chief Innovation officer for Kansas City, Mo., who has completed Denver’s training:

What appeals to Hand about the Denver model of innovation is its focus on people rather than tools. Cities such as Boston, New York and San Francisco have become national leaders in innovation, but their brand is more technologically focused. Denver is spending its money on giving its front-line workers new ways to solve problems. “Putting these skills in the hands of staff at all levels,” Hand says, “that’s extremely powerful.”

Buffalo as well as communities around the country can learn from what Denver is doing. Too many government organizations live by the mantra of “but we have always done it this way”. Any organization is only as good as its people. As Toyota knows if people are encouraged to question why things are done the way they are and to contribute ideas for making improvement they will respond.