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Go on…be a Tortoise!

One of the things I have realized, sometimes painfully so, is that within the innovation management discipline how much of that takes place is change management, not innovation. In fact, the innovation management aspect is easier, in my opinion.

The change management part within the broad public sector is difficult for everyone to tackle, especially leadership. In short, change is required by the participants who engage in innovation management but even more is required by leadership.

A number of leaders who consider themselves progressive have carried out an innovation management engagement. To my knowledge, in most cases they have been clearly successful in their initiative, particularly from a contributory and community standpoint. Moreover, they (and ideally the participating community) embrace and realize the success that they attained in their innovation engagement. Then they stop doing them. These in my opinion are the hare’s. They have conducted their event, often they will tout its success on all levels and then they are at best on the fence about doing another. Too busy, too difficult, just too much…and, for some, they have done that they wanted, ticked the proverbial “box” and have moved on.

Strange, disappointing but not unfamiliar if you know government. There is not a public service organization that I am aware of at any jurisdictional level that does not endorse the concept of innovation. Some leaders have – including some who have carried out innovation campaigns and other progressive, innovation-base exercises – spoken publicly about the need to ensure that their organization/ jurisdiction/government is more innovative. Yet, they have great trouble making more than a passing commitment to this actually happening. Frustrating – certainly – that this is happening but the bigger issue is why are they not embracing the measures that would lead to embedding innovation as a cultural centerpiece for their jurisdiction or organization? I believe there are many reasons but in my opinion the biggest is that like any change exercise it is easy to stare up at the top of the mountain, shrug, and decide it is too difficult (my favorite refrain which I heard recently is “not on my watch”). There is a reason why when you scale Everest that it is done in digestible chunks that certainly include physical acclimatization but also include mental acclimatization.

Here’s a random view of thoughts about taking the long view and being an innovation tortoise rather than a hare:

1. Learning

Innovation within the public sector is not something that will come naturally within an organization, either to the participants no matter where they come from (within or outside of your ogranization) as it is not something that they are use to. Empowerment is not usually something extended to participants. Allowing participants to learn and adapt to being creative and collaborative, like anything else, takes time. Invest in that in a way that will allow people to learn and become not only comfortable with innovation but keen to embrace as a core organizational attribute. Those pilot engagements that have been successful…imagine that same group doing that for the 5th or 6th time, would they not be better at it?

2. Change

Don’t try and change your organization all at once and in one fell swoop. Find theright audience to be your pilot group, establish a game plan that includes measuring their engagement growth, and allow the pilot to take hold for 12-18 months. Make course corrections as need be so that you have a definitive direction for your organization at pilot close (or before!) From personal experience, too often public sector organizations when they do engage want to start with an all of organization “pilot”. My view is crawl before you walk, aim small to start and focus on learnings as your outcome.

3. Commitment

Perhaps the most difficult element to embrace, being truly committed to innovation is not something that comes easily to the public sector, in part becomes leadership has to blink first and take the lead. That means accepting that the relationship between leaders and their respective teams and organizations, even their clients and citizens may change. Not easy but unless leadership demonstrates that commitment it becomes a substantial task to try and get the community that you want to engage to do so.

4. Planning

Experimentation is good. Learning by trying stuff out, perhaps even failing along the way can be a great investment. My suggestion would be to do any of that, at the least, have some sort of a plan that not only demonstrates your medium to long term commitment but also logically builds off of preceding exercises and learnings. Defining a “North Star” that guides your pilot program will be worth its weight in gold for everyone.

The pressing day to day events and overloaded work plates of public servants almost always trump a strategic view. However, realize that there is urgency to put in place the underpinnings of an innovation culture. Recruiting, knowledge transfer, morale and motivation, productivity – off the top of my head – will be improved, perhaps greatly through the right innovation and collaboration management program. All of those areas and more are under ever-increasing pressure…do something now and do it in a manner that is palatable to your organization, that neither ignores innovation nor forces the pace nor ticks a box. To me that means being an innovation tortoise…and from what I remember tortoises always win.


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Andrew Krzmarzick

Teasing out a few more points from this phrase would make a great blog post (complete with stunning picture from Everest! 🙂

“There is a reason why when you scale Everest that it is done in digestible chunks that certainly include physical acclimatization but also include mental acclimatization.”

1 – Where’s the summit?
2 – Build basecamp
3 – Climb deliberately for a short distance
4 – Enjoy the climb
5 – Celebrate the summit!

Just a thought…if you don’t do it, I will 😉

Geordie Adams

Thanks Andrew, it is a really good thought and extension of the blog. If you don’t see me pick up and blog using the metaphor then feel free to do it, with your outline below I’d say it is just as much your’s as mine.

Ania Karzek

I’m interested in your view of how an aversion to risk impacts on the success of innovation in the public sector. Australia may simply have different cultural norms but I often see risk aversion as the biggest obstacle to innovation in the sector. The ‘mistakes’ (or course corrections as you phrase it) that are a normal part of an innovation process are generally feared rather than being seen as learning opportunities. Is this just a strange cultural phenonema in Australia or areare US agencies managing risk better?

Geordie Adams

Thanks for the comment Ania. I believe that Australia is the norm and just about every government that I am aware, at any level is risk averse. The consistent elements of public money coupled with the desire of most politicians to spend money “safely” (and media that are usually more tuned to covering government failures that successes when they happen) are the main culprits. Innovation, which traditionally has at its roots learning from failure, is not a good fit in the public sector even though no one I know in government dislikes innovation.

So, while companies like ours push hard to try and introduce them to innovation, often they want no part of it or, as per my blog, they engage in a tactical way. By taking a smarter, smaller, longer approach with a “pilot” mentality they can mitigate some of what they see as risk and – we believe – be able to measure, communicate, and build off of their successes.

Ania Karzek

Good to know we are ‘normal’ over here….I think. I think you are right Geordie, we all like learning, but failure (hmmm…just the very nature of the word) is not something we countenance. So then with the smaller, longer approach how do we ensure innovations survive election cycles and how do we get them adopted more broadly once they are proven to be successful? And how, in undertaking small pilots, so we ensure the innovations are scaleable?

Geordie Adams

IMHO, short answer is results, which should be easier to determine with a small (but not too small) pilot run over the right length of time. If the innovations yield results via service/process/operational changes and those are factual and documented, then the chance of an innovation program to survive, grow, and thrive through election cycles would be much higher. Second question you ask I assume refers to an innovation program as oppose to results from an innovation that has been implemented. If it is the former then you need to ensure that the pilot is not so small that it would be “structurally” unsound. By way of example we are working with a client that has 50-70 k employees, the pilot we would like to run would have 1-2 k employees committed to a vaariety of innovation initiatives over at least 1 yr. Which would be a large enough footprint and enough learnings at a large enough scale that to transition (in stages not all at once) across the enterprise with minimal adjustment should be fine.

Jay Johnson

Failure is definately a necessary part of innovation. I think the key is keeping the cost of failure low, and a well-thought out pilot can do just that. As for change management, I’m a believer in John Kotter’s 8 step module. Steps 6-8 (Celebrating quick wins, not letting up, and embedding change into culture) describe how to get over the “tortoise hump” you mention. My organization has been using this model for change management successfully for a few years now.