Innovating by not doing something

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

A lot of what we discuss on this blog is about the introduction of new things – innovation as the addition of something new. But innovation can also be about stopping something. Or it can be about getting rid of something that exists to make room for a new innovation. The whole point of innovation is to do something better, and this implies that previous practices will eventually be replaced by subsequent innovations. If innovations do not result in some activities being stopped, then eventually there will be insufficient resources for anything new to be introduced.

As we noted in Empowering Change: Fostering Innovation in the Australian Public Service “The public service is readily able to implement new programs and services, but getting rid of outdated or unneeded programs appears to be harder” and “A long-running service is more likely to be operating smoothly and performing well, but it might also no longer be necessary”. Nothing works as well as something that isn’t needed anymore.

NESTA (the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts) in the UK has announced it is developing a research project to explore the implications of decommissioning existing approaches and the impact this has on innovation. “Innovation necessarily means changing the way of doing things – stopping doing something, as much as starting doing something else. But in public services it is very difficult to stop providing services, even when they are failing. The problem for innovation in public services is therefore not a lack of new ideas, but the inability to stop existing approaches and redirect resources towards innovation.” 1

University of Queensland academic Jason Potts wrote about this topic in last year’s public sector innovation edition of Innovation: Management, Policy and Practice. In “Innovation by elimination: A proposal for negative policy experiments in the public sector” he proposes that Government needs a stronger mechanism of destruction to remove the build up of public sector activity (which in the private sector is done by consumer substitution or consumers rewarding more innovative products and services) to make room for innovative approaches. Dr Potts suggests an innovation by elimination mechanism involving experimentally stopping a selection of public sector initiatives, measuring the results and then reinstating and continuing the program if there is net value. I recommend reading his piece if you can – it’s quite a provocative piece, particularly for those of us who are public servants.

In the public sector, we all deal with processes and procedures in our day to day work environment, but have you considered how many of them are there by design, or through legacy? Whilst not suggesting that you look at everything you do with a view to finding parts to cut, it’s worth keeping in mind that for the purposes of innovation, removing something from the equation may have the same effect as adding to it.

  1. This quote is not covered by the Creative Commons licence. From NESTA “Stopping What Doesn’t Work” accessed at