Inspiring Innovation in Your Organization

September 28, 2023, Department, by Ryan Hegreness

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“Innovation” may be one of the most overused buzzwords of the past decade. What is it? Who does it? Where does it come from? How do you inspire individuals or groups to be more innovative? These are some of the questions I posed when a Denver suburb asked this second-generation park and recreation professional to lead citywide innovation in 2019. The innovation buzzword would be my title and responsibility for three wild years.

Seven years earlier, I created and implemented the “Three Ps Philosophy: Proactive, Progressive, and Purposeful” when I was asked to increase the park and recreation revenue through strategic marketing for the City of Arlington, Texas. This philosophy was instrumental in building a nationally recognized marketing team in Arlington and pioneering outrageous programs, cultural events and campaigns in Colorado a few years later. Little did I know my three years in the city manager’s office as innovation and communication manager would be marked by three very different Ps: pandemic, personnel and politics.

Reflecting on my innovation-specific role, I organized my thoughts and experiences into a 2023 NRPA Annual Conference education session, titled “Inspiring Innovation in Your Organization.” In this session, I will share what I’ve learned leading incredibly creative park and recreation staff; researching innovation and implementing a citywide innovation program; and adapting during crises. Participants will learn how to create a culture of innovation as leaders, advocate for new initiatives as staff and navigate barriers to innovation within their organization.

What Is Innovation?

When we hear “innovation,” we often think of radical breakthroughs or market-disrupting technological advancements. While such transformations certainly are innovative, most innovation occurs through incremental changes, novel approaches to problems or by applying existing solutions in new contexts. Innovation in local government is about creating value for the community, which can be done through increased revenues from new or improved services; decreased expenses through operational efficiencies; or enhancing social and environmental benefits.

Making Innovation Happen

Fortunately, inspiring innovation in your organization does not require a massive initiative, a dedicated position or even using “the I-word.” Inspiring innovation in your organization requires supportive leadership, realistic expectations, diverse teams and adaptability. Without these, your organization may stagnate, miss opportunities, see morale decline and watch top talent leave.

Innovative organizations have:

  • Vision and support from the top: Innovative organizations have leaders who see the big picture and define “the Why” for staff to rally around. Supportive leaders provide resources to pilot new initiatives and create an environment where staff feel safe to speak up and take risks.
  • Realistic expectations: Innovative organizations realize innovation doesn’t happen overnight; it is often the result of incremental change, experimentation and failures. The payoff for impactful changes may take years, even decades, while many elected officials focus on shorter time horizons. Strategic leaders set realistic expectations, plan for long-term impact and look for short-term wins. 
  • Participation at all levels: Innovative organizations proactively listen to and involve staff at all levels. Savvy leaders know some of the best ideas come from those doing the front-line work and those closest to the customers. Research shows that greater diversity in the innovation process leads to better results.
  • Adaptability: Innovative organizations are agile and adapt to technological, economic and political change. Adaptable leaders recognize that dead-end projects often offer valuable lessons and unexpected new opportunities. They realize their people and culture are a greater asset than any specific initiative.

Do you want to create more value for your community? Join me at 1 p.m. on Tuesday, October 10, at the 2023 NRPA Annual Conference to discuss how to inspire innovation in your organization. You will leave with practical tools and approaches to tap into the collective genius of your staff and uncover new ways to meet your community’s needs.

Ryan’s Three Ps

1. Proactive: We seek out and implement new solutions. We do not wait to be asked to produce what was done in the past. We take the initiative to understand business and community needs and identify the best approach.

2. Progressive: We stay on top of new tools and trends and look outside our industry for inspiration. We prioritize training and professional development. We aspire to be industry leaders. We don’t simply duplicate what worked in the past or what others are doing. We take risks and are OK with occasional failures. 

3. Purposeful: We think before we jump on the bandwagon. We avoid knee-jerk reactions to momentary challenges. We identify a purpose before launching new platforms or campaigns. We build a business case before making significant investments of time or money. We take a measured approach that reflects our current resources.

Author’s Note: My articles and presentations do not necessarily reflect the views of current or previous employers, boards and clients.

Ryan Hegreness is a Deputy Director of South Suburban (Colorado) Park and Recreation District.