Selecting the Best Idea is a Universal Innovation Problem

Tim and I write a lot about managing innovation as a process. This is important for a number of reasons, but the two main ones are that if we manage innovation this way then it isn’t dependent on any particular person and that it is proactive and constant rather than reacting to a crisis. In short, its about managing innovation as a sustainable contribution to the performance of the organization.

A few weeks ago the Federal Public Service Management Advisory Committee released an excellent report on innovation in the Australian public service called “Empowering CHange”. Following from the “Public Sector Innovator’s Playbook” by Eggers and Singh, from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, the authors of the report also recogiise the importance of sustainable innovation.

In their model of the process, Eggers and Singh describe a cycle that is based upon the principles of idea generation, idea selection and the execution and diffusion of the innovation. One of the standout contributions of the Empowering Change report is a diagnostic tool of questions relating to different parts of the innovation cycle. The objective of this is that it could be used as a survey instrument by different public sector agencies to assess which parts of the cycle are working well and which parts need intervention and improvement.

This diagnostic tool is a good idea and it is similar to one that we use in teaching and consulting that has been published in the Harvard Business Review by Hansen and Birkinshaw and researched by Jim Love and Steve Roper. When we survey organizations and students with this tool we find a very consistent pattern. Nobody seems to have a problem with generating ideas but selecting the best ideas is always a stumbling block and many firms don’t get past this to really develop their execution capabilities.

Yesterday I was in Canberra giving a talk to a delegation of senior Indonesian public service managers on innovation. This was a very enjoyable talk for me to do because I like talking about innovation with people who work in a very different context from the usual groups that I talk to. Indonesia itself is a public sector challenge with rapid population growth, ethnic diversity and several population centers spread across many islands. The Indonesian public service has undergone rapid change since 2001 and is developing senior managers to manage the challenges facing the nation.

Out of curiosity I gave these managers the survey of the innovation cycle from Empowering Change. My thinking was that maybe I would see the same pattern of strengths in generation and weakness in selection but the context of the Indonesian public service was so culturally and economically different that I might see a different pattern. To keep the survey short I asked everyone to just identify their strongest and weakest part of the cycle.

Across this group of 30, the weakest link by a wide margin was idea selection and the strongest part was idea generation. The result with idea generation was less clear because while many people identified it as a strength, several also said that it was a weakness in their agency. I’m not sure of the reason for this- it may be partly to do with the cultural difference between east and west where Asian cultures tend to be more hierarchical and consensus-seeking than more individualistic Anglo cultures.

Nonetheless, the most impressive result remains. Even in this very different management situation it is idea selection and not idea generation that is the weakest point in the innovation process.

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