Thursday, March 11, 2010

Brown-nosing 101: Mn/DOT Commish Sorel on Innovation and Jamming, Collaboration - uses forbidden government word "marketing" - yet not struck by lightning

Thought I'd share an excerpt from an FHWA Innovator newsletter article featuring our Mn/DOT boss, Commissioner Tom Sorel.

The interview mentions my office at Mn/DOT: Policy Analysis, Research and Innovation, which is headed up by Nick Thompson (of UPA and MnPass project management fame) and Phil Barnes (the new-ish Mn/DOT Risk Management guy), and employs a whole bunch of really good, smart people and interesting, important functions within it, such as research and market research, risk management, library, eWorkPlace, ADA, and other stuff like flying cars and friendly but emotionally unstable robots.

While I don't know Tom that well personally, I have met him a few times, and I do get the impression that he genuinely cares about two things that I'm very passionate about: innovation and marketing.

On the flip side, he did bump me off one of the state airplanes back in October, forcing me to drive to Duluth – and, as we all know, Duluth is one of the places where everywhere you go is, quite literally, uphill, both ways, in the snow.  I doubt I'll ever be powerful enough to give him any kind of payback for that one.

Sidenote: Before you get all wound up about the expense of flying to Duluth, it can be cheaper than driving if we fill up the plane – we even have people and a program to calculate the savings and everything, so relax.

I find it interesting that Tom calls marketing "marketing", as it seems to be an unwritten rule that, in government, we don't call it marketing.  We call it communication(s), or public relations, or outreach, or technology transfer.

I don't agree with that approach, however, as I believe that we in government need to be driven by the same forces that drive private industry: money and (ideally) customer service.  We may not be making money, but we can save it and spend it wisely.  We can focus on providing better customer service and servant leadership.  We can market our services and value.  To me, that's what marketing is: trying to show that a good or service you provide has intrinsic and/or monetary value (hopefully both).

One note about Tom's interview:

Tom mentions a project we did based on the IBM Innovation Jam model, which we ended up calling an E-Magination Jam, or E-Jam.  I was lucky enough to be part of the cross-departmental team that helped execute the project.

We ended up using an online service called Uservoice.  If you email or call Daniel Kan at Uservoice, they were offering a government discount of 100% (read FREE) for the first 12 months if you use it for gathering public input (like Seattle, WA, and Austin, TX), and a 50% discount for whatever else you might use it for.

And, if you tell Daniel I sent you, I get…badadadadadadada…nothing!  That's right, zilch!  Since I work for the government, I can't accept any kickbacks.  The upside for you is that I really must like it if I'm endorsing it for free – the downside for you is that you and some guy Googling "forbidden brown jam" are probably the only ones who will ever read this post.

Since the E-Jam I have used Uservoice for one other internal project designed to increase transparency and collaboration during our annual research project selection and funding process.  While Uservoice isn't perfect, and isn't as customizable as I would like, it is a very good introduction to the world of online transparency, jamming, collaboration, customer feedback, or whatever you care to call it.

- Jake

Read the full interview here: Q&A With Tom Sorel: Tapping the Power of Innovation

Why is now such a critical time for the highway community to innovate?

If there ever was a time to look at innovation, now is that time. We just published our transportation plan, and we identified a $50 billion funding gap over a 20–year period. I'm asked all the time how we're going to close that gap. Recently, I did a media event at which I was asked that very question. I said we've got to look at different kinds of funding mechanisms, and innovation goes hand in hand with that. If we can be innovative in areas like contracting, financing, new materials and congestion mitigation techniques, I think we can close that gap.

What progress do you see the highway community making in becoming more innovative?

For many years we didn't have the funding challenges we have today, so there wasn't strong motivation to look at innovative practices. But that's changing. When you look at transportation organizations today, you see that organizational structures and skill sets are changing to reflect an innovative approach. But it's not something that can happen overnight. Because they have been around for a long time, many transportation organizations are big ships to move. It's just the nature of our business.

I think the key to moving forward is respecting the past. I say that over and over again here in Minnesota. If we can respect the past and the people who have done a great job getting us to where we are today, then change and innovation become more acceptable. You don't want to discount the past because a lot of creative and innovative people preceded us.

Minnesota Transportation Commissioner Tom Sorel. Photo credit: Minnesota DOT

Minnesota Transportation Commissioner Tom Sorel. Photo credit: Minnesota DOT

Why did you launch a new Minnesota DOT office—Policy Analysis, Research and Innovation—with innovation as a key responsibility?

Shortly after I got here, I decided we needed a strategic vision that reflects the future. A key element of that vision is innovation. We've identified it as one of the strategic directions of the department. I felt we needed some element of the organization that could support that, so we created this office as the focal point for jump-starting innovation. That doesn't mean innovation is not occurring throughout the department, but this office helps us create an innovative culture.

The other thing we did within that office was create an external partnering group to work on relationships with the stakeholders Mn/DOT deals with, such as city and county officials, contractors and consultants. Within that group we established a marketing component that serves as a focal point for external marketing for the department.

How important is marketing to your agency's success?

I am a big believer in marketing and always have been, so when I came to Mn/DOT I wanted to see that we had the marketing element the organization needs. We've always had marketing research activities and good marketing in certain areas, such as our snow and ice control area. I wanted to expand that.

We have since been using marketing and market research for other things, such as our urban partnership agreements. We've been using marketing techniques in discussions we're having on rail and on our TIGER [Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery] grant applications.I see a big role for marketing in gaining an understanding of public values and being responsive to public needs. We're now developing a marketing plan for the entire department. We're ratcheting up what we've done in the past and trying to develop a mindset of thinking like marketers. It's something I talk about to employees all the time. It's not just the marketing staff who's responsible. We're all responsible. We need to understand what our customers value and what kinds of services they're looking for.

What else are you doing to jump–start innovation?

There is one thing we're in the middle of now that I'm pretty excited about. Several years ago, I was looking at how private sector organizations stimulate innovation. I came across an IBM program called Innovation Jam. They pick a topic, and for several days people get online and throw out ideas. Other people join the conversation, and they just keep building on it. In the end, they have some new and innovative ideas for products and services.

When I came to Mn/DOT, I thought, "Why can't we do something like that?" So as we speak we're in the middle of an E-magination Jam. It's going on online for this entire week. Employees are throwing out ideas and then jamming on these ideas. If you don't have an idea, you go online and vote for other people's ideas.

We're trying to focus employees on our strategic directions—safety, mobility, innovation, leadership and transparency. So the ideas they put up there should fit into one of those strategic directions. But they have the capability of throwing anything up there. It has been a really creative process. We've set aside a little bit of the Destination Innovation fund to fund some of the ideas, and we'll fund other ideas other ways.

Read the full interview here: Q&A With Tom Sorel: Tapping the Power of Innovation

Hey Minnesota, how about hosting a Minnesota x.0 Live Innovation Jam like Vermont 3.0?  At least it's not Delaware 3.0…


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