Voices from Accenture Public Service

Innovation: debunking the myth

Too often when people hear the word ‘innovation’ their immediate thoughts run to visions of white-coated scientists or technology geniuses beavering away in laboratories and experiencing ‘eureka’ moments as they make ground-breaking discoveries. But in my last blogpost in this series, I suggested that innovation was something that every social and employment agency needed to make an integral part of their operations and how they design and deliver services. I certainly didn’t mean that to achieve it those organisations simply need to start recruiting more researchers and scientists.

Instead, innovation, in this context, means something else. It’s the way that organizations find new ways to solve the challenges they face. And rather than being about individuals working alone, innovation requires leadership, a collective effort, and the sharing of ideas and insights in a culture that encourages people to find novel ways to address common problems.

Three enablers: leadership, collaboration and empowered human resources

So how can organizations develop those characteristics? By focusing their efforts on three key enablers.

Leadership: Leaders need to take responsibility for setting the vision and implementing the strategies that foster innovation. The CEO, in that context, becomes the chief enabling or empowering officer. They need to be prepared to commit fully to driving their workforce to think and act as innovators. That commitment needs to be clearly and forcefully communicated. Inspiration is essential, as people need to feel that the new ideas they can bring will be valued and appreciated. That might mean, for example, incubator-style hubs where employees can build out ideas. This encourages staff to come up with ideas to improve the way the department works, provides support and tools to convert ideas into proposals and helps drive the ideas forward with appropriate teams and leadership.

Leadership is also, however, about setting the right goals and priorities so that innovation is aligned with a sense of purpose. And without the right resources behind it, a vision is likely to remain just that. Leaders also therefore need to identify the skills, financials and information they’ll need to bring their vision to life.

Collaboration: Having set and communicated the vision and strategy for innovation, chief empowering officers need to make sure that the whole organisation – from top to bottom- gets behind and lives the strategy. This is the second critical enabler of innovation. Securing a culture of innovation requires an ‘all hands on deck’ approach. To achieve that, leaders and senior managers must make more junior staff feel comfortable about challenging orthodoxies and traditional approaches. Learning from the past is of course important, but it needs to be a springboard for exploring the future rather than a restraint on doing things in new ways. By creating teams and fostering collaboration across traditional boundaries and silos, new thinking can be sparked and disseminated. That’s particularly important in an era of constrained budgets, increased demands and advances in technology.

For instance, public agencies that are making the shift towards data- and insight-driven services, are establishing ‘Analytics Pod’ structures that bring together a mix of skills including a business domain expert, data scientist, analytics modeler, designer and creative expert, with a view to taking an integrated view of organisational issues and looking at innovative ways to address them.

Empowering Human Resources: The workforce needs to feel empowered to pursue innovation– to know the Why, What and How to do it. The right HR approaches are essential to create the support for innovation to flourish. Staff need to have the spaces available where their experimentation and collaborative problem-solving is encouraged and rewarded. Pursuing better outcomes and user experiences requires understanding both digital and analogue approaches. Techniques such as online crowd-sourcing can combine with in-depth, up close and personal ethnographic research to reveal insights that can be harnessed to shape new solutions. An environment that is conducive to innovation needs to be matched with the right tools and skills. For example, the European House of Design Management project supports knowledge transfer from the private to the public sector using tried and tested design management models as a resource to develop management training tools and programmes.

Supporting staff with an innovation toolkit will require investment in training as well as tools that help staff understand what innovation is and how it gets done. That might include proven innovation methodologies, as well as content about the latest thinking such as disruptive technologies, design approaches, behavioural economics, partnerships formation and networked approaches to governance and delivery.

Drawing on the adage that ‘what gets measured gets managed’, the workforce needs to be able to pursue innovation with metrics that enable them to understand and define success. These metrics should ultimately measure outcomes and impact, and should provide accountability for the methods and processes that were used to innovate on particular services.

There three key enablers – Leadership, Collaboration and Empowered Human Resources – are fundamental to creating a culture of sustainable innovation. Rather than being seen as an exceptional and rarefied activity, innovation becomes integral to the way the organisation operates. And it’s a new perception of innovation that all social and employment agencies need to absorb if they are to succeed in creating the outcomes and experiences that increasingly digital citizens demand.

See this post on LinkedIn: Developing a culture of innovation in human services.

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