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Disrupt. Develop. Display: month of innovation kicks off

If public servants meet failure on the road to innovation they should try again, Department of Industry, Innovation and Science deputy secretary David Hazlehurst said at the launch of Innovation Month on Monday.

Hazlehurst introduced this year’s theme of “Disrupt. Develop. Display” (updated from last year’s “Dare. Dream. Do.”), setting off four weeks of events across the country for public servants to consider how to improve their own work on topics as varied as behavioural economics, using maps in policymaking, co-design, public sector websites, customer journey mapping and even the importance of biscuits.

The third Innovation Month conference, Future Frontiers, kicked off this morning with a Star Wars theme and speeches from Department of Health secretary Martin Bowles and immediate former chief scientist Ian Chubb.

Bowles said the need to embed “practices to encourage innovation” into the everyday work of the Australian Public Service, to collect and triage new ideas from staff at all levels and set up organisational processes that develop and employ those ideas was becoming increasingly urgent.

“There’s no time more important than now to make sure we focus on the long-term resilience of the APS,” he told the audience.

Brisbane will host this year’s Australian Government Leaders’ Network conference, featuring Australian Public Service Commissioner John Lloyd, and the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet’s associate secretary, indigenous affairs, Andrew Tongue. Victorian public servants can learn what it takes to become a “policy whisperer” and how to identify and prioritise ideas that create the most value.

The APS Innovation Awards and GovHack will also take place near the end of the month.

Bowles: innovation a journey, a destination and a skill set

Canberra correspondent Stephen Easton attended this morning’s conference launch, reporting that the Public Sector Innovation network’s main event continues to grow, with nearly 350 delegates coming in from 36 organisations. Most are federal employees but the ACT government, Canberra’s two universities and a couple of companies are also represented.

In his speech, Bowles conceded that finding the time to focus on the future in a strategic way is not easy, but it is also necessary for public servants to successfully further the nation’s interests. He said Health’s heavy involvement in the Public Sector Innovation Network indicated the agency’s strong awareness of the importance of continuing to make connections across the public sector.

Health was the most active participant in a 10-month trial of an APS-wide “innovation hub” which was announced at last year’s conference.

“In my view innovation is both a journey, a destination and a skill set,” said Bowles, speaking about the need for a “garden bed of ideas” that are ready and waiting for the right time. Sometimes past ideas that had merit but didn’t quite work at the time should be re-considered in new circumstances, he added.

Mistakes and failures are a common feature of a “learning culture” and should be accepted and acknowledged without excuses or blame-shifting before moving on, said Bowles.

He argues it is “absolutely fundamental for national policy” that public servants have the courage to make tough decisions. To do that they need to be well informed and, according to the Health secretary, “collaboration and open conversation will be one of the ways we achieve this”.

“We, as APS leaders, need to continue to lead by example.”

Stephen will give Mandarin readers a deeper account of what went on later this week.

Five key innovation behaviours

So how can government employees boost their own innovative potential? There are a set of key behaviours, according to research done by the Innovation Champions Group, a high level collection of representatives from each of the federal portfolio departments, as well as the Digital Transformation Office and the Australian Public Service Commission.

The Innovation Champions Group's five behaviours of innovators.
The Innovation Champions Group’s five behaviours of innovators.

The group came up with two sets of advice — one for innovators and one for leaders. Those wanting to innovate should:

  1. Ask questions — of others and of yourself. Innovation is about changing our behaviour, the way we do things, and how we understand problems and solutions. When you question some aspect of the status quo, you open yourself to seeing different options and ways of doing things. Question assumptions, question how and why things are done the way they are, question whether there might be a better way, ask whether there might be a different way of looking at things or whether there might be others who can add insight. Use answers to those questions to build a richer understanding of the current situation, what the problems are and what might be done.
  2. Try things — experiment a little (or a lot). Innovation is uncertain — if you knew exactly what was going to happen, then it wouldn’t be innovative. To reduce that uncertainty, you have to experiment in some way, to test the idea and what happens. The easiest way to experiment is to make the idea real or tangible in some form, such as a mock-up, a prototype or a rehearsal. This can be done quickly and at low cost, at least initially. As with an experiment, there should be openness to results that may not be what was expected or wanted, including failure, criticism or no reaction.
  3. (Help) Tell a story — who does this matter to and why? Why will this make things better? What will it allow us to do? How will this idea contribute to priorities, to getting better outcomes? It is easy for a new idea to seem like an additional task, a distraction from core business. If it is part of a story, if you can identify how and why this matters, then the innovation can become part of existing work, rather than more work.
  4. Focus on the problem to be solved — don’t get attached to ‘your’ idea. There are lots of ideas — but which ones will best address the issue at hand? It is very easy to get attached to one particular idea, yet the important thing is what the idea might lead to. Sometimes there will be better ideas, or circumstances mean you will need to change direction. A focus on an idea may mean stalling if the idea does not work as hoped — a focus on the problem can help keep momentum no matter what ideas are being tried.
  5. Stick at it — believe in the power of persistence. Getting people to change their behaviour, to change how they think about something, can be hard. Ideas may not work out as hoped. Other people may say “no” or otherwise dismiss your idea. Developing an innovative proposal may require going outside your comfort zone or involve new skills or methods. A new idea may mean you need to go out and build new networks or find support from different quarters. If you want to innovate, you need to persist at it.
The Innovation Champions Group's five behaviours of innovative leaders.
The Innovation Champions Group’s five behaviours of innovative leaders.

Leaders who want to help others to innovate should:

  1. Empower others — share where innovation is most needed. Innovation often works best when it is a strategic activity. One of the easiest ways to empower others to innovate is to let them know where it is most needed or where it is most sought. This can help others focus on ideas that are more likely fit with strategic needs and aims.
  2. Invite in the outliers — demonstrate that diversity is valued. Innovation involves new ways of looking at things, and that requires tapping into different networks and groups and experiences, different ways of working and thinking, and allowing and encouraging constructive debate. One way to foster an environment that values diversity is to actively invite in those with different perspectives, from outside and inside your organisation. Who are the outliers that represent new or different ways of understanding your world? Invite them into the conversation and show that you are open to very different insights.
  3. Say “Yes, and” not “No, because”. It can be hard to put forward a new idea, but very easy to stop someone else doing it. “A raised eyebrow or a sceptical look can kill an idea before it gets any oxygen”. Building on an idea can help ensure you don’t miss out on a great new way of doing things. It helps people know that you value ideas and creativity, and that ideas are not expected to be perfect straight away.
  4. Don’t over-react — appreciate experimental error. Things will go wrong. There will be mistakes as things are learnt through innovation. Some, if not most, ideas will fail to come to anything. People will try things that don’t work. One adverse reaction to an innovative attempt can stop any further innovation. Provide guidance on where there is room to experiment, and where there can only be rigorously tested and checked initiatives. Create the space for ‘safe’ experimentation. Cultivate reflective learning, where experimental mistakes are discussed and learnt from, and not hidden or seen as shameful.
  5. Support innovators and share stories of success. Innovation can be hard. It can be hard going against the status quo or working on something that may not, initially, fit with the rest of an organisation. Developing a new idea can involve running into a lot of roadblocks. Innovative ideas will require time and resources to be developed into real and tested proposals. They will need protection from the ongoing pressures of business-as-usual work. Innovators will need to be supported. Sharing stories of success can help build wider support, demonstrate the value that innovation can bring and show that it can be done, and help connect those who have implemented something new with those who are trying to do something new.

Author Bio

David Donaldson and Stephen Easton

The Mandarin journalists.