December 11, 2012

As published in

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The Skills an Innovation Team Really Needs

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Neil Kleiman, PhD
Special Advisor to the Dean
NYU Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service

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Innovation Delivery Teams are dedicated units within city governments designed to quickly and nimbly tackle multiple issues ranging from murder reduction to small-business growth. But how can one group of eight to 10 people attain subject-matter fluency, or even competency, on so many radically different issues--issues other civil servants have spent their careers mastering?

The answer is simple: They can't. And they don't need to.

Rather than loading up on subject experts, the five cities involved in the Bloomberg Philanthropies-funded Innovation Delivery Team initiative have packed their teams with people who have demonstrated an exceptional drive for impact and who have top-notch communication, facilitation, project management and problem-solving skills--people who are focused more on the "how" than on the "what." These team members then engage agency leadership through a process of "ideation," implementation planning and project benchmarking, using tested tools and approaches.

What types of people are these, and where does one find them? We conducted a survey of all five teams and found that beyond the expected JDs, MBAs and policy degrees, the most common recent experience was private-sector consulting or public-sector project management. This isn't a surprise given the fact that a team's mission is to go in, assess and support existing leadership in finding new solutions and implementing them--and then to exit, something that consultants and project managers do all the time.

In addition, innovation teams need to be able to "lead from the middle"--to change perspectives and promote cooperation without employing a top-down approach, since they are often leading people who are leaders themselves. This means the teams need people who are persuasive and able to project knowledge and competence without sparking turf wars. Chicago's team director, a former management consultant, has underscored the importance of this skill by instituting a policy that requires all team members to sit and observe each other's meetings with other city agencies and outside stakeholders, after which they deconstruct the meetings to improve their ability to communicate and persuade.

Finally, team members' skills must not only be applicable to the work but also must complement each other's and fill specific team needs. In tackling gun violence, for example, Memphis's team is making connections among the police, the district attorney's office, the mayor's office, the schools and the community, helping them work together in new ways, and each team member brings something vital to that complex process. New Orleans' team includes members with significant public-sector, nonprofit, community and entrepreneurial experience as well as technology skills, which has allowed them to work on initiatives as diverse as homicide reduction and customer service in a comprehensive, coordinated way.

The lesson for other cities interested in this kind of work is that the kinds of people best suited to leading innovation efforts aren't necessarily those who have the most expertise or experience in working within a given subject area. The ability to effect change is itself a specialized skill, and one that cities that are serious about innovation should seek in those selected to lead the charge.

Additional research for this column was provided by Abby Miller, Bloomberg Innovation Delivery Fellow, Memphis Mayor's Office.