How to Approach Innovation Work

Innovation mapping is an exciting prospect that can feel foreign or uncomfortable at times. Decisions to innovate can be the difference between organizational vitality and stagnation, but if you choose to do innovation mapping, do it well. The dividends of innovation to an organization and the people it serves can be potentially limitless.

This article is co-authored by Daniel Beemsigne, Manager of Corporate Community Strategic Initiatives with the City of Guelph, and is the second in a series detailing Overlap’s Innovation work with the City.

The goal of this work is to enable anyone within the organization to easily become an innovator. Innovation should be everyone’s business.

Daniel Beemsigne, City of Guelph Manager of Corporate Community Strategic Initiatives

Once it became apparent that City staff and Guelph community members found the definition of innovation, its value, and how, when, and why to use it, difficult to articulate, it was decided that a framework or “practical tool” was the best way to bring people into the innovation process and make it feel most relevant to their day-to-day work. These findings were realized with strong and committed engagement amongst municipal staff and a cross-section of community leaders. This was the first important step for the City of Guelph’s innovation journey.

This work comes at a critical moment for the City of Guelph. It goes beyond simply being a strategic initiative to identify different ways to deliver municipal services. As communities become more data-mature and performance-driven, the City of Guelph has already concluded that it will need to become even more nimble and will require different capabilities from its staff team and organizational culture.

Innovation Principles

The principles shown and described below are meant to guide how to approach innovation work. The City’s project team developed these principles collaboratively, and were asked to reflect on ways to infuse these principles into all elements of their work.

  1. Innovation is a process—Innovation is not a magic black box or fancy new technology. Innovation is a pattern of behaviours and mindsets. Anyone can be an innovator.
  2. Understand the “why”—Clarity on the purpose of work is crucial to ensure alignment throughout the innovation process, and to minimize scope creep.
  3. Talk to people experiencing the problem—Innovation is human-centred. Quantitative information can often tell us a problem exists or show us that our interventions have created change, but qualitative research (talking to people) is one of the best ways to understand the nuances of a problem.
  4. Make it safe to fail—fear of failure hinders would-be innovators. Create environment where team members feel comfortable being wrong (or only partially right). No one knows everything, but together we know a lot.
  5. Experiment, pilot and learn rapidly—Innovation is a numbers game. Your first idea is rarely your best one. Revolutionary ideas are evolutionary ideas and emerge only after they have been tested and refined, often multiple times.
  6. Make people and things better—Look at the overall impact a solution has on the organization and the environment you work in. You don’t want to introduce a solution that will help one team but put other teams at a disadvantage. Keep these questions at the forefront of your mind. “What are you trying to improve and for whom?” How can the organization also improve as a result of this innovation?

The City of Guelph Innovation Tool: The Framework

Staff from all departments in Guelph came together from the inception of this initiative to decide on a basic Framework and to refine that Framework to add directions for users on how it should be applied. This led to the collaborative choice of a Double Diamond tool which was customized to better reflect the Guelph culture and to strengthen descriptions around how the tool should be used. The tool or framework was also based on the presumption that everyone in the City of Guelph is a potential innovator, from senior administrators to front line customer service representatives.

Using the Framework requires working through the following four steps:

Step One: Decide when to use the Framework

The first step involves the decision of whether to use the Framework. Prompt questions act as a decision tree for the practitioner or project team to review. The definition of Type 4 Problems and the Innovation Quadrant used by the City of Guelph’s Continuous Improvement Office were instrumental in determining whether an issue requires the application of the Innovation Framework (Note : this structure comes from Art Smalley, President of Art of Lean Inc.).

Step Two: Apply the Double Diamond

The Design Double Diamond is a process map for teams tackling complex problems to deal with ambiguity. It is made up of four phases, alternative modes of divergent and convergent thinking, and a series of checkpoints. Most time should be spent in the first two phases of the Design Double Diamond (Discover and Define). Many of us are predisposed to work too quickly through the problem identification phases. It is critical to first accurately identify the problem (i.e. and not its symptoms) before focusing on solutions.

Step Three: Assess the solutions generated using an Evaluation Worksheet

This additional step is designed to support the Project Team when comparing and prioritizing different solutions and thinking critically about the feasibility of those solutions. It should also allow the project team to provide context for different audiences (e.g. City staff, Council, and the community). The Guelph worksheet asks the Project Team to rate solutions based on seven criteria on a subjective scale of 1-7 (1 being very unlikely, 7 being very likely).

Step Four: After using the Framework

At this point, there are important exercises that need to be undertaken. These include “sails and anchors” identification (i.e. what gave you velocity and what slowed you down?), and deciding to whom, how and where the outcomes should be communicated.

The Implementation Plan: Guelph’s Roadmap to Success

The outcome of our work was a powerful tool that was tested and refined by staff. The four steps guided potential users on—  when to use the framework; progressing through the stages of the Double Diamond (discovery, definition, development and delivery); assessment of potential solutions , and finally steps to take after the tool has been used. The value of the framework is a sound process to approach complex problems and de-risked potential solutions through prototyping with end-users.

So how does one make innovation a regular, value-add practice in the City of Guelph and in
other organizations? We see the following actions as essential to success:

A. Adopt and Align: Adopt an Innovation Framework, collaboratively developed by an organization from the very start, as a consistent Corporate tool for practicing innovation. A kick off event or pilot project can be very effective in shining a light on both successes and failures, and normalizing the exploration process.

B. Talk About It: Develop and implement a communications plan endorsed by senior leadership that announces the Framework to all staff, explains why innovation is so important to all areas of the organization and underscores the potential role of everyone to be innovators. Additionally, after the Framework has been used internally, the organization should consider share experiences using the Innovation Framework with the broader community, including innovation partners ( in this case, like Innovation Guelph, the University of Guelph, business leaders, and other community partners).

lines on a clipboard

C. Practice makes Proficient: Enhance resources to develop and offer an ongoing training program to help staff acquaint themselves with the Framework, apply it to actual or anticipated municipal service delivery challenges, and to provide staff with the opportunity to further discuss the “why” of innovation.

D. Reach Out: If you have an idea, but don’t know how to get started, reach out to a colleague. If you are looking for support, reach out to others. Just ask.

E. Make Time: Regular time allocation should be made in staff schedules to pursue innovation opportunities, which may include people outside of corporate departments or business units.

F. Meet and “Inno-Share”: Innovation should be shared amongst all staff at regular round tables, including the value proposition of potential risks and benefits, and actual outcomes, including unanticipated results. Cross-functional teams can also be created.

G. Review and Refine: The Innovation Framework and use of the Framework should be reviewed annually to gauge progress and to make adjustments as necessary.

H. Operationalize the Tool: Innovation outcomes should be used to inform the annual budget processes and the allocation of other municipal or organizational resources.

I. Measure: How do you know if you are making progress? What does success look like? Taking the time to develop appropriate Key Performance Indicators will provide a gauge of success and failure.

J. Keep Your Community Apprised: Innovative initiatives and updates should be shared with the community through such means as posting information on corporate websites and including this work in presentations to the community and Council.

K. Targeted Investment: Consider having a dedicated fund that can support innovative processes and outcomes. This is key!

Organizational Lessons to be Learned

Activating innovation in your organization should come with some big picture reflecting and thinking.

From its inception, innovation mapping must be completely inclusive. The initiative should be widely made known across an organization, especially the why of innovation. At some point, everyone should have the opportunity to share their thoughts and to participate.

Starting the process of innovation mapping will give invaluable insight into how well people are integrated or siloed in what they do every day. Developing an innovation framework can be a powerful tool to improve corporate collaboration. Leadership can exist in an organization at all levels and in all areas. Innovation mapping can help to identify people who believe in the necessity of innovation, and who can advance a corporate agenda of making innovation a much stronger part of the corporate culture. Some leaders are comfortably vocal; others are quieter influencers. Don’t let the quieter ones fool you. They have a great deal to offer.

Everyone is a potential innovator. While this may seem to be a self-evident statement, it is not necessarily seen that way in an organization. For example, people working at the front lines, like public works and reception staff, have critical insight into the community experience. Remember, most people don’t typically find their way into municipal offices on a regular basis, so their perception and understanding may not be what you think. It is imperative not to strive for perfection, something that arguably does not exist. Instead, we need to accept that people want practical solutions and are willing to accept the occasional error, as long as course corrections are made in a timely manner.

Innovation mapping is an exciting prospect that can feel foreign or uncomfortable at times. Decisions to innovate can be the difference between organizational vitality and stagnation, but if you choose to do innovation mapping, do it well. The dividends of innovation to an organization and the people it serves can be potentially limitless.