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6 tips for launching a successful innovation project

Aurora, IL’s former Chief Innovation Officer, Adrienne Holloway, Ph.D. shares advice on gaining stakeholder buy-in and setting yourself up for success with your next innovation project.

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Pitt County, NC

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Los Angeles County, CA

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Aurora, IL

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San Francisco, CA

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Baytown, TX

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Parker, CO

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Innovative cities large and small have proven that with the right team and the right approach, some great things can be accomplished. From Pitt County, NC tackling food insecurity through the launch of their Food Finder app to Los Angeles County, CA piloting a program that places county mental health workers at fire stations to respond to the mental health crisis, we are inspired daily by the stories of innovation at the local level.
The city of Aurora is no different. From their city-run Thrive Collaborative Center to support local nonprofits (the first coworking space in the Fox Valley area that supports the social sector), to the River Edge Smart Park project to equip a popular public space with Wi-Fi, sensors and smart lighting to help drive economic development in the surrounding areas, Aurora has worked on some groundbreaking projects with real impact to their community. They are most recently known for the expansion of their 605 Innovation District, making Aurora the first in the country to establish a city wide innovation district.
Former Chief Innovation Officer for the City of Aurora, Adrienne Holloway, Ph.D., has no shortage of experience when it comes to pitching and juggling projects of all sizes and working to establish and reinforce a strong culture of innovation that extends beyond just the innovation team.
So what are some of the obstacles that can hold even the most experienced leaders in local government back? Holloway will be the first to tell you stakeholder buy-in is a constant challenge, even for the most innovative cities.
Today, Adrienne Holloway and Govlaunch are teaming up to expand on some of her insights shared on the Govlaunch podcast when it comes to successfully pitching an idea and obtaining stakeholder buy-in to ensure a project's success. Our goal is to encourage and inspire innovation in other local governments with a few helpful tips. To begin:

1. Define the problem

As the saying goes, “If you don't know where you’re going, any road will get you there.”
Clearly defining the problem and the scope can be a real challenge, but is critical for any project’s success. Holloway encourages those in local governments to take your time when moving through these initial steps in project planning as it will ultimately save you hours of extra work and communication once the project is underway. Here are some questions to ask when documenting the problem and the scope as a basis for your proposal:
  • What is the objective? What are we trying to accomplish?
  • Who are we aiming to serve? (define your target population)
  • Who else will benefit from this initiative? (think internal efficiency pickups associated with more digital citizen services)

2. Do your research (bonus points for community feedback)

The research piece of any project is going to be the most time-intensive if you plan to do it right. Holloway calls this “doing your homework” and she recommends a few key steps when conducting comprehensive research on a project’s viability.

Look at past failures

Now that you have your problem defined, you’ll want to outline what, if anything, has been done in the past to address the problem. This may include a breakdown of failed initiatives from the past, in which case you need to be prepared to address why your proposal is different.

Conduct interviews

Research should include interviews with staff internally (and if you’re new to the team, this is a great time to ask about any related projects that missed the mark), and when possible, feedback from the community.

Engage with the community

There are ample tools to engage with citizenry on their sentiment and more and more governments are getting creative when it comes to engaging the community. The City of San Francisco developed the “Civic Bridge” program to create public-private teams that collaboratively design solutions to critical city issues, Baytown, TX opens up projects ranging from public art to roadwork to community suggestions using their “Bayton Engage” platform, and Parker, CO recently released a citizen engagement platform called "Let's Talk Parker" to engage with their residents on project proposals.
Aurora’s Innovation Department has made community feedback on projects a core aspect of their project planning process. Using traditional engagement methods such as neighborhood meetings to digital methods like engagement platforms and social media tools, Holloway attempts to receive and incorporate feedback on project ideas from myriad populations groups.

Make use of data

Local governments are a gold mine of data. And while some, like Aurora, are taking advantage of this data in powerful ways to drive decision making and serve as a catalyst to delivering services that citizens actually want and need, the step to harness this data is a big one. Obtaining insights from an open data platform may be a tool available to you, in which case, excellent. If you are like many local governments still grappling with overcoming paper-based processes and siloed departments and functions, this step is more challenging, but not impossible.
When bringing the shelved business registration project back to city council for review and approval, Holloway was armed with varied data from public safety calls for service to loss revenue due to absence of such a program. The case made with the additional data resulted in an approved program.

3. Develop a prototype

Once the problem has been identified and you have a clear vision for how to solve it, it’s time to to put pen to paper and detail out your proposed project. Holloway notes that detailed documentation is not only important for leadership, but it also helps the team working on the program “remember the steps that are needed to get from step A to step B.” This ensures everyone involved is on the same page and there are no surprises.
When pulling together the overview it might be tempting to include all the bells and whistles, but remember to divide up “must haves” and “nice to haves”. This gives leadership a clear understanding of the minimum resources (financial and personnel) that are required to get the program off the ground and makes it easy to scale back based on their feedback. Plus, when you have additional resources to invest at a later point, you still have the list of “nice to haves” in your back pocket.

4. Communicate

Public sector initiatives need buy-in that goes much further than convincing your team or department that your idea is a good one. There are cross departmental dialogues that need to be had, approval from council, approval from the constituents you serve, and from partners or funders in some cases. The number of moving parts and the complexity in communication across these various silos can bring any idea to a halt.
Holloway acknowledges these hurdles and wants to encourage her peers to persevere: “ Don't let that be a discouragement of why you choose not to pursue something [...] you know, that given time you can actually accomplish it.”
When planning a new project or initiative, talk with other departments and stakeholders to make sure you don’t have any blind spots. This can mean interviews with other departments, subject matter experts, and other local governments. This triage step will allow you to fully vet the problem, continue to incorporate feedback from various stakeholders, and ultimately help you identify any unintended consequences of your project plan.
This exercise can also help identify some potential advocates for your project or ways to collaborate with other departments to accomplish your goals. Holloway says: “This process also reveals similar initiatives that are being considered by other departments but have not been elevated to the broad, organization wide discussion. This early identification establishes the potential for cross departmental partnerships on new projects or initiatives.”

5. Secure project champions

Even the highest priority initiatives within local government take time and therefore it’s important to identify champions within your council to help shepherd the project through. With constant re-evaluation and shifting priorities, these champions need to be in it for the long haul.

6. Start small

Embrace the concept of starting small and expanding once you have tangible success. This is a good strategy for a few reasons. For starters, obtaining stakeholder buy-in is going to be much simpler with a smaller endeavor - it allows you to demonstrate proof of concept (an expansion of your even smaller proof of concept with your prototype), which will help with approval if you choose to expand the scope of the project.
If anything was missed in your research or development of a prototype, adjustments can more easily be made when the initial project scope is smaller and more manageable. Local governments are inherently risk-averse so starting small also limits the potential impact of a project that does not work out as planned. Holloway says:
Holloway and her team are fortunate to have the support of leadership in Aurora that encourages bold ideas and trying new things, even if there is a risk of failure. Holloway shares:
“Approach each initiative as if you’re trying to win someone over and convince them that this will have a positive impact on their work or for the community. It's important to clearly present the facts: what is this going to cost, what resources you’ll need, and the support you’ve gathered from internal departments and your community, when possible.”
Now it’s important to remember that a culture of innovation doesn’t develop overnight. To create real change you must continue to think outside the box and encourage others to bring forward bold ideas. When you are able to demonstrate consistent and measurable results, leadership will become more comfortable with change and you’ll have an easier time obtaining stakeholder buy-in for future projects. The key is to not give up, follow some methodical steps to sufficiently plan for your project, perhaps start a bit smaller than you’d like, and keep your focus on delivering more efficient and seamless services to your community, as these can also benefit your staff. Not only will your innovative efforts help rally stakeholders together around the idea of innovation, but you just may do something incredible for the community you serve.

Dr. Holloway, an accomplished professional with over 15 years of experience in the housing and community development industries and 10 years of experience in academia teaching undergraduate and graduate students, received her Ph.D. in Political Science from Northern Illinois University. Dr. Holloway now serves as Executive Director of the Harris County Community Services Department. As former Chief Innovation Officer at the City of Aurora, she was responsible for leading the development and execution of new initiatives for the city. Areas of focus included improving citizen engagement, building efficiency and effectiveness within government and stimulating the success capacity of the city’s nonprofit, social entrepreneur and resident populations. She also oversaw the City of Aurora’s Community Services and Information Technology divisions. Dr. Holloway was formerly an assistant professor at the DePaul University Graduate School of Public Service where she taught government, community development and research methods courses.


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Adrienne M.

Executive Director at Harris County, TX




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