How & Why to Create a Culture of Innovation in Transportation Agencies

by Feb 18, 2019Governance, Mobility, Smart Cities

Julie Lorenz

Julie Lorenz leads strategic consulting for the Transportation Group at Burns & McDonnell. With more than 25 years of experience in communications, public affairs and policy development, Julie works to create strategies, programs and resources to drive infrastructure solutions for the future. She is a longtime contributor for the Transportation Research Board, conducting groundbreaking research in scenario planning and innovation culture.

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Departments of Transportation are finding ways to get things done faster, cheaper, and better. The pace of improvement and modernization is accelerating. But can this be sustained? Building a culture of innovation may be the key to continuous improvement – and the top imperative for public transportation agencies today.

From automated cars that drive us and may get us closer to zero fatalities, to drones that can deliver packages and move us out of congestion, the promise of technology sounds great. But how do we assess and manage the risks of implementing new programs, policies, and technologies? Moreover, how do we implement changes that are more immediately accessible – not the stuff that might be available in 2040?

In an age of limited resources and heightened public scrutiny, the human tendency is to take the safest course. Why should transportation leaders take much risk, which is the more difficult road? What’s in it for them, particularly when their political leadership may not be willing to take risks in today’s hyper-polarized political climate?

As funding and other resources grow more limited, demand for new services is growing, and legacy infrastructure continues to deteriorate; innovative approaches are needed like never before. Innovation happens when people are empowered to move beyond the boundaries of conventional thinking, topple the status quo, and “connect the dots” (forgive the pun) in ways that result in new ways of providing services that are more responsive to the communities and stakeholders they serve.

A recently completed guidebook on creating and sustaining a culture of innovation prepared for the National Cooperative Highway Research Program (NCHRP) explores why barriers exist and offers a practical roadmap to building a thriving innovation ethos over the long term. The Guide to Creating & Sustaining a Culture of Innovation provides a research-based discussion of the case for innovation, and includes a self-assessment to help agencies determine where they fall on the continuum of innovation efforts based on five keys (listed below) that are necessary to build and sustain a culture of innovation.

It is generally accepted that public sector organizations are insulated from competitive threats. However, that is fallacy. Advances in technology and the advent of the sharing economy are competitive threats to DOTs like no other they have ever faced. If DOTs fail to innovate new ways to deliver services and products more efficiently, they may see their roles reconfigured or diminished. In fact, they could even become irrelevant over time.

Threats to DOTs go beyond falling revenue. They revolve around the speed at which new technologies are changing basic paradigms in which the concept of transportation is transformed to mobility. Legacy infrastructure may not always be located where people need it.  That’s why innovation is an essential part of an overall strategy for success. It can result in:

  • More efficient and effective delivery of services (though not always cheaper).
  • Higher stakeholder satisfaction.
  • Improved organizational morale.
  • Better ability to recruit talented employees.

There are two types of innovations: breakthroughs and incremental. Breakthroughs can replace an entire process and provide greater opportunity for entirely new services that are significant improvements and more sustainable. However, in low-trust, risk-averse cultures, incremental or evolutionary changes may be more workable.

To use a baseball analogy, breakthrough innovations are the home runs that can change the game in an instant. However, incremental innovations can be compared to the singles and situational hitting that move runners from base to base. The power of incremental innovation is the aggregate result that comes from consistent performance improvement over time, reducing costs and inefficiencies, and improving quality.

Creating a culture of innovation starts with involving people at all levels of the organization. But creating and sustaining innovation cultures often requires significant behavioral change among leadership.

The most innovative organizations are those that have discovered and unleashed the innovation that often bubbles up from all levels. Culture change is the bedrock of creating a culture of innovation and sustaining it through continuous improvement.

Simon Sinek, in his book Start With Why, says: “The role of the leader is not to come up with all the great ideas. The role of the leader is to create an environment in which great ideas can happen. It is the people… on the front lines who are best qualified to find new ways of doing things.”

Innovation influencers include:

  • DOT Executives, who can use their positions and influence to help create a culture of innovation that permeates through the organization;
  • The Innovation Team, serving as a bridge between executives and staff;
  • Innovation Implementers, who work directly with staff to share energy for implementation, discuss opportunities and provide feedback.

Innovations happen in large and small ways, and it is the everyday implementers who generate and put innovative ideas into action. Most state DOTs are on board and understand the imperative. But the most ardent advocates have come to realize that building a culture of innovation requires a whole new way of thinking in an environment where profits have not been a motivating factor and a “we’ve always done it this way” mentality often prevails.

The fear of failure and wariness of funding untested approaches pose significant challenges for innovation in the public sector. Political realities drive risk aversion because failures make headlines while successes are spread thinly over millions of constituents. Innovation is about experimentation and experiments often fail.

In their book, The Public Innovators Playbook, William D. Eggers and Shalabh Kumar Singh point out three kinds of risk that are especially prevalent for DOTs:

  1. Organizational risk in which the cost of introducing change could be higher than benefits
  2. Political risk in which senior leaders who may be directly answerable to elected officials who do not want to be viewed as investing in the wrong process or product at a time when bridges are deteriorating and highways becoming increasingly congested
  3. Personal risk in which a failure could damage the career of the person introducing the proposed change.

How can DOTs get past those barriers? The answer lies in setting up safe and supportive processes.

Not all risks and errors are equal. To paraphrase Christian Bason in his book, Leading Public Sector Innovation, “dumb” errors happen when someone makes a mistake executing a process that is well known. “Smart” errors are those that occur when someone deliberately tries something new but fails. The learning that can take place during “smart” errors often make them worth the risk.

A self-assessment contained in the NCHRP guidebook is good place for DOTs to start. Based on a questionnaire that yields a quantifiable score, the assessment is designed to provide a snapshot of the innovation culture in five key areas:

  • Leadership
  • Communication
  • Empowerment
  • Recognition
  • Measurement

These steps will help you get the most from the assessment.

  1. Decide whether the assessment should be administered at the organization or work-unit level.
  2. Encourage a wide range of employee groups to take the assessment as viewpoints can widely vary between leadership and work units. Anonymous responses may be helpful.
  3. Average the scores for each building block and calculate an overall innovation score.
  4. Facilitate one or more meetings as a catalyst for innovation efforts.

While it may seem reasonable that the lowest scores might indicate areas to address first, don’t assume that is always the case. A facilitated process may be useful in exploring which elements of innovation should be launched first and whether the effort should occur across the agency or within a specific work unit. The most important point is that all employees should have an opportunity to share thoughts openly.

Though there are many critical factors in creating and sustaining a culture of innovation, leadership has emerged as perhaps the most critical. A change of administration or staff turnover is one of the most common reasons for why these initiatives end. Therefore, it is important to take the politics out of innovation by ensuring that champions are not all political appointees or nearing retirement. If innovative efforts are viewed as part of the organization, rather than tied to a particular administration or set of individuals, they are more likely to endure.

There is no question that there can be a number of barriers to creating and maintaining an innovation culture.

For example, after establishing an “innovation stewards” program, the Idaho Transportation Department (ITD) faced some difficulty when Its Innovation Team set up a process to review and accept or reject suggestions. The innovation stewards are often front-line staff who have the trust and respect of their peers and share a passion for being early adopters. The program was a resounding success with the stewards receiving hundreds of submissions annually. However, the volume of suggestions effectively bottlenecked the program until a plan to streamline the review process was implemented in which the employee or manager of the relevant group was allowed to implement ideas that are within their authority and resource capability. Now, selection is now based primarily on proof of whether the idea will generate time or cost savings or make processes more customer friendly.

As with the ITD example, the innovation process often will evolve as leaders learn what is working and what is not. The key is to get started learning those lessons. It is essential to learn as you go and allow the process to evolve based on your agency’s needs. The first step may be to begin communicating the importance of innovation and sharing examples of how it can be pursued. It will be much easier to generate buy-in in the long run if you spend time in the beginning demonstrating why innovation matters to employees.

Though it can be challenging, building an innovation culture is a win-win, or even win-win-win process for many stakeholders. Not only can it defeat mistrust and skepticism, it can position the DOT for a future of self-perpetuating continuous improvement in which “better-cheaper-faster” is the norm.


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  1. Based on my experience in Transit, Cleantech, and Healthcare, I’d like to add three points to the conversation:


    It’s important that everyone is thinking and talking about the same thing.

    My Working Definition of Innovation is: “Meaningful change for a specific customer”

    With this definition, it’s clear that to truly ‘innovate’ we must first understand who IS our customer (and who isn’t) and understand HOW they determine whether a change is meaningful to them.


    People often focus on the shiny gadgets, and forget that very low-tech projects can provide enormous improvements in outcomes. For Example: a study showed that adding simple ‘curb cuts’ in a neighborhood dramatically reduced the demand for expensive paratransit services and expanded the ridership of the standard fixed route services.


    Leadership can kick-start the process of innovation by providing a high-level strategy that gives teams a clear understanding of the Situation, an initial Direction, and the practical Constraints and Measures-of-Success.

    Creative problem-solving flourishes in this environment because people know WHERE to focus their attention, and HOW to measure their progress. Decisions on all levels are based on data and goals, not individual opinions, and this contributes to a culture of taking intelligent risks and learning quickly and cheaply.

    As a culture of *focused* innovation is practiced, teams learn from their real-world experiences, the initial strategy and measures of success evolve, and the transit provider continues to improve its understanding of customers and the benefits that it delivers to them.

    (BACKGROUND: I work with providers such as New York City Transit, Boston’s MBTA, Capital Metro in Austin, and operators such as Transdev. Please contact me if you’re interested in this topic. )

  2. Innovation is never easy, and culture change is even more difficult. Setting up an innovation program can be done in a matter weeks or months — and lead to great results.

    But creating an innovation culture takes years. Once you develop your organizational culture, the cultural values and norms will self-propagate — the the results will be more sustainable than that of any one program.

  3. Experience has shown me that typically, leadership buys into innovation, and staff that doesn’t have management responsibility buys in. But it’s middle-management where staff holds responsibility for producing output from programs and departments who resist change. That’s because they have the most to lose if things go wrong. Blame always seems to come their way. Until leadership claims responsibility for outcomes, mid-level managers will retain their fears – it’s only natural. Cultural change must involve a shifting of the risk of innovation away from operational level managers.
    And it’s worthy to note that innovation is predicated in failure – just because it’s new doesn’t make it better. There’s too much optimism bias when it comes to innovation that uses big data or sensing technology, just for the “cool” factor. Good report – it is important to make a safe space for failure (innovation).


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