On September 17 and 18, Living Cities joined our colleagues from Bloomberg Philanthropies and Bennett Midland in welcoming 19 Innovation Teams from across the United States and Israel to New Orleans for the 2015 Fall i-teams Convening.

This series of intensive workshops and reflection sessions equipped the i-teams with tools and insights to help them hone their list of potential initiatives and map out a plan for implementation. Along the way, the original cohort of five pioneer cities shared strategies for success through presentations, panel discussions, and informal networking. Teams also worked through an exercise on adaptive leadership led by national expert Alexander Grashow.

Each i-team in the new cohort later participated in guided reflections facilitated by other i-team members and staff from Bennett Midland, the management consulting firm that provides technical assistance and coaching to the i-teams, and Living Cities. We were also proud to welcome journalists J.B. Wogan from Governing Magazine and Richard Rainey of the Times-Picayune for a Q&A session on communications strategy.

Here are three key themes that emerged from the i-teams convening:

Theme 1: To Innovate, Embrace Risk

“Go out on a limb. That’s where the fruit is.” – Jimmy Carter

Innovation Teams set their sights on some of the biggest problems facing cities today: blighted neighborhoods, crumbling infrastructure, and urgent housing shortages, to name a few. City halls have taken on these persistent challenges with varying degrees of success, implementing scores of new programs and initiatives along the way. Meaningful change will require new ways of doing the work of city government, and change always comes with risk.

Throughout the day, we heard session leaders and i-teams talk about risk in a variety of contexts.

1) Trainers from the Education Delivery Institute (EDi) led a session focusing on tools that can help the i-teams figure out how to prioritize and select a portfolio of initiatives.

Source: City Hall Innovation Team Playbook

Teams considered where their project ideas fell along two axes: feasibility and impact. During the presentation, an i-team member at my table mentioned that, “It seems like we want to shoot for high impact, high feasibility.” While it’s true that teams should shoot for this sweet spot, teams were urged to think in terms of a portfolio of initiatives.

By incorporating quick wins (low impact, high feasibility) in addition to projects in the sweet spot (high impact, high feasibility), the portfolio approach allows teams to build the social and political capital necessary to take on risky but important projects.

Initiatives that are high impact and low feasibility may represent the highest risk and reward. For the i-teams to reach their targets, bold innovation will likely mean taking on a few of these types of initiatives.

2) Again and again, we heard trainers and participants at the convening reference specific departments or individuals who, for one reason or another, might present challenges when the time comes to implement. The session on adaptive leadership, led by Alexander Grashow, urged teams to think about what people closest to the problem need to give up in order for the initiative to succeed. One quote from the presentation generated lots of buzz around the room:

“People don’t resist change. They resist loss–giving up how they have learned to be in the world.”

Whether you’re working in the context of government or not, it’s important to consider the who when preparing to deliver a bold new initiative that aims to disrupt old ways of doing things.

Theme 2: Look Beyond the Usual Suspects

1) The second step in the i-teams Innovation Delivery approach focuses on generating new ideas. Jerusalem and Peoria presented key takeaways from contests they created to source ideas from the community. The team from Jerusalem developed an online system where city employees could submit ideas and vote for existing ones. They advertised this website on pamphlets inserted along with employee paychecks, on banners in city hall, and through reminders on screen savers whenever city computers sat idle.

2) Peoria set up a committee of community representatives to build in-roads from the community, but they also engaged the private sector through an ideas competition that invited firms to submit and present concepts for solutions to combined sewer overflow. The team observed that, “The competition ended up getting more people interested and excited about possible solutions.”

By introducing an aspect of competition and using simple but effective means of promotion, the Jerusalem and Peoria i-teams were ultimately able to reach more people and generate better ideas.

Theme 3: Reflection Points and Outside Perspectives are Key

“It was great to take a step back and have a wide-ranging, big-picture discussion of our work to date…a very thought-provoking and productive stock take.”

“Opened doors for deeper understanding of our projects, conversations, and relationship building.”

- Comments from i-teams on the reflection point exercise

Appreciating the value of honest reflection is easy. What’s difficult is breaking through the hidden assumptions and ways of thinking that limit our perspective. To gain the truly original insight that’s so vital to ensuring that an initiative is on the right track, you need outside perspectives and the space to engage them. As one i-team member observed:

“Reflection takes intention.”

The structured reflection session during the New Orleans convening gave the i-teams this valuable opportunity. Living Cities, Bennett Midland, and members of the original cohort of i-teams acted as facilitators, urging the teams to delve into their journey and talk candidly about challenges they’ve encountered along the way. Many of the i-teams reported that they found this exercise both rewarding and insightful.

The cities who were part of the first i-teams cohort played a tremendously important role throughout the reflections. Their wealth of experience gave members of the new cohort an opportunity to consider how to tackle challenges in new ways: engaging with a different set of players in city government, refining the way that the team communicates their role to stakeholders, or seizing novel opportunities for cross-sector collaboration, to name a few.

We are ecstatic to have brought together some of the most talented and innovative practitioners in the public sector today. As the i-teams move toward implementing their initiatives, we will continue to share key learnings from the field through our blog and on Twitter with the hashtag #iteams.