Necessity is the Mother of Innovation


Noami sank into her chair at the head of the conference table and surveyed the room.  She was minutes away from starting her weekly staff meeting and the table was half full. There would be no one else joining the team today.

Two weeks ago, there had been twelve people sitting around the table.  

She sighed, wishing she could continue her fantasy that it was just a staff meeting in the middle of July.  During the summer, it was predictable that half the team would be absent due to their vacations. But, no, this was permanent. As a result of dramatic restructuring in the agency where she was a manager, 50% of her team would be not be back.

What was she going to do? She had three field offices that had no chief. Her HR director had been reassigned and she’d lost her trusted administrative support person to retirement. In her thirty years working for this agency, there had never been such a massive reduction in force. This made all the previous “hard times” look like business as usual.

Naomi prided herself on the quality and timeliness of her department’s work. She was anxious and concerned that they would not be able to keep up.

She personally was working twelve-hour days and coming in at least a half day each weekend to keep up with email and paperwork. Her senior staff were covering other offices in addition their own. How long could people keep it up before things fell through the cracks?

“Okay” she said to herself, “Get your game face on. If we’re going to survive, we need to change. We didn’t bring this on ourselves but we have to come up with some creative solutions.”  She thought about a few of the inspiring quotes she’d found when she Googled the word “innovation.” She didn’t think of herself as a creative or innovative person so she thought she’d see what other people had said. She was desperate to find some meaning in the situation.

From Margaret Wheatley: The things we fear most in organizations—fluctuations, disturbances, imbalances—are the primary sources of creativity. “If that’s true, then I’ve got a wellspring of creativity sitting right in front of me,” she thought.

 Someone named Ginni Rometty had said, The only way you survive is you continuously transform into something else. “But into what?” Naomi thought. “We work in the public sector. We don’t have all the leeway to transform the way people in the private sector do.”

And, of course, that tried and true saying, Necessity is the mother of invention.

“Invent, innovate…we certainly need to figure out something,” she thought. “But I’m not a creative person! I don’t think of myself as an innovator. I like to do things the way they’ve always been done…maybe adapt or modify a bit. This situation is beyond just applying an existing solution. What do I do?”

And then she remembered the best quote of all, the one that gave her a clue about her next step: “Leaders believe that they are being paid for fixing problems rather than for fostering breakthrough thinking.” (Vogt, Brown & Isaacs, The Art of Powerful Questions)

“Good morning, everyone,” she said to her staff, “I’m really excited to have this opportunity to think together about how we can use this situation to redesign our organization to not only cope with all the changes but to improve the quality of our services too. What will it take for us to do that?”


Are you facing what appears to be an insurmountable challenge?

If so, here are some things to try:

  • Look at current reality from a completely different perspective (“What’s so great about this problem?” Tony Robbins)
  • Interrupt history (“What will it take to…?”)
  • Go looking for conflict and uncertainty to see what opportunities there are for completely different solutions.

For an excellent resource about public sector innovation, check out this resource.