Dial down the ‘innovation culture’ rhetoric and seek shared purpose

By Stephen Easton

Monday July 18, 2016

Forget lofty goals like developing an innovation culture or embedding innovation for its own sake. Focus on developing a shared purpose by telling staff about practical outcomes that innovation could make possible, advises UNSW public management professor Deborah Blackman.

Blackman drew on her significant experience of helping busy bureaucrats put theory into practice with real-life people management challenges summing up the Innovation Month conference, seeking to bridge the gap between innovation rhetoric and management realities.

An effort to increase the cultural value of innovation within an organisation can be a vehicle to achieve positive outcomes, but what those are and how they differ from the current situation should be clearly spelled out, she said.

“Culture is important, but shared purpose will trump culture every time.”

It is far more important to have effective governance arrangements in place than a fresh organisational structure, according to Blackman. There is a big difference between telling the rank-and-file to be more innovative, or more collaborative, and actually mandating new ways of working as a senior officer.

“The mandate is not about how you’ve been told to be innovative. The mandate is [the fact that you are] allowed to make the decision in the meeting; that is a completely different thing,” Blackman said.

For the same reason, she added in an aside, machinery of government changes almost never improve any outcomes themselves but always cost a lot of money. If she was asked for one piece of advice to governments, it would be to stop all the pointless restructuring.

Deborah Blackman
Deborah Blackman

Blackman recalled in one case, the offices of two departments were co-located for a particular collaborative program. This was supposed to be a game-changer, but the governance arrangements remained unchanged, requiring each team to report the same information, in different formats, up through their respective lines of responsibility all the way to different ministerial offices.

And while working together physically, they remained on different pay and conditions, which harmed morale. Restructuring alone isn’t necessarily helpful, then. It’s often harmful, says Blackman, but is nonetheless popular because it is very visible; it makes people look busy.

Changing “who is allowed to do what” to match new objectives is much more important. Leaving the governance arrangements the way they were before can easily stop organisational change in its tracks.

Earlier, conference delegates heard of “innovation facilitators” that have been trained up to lead small teams inside the Victorian Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning, and over 100 “innovation activists” who try to keep the new ideas flowing inside the Australian arm of Roche Pharmaceuticals.

“We don’t resist change. We resist loss.”

Blackman says a cadre of innovation catalysts or “heralds” can be helpful but they are no substitute for action by the real decision-makers, and can’t really be described as “champions” of innovation.

“A champion is somebody who’s actually allowed to make differences inside the organisation, actually allowed to have the decision-making process,” she explained.

It sounds good to say the agency is pushing decision-making responsibility down to lower levels, but Blackman says mandarins “very, very rarely” follow through on such announcements in a meaningful way.

Genuine champions can use their real decision-making power to push past the irony of innovation: new ideas typically can’t be justified through benchmarking or a business case based on comparisons with others who’ve tried the same thing, because they are new. And, Blackman says, they must also play the important “boundary spanning” roles that bridge the divide between different teams.

Resistance to change is resistance to loss of control

Blackman told the conference it’s no accident workplaces become bogged down by unthinking routines, as Ethics Centre chief executive Simon Longstaff had pointed out. “We actively seek to do that, without meaning to,” she emphatically told the conference.

Cultural change is one of the professor’s key areas of expertise and she believes it takes place over a very long time. Agreeing with other earlier speakers, she said it was important to recognise that new behaviours take a significant length of time to stick, and behaviours accepted as OK will continue, desirable or otherwise.

Blackman pointed out her colleague Fiona Buick’s work with the Australian Public Service Commission has shown that “shared purpose” — based on a clear set of outcomes so people know what they’re doing and why they’re doing it — is the truly important thing (as she told The Mandarin last year).

“Culture is important, but shared purpose will trump culture every time,” she said.

Another speaker, leadership consultant Simon Brown-Greaves, said it was a myth that cultural change always takes a long time, arguing it could happen very quickly after “cataclysmic” events or through “significant positive leadership solidarity”.

One suspects the difference is semantic; Blackman does not see that kind of rapid reform as cultural change, but a concerted effort to encourage new behaviours in aid of achieving the specific shared purpose. By artificially holding these new behaviours in place, they can slowly become the new normal, but that takes time.

“A champion is somebody who’s actually allowed to make differences inside the organisation, actually allowed to have the decision-making process.”

She also agreed with Longstaff’s home truth that getting everyone to support innovation is difficult, because most people don’t want to change.

One negative story is all it takes to kill a change project, Blackman advised. “So when you send around your new innovation policy ideas, the first story that goes around must be about something that is brave, innovative and novel — something that was distinctly different from everything that happened before, and how that was supported and celebrated across the organisation.”

Unfortunately, she said, what often happens is people start grumbling and reinforcing each other’s cynicism with stories that poke holes in the latest plan from upstairs. Murmurs of agreement rippled through the audience.

“We don’t resist change,” said Blackman, explaining to one public servant that people are more likely to “unlearn” old behaviours and support change if they can see what’s in it for themselves, personally.

“We resist loss, so one of the reasons we don’t unlearn is because we’re losing certainty and we’re losing what we already know. So they’ve got to have something positive they can move towards.”

Longstaff added that “the desire for certainty runs very, very deep” in the human psyche, going back to prehistoric times. As such, building a tolerance for uncertainty was one of the most worthwhile things an organisational leader could do, as well as one of the hardest.

“Because until you do that, people will cling to what they know, that little bit of control that they have over their lives, and it might be a rule they can invoke [or] even the right to dismiss a new idea,” he said. “And once you break that down, then you start to open up all sorts of new possibilities.”

Blackman commented that building up that tolerance for uncertainty involves accepting that change is constant, and giving up on longing for a time when things finally settle down. “We will never settle down,” she said. “It’s never going to happen.”

Open organisations

Blackman framed her remarks in terms of open versus closed organisations. More open organisations are better at absorbing and assimilating new ideas from outside, relying more on evidence and less on ingrained preconceptions as “shortcuts” to inform judgements and decisions.

“There is an assumption in almost every innovative process I have ever looked at, that the organisation is sitting there and that ideas can come straight in, and if they don’t come in, it’s because the people are rejecting them,” said the professor.

“It’s not as straightforward as that. Many organisations will choose do to development with their senior teams, for example. And they’ll all go off together, which is great — it’s very good for social life, it’s very good for bonding — but it now means they all have the same world view.”

A closed organisational behaviour is doing brainstorming, but starting to think about the best ideas and solutions during the first stage of the process. A more open behaviour is to let all the ideas come out and only then begin to discuss their merits.

“When we talk about opening up the organisation, we’re thinking about how to break the mould,” said Blackman. “Some leaders can’t do it, not because they don’t want to, but because everybody in the organisation has been encouraged to think the same way.”

These bubbles in which groups and organisations exist are in fact made of a “semi-permeable membrane” in her view, and how easily different ways of thinking can penetrate depends on the motivation to change. As Brown-Greaves would later point out, a crisis can demonstrate how quickly a fairly closed organisation can open up.

“The desire for certainty runs very, very deep.”

But it’s unfortunately very common in government for judgement calls to be made, and then evidence found to back them up after the fact.

“I’m not saying anybody in this room would ever do that,” Blackman joked. “But I can say that I mark a lot of assignments from students, many of whom are quite senior in these organisations. And I know what they do. They write their assignment and because I say I want to have evidence in theory, then they go and find the bit that fits.”

That technique does not make for a good university paper, and nor does the same kind of thinking fit at all with innovation.

Complicating the situation is that on another level, it’s well known that people see the world in different ways and their judgement is boxed in by various limiting factors. Differing understandings of cornerstone concepts like ‘knowledge’ or ‘information’ lead to divergent understandings of organisational goals and where the priorities of the change process lie.

Innovation evangelists probably have a different view of the world to most of their colleagues, who just want something concrete they can get on with, safe in the knowledge that it will contribute to a clear purpose.

“One of the things that happens when we start talking about innovation is we’re kind of assuming that we’ve got a blank canvas — that people are starting from a non-innovative process, and now we’re going to encourage them to innovate,” said Blackman.

“Well, actually, no. They’ve all got strong mental models; they’ve all got current views of the world. What is it that as an organisation, as a team, as an individual, we have to unlearn?

“That comes back to the processes that are holding us, but it may not just be the processes. It may be our view of the world. It may be what we think our job is for. It may be what we understand is meant by ‘innovation’.”

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