Foster innovation at your agency with special unit

Friday - 7/23/2010, 3:41pm EDT

Rita McGrath, Associate Professor of Management, Columbia Business School

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How are you working at your agency to foster innovation and think outside of the box?

Harder than it sounds, right?

Well, you just might need a special innovations unit to help you out.

Rita McGrath is Associate Professor of Management at the Columbia Business School and author of Discovery-Driven Growth. She explains what a special innovations unit is and how it could help your agency.

She says new mandates often come with a good deal of uncertainty, which can interrupt your normal work flow. This is when a special unit could become beneficial.

"The point . . . is to give people, firstly, the time and the breathing room, and, secondly, the ability to really focus on something that might be new and might have a very different rhythm and a very different structure than something that you're familiar with and that you've worked with for a long time."

Creating a group like this could have its pitfalls, however. McGrath warns that the special innovations unit should not become too separated from the rest of the office because this could disrupt the core mission of the agency or organization.

"The way that people tend to address it successfully is through the use of linking mechanisms. So, for example, you might set up this special group, but perhaps they're reporting into a board which has membership from HR, legal and some of the core units, so that there's a constant dialogue between the two. The difference is between dialogue and strangulation. So, you don't want to give them so much authority that they can hamper the new thing, but you do want to build these lines of communication between the two."

Managers and office leaders should think of the special innovation group, then, not as something extra, but as a means of freeing up resources and personnel to accomplish new things.

Some of this sounds all well and good for the private sector, but what about for federal agencies, where office structure can be more rigid? And what if no one in the office really wants to be part of the group?

McGrath says the onus is on managers to make sure these questions are answered up front.

"You want it to be a place that people on the move get assigned to for a period of time. You want it visible and on the agenda. I like to say that, if it's really important, it should be item one, two or three on every agenda that you have. If it's strategically looked at like that, then I think people [will] understand that this is more about the future."

She also suggests that managers rotate group members in two or three year intervals to prevent isolation. The movement can also facilitate the exchange of ideas and give the main office a fresh perspective.

So now you have your group, but what should it be doing, exactly. McGrath says, for one, it shouldn't be launching anything.

"What will happen is -- that's exactly what you were concerned about happening. [The group] starts to take on airs and they're swanking around the office. . . . So, what you need is the strategic people to be interdependent with the core mission people, because the core mission people are going to be the ones in the end that have to launch whatever comes out of [the special unit]."

McGrath points to IBM's Emerging Business Opportunity Process as an example of where this really works.

"They have a C-suite person who is responsible for making sure the resources on new things stay on new things, and then they kind of use an internal reconfiguration process. So, somebody was maybe working in the mainframe group on Monday, and by Wednesday they decide they're going to create a real health services division and they move them [there]. It's quite interesting."

For government, she says, one of the biggest challenges has to do with metrics, because there is no profit and loss, "It's very key that when it comes to doing new things more efficiently that you have metrics to stack up against each other."

Email the author of this post at dramienski@federalnewsradio.com