There are many candidates for the biggest obstacle to innovation. You could try lack of management support, no employee initiative, not enough good ideas, too many good ideas but no follow-through just for starters. My nominee for The Biggest Obstacle to Innovation is:
All of the other examples are really excuses – but we get away with using them because we’re comfortable with how things are. One of the big problems with innovation is that it means change. Well, personally, that’s one of the great things about innovation if you ask me – but it’s a problem for a lot of people. If we’re comfortable, change is usually seen as bad – and this kills innovation.
I started thinking about this because John and I have been having a lot of talks recently with various people about public sector innovation. I’ve given talks to three different public sector organisations recently about innovation and how to spur it. We’re also starting a new research project with a government agency. And of course, we’re in a public sector University – where getting things can sometimes be a challenge. In the course of all of this there has been a lot of discussion about public sector innovation. Some of the factors that lead to inertia in this context include:
- No profit motive: there is not imperative for public sector organisations to make money, and in fact, making too much of a profit is usually frowned upon.
- A deeply entrenched non-innovative culture: that comfort level is usually much higher in public sector organisations.
- No threat of failure: when is the last time you heard of a university going out of business? Or a local government?
So inertia can be an even bigger problem in the public sector than it is in business. A big part of it is the threat of failure – when a firm goes out of business, most of it’s economic connections are broken, which opens up space for new, more innovative firms to gain a foothold. How can we get around this problem?
We are in the middle of launching an initiative that provides a hint. Just over a month ago John and I were invited to a meeting involving people from three different local government agencies, the two of us, and a few people from a consulting firm. The idea that we were discussing needs to stay secret for a bit longer, but it’s an interesting opportunity to design a research survey looking at innovation. If you do the math, you’ll see that there were representatives from four different public sector organisations at this meeting, and one commercial operation. Going into the first meeting, I was very skeptical of anything coming from it. And yet, we’re launching the project next week!
How did this happen?
While all of us have different agendas in this project, we also share some common objectives. We intentionally set up the project to work quickly, and the group sponsoring it needs to have results by July. Consequently, all of us have found ways to work around the normal bureaucracy. The other key is that we’re treating it like an experiment. We have figured out a way to test our idea without sinking too much money into it. If it works, we’ll have the scope to scale it up substantially. If it doesn’t, we’ll see what we can learn from it.
I think that a big factor is that everyone involved has a bias towards action. I ran across a great post from Valeria Maltoni this morning, which expresses my sentiments on this very well:
I have a bias for action, always have. This need to do is becoming particularly obvious at this time, especially with all the talk that goes on.
We think together a lot, more ideas bubble to the surface, more desire to see something good done.
We live in an age where there should be no excuses, no reasons why we cannot act – on our dreams, on our work, on making something amazing happen.
That struck me because I’ve said very similar things in my presentations to public sector organisations. One of the critical components of an innovation culture is a bias for action. That’s what gets around inertia.
How can we build this in public sector organisations? There some good ideas at this site from the UK which is specifically designed to encourage public sector innovation. These are the sorts of resources that we could use here in Australia – or anywhere, really. Here is how they frame the issue:
It is the public sector’s job to keep coming up with ideas to improve the quality of life for citizens and to promote economic growth. This could be everything from transformational innovations like the Open University and NHS Direct, to more incremental changes in local service delivery which nevertheless generate major savings and improvements; for example using the ideas of patients and front-line staff to redesign NHS wards in order to help control infection.
While I’ve primarily focused on public sector innovation today, I think that there is a general point here. Inertia kills innovation in all kinds of organisations. The problem may be more acute in the public sector, but it is widespread in industry as well. One way to combat inertia is to change the culture – particularly through encouraging and rewarding people that show a bias for action. We’ve managed it on our little experimental project, against great odds. If we can do it, so can you.
Here is one of my talks on exactly this issue – it runs for about 14 minutes, and you can run it as an audio slideshow if you wish to by hitting the green arrow (it requires the most recent version of flash to work):