Brian Elms - GovConnect Interview

006 Brian Elms
(Founding Member, Peak Academy)

Connect with Brian: LinkedIn| Change and Innovation Agency

Enjoyed the episode?Your rating and review help us continue to bring you the best in local government innovation.

Get on the Rock Solid Insights mailing list



Andrew Kirk: Hello, I'm Andrew Kirk, Rock Solid (previously CitySourced) Chief Revenue Officer and today I'm talking with Brian Elms, a founding member of Denver's Peak Academy and currently serving as an Innovation Practice Lead at the Change in Innovation Agency. He's also a published author thanks to his book Peak Performance how Denver's Peak Academy is saving money, boosting morale and just maybe changing the world and how you can too.

Today, Brian and I are speaking about the different types of innovation, talking about and defining failure and overcoming challenges facing innovation teams and leaders. Brian, welcome to GovConnect.

Brian Elms: Thank you Andrew, glad to be here.

Andrew Kirk: Awesome. Well, if I do my job right today, we'll be able to get out the same kind of energy and excitement that I've seen in a lot of your online talks so that we'll know that I've done a good job.

So that's our goal. Does that sound good?

Brian Elms: Oh, man. It's a high goal brother. It's hard to do this recorded, but I'm going to crush it for you.

Andrew Kirk: That's great to hear. So why don't you just jump in. In a few minutes can you tell us about your professional background?

Brian Elms: Sure, I ran the innovation program for the City and County of Denver for about five years.

It's a program called Peak Academy. We started it early on as a lean or a process improvement program and it sort of morphed over time or in the innovation space pivoted to be more of an innovation program and the genesis of the program is to look at what services were providing and how to provide the services better and look to our line level employees to really get them going and I started doing this with a small group of people in the City and County of Denver and we grew to be about 10 to 12 staff. And now they continue it. It's in its 6th year. They've saved over 30 million dollars for the City and County of Denver.

They have trained over five to six thousand employees. Predominantly frontline level staff and mid-level managers on how to improve their service delivery. Meaning, how do you speed up your pothole filling? How do you make sure that you don't go back to the same pothole over and over again? How do we make sure we're not mailing to addresses that no longer exist.

How do we make sure that the stop lights are working properly? And how do we speed up our food assistance making sure that people who are hungry are getting food the fastest we can give.

Andrew Kirk: Great and tell us a little bit about now where you've kind of transitioned into the next phase of your career.

Brian Elms: Yeah, so I run the Innovation Practice Lead for the Changing Innovation Agency.

My job is to help other cities around the country and even around the world figure out ways to do the same thing that we did in Denver and their own unique space. Not every city is the same as Denver. They don't operate in the same culture. So our job is to figure out how to get their line level staff doing the same thing as we did in Denver, but using their cultural influences in the way that they handle their own services.

So I work with about a dozen different cities coast to coast right now. I also work with some of the interior islands like Palau and Guam and my job is to help them deliver the same type of innovation training techniques so that their employees are doing a great job every single day. Ninety percent of my work is training employees how to problem solve and use the same verbiage or the same language to do so.

Andrew Kirk: So you had created this professional development Academy within the City and County of Denver that I think in local government circles, you know, it holds the same level of respect say as the Disney Institute does in terms of professional development in the private sector. For your field many people would see this as a dream career in a dream position to be in so why did you choose to leave public service?

Brian Elms: Wow, the Disney Institute is like the carte blanche. I mean that's like the thing to go or aspire to so that's amazing. I really appreciate that and I'm sure the people who work at Peak Academy would be floored to hear you compare it that way. So that's awesome. I don't feel like I left public service.

In fact, I feel like I do more public service now than I ever did working for the City and County of Denver. The difference is I'm helping other governments. So I'm helping dozens of governments as opposed to helping my hometown which is Denver. I felt like it was time to really help the other cities.

When we started Peak Academy. We allowed for other governments to join us in our trainings, in in our programs and what we found was around the world people started coming to Peak Academy for help. We had people come from Brussels, we had people come from Mexico. We have people come from Canada and they saw Peak Academy as this really special thing.

Andrew Kirk: When I was in grad school I was fortunate enough to take a class about innovation and it helped me solidify this thinking about really two forms, one disruptive innovation such as what Google did back in the late 90s, early 2000s where the internet was this disjointed confusing place and they indexed every website and they put all of the world's information at our fingertips through their search product and the second is a continuous incremental innovation where you make small tiny changes that by themselves don't really have any major significant impact. But when you step back and you look at the big picture, you can see this larger change that's taken place. I think society and media, we place a lot of attention on that first form, which is really exciting and sexy, but if I'm correct and I understand what I've read about things that you've spoken about you are really excited about kind of that second type of incremental innovation. What makes you so excited about that form of innovation?

Brian Elms: Andrew I think it's really cool that you studied Innovation and are able to break it down in those two areas. I actually think there are three.

And I'll talk about both the continuous and the adjacent one. There's a book called Serial Innovator by Abby Griffin that was published a few years ago and it really helped me understand the differences between the types of innovations that did and she totally agrees with you. Breakthrough innovation is what the Googles are are sort of known for.

Continuous innovation is how you increase a product right? You have version a and version 1 2 and 3 like Apple does with every single new phone, but adjacent innovation is is another one and I think it's something that we do really well in our innovation academies. The adjacent innovation is seen in innovation network say in Public Works and can also move to the parks.

Or seen in an innovation that can take place in the Clerk and Recorders Office that also works in Licensing and you're able to use those adjacent innovations being in the same place, but the one you're right, you're absolutely right and I focus on is innovation in the continuous space but also innovation in the small continuous state, that's the real trick getting people who work in government to innovate on the things that they have control over.

And it's typically things that are small and when you constantly believe that every day can be better than that of the last day. So today's better than tomorrow. How do I make every interaction that I'm playing with or every transaction that I make better than the one before and that's really the push that we teach in our innovation academy courses is getting people to believe that look I don't need this to be perfect.

I just needed to be better than it was yesterday. Can we increase our service by another person today because we made a slight chance and in government goes are the innovations that can happen without having a committee or a blue ribbon panel or something to say, oh, yes, we approve you to go forward to make this innovation when you do small things that how dramatic impact or even small impact over time everything gets better.

And I can give you an example, when we did a project in the animal shelter here in Denver. We had a total of around 60 different universities and their goal was to reduce the time it took for an animal to be in our care and be able to adopt it out faster and the faster we can get an animal out into a forever home the more the animal doesn't have any health issues. But, they put 60 different innovations in place that will really small and if you if you pick up the book Peak Performance, you can hear about a lot of those small incremental changes that have a dramatic effect over time. It's also something that we really stole from the Toyota production program or the Toyota production system where they believed in small simple cheap improvements that over time have a dramatic impact and we really took that to heart. Changing a form, changing how people receive the form, changing the way we talk to our customers, maybe in a more salient fashion or more humorous fashion. Those simple changes have a dramatic effect when you're dealing in tens of thousands of transactions.

Andrew Kirk: Great, that's really helpful. There's some interesting information in that answer that I'd like to unpack. Especially because you enlightened me with that third type of innovation, where its adjacent and I think in all organizations, but especially in government where each department has a very specific objective, what types of actions or characteristics can a Government do to help surface ideas between different distinct departments that you can achieve some of that adjacent innovation that you mentioned?

Brian Elms: One of our focus is was bringing people in the class that don't work together or aren't typically seen as people who work together. So you'll have a cohort of 25 to 30 people in a class and someone will be from Public Works, someone will be from the Police Department, someone will be from the airport, another person will be from golf or another person will be from the court system. And what you do is you have them discuss the types of problems that they're having in their own unique spear and at the end of the class they've developed a relationship with the cohort members, but they've also heard about similar struggles that they have and what we've seen time and time again is where someone from quartz walks up to someone from permitting and says, oh by the way, we did this crazy thing on our forms last year where we auto-populated half of the form for our customer and we noticed that half of them started coming in correctly. We didn't have to key them into our system anymore and when that type of thing happens, it sounds silly but that you know three-minute of keying into that information can be an actually full transaction in another department. You know, the DMV a transaction that takes place at the DMV counter is typically three to five minutes.

More often than not it's three minutes. So, how can I open up three minutes of time for every single person who works at a counter? And if one of those things is a pre-populated form, then let's figure out how to do that and those types of innovations are all remarkable. Other things that we've seen is where a public works employee will talk to a parks employee about pre-maintenance for their machinery and preventive maintenance is incredibly important for a lot of machinery just so that it doesn't have any downtime and it was awesome. I mean I've seen actual Parks employees and Public Works employees talk about similar machines and making sure that they get that preventative maintenance check and when they did they were able to say mow a park for an additional hour. They were able to lower a manhole every single day.

They got a single manhole additional to what they were doing the day before. Those types of aha adjacent things are is what I'm talking about. A lot of people when they hear me talk they're like, yeah break down the silos everyone and governments in a silo and I really don't talk about that. I don't use that language.

And the reason I don't use that language is because that is something that isn't in everyone's power and control. Your job in government is typically in a certain sphere and unless you're a higher level manager you don't have the ability to break down the silo of your department and most of the people I work with are line level staff and mid-level managers.

And you can get people to do really cool stuff if you're talking about the impact that makes in their daily life. The impact it makes in their customers life. Those have things that you talked about for years versus oh, yeah, we broke down a silo that's not something anyone's going to talk about, but if you talk about releasing the right inmate at the right time because we made changes to how we process and that's a big deal. If you talk about getting someone a job who's been homeless for five years. That's a big deal. So let's let's use those actions versus the the big words.

Andrew Kirk: So already in our conversation today, you've talked about that action and some of the successes that have come from that action, but inherent to innovation is failure and failure has traditionally been a bad word in government and clearly there are times when that thinking is justified. If we're talking about a city erecting a new four-way streetlight we really really don't want failure. So how can leaders start to define acceptable and unacceptable types of failure within their organization?

Brian Elms: I love your example Andrew. That's that's awesome. Yeah. No, the street light has to work bro. We got we got to get that up and running it can't fail and you know.

Andrew Kirk: Nobody's bringing you in for a streetlight innovation project anytime soon is what your saying right?

Brian Elms: Not after I just said that. I love it. I mean, I think. Most people who fail in government. I mean we end up on the front page of the paper. So when you fail you just have this perverse incentive to not fail so it's this like fun spoken truth. If you mess up and you're going to end up on the front page of the paper and look some huge banks in the last 10 years have tried to have technological innovations take place and they completely fail putting it forward. That failure cost them tens of millions of dollars and they didn't even report it in their SEC filing.

When we make a 10 million dollar failure in government, you know, someone has to be held accountable. Someone's going to lose their job and then someone ends up on the front page of the paper. Well, I hope what you heard me talk about were small, simple cheap improvements. That's really how we teach people to understand failure. When you're doing a small improvement that has a small effect most people don't get upset that it didn't work. The next day you just try something new. It's when we have these colossal failures, you know that people tend to write about, that people tend to talk about more frequently than anything else.

The first thing I teach every single one of my clients and every city I've ever worked in if your employees do not feel safe, they will never innovate, period there's nothing you can do.

You must allow them to feel safe that their environment is not going to whack them when they come up with a great idea. Once you've created that safe environment where people are allowed to have failures and are allowed to bring ideas up to the top, then you can move forward, you know, one of my favorite people to work with in the city of Miami is Fernando Casamayor and he talks about when he joined government he worked in the court system and he came up with this great idea to tell his bosses and it was after his, you know, first or second month of working there and he brought up his idea to stop printing out over and over how many people were going to show up for court.nd instead just take whoever came and then at the end of the day look back and audit and he brought this up to his boss and the first thing they said was shut up rookie. You don't know anything. In most places that's the first reaction to innovation. The first reaction to innovation is always no. I teach people to say, yes.

It is the weirdest thing that I've never I don't really understand. I mean you have two kids Andrew, but some of some of our colleagues kids their first words are no longer Mama and Dada their first words are "no". You know, my daughter's first word was duck. We think it was duck, I'm a little nervous it was something else but you know in most cases kids say "no" first. They don't even say I love you anymore. It's "no" and it's so pervasive throughout our work that I literally teach people to say yes. You have to learn how to say yes. The reason you say no when someone comes up with an innovation is because the moment you say yes to an innovation you just agreed to more work. Innovation is always more work.

There's never a time where innovation isn't more work. And let's just say you have a fear of failure. You have a fear of more work. You have a whack-a-mole culture. The last thing that's going to happen is innovation. So your challenge is if you're a manager, a mid-level manager and executive is to learn how to say yes, to spark a culture of small incremental cheap improvement that make our customers lives better. And the more that you can get that going those big innovations, those breakthrough innovations that you talked about like with the Google's of the world those will happen. But if you have a culture where you don't allow for innovation to take place where you say no before you even hear the idea you're never going to see an innovation take place.

Andrew Kirk: So Brian, I think what you talked about is really exciting, but I can guarantee you there is at least one person listening to you and thinking Brian, listen, that sounds great, but I work in an environment where whack-a-mole is the culture and I personally don't have the authority and I personally don't have the authority to enact these types of changes.

So everything you're talking about sounds great, but it really just doesn't apply to me. So what would you say to that government employee listening, you know with limited influence without authority and help them personally realize that they can actually have meaningful impact in taking steps towards innovation?

Brian Elms: Well clearly they're one of my clients. Because every client I have says this and every government employee I have says this before taking the class. I mean that's sort of the light-hearted answer. I think the real answer is number one, I'm going to give them a hug and say look, I totally get it.

I've been in your position, tell me about the thing that you think you have control over. Where do you have influence in your job and then we'll talk about you know, you answer the phone every day how you answer the phone can be innovated. You work on a form every day how you work on that form can be innovated, you get up every morning how you get out the door can be innovative.

And if you take a step back and instead of thinking like we were talking about in the in the last question instead of thinking of a breakthrough, think of something that will make your job easier, your life easier, and I don't mean by pushing other work to another department. I'll give you a great example when we started working with a group that was handling medical marijuana and retail marijuana. They were doing all the licensing.

Well when medical marijuana and retail marijuana, it was a new sort of licensing to take place. So people have tons of questions. Well, those questions were coming into the licensing department. Every time that someone called and asked a question that call got transferred directly to the licensing department and directly to a licensing tech. While, when that occurs we're taking that licensing technician off the counter. That means they cannot perform a transaction. So we work with that team to create something as simple as a frequently asked questions and we place that on the website. I know that sounds crazy, but we were receiving over 80 phone calls a week, questions about marijuana licensing. When we put that frequently asked questions, that template up onto our website those 80 calls dropped down below three.

So we went from handling 80 phone calls a week to handling three phone calls easy and all we did as simple as put a frequently asked questions piece on a website. I hear these stories all the time of I'm not in charge of anything. I don't have influence or control of anything. And I remember this because my colleagues from Chattanooga tells this remarkable story of this woman who went through one of our classes where she went to the class thinking she had no control or power over anything and every single day part of her job was to take some form that was submitted online, re-key that information into a system that included a phone number. The phone number online put dashes into everyone's phone number, the form that she was filling out internally didn't have dashes.

Every single day she would spend an hour removing dashes from this form. After taking our class she realized she could change the form on the website that wouldn't allow the - to ever be implemented or inputted into the system and now every single day she has an hour a day that she doesn't have to do that anymore.

To me that's innovation. That changes her daily activity. She now has an additional hour to help say three maybe five maybe 20 more people because she's no longer typing in a single dash in a phone number. I know that sounds crazy. And in a lot of your listeners are thinking that that's a silly example, but it's real. That single dash changed the way that she worked every single day.

Andrew Kirk: So I think so far we've had a lot of great conversations about the front line employees, the middle manager staff, but let's take a step up and talk about in your eyes what do you think are some of the biggest challenges you see facing Chief Innovation Officers or other managers or executives who are in charge of influence and from your perspective might what might be one way they could start to tackle that challenge?

Brian Elms: Chief Innovation Officers have a unique role to place and most governments and I think the scariest part about being a Chief Innovation Officer is you don't want to be the person that stops innovation.

When a person gets the title of Director of Innovation or Chief Innovation Officer a lot of employees throughout the organization will start to think that that's the only place you can innovate, that you can't innovate anywhere else. So that's a huge challenge for innovation officers around the country is your job is to create that democratized innovation where you're allowing everyone to be innovative, everyone to be creative because if you're working in a city that has say 1,200 employees one person in charge of innovation is going to slow the innovation machine, but if you give everyone the authority to innovate and the power to innovate now, you have 1,200 people working to create that disruption and create that innovation.

That's my biggest piece of advice to any innovation officer, allow the democratization of innovation to take place think about your job as a facilitator of innovation and not the creator of innovation.

Andrew Kirk: Great shifting gears. Let's get started with our rapid three questions. So Citysourced's is all about the power that local governments can have in delivering more services via the smartphone. What type of phone do you use and what's your favorite app?

Brian Elms: Oh my gosh. I use an iphone X. I think my daughter calls it a 10.

So I should probably learn how to really talk about it. But I'm a dork, so the app that I use the most is an app called Open Snow which tells me what ski resort has the most snow and how much snow they got the night before so that I could decide if I want to go skiing that day or not.

The like the lifestyle app that I use the most is typically like a gin app, like playing gin on the on the airplane or listening to audiobooks on Audible or That's that's how dorky I am.

Andrew Kirk: That's great. I can relate we're in Southern California. We do the opposite it's with the surf report and what has the best waves today so I can definitely understand. Number two, what's one book you most recommend or give away to others?

Brian Elms: The book that I give away to others is this book that was written by me.

Andrew Kirk: Never heard never heard of it. Try again.

Brian Elms: I won't brag, but I actually give that book away a lot. What I do tell people, like I have a couple that are in my constant giveaway pile, but the one that's had the most I would say that the mattock effect on what I do and a dramatic effect on creating Peak Academy and Peak Performance and even the book and writing the book is a book by Charles Duhigg called The Power of Habit and Charles talks about making good habits and for me what we tried to do in Peak Academy and what I try to do at Innovation Academy is teach employees how to make good habits of their job and the more good habits that you have the best, you know, the better your job is and it talks about creating flow at your work because your habits are really positive.

Andrew Kirk: Three, what's one tool, software or even non-tech hack that you're using to improve your life?

While, the non-tech hack that I use and the one that I teach everyone is how to use Post-it notes. I I use Post-it notes for everything. I use Post-it notes to write down my ideas for the day. I use Post-it notes to write down a checklist.

I use Post-it notes for almost anything and if you if you take a look at my book, I teach people how to use Post-it notes a lot.

Andrew Kirk: Well, thank you Brian that ends our episode for today. Please let our listeners know where they can find out more information and connect with you online.

Brian Elms: You can connect with me at multiple different places, but one is ChangeAgents.Info and that's a place where our firm is located. Another place that you can grab our information is on Governings website for the Peak Academy and Peak Performance book and you can also you know Google me and you'll be able to find both my LinkedIn work and any blogs that we write as well as my book on Amazon, so hopefully you'll pick up a book and give me a call. Thank you so much Andrew, this sounds, I at least thought it sounded great, and I can't wait to hear it.

Andrew Kirk: Awesome. We will let our listeners be the judge of that. But if you want to find out more information about Brian will connect those links in our show notes and if you want to learn more about how local governments are delivering more services to their residents through our mobile app, please visit us at

And as always if you have any feedback, I'd love to hear it. Shoot me an email, it's or on Twitter at Andrew K Kirk. We're on iTunes, Stitcher, Google Play Music and Spotify. Please subscribe to GovConnect through your favorite podcast service and leave us a review if you found this episode with Brian and I helpful. It greatly helps us to spread the word that GovConnect is the podcast it helps us to spread the word that GovConnect is the podcast for local government innovation.

Thanks for listening.