On Leading Change: Three Simple Lessons on Innovation from Government

Learn about Virginia’s inspiring career in supporting the un/underemployed find productive jobs and how HCD has had an impact on workforce innovation.

March 15, 2017

Long before there was LinkedIn or Monster.com, when computers still filled up whole rooms and only displayed green text on black screens, Virginia Hamilton led a team that created the first statewide job matching system in the United States. She hasn’t stopped since, taking on roles in policy, program design, and even starting and running her own nonprofit, all with an eye toward changing large-scale systems in new ways.

Today, Virginia works at the U.S. Department of Labor and is a seasoned innovator in government and the workforce development sector.  One thing I love is how Virginia didn’t just fall into this role as an innovator. She’s put her hand up over and over again.

“One of the things I’ve always done in my career is I’ve always volunteered for the hardest job.”

As a result, Virginia has done a lot and learned a lot about what it takes to create large-scale systems change and she broke it down into three things:

1 - “It helps to be completely obsessed and become an evangelist” 

2 - But being an evangelist alone is not enough, you need to build a coalition.

Virginia has found it helpful to bring others along in her work. This involves doing a lot of proof of concept work, and making it possible for others to demonstrate that they too can both do and benefit from the work.

“If you’re only an evangelist and obsessed by yourself, people are going to think that you’re just nutty.” Virginia said.“As soon as I find that other people besides me are talking about whatever it is that I’ve been working on, I feel like I’m successful.”

3 - Last, perhaps most important, be an evangelist for an approach to problem solving – what Virginia calls “good process” – instead of trying to present the answer

I first encountered Virginia’s work (not Virginia – who emerged from behind the scenes later) when she was putting this third lesson into practice. In August 2015, we noticed a sudden surge in sign-ups for Design Kit: The Course for Human Centered Design coming from the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL). With a little Google sleuthing, we learned that someone at the DOL had launched a nationwide “Customer-centered Design Challenge” in collaboration with the White House, and they were using our online course as the backbone of the challenge so that participating teams across the nation could learn the “good process” of human-centered design.

Somewhere on her speaking trail, Virginia had encountered IDEO and the approach of human-centered design, and she became an evangelist for that practice. After several proof of concepts, she stumbled upon a unique opportunity to spread the idea across the nation – a combination of our free +Acumen course and the new Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act. She activated her coalition and got to work.

The US Department of Labor has run this challenge twice for more than 100+ teams across the nation. The lessons these teams have learned have been fundamentally game-changing – teams are re-energized, new insights about what customers need have emerged, and programs have become more successful in reaching the unemployed. Most importantly, this is 600+ people across the nation that now have a new process that they can use over and over again in their day-to-day work.

We’re honored to be a part of the work to help to spread “good process” in service of supporting workforce development across the US, and we’re so glad for individuals like Virginia who are working behind the scenes to improve the lives of millions in the United States.

Listen to my full interview with Virginia to learn more about:

  • More about Virginia’s inspiring career in supporting the un/underemployed find productive jobs
  • The three simple lessons she has learned in trying to launch and get buy-in for new initiatives in the public and nonprofit sectors
  • The importance of what Virginia calls “good process” and why that trumps “best practice”
  • How human-centered design has had an impact on workforce innovation

Our thanks to volunteer sound engineer: Wu Shan

Photo credit: Jewish Vocational Service Bay Area

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