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Editor's Letter

Thinking Outside the Suggestion Box

2012-07-01, Department, by Philip Hayward

Phil Hayward, EditorOur cover story this month tackles innovation on the institutional level. In an era where library shelves (and hard drives) are groaning under the weight of books on the subject, we simplified and focused our approach. We wanted to know why some agencies sprout idea after idea in a field not particularly known for risk taking. The answer comes in two parts: the individual and the culture that encourages ideas.

Perhaps only an Adam Schwerner could paint the trees in parks. As they say in sports, you can’t teach that particular move. Adam, however, demonstrates the necessary temperament and the curiosity to conceive and then pitch such original ideas to his colleagues. In turn, Adam knew he could count on his boss, Chicago Park District Superintendent Michael Kelly, to hear him out and bless his idea. Adam finds the supportive environment not only liberating, but also the means of “permission to think more broadly.”

Throughout the rest of this article produced by my NRPA colleagues Rich Dolesh, Beth Beard, and Maureen Hannan you will observe these conditions repeated over and over. A need, a problem, a situation existed. Sometimes it was just one individual and often it was several who put the right side of their brains into gear and found solutions. And then they presented their plan and followed up with supporting information. It’s this last step that is so crucial: They found ways to sell their ideas. In their case studies beginning on page 38, they note their challenges to implementation as well as tips to see a project through. I also noticed that every last person had fun in conceiving and developing their plans. It was clearly more than work for them.

We realize no two agencies are alike and not all exist in universally receptive environments for edgy thinking. That’s an everyday condition of municipal life, though there are ways to realize difficult ideas without needlessly rocking boats. As Carl Switzer of Tualatin, Oregon, advises, “Approach all new opportunities with a ‘yes—with conditions’ mindset and don’t be afraid of trying something ridiculous.”  

We began work on this article by sending queries over NRPA’s Administrators Network. The response was pleasantly surprising. We had so many responses that we’re running some in the web edition of the magazine (www.parksandrecreation.org) and in upcoming issues of the magazine. We would love to hear what you think via the web edition and welcome your own stories of innovation.

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