Thursday, May 19, 2016

Without risk there can be no innovation. But without innovation there is not no risk

It is fairly well understood - even embraced - in government today that without taking some risk there can be no innovation.

However it's important to keep in mind that the reverse of that statement is not true: without innovation there can be no risk.

Increasingly we're seeing government agencies take at least baby steps into supporting innovation processes and, to a lesser extent, behaviours among their staff - albeit within existing frameworks and constraints that were designed for stability rather than rapid change.

However there' still large and widespread pockets in government where innovation is seen as the enemy of good government. Where change is seen as an imposition on the 'natural order' and an external disruptive force that must be contested (actively or passively), rejected or endured until things return to normal.

What I don't see really grasped in government as yet is that rapid change is the new norm, that in a world where knowledge doubles every seven months and more data is collected each year than in the entire 20th century, that stability is now the riskiest proposition of all.

Yes change can be hard, uncomfortable and exhausting - but is this due to the process or actual change, or the deep-rooted culture, training and beliefs of those public servants who feel challenged, disempowered and exhausted?

We have selected and trained public servants for decades to love consistency and oppose rapid change, so even when they embrace change their subconscious impulses are to reject and resist - no wonder they find change confronting and tiring!

To change the relationship between the public service and innovation - paying lip service will not lead to the deep adaptations necessary to remake agencies as agile, change-ready innovative organisations.

Putting in place rigid (or even semi-elastic) processes and frameworks for innovation will deliver some peripheral benefits, particularly in non-core areas of agencies, but do not rapidly address the root issues agencies face with cultural resistance and inbuilt attitudes and behaviours that make change difficult to introduce, embed and retain.

Many senior public servants now speak about innovation, but their behaviours and attitudes do not match their words, and in many cases 'innovation' is now parroted as the mantra for the year, rather than being embedded in their hearts and minds.

I don't blame them for this, it is standard survival practice in any group for those in status positions to  retain their status by more enthusiastically adopting new fads and trends than those below them. The history of fashion - clothes, cars and toys - demonstrates that being a 'leader' (aka an early and enthusiastic adopter) brings status benefits in any group.

Even counter-cultural trends, think hipsters and contrarians, build status from the fashions of the day, by being the most enthusiastic at adopting the strongest anti-fashion position. In effect they are exalted for being 'an individual', defined as doing the reverse of whatever a fashion entails.

For innovation to become truly embedded in the public sector, for our government agencies to truly become agencies of change, agile and adaptable to a fast-paced world, we require far deeper culture change than the lip service and prototyping we see today.

Future public servants will need to find change a positive force, energizing and exciting - something they choose to engage with every day in order to continually improve how they serve governments and the public.

This cannot be achieved rapidly through a cautious, graduated process of slowly adopting innovative approaches, running a few ideas challenges or creating pockets of innovation (which I have previously called 'ghettos' which are carefully kept at armslength from the majority of agency staff and operations while agencies simultaneously hope they will infect the rest of the agency with their attitudes.

It can't be achieved while the public service retains and preserves the character, attitudes, culture and behaviours it expresses today. To me this also means it cannot be achieved with the majority of today's public sector leadership, who simply don't have the interest or capability to change themselves to embrace innovation and continual change as their core philosophy, in their hearts and minds.

Thus to achieve the real change necessary in the public sector, from 'change' being part of controlled, monitored, bounded projects to being core, business as usual, practice, behaviour and thinking,  there will need to be conflict, controversy, even 'blood in the corridors', where the old guard are largely replaced, rather than 'converted', taking stability mindsets with them.

Many public servants won't find this comfortable. Like most people they see themselves as capable of weathering any change, being adaptable and open to new ideas. Like most people (and I include myself in this), we are limited. We can only bend so far before we break or spring back to the core values we have embraced.

Change, at an individual or organisational level feels hard whenever it contradicts our beliefs, even when it is supported by evidence. The hardness reflect our subconscious fighting back, our mental defenses against a perspective or approach that is contrary to the beliefs we have constructed. We also have blind spots where we cannot see how our behaviour is limited - we see this regularly today in passive sexist and racism, in businesses that fail or are failing but can't see why (like Kodak and Australia Post). These blind spots are how our subconscious keeps us feeling safe, blinkers that hide unpleasant events or options from ourselves, warm safe bubbles got our minds, like offshore asylum seeker centres that allow us to place the pain and plight of unfortunate people out of our sight and thus out of our minds.

We will need public sector leaders who find innovative change less hard, maybe even easy, if we are to truly change agencies to better service a fast changing society. We need staff who have been normalized into an environment where continually change is the norm.

How we get there will involve tough decisions and risk - for without risk we cannot have real innovation.

However if you believe the reverse, that you can avoid risk by not innovating, you are, in my humble opinion, delusional. Stability within a fast changing society exposes organisations to even greater risks than does change.

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