Why government innovators need to do less and lead more

Opinion: the most important thing innovators can do is bring other public servants into the fold

This opinion piece was written by Michelle Thong, Service Innovation Lead at the City of San Jose. Thong is a founding member of San Jose’s innovation team, and works to bring human-centered design, data analytics and iterative processes to government services. This piece also appears in our government innovation newsfeed.


What attracted me to working in government is the huge mission. I like to do things, and there is a lot to be done to make public services work better.

But after a year and a half on the City of San Jose’s Innovation Team, I’ve learned that being a “doer” isn’t enough. I need to be a multiplier.

For me, this is a major mindset shift, from being an individual contributor to leading organisational change. And it’s a change that I think the civic tech movement needs to make as a whole.

Why you can’t do it alone

The City of San Jose delivers public services to one million residents and 58,000 businesses every single day.

These services run the gamut, literally from A (airport) to Z (zoo) and everything in between: libraries, emergency calls, building permitsparkspotholes, sewers and much more.

The image below conveys the scale of these services in a single year.

Whether we succeed or fail at delivering these services directly affects the safety, opportunity and quality of life or our residents and businesses.

This is a mission that’s borne by 6,200 public servants.

Being a multiplier is how you scale

As an innovation team of five, how do we make an impact on an organisation of 6,200 that services 1,000,000 residents across 180 square miles? My first instinct, when I started this work, was to roll up my sleeves and get things done.

But as our Deputy City Manager Kip Harkness likes to say: “If innovation is something done by a team of 5 people, we fail. We need to innovate with a team of 6,200.”

To make that possible, I need to think like a multiplier. Liz Wiseman popularized this concept in her book, Multipliers.

A multiplier is someone who looks beyond her own genius and focuses her energy on extracting and extending the genius of others. The opposite of a multiplier is a diminisher — someone who is so focused on being clever that she sucks up all the air in the room.

The scary thing is, many of us, without realising it, are accidental diminishers. Especially those of us who get excited about making government work better. You know the type. We love learning about new problems, getting fresh insights, prototyping solutions, rolling up our sleeves and making it all work. And those are all great strengths to bring to an organisation.

The problem is, it doesn’t matter how many bright ideas I have. There’s no way I am going to redesign all of San Jose’s public services on my own.

Even if we could hire five or 10 more people to join the Innovation Team, that wouldn’t be enough. Our team doesn’t own any of the services that get delivered to residents and businesses. To succeed, we need to embed user-centred, iterative practices in the rhythms of City Hall. We need to empower champions within the City’s existing structures for delivering services.

The practices of a multiplier

Here are a few practices I’m embracing on my journey to be a multiplier.

1. Create space for others to innovate

When we organise human-centred design workshops with city staff, our goal is for the participants to experience the power of their own insight and ideas. Doing this well requires thoughtfulness and creativity. It usually starts with getting the right group of people together, away from the daily demands of their jobs, framing the challenge, and putting them to work. We’ve been lucky to have the expertise of human-centered design consultant mPathic to develop and lead our workshops.

The City of San Jose’s Innovation Team aims to involve all public servants in creative problem-solving

Meeting facilitation is a key skill for any government innovator. On our team, we are intentional about planning our meeting outcomes and structure even when they are only 60 or 90 minutes long. It’s a practice that helps us create respectful, productive and meaningful engagements with our colleagues and partners, time after time.

2. Seed the opportunity

Why tell someone what to do when you help them discover for themselves? Starting with empathy can be transformative — it leads to the epiphany. That’s why organising “guerrilla-style” user interviews in City Hall is my new favourite work activity. I love seeing my colleagues’ faces light up and hearing how excited they are about the different ways their customers experience their service. And when they discover opportunities for action themselves, it’s so much more powerful than anything I could ever say or do.

3. Let go of control

Once you’ve created the space for others to innovate, and they’ve discovered opportunities for action, then at some point soon, it’ll be time to let go of control and see where the team takes things.

I find myself needing to resist the temptation to save the team from mistakes they haven’t yet made. Instead of leading the charge to find the solution, I try to direct my energy into asking challenging questions, facilitating discussions, advocating for the big picture, and giving others the opportunity to lead.

Being a multiplier involves creating space for others to innovate

I wish I could tell you that I have it all figured out. As I’ve discovered, some parts of being a multiplier come easily to me, and other parts (like letting go) are a struggle. I have lots of days when I’m not sure if I’m being effective. Or when I’m not sure if I’m making an impact, fast enough. But I also have days when I feel like I’m developing a new superpower.

Being multipliers is how we’ll scale innovation through government. How will you be a multiplier today?

This opinion piece was originally published on Medium.

(Picture credit: City of San Jose/Michelle Thong)

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