A lot has gone right for cities in Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Innovation Teams (i-teams) program. Teams have taken on big challenges in their communities and launched new initiatives that expand economic opportunities, improve living conditions, and help move residents from Point A to Point B. Throughout their first year we heard officials in city halls say things like, “The i-team has made more progress in the last four months than we had in the last four years,” or express how surprised they are that they’ve been able to move on politically difficult initiatives with broad support, and in a short period of time. Not everything went perfectly though.
“The only real mistake is the one from which we learn nothing.” - Henry Ford
Innovation is an endless cycle of failure, reflection, and iteration. This is especially true for i-teams, who work with partners in City Hall to develop solutions to large urban issues, and once those initiatives are deployed, shift their focus to a new set of challenges. Teams working to identify new priority areas have a unique opportunity to reflect on all of the things that went wrong in the previous cycle, and figure out how they can change their approach moving forward.
Failure is one of an innovator’s most valuable tools, and it is only a bad thing if it does not lead to new thinking on how to approach a challenge. In many ways, i-teams are simply looking to fail better than anyone else. Here are a few examples of how i-teams failed, and what they have learned from these experiences:
Not surprisingly, many of the teams said that as they shift to new priorities, they will focus more intentionally on how they work with other stakeholders to achieve change. This is a critical skill i-teams have to develop due to the fact that they do not “own” their work in the traditional sense. Their job is to identify solutions and work with city officials to implement them and measure impact, and then move on to the next big challenge while others in city government take on the tough work of implementation.
Teams that faced challenges in this area determined that they needed to have greater and earlier interactions with owners - those in city agencies who are responsible for the day-to-day implementation and oversight of initiatives - and sponsors - department leaders accountable to the mayor for the successful implementation of initiatives - into the process.
“We underestimated the amount of hours we would spend building trusted relationships and helping sponsors and owners get beyond frustration and move toward potential innovations,” said the director of one team.
“[We needed to bring] potential owners and sponsors into the process well before the identification and prioritization of initiatives to both build buy-in and support and smooth the transition to routine delivery updates,” wrote another.
Maintaining consistent contact with stakeholders over the course of the work, and pulling in key decision makers like elected officials, into the process early in order to build more ownership and rapport.
Data (or the Lack Thereof)
Issues around data are also something i-teams learned they would need to address better in future priority areas.
“Making sense of all the data and information we have (and don’t have) was more challenging than we thought it would be. It became clear early on that in some cases, the City is not currently tracking data that is critical to identifying pain points and demonstrating progress, which has made it difficult and more time consuming to try and identify appropriate targets.
Another team found that there was no established baseline data for the challenge they were working on, a pitfall that they will take into account when identifying new issues to focus on. Another felt that they could have done a better job gathering quantitative data before engaging in some of their ideation strategies with partners.
Several teams mentioned that in the future, they would work to find out more about how other cities have addressed the challenges they are working on. Teams are pushing themselves to be ambitious and bold, and do not want to spend time re-inventing the wheel or focusing on something that another city has already proven doesn’t work. They also want to be up to speed on the most cutting-edge aspects of the areas they are working on. As one team put it, “there is a lot to learn from other cities’ experiences and other best practices in the world.”
One team wrote that, “[We would do] more and earlier site visits with local, regional and or national partners. We were able to learn a great deal from even a short site visit and would have benefited from doing so earlier in the process.”
Another added that meeting with subject matter experts would “provide a great jump start.”
Innovation Teams are attending to some of the most firmly entrenched issues in cities today. The fact that these problems have persisted for as long as they have means that we are already failing by not taking drastically new and different actions. In short, i-teams are taking the types of steps that are the hardest for governments to take.
By reflecting on what has and had not worked as they take on heretofore unsolvable problems, i-teams are not only unlocking solutions that will benefit their residents and communities, but exploring how local governments can work differently to achieve success on a broad array of issues.