Public innovation in 5 soundbites (3 words & 2 tips)

I was recently invited to provide opening remarks to a conference on government innovation.  Given the depth and breadth of the day’s speakers the scariest challenge was to find something useful to add that might also provide a context for a whole day’s worth of presentations and discussion by some truly great thinkers and practitioners. So here’s my something-for-everyone shot at public innovation in 5 soundbites.

My first three soundbites are words – but potentially big words they are: Leadership; Collaboration; Action. My guess is that at least one of these you won’t often think of in association with public purpose innovation.

Word #1: Leadership

We’re all leaders in the innovation space.  Authentic innovation calls for people who are courageous, willing to be out in front and not always sure if other people are even with you, let alone following.

The biggest message for public innovation leaders (at any level of seniority) is “Don’t be afraid to fail”.  Failure in the public service is most commonly just not allowed to happen – certainly to be seen to happen. Yet failure is how we learn and how we share our innovation journey with others. So be okay about failing along the way. And being seen to. Hey, brag about it – because as the innovation pundits say if you’re not failing at some point, you’re simply not trying to push beyond the limits of the usual. That means you’re not truly willing to innovate.

And remember, leaders bring people along with them on a kind of journey, if only a journey to figure something out or improve on the status quo. Innovation leaders understand that surprisingly often the original goal has to change and the project, along with the whole team, has to pivot in a new direction. That can be traumatising or exhilarating, and leadership makes all the difference.

Word #2: Collaboration

I suspect that collaboration is rapidly becoming one of the most over-used and mis-used words in management and innovation theory, let alone practice.  (Many of us chant the collaboration mantra when what we mean is “how can I get you to support my project?”).  So I’d like to cheat and actually make this a jargon-ish word: co-innovation.

Public service innovation doesn’t always have to come from the public service. In fact, at a time when many in government struggle to figure out how they can do more with less, I suspect their dilemma is due partly to the possibility of missing a very significant point: it’s a public challenge, and so the real challenge is how ‘we’ can figure out how to deliver more public benefit with less public resources. That’s public innovation.

Frustratingly, many in the traditional hallowed corridors of (‘The’) public service see innovation only in operational terms – how can I tinker with the engine, how can I improve back office systems.  Sure, as a sector The Public Service needs operational innovation along the way but it’s important not to confuse the end with the means.

In the public-purpose space (government and the rest of us) innovating for public-purpose benefit, for social outcomes, is not just the long game – I believe it’s the only game.  So to focus on operational behind-the-scenes innovation at the expense of inviting other sectors – as well as community innovators – into the dilemma is to be short-sighted. It’s missing the opportunity to leverage public resources and goodwill for fixing the engine of public governance, as well as delivering public outcomes.

So if the core problem is outside of organisational borders that any of us may control, it makes sense to look for input of all kinds from others who are equally invested in how we all innovate around public outcomes. It might not be simple or easy, but that’s co-innovation.

Word #3: Action

Innovation is about achieving something, not just talking about it.  Sure, someone has to do the imaginative thinking and the inspiring talking – but it’s hard to get budget allocations for just for that!

Better understanding the place for action is a big part of understanding what real innovation is.  I like the line that paraphrases Edison: Innovation is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. Beyond the light-bulb stage of bright ideas, innovation means incubating new approaches, prototyping new models, doing something that delivers a tangible result.

There’s so much more that can be said about each of these three but for now I feel it’s enough to consider them together.  And that leads to my last two soundbites which are sort of innovation tips.

Tip #1: Get the sequence right.

In short, the three words work (best) in that order: leadership, collaboration, action.

Don’t just think about your need to collaborate after you’ve decided what you want to act on, to incubate, to prototype and develop.  In a command-and-control setting this may seem counter-intuitive, however to truly engage others in your action program you need to bring them along on the journey with you. Be human – share your doubts, be open about the part that’s not yet fully fledged.  People collaborate best when they recognise they’re needed, they make a difference to the project.

Even more so, don’t seek functional collaboration or move into action mode ahead of mobilising the leadership you’ll need around you as well as your own leadership capacity.  Cultivating a guiding coalition of engaged, committed, invested co-leaders is a crucial phase in any substantive innovation program and should start as part of defining the problem, before you have your solution in hand.

Tip #2: Together is always better.

In the words of the UFO spotters – we are not alone.  Indeed, in the context of public-purpose innovation we must not be alone.  If you think you are – or worse, should be (to protect IP or because you’re a public servant) than you’ll act in isolation from those who may hold the key to the challenge you’re resolving and won’t seek to truly collaborate.

So create a space around you and your public co-innovation initiative.  It may be a network of expertise or like-minded people.  It may be an online space to share ideas. It may be a temporary place you create for co-design or prototyping that mobilises energy and commitment.  Alternatively, you could do all of this more simply adopting a ready-made space and tapping into existing momentum. Whichever way, bring others in early to your challenge, to your vision, to mapping the innovation road ahead.

Innovating for public-purpose: a major and constant challenge, and methinks my five soundbites are way too glib on any given day. Every social challenge has its own cultural context and unexplored dark corners. But that’s why we need to innovate.

What are some of your experiences?