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6 Defining Traits of an Innovation Team Leader

The challenges of directing a city-government "i-team" demand additional characteristics unique to the innovation process.

by / April 23, 2015

One is a seasoned businesswoman who's back in her native Mobile, Ala., fighting neighborhood blight. Another is a Peoria, Ill., architect committed to curbing the city's sewer overflows into the Illinois River. Still another is a mayor's aide tasked with leveraging the skills he brought to helping build an open-data portal to revitalizing the commercial districts in Jersey City, N.J.

These are snapshots of just three of the directors who've been chosen to kick-start innovation in 12 cities in the United States and two in Israel. They were hired recently as part of Bloomberg Philanthropies' $45 million expansion of its "i-team" initiative, which funds innovation teams operating out of city halls to creatively tackle seemingly intractable challenges unique to each city.

While Bloomberg Philanthropies' effort aims to build broad capacity to innovate throughout a city's operations, success in building this infrastructure hinges in large part on the i-team director. Typically reporting to the mayor and overseeing a small team of project managers and support staff, an i-team director faces all the usual challenges of leadership -- plus a handful of others unique to the position.

As I met with these newly inaugurated leaders recently, I thought about the challenges and opportunities they face in the context of a program I direct, Harvard Kennedy School's Innovations in American Government Awards, which in assessing government initiatives looks at the full mix of attributes: not only program goals but also institutional culture and the people who make these efforts happen.

We know that there are certain traits that make any leader successful -- strong organizational skills, the ability to motivate employees and a willingness to listen to stakeholders of all stripes. But the challenges of leading an i-team demand additional characteristics unique to the innovation process. Here are some of those defining traits:

1. A temperament for uncertainty

The environment an i-team director operates in is full of uncertain expectations, demands and support from city workers and local partners. This climate demands "a temperament for uncertainty," according to Doug McGowen, who tackled economic development as an i-team director in Memphis, one of Bloomberg Philanthropies' pioneer i-team cities announced in 2011. McGowen -- who now oversees Memphis' broader performance-management efforts, including its i-team -- defines this temperament as one characterized by entrepreneurialism and flexibility.

2. The imagination to think systemically

There are always reasons that a large public problem that needs to be addressed hasn't been solved: These often are problems that may look too much like a nail to the hammer when in fact the solutions are multiple and varied. Is homelessness a housing problem, or is it a domestic-violence or mental illness problem? Is murder a crime to be deterred though effective prosecution, or is it also a problem related to gangs, drugs or a culture of violence? Leading the team that will tackle these challenges anew demands broad cross-agency thinking.

3. The ability to lead by listening

Simply asking questions is insufficient. Successful i-team directors must ask the right questions, framed in a way to that will get to the root of an issue. This approach has been key in Chicago, another pioneer i-team city, which has tackled a variety of issues surrounding small business, social services delivery, youth violence and energy efficiency. Chicago's i-team director, Paras Desai, told me he's found that "being able to ask the second-order question is really important -- you have to keep diving deeper and deeper into an issue." From there, Desai says, his team strives to do more listening than talking. "We're not necessarily interrogating you, we don't want to push our perspective on you," he explains. "We really want to learn from you."

4. A willingness to blend top-down and bottom-up ideas

The i-team director carries out mayoral mandates to disrupt business as usual by earning credibility not only with external stakeholders but also among mid- and low-level municipal employees. To be successful, she must listen to the expertise of city workers who have been tackling a particular problem for years.

5. A sharp focus on the big picture

Even as they champion a data-driven approach to problem-solving, successful i-team directors resist the temptation to fixate on the details. "It is very easy, especially when you're taking a data-driven approach, to get into the weeds," Desai says. "You have to be grounded in data, but that also shouldn't be the only tool in the toolbox." In some cases, an intensive focus on data might not point to the truly innovative and impactful solution. Desai points to an example from the business world: Apple's iPod, which created a demand that would have been difficult to discern using existing data about consumer preferences.

6. The diplomacy skills to distribute credit

When successes start accumulating, a good leader makes everyone feel appreciated. But that's easier said than done when many parties contribute to a victory. As McGowen frames it, "How do you give enough credit to the innovation team and the innovation process so that it has credibility, so that it can be sustained, while at the same time giving the clients you're serving the appropriate amount of credit so that their work gets recognized?" Negotiating that balance demands finesse and careful attention.

This blog was originally published by Governing

Stephen Goldsmith

Stephen Goldsmith is the Daniel Paul Professor of the Practice of Government and the Director of the Innovations in American Government Program at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. He previously served as Deputy Mayor of New York and Mayor of Indianapolis, where he earned a reputation as one of the country's leaders in public-private partnerships, competition and privatization. Stephen was also the chief domestic policy advisor to the George W. Bush campaign in 2000, the Chair of the Corporation for National and Community Service, and the district attorney for Marion County, Indiana from 1979 to 1990. He has written The Power of Social Innovation; Governing by Network: the New Shape of the Public Sector; Putting Faith in Neighborhoods: Making Cities Work through Grassroots Citizenship; The Twenty-First Century City: Resurrecting Urban America, and The Responsive City: Engaging Communities through Data-Smart Governance.