Innovation is About Adopting Something New!

As public services managers struggle to maintain service standards while dealing with the double whammy of government cuts and heightened customer expectations, innovation is often presented as the panacea.  For example, the recent open public services white paper places innovation at its core, mentioning innovation 26 times.  But although the emphasis on innovation isn’t new, the context in which public services operate is changing rapidly.  There is energy, like there has never been energy before, towards reaching a consensus that the public sector must improve significantly and quickly.  So maybe now is the time to move ‘innovation’ beyond rhetoric and towards action.  Just because we hold creative workshops involving flipcharts and post-it notes, this doesn’t mean we’re being innovative.  Innovation requires the adoption of something new.

I don’t wish to be disloyal to the many public services colleagues with whom I work, but generally the public sector isn’t known for its dynamic innovative culture. The recent ‘Catching The Wave’ report on local authority innovation, funded by Nesta and the Local Government Group, found that although there was significant will among local authorities to innovate, there were serious questions about their ability to turn this will into action.

Indications that an organization is innovative, such as adaptation and step changes in process reform, have not traditionally been commonplace within the public sector.  So is it realistic to expect the public sector to invest in these areas now, in times of scarcity?

So what’s the answer … or at least a contribution to the answer?

On a practical level, the following five indicators form an acid test of your organization’s current approach to innovation.  You might find it useful to mark each on a scale of 1 to 10:

  1. Leadership and investment: Are senior directors demonstrating their commitment to innovate with ring-fenced money as well as modelling innovation in their own behaviours?
  2. Learning and reflection: Are resources being made available to both build new skills and pay for time to reflect on what is and isn’t working?
  3. Networks: Is there a coordinated effort being directed towards creating internal networks to build organizational and individual capacity, along with external networks to share best practice?
  4. Flexibility and reactivity: Are projects aimed at embracing challenges to current approaches effectively scheduled and followed through?
  5. Risk taking: Is a climate of appropriate and intelligent risk management an essential part of learning and improvement?  Is there an authentic and visible acceptance that some failure is inevitable – In other words, is progress being made in the spirit of ‘informed experiment’?

I think we are all familiar with the rhetoric of transformation, but some of us have yet to engage with the reality of the disruption such transformation inevitably entails.  For example, announcing a service closure or a transformation to a new commissioning model will create disruption, but the key is to be responsive and flexible in helping people invent and create high quality alternatives.  Central to the success of transformation is to expect, plan for, and make the most out of disruption.

These reflections were inspired by an article by Richard Wilson, published by Guardian Professional.  See   if you are interested in the primary source.

My website contains further resources that may be of interest …

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2 thoughts on “Innovation is About Adopting Something New!

  1. Well Carl as a secondee from the voluntary sector I would have agreed with this but I have to say my experience in Havering within the parent support team has been innovative, responsive, flexible and reflective

  2. Hi Sue, I agree 100% with your view here. In my covering email to the various leadership groups I made the same point. So, secondee’s and external coaches are in agreement here! It will be interesting to get some responses from deeper inside. Often, I’ve found, that people within an organization don’t ‘see’ what those outside do … a bit like the Chinese'(?) proverb that a fish isn’t aware of the water it swims within. Here’s a quote from “Organizational Culture as the ‘Water’ We Fish Swim In: What’s the ‘Water’ Like in There?”

    The link is …

    Ask a fish about the water he swims in, and he’ll look at you blankly. What’s the saline content? The Ph? The temperature? How clean is it? Do fish of different species enjoy it equally? Are you in a river, the sea or a glass tank? It isn’t just the size the fish’s brain. The fish is so IN the water that he can’t see it or describe it. It’s all he or she knows; the fish doesn’t know there is anything else; how can one describe something when it is all there is?

    Think of your organizational (and social) culture like the water we “fish” swim in. Can you describe it? Are you aware of whether you feel you belong and feel naturally comfortable in it? Do you know how many others feel naturally comfortable in it? If you’re not sure, you may need to step outside the water.

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