Making innovation happen in a world that can’t stop talking about it

In this digital economy, it is fashionable to talk about innovation. “Innovation” has become a buzzword in company strategies, CEO speeches, townhalls and organisational development sessions. Companies have even created specialised positions for ‘chief innovation officers’.

Innovation is hard work. As organisations — including public sector agencies — jump onto the innovation bandwagon, I like to share some lessons on innovation in the public sector, which has often been seen as innately conservative and bureaucratic.

Problem + Solution = Innovation

People are enamored with new technologies. Leaders will go on a business trip, read a magazine, talk to an “expert”, and all of a sudden this new “sexy” technology becomes the obsession of an entire organization. Everyone is running around trying to find a “problem” for the new technology to solve. Lewis Carroll was particularly insightful in the quote below.

“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”
 “That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.”
 “I don’t much care where –”
 “Then it doesn’t matter which way you go.” 
Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

Putting the cart before the horse usually gets you nowhere. Gartner created the hype cycle years ago to warn users about the perils of new technology. Many new technologies are usually at the “peak of inflated expectations”, so distinguishing hype from reality is important.

The public sector is not the private sector, where public accountability is important. For the government to be innovative in deploying new technology, we need to focus on solving compelling problems faced by citizens and businesses. The sense of purpose and focus motivates innovative people from all quarters to make use of the best available tech and non-tech solutions to solve the problem. When we are clear about the problem we are trying to solve, innovation has a chance of happening.

Leading companies like Amazon and Microsoft start product creation by writing a press release. This process focuses the company on the impact the product will have on its customers. It focuses on the outcome and addresses the needs of the customers. The business case, architecture, technologies, etc flows naturally from the press release creation.

Create “centers of gravity”

Innovative people have a natural curiosity and tenacity. They are not limited by rules or conventionality. They are constantly thinking of ways to solve problems. At the end its all about persistence, patience and perseverance.

Richard Florida wrote in his book The Rise of the Creative Class that “the secret to building better, more vibrant locations was … building a “people climate” that could attract the diverse human talents that drive true prosperity”.

As Florida described, innovators and the creative class are clustering to certain centres of gravity. Creative people enjoy working with like-minded people whom they respect and can learn from. Innovation and creativity is a movement. For innovation to flourish, we need to design a non-traditional, flat-structure environment that is nurturing and supportive; and to develop a culture that celebrates collaboration, diversity and tolerance. It is about who can bring the best solution to the table each day. Respect and leadership is not anointed, it must be earned.

GovTech’s Government Digital Services unit at Hive@Sandcrawler is an example of how we created such a “centre of gravity” to house together the government’s creative ICT and engineering talent. Hive is home to creative folks of different specialties and experience — from data scientists to software developers to user experience designers — working collaboratively and consultatively in ‘tribes’ to design digital products and services for the public sector.

Thriving in the discomfort zone

Recently I watched a documentary on the plane called “Ants on a Shrimp”. It was about the best restaurant in the world called Noma and the creative genius of its owner Rene Redzepi. Rene mentioned that to be creative and innovative, he must always move out of the comfort zone into the discomfort zone. He thinks that is the essence of innovation.

Thriving in the discomfort zone is tough. It’s about being comfortable with uncertainty and lack of structure. It’s about dealing with constant changes and failures. These days failing fast is almost synonymous with innovation. However many people have taken it too far to believe that failing is actually good. Failing fast is very different from bound to fail. The sheer number of startups that are doomed to fail from day one is not a good example of failing fast. Every endeavor should have at least a fighting chance of success before you start. The key is to take sensible risks and learn from it. Reckless pursuit is not innovative. It’s foolish. The discomfort zone pushes innovators to keep challenging boundaries and learn from each attempt. It is not the natural instinct of most people, especially in an environment that is risk averse and that rewards certainty. For all these reasons, creating an innovative culture is an uphill task in government.

Remake the box for sustainability

Another much-used phrase in innovation parlance is “thinking outside the box”. I particularly like this quote by Malcolm Gladwell in his book What The Dog Saw: “If everyone has to think outside the box, maybe it is the box that needs fixing.”

Thinking outside the box is important for innovative ideas to take root. However, the biggest challenge is how do we infuse innovative solutions back into the mainstream environment. Most large organizations have an “organ rejection syndrome”. Like the human body, transplanted organ can be easily rejected by the recipient’s immune system, which destroys the transplanted organ.

Most technology organisations today run on a bi-modal structure, comprising one mode of enterprise IT and the other of digital IT. Essentially, it is old technology versus new technology. The two modes are kept separate to prevent an “organ rejection syndrome”. However, such an approach is not sustainable. Innovation needs to be institutionalized to achieve organizational legitimacy. The faster institutionalization can be done, the more successful and sustainable innovation will be. Hence the “box” must be “fixed” and remade if innovation has a chance to succeed at all.

Sponsoring innovation is a bet

The most difficult thing about innovation is that many senior managers don’t know their role in making innovation happen. It is hard for senior managers to be the innovator themselves. It’s more about placing bets on teams that can make innovation happen. Most managers want some measure of success before standing behind the project.

Teams with early successes are usually crowded with supporters from all quarters. Everybody loves a hero. Everybody wants to play a part in success and in doing so pull the team in all directions. Distractions and political maneuvering are detrimental to the success of these nascent innovations. Sponsors need to be experienced in the innovative process and must share in their passion.

Sponsoring innovation is a bet. Experience plays a big part, but knowing the problem you want to solve is critical. Being focused on the problem at hand and not to be easily distracted by “sexy” new technology allows us to separate fluff from substance early on. This way, real innovation is supported throughout their life cycle. At the same, we have to be ruthless in cutting out those that doesn’t make sense early to ensure optimal allocation of precious investment dollars.