In-house innovation is not about having a 'funky' workspace... but it helps

By Stephen Easton

March 24, 2017

Innovation teams are all the rage these days but beyond the superficial aspects like multi-coloured sticky notes and beanbags, public sector organisations all have slightly different reasons for setting up their own skunkworks.

A recent discussion featuring the heads of three in-house innovation teams from Commonwealth entities shows that beyond the common justifications — a desire for new ideas, experimentation, and to encourage a culture of innovation featuring a willingness to accept the risk of failure — there are always specific questions to answer or business problems to solve.

Jenna McCann, a corporate executive who was brought in to run BizLab inside the Department of Industry, Innovation and Science, is expected to embody the “government as an exemplar” aspect of the Innovation and Science Agenda. She told a group of 270 public servants “it’s not about having this funky space” at an Australian Public Service event earlier this month, although she admitted her team’s physical workspace was something of an innovation cliche itself.

“…  there are lots of labs and innovation teams are popping up all over the APS now. It’s like, “You have one. I want one. I can’t be innovative without a space.” And that’s definitely not the case,” she said, according to a transcript published by the APS Commission.

“There is a lot of neuroscience behind how these things are actually structured and all the colours and colour schemes etcetera are really based on Harvard, Stanford, years of research that they’ve done into the areas of innovation. But it doesn’t have to be a big, expensive, arduous undertaking. You can start as simple as getting an office, an office room and decking it out yourself.”

McCann advised that smaller entities didn’t need to set up “a big funky lab with all the colours” like hers, but said they did have a purpose: “triggering your mind out of task mode, into a different, more creative mode”.

She was joined in the wide-ranging panel discussion by Australia Post’s digital and innovation leader Rick Wingfield, and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s InnovationXChange director Jane Haycock, who also felt the need to go beyond the beanbags and coloured sticky notes to the specific “burning platform” that led to the creation of the internal ideas factory.

When the last change of government brought Julie Bishop into the minister’s office, she decided Australia was not achieving enough impact with its foreign aid program.

“So she took a bit of a trip … to the US and she went to Google and she went to some of the really big tech companies out in San Francisco and she saw how they supported innovation and new thinking,” said Haycock.

“And one of the common themes was that they had centres for the edge. So she thought, ‘Well, I’ll have one of those, then.’ So she came back and into Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, which isn’t maybe known for being the most, sort of, creative environment. She said, ‘I’d like to have a centre for the edge.’ And so they kind of looked at her and went, ‘Hmm, OK. Well, you are the minister.’ So they created the InnovationXchange.”

Along with an environment that is supposed to encourage creativity, she said it helped that Bishop’s “Googly, Facebooky-type place” is across the road from DFAT’s headquarters, meaning security requirements are more relaxed.

“So we’ve created a space where it was possible to come and possible to talk and possible to work and access some IT, which wasn’t quite linked up to some of the main part of the department.”

She was clear that it wasn’t just a bunch of unfocused creatives coming up with slightly oddball ideas — while the work of InnovationXchange is “fusing” with a “broader innovation strategy” that aims for culture change to get the creative juices flowing in other areas, its budget so far is “spent on improving the aid dollar, and so our purpose is about trying to deliver more cost-effective, more impactful change for poorer people in our region”.

“And then the way we do that is to trial things,” Haycock added. “We’re a learning hub. We continually review the success or otherwise of what we’re doing and we take people in the department on that journey with us. So we’re partnering with our country programs. We’re partnering with the policy teams in DFAT. We’re partnering with people overseas to rethink and test the way that aid programs are traditionally delivered.”

Incubating new ideas

Wingfield said Australia Post also had a “burning platform” of its own — the massive decline in demand for mail services — which is why the postal service is trying so hard to reinvent itself and stay relevant by getting involved in all manner of cutting-edge projects. Just today it announced it had joined online shopping giant Alibaba to “create an innovative platform” that will assure Chinese people that Australian food products are not “counterfeit food” which is apparently becoming more common in China.

A small “internal incubator” team is just one part of a multifaceted approach that also involved creating a “feedback loop” to help 40,000 frontline employees to think up continuous improvements based on the views of customers, as well as “hack days” where staff could work on any problem they wanted, and get feedback from senior staff.

The incubator process involved “capturing ideas that can [otherwise] get bottled up and people can win funding to go and essentially be seconded to go and work on those projects” without worrying about their normal job, “typically in a different environment, you know, a bit like BizLab, where they get a small amount of money and they can see if they can make progress and carry on.”

“And then the final part, I guess, of our innovation strategy is really helping people start and scale businesses,” said Wingfield, going back to the key problem for the organisation: working out what else Australia Post could do, other than deliver parcels, which means looking to the world of e-commerce, considering new high-tech ways of delivering packages, or using its shopfronts to deliver “trusted services” for government agencies, which then gets into digital identity.

“I think about 150 state and federal government agencies use the post office as a shopfront for what we call trusted services,” he said. “And the reason they’re called trusted services is because part of … the role that we perform is we really have to make sure that that person is who they say they are.

“And so what we’re thinking about in that space is, how does that digitise? How do we digitise identity? How do we prove who we are online so that, you know, if I’m going on eBay and I want to buy something, I can say that my name is Mickey Mouse and as long as I pay and as long as I give some way for something to be delivered, we don’t really care on ecommerce, who you are.

“But if I’m going to give someone access to their health record, if I’m going to do my tax online, I need to be really, really certain — to a high level of assurance — that someone is who they say they are.”

The point is, fun and creative workspaces might help staff get their heads out of the mundane and come up with new ideas, but there has to be an underlying business imperative. Without specific goals, it is hard to measure success.

Top image L-R: Jenna McCann, Rick Wingfield, Jane Haycock, APS commissioner John Lloyd, Deloitte partner and panel facilitator Cameron Pitt.

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