local govt innnovation2 (3)

By Josh Edwards, Michael Davis and Rafael Baptista

Editor’s Note: Josh Edwards manages strategic initiatives for the City of Durham, NC, while Michael Davis and Rafael Baptista work on strategic initiatives for Durham County, NC. Over the last year, the two organizations have partnered on an experiment called IdeaLab. The semi-regular forum has included workshops on innovation approaches like behavioral economics and human-centered design, which strategic initiatives leaders were exposed to by Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy and Center for Advanced Hindsight. What follows is an email conversation between Josh, Michael and Rafael reflecting on what they’ve learned so far. This email conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.


Maybe the hardest part for me has been the “letting go.” But that’s also arguably the most important part.

For the last year-plus, the City of Durham and Durham County have strived to approach collaboration and innovation in different ways. We’ve learned that collaboration and innovation must be supported with some structure and intentional time and space set aside to think and act differently.

So the City and County set up a regular IdeaLab forum beginning in March 2015. We brought coffee, markers and flip charts and asked some of our most enterprising and change-minded employees to join us for brainstorming on topics like employee engagement and employee health. The forums started off with little structure, and that made me a little uneasy. What were our deliverables? Where were the work plans and specific strategies written down on paper?

Over time, I learned that I was falling into the same old traps of “business as usual.” Innovation calls for people thinking and acting differently, and it necessitates an approach that favors “testing” of ideas over hard-and-fast (and often-unbending) project plans.

So we evolved. I know I evolved and opened up my mind to a freer approach. Josh and Rafael, how and why did we evolve?  Looking back, what happened and why?


Sometimes it takes running into a wall to realize that you have certain expectations you force upon creativity.

I realized I created a desired endpoint in my mind. This endpoint led me to develop too rigid of a process. I remember laying out our idea for business plan development as an important step in the idea development process.

Looking back we all laugh about it now. I liken it to how I am trying to teach my son to catch a real baseball with his new glove. I can tell him countless times how to move his glove around, and I can demonstrate it, but nothing has the same effect as when he catches the ball on his own.

The value of learning through trial and error and the connection with leadership development (a key principle of IdeaLab) is crystalized by this Harvard Business Review article, which makes the case that leadership development should focus on experiments. I was so focused on getting to the final solution, that I lost sight that the means are more important. How we learn together and grow together prepares each of us to bring solutions to our circle of influence.

As we grow and equip together, we are creating public value that might not be cashed in for a couple of years. That isn’t a bad thing.


Maybe it’s because of my debate background, but I am a big fan of structure. When I started responding to Michael’s email, my first step was to create a bullet list of the points I wanted to make.

Our initial crack at IdeaLab was very structured. We developed business plan templates for each IdeaLab team and wanted them to create internal structure. The only issue was that the teams did not respond to the structure.

They joined these teams because it was a way to step away from the day to day of their jobs and make a difference in an area that they cared about it. They did not want a rigid, imposed structure. They wanted to have the time and space to make a difference, and they wanted a space where they could be creative. But, we were asking them to be rigid.

Since then, we have grown to learn that our job is to provide people with the time, space, and training to make a difference. It is not our role to manage innovation but rather to support innovation. It has challenged us to step out of our comfort zones and to learn to become facilitators instead of managers.

About IdeaLab: Durham County partners with the City of Durham on efforts around collaboration and innovation. Since Spring 2015, the City and County regularly have held IdeaLab, a forum that brings employees from across the organizations together to brainstorm ideas of ways they can better work together. IdeaLab serves as a training ground or “workshop” environment for disciplines and processes around innovation. IdeaLab welcomes community partners. To learn more about IdeaLab, contact County Strategic Initiative Manager Michael Davis at mdavis@dconc.gov and City Strategic Initiatives Manager Josh Edwards at josh.edwards@durhamnc.gov.

Note: Sanford’s work with the City and County of Durham was supported by the school’s Innovation and Impact Fund