Administration and Leadership, Columns

Fostering Change with Innovation, Leadership & Big Data

Issue 6 and Volume 41.

A few years ago, our EMS system received a grant to innovate in the field of EMS.

We were encouraged to bring in consultants to come up with new ideas—the funders even sent us a brochure from a highly regarded consulting firm, featuring bios of their team members. Some of these individuals were recent Ivy League graduates, with master’s degrees in disciplines like strategic planning and management.

We never used the grant for that purpose, though. We explained to the funders that ideas were cheap and coming up with innovative solutions to our problems wasn’t so challenging.

In fact, we had all kinds of ideas about how to transform and improve our system—just ask any first responder, EMT or paramedic. The difficult part was getting anything done in the first place-the day-to-day, grind-it-out gut work—let alone anything fancy or innovative.

And it was even trickier to convince our own leadership when we tried to push forward innovative initiatives.

They said all the right things initially, but became less enthusiastic when innovation meant disrupting the status quo, spending too much political capital, or somehow upsetting someone else’s agenda.

I used to think political leaders and managers were much like they’re portrayed on TV or in movies—powerful people making deals in smoke-filled backrooms, often worrying about their own political survival.

I realize now that while some of our leaders may be truly self-serving, it’s more likely they may not have the skill sets or the experience, let alone the interest or the time themselves, to be agents or directors of real change.

Instead they often focus their efforts on branding particular values or ideas and pushing them out to the media, covering a lack of resolve or creativity with catchy buzzwords like “innovation” and “sustainability.”

Another popular maneuver is promoting transparency by unleashing “big” or “open” data sets on constituents, allowing any citizen to get on the web and find out, for example, exactly how many gallons of diesel fuel every fire truck in the city uses each year.

The theory goes that if citizens have access to the raw information a government produces, individuals (who likely have their own jobs and families to worry about) may crunch the numbers and come up with homegrown solutions to community problems themselves.

But should we expect the people we serve to do our jobs for us? Shouldn’t those of us in positions of responsibility be using this information to inform our decisions?

Data shouldn’t serve a kind of aesthetic or decorative function, like the wallpaper you bring up on your computer screen.

Unfortunately, though, it may be the rare exception when decision-makers are willing to take a hard look at their own numbers and actually do something about them, assuming the data were ever designed to answer important questions in the first place.

What I recognize now is that innovation requires a collective, conscious effort by those staff, colleagues and friends who roll up their sleeves to make all our ideas real.

And if there’s anything we ever really accomplish in our own leadership roles, it’s putting together these teams of innovators—sometimes by intention and planning, and sometimes just by accident or good luck. But it’s probably the most important, if not the hardest, part of the job we do.

These are the individuals who bring their ingenuity, intelligence and dedication, their basic human kindness, and often their sheer physical, backbreaking sweat equity to the table to make our communities healthier, safer and better places to live.

What I realize, too, is that innovation isn’t a luxury. It’s not an add-on that you try to get to at the end of the day or when all of your other work is done—which it never is.

Instead, innovation is what’s required to get any real work done in the first place.

But the path to innovation can be rocky, often requiring a guerilla warfare approach where you don’t ask permission to take a risk, but plunge forward instead and perhaps apologize later. Like the Navy Seals say, “Admit nothing, deny everything, and deploy countermeasures.”

Finally, innovation may sometimes require breaking a little glass, too—maybe not always the best way to win friends in political circles, but maybe the best way for some of us to sleep a little better each night.