A Warm-up Exercise For Government Innovators

March 10, 2017

Nine days into my job in San Jose’s new Office of Civic Innovation and Digital Strategy, I found myself standing onstage in front of forty government managers, holding a red Elmo ball from my daughter’s toy chest and hoping for the best.

My task was to lead the group in a game. To succeed, I needed the audience to engage. If they decided it was silly, it would flop. I read the rules, tossed the ball into the audience, and waited.

What happened next was the most valuable experience of my first month on the job. It’s the story of how a ball game is helping me, and my colleagues, find the San Jose way to civic innovation.

Putting our audience first

Just 48 hours earlier, my boss, Deputy City Manager Kip Harkness, had asked me to help plan a presentation to Planning, Building and Code Enforcement staff.

Being short on time, the easiest option would have been to pull together a few slides and rely on Kip’s gift as a storyteller to carry the show.

Instead, we decided to push ourselves, and our audience, just a little. In our assessment, the most important outcome was for the managers to experience their own power to innovate as a team.

To accomplish that, we’d have to do more than just talk and they would have to do more than just listen. We’d have to give them time and space to generate their own solutions to a problem.

After brainstorming a variety of elaborate team-building exercises, we settled on a simple ball game used for teaching process improvement. The goal is to deliver the ball as fast as possible within the bounds of the rules. Each delivery is timed, and the team gets a few iterations to improve their performance.

Would it work with our audience? We didn’t know, but we were ready to find out.

The ball game was a hit

As soon as we turned the group loose, the room came alive with chatter and activity as teams figured out how best to move the ball around in the required fashion. They debated new ideas, experimented with techniques, and built consensus around a plan.

When we said “Go!” the teams executed with focus, supporting each other and making real-time corrections. When we announced their times, they cheered their accomplishment and resolved to do even better on the next iteration. Then they started all over again: deliver, measure, learn. By their fourth iteration, they’d reduced their time to one-third of their first iteration.

When we asked the group to reflect on the exercise, they blew us away with their insights on the value of real-time performance data and the benefits of rapid iteration.

In the feedback surveys we collected, participants told us how much they appreciated the engagement and team interaction of the ball game. Eighty-five percent of participants rated our session 8 or higher out of a possible 10.

Based on the feedback, we tightened up the program and took our “Civic Innovation Roadshow” to the Public Works department the following week. Again, the ball game was a hit, energizing our colleagues and winning us invitations to return with even more content.

It’s just a simple ball game — but there is no doubting the joy I felt in the room as I watched my colleagues jump into action, come together as a team, iterate on a challenge, and succeed. There was magic in that energy.

Why it matters

The success of the ball game helped me to crystallize a few thoughts about how we approach our work on the Innovation Team.

  • We get the best results when we focus on our customers’ experience. In this case, our customers were our colleagues in the audience. We prioritized their experience by devoting more than half of our time to a group activity — even though it added an element of unpredictability. If we had played it safe by sticking with a Powerpoint or talking about our own credentials, we never would have discovered the power of the ball game.
  • Our role is to create the space for others to innovate. The part of our session that made the biggest impression on our audience was an activity in which they interacted with each other and generated their own solutions. We helped to create the right conditions, but the participants did the work and drew their own conclusions. Similarly, in our partnerships throughout the City, an organization of 6000 employees, we will be most effective if we succeed as enablers and facilitators, rather than seeking to be experts who tell others what to do.
  • It’s okay to start small, and it’s okay to have fun. I know a single ball game isn’t going to magically solve the complex challenges that my colleagues face, but I see value in short, lightweight activities that help us rediscover the joy of working with our teammates, practice a new approach, or see our work from a different perspective. This is how we build our innovation muscle so we can tackle the bigger problems with a greater chance of success.

Michelle Thong is Service Innovation Lead for San Jose’s Office of Civic Innovation & Digital Strategy. Follow her on Twitter at @michellethong.

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