Overview of Innovation Month 2014

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

What came out of Innovation Month 2014 – Empower, Collaborate, Transform? What themes or issues emerged?

We will be working with our colleagues from across the APS and our partners outside of the APS on the formal reporting about Innovation Month, but we’ve had an initial shot at pulling together some of the initial themes, analysis and thoughts.

Key observations

There was a lot to take in from the many, many events held, but the following are my attempt at picking out some of the key insights:

    • Constraint can be a powerful driver of innovation. The public service faces some challenges, but if we focus on those we limit ourselves. We need to consider the opportunities for doing things differently
    • That doesn’t mean that leadership, culture and systems are not important. Support is needed to help navigate the hurdles and make the most of opportunities when they arise
    • Positional leaders (those in positions of leadership) need to support and demonstrate that they value innovation. They need to take some risks and expect some failures. Leaders will likely not be the prime innovators, but they help shape the environment and can help an innovation become established. Innovation requires collaborative and open leadership, including the willingness to recognise that others may have the answers
    • While leaders are important, everyone plays a role in making innovation happen, whether it be our attitude to risk, failure, or how (if) we engage with the ideas of others
    • Failure will happen. Failure is an inevitable aspect of dealing with complexity. However only certain types of failure should be considered worthy of censure, and we can do much to minimise the impacts of any failures by using design methods, by prototyping, by testing ideas out, and by iterating quickly
    • We need to make room for ourselves to make mistakes and learn from them
    • We can do better at making the case, and explaining the need, for change by making the evidence, the issues and the options visual, and by drawing on the lived experience/human stories
    • Innovation is as much about truly understanding the problem you are trying to address as it is in developing the ideas
    • Good thinking and good ideas are useless unless you can ask and answer the question of what will work on the ground
    • Measurement is important – but there will not always be easy or existing measures when you do something really new
    • The public service tends to overestimate the likelihood of some risks (and underestimate the risks of sticking with the status quo)
    • The process of innovation involves establishing your strategic direction, brainstorming and development of ideas, the use of tools and methodologies, and working in different ways
    • Breakthroughs do not come from ordinary thinking
    • Most organisations fail because they didn’t expect a surprise that they should have seen coming. Agility in our organisations, in our people and leaders, and in our processes, is crucial
    • We (as public servants and as the public service) face a choice between innovation or irrelevance (or being replaced by robots!). Just as the rest of the economy is changing, so too do we need to respond with changes
    • There are differences to innovation in the public sector than in the private sector, but we also share a lot of similar challenges
    • Innovation is happening in the APS (though we’re not always good at sharing it) but we can still do much more.

Some useful bits of advice

    • Get involved – innovation is not a spectator sport
    • Get started – identify what you can do now, without needing further permission
    • Get connected – you should seek to network if you want to innovate (but not too much). Find allies, but also recognise that you need to be able to collaborate, including with people that you don’t agree with
    • Identify the opportunities
        • we need to challenge beliefs that everyone else takes for granted. What has remained unchanged for 3 to 5 years? That will likely be where the innovation will be
        • identify projects that could be done if the resources needed were available – then look for opportunities to mobilise the necessary resources (including by innovating to free up resources)
    • Plan, have a Plan B and be prepared for needing a Plan C – planning and strategy cannot/will not predict everything that you might have to deal with in doing something new, but they are an important discipline that will help you anyway


    • Be brave – if you live fearing failure, you’ll never try, and never achieve success


    • Use different methods of conveying the case for change
        • if a picture is worth a thousand words, then clear and effective visualisation is worth more than a stack of written briefing documen
        • use stories, use the pain points and problems that people have with the current situation to argue for why things need to change
    • Be prepared to be uncomfortable – innovation (and leading innovation) can be uncomfortable, particularly for professionals, as it means you’ll have to recognise that sometimes other people (whether your staff, stakeholders, or peers) will know more and be able to contribute in ways more than you
    • Focus on outcomes and vision – seek to align people’s natural motivations with a common vision, concentrate on the outcomes and experience that you want to achieve
    • Take responsibility and ownership – individuals need to take responsibility for their ideas. Innovation is about looking at an idea and growing it a little bit, testing assumptions, identifying risks and resource consequences, and developing it to the stage that there is a way to take the idea forward
    • Be awesome – be awesome!


Some of the questions that I thought were raised (or left unresolved) by the discussions, workshops and events included:

    • The right balance between incremental change and significant or disruptive innovation – how do you know when is right to make dramatic changes (which risk large unintended consequences and implementation issues)? How do you know it is right to make smaller adjustments (which risk being insufficient when the underlying conditions have shifted, or when other players are disrupting the environment)?
    • The right structures and processes to embed innovation in large hierarchical organisations – have we really identified what they are and how replicable they are?
    • The best ways to support individual public servants – many of the skills that can help equip people for innovating have been identified (for instance design thinking, horizon scanning, visualisation), but how do we best spread those skills, give people the confidence to apply them, and help them navigate how to use them in combination with their existing skills, disciplines and organisational processes?
    • The right platforms or mechanisms to best support cross-APS collaboration – how can we best work across silos and organisational structures on the common problems when we need to?
    • The public service is undergoing significant transformation – what are we trying to transform to? Where are our positive visions of change? What transformation(s) will best aid us to deliver value? If we were to incrementally change, what wouldn’t we change? If we were to start again (or burn it down as one presenter put it) what would we wish we had kept?

Some final thoughts

    • The risk/reward balance may be changing, and innovation may be becoming the less risky default for individuals. As was said at one event, the stereotype is that it is hard to get fired from the public service, so where’s the risk in trying something different? Or, as another presenter quoting Hilary Duff, put it “if you lose the moment you might lose a lot, so why not? Why not?”
    • The difference between success and failure can be paper-thin – we should not treat failure as a ‘life is over’ moment, but as an opportunity to learn
    • We know a fair amount about innovation, but the process of innovation is itself changing over time and we can be much more sophisticated about how we approach it
    • Change is the new constant.

It is hard to distil everything from the many events and presenters, but these were some of the main takeaways for me from Innovation Month 2014.