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The 3 Kinds of Innovation

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The term innovation makes people nervous—we often think “innovation” requires us to come up with something entirely new. But that's not the only approach to innovation out there. I agree with the view offered by The Partnership for Public Service, that there are three types of innovation:

  1. Adapting a proven practice into a new context
  2. Improving what is already being done
  3. And developing an entirely new approach.

So, as we see, innovation does not necessarily mean doing something completely new. Within the context of OPM’s Innovation Lab, we believe that innovation requires three key elements: empathy, diversity, and risk taking. 

First, we build empathy with methods that let us walk a mile in the shoes of those who are part of a problem’s ecosystem.  You do this by giving everyone a chance to observe and listen to the experiences of others they may not fully understand. 

Second, diversity has a great deal of importance in innovating—different voices must be brought to the table to get representation of diverse perspectives on a problem. Those in the room must be open to all participants, regardless of status in the organization, sharing their own ideas.

Lastly, people must be willing to take risks—try something different, be willing to voice your “wild” idea without fear of personal repercussions.  These three elements are what drive innovation, collaboration, and results.

Though OPM’s methods work for us, we’re always trying to improve. My fellow panelist Dave Uejio, Lead for Talent Acquisition at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, introduced me to a lean start-up approach to innovating. He said, “Start with the question, ‘What are we solving for?’”

Bring strategy, operations, and technical employees together at the beginning and have a minimum viable product released within 4-6 weeks. This gets you through failure and iteration faster. I realized these lean start-up methods fit nicely with the Human-Centered Design approach we use in OPM’s Innovation Lab, which focuses on rapid iteration and prototyping—we plan to integrate lean start-up practices and principles into our program.  

We can always improve what is already being done, adapt a proven strategy into a new context or develop an entirely new approach. Innovation, I’ve learned, is not exclusive to any of the above. 

Dr. Sydney Smith-Heimbrock served on a panel entitled “Collaboration, Innovation and Results: Leveraging the Pathways Programs to Meet Your Mission" at Excellence in Government Live on Sept. 6. 

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