Innovation Behaviours for the Public Service – alpha version

If we want to encourage innovation, then we need to encourage and support the behaviours that will lead to innovative thinking and doing.

As part of the work supporting the Innovation Champions Group, we sought suggestions and advice about the behaviours that people who are doing new things need to demonstrate (or avoid). We also wanted to know what the behaviours were that were needed to be shown (or avoided) by leaders. In response we received a number of suggestions and some suggested writing or research relating to the topic – thank you to everyone who contributed.

So what did we find?

Well, there is research about the characteristics of what makes an innovator – for instance being able to connect fields and ideas that others find unrelated, questioning, and being an intense observer.

There is research that describes the key considerations for organisations seeking to innovate – such as aspiring and setting innovation targets, choosing which ideas to support and scale, the ability to accelerate and extend.

There is research that shows that trust is very important for innovation – particularly to have trust in colleagues that they have genuine care and concern as innovation is about making yourself, your ideas and your position, vulnerable.

There is work by the Canadian Conference Board on the skills you need to contribute to an organisation’s innovation performance – including looking for new ways to create value; rethinking the way things are done; assessing and managing risk; engaging others; listening to valuing diverse opinions and perspectives; and accepting feedback.

And there is extensive literature on innovative organisations, the process of innovation and about ideas and innovators. There’s also much written with advice for government innovators, including one of my favourites, the ‘Paradoxical Commandments of Government’ (“Your ideas will at best make someone else look good and at worst get you ostracized by your co-workers. Share your ideas anyway.”).

These all include some very pertinent points. However if we want to limit ourselves to a small number of behaviours, ones that might reflect the broader spread – gateway behaviours – which do we choose? What are some simple behaviours that people can adopt – the things that they can do, as opposed to descriptors of who or what they are?

The below is the ‘alpha’ version of behaviours for innovators and those supporting or leading innovation, as endorsed by the Innovation Champions Group.

For Innovators – people seeking to do something innovative

  1. Ask questions – of others and of yourself Innovation is about changing our behaviour, the way we do things, and how we understand problems and solutions. When you question some aspect of the status quo, you open yourself to seeing different options and ways of doing things. Question assumptions, question how and why things are done the way they are, question whether there might be a better way, ask whether there might be a different way of looking at things or whether there might be others who can add insight. Use answers to those questions to build a richer understanding of the current situation, what the problems are and what might be done.
  2. Try things – experiment a little (or a lot) Innovation is uncertain – if you knew exactly what was going to happen, then it wouldn’t be innovative. To reduce that uncertainty, you have to experiment in some way, to test the idea and how it works. The easiest way to experiment is to make the idea real or tangible in some form, such as a mock-up, a prototype or a rehearsal. This can be done quickly and at low cost, at least initially. As with an experiment, there should be openness to results that may not be what was expected or wanted, including failure, criticism or no reaction.
  3. (Help) Tell a story – who does this matter to and why? Why will this make things better? What will it allow us to do? How will this idea contribute to priorities, to getting better outcomes? It is easy for a new idea to seem like an additional thing, a distraction from core business. If it is part of a story, if you can identify how and why this matters, then the innovation can become part of existing work, rather than more work.
  4. Focus on the outcome – don’t get attached to ‘your’ idea It is very easy to get attached to an idea, yet the important thing is what the idea might lead to. If an idea is your idea, then it may stay limited to being your idea. If an idea is shared, and can be built on and shared by others, it is more likely to become a reality.
  5. Stick at it – believe in the power of persistence Getting people to change their behaviour, to change how they think about something, can be hard. Ideas may not work out as hoped. Other people may say “no” or otherwise dismiss your idea. Developing an innovative proposal may require going outside your comfort zone or involve new skills or methods. A new idea may mean you need to go out and build new networks or find support from different quarters. If you want to innovate, you need to persist at it.

For leaders – people wanting others to do something innovative

  1. Tell people where innovation is most needed One of the easiest ways to empower others to innovate is to let them know where it is most needed. This can help ensure that ideas that come forward will more likely fit with strategic needs and aims.
  2. Invite in the outliers – demonstrate that diversity is valued Innovation involves new ways of looking at things, and that requires tapping into different networks and groups and experiences, different ways of working and thinking, and allowing and encouraging constructive debate. One way to foster an environment that values diversity is to actively invite in those with different perspectives, from outside and inside your organisation. Who are the outliers that represent new or different ways of understanding your world? Invite them into the conversation and show that you are open to very different insights.
  3. Say “Yes, and” not “No, because” It can be hard to put forward a new idea, but very easy to stop someone doing it. “A raised eyebrow or a sceptical look can kill an idea before it gets any oxygen”. Building on an idea can help ensure you don’t miss out on a great new way of doing things. It helps people know that you value ideas and creativity.
  4. Don’t panic – tolerate experimental error Things will go wrong. There will be mistakes as things are learnt through innovation. Some, if not most, ideas will fail to come to anything. People will try things that don’t work. One adverse reaction to an innovative attempt can stop any further innovation. Provide guidance on where there is room to experiment, and where there can only be rigorously tested and checked initiatives. Create the space for ‘safe’ experimentation. Cultivate reflective learning, where experimental mistakes are discussed and learnt from, and not hidden or seen as shameful.
  5. Support innovators and share stories of success Innovation can be hard. It can be hard going against the status quo or working on something that may not, initially, fit with the rest of an organisation. Developing a new idea can involve running into a lot of roadblocks. Innovative ideas will require time and resources to be developed into real and tested proposals. They will need protection from the ongoing pressures of business-as-usual work. Innovators will need to be supported. Sharing stories of success can help build wider support, demonstrate the value that innovation can bring and show that it can be done, and help connect those who have implemented something new with those who are trying to do something new.

What do you think? Are these a fair representation of the behaviours that will lead to innovative activity that leads to better outcomes?

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  1. I would like to suggest question recommending the Conference Board of Canada innovation skills profile. I found it lacking 7-8 years ago as it confuses ‘skills’ and ‘behaviors’ or attributes’. I had a particular issue with seeing risk taking as a skill. If it is a skill, how do you train people to be risk takers? (This also ignore any notion cognitive diversity – what one person sees as risky is routine to the next). I went back to the author and challenged him on this. He admitted that it was not a skill, more of behavior. I noticed in the ‘2.0’ version of the model, he added terms of attributes / attitudes / behaviors to qualify the so-called skills. The other issue of the Conference Board work is that lack of evidence or research to show that the framework is actually useful. I find this very surprising.
    I ...

    ... would recommend the model for innovation skill development from the Singapore public service. The PMO created a model for skill development based on the metaphor of the ‘Hand of Innovation’. Each of the five skill areas is one finger; all five skills are held together by the hand, which represents teamwork and collaboration. The Singapore Civil Service College then worked with various groups to provide 2 to 3 days of training in each of the six areas. The overall concept was to build the capacity to innovate in public service. This was about solving problems and creating innovative solutions to the challenges facing government. The notion of teaching a skill was to avoid suggesting that one single brain storming tool or process is the ‘right’ one. Each skill offers various techniques, models and perspectives. The specific skills were:
    1. Generating ideas
    2. Developing ideas
    3. Judging ideas
    4. Communicating Ideas
    5. Turning ideas into actions
    6. Team work and collaboration
    I can provide some of the original documentation if anyone is interested. I wrote an innovation guide that went to all managers across Singapore to launch this programme.

    • Hi Ed – I mentioned the skills profile out of interest, it didn’t really inform our work on the behaviours for many of the reasons you mention. I agree that the skills work of the Singapore public service is impressive.

  2. This is going to sound very ‘public servanty’, but I think the crucial thing missing in APS agencies is ‘persistent innovation infrastructure‘. By which I mean processes and systems that allow ‘in the trenches’ workers to turn their ideas into actually implemented things.

    We try to generate ‘innovation’ in the APS by running these once-off ‘bring out your ideas’ events (usually during an ‘innovation week’ or some such thing), as if the only thing stopping innovation in the public service is a shortage of good ideas. Everyone has good ideas, and they often occur when going about your daily work, coming up against some bad process or poorly designed system and the thought occurs: ‘I know how we could do this better!’

    If there was ‘persistent innovation infrastructure’ baked in to the organisation, these sort of ideas could be pushed in, resources brought to bear and the idea turned into an ...

    ... actual ‘thing’. The problem is not ‘ideas’, but rather a lack of persistent and reliable infrastructure to turn ideas into realised improvements.

    A concrete example of ‘innovation infrastructure’: google 20% days. Although it has its flaws and detractors, its an example of ‘innovation infrastructure’ embedded in an organisation (which resulted in products like gmail and google transit). There’s also the more mundane, but in the long run more powerful, example of of Toyota’s incremental innovation process: Kaizen:

    While kaizen (at Toyota) usually delivers small improvements, the culture of continual aligned small improvements and standardization yields large results in terms of overall improvement in productivity. This philosophy differs from the “command and control” improvement programs (e g Business Process Improvement) of the mid-twentieth century. Kaizen methodology includes making changes and monitoring results, then adjusting. Large-scale pre-planning and extensive project scheduling are replaced by smaller experiments, which can be rapidly adapted as new improvements are suggested.

    It’s no co-incidence that Toyota is the largest company (by market cap) on the Nikkei Index (almost 3 times bigger than the second largest company, Mitsubishi).

    Well, that’s it for another episode of “Mark’s eat your vegetables hour” 🙂 . To help wake you up, here’s a cool video that sums it all up nicely: Meals Per Hour

    • Mark, it seems to me you are highlighting a major issue with your idea of a persistent innovation infrastructure.
      The best research I know of on innovation was delivered by Henley Management College in the UK and PriceWaterhouseCoopers. They looked 314 large companies on the Times 1000 list and ranked them in terms of percent of revenue from products and services less than five years old compared to total revenue. This was seen as indicative of the ability to see opportunities, create products or services to meet these opportunities, and most importantly, profit from them. The research revealed ten characteristics that separate the highest performers from the lowest. These factors are grouped together as three underlying capabilities. The top 20% of high performers develop critical underlying capabilities tohelp them turn their ideas into action via well defined “idea management processes”. This is your idea.
      The term ‘idea management’ was later used ...

      ... by software companies which turned suggestion box programs into online idea management systems. These are different concepts. The software is about a database of ideas; the research talks about how ideas flow from an individual through stages to launch the concept. These companies invest resources and processes to push ideas into results.
      When I first started in this field, idea suggestion programs focused on continuous improvement. Years ago at NZ Post I worked on systems to create process to pilot major ideas and simply use more basic ones as part of the Total Quality Service group. I did some work with a Singapore dept that started such a program 35 years ago (Mindef MINDEF to explore). At some point, improvement objectives were relabeled or replaced by innovation objectives.
      I think a big problem is very weak research on public sector innovation internationally. What we label as innovation is often improvement. Worse, I have read academic papers that make no effort to look at the results of an initiative. Simply launching something is considered innovation. This was never the understanding when I started this work.

  3. These are pretty good, unless you are suggesting that these are ‘The Five Behaviours that will make you an innovator’. Innovation, especially in the public service, occurs in a complex context, and the behaviour of any one individual (leader or innovator) often walks a very stony path.

    For innovators, I suggest that point 4 could be changed to ‘Are prepared to change direction and incorporate new material at very short notice. This does not focus on a given outcome, or even on a particular problem, because both of these could be viewed very differently by other people. Very innovative people can incorporate scraps, ideas, changed world views, new information on the run. They seem to be scanning all the time, and often in odd places. Holding onto one point of view is not innovative.’

    For leaders of innovation, point 1 (Tell people where innovation is needed) should be a strong no-no. One ...

    ... of the behaviours that could take this place is ‘Can ask the startegic questions for the organisation that encourage innovation’. For instance, ‘How could we be best in our field?’, ‘What would a good customer service system look like?’

    • Thanks David.

      I agree that being able to change direction at short notice is an advantage – but I wonder if it is essential or maybe whether it is a follow-on from 2 (being open to results from experiments) and 4 (focussing on the problem or outcome rather than the specifics of the idea)? Sometimes I’ve seen innovation happen only because someone has been extremely persistent or had faith that something was needed when others were less sure. Being able to pivot is an advantage, but in terms of identifying a small number of behaviours that will lead to the right sort of results, I wonder if being able to change direction at short notice is essential or always the case?

      For leaders, the intent was more in line with what Silvia has commented, that it’s about empowering staff by equipping them with the knowledge of where the challenges and priorities are. ...

      ... Sometimes as you suggest that will be about setting the vision and prompting with those questions – but other times it might be about noting there are very specific challenges or issues that need to be addressed, and that that’s where ideas and suggestions will be most valued?

  4. These are an inspiring set of behaviours to model!
    Because I’m in furious agreement with this list my suggestion is around word-smithing. The leaders behaviour to ‘tell people where innovation is most needed’ is not intended to be top down – indeed it is about empowering staff – but could be construed otherwise on a simple scan of the behaviours. ‘Set innovation challenges’ may be alternative wording. There may also be circumstances where views and ideas from below – those closest to the coalface – are able to address strategic needs and aims better than senior leaders can.

    • Thanks Silvia – great point, it’s about sharing the challenges being faced rather than telling.
      On another note Tim Kastelle has suggested that we focus more on the problem than just the outcome.