What if we’ve locked up more than just the pens? Innovation often starts with a simple question. Ash asked that one.  When Ash arrived as a new procurement director for a major County government, he wanted to build a more innovative culture. He imagined team meetings where folks were bursting with new ideas, challenging the conventional ways of doing things, and proactively partnering with other departments to find solutions. What he found was a bunch of decisions that rolled up to him and a closet full of dried out pens. Why? In order to get office supplies, a member of this team had to ask the office manager to unlock a locked supply closet. The closet was locked to manage office supplies and reduce loss. These were worthy goals, but the result was a closet full of dried out pens because it was just too hard for employees to grab and use the pens they needed. Ironically, these were the very same employees responsible for contracts worth hundreds of millions of dollars. The locked supply closet sent a message to employees: you are not worthy of trust.

Forget about the psychological safety to fail forward and employees trusting that they could take supported risks. We didn’t even trust them with the pens! We locked employees up, along with the pens. Ash unlocked the supply closet – and opened the door to a new culture.

Process speaks louder than words

What do the most basic systems of our organizations signal to our teams? Too often we say one thing with our words, and we say something radically different with our processes and systems. The explicit clashes with the implicit. Do our processes lock up pens? Or do they lock up information? Or authority to makes decisions? Each part of a process represents a decision point that communicates our values. Our internal processes tell our teammates what we value and what is expected of them. Culture is built in actions. And actions are shaped by our processes and systems. Process speaks louder than words.  

This presents a powerful opportunity for us to re-examine of our processes and systems. What do they communicate?  Ash wanted to create a culture of permission where his teammates felt safe proposing new ideas, trying out new ways of working, and developing their own solutions. He listened to the everyday messages of ‘how it’s always been’ systems and heard the opportunity for change.

Leaders like Ash ask: 

  • What is the culture we want? What are the messages that would reinforce this culture?
  • What messages are we currently sending with our processes and systems?
  • How might we change our processes to reflect the culture we want?
  • Where might we create space for teammates to shape the processes and own the cultural change?

These are questions we can all ask when building more innovative cultures. These questions help us to set intention about the outcomes we seek, the cultures we believe will produce those outcomes, and the actions we need to take to bring those cultures into reality.

Innovation requires the risk of trying something new. Cultures that produce innovation are ones where people feel trusted to try new things and to fail. When executives say one thing and are surprised when the organization does another, it’s time to listen more deeply to the messages we send beyond words.

Always a facilitator, Michael will create space for you to listen to your peers, your organization, and yourself. Currently leading innovation for Montgomery County MD, he’s launched city government innovation initiatives around the country from Las Vegas to Miami, built city networks for civic engagement, and led policy for Chattanooga, TN.


His private sector experience ranges from boutique consulting to Global 500 firms, where he’s led in digital strategy, data analytics, and brand marketing. He pushes the evolution of design thinking, builds liberating structures, and brings an organizational coaching approach to unleashing creativity.


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