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A Guide to Innovation – How Do I Become an Innovator?

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When I started writing this blog, I wanted to get people thinking about the public service in different ways. If you read about a good idea, I encourage you to take it back to your office and try to implement it. As an innovator, you will face challenges. Some ideas will flop and some will succeed. To use personal examples, Yammer flopped in my workplace but an emphasis on “welcoming and guiding” new employees through an expanded orientation and onboarding process has been a huge success. As an innovator, you have to be ready for the inevitable push back from the established system. You run the risk of getting in trouble for thinking outside the box. You can see wonderful ideas die before they are ever executed. It comes par with the territory of being an innovator. You also have to recognize that all ideas are not good ideas. Where you see the need for change, another may see the need to stay the course. Innovation and change are not easy and if you want to become an innovator in the public service there are some basic things you can be doing to increase your odds of success.

1) Understand the environment you work in. What do I mean by this? You must understand the capacity for innovation in your workplace. Do the people you work with embrace new technology easily? Do they routinely try new things? Are they very process orientated? Does your organization have programs in place to support innovation? By understanding your organization’s desire and capacity to innovate you can change your strategy for becoming an innovator. You can try smaller more incremental ideas or try for more radical ideas. At the end of the day, just remember to scale your ideas to fit the desire for innovation in your workplace. If they are set in their ideas, they will not want to try something radically different. Your success will be entirely dependent on picking the right approach for your workplace.

2) Remember to show respect to all of your co-workers. What do I mean by this? Well as an innovator be very careful in how you pitch new ideas. Remember that the way you present your ideas will determine if you get the support you need or not. Many of your co-workers have developed systems for getting their work done, carefully refined over the course of their career. In many cases, your co-workers have been doing things “that way” for quite sometime. You will not get the support you need to innovate from your co-workers if your new idea is presented (or even assumed to be) a commentary on the existing system and its failures. A new idea presented the wrong way can be insulting to your co-workers who might feel like they are being told that they have been doing things wrong for years. If this thought takes hold, then your co-workers become opposed to your idea and the chances of success are greatly diminished. So when you have an idea, especially one that will impact the work of your co-workers, remember to not only seek the input of your co-workers but actively get them involved in the creation and implementation of the new idea. Remember that your idea is not about commenting on the past performance of your co-workers but about making incremental changes that make the public service efficient and effective in a changing world.

3) Don’t pitch ideas for the sake of pitching ideas. Take a focused and effective approach when pitching ideas. Be selective in pitching ideas by evaluating your chances of success. You want to be known as an innovator and not just as someone who pitches ideas but never follows through. Take a focused approach to ensure you pick ideas that offer real change and fit the context of the environment you work in (see point #1). Don’t try to do radical change overnight. The public service is slow to change and very risk adverse. Small incremental change over a long period of time will bring real change. And most important of all in your approach is to pick your battles carefully. Some fights are not worth it especially if they fracture relationships with your co-workers or other stakeholders. Demonstrate results to those around you, earn the respect of your co-workers and over time you will be able to invoke real change in the public service.

Follow these three points and you can become a public service innovator. Remember that when pitching ideas you must always be aware of the capacity for change where you work, be respectful of your co-workers and take a focused and carefully planned approach. You have the ability to be an innovator. If enough of us public servants commit to constant innovation done within some ground rules, we can ensure that the public service offers the best value for money to taxpayers and meets the needs of a 21st century world.

Scott McNaughton, thenewbureaucracy.ca

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I like your example about Yammer – it’s hard but any good innovators takes those lumps. We’ve had them at GovLoop too – where new ideas I thought would be amazing never take off but on the other side, things I wasn’t sure about really took off.

Scott Primeau

Very good insights. I’d add that, in order to innovate, an organization needs to have a commitment to continuous improvement and to meeting customers’ and employees’ needs. With an overall sense of finding ways to improve, innovation and change are dead in the water.

Scott McNaughton

Thanks for the comments.

To truly innovate you do need the support of your organization. However, it is still possible to innovate even in an organization that doesn’t want innovation or doesn’t seem to support it. It just means the fight to implement the innovation will be tougher but… I would disagree that innovation is dead in the water.