Innovation 101

[Originally published on the Australian Government Public Sector Innovation Network under a Creative Commons 3.0 BY AU licence]

On this site we talk about innovation all the time, but sometimes it’s important to remember that not everyone is familiar with what it is or what it really means.

In response to my previous post on the Innovation Toolkit one of the commenters (Con) said that the Toolkit should start from the start and be a course in innovation. I’ve also been asked recently by another agency whether there were any short overarching pieces on public sector innovation.

While there are some resources available on the topic, I thought it worth while to write a short overarching piece on what we mean by public sector innovation and cover some of the typical questions we hear.

What is innovation?

Innovation is defined in Empowering Change: Fostering Innovation in the Australian Public Service as the generation and application of new ideas. Apart from being a simple definition, this helps us remember that:

    • Innovation is not always a new product, service or process – for instance a new innovative idea may be as simple as stopping doing an out-moded and unnecessary function or it might be a new way of considering an issue;
    • Innovation is not just about coming up with ideas, but about applying and using them and monitoring them over the longer term;
    • Innovation is a process – it can be managed and encouraged; and
    • Everyone has the capacity to be innovative.

It should also be remembered that innovation is not automatically good – there are examples of innovations that have resulted in negative value (i.e. were first thought of as positive but over time were seen as bad). Likewise, there are examples of ideas that were initially thought to not provide additional value but in hindsight would have been value adding.

Why should I innovate (in the public sector)?

For some people the answer is, just because they want to and they have one or more ideas that they want to put into practice. For others it’s about looking at how to achieve better results for their stakeholders or clients. It might also be about responding to challenges facing you in your job or facing your agency.

Of course there will be others who are not interested in innovating, or whose interest will rise and wane over time. And that’s okay – no one is saying that everyone needs to innovate or that we need to innovate all of the time. But innovation is necessary for improvement and the APS is looking at how it can better tap into people’s innovative drive.

Isn’t innovation spontaneous? 

Some people prefer to be given space to innovate and to think up their own solutions, whereas others will prefer to direct their innovative spirit towards particular issues or problems that have been identified. Everyone has ideas, and personally I’ve found that the more ideas I have, the more I have. I find focussing on a particular problem or issue useful as it helps me prioritise where I should direct my thinking.

There are a lot of tools and approaches that can help direct innovation towards particular challenges or issues. We are still learning about what approaches work best. While the APS has always innovated, it is only more recently that there has been a push for a more systematic and systemic approach to innovation. Our aim is to share those lessons, from us here at the Department of Innovation and from all of you, in the Toolkit so that we all continue to get better at it.

How does innovation fit with business improvement/continuous improvement?

Innovation can be seen as a continuum from small shifts to really radical changes that can transform our view of the world and how it operates. Continuous improvement frameworks can assist some forms of innovation, however, care needs to be taken that they do not stifle more radical options when they are needed. We’re still learning how best to encourage those different types of innovation.

I’ve already got a great idea – why won’t someone just listen and implement it?

Everyone has ideas. At the same time agencies have lots of issues to deal with and manage at any one time. It can be hard to line up the right idea with the right people, the right resources, and at the right time. Even then the innovation process has different stages and not everyone will be able to personally carry an idea from the beginning to end.

In our work we are trying to help agencies and individuals identify the tools to help them carry their ideas through these stages and to consider the different barriers to innovation that they might encounter. But that does not mean that every idea will make it. Most innovation efforts involve a lot of failed ideas for every successful one.

But I think innovation is different to what you’ve said…

Now not everyone will agree with what I’ve written here. Even within our team we can disagree over specific elements of what innovation is or isn’t. I have heard innovation described as a journey, and I think that description is apt – it’s a personal journey, it’s hard to help others take shortcuts, and you aren’t necessarily headed in the same direction.

And that’s probably the key thing to know about innovation – it does not fit easily within a box and it often means different things to different people. But this is my take on it, so feel free to add your thoughts below and we’ll look to incorporate them into our introductory material for the Toolkit.