Innovation Behaviours for the Public Service – beta version

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

Do you ever ask yourself – am I behaving in a way that will help others try new things, to propose new ideas?

It’s easy to talk about innovation. It’s also (sometimes) easy to write about innovation. It’s sometimes easy to think that it’s other people that are holding innovation back. It’s also sometimes easy to think that if you just had the chance, if you just had the time or the space, that it would be easier to be innovative.

But innovation is about people – whether it’s about getting support for an idea, having people actually use or act on the idea, or thinking about what the idea does for other people.

Because it is about people, it is about how we interact with others, and the behaviours that we model.

  • Are we acting in a way that is going to help us do things differently?
  • Are we acting in a way that is going to help others who are trying to introduce different ideas?

At the behest of the Innovation Champions Group we asked about, and then drafted, a set of Innovation Behaviours for the Public Service. We had some helpful feedback on the ‘alpha version’ of the behaviours. We’ve since made some revisions based on that feedback, so a big thank you to those who contributed.

We hope this beta version of the Innovation Behaviours may help you think about how you support innovation with your actions. (It has already prompted me on a couple of occasions to think about whether I was acting or reacting in the most helpful way.)

We’ve also put together a summary picture that might help as a bit of a checklist about our behaviours, whether as someone seeking to innovate or as someone seeking for others to innovate.

We hope that you find them useful. We are also providing them to the Innovation Champions Group to consider whether/how these might be reflected in their departments.

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 what happens. 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 task, 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 problem to be solved – don’t get attached to ‘your’ idea There are lots of ideas – but which ones will best address the issue at hand? It is very easy to get attached to one particular idea, yet the important thing is what the idea might lead to. Sometimes there will be better ideas, or circumstances mean you will need to change direction. A focus on an idea may mean stalling if the idea does not work as hoped – a focus on the problem can help keep momentum no matter what ideas are being tried
  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. Empower others – share where innovation is most needed Innovation often works best when it is a strategic activity. One of the easiest ways to empower others to innovate is to let them know where it is most needed or where it is most sought. This can help others focus on ideas that are 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 else 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, and that ideas are not expected to be perfect straight away
  4. Don’t over-react – appreciate 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.