‘Technology is the easy part’: innovation needs workplace cultures where smart people can ask dumb questions, says Sam Hannah-Rankin


Sam Hannah-Rankin

Even if you’ve completed your course in agile and lined up the authorising environment in favour of change, workplace habits and the relentless daily pressure of government can easily stifle innovation. 

Pressure on public servants to look smart around their colleagues means opportunities for change are missed, believes Sam Hannah-Rankin, executive director for public sector reform at the Victorian Department of Premier and Cabinet.

“I always talk about government as being a bit of a knowledge economy, where you’re required to be smart and know things, and be certain. And that’s the antithesis of what you need to learn and be curious,” she argues.

Hierarchy exacerbates this problem — senior executives are expected to know everything, and those below don’t want to say the wrong thing in front of them.

“So you get lots of people pretending they know everything,” she says.

“We had a very interesting occasion where the secretary, who was a very strong supporter of a particular project, came to a workshop.

“It was fantastic to have him there to have that visibility and endorsement. But it also means everybody is on their best behaviour, and no-one else is going to ask a dumb question. And if he’s speaking, everyone else is going to be listening to him.

“That’s not his fault, that’s not something he has as an expectation. He wants to be part of the conversation. But the truth of the way we set things up is there are so many power dynamics that it’s actually really hard to have some of those engagements.”

It doesn’t help that often there’s just no space for exploring new ideas.

“If you look at meeting structures where people sit around big tables and it looks like something out of the UN, or when you have to have the papers four days in advance of the meeting, these are not conversations that are going to be informal back-and-forwards. We’re not very good at setting up the opportunities for that kind of discussion.”

Pickled

Such barriers are the everyday reality of why innovation fails to gain ground in the public service. There might be widespread agreement of the need for change, but all the little habits add up to inertia.

“I used to work at another large corporate and we had a saying that you come in as a cucumber and within six months you’re pickled,” says Hannah-Rankin.

While these subtle, nuanced interactions are the biggest barrier, people often fixate on methodologies.

“I think we automatically go to methodologies very quickly. ‘We need to do digital design, or we need to go behavioural insights or human-centred design, and then we’ll be doing innovation’,” she says.

“Technology is the easy part. People need to change and do things differently, and there is no technology system in the world that makes that happen.”

Public sector innovation is about effective change management as much as anything else. Bringing people along is vital.

“Part of the challenge with the innovation narrative is it’s very hero-based: ‘I did this against the system’. But the truth is, particularly in a system like ours, it’s all about the team and the stakeholders and engagement.”

The core skillsets needed are about being curious, empathetic, tenacious and courageous. And you need to be resilient in the face of the inevitable challenges bureaucracy will place in your way.

“Those mindsets are infinitely more important than having done a course in agile projects, because none of these methodologies provide an answer. They provide new ways of doing things that we can learn from, but being able to work with people and take people into a new space, that’s a more fundamental capability that we need to build in innovation.”

Breaking the habit, even under pressure

In her experience leading public sector reform — and before this as director for public sector innovation — Hannah-Rankin has realised it’s not enough to just talk about public servants being risk-averse. What really matters is how that manifests across different contexts.

The Victorian government’s States of Change initiative, a nine-month innovation learning program delivered with Nesta, gave a much deeper insight into where the barriers lie. It became clear that even if the authorising environment is aligned to making change happen, and leaders have clearly signalled their support, the relentless pull of business as usual can easily destroy any reform effort.

“Managerial priorities would keep getting pushed in,” she explains.

That perpetual busy-ness also creates stress, which leads to staff without the mental bandwidth for learning and experimentation.

“The home environment has to be receptive in a way that I don’t think we appreciated how complex it was. It’s not as simple as people being enthusiastic and supporting someone to go and do something different. It’s creating a space and appetite for change when they come back to absorb and use that.”

Breaking out of unhelpful patterns of working also usually requires effort from both sides of the relationship.

“A classic example was when we were starting to do some of the agile work in a project, and the manager wanted to see the team’s work program. We’d just finished the sprint board, I said take a picture of it and send it to them — because the manager was totally on board. And they’re like ‘no I can’t do that’,” she recalls.

After some back and forth, the manager said ‘of course’ it would be fine, and they sent through the photo.

“Then the manager says, ‘I can’t read this, can you just do it properly?’

“That’s risk aversion on both sides. Anticipating what they think is going to happen, not understanding both parties have to change. Because when the manager said can you do it again, the group said yes of course we can, instead of saying I’m going to come and talk to you and talk you through it and help you understand so that next time we can just send you the photo.

“There’s a relentless required to not be dissuaded. And that requires a huge amount of confidence you’re doing the right thing.”

Hannah-Rankin’s advice is to never assume what someone else will think of a new idea or a new way of doing things.

“People who appear very conservative in their decision making can often be very receptive to something different if they can see the value of how it will play through. People who seem very innovative and creative can also be very dogmatic about change when it’s not in the way they prescribe it.”

‘An idea is nothing. An outcome is everything.’

Framing is important. You need to consider what the value of your proposal is for others.

“An idea in itself is not sufficient. For an idea to have merit and to work you need to have people who can see the value in it,” she says.

“A book can be for reading, or it can be for hitting someone over the head with, or burning as fuel. Which one is going to be most attractive to the environment at the time? Think about: who are the influencers in the decision making process that you need to get on board, who need to be able to see the value, that you need to be helping with this idea?”

And if you can’t convince others? It’s probably not going to work. It’s all well and good to come up with 100 cool ideas, but ideas don’t execute themselves.

“One of our first massive learnings was, if there’s not an appetite for it, don’t do it. If no-one wants to take custody of the idea, and none of the business owners who are in the areas that are going to be affected are clamouring for these opportunities, don’t do it.”

Gaining support from others “means you may have to compromise on the pristine sanctity of your particular little gem”, she adds — but always remember to be focused on the outcome you’re trying to achieve, rather than getting bogged down with a particular way of achieving it.

“An idea is nothing. An outcome is everything.”

And of course, it’s always easier to see where someone else needs to change. But no-one knows your work better than you, so think about the improvements you can make within your own span of control.

“If it’s something that’s within your patch then you can do it. Sometimes you just need to do it instead of asking for permission,” says Hannah-Rankin.

“If you have something within your sphere of power, then change it. That’s a level of accountability that we need to start taking as public servants. And if it doesn’t work out, change it back or adjust.”

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