|by John Kenney|
It would seem that it is completely natural to frame the innovation challenge as a battle between an innovation hero and a bureaucratic octopus. In the real world, however, innovation heroes get strangled, almost every time. Therefore, we need a more productive approach…
... what is needed is mutual respect between innovation leaders and performance engine leaders…innovation leaders must recognize that conflict with the performance engine is normal. It is not the result of people being lazy or unwilling to change. Quite to the contrary, it is the result of good people doing good work, trying to make the performance engine run as efficiently as possible. Performance engine leaders, for their part, must remember that no performance engine lasts forever…(Beyond the Idea, p. 48).
Blueprint 2020 generated a lot of ideas and maybe just as many questions regarding if and how they will be implemented. What follows is a summary of Beyond the Idea: How to Execute Innovation in Any Organization and a few thoughts with respect to public sector innovation.
First, a few things about what the book is not:
With the exception of a couple of brief appendices on strategy and change, which I’ll discuss below, it’s not a guide for strategic or systemic approaches to innovation.* It picks up where the generation of ideas leaves off so doesn’t explain (directly) how innovation supports desired outcomes, needs and/or solutions to problems. It also doesn’t speak to innovation diffusion. There’s a deliberate focus on project-level innovation initiatives based on the authors’ survey of the field, which was primarily private sector companies...so the public sector is not the intended audience. The book, therefore, does not tell a complete innovation story, nor does it attempt to.
If I haven’t lost you after that preamble, I think the authors have some important insights with respect to managing innovation initiatives vis-à-vis ongoing operations. There are a number of jumping off points for further reflection and discussion.
The book’s premise is that orgs must shift time and energy from a focus on generating ideas to executing innovation initiatives. An innovation initiative is defined as “any project that is new to your organization and has an uncertain outcome.” The definition is intentionally broad.
The way the authors see it, most orgs are not built for innovation. They’re set up to deliver ongoing operations via the “performance engine.” “…Innovation execution is its own unique discipline. It requires its own time, energy and distinct thinking.”
Three models for executing innovation initiatives are presented. Orgs can have any number of innovation initiatives on the go; what’s crucial, say the authors, is to match each initiative to the proper model to ensure they are executed effectively. “The criteria for choosing the right model are internal. They are tied to the physics of getting the work done.”
EACH MODEL HAS ITS OWN STRATEGY FOR DEALING WITH THE PERFORMANCE ENGINE
Strategy for Dealing with the
What It Delivers
Squeeze It In
Squeeze innovation into the slack in the system.
A very large number of very small initiatives.
Make It Repeatable and Predictable
Make innovation look as much like day-to-day operations as possible.
A series of similar initiatives.
Separate incompatible innovation tasks from day-to-day operations.
One unique initiative at a time.
Model S, for small initiatives, “squeezes innovation into the slack time” of the ongoing work of the performance engine, spontaneously and organically. This model is largely dependent on motivated employees, individually and/or collectively, doing their regular work plus the work to innovate, but only part-time given the performance engine has got to keep chugging along. For that reason, Model S can work for small initiatives only, but the cumulative impacts can be significant. E.g.:
- See Tanya Snook’s Hacking Our Way To Agile Government.
- Tiger Teams, Insight Teams, and Tech companies’ “20 percent projects”.
- Product development teams that pump out the ongoing series of your favourite smartphone,
- An HR team that develops and implements a new performance management directive using a similar process and people as the previous year’s exercise.
The bulk of the book is dedicated to Model C, for custom initiatives, which is the most difficult and robust model. This model is used for all other initiatives beyond the limitations of either Model S or Model R. Model C initiatives require a structure for disciplined experimentation that is incompatible with the performance engine. Each custom initiative has a “Special Team” and a “Special Plan.” The Special Team is made up of “Dedicated Staff”, who work full-time on the initiative and “Shared Staff”, who provide part-time support (as needed) and continue their role in ongoing operations. The Dedicated Staff is assembled as if you’re putting together a new, custom-built organization: the culture, ways of working and make-up of the team, which could include external talent, is designed for the specific initiative. The Special Team and Special Plan emphasize rapid learning to design and execute the initiative, and the work of the team is evaluated more so on that basis. E.g.:
I buy Beyond the Idea’s argument that we have to acknowledge and manage the inevitable tension(s) between our ongoing operations and innovation initiatives. There’s some truth to “innovation heroes get strangled, almost every time.” Often, the performance engine is busy doing other things. Motivated employees with brilliant ideas get swamped or directed to work on other priorities. Or, the culture and ways of working of an established org unit (or an entire department) do not lend themselves well to adapting to new ways of working to achieve desired outcomes. The book includes info on the roles a Chief Innovation Officer and/or innovation support team can play in coordinating initiatives, providing support and guidance, and managing the potential conflicts.
There’s more to it than that though.
Beyond the Idea’s focus on using the right model for an innovation initiative is important, but is it the right initiative? A scattershot approach to innovation via idea generation will only take an organization so far, and possibly in an unknown direction (See Innovation is the Process of Idea Management and Why your innovation contest won’t work). We need to commit to the long game and take the necessary steps to get there. That may include taking a step back, looking at the big picture, and ensuring our overarching frameworks, business processes, and ways of working enable innovation and its diffusion. Check out You can’t impose a culture of innovation for tips on investing in long-term change and consider moving from incremental fixes to systemic innovation.
An argument that innovation requires “its own time, energy and distinct thinking” doesn’t mean that it happens in isolation of everything else. Alex Howard recently wrote about the launch of 18F, a startup within the US General Services Administration that is setting up to “hack the bureaucracy.” “18F builds effective, user-centric digital services focused on the interaction between government and the people and businesses it serves. We help agencies deliver on their mission through the development of digital and web services.” Also mentioned in Howard’s post was Clay Johnson’s response to 18F: “Is 18F a complete solution to the US government’s IT woes? No. But, like RFP-IT and FITARA, this new office is part of a broader strategy.” Ah, strategy.
Buried at the back of Beyond the Idea is an appendix on “Strategy.”. The authors claim that “everything a company thinks and does can be put into one of the [following] three boxes:
- Box 1: Manage the present;
- Box 2: Selectively forget the past; and
- Box 3: Create the future.”
Most organizations spend a lot of time on managing the present. Blueprint 2020 and the recent planning push have got us thinking about the future, but as we do that, are we making deliberate, well-informed decisions and challenging the enduring assumptions of the performance engine to selectively forget the past? We need to address the underlying problems and (sometimes perceived) barriers to new ways of working. Innovation is not just about doing new things. Sometimes it’s about making deliberate choices to stop doing old things.
The guidance in Beyond the Idea will not get us there alone, but being mindful that innovation initiatives come in all shapes and sizes and require appropriate models to effectively execute them is timely advice. Managing the tensions between ongoing operations and innovation initiatives and selectively forgetting the past will be crucial if the federal public service is expected to meet at the desired Destination 2020 rendezvous point.
*E.g. See the Three Horizons Approach in Appendix Six in Empowering Change: Fostering Innovation in the Australian Public Service and Innovation for Now and for the Future, and Kent’s post on Standardizing Innovation.