Want Innovation? 10 Tips for Senior Leaders

Make it possible for staff to wildly succeed, because of you.

  1. You rely on your staff to do the work for you. Let them. Don't micromanage their work. Don't act like you know their job better than they do. Make a decision. Make a phone call on their behalf. Make things work in their favor, make the system work for them. Give them ground cover with the higher-ups. Make it possible for staff to wildly succeed, just because of you.
  2. Do not take credit for staff work. Ever. When someone says to you, "That XYZ initiative sure took off like a shot," respond back to them, "It was Jane Doe's idea, isn't she marvelous?"
  3. Speaking of ideas: When someone comes to you and says, "I have an idea," immediately say, "Go for it!" Even if you have to do it as a modified pilot with no funds, undertaken on 10 percent training time. 
  4. Here is what you should not say when someone has an idea: "That's a great idea, but it will never work. Thanks so very much for trying." Please do not ever use the word "impossible."
  5. If you asked for advanced education and experience in the job announcement, draw on it. Why are you treating a GS-13 like a GS-5?
  6. Understand that innovation means one or more of the following: "breaking the rules," "ignoring the rules," "doing things differently," "paying no attention to the past." Stop saying you want innovation, but rewarding conformists in practice.
  7. Innovation involves a lot of trial and error. So when someone makes a mistake, don't define their entire career by the error. As in: "There goes John Doe. Remember him? He totally messed up that launch in FY13, and now he works in the basement."
  8. Stop playing favorites. People who brownnose you are relying on their smarmy skills to get ahead, not their actual expertise. And do you know what? One day they'll be brownnosing somebody else, and you'll be mopping floors.
  9. Speaking of culture, don't tolerate groupthink. It's not the same thing as "people getting along." It is born of a culture of repression, and a culture of repression is negatively correlated with a culture of results. Remember you'll have to answer for what you did each fiscal year -- and justify that enormous salary. If you want those good metrics, you'll have to embrace painful truth wherever you hear it.
  10. Learn to love social. It's been around for a while and it hasn't broken the government yet. If you want that magical word "collaboration" to happen, you are going to have to get over it. And you'll have to do all those "soft, squishy" things that aren't operational, too -- like open a customer service desk, and actually wish your employees "happy birthday." Remember that people mostly remember how you made them feel, not what you actually did. And that is true whether you're working one-on-one with a staffer, or rolling out a new program to hundreds of millions of people at once.

Copyright 2015 Dannielle Blumenthal, Ph.D. The opinions expressed are her own, and the content of this post is not intended to represent any federal agency or the government as a whole.

(Image via patpitchaya/