innovation lab

Walk the Talk

Unsurprisingly, adding the word ‘innovation’ to a strategic plan and moving on will not change a conservative, hierarchy-driven, and standard operating procedure-focused culture. DOT CEOs like those in Idaho and CalTrans, make innovation a constant theme wherever and whenever they engage with personnel and they invest in tools and processes to back up those words. Similarly, the concept of innovation is a business philosophy cornerstone at companies like Kiewit and Google.

Spreading the word: By labeling innovation as a core value and repeating this message frequently, Caltrans Director Malcolm Dougherty and his team make clear their public commitment from the top of the organization to building an agency-wide environment in which all Department personnel, external stakeholders, and the public are empowered to adopt an innovation mindset. Dougherty noted in launching Caltrans’ State Transportation Innovation Council (STIC) in 2015, for example that “California’s infrastructure is aging and our resources are increasingly becoming limited, so the need for innovation is essential.”

Align employees – An important role for leadership is getting all managers on board. ITD Director Ness often focuses on talking with employees about the importance of innovation during his visits to ITD districts, and will visit one-on-one with managers to ensure they are aligned with his overall vision for innovation.

 Leadership must show follow through – When employees develop ideas for how to solve challenges, leaders must acknowledge and act on the ideas to ensure they are implemented. Employees will lose interest quickly if no action results from their proposals for innovation. In general, the innovation culture at Google is thrives in part because managers and leaders learn to say “yes, and …” to their teams rather than “no” or “but.” This response to new ideas encourages employees to keep bringing new ideas forward and helps them fine tune ideas to best meet challenges.


An innovation-driven culture in local government: This study shows that senior managers actively influence employee perceptions of a culture of innovation.

CalTrans: Fostering Innovation with State Departments of Transportation: Caltrans found that most DOT’s view support by agency leaders as very important for successful innovation.