Collaboration prepares fertile ground for green shoots of innovation


Green sprouts growing out from soil in the morning light

Be curious. Start small, hoping to scale up. Define success. Be flexible. Learn from what doesn’t work and adapt. Look for quick wins that make a real difference. Cultivate a brains trust you can go to for advice.

Christine Oakley, the Victorian Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning’s director of business strategy, distilled these seven lessons from her own attempts to grow a culture of innovation — and by reflecting on her recent conversion to the cult of gardening after 35 years of consistent horticultural failure.

“Good ideas can come from anywhere and innovations that make a difference often come about through the contribution of many.”

The department’s planning group, about 300 staff, has trained up a small team of 20 innovation and collaboration facilitators to spark the enthusiasm, teamwork and creativity that seniors leaders are imagining when they talk about innovation in a large organisation.

“We wanted to get a broad cross-section of people at different levels from all different parts of [the planning group],” explained Oakley at this week’s Innovation Month conference in Canberra. They were put through 700 hours of training in a program designed in collaboration with the Hargraves Institute.

“This included tools to be a great facilitator, understanding different groups, what is necessary to actually make collaboration and innovation happen and importantly, lots of practice at facilitation and use of the tools that they were learning.”

christine oakley
Christine Oakley

The gardening analogy about planting seeds and nurturing creativity illuminated a realistic, practical approach to growing a culture of innovation — as well as fitting nicely with the “garden bed of ideas” Department of Health secretary Martin Bowles wants to have, ready to harvest at the right times.

Before Oakley’s Damascene conversion, growing plants seemed difficult and time-consuming. She was “overwhelmed by the scale of the task” and there seemed like a mountain of knowledge to climb about what should go where at what time of year. The plants weren’t in a spot where she saw them regularly, so she forgot to care for them enough, and the inevitably poor results reinforced her lack of enthusiasm.

“And then one day something changed,” Oakley said. “One of my friends became passionately engaged in gardening.”

The friend’s cooking was suddenly enhanced by produce from her own garden and, as a self-described foodie, Oakley was inspired by the outcomes her friend had achieved in a short space of time and wanted the same.

She started small with just a few plants, choosing herbs and vegetables that would be nice to eat and easy to grow, putting them in pots to maximise flexibility. When some seedlings struggled, she learned from that and adapted. She began calling on her mother and her friend all the time when expertise was required.

Growing an innovation culture in DELWP’s planning group was a similar process. At first, most of the staff felt too busy to think about new ways of working.

“Information wasn’t readily shared; there was a fair bit of reinventing the wheel,” she explained. “There were also lots of ideas floating around about what needed to be improved but little traction for these. … There was talk about the need to be more innovative. To work together more. To do things differently.”

Like her first vague attempts to garden just for gardening’s sake, staff had some idea that this way of working might be good, but has little drive to make the change. They were overwhelmed, didn’t know where to start, or where they wanted to end up. Oakley says “indecision froze action” and like her previously neglected pot plants hidden away in the backyard, “what little action there was wasn’t readily visible” so it generally petered out.

“Now it would have been easy at this point to give up and figure that things would never change and therefore, there was no point in doing anything, but in my gut I felt it was possible to be more innovative and to work together differently.”

Real change from a spark of curiosity

Oakley says some of the first sparks of inspiration in DELWP came from a series of in-house workshops she was running. “People were commenting on how valuable it was to have someone from outside the project or the process to actually facilitate the discussion, to bring new techniques to the table and to draw out new contributions that wouldn’t be possible in a traditional meeting setting,” she said.

The business strategy leader’s curiosity about why the workshops were so successful led her to consider the value of a new ginger group to foster collaboration and innovation more generally. She reached out for assistance to the Hargraves Institute, whose founder Allan Ryan also spoke at the conference, and set about skilling up the new facilitators.

“When people think about innovation, they often think about a lone genius, a light bulb moment, a brilliant idea that materialises and changes the world,” said Oakley.

“But good ideas can come from anywhere and innovations that make a difference often come about through the contribution of many. The challenge and the opportunity is to create the space and culture in which this can occur.

“So rather than just focusing on innovation, our starting point was actually collaboration.”

Collaboration didn’t come naturally to the siloed staff in the 300-strong planning group, as is common in public service agencies around the country. Winning their “hearts and minds” was a key task for the 20 facilitators.

An all-staff conference at the Melbourne Cricket Ground was run according to the doctrine of open space technology, which was developed as a way to accelerate organisational transformation in the 1980s. Oakley described two rules:

“When it starts is the right time and when it’s over, it’s over. … Whoever comes are the right people; whatever happens is all that could have, and did.”

On top of that is the so-called “law of two feet” which tells participants to use theirs to leave if they feel they are neither learning nor contributing. The OST method of running seminars apparently worked well for DELWP’s planning group.

“After a day of discussions we had a portfolio of 15 cross-planning projects focused on moving to smarter ways of delivering value for our customers and the community,” said Oakley.

“Each project had a self-nominated project champion and a self-nominated cross-group, multi-disciplinary project team to take it forward. And importantly, we provided each team with a dedicated collaboration and innovation facilitator to support their work.”

This gave each of the 20 new change agents “an immediate, endorsed role” to play in real projects and made sure each of the teams benefited from the skills imparted by the Hargraves Institute’s training program. Clearly defined roles are important.

“Simply using terms like project champion, facilitator, team member or sponsor is not enough,” Oakley warns. “You need to get specific about what each role is responsible for and how each role relates to others.”

The facilitators adapt a flexible suite of teamwork tools they learned to use through the training program, depending on what team they are in. Having practised together, they were confident about how to apply them right away. One tool is a card game purchased from Hargraves called 123 Innovate; another is a “team health check” grid adapted from the “health monitor” used by the tech firm Atlassian, which has now been picked up across the whole department.

A showcase event one year later was staged to celebrate early wins in the projects, and the ways teamwork tools were used, to keep the enthusiasm going.

Collaboration comes first

Oakley urged other public servants who want to foster innovation to think about how to grow a culture of collaboration first. Her experience tells her it is a “necessary precursor to effective and sustained innovation” and that generally, the truly great achievements come from people working together.

“It’s been amazing how something that started from a little bit of curiosity has actually managed to deliver real change in the way that our planning group works,” she said, summing up.

“People who have never worked together before got to know each other. People got exposed to new tools for collaborating and engaging in different ways. Ownership was taken for advancing projects that people felt were important. It moved away from ‘Why doesn’t someone fix this?’ to ‘Let’s fix this together’.”

Other groups in the massive department are now inspired to follow the example set by the planning division, Oakley said, and DELWP is in the process of setting up a department-wide community of practice to share ideas and keep the enthusiasm going on a bigger scale.

“The benefits are significant,” she said. “It improves culture. It improves processes. It delivers cost savings and efficiency.”

She left the audience with the advice to be “passionately curious” and look everywhere for opportunities to cross-pollinate.

“Ask questions, lots of questions, and challenge the assumption that change isn’t possible.”

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