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Publication Number:  FHWA-HRT-18-004    Date:  Summer 2018
Publication Number: FHWA-HRT-18-004
Issue No: Vol. 82 No. 2
Date: Summer 2018


Innovation Corner

by Tony Furst

A Risk Worth Taking

Taking calculated risks is at the heart of innovation. However, government agencies, as custodians of taxpayer dollars, can be especially risk averse. So how can we, in government, manage the risks necessary to innovate, as well as foster a culture of innovation throughout our organizations?

Many Federal, State, and local agencies are leading the way, successfully deploying innovative strategies while maintaining public trust and fiduciary responsibility.

During a panel session at the 2018 Transportation Research Board Annual Meeting in January, some agencies shared insights into the challenges of mitigating risk in innovation and how they found success.

Define the Need for Change

Brian Keierleber, county engineer for Buchanan County, IA, explained that taking smart risks starts with defining a clear need to try something new in the first place. “Our systems are requiring more services, not less,” he says. “That gives us three options—increase taxes, reduce services, or become more efficient.”

Helping stakeholders understand that budgets are limited and many solutions of the past are no longer effective sets the stage for a discussion about how, not whether, to innovate. This formula has worked for Keierleber and his team, especially on Buchanan County’s bridge system. The agency has upgraded many bridges using unconventional materials and methods, including 28 structures built out of retired railcars.

Defining the need for change, as well as articulating the limits of traditional approaches, can gain the buy-in necessary to risk innovation. “When decisionmakers know you’re taking a risk, but you’re being economical and getting things accomplished, some of your biggest critics become some of your biggest supporters,” says Keierleber.

Cultivate Trust

Even with a clear need for innovation, obstacles can remain. Organizations, particularly government agencies, can develop inertia toward familiar solutions, ignoring valid alternatives. One reason is the belief that failure can damage a career. To reverse this tendency, leadership must build an organizational culture of trust and encouragement.

According to Jennifer Cohan, Delaware’s secretary of transportation, trust forms when leadership shares the responsibility for risk-taking with staff, in success and in failure. “When there is a success, you put the employees out there and let them take credit,” she says. “When there is a failure, leadership should take responsibility.”

One example of this culture creation is the Delaware Department of Transportation’s Innovation Fair, a yearly event that highlights and celebrates innovative practices and technologies developed by the agency’s employees. “The first fair showcased nearly 100 new ideas, large and small,” Cohan says. “It was a huge success.”

Brian Keierleber, Buchanan County, IA
Photo. An overpass made from the siding of railcars, with the railcar identification and two windows visible on the side of the bridge.
Buchanan County, IA, used two railcars to construct the Hazleton Subdivision Bridge, shown here.


Educate and Communicate

Once ideas are on the table, thoroughly vetting them and then consistently communicating their benefits helps people further trust the process of innovation and accept its inherent risks.

“You have to educate up, down, and laterally, but most important, you have to educate yourself,” Keierleber says. “Be creative, but let people know you’ve evaluated the technologies you’re implementing.”

This open communication is especially important when projects do not go as planned.

“When there is a mistake, people tell us and we fix it,” says Polly Trottenberg, the transportation commissioner for the city of New York. “It shows that you’re reasonable, that you’ll listen, that you don’t think you’re infallible. I’ve found that people will actually be very forgiving if you show you are willing to acknowledge a mistake and learn from it.”

Mark Sullivan, director of the Federal Highway Administration’s Center for Innovative Finance Support, emphasizes that when government agencies are willing to experiment within their legislated authority, they have more power to effect change than they might think.

“There are tools that are standard practice in our industry today that were first championed by a few passionate, well-informed individuals,” Sullivan says. “For instance, the contracting and project delivery processes introduced by special experimental programs like SEP-14 and SEP-15 are routine now, but were unheard of less than thirty years ago.”

That spirit of disciplined curiosity is the key to successful innovation deployment. When transportation professionals address clear needs with novel but informed solutions, the risk of innovation is always worth taking.

Tony Furst is FHWA’s Chief Innovation Officer and head of the Office of Innovative Program Delivery.




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