Academy Recap: Complex Systems

The third cohort of the Academy for Municipal Innovation kicked off in October 2015. This is a blog series written by participants about their experiences in the program. Today’s author is Alex Shirreffs, Viral Hepatitis Prevention Coordinator in the Department of Public Health.

How many innovators does it take to re-boot a Power Point projection? Zero… even innovators have to call IT every now and then.

Due to technical difficulties, our December 1st class “Complexity and its Influence” was taught the “old school” way. Without slides, Dr. Larry Starr dove into examples from his many years of work at Penn with Russell Ackoff, a pioneer in the field of operations research, systems thinking, and management science, to teach us about the organization of organizations.

My personal favorite anecdote was Dr. Starr’s story of how a mayor, impressed by Ackoff’s book, The Democratic Corporation, invited him to talk about reimagining organization in municipal government. After introducing Ackoff to his leadership team, the mayor excused himself to attend another meeting. Ackoff promptly left (if the mayor didn’t attend himself, it signaled that he didn’t take rethinking the organization seriously.) The moral of the story is that making meaningful changes in any organization requires buy-in from leadership at the top of the structure.

This story resonated with all of us in AMI. We’ve learned some great strategies from our professors, but a question we often throw back to them is, “How do we implement innovation in a system where change often happens at a glacial pace?” This discussion feels especially important right now, as most of our departments are waiting to see if the mayoral transition might impact our work.

What makes change so difficult in our organization is that city government is a complex system. Dr. Starr recommended a Harvard Business Review article “A Leader’s Framework for Decision Making.” The authors recommend that, instead of being complacent using one framework for decision making, leaders consider the context of the moment—whether a situation is simple, complicated, complex, chaotic, or disordered—to determine the best route of action. This strategy can help municipal leaders be nimble and responsive within the City’s dynamic system.

This session taught me a few things about innovation. First, when people talk about innovation, it seems like there is an emphasis on the concept of “new.”  (New ideas, new ways of doing things, etc.) However, while this is true to a degree, our professors have guided us towards practices that are rooted in older, time-tested methods, often borrowed from the business sector.

Second, just like it helps to look outside of our field for new knowledge and skills, one of the best benefits of participating in AMI has been the opportunity to work with colleagues from other departments. This cross-sectorial dialogue helps us think outside our day-to-day boxes and shows how valuable it can be to seek expertise outside the silos of government. The challenge for us AMI graduates now is encouraging our fellow City colleagues to do the same.

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