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There are many different elements to think about when it comes to setting up your own innovation initiative, and how you go about it will depend on your own set of circumstance.

To help more people to better understand the topic of organising for innovation, Nesta commissioned a piece of research that involved interviewing a number of  of people working in innovation projects, initiatives and units to learn from their experiences. Here, researcher Daniela Sangiorgi explores a range of themes including:

1. Different approaches to public sector innovation

2. Innovation teams and the value they can bring

3. Communicating the value of innovation teams

4. Building a culture of innovation: real-life insights

5. Leaders and change

6. Measuring impact


1. Different approaches to public sector innovation

Interest in design and alternative creative approaches often comes from a general frustration with failures in traditional political and managerial approaches to change and innovation. It can also be driven by an increasing need to develop more people-centred and efficient services and policies.

Design-led methods can be used to inform public sector innovation for different aims: to develop empathy and understanding of citizens; to enable collaborative design processes; to open up and generate new ideas; to engage in behavioural change activities; and to experiment and try out new solutions and organisational practices.

These methods can be applied and combined with other practices and competencies to become a systematic approach to innovation, and will vary depending on the individual path and specific context of  the agency or unit. For example:

  • The Ministry of Manpower in Singapore has set up a Behavioural Insight and Design Unit, combining the complementary approaches of design firm IDEO and the UK’s Behavioural Insight Team: “Design thinking helps you go deep, in terms of understanding users' needs. And then behavioural insights and randomised controlled trials are a form of evidence-based testing.” (MOM BDU).
  • Futuregov, a UK public service innovation agency, instead combines open innovation and open design. Technology is used as a driver for change, along with  change management support to take design projects towards implementation within complex public systems.
  • Experio Lab, a Swedish healthcare lab, focuses on getting closer to patients and developing solutions by combining methods that help practitioners to become empathetic and closer to patients, such as role playing, ethnography and co-design approaches: “We want to improve their personal skills, and how they meet with patients and understand their needs, and use that as an innovation or improvement capability.” (Experio Lab)

Just as important as the mix of skills and methods is the strategy used to introduce design and creative methods into organisations. Apart from traditional one-off consultancy projects, other strategies include the design and testing of dedicated innovation toolkits supported by training (e.g. Experience Based Co-design toolkit), immersive collaborative projects like the ‘Designer in Residency’ by 27th Region, where a design team spends considerable time within the client organisation or community to run change projects, or the set-up of labs or units dedicated to the application and development of design capabilities within organisations.

Key learning points:

  • Design methods are often combined with other existing and complementary practices to form a more systematic methodology, which changes depending on the specific context and ideology where they operate.
  • The strategy around how design methods are introduced may also vary.


2. Innovation teams and the value they can bring

Innovation teams can support national and local governmental agencies to tackle complex public and social problems by introducing new approaches to innovation and change. The value that innovation teams can bring to public sector depends in part on their level of maturity.

First of all, innovation teams (which are also called labs) represent an experimental space where governments can test methods and principles that are unfamiliar, while working in a safe mode. This is extremely valuable given the complexity and sensitivity of issues that governments deal with. This value, though, is dependent on how the team is allowed to work and grow, and how it is supported and funded. Generally, innovation teams start working on safer projects with more incremental change to prove the concept. Preserving this experimental attitude is fundamental: “I think the most significant challenges that we face are around how you operate a small, agile, fast-moving unit within a bigger, more bureaucratic, more constrained environment.” (Policy Lab)

As innovation teams develop, the second key area where they add value is in the exposure they offer to design-led methods and approaches. This can help civil servants to get closer to people and citizens, approaching and framing problems from the user perspective. This leads to more effective solutions and increases empathy across governmental staff: “The greatest value that my team bring to the department is helping them to see, to connect with the users, to people on the ground, and to understand their needs before we design something.” (MOM BDU)

As trust grows, innovation teams can engage civil servants and other actors in projects that help them to learn. This can be an opportunity to ask big questions about their work, to experiment with new ways of doing things that challenge deep-seated practices, and to work as ‘amateur innovators’. With La Transfo, an experimental and inter-public service programme, 27th Region moved from delivering projects with civil servants towards supporting departments to set up their own innovation teams and develop much-needed skills: “The goal is also to create a clear understanding that innovation is not just a toolbox that you can take and use. It’s more about craft, it’s more about skills. The idea is that the civil servants become amateur innovators.” (27th Region)

Finally, in the long term, innovation teams can help to activate people and bring them together as part of a movement of change: a community of practice, with similar experiences of innovation projects, that can share knowledge, approaches and ideas to inform a larger process of transformation: “We think it’s more about organising things than creating an organisation, so we actually tend to think of it as a movement, rather than a specific team.” (Experio Lab)

Key learning points:

  • The value that dedicated innovation teams can bring to public sector innovation lies in the fact that they represent an experimental space.
  • Innovation teams and labs work by gradually exposing people to design thinking, engaging them, and enabling them to apply new promising approaches while changing their mindset.


3. Communicating the value of innovation teams

In the initial stages of running a new innovation team, communicating the value of the approach is a fundamental task. Despite having gained enough support and backing at a senior level to be able to start up in the first place, an innovation unit is often still seen as a risky experiment that needs to gain recognition and win trust within the system. This recognition and trust is not a given, and the time available in which to demonstrate its value and potential is generally very short. During this very delicate period, expectations need to be realistic and well aligned with the available resources, and the selection of pilot projects must be strategic.

Demonstrating the value of the innovation team is key to extending its support base, and to attracting attention from other departments or units that might become the next ‘clients’ or ‘collaborators’. The best sign of success of an innovation team is actually the amount of interest generated, and growth in the number of requests for collaboration.

Initial communication activities are likely to be presenting and sharing the intention behind the new team, and explaining its approach – but the best way to demonstrate value is to illustrate it with a pilot project that has proven successful. This is a major step towards becoming visible and accepted.

The first pilot project should generally be chosen for its political relevance. It could well be an incremental change project, where the methodology has already proven successful and there is limited risk is involved. As the capacity of the innovation team needs to be built up gradually, it is important to play the right card to start with. At this stage, it is important to collaborate with people genuinely motivated and interested in the project, who are in a position to take the results forward: “It was important that part of the healthcare unit wanted to do the project; they had a need to do the project, and they had to invest their own time and money into the projects and be responsible for the results.“ (ExperioLab)

Key learning points:

  • Communicating the value of the innovation approach is a fundamental task, in particular during the first year, to gain trust and recognition.
  • A successful first pilot project is the best way to achieve this, and it needs to be carefully chosen.

 

4. Building a culture of innovation: real-life insights

Building a new culture of innovation within an existing system can be a complex process. It requires space and permission for experimentation, and the development of a strong narrative. Although culture change itself is difficult to measure or track, this narrative should become stronger and more tangible as the transformation actually progresses. To create change within a desired timeframe, innovation teams need to think strategically about their own roles and actions.

Change is a process that may need different strategies and support along the way, and may even change the role of innovation teams themselves. At the beginning it might be about convincing and communicating the value of the new approach, then it might later become about facilitating change projects, and building up the capability to then create the infrastructure and organisational mechanisms to sustain the change in the long term. This adaptation is often about following a moving target as project needs change, requiring new skills sets and approaches: “We start with people who have general skills, such as management skills. Then we go on to recruit people with specialisms such as psychology backgrounds, with design skills such as industrial designers. We’re also now looking at statistics and data.” (MOM BDU)

Big changes start with small actions, which help to make the case: “A lot of those little wins that you can have really add up to big wins in the end. And, yes, sometimes you have to learn when to let it go, but if you don’t start every conversation with an excitement about change and being creative and making something different, you’re just not going to maintain the momentum toward major improvement.” (OPM)

Falling back into old practices, and not taking further risk, is also very common and potentially frustrating for people running innovation projects: “One of the big cultural changes we try to implement with our programme is around trial and error; testing before doing anything and moving on quickly if it fails. And I get the feeling that people sometimes revert back to old methods too quickly and they need to be more willing to take some risk.” (27th Region). Resilience and an entrepreneurial spirit are key to making progress.

Innovation teams are a new phenomenon in governments and public sectors. This means that innovation teams must learn and experiment along the way. They constantly reconsider their role and purpose, how they operate, and how they should develop. They often also question their size and position within the system. Will the innovation team need to scale up? Should it remain small and flexible? Should it be replicated elsewhere? Or should it even gradually disappear as its work is not needed anymore? “The day when we call ourselves successful is the day the organisation doesn't need us anymore.” (MOM BDU)

Key learning points:

  • Innovation teams have the scope to change the system in which they operate.
  • While doing this, they also need to be reflexive and periodically consider how they may need to change along the way to reach their goals.


5. Leaders and change

Depending on where they sit in the system, leaders play different roles when changing public services. Leaders can be those who are working at the most senior level, those in operational management, and those who lead the innovation projects or team.

At the most senior level, leaders should fully understand and believe in the project vision, supporting the initiative and allowing the innovation team to work differently and take some risk. Having the full support of key senior leaders throughout a project is one of the main success factors for any change initiative. Senior management can support a coherent and strong narrative, sharing evidence and inspiring stories.
At a more middle management level, operational managers should be aligned and connected with senior leaders and their vision in order to actively participate in the innovation process and facilitate its development and implementation. Their engagement and contribution from the start is fundamental as if they don’t recognise the value of the initiative, they can easily stop things from progressing.

Finally, the innovation team leader must create a dialogue with the system, whilst guarding the team from negative encounters and tedious conversations, in order to allow them to concentrate on their work and not become demoralised by daily blockages or complications. As Stéphane Vincent (27th Region) describes it, leaders should work as ‘mediator managers’ who protect innovators from bureaucracy. As in any team, leaders should also keep people connected to the vision and help them to feel recognised and supported: “It’s about helping them feel, just like in any team, appreciated, right and celebrated. But it’s also about taking care of them, and making sure that they’re getting what they need to stay charged and energised and to be able to tell their story.” (OPM Lab)

Key learning points:

  • Leaders play different roles depending where they sit in the system, but they should all understand and align with the original vision.
  • Key leadership roles include creating, enabling and guarding the space for the innovation team to work differently and take some risk.


6. Measuring impact

Communicating the value of an innovation team goes hand in hand with the ability to measure the impact of its work. Measuring impact can be both difficult and controversial, but is essential to demonstrate the effectiveness of these approaches in order to gain support and encourage their wider adoption. There are three main levels at which an innovation team can be measured: the project level, the people level and the system level.

At the project level, how you measure impact will depend on the kind of intervention and how it is set up from the start. For example, the MOM BDU team has been very successful in applying randomised controlled trials (RCTs) to test the results of their projects that used a combination of behavioural insights and design thinking methods. In one project, for example, that dealt with enforcement issues for SMEs, they tested and measured different solutions for approaching organisations. This enabled them to measure the effect of the different interventions and prove the most effective one at getting organisations to comply with their HR duties. This type of measurement, however, requires considerable time.

At the people level, the major impact is around how people start to connect to a new approach and how they change their behaviour as a consequence. In a project by ExperioLab, adopting a role-playing methodology helped nurses and doctors to become more empathic toward patients and see the value of engaging with them to improve services. This was measured and evaluated with qualitative approaches including questionnaires and interviews, which captured their reactions and following behaviour changes.

At the system level, creating and measuring change doesn’t happen immediately. But a good sign that things have started to shift is the level of attention the innovation team receives, and the number of people trying to apply the approaches they have been exposed to. Again, it can take time to track this kind of transformation, but finding ways to keep in touch and continue to exchange learning with this growing community of practice is fundamental.

Finally, even if measuring impact is feasible, there is also an awareness that using traditional measurement approaches might not be relevant for innovations that aim to create a new and different future: “What is the healthcare system for the future? What’s it going to look like? We have to build it for the future needs of our populations and their healthcare and we don’t know what they will be; we don’t know what it is going to look like. So if we start with the typical kind of measurement tools that we have, we’re not going to get there […] We don't know how to measure it, to be honest. I think it’s really hard with innovation, where you don’t know what the solutions will be.” (ExperioLab)        

Key learning points:

  • Measuring the of impact of innovation units can happen at three main levels: project, people and system. Thinking about how to measure these from the very beginning is important.
  • Be aware that a mix of different evaluation methods should be used, and that sometimes trying to measure everything might end up limiting the scope of the lab.

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