Innovation Behaviours for the Public Service – alpha version

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

If we want to encourage innovation, then we need to encourage and support the behaviours that will lead to innovative thinking and doing.

As part of the work supporting the Innovation Champions Group, we sought suggestions and advice about the behaviours that people who are doing new things need to demonstrate (or avoid). We also wanted to know what the behaviours were that were needed to be shown (or avoided) by leaders. In response we received a number of suggestions and some suggested writing or research relating to the topic – thank you to everyone who contributed.

So what did we find?

Well, there is research about the characteristics of what makes an innovator – for instance being able to connect fields and ideas that others find unrelated, questioning, and being an intense observer.

There is research that describes the key considerations for organisations seeking to innovate – such as aspiring and setting innovation targets, choosing which ideas to support and scale, the ability to accelerate and extend.

There is research that shows that trust is very important for innovation – particularly to have trust in colleagues that they have genuine care and concern as innovation is about making yourself, your ideas and your position, vulnerable.

There is work by the Canadian Conference Board on the skills you need to contribute to an organisation’s innovation performance – including looking for new ways to create value; rethinking the way things are done; assessing and managing risk; engaging others; listening to valuing diverse opinions and perspectives; and accepting feedback.

And there is extensive literature on innovative organisations, the process of innovation and about ideas and innovators. There’s also much written with advice for government innovators, including one of my favourites, the ‘Paradoxical Commandments of Government’ (“Your ideas will at best make someone else look good and at worst get you ostracized by your co-workers. Share your ideas anyway.”).

These all include some very pertinent points. However if we want to limit ourselves to a small number of behaviours, ones that might reflect the broader spread – gateway behaviours – which do we choose? What are some simple behaviours that people can adopt – the things that they can do, as opposed to descriptors of who or what they are?

The below is the ‘alpha’ version of behaviours for innovators and those supporting or leading innovation, as endorsed by the Innovation Champions Group.

For Innovators – people seeking to do something innovative

  1. Ask questions – of others and of yourself Innovation is about changing our behaviour, the way we do things, and how we understand problems and solutions. When you question some aspect of the status quo, you open yourself to seeing different options and ways of doing things. Question assumptions, question how and why things are done the way they are, question whether there might be a better way, ask whether there might be a different way of looking at things or whether there might be others who can add insight. Use answers to those questions to build a richer understanding of the current situation, what the problems are and what might be done.
  2. Try things – experiment a little (or a lot) Innovation is uncertain – if you knew exactly what was going to happen, then it wouldn’t be innovative. To reduce that uncertainty, you have to experiment in some way, to test the idea and how it works. The easiest way to experiment is to make the idea real or tangible in some form, such as a mock-up, a prototype or a rehearsal. This can be done quickly and at low cost, at least initially. As with an experiment, there should be openness to results that may not be what was expected or wanted, including failure, criticism or no reaction.
  3. (Help) Tell a story – who does this matter to and why? Why will this make things better? What will it allow us to do? How will this idea contribute to priorities, to getting better outcomes? It is easy for a new idea to seem like an additional thing, a distraction from core business. If it is part of a story, if you can identify how and why this matters, then the innovation can become part of existing work, rather than more work.
  4. Focus on the outcome – don’t get attached to ‘your’ idea It is very easy to get attached to an idea, yet the important thing is what the idea might lead to. If an idea is your idea, then it may stay limited to being your idea. If an idea is shared, and can be built on and shared by others, it is more likely to become a reality.
  5. Stick at it – believe in the power of persistence Getting people to change their behaviour, to change how they think about something, can be hard. Ideas may not work out as hoped. Other people may say “no” or otherwise dismiss your idea. Developing an innovative proposal may require going outside your comfort zone or involve new skills or methods. A new idea may mean you need to go out and build new networks or find support from different quarters. If you want to innovate, you need to persist at it.

For leaders – people wanting others to do something innovative

  1. Tell people where innovation is most needed One of the easiest ways to empower others to innovate is to let them know where it is most needed. This can help ensure that ideas that come forward will more likely fit with strategic needs and aims.
  2. Invite in the outliers – demonstrate that diversity is valued Innovation involves new ways of looking at things, and that requires tapping into different networks and groups and experiences, different ways of working and thinking, and allowing and encouraging constructive debate. One way to foster an environment that values diversity is to actively invite in those with different perspectives, from outside and inside your organisation. Who are the outliers that represent new or different ways of understanding your world? Invite them into the conversation and show that you are open to very different insights.
  3. Say “Yes, and” not “No, because” It can be hard to put forward a new idea, but very easy to stop someone doing it. “A raised eyebrow or a sceptical look can kill an idea before it gets any oxygen”. Building on an idea can help ensure you don’t miss out on a great new way of doing things. It helps people know that you value ideas and creativity.
  4. Don’t panic – tolerate experimental error Things will go wrong. There will be mistakes as things are learnt through innovation. Some, if not most, ideas will fail to come to anything. People will try things that don’t work. One adverse reaction to an innovative attempt can stop any further innovation. Provide guidance on where there is room to experiment, and where there can only be rigorously tested and checked initiatives. Create the space for ‘safe’ experimentation. Cultivate reflective learning, where experimental mistakes are discussed and learnt from, and not hidden or seen as shameful.
  5. Support innovators and share stories of success Innovation can be hard. It can be hard going against the status quo or working on something that may not, initially, fit with the rest of an organisation. Developing a new idea can involve running into a lot of roadblocks. Innovative ideas will require time and resources to be developed into real and tested proposals. They will need protection from the ongoing pressures of business-as-usual work. Innovators will need to be supported. Sharing stories of success can help build wider support, demonstrate the value that innovation can bring and show that it can be done, and help connect those who have implemented something new with those who are trying to do something new.

What do you think? Are these a fair representation of the behaviours that will lead to innovative activity that leads to better outcomes?

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