10 leadership behaviours for council innovation

By David Donaldson

June 6, 2016

It’s often noted that leadership is a huge element in innovation, so what do local government bosses have to say about how their colleagues can promote innovation?

The two most commonly cited qualities in a UK survey on key leadership behaviours are that council leaders should work on building innovative partnerships and be bold and ambitious.

The report from Solace’s Innovation and Commissioning Network outlines 10 “key leadership actions” that research suggests might increase and accelerate innovation.

Researchers interviewed a range of senior and middle managers at twelve local councils known for innovative practice to discover their perspectives on which leadership actions appeared to have the greatest impact on achieving innovations. Nine case studies were developed based on the interviews.

A majority of managers and political leaders emphasised having clear, agreed priorities and convincing others why these are important. They also valued developing expertise around innovation and learning from other organisations. The findings “suggest that politicians and senior managers in councils are becoming much more sophisticated, knowledgeable and confident about generating innovations”, the report argues.

One of the interviewees, CEO of Staffordshire Moorlands District and High Peak Borough Councils Simon Baker, urged colleagues to “focus, focus, focus” on implementing their plan:

“At the beginning we set out clear priorities: what’s important, the things to drive forward with, and those to let go and leave behind. Then focus, focus, focus. We always set clear timelines, keep our foot on the pedal and don’t allow things to drift. To back it all up, we have a robust performance management framework that drives delivery and excellence.”

The 10 innovation boosting behaviours

The report concludes political and managerial leaders in local government might boost innovation if they:

  1. Are clear, united and determined about the outcomes they want to achieve and their priority areas for innovation.
  2. Are bold and ambitious, while understanding residents’ concerns, learning from elsewhere, setting realistic objectives, and taking well-considered risks.
  3. Engage with key partners in an open way, evolving innovations together.
  4. Create an organisational culture that encourages creative approaches (particularly in the priority areas for innovation).
  5. Develop and empower other innovative leaders (eg. middle managers).
  6. Invest time, resources and effort into developing their innovation priorities.
  7. Convincingly communicate the reasons why their priority innovations are important (eg. engage in dialogue with their managers, employees, partners, residents and other key stakeholders).
  8. Genuinely listen to, and involve, relevant others in developing innovations (eg. managers, employees, residents, service users, partners, businesses).
  9. Track the development of their priority innovations (eg. using programme and project management, or more agile techniques, as appropriate).
  10. Persist for long enough to embed and scale up their priority innovations.

Many of the leaders from successful council surveyed had already adopted most of these approaches, and could do even better by using all of them, the report suggested.

Collaborators, failure tolerance and soft leadership

Snippets of interviews with bosses interviewed gives an insight into their thinking. One director outlined how their council was taking a more facilitative role to collaboration with other organisations:

“We work in a much more ‘system leader’ type of way now. If you want to get partners into the room, sharing their resources, and sharing their skills, you have to work with them differently. Rather than controlling partnerships, we try and facilitate our work with others.”

Many studies emphasise the importance of culture in new thinking. Part of creating an innovative workplace culture is to embrace failure, said a senior manager from South Tyneside council:

“We try to work in a relaxed way to create the right atmosphere here so that people can feel free to contradict, to take risks, to make mistakes — as long as they are not catastrophic. It’s important to empower people, give them space, to allow them to fail. It works.”

Another said investing in training up middle managers paid dividends thanks to their proximity to the coal face:

“We have been very focused on developing the leadership skills of our middle managers. We recognise that the best ideas come from middle managers. They are in a better position to understand customers’ needs.”

The report’s authors also noted four key areas they believed were important to consider, but which were not mentioned by a majority of interviewees: commissioning for innovation, maximising expertise in digital, fostering cross-council networks and recruiting staff with the right attitudes for innovation.

Top image: Bristol City Hall, adapted from Wikimedia Commons.

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