Yarra Ranges Council strikes gold, mining it's most important asset

Yarra Ranges Council strikes gold, mining it's most important asset

Ingenious ideas from the Council’s front-line employees come to life during Innovation Experiments in collaboration with innovation and technology consultancy DiUS

Yarra Ranges Council is embedding a culture of innovation into its employee community, through a programme of expanded forums and fostering an ideas-centric culture in which ideas are actively sought and developed. The programme of innovation is led by Council Innovation Lead Joelle McKay, and encompasses workshops, training, and consultation. The programme has supported a culture where innovation thrives, and visibility of hundreds of employee ideas that have the potential to enrich Yarra Ranges’ workplace and wider community.

‘Innovation’ projects are ubiquitous in Australian organisations, as those with successfully integrated ‘innovation culture’ tend to report higher growth, profitability, and other positive metrics compared to those that do not. Most innovation projects incorporate technology and culture, across systems, products, and emerging technologies; however the all-encompassing scope of innovation transformations means they have a low success rate. The most common reason for failure is structural, with an isolated innovation team and top-down approach, rather than using experience from the grassroots to inform optimal technology and process changes. Recognising this, Yarra Ranges Council took a strategic approach to transform the way its employee community views and experiences innovation. Multidisciplinary and multifunctional teams from across the organisation assembled to consider how to enhance services to the entire Yarra Ranges community, which spans 2,500 square kilometres and dozens of urban and rural communities.

Two ‘Innovation Experiment’ initiatives were conducted within the wider innovation initiative, with participation from the Australian technology and innovation consultancy DiUS. The Experiments, modelled after ‘hackdays’, were held to excite the participant’s sense of fun, engagement, and effectiveness, as well as demonstrate ‘agile’ innovation, through which numerous prototypes and concepts are delivered from two-to-three days of intensive collaboration. The Council had a large voluntary response to participate in the first Innovation Experiment, which carried an atmosphere of novelty and constructive fun from the outset, said Joelle, with over 100 people from all departments coming together for a shared step into the unknown. “Yarra Ranges Council has always welcomed employee ideas, but this was a new opportunity - to come together, play with ideas and bring them to life.

“Council employees worked collaboratively in a fun and energetic space to solve problems and create new outcomes,” she said. Ideas were pitched and teams formed organically to work on specific opportunities. Not all ideas were worked on with teams forming naturally based on interest, which effectively prioritised the opportunities that would potentially be most impactful and fast to turn around. This freeform group approach superseded traditional hierarchies within the Experiment, and helped participants internalise the nature of innovation at the Council, said Joelle; “‘Innovation Lead’ does not make me the origin or gatekeeper of ideas - my role is to encourage collaboration and build the culture and structures through which our ideas can be unleashed!”

DiUS consultants Tom Wall and Matthew Szabo were part of the DiUS team that worked with Joelle to progress ideas following the first Innovation Experiment. Reflecting on the Experiment, software engineer Matthew and human-centred design consultant Tom said they used experience from hundreds of hackdays and solution workshops to help teams use a human-centred design lens to ‘identify and make the right thing’ and deliver feasible technology solution scopes. Both describe the experience as high-energy and productive. “People were curious about the Experiment,” said Tom. “It was unknown and a little mysterious - and the sheer number of people keen to participate demonstrates the Council’s culture of openness and commitment to achieving real innovation. Everyone involved brought that openness, plus their sense of vitality, hard work, and willingness to go beyond the scope of their traditional roles.”

At the conclusion of both Innovation Experiments, the teams constructed a marketplace (modelled on a trade show or convention) of idea-driven innovation projects, for Council executives, participants and colleagues to circulate and discover opportunities at their own pace. Joelle described the passion with which people advocated for projects as infectious, leading to a vote for the ‘People’s Choice’ award - but said it was the demonstrated amplification of innovation and team engagement that most impressed the Council executive. “Witnessing smart, feasible, and impactful ideas from every corner of the organisation demonstrated the importance of working on a culture of innovation, and how we can do it in a practical way,” said Joelle. “Our organisation is focused on service delivery as our metric, which can mean doing better, doing more, or making people in our community happier. That’s where innovation and our people come in - they’re a gold mine!”

The Innovation Experiment is just one element of the Council’s innovation program – “There are many drivers that matter when it comes to creating a culture of innovation,” said Joelle. “The Innovation Experiment is the one event where anyone and everyone in the organisation can participate, and through this active participation innovation thrives. Culture will always be a work in progress, but we’re extremely proud of our progress to date.”

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