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Innovation: Is there a recipe?

by on December 20, 2013

In a recent post on the National Archives’ Internal Collaboration Network, Dannielle Blumenthal, Digital Engagement Director, recently asked the question: “What is the “most important advice for an innovator at NARA?”   She wondered whether “outside” advice would be applicable, and was especially interested in hearing specific examples in the agency where innovation attempts have worked or failed, and the reasons why.  Several staff members shared their insights and advice, based on their experiences both within NARA and outside.


We’re forging new ground at the National Archives (National Archives Identifier 558303)

In terms of specific advice on how to innovate at NARA, several themes emerged.  The conversation flowed around the following ideas:

Challenge rationalizations

  • Christopher Canarina:  “Most of the time real innovation comes from the “new guy” because that person hasn’t set their routines in stone and can often see the flaw in a process everyone else is following without question.”
  •  Shelby Derieux:  “Things that made perfect sense 25 years ago, with changes in technology, are now horribly obsolete.  NARA’s segregated structure (individual cost centers) lent itself to a wild west mentality where everyone ‘did their own thing’.  That’s why we have so many different IT systems at NARA! ”
  •  Atiq Warraich:  “Think as a customer/user and how would you like to be served or what process you would like to have improved or done differently”

Be willing to say “yes”

  •  Steven Flowers:   “I do think challenging rationalizations, being willing to say “Yes, and” and playing the long game are critical to moving the needle.”

Bring together influence, motivation, and resources

Steven Flowers shared a model of change reactions, and stated that you need the following three things in order to execute change.

  1. Influence:  The change has support or control by people who can make it happen.
  2. Commitment and buy-in:  Folks at all levels have an incentive to see it through.
  3. Capacity:  There are enough resources (tools, time, money, skills) to carry it out.

He noted, “I posit that where these three characteristics overlap, sustainable change is possible.”

Others also noted the need for motivation and buy-in:

  • Christopher Canarina:  “I think the best change comes from the bottom up instead of the top down.”
  • Paul Wester:  “Ensure that collaboration, participation, respect, and sharing are built into how innovation happens.”

The thought that we should focus more on idea execution and spend less time on idea generation resonated with many staff. To accomplish this, it is important to make incremental changes:

  • Steven Haversack:  “From my experience at the Archives you’re more likely to get support for incremental changes that may blossom into bigger changes.”
  • Paul Wester:  “Start small and build incrementally”, “but also have some urgency in accomplishing things.”
  • Steven Flowers:  “A series of small measured changes to an entire system.  This seems to be the most sustainable way to approach larger (or possibly wicked) problems.”

Keep a positive attitude and persevere – be persistent – keep a long-term perspective

  • Allison Olson:  “One thing I have seen at NARA is a positive change is talked about, but doesn’t really take off at first.  Then two years later, the change occurs almost natural as the people who are directly affected see that it will benefit them to make the change”
  • Christopher Magee:  “I think getting innovations into NARA practice (and the government workforce in general), the greatest assets are perseverance and positivism. In conversations, focus on what can be done constructively (maybe next week, the month after, and over..and over…and over again), eventually a person can get enough kinetic energy to get new practices in place.  The reality is bureaucracies can move slowly. By remaining positive, it can help deal with processes that aren’t moving at the speed at which you’d like.”
  • Paul Wester:  “Be persistent” and “Create a positive outlook and an upbeat environment, as assumptions and other things are questioned.”
  • Atiq Warraich:  “Never let people drag your ideas/thought down or discourage you,” and “Put some time aside for “Innovation” thinking about how can I do my job better.”

Celebrate successes

  • Paul Wester: “Celebrate successes (especially the small ones) when they occur,” and “accumulate and appreciate successes and consolidate gains.”

Steven Flowers illustrated the fact that change is not easy or comfortable with a pithy quote from Machiavelli’s The Prince.

“There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things. For the reformer has enemies in all those who profit by the old order, and only lukewarm defenders in all those who would profit by the new order, this lukewarmness arising partly from fear of their adversaries … and partly from the incredulity of mankind, who do not truly believe in anything new until they have had actual experience of it.”

Final comments by Shelby Derieux go to both the difficulties in making change, but also the positive outcomes that are already underway at NARA.

  • “The Transformations goal of One NARA is slowly taking hold and we are questioning some of the old habits, that at one time ‘worked’.… The people that work here are fantastic, and I have no doubt that the winds of change will start to feel more natural as we start poking the holes.  Hurts at first.”

One thing is clear: in order to achieve innovation, we need strong leadership and the confidence to succeed.  The thoughtful conversation generated by this discussion proved that National Archives’ staff have the ideas, the vision, and the energy to move us forward.


Note: This post was slightly edited January 6, 2014.


Maarja Krusten January 3, 2014 at 6:39 am

I appreciate the fact that you’ve explored some of these issues on a public facing site.
All actions taken in a public forum that seemingly are geared towards an external audience have the potential to be seen by an internal audience as well. For that reason, while recognizing this is a valid citation from an official in your learning and development unit, I question whether the Machiavelli quote is a “pithy” summary of the challenges of change. I explore why and why a different type of history can be used to move change forward in a post about your blog (“We are not your enemies”) at

To what I wrote there, I would add this. The quote from Machievelli derives from a top down age. And it is from an author for whom signalling the “us v. them” beleaguerement he does might not have been seen as the drag on positivism that it is in the 21st century. He was not dealing with savvy federal employees. I’m not alone in my reaction to Machiavelli, which is, “Relax, dude! We’re not adversaries.”

That is to say, while some of what Machiavelli writes still rings true, he reflects a different age. We aren’t afraid to embrace nuance, to give up control, and to admit nowadays that Manicheanism doesn’t begin to reflect the broad spectrum of reactions to change. Buy-in is employee paced, not management directed. Many of us who support Transformation, as I do, are ok with that.

Maarja Krusten January 12, 2014 at 11:40 am

As a concept, innovation is not novel. Which means the question of whether there is a recipe for “innovation” is complicated by the fact that the term itself has lost some meaning.

As Library of Congress CFO Jeff Page recently noted in his “Weekly Reminders” Tumblr, “Perception is Reality.” He said how people view you matters as much as how you view yourself because it reflects their reality. Whether the perceptions feel fair or not, they are valid to those who hold them. The same applies to entities.

Innovation used to be a benign term which belonged to all of us. One that simply meant taking a fresh, creative, solution oriented look at something requiring a new way of doing things to change it. It could be relatively small, it could be big and dramatic.

Now, government agencies, NARA among them, have taken ownership of the term by creating designated business units which focus on solutions to technology-driven issues.

The problem is, there always have been people within the federal agencies in different business units who were solution oriented and creative thinkers. Such people still take solution-seeking approaches to their work now. Not all of their work to improve government is “press release ready” yet it includes important contributions.

Capstone in the Chief Records Officer unit addressed an issue which historians such as I most care about. How to keep born digital records not yet “safe at home at NARA” from being “killed in infancy” in the agencies. (IdeaScale is not the place to discuss such problems.) Other units, such as Research Services, the National Declassification Center, and ISOO (which works with the PIDB), also worked in on resolving difficult questions related to access, accountability, and civic literacy.

Which is why I tweeted as I did about the Innovations unit (V) being the only one to issue a Top Ten achievements list at the end of 2013. I believe the V unit needed to demonstrate humility and generosity of spirit as it launched its blog. Here’s why.

At NARA, some employees who care, care deeply about “doing things better,” no longer feel they are part of “innovation.” It “feels” to them that a designated unit and official have taken ownership of the term. The Charter for Change implied that anyone of any rank in any mission unit could be a leader. How people reacted to the Charter’s vision varied, but for me, the seeming lessening of control was immensely attractive. Even more so the humility that seemed to underlie it—we need help, be our partners, no matter what rank we hold or where we work.

I loved the freshness of that concept and the way NARA articulated it. Defining leadership that way no longer is something I hear much about. Now it feels as if ideas, regardless of source, matter mostly if they provide input to and produce accomplishments in one “cool,” elite unit (which among some has acquired the nickname, “Country Club”)—Innovation (V). There are key people outside V speaking effectively in terms of affiliation but we need to feel as if more officials support those who speak that way.

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