Six steps to a more innovative government

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Have you wondered how to nurture innovation in your organization? 

As a serial technology entrepreneur, I explored how to quickly bring novel solutions to market that solve real needs. After selling my first tech venture, I authored “Pursuit of Passionate Purpose,” a book that provides a proven, step-by-step success formula. 

As the former chief information officer of Colorado, this philosophy guided the Governor’s Office of Information Technology to work effectively with our customers, the departments and our residents. It helped us deliver on our governor’s vision for a reimagined IT culture and for moving forward with digital transformation. I know it can help you too.    

Here are six practical pointers for using innovation as a strategy for success, using my time at OIT as a case study:

1. Discern innovation as a core value

Jim Collins, author of “Good to Great,” believes: “Core values are not something people buy into. People must be predisposed to holding them.” In his book, Collins uses a hypothetical trip to Mars to demonstrate how an organization’s authentic core values can be identified by determining the best attributes of a small team of people you would send to another planet.

After I was appointed state CIO in January 2019, I led the executive technology team through the Mars exercise. In addition to five values OIT had been living — service, integrity, teamwork, respect and courage — we discovered that innovation was another key, shared value. It was always there. It just needed to be articulated and honored.

We defined this value as, “Innovation: We foster new ideas. We challenge the status quo and continuously ask, How can we do this better? Then we take action and make a difference through novel processes and technology.”

2. Establish a mission and vision based on innovation

At OIT we next ran a strategic planning process. We conducted a SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) analysis. We did a thorough assessment of what was working and what wasn’t. Once the values were clarified, we sought to discover the core ideology that would guide and inspire.

OIT’s mission was: “Together we enhance the lives of all Coloradans.”

Our next step was to vividly describe the envisioned future. What do you imagine or hope it would be like? A vision statement describes what an organization desires to achieve in the long run. 

OIT’s Vision: “Be the best public service technology organization innovating today for tomorrow.”

3. Attract and align talent

The most important organizational asset is people.

As CIO, I initially had eight executives reporting to me, but after a deeper evaluation of our key challenges, I reorganized, resulting in just five executive staff members: a chief operations officer, chief information security officer, chief customer officer, chief strategy officer and chief technology officer.

I retained, promoted from within, moved off and hired new. We moved parts of the organization around under these leaders to improve processes and better serve our customers, the cabinet agencies.

We further assessed our talent and found we were missing a marketing component. That term does not resonate well in government, so it was named product management. This new group, placed in OIT’s strategy office, would determine what products and services we were offering and why, pricing, delivery and support.

4. Define your passionate purpose

OIT established its wildly important passionate purpose — or “WIPP” — as “customer delight.” We worked to meet and exceed customers’ expectations and build customer satisfaction. This helped build our credibility and trust among other executive branch agencies, the legislature, vendors, employees and all Coloradans.

We increased agencies’ net promoter score — an industry standard used to understand how likely a consumer is to recommend a service or product — of OIT by 13 points in six months. Amazing!

OIT, and each state agency, also established annual wildly important goals, or “WIGs”. We issued an OIT Playbook, a strategic and operational roadmap. As one strategy to achieve our goals, we set up an innovation incubator that delivered 10 technological solutions to address agency challenges, like a virtual call center for COVID-19 communications.

5. Pursue passionate purpose

Now that you’ve set goals, pursue your purpose with all your heart and soul persistently until you make progress.

I remember attending the National Association of State Chief Information Officers’ 2019 award ceremony for state IT innovation. The State of Colorado did not receive one award, not even an honorable mention. I then set the goal that by the next year Colorado would win at least one. In 2020, OIT won two!

With legislative funding and the governor’s support, we launched the Colorado Digital Service as part of OIT. Modeled after the U.S. Digital Service, this small but mighty group was a partnership that attracted talent from the private sector for “tours of duty” in government. They brought in a user-centric design focus with agile methodologies and the ability to diffuse new team processes.

6. Assess progress

OIT accomplished all of its WIGs while dealing with COVID challenges, like moving 80% of the state workforce to work remotely, innovating new solutions to expand the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment testing lab, and more. Guided by the governor’s vision to have the agencies be accountable for their major IT solutions, we also put together an IT transformation plan to move from a totally centralized structure to a reimagined hybrid operating model and set the steps to launch it.

Knowing the foundation had been set and the turn-around working, I assessed good progress and moved on.

Theresa M. Szczurek, Ph.D., is a C-level executive, corporate director and Colorado CIO of the Year. She is also a former chief information officer for the State of Colorado.

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Colorado, Innovation, Theresa Szczurek
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