Championing Innovation: 8 Approaches for Forward-Thinking Leaders [PLUS CHECKLIST]

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How can leaders unlock innovation in the public sector?

The need for innovation in the public sector has never been greater. Rising public demand for more responsive services, a challenging political, economic and social context, and a strong commitment to make real improvements to the quality of life for citizens requires all of us to think and act differently.

Yet opportunities for innovation are being lost. It seems that good ideas are getting stuck and staying small, while legacy systems, old policies and procedures live on despite poor or weak evidence of their effectiveness.

We all hold a key to unlock innovation within our teams, across the public sector and beyond. That key is leadership: a vision for better, motivation to bring others along, resilience to hold steady through implementation and openness to change course when things don’t work.

As leaders we have the opportunity to capture the imagination of other leaders at all levels, and enable those leaders to foster innovation in their teams, to generate ideas and implement solutions that shift outcomes for our population. We can influence our culture to ensure that innovation thrives. We can build the capacity to innovate and can nurture the skills and values of public entrepreneurs. We can ensure processes serve purpose. We can collaborate and co- design for improved public service. Collectively we can enable a culture of innovation for improved public service.

As part of research conducted jointly by CES and the Innovation Lab, we identified eight ways for leaders in the public sector to unlock and drive innovation:

1.    Create a culture where innovation thrives.

2.    Capture the imagination of leaders at all levels.

3.    Put innovation at the heart of the day job.

4.    Recognise and build capacity to innovate.

5.    Ensure processes serve purpose.

6.    Collaborate and co-design.

7.    Think implementation early and often.

8.    Pay attention to context.


Don’t miss the Leader’s Innovation Checklist at the end of the article.

Create a culture where innovation thrives

We created the culture we have. Together we can create a culture that stimulates, supports and embeds innovation. The culture needs to be encouraging, permissive and supportive of work across department and organisation boundaries. We should nurture incremental innovation as well as enabling the ‘big shiny stuff’.

What you can do:

  • Provide time and space to frame problems creatively, to generate ideas, to think differently, to try out and to implement.
  • Share and celebrate good innovation using a range of social and other media, and events to reach all staff.
  • Incentivise innovation e.g. a competition for innovation funding and recognise people whose behaviours enable all aspects of innovation (from ideas to implementation).

Capture the imagination of leaders at all levels

Leadership and visible commitment from the top was seen as necessary but insufficient. The real trick is to capture the imagination and enable the actions of leaders at all levels. We need to ‘believe it, enable it and model it’ ourselves.

What you can do:

  • Support team leaders to foster innovation in their teams, to generate ideas and implement solutions that shift outcomes for our population.
  • Share stories that challenge the status-quo and motivate action
  • Signal attention to innovation at the top; for example, identify an Innovation Champion at Northern Ireland Civil Service (NICS) Board level.

Put innovation at the heart of the day job

Innovation is not an add-on to the day job – it is how we do the day job.

What you can do:

  • Sponsor and champion innovation in practice, not in name only.
  • Include innovation in competence frameworks, recruitment and performance conversations.
  • Take the jargon out of it and make innovation meaningful to everyone – finding new ways of working are relevant to all.

Recognise and build capacity to innovate

The skills deficit was recognised earlier as an obstacle to innovation. Consequently, as leaders we must identify the skills we need and find ways to bring the right people to the right place to bring about and sustain successful innovation.

What you can do:

  • Create a Community of Practice – sponsor the creation of a movement of engaged, inspired and energetic people within the system who will espouse, promote and practice innovation, and bring their collective energy to bear in addressing complex issues.
  • Develop the skill base through cross fertilisation of people between NICS and ALBs, Councils etc. Send people out to gather skills and bring others in.
  • Identify, develop and enable the work of public entrepreneurs.

Ensure processes serve purpose

Implementation of innovation will fail if systems and processes are not aligned to support the change. In any innovation we should consider the supporting processes and where necessary challenge and innovate around the processes where they do not serve purpose (that is, improved outcomes).

What you can do:

  • Review the business case and procurement processes through an ‘enabling innovation’ lens.
  • Let go of old processes and policies and implement new on the basis of evidence of effectiveness.
  • Use the Innovation Lab strategically, deliver targeted Strategic Insight Labs, an approach that helps to explore complex issues with a view to finding fresh insights.

Collaborate and co-design

Complex social problems require collaboration and co-designed solutions. The Programme for Government sets clear outcomes, achievable only through collaboration across departments, organisations and sectors.

What you can do:

  • Involve the people who have a stake. Think co-design and co-production. Make collaboration with other sectors the norm.
  • Form cross-cutting teams with cross-cutting budgets linked to Programme for Government outcomes.
  • Adopt the Innovation Lab approach to addressing complex public sector problems – do your research, speak to the user and design for the user, not just the system.

Think implementation early and often

Innovation begins with exploration, curiosity and idea generation. Innovation is complete when there is sustainable implementation. Sustainable implementation needs to be considered and planned from the outset.

What you can do:

  • Think about implementation earlier in the innovation journey but be careful not to stifle the ideas.
  • We talk a great story – sometimes we just need to go and fix things. We need to move quicker to do things.
  • Encourage learning about implementation, share tools and resources and develop staff at all levels to lead implementation. CES has developed an online guide to implementation, and has gathered a range of practical tools to support individuals and teams.

Pay attention to context

Successful innovation requires understanding of the context of the problems that we are looking to resolve and the system in which we are working. Failure to understand the context will lead to failure to innovate.

What you can do:

  • Take time to properly explore the issue and understand the context
  • Involve the people who have an appreciation of the context and system, those with authority and resource, as well as those who will benefit (and those who may lose out) from the problem being resolved.
  • Recognise and accept that your innovation won’t be perfect. Complex problems may have clumsy solutions. Your innovation may not work and reaching that conclusion isn’t failure.

This article was adapted from a report co-authored by Innovation Lab and CES. Read the full report including research findings and insights from industry leaders here.

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