Crisis leadership is innovation

Image Source: Darwin Innovation Hub

By Joshua Schank
Metro Chief Innovation Officer

Here’s the thing about a crisis: none of them are the same. We desperately seek historical parallels as we are doing now with past pandemics, previous economic downturns, and major social movements. But each crisis faces a unique set of circumstances, making it dangerous to rely on what was done in the past. Ironically, this means that all crises have something very much in common – they all require innovation. They all mean redefining the status quo.

At OEI we define innovation as doing things differently than you have in the past. There are many uncertainties out there at the moment, but one widely accepted truth is that we cannot possibly keep doing things the way we were.

First, the way we as a society were doing things in transportation was extremely harmful to ourselves. We had high traffic fatalities, dramatic inequities, polluted air, traffic congestion, and miserable commutes all around.

Second, even if we wanted to return to that reality, we couldn’t. For the millions of people in Los Angeles who depend on public transit, we’ll need to make changes that ensure their health and safety.

Having an innovation office turns out to be a tremendous – maybe even extraordinary – asset during a time like this. We’re ready with tools that give us an advantage in responding to the new world we are facing today:

1. We have a strategic plan.

When OEI was created, one of our initial tasks was to develop a new strategic plan for Metro. That plan, Vision 2028, took two years to create and was passed unanimously by the Metro Board in 2018. It is not always obvious to everyone why an innovation office would lead the development of a strategic plan. But there is a critical reason – in order to know which innovations you want to pursue, you need to know what you want to achieve. Innovation is not the goal – the goals are determined by having a vision and a plan to get there – innovation is the means by which you achieve your goals.

Vision 2028 makes it clear that our goal as an agency is to improve mobility. We set a specific goal of doubling the number of non-single-occupancy-vehicle trips in LA County by 2028. This is very different from a traditional transit agency goal, which might be specific to transit ridership. This critical difference is even more salient now as we see a world where transit ridership, already on the decline, has suffered a stronger and more devastating blow than ever in history. Vision 2028 helps keep our focus on the innovations that can directly improve mobility for those who need it most, such as safer streets, on-demand services, bus-only lanes, and traffic reduction. This clarity will serve us well as we navigate this crisis.

2. We have an unsolicited proposal policy.

Metro’s Unsolicited Proposal Policy has received over 200 proposals since it was launched in 2016. Dozens have been implemented as new innovations in how Metro does business, and many more are still in the works. This means that we have the internal infrastructure in place to accept new ideas from private sector innovators. We have already received numerous proposals that could help us weather the pandemic, including better cleaning methods that will help ensure the safety of our workers and customers. We are planning a second unsolicited proposal forum that will bring in even more ideas on customer experience, providing better service to underserved communities, and how to adjust to the pandemic. Our experience working through these new ideas over the last five years is what will enable us to respond more effectively now.

3. We have created a culture of openness.

It is very difficult to quantify culture shifts or improvements, so to some extent we have to rely on anecdotal information to demonstrate them. But the anecdotes regarding the culture shift here at Metro since we launched OEI are overwhelming. When we first started here, there were no Public-Private Partnerships (P3s) on major capital projects, no on-demand services for Metro, and no possibility of piloting congestion pricing. There was little discussion of customer experience and no consideration of creating a World Class Bus system. Many more new ideas and pursuits are documented in our Innovation Portfolio.

Now all of these things are happening. And along with these new ideas, new voices have emerged, itching for change. Our numerous leadership programs at Metro, such as the Metro Leadership Academy, the Eno/Max program, and the Women & Girls Governing Council are all based on the idea that new leaders need to be molded and encouraged. They all use ideation and change as core components of what the students learn. When we looked to form an internal recovery task force, we were able to select among the graduates of these programs in order to create a dynamic and boundary-bending group. A culture of openness will now be more critical than ever.

4. We have game-changers already in the works.

As we look to determine what life looks like after the lockdown, we are not starting from scratch. We were already preparing for dramatic change, in large part to remedy many of the dramatic inequities apparent in society that are current creating a worldwide movement for change. We don’t need to create an on-demand mobility program in response to the pandemic, as we already have a Mobility on Demand service provided with our partner Via, as well as our own Microtransit service ready to launch. We don’t need to begin the process of how to manage traffic as it comes back, since our Traffic Reduction Study is already moving at full speed. We don’t have to start from scratch in thinking about bus lane enforcement since we were already moving full speed ahead to solve that challenge. Most everything that was critical to solving our mobility problems before the crisis will still be needed as life returns to semi-normal.

In large part because we have an office dedicated to Innovation, LA Metro starts this process ahead of the game. By the time a crisis hits, it is probably too late to create a culture of innovation. But innovation is exactly what is needed in a crisis and at times when major societal change is imminent. Challenges like this one remind us that many of our plans are worthless unless we also have the ability to change quickly and innovate on the spot.