Leaders in innovation

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

What sort of leadership is required to help encourage innovation in the Australian Public Service? At the second of the ‘Uncomfortable Ideas’ lunchtime speaker series for Innovation Month 2014, the discussion topic was ‘Leadership or Leadersunk: are new models of leadership needed for innovation in the public service?’ We all know that leadership is important to innovation – it comes up in most discussions about supporting innovation. Yet our world is experiencing significant change, and ideas around leadership are changing too. For instance, there has been the development of holacracy and discussion of its adoption (and associated criticisms). There’s even been a company that has appointed an algorithm to its Board to vote on investment decisions. In this context, do we perhaps need to rethink our approach to leadership in the public service, in order to reach a more mature level of innovation capability? Are we comfortable to explore different models of leadership, with leadership being taken at different positional levels? Our two speakers for the event, Grant Tidswell, Deputy Secretary at the Department of Human Services, and Patricia Kelly, Director General of IP Australia, are well-regarded senior leaders. What did they think about whether we are ‘leadership or leadersunk’ when it comes to innovation in the public service?

In his position with the Department of Human Services, Grant Tidswell has over 20,000 staff reporting to him, and those staff are spread across the country and interact with a very large number of Australians.

Grant made a number of points about leadership:

    • That his role requires ensuring a degree of uniformity across the country in how things are done and how services operate, but that he also needs to encourage innovation on the front line
    • His role mixes both integration of different areas and dealing with change
    • Leadership is a gift – it is a great opportunity, it gives you a chance to help shape and mentor people (in a way not that dissimilar to a teacher). If it is gift that you do not feel comfortable with, then it is one that you should give back
    • Leadership is like being in a fishbowl – you are being watched and observed all of the time, and you need to be aware of how people perceive you, because every move you make is watched, monitored and modelled
    • There is a melting pot of ideas about leadership, and you can be bombarded with different messages about what is appropriate. Everyone needs to identify some of the common elements and adapt them to their own situation, and in a way that allows you to remain genuine and authentic
    • Leadership cannot be done anymore through command and control, it has to be more inclusive and open
    • Leaders should think carefully about what they’re doing, where they do it, how they connect and how they bring people along with them
    • In these uncertain times, the role of leaders has probably never been more important.

Grant suggested that we don’t necessarily need new models of leadership, we just require leaders to be leaders.

Patricia Kelly spoke a little about why innovation is essential to the public service, drawing on her significant personal experience as a senior leader who helped shape the public sector innovation agenda for the Australian Public Service. In the current environment, Patricia argued that innovation is more important than ever for the public service, with current demands requiring that we rethink our structures and roles, and the development and implementation of new models.

In order to understand what leadership is needed to support innovation, Patricia identified that we need to think about what impedes innovation. She identified the following inhibitors:

    • Inherent conservatism
    • Rigid and opaque processes and structures which breed a culture of conformity and punish non-conformity
    • A closed internal focus which assumes that all answers must come from within
    • Strong risk aversion
    • Tight control of employees and their work content and structure.

(Patricia noted that this was recognisably a description of the traditional bureaucracy.) On the other hand, what promotes innovation?

    • Openness and acceptance that ideas and services are not always sourced from within but that collaboration and co-creation, which can bring a diversity of experiences and ideas to bear, can deliver better outcomes
    • A level of autonomy and control for staff over their work
    • Flatter structures and devolved decision-making
    • Encouragement and rewards for creativity and risk-taking.

Of course some factors can work to both impede and assist innovation – including pressure and resources. Patricia spoke about how too much or too little of either can be a negative. A lack of resources can be a powerful stimulus for developing new ideas and help challenge existing way of doing things. Equally though, sometimes new approaches will require a certain level of investment. So do we have the right models of leadership? Patricia discussed how leadership thinking had evolved, from a traditional command and control approach to more open and inclusive styles that seek to engage and motivate people. Adaptive leadership, for instance, is a framework designed to help leaders and their organisations adapt to new challenges and to make the most of opportunities presented by a changing environment. While it is not the only leadership model around, it is indicative of the shift in thinking that has occurred. This shift in thinking has been reflected in the public service as well as the private sector. Its adoption in the public sector has, in part, been driven by factors such as increasingly complex policy issues, increased citizen expectations, constrained budgets, and increased contestability in the provision of government services and policy advice. In such an environment, Patricia noted that different leadership approaches were required, one that required us to focus more on skills such as:

    • Relationship and capacity building
    • Collaboration
    • Strategic forward thinking
    • Initiative
    • Considered risk-taking
    • Dispute resolution.

The increased professionalization of the public service has also meant that different leadership approaches are required. Patricia observed that a highly skilled workforce requires a more collaborative approach, one where we demand initiative and performance, rather than conformity, from staff. So what did Patricia think the role was for leaders? Leaders need to create the environment and opportunities for innovation to flourish, rather than being the chief innovator. They need to be a champion and enabler, and set the framework conditions for innovation. This sometimes means that leaders need to recognise that they are not the most appropriate person to a lead a significant change, and that they need to empower others – something that will not always be comfortable. Leaders need to take some risks and expect some failures. They need to persevere and follow through, and not lose their enthusiasm when problems of failures inevitably arise. Leaders need a mix of persuasion, persistence and determination in order to effect change. Patricia finished by noting five key areas for leadership to support public sector innovation:

    • Model open leadership behaviours, that gather ideas and tap into expertise widely, that are inclusive and collaborative
    • Build supportive environments and cultures, that provide employees with permission and encourage diversity of ideas
    • Build innovative capacity, and assess whether staff have the skills, technologies and resources they require to develop and apply innovative approaches
    • Develop a systematic approach to innovation, including incorporation in planning and strategic frameworks, and having a systematic approach to eliciting and managing ideas
    • Measure and reward innovation, through including innovation in plans and performance agreements, and by evaluating and learning from efforts. Leaders need to show that innovation is valued.

After sharing some examples of how innovation was being supported at IP Australia, Patricia suggested that new leadership models are indeed required to support innovation in the APS, but that they are developing and being applied across the service. From the differing presentations, there were some important areas of commonality:

    • Leadership is important, and leaders need to support and demonstrate that they value innovation
    • Supporting innovation can sometimes be an uncomfortable experience for leaders – it can require you to accept that sometimes others may be better placed to lead it
    • Leadership cannot be effectively done through a command and control style – innovation requires more collaborative and inclusive styles.

We’d like to give a big thanks to Grant and Patricia for sharing their time and wisdom on this topic for Innovation Month 2014. A special thanks also goes to NICTA’s eGov Cluster for their support of the event and providing us with an excellent venue for the event.

Videos of the talks are available Grant Tidswell and Patricia Kelly