This post originally appeared on the Challenges to Democracy blog on April 11, 2016. In this post, Dr. Darren Levine, Manager of the Innovation and Research Unit within the Office of the Commissioner of Social Services for the Regional Municipality of Durham, Ontario, shares his unit’s initiative to foster an office climate of staff-driven innovation. This three-pronged approach to unlock staff creativity and to encourage innovation in all areas of the workplace makes use of innovation labs, an annual innovation and research forum, and Agora Town Hall, a platform developed by Harvard Kennedy School alumna Elsa Sze, winner of the Ash Center’s recent #Tech4Democracy Showcase and Challenge.
Ideas for change and improvement are within each of us, but how do we unlock this creative potential?
This is the question we are exploring in our work as an Innovation and Research Unit. We believe unlocking creative potential begins with nurturing the right conditions within the organization — conditions that provide all staff, irrespective of position, title, or years of service, with the courage, space, tools, and resources to share their ideas and lead new possibilities for our workplace.
To this end, our Unit is working simultaneously with all levels of our organization to nurture a climate of staff-driven innovation. Amongst management teams for example, a key focus is fostering a workplace community in which staff are invited and supported to talk openly about their ideas, to question current practices, and to pursue and lead new initiatives. At the same time, we are working to empower direct service delivery staff by helping them tap into their own creativity and ability to impact change in the workplace.
Central to this work has been the development of a pathway that offers all staff opportunities for their voices to be heard, spaces to dream and explore, and forums within which to enact change and improvement. Through the use of Agora e-town hall, innovation labs, and an annual Innovation and Research Forum, this three-pronged approach is fostering a culture of empowerment and innovation. At each step in this pathway, our Innovation and Research Unit surrounds staff with a circle of support to grow both their ideas and their leadership capacity, as they lead the development and implementation of their ideas through our organization.
Ensuring all voices can be heard
Within our workplace, there are many operational and physical barriers that can prevent staff from being able to come together and share their ideas and perspectives with others. We are limited, for example, in the number of staff that can leave their work areas at any given time to take part in department-wide planning tables. From budget constraints, to staffing ratios, to staff separated by offices across our communities, it can be challenging for staff to have their voices heard and reflected in organization-wide planning and improvement processes.
To begin to address this barrier, in the Fall of 2015 we began to pilot test the use of Agora Town Hall within our organization. Agora is an on-line meeting space that allows participants to engage in moderated discussions surrounding topics of shared interest. Through this electronic town hall platform, all staff members within our department, irrespective of position or title, are able to share their ideas and experiences, and receive feedback and affirmation from colleagues across programs and community offices. This space has further allowed staff to converse across our organizational hierarchy, providing direct service delivery, supervisory, and senior management staff a single platform within which to explore together and co-create new possibilities.
In the few months since its introduction, our e-town hall has been visited by staff more than 800 times and is being used to initiate dialogue and discussion on a range of topics across our workplace. This e-town hall for example, is supporting Management engage staff in a department-wide discussion and sharing of ideas surrounding strategic priorities for the years ahead. At the same time, staff members at all levels of our organization have initiated conversations on topics such as workplace health and wellness, servant leadership, and our workplace culture. Emerging discussions and ideas are now being used to inform departmental activities and planning including innovation labs.
Space to dream and explore
The challenges faced by our programs and services often span beyond narrow program mandates and require multidisciplinary knowledge and perspectives. Combining our ideas with others that bring differing experiences, skills, and expertise is an important driver of innovation, as it prompts consideration of new possibilities.
In 2015, our Innovation and Research Unit began to introduce monthly innovation labs to bring together small groups of staff from across our diverse programs and services to collaboratively explore, grow and shape new emerging ideas for our department. Facilitated by members of our Unit, labs guide staff through an exploration, ideation, and design process, as they work ‘hands- on’ with their ideas and obtain feedback and support from colleagues. This space also brings together staff from across our organizational hierarchy, providing direct service delivery, supervisory, and senior management staff an opportunity to explore together, and begin to co- design new possibilities for their teams, workplaces, and services.
To date, more than 100 staff members have attended innovation labs, co-creating new ideas for our workplace. Examples of emerging ideas include a story bank to gather, share, and utilize client and staff stories of lived experience to inform planning, knowledge exchange processes with academic partners, and a staff intrapreneurship pathway. These ideas are currently under development with prototyping and implementation planned for 2016.
Leading through story
Each Fall, our Unit hosts an annual Innovation and Research Forum. This full day event is planned by a cross-section of staff including direct service delivery, supervisory, and senior management, and offers a platform within which all staff can showcase their innovative work and creative ideas.
This annual forum offers an exciting exchange of new ideas, as stories of experience including successes, failures, and lessons learned are shared and celebrated. Staff from all points in our organizational hierarchy share with, and learn from, one another. These exchanges work to deepen, refine, and put into practice many new approaches to support staff growth and enhance service delivery. Further, by sharing their stories of lived experience, many staff without formal positions of authority are coming to see themselves as leaders, influencing change and improvement in their work areas. Each year, more than 100 staff attend this event, along with colleagues from other municipal departments and academic and community partners.
Discovering our voice
Stephen Covey writes that “Leadership is characterized by those who find their own voice and who, regardless of formal position, inspire others to find theirs.”  Through engagement in the staff-driven innovation pathway we have begun to develop, many staff at all levels of our organization are beginning to discover their creative voices, question current practices, talk openly about their ideas for improvement, and lead the transformation of ideas into new possibilities for the services offered to our communities.
We believe that building a culture of innovation begins with the belief that every voice matters. The next step is to listen.