Can innovation be routine?

The recent Innovation Week events gave me a chance to meet a lot of people and hear almost as many view points about innovation. Some of the conversations made me wonder, do we sometimes put innovation in a special box?

For instance, what do the following statements relate to?

    • ‘It’s about the culture of an organisation’
    • ‘It’s everyone’s job’
    • ‘It’s about leadership’
    • ‘I’m not given enough time to do it’
    • ‘It’s no good trying to do that at my organisation’
    • ‘I’m a policy officer, it’s not seen as part of my role’
    • ‘I’m too busy dealing with the needs of our clients/stakeholders’
    • ‘I’m not given the skills, training, support or guidance’

I’ve heard all of these said about innovation. Equally though, on other occasions, I’ve heard them said about:

    • Human resources/management – ‘It’s about the culture of an organisation’
    • Legal processes – ‘It’s everyone’s job’
    • Strategy – ‘It’s about leadership’
    • Information management – ‘I’m not given enough time to do it’
    • ICT/computer systems – ‘It’s no good trying to do that at my organisation’
    • Communications – ‘I’m a policy officer, it’s not seen as part of my role’
    • Finance/administration procedures – ‘I’m too busy dealing with the needs of our clients/stakeholders’
    • Any function that has not been effectively integrated with the agency’s processes – ‘I’m not given the skills, training, support or guidance’

These functions are all things that:

    • you can receive training in and instruction on even though it may not be the main responsibility in your job
    • some people seem to have a gift for them or are more inclined and interested towards them
    • organisations often provide support for them through a dedicated area or part of a team
    • even though somewhere else in the organisation supports/facilitates/coordinates it, other people in the organisation may do it as part their job (even if it is only occasionally)
    • can be jobs (‘I’m a project manager/legal counsel’) or skills (‘I have project management/law experience’)
    • an organisation does not generally want going wrong.

Is innovation different to these other common functions and processes? Does it have characteristics that set it apart from those other functions that mean that it should not be organised in a similar fashion?

The Innovation Matrix

I think a useful starting point for looking at this question is Tim Kastelle’s ‘Innovation Matrix.’

A 3 by 3 matrix with innovation competence on the vertical and innovation commitment on the horizontal. The top row from left to right has unicorns, stars (at risk), and world class innovators. The second row from left to right has accidental innovators, fit for purpose, and potential stars. The bottom row from left to right has not innovating very much, thinking about innovation, and bewildered.

The matrix is based on a premise that organisations can only become good at innovation if they are both committed to it and increase their competence at it [1. Tim Kastelle identifies that competence requires such things as the successful execution and diffusion of ideas, the practice of different forms of innovation (e.g. service, organisational or conceptual), undertaking both big and small innovations, being good at all the stage along the ideas management process, building a culture of systematic experimentation. Innovation commitment involves innovation as a core value, providing supporting systems such as ideas management systems, dedicated resources, innovation metrics, management support and innovation integrated into strategy. For a detailed explanation see and]. This is pretty logical – no organisation can expect to get better at something if they do not support it and actively try to get better at it.

If we accept this framework, there are no ‘unicorns’ – organisations that are very competent at innovation but with low commitment towards it. You cannot be very good at innovation if you are not committed. You can be very committed to innovation but unless you also focus on competence, on the practice of innovation, the organisation is likely to just be ‘bewildered’ (though perhaps with the occasional insightful moments).

The ability to be consistently good at innovation (in fact to be consistently good at any activity) requires both commitment and focus on competence – e.g. it requires integration into the organisation’s structure, planning, processes, practices and culture.

In the public sector this explicit commitment and focus on competence is likely to be even more important than in the private sector. The default position for public sector agencies, which includes an understandable bias towards risk aversion, is unlikely to naturally favour innovation. Innovation therefore needs to be integrated into how an agency operates if it wants to ensure that a focus on compliance and avoiding irreversible mistakes is balanced by experimentation, learning and improvement.

Making innovation routine

In stretched financial times resourcing an additional function can be a hard ask. But what if we turn the question around? In a time of significant change, where new demands and constraints are being placed on agencies, can an agency afford not to do things differently? Is it sufficient to be:

    • Not innovating very much
    • Thinking about innovation
    • Bewildered, or
    • Accidental innovators?

Not every agency will want or need to be a ‘world class innovator’. But it is hard to think of an agency that will be comfortable with an approach to innovation that is, in Tim Kastelle’s terms,‘not very much’ or ‘bewildered’.

Now ‘bureaucratising’ innovation may seem counter-intuitive – innovation is about creativity, exploration, play, experimentation and doing things differently. But it is also a process and one that is about operating within constraints, risk management (not avoidance), while achieving desired outcomes. Agencies will need to innovate to achieve some of their desired outcomes, and must organise for innovation accordingly.

Just as different agencies and different sized agencies will organise and undertake other routine functions differently, and focus on different aspects, so too will it be with innovation. Empowering Change: Fostering Innovation in the Australian Public Service and the APS Innovation Action Plan both recognise that. They provide the framework, but it is up to agencies to decide the appropriate levels of commitment and competence that is right for their situation. And I think we are seeing that in agencies – but like any new function, it will take time to work out how it best fits with all of the other functions, processes and traditions that make up an organisation.

It should be noted that just because an organisation does attempt to make innovation routine, it is not guaranteed that they will become good at or excel at it (just like any other function). Rather, it is difficult to see how they will become consistently good at innovation if they do not intergrate it into their ongoing processes.

Why now?

Of course, public sector agencies have been innovating for much of their history (just like private sector firms). If organisations have managed before without it making it routine, why now? I think the reasons include that:

    • we are beginning to learn a lot more about how the innovation process works, particularly in the public sector. If you want a good result out of service design there is growing agreement over the practices that you should follow. If you want to use competitions and challenges to drive new outcomes then there are certain parameters that you should operate within to get a good result. The same is the case for many other approaches (which is why we have been developing the Innovation Toolkit)
    • as we become more experienced with various innovation processes and methodologies the associated skill-sets to do them well will expand
    • much of the ‘low hanging fruit’ has been reached – many of the easier gains from business process improvement and innovation have been made. To achieve greater gains will require a more sophisticated approach to innovation.

Your thoughts

What do you think? Is innovation different? Or will it too have to be made a routine function of organisations?