Can Innovation Chase the Wrong Things?


Organizations innovate for customers, but customers don’t think about innovation. In a digital world, customers think about ease and convenience, speed, security. Citizens care about receiving what they were promised. And in government, that means many things to many people.

So if innovation means doing something different to add value for customers, what does it mean to “add value?” How do we know what that is, or find out?

It’s easy to trip over semantics, so let’s distinguish between values and desires. Values are core beliefs that broadly guide individual and organizational behavior. Values are stable and reflect end-game or ideal states. Think of meeting a mission. Making something better for someone. Performing to the best of one’s ability.

Customer desires are situation-specific, and more volatile. As a customer’s situation changes – perhaps their schedule, budget, staffing, or priorities – what they desire can vary from a fast answer to more time, to a new app. And you have many customers, each of which is entitled to their own answer at any given time.

Given this kaleidoscope of possibilities, what should you innovate? Follow these best practices to avoid chasing the wrong things:

  • Focus on the mission. Values are embedded in agency missions. Caring for Veterans. Ensuring justice. Protecting the environment. Food safety. Start with the mission, and return to it, to keep conversations and efforts focused on values.
  • Think “means” and “ends.” A program manager might desire more effective and efficient operations. A citizen might desire faster online access to data. Ultimately, desires are driven by the values embedded in the mission. View your customers desires – the situational “asks” they present you – as means to the end of accomplishing the mission and delivering the values it espouses.
  • Solve your customer’s customer’s problem. This is a great way to piece things together. If you’re in a support office, ask how an innovation will help your customer serve their customer. If you’re a program office, ask how an innovation will help an American citizen or business serve someone else. This one is trickier but worth the thought experiment. If you care for a Veteran, for whom do they care? If you ensure justice for a defendant, a voter, a loan applicant, for whom do they care? Ponder this value chain and you’ll be surprised by insights that can inform your innovation decision making.
  • Pool intelligence. Customers’ views are rightly parochial. You have the option and advantage of looking across many customers over time, to pool input for your decision making. Gather ideas not only from your customers but from your team, suppliers, NGOs, and other stakeholders in your network. The variety of views will surface the most salient innovation needs – and they’ll reflect the values embedded in the mission.

Organizations can innovate their business models, their technology, or both. Organizations can also innovate incrementally, moderately, or dramatically. Smaller innovations improve processes or access, speed, security, or convenience. Bigger innovations are game-changing. Through them, you unthink what you knew and rethink entire approaches to meeting the mission.

No matter what you innovate, to what degree, following these best practices will help you chase the right things to add value for a customer – and perhaps for someone your customer serves or cares about.

Lou Kerestesy is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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