Tuesday, September 08, 2015

Innovation requires innovators, not silver bullet processes & superstar visionaries

I'm seeing something that disturbs me happening in the innovation space across government. Something that suggests that 'innovation' is becoming more of a buzzword than a real change in organisational culture.

On one front, as agencies 'buy into' the innovation mantra, they are developing processes for fostering innovation - systems designed to fast-track innovative ideas from the bottom and middle of their hierarchies to allow top-level scrutiny, prioritisation and allocation of resources.

While these processes mean well, and do help some innovations scale the senior attention ladder more rapidly, they also put a structure and framework around what is and isn't innovation, which can become unhealthy over time.

People who are good at figuring out systems, and the 'realities' limiting senior thinking will gain priority over those with less experience with managing hierarchies - potentially perpetuating the dislocation of some groups of innovators within government, those whose ideas are 'too radical', 'too politically impractical' or 'too difficult or expensive' based on the experience of senior public sector leaders.

Of course innovations that fit the mental models held by long-term leadership, that are 'incremental', 'politically uncontroversial' and 'win-win' (aka no powerful group will have their nose put out of joint) will be given pride of place and will be supported - perpetuating, rather than disrupting how these agencies operate.

Certainly these incremental innovations are valuable and can provide real value in service, cost and outcome terms - however they may also lock agencies into legacy modes of behaviour and thought.

Making a horse-drawn carriage better, faster and more cost-effectively is worth doing, and may reflect the career experience of senior officials - but will fail to deliver the right experience for citizens who want cars.

Innovation that is truly transformational often costs jobs and requires radical rethinking of approach, structure and culture. It's uncomfortable, unpleasant to many, and requires firm direction to embed.

This type of innovation is unlikely to be supported in agency innovation processes - senior officials rarely support initiatives that will see them lose their power base or job.

Processes also have a tendency to ossify. Government is comprised of processes on processes on processes - it's processes all the way down. Many of these processes don't deliver the outcomes the community wants, or are difficult for public servants to even complete, particularly in efficient and effective ways. How does proceduralising innovation help fix this situation and 'break the loop'?

The answer, of course, is that it doesn't. It simply normalises innovation into current public sector workplace models and encourages innovation that has immediate application to existing processes.

The approach essentially turns innovation into a process for improving the effectiveness of other government processes, often without questioning whether these processes need to exist at all.

Over time it is  likely that innovation processes in government will also ossify - that each year they will deliver less return than the year before as innovations that 'fit the right mould' decline, and innovations that are outside the mould increase.

This happens in a rapidly changing landscape - where our knowledge doubles twice in  a year and organisations are perpetually playing catch-up. We simply don't have the experience to develop processes that can adapt quickly enough to reflect environmental change - or the expertise to develop a process that allows us to adapt our processes as quickly as required.

On the other hand, government innovation is starting to become the province of 'visionaries' and 'champions' - people who are singled out as having the 'it' factor that helps pave the way for the plebeian public servants doing the actual innovating.

There's some familiar names in this group - as you'd expect. A number I know personally and have enormous respect for, based on their energy and ability to articulate their views.

Without disparaging this group, which at times I've also been included in, innovation isn't about 'lighthouse' personalities who stand out amidst the crowd, speak at conferences and are interviewed across the media.

Innovation is about the quiet person in the corner who figures out how to cut a step in a government process that saves 50,000 businesses each $500 per year, the geeky IT guy who prefers computers to people, who develops a backend system that improves their agency's security against foreign hackers three-fold or the introverted policy officer who analyses the data and devises a policy that balances political concerns while facilitating a new billion-dollar export industry for Australia.

Innovation is about everyone in government who has ever questioned why things are done in a particular way, and gone about improving them - officially or unofficially, via the designated innovation approach or not, irregardless of whether they ever get an award or speak to a crowd.

Everyone in government can innovate, and everyone should be given the permission, freedom, support and encouragement to do so, whenever they ask 'why?'

For me the real public service innovation champions and visionaries are the public servants we never hear from or see. The ones that work deep in the structures of agencies and innovate not because it's mandated or supported, but because they care about how government operates and impacts citizens, and can see how to improve it.

Succeed or fail these people wish to make their organisations better places to work and more effective deliverers of value to the community and take actions to achieve these goals.

Yes we need the visionaries and champions, to stand up and inspire, give permission or facilitate innovators.

Yes we need some processes and systems to collate, assess and prioritise resourcing for innovations so that they happen and are effective.

But what we need to celebrate are the innovators themselves - the people who think of a better way, and act to see it realised.

They are the true heros of innovation, not the folks on the stage or the systems that allow senior managers to feel comfortable in their own skins.


  1. I agree with you Craig but there aren't many IT geeks around any more, at least no many quiet geeks in the corner thinking about innovation. We have too many unskilled, uninspired and unprofessional public servants, and if we have a few geeks, they are not thinking about how to improve services for the public as many don't even understand the business of the organisation they are part of.
    This is obviously to do with the culture in the public service. I do hope that this changes though or we will not be innovating much for a while.

  2. Craig; excellent observations. My 2 bobs worth is that the innovation agenda should be about people and culture within the organisation. 'Innovation is people', and a more sustainable approach to innovation is one that will focus on getting everyone in an organisation thinking differently. The role of the organisation is then to remove barriers to action and to reward people for their ideas and actions. The issue as you point out is to ensure innovation isn't a fad but a way of thinking and working.

  3. It's a good message: true, logic and inviting
    But your last sentence kills it all. It feels like something personal.