Denver’s Peak Academy practices what it preaches—and pivots

Denver’s Peak Academy team, from left: Drew Brown, Melissa Wiley, Megan Williams, Robert Peek, Katie McCune, Nathaniel Bradley, Jerraud Coleman, and Andy Rees. (Photo taken before the COVID-19 pandemic.)

Ever since Denver started teaching its city employees to spot waste and improve efficiency in their work in 2012, the city’s “Peak Academy” has been something of a national institution, beloved by public-sector innovators everywhere. Not only have more than 9,250 Denver city employees undergone Peak training, more than 200 other cities and nonprofit groups have sent their own employees through the academy, in some cases to gather intelligence for launching similar academies of their own.

In fact, Peak’s offerings are now credited with giving city workers the tools they’ve used to actualize more than 4,000 innovations that have saved taxpayers $46 million.

Given that success, it may come as a surprise that one of Peak Academy’s responses to COVID-19 has been to rip up and replace one of its most popular classes. The week-long, in person course called “Black Belt,” which dove into a set of process-improvement techniques known as “Lean,” is now a two-day virtual course, called “Public Service Superhero,” that responds to cities’ most pressing challenges: the budget crisis, racial justice, and other ripple effects of the pandemic.

“We’ve told people for years to not be afraid to change, to not be afraid to completely redo everything you’re doing,” explained Peak Academy Manager Melissa Wiley. “And then when it happened to us, we as a team had to take our own medicine. It gave us a lot of empathy for what other people feel when we teach this.”

She continued: “We’re the innovation team. We have to be the first to completely redo everything we do and change. And it was really important to me that my team be the example — not the example of holding on to the status quo, but the example of embracing a new world with some level of excitement and passion.”

Bloomberg Cities caught up with Wiley to hear more about the changes at Peak — and what it’s like to innovate an innovation training program.

Black Belt was your signature class. What did it look like before COVID hit?

Black Belt was a five-day training that included the basic principles of Lean change management, tailored to local government. In short, it was eight tools to identify waste and eight tools to eliminate waste. It had a lot of games and a big simulation of a fictitious work environment.

It was popular because it incorporated a lot of the best practices of adult learning. And it really got students from all over the city to come together. People loved it. We’d typically have 20 to 25 people and then four to six people from outside cities every month.

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Then what happened when COVID hit?

We could see that we weren’t going to have 20 people for in-person training with people flying in from all over the country. So what could we do instead? People in government today don’t have time for a week-long class. They just need to know the tools that can help them right now.

I’m one of the founding members of Peak Academy and I’m coming into my eighth year and Black Belt has been this premiere offering. And I just said — much like what we preach to people we train — let’s just destroy the whole thing. Just take it completely out of our heads. Let’s not try to copy it. Like we always tell people: Adapt to the times. Let it fall away and have the freedom to create what we need now.

And where did that lead you for the new Public Service Superhero course?

We asked ourselves: What would someone really care about right now? One of the top things that came up was the budget shortfall — Denver is closing a $200-million gap. Race and social equity is critical. And then also we have a high percentage of our workforce working at home, so there’s a lot of questions about performance management: When you can’t see someone every day, how do you know they’re working?

The key Lean tools are still there. And we did keep a pretty hefty section on change management, too. So you can still look at redesigning your process and removing waste. And that helps with a workforce where we’re in a hiring freeze and we don’t have a lot of money to spend on new technology.

Let’s dive into some of the new pieces. Tell us about the race and social equity component.

We have a team in the city called the Mayor’s Office of Social Equity & Innovation. They’ve developed a course on institutional racism and are launching a six-phase plan for equity in the city. We partnered with them to pull considerations of race and social equity throughout this new course. It’s also primarily featured in a section called “voice of the customer.” Whenever you make a decision in government, did you think about who it impacts? Who does this serve? And do you know their life experience and have you worked to get information on their life experience?

And what do you teach about budget austerity and performance management?

We basically teach how to run an organization when you don’t have the number of people you want and the resources you want. So we teach things like a process map — and figuring out what things you do not have to do. And then cross-training and level-loading the work.

And then performance management, particularly for remote workers:. How do you know that the work’s getting done? And how do you measure that work and then put that measurement into a dashboard so that everyone can see what’s going on?

Our push here is to help people remain on a flexible work schedule — especially to accommodate parents. We looked at a lot of data that said women are leaving the workforce during this crisis more than anyone else. And it’s because of the childcare situation. We’re encouraging employers to measure the work that’s being done rather than the hours being logged.

[Read: Replicating Peak Academy]

The past six months have been really hard for people everywhere. As you’re training public servants, what do you see them going through and what do they need?

What we’ve found out was that people can withstand a large amount of suffering if they feel like there’s meaning to it. We have to help them remember what made them decide to be public servants in the first place. Maybe you were meant to work in government during this time. Maybe this is a great calling for you. Maybe all of us are so lucky to be able to serve our communities at a time when people need us the most.

What’s also hard is that so many people are especially hateful toward government right now. We feel the wrath of our citizens to an extent that I’ve never seen. And now, with the budget shortfall, we know that some of our city services might be impacted. So we’re preparing our workforce, “How do you suffer through this crisis yourself, personally, and then listen to what people say about you professionally? And then how do you still show up every day?” That’s where you really have to hold on to the meaning and the heart of why we took these jobs to begin with.

When the pandemic is over will Peak more or less go back to what it used to be?

Much as we’ve had some gains in the virtual space, nothing makes up for in-person training and hands-on learning. So post-COVID, I would bring back Black Belt for sure in its full form. But one thing I would like to keep is a hybrid model. There are plenty of things my team does on a computer. We can set an example of giving employees more flexibility to work virtually in the future.

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