Innovating innovation – Part 1

We are all innovators now.

In Whitehall, there is to be a new assessment model behind the programme of capability reviews, with one of the changes being ‘challenging departments to innovate’:

A new element in the ‘delivery’ segment – ‘Innovate and improve delivery’ – challenges departments to develop a culture in which innovation can flourish. Technological advances, growing citizen expectations and challenging economic circumstances make it even more important that departments put in place the systems, processes and communication networks to enable those involved in the design and delivery of public services to come together, share ideas and good practice and develop new solutions to deliver better outcomes for citizens.

It is all too easy to get completely tied up in knots about the question of what does or doesn’t count as innovation, and tempting to define it as anything you feel like its being.  The myths that innovation is something done to organisations or services, or that it is best done by a lone genius labouring in a chilly attic still survive – though usually nowhere near as explicitly as that. As Lance Knobel puts it:1

Innovation happens in teams, it happens with diversity of ideas, it happens by recombining old ideas, more than the Hollywood image of a lone genius who gains a sudden, stunning insight. We probably can’t teach innovation as such, but we can help people and organizations develop cultures, structures and reward systems that make innovation more rather than less likely.

So what is it that allows innovation to work – and what, if any, of that is different in government?

I think there are four parts to the answer:

  • will
  • capacity
  • means
  • impetus

This post is about what those four words mean. A second post will look at how they work in government.


“How may psychiatrists does it take to change a light bulb?”

“Only one, but the light bulb really has to want to change.”

Paying lip service to the need for innovation in general is close to universal in large organisations. But innovation happens only when somebody wants something specific to be different and is prepared to put time and energy into making it so. That in turn relies on a level of dissatisfaction with the way things are now, which is genuinely hard to come by if things seem to be going pretty well as they are (which is one of the important elements of the innovator’s dilemma). Companies in turbulent markets find that hard; how much harder for governments:

If a major and innovative player in an industry characterised by rapid change and by innovation cycles disruptive enough to change the landscape of the industry on a fairly regular basis, and where somebody has pretty much written the textbook on what the problem is and how to manage through it, still trips over exactly the same problem and still finds it hard to respond to the market signals anticipating change, just how surprising is it that governments fumble with the same problem?

For the practical innovator, the challenge here is timing and opportunity. Premature innovation risks crumbling in the face of organisational conservatism. Innovation left too late may be – well, too late. So the trick is to encourage decision makers to see the world from a perspective where the case for change almost makes itself. For many public services, one powerful such perspective is that of the customer, but it’s not the only one – budget challenges can work (though only if they are big enough to be really threatening). But some things just have to wait until the perception of the problem is sufficiently widely shared for there to be demand for a response.


Complicated problems don’t have easy solutions. They may have simple solutions, but that’s quite a different matter. The idea that everybody should be an innovator is an attractive one – but in almost all organisations, making it so would itself be a major innovation (and so on, until we drown in recursion). So there needs to be somewhere where ideas are nurtured, horizons scanned, existing good practice found and shared more widely. There also needs to be somewhere where that gets converted into practical activity which will make things different. There is little point saying smugly to a hard pressed operational manager that if only they stepped back from the day to day pressures they could switch to a radically better way of doing things. There may well be a radically better way – but the stepping back may be an insuperable obstacle.


Innovation is not intrinsically about using new technologies or new techniques, but in practice wider social, economic and technical changes are what create many opportunities for innovation. ‘New’ is not an absolute: the Toyota Production System has been in use for fifty years, but that doesn’t stop the introduction of lean techniques to government being innovative (though it doesn’t guarantee it either).

But we do live in a world where some kinds of problems have become and are becoming easier to solve. There are some I see now where a second or third attempt is working when the earlier attempts failed, not because the latest solution is any smarter, but because the tools to implement it are more powerful.

One category of better solutions is represented by web-based services – both in what they can do directly, and in how they allow outsiders to subvert service providers’ assumptions, but the much less glamorous world of middleware and the increasing ability to insulate modern service delivery decisions from the database design decisions of a previous generation may be at least as important.


Impetus is related to will, but is not quite the same. Will is the recognition that there is a problem which needs a solution. Impetus is a belief in a solution, and a drive to get there from here. President Kennedy’s challenge to put a man on the moon ‘before this decade is out’ is often used as an example of commitment driving delivery, but half a century later, it is hard to remember the context in which he made it:

At the time of President Kennedy’s challenge, the American space program had a sum total of 16 minutes in space, it had never put a man in orbit, had never seen an astronaut get out of a spacecraft, and had no spacecraft capable of even getting close to the moon. To meet this challenge, American scientists, engineers, and workers had just under nine years to invent, test, and deploy technology that had not yet even been given serious thought.

But impetus does not have to operate on an inter-planetary scale or so far beyond what known solutions can deliver. It is the desire for things to be different which is critical.

And so to government

Innovation in government is hard. But I am not sure it is hard for the reasons which are often assumed, nor that the reasons why change in government can be frustratingly slow are always wholly bad ones. More on that in a later post.


  1. Lance Knobel’s site seems to have been taken over by malware so I have removed the link but for the record the quotation is from his Davos Newbies blog on 15 July 2009


  1. “The idea that everybody should be an innovator is an attractive one” – well, it certainly sounds attractive, but how ideal would it really be? Aren’t their costs of innovation? And how many organisations could take the strain of having all their staff innovating the whole time or even a lot of the time? Is the sentence: “where this organisation went wrong is that it was trying to innovate too much” a contradiction in terms? Obviously I do think innovation is important (particularly in the public sector), but sometimes I get worried about innovation-worship!

  2. I don’t think that trying to innovate too much is a contradiction in terms: attempting innovation without means or capacity is probably worse than not attempting it at all. But that doesn’t make it a bad idea to want to increase means and capacity and so be able to innovate more.

    Whether everybody should be an innovator is one of the many questions which gets tangled up in the different usages of innovation. The opposite is definitely wrong in my view: an organisation in which only people with “innovation” in their job title get to change things is an organisation headed for disaster. I agree that everybody being constantly disruptive is also risky – but I have seen the power of involving front line staff in challenging and improving processes, and if I had to be rationed to a single approach to change, that might well be the one I would pick.

  3. Some people have jobs which mean they are supposed to constantly think about innovation and attempt to turn that into useful change.

    Most people have jobs where they’re required to get on with something because someone and a system decrees it so.

    Allowing this second group some time and permission to be innovative would be a radical change in many places However, it doesn’t mean that all of their jobs will always be about innovation.

  4. On a similar theme, there is a report from the Commons public accounts committee on Thursday looking at learning and innovation in government – might be worth looking out for.

Comments are closed.