‘Shut Up and Innovate’ – a write-up

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

On Wednesday last week the Australian Public Service Commission, in partnership with the Public Sector Innovation Network, hosted ‘Shut Up and Innovate’, an event for some 300 public servants to hear about and discuss innovation.

The session was facilitated by Dan Gregory (founder of The Impossible Institute, a strategic research and training company, and a regular guest on The Gruen Transfer) and had four panellists:

  • Jack Delosa, founder of The Entourage, Australia’s largest education institution for entrepreneurs; and listed in the BRW Young Rich List 2 years running
  • Jessica Wilson, co-founder of Stashd, an online fashion app — one of Apple’s Best New Apps in 11 countries; and also appearing on China’s SharkTank
  • Jamie Price, co-founder of digital4ge, a leading Australian technology foundry and former leader of Realesate.com.au
  • David Hazlehurst, Deputy Secretary of the Department of Industry, Innovation and Science; and Chair of the Innovation Champions Group.

It was a wide-ranging discussion, and I have attempted to capture some the main points in the following.

What is it?

  • Innovation is a means to solve problems in ways that we haven’t seen before
  • Innovation is an action, not just something we talk about
  • It is a process, not something to be done by gut feel. It is a muscle that you have to work on, i.e. it requires discipline and method
  • There are differences in innovation between the public and private sector but not that many.

How do you do it?

  • You need to be as clear as possible about what you want and why – so having a clear intent for why you need to do things differently and about what it might lead to
  • Innovation has to be aligned with the end user – what value does it provide to them, how does it fit with their life or experience
  • Innovation requires genuine collaboration – it is an activity that requires the efforts of multiple people and getting engagement with the ideas. A film studio is a better model for thinking about innovation than one of a startup founder/hero innovator
  • Diverse teams are smarter because they have access to views that they wouldn’t otherwise
  • Most value has tended to accrue to the imitators rather than those who are first to market
  • Focus on solutions beyond business as usual – and don’t shut down creativity too soon, as you need to allow ideas time to flourish, and sometimes ideas need time to come into their own
  • Ask a question beyond what is deemed possible – it may not lead to the best idea, but it can open up possibilities
  • Innovation requires effort. Innovation can be incredibly challenging as we live in a culture that finds comfort in familiarity. Innovators typically face resistance, they are doing something that is high risk, with little to point to in way of a rationale as to why (as an innovation, by definition something new, won’t have an evidence base)
  • Innovation is ultimately a numbers game – it is based on the capacity to have a lot of ideas, including bad ideas. You can remove the fear associated with innovation if you don’t focus on one idea, but have lots of ideas and recognise that quite a lot of them won’t be good ideas (but it will help you get to the good ideas).

Innovation in the APS

  • It needs to be integrated at a systemic level – it needs to penetrate into the core business of the public service
  • Innovation does happen within the Australian Public Service (APS) but it tends to be episodic and project based, and use circumstances and constraint rather than method to drive it
  • Collaboration isn’t often a fun process – it is a coming together to challenge each other – but it can lead to strong bonds and communities. The public service has taskforces that can be intense and high pressure and that create strong networks. Tribalism can be negative, but it can also be positive, as long as people work to make sure they are a member of more than one tribe.

Resistance to change

  • Dan Gregory noted that if you want people to align with a change then:
    • Demonstrate self-interest – that there’s a win in it for them
    • Show how it actually reduces risk
    • Show that it is easy to do – link it to work that they’ve done before, and consider how to reduce the friction involved in engaging with the change

  • Conflict within an organisation shouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing – a diversity of opinion and structured/constructive conflict within organisations should be encouraged.

Building an innovation culture

  • An innovative culture is one where you acknowledge that if you don’t innovate, you will go out of business. For the public service, the reality is that there is a lot of disruption happening around government, and a lot of what is done by the public service is contestable and can potentially be done by others if we do not innovate
  • However an innovative culture is not one driven by a fear of being disrupted – it is because innovation is key to what the organisation is trying to achieve – whether that be to disrupt or to just deliver
  • Any individual or organisation that knows what their purpose is should be engaged with innovation – their passion for that purpose should necessitate getting better, and that will involve innovation
  • Jack Delosa shared that for his organisation it has been important to focus on vision, mission and values:
    • Vision – what do we as an organisation want to contribute to society
    • Mission – who do we need to become to deliver that contribution
    • Values – the principles that will govern the journey/delivery.

  • Being clear about what you are innovating for is key – what problem are you trying to solve, what links people together with the problem, and who is the problem being solved for?
  • An organisation’s culture can shift because you’ve done things differently – such actions can demonstrate a culture of innovation, and also lead to a culture of innovation. Culture is informed by practice.

At the heart of the session was the proposition that innovation is at the core of being a professional, because being innovative is about getting better and doing better, and that this is just as important for the public service as it is elsewhere in society. The APS can innovate, and does innovate – but we also have the opportunity to get better at it, a challenge we share with other sectors.

There was a lot discussed, and it’s always hard to summarise all the gems, but hopefully the above does some justice to what was discussed. A big thanks goes to the panellists and to the APSC for an engaging event.