One of the interesting things about the group I run at the DWP is that we’re accountable for both innovation and strategy.
This, you might imagine, ought to be a nirvana that anyone who cares about innovation would dream about. Practically speaking, however, it introduces a few issues that you don’t expect.
Consider this scenario. You use the tools of innovation to create a pile of new thinking that results in new prototypes or experiments getting built. Everyone is excited, and loves the new approach. New things start happening, so everyone declares the exercise a success.
In the meantime, however, the approved and mandated strategy that was previously being followed gets changed in subtle, but unexpected ways. For those whose responsibility it was to implement the strategy, this is annoying at best. At worst, it represents a threat to them that must be taken out as soon as possible.
Now, I know immediately that everyone will start screaming that strategies must be flexible to new thinking and new goals, and of course I agree with that.
But the situation is illustrative of something that you always see when you send an innovation team into the wild: the new ideas getting created threaten someone’s interests, no matter how well the innovation team influences those around it.
You get a backlash that is as inevitable as it is hard to manage.
In fact, I’m not certain it is possible to manage it. If you’re about changing the status quo and you don’t ruffle some feathers, it is surely inescapable that you’re not really changing anything at all.
My conclusion is that you have to invest your innovators with sufficient political clout that they can – in their own right – protect themselves from the backlash when it happens. If the clout is invested via proximity to a powerful senior figure, then so much the better
Talking with innovators across sectors, I’ve found there are some common signs that innovators haven’t got the clout they need to do stuff.
You know they have no clout when people around them say “the innovation team don’t do anything”. Clearly, what’s happened is that the innovators know they can’t withstand the backlash, so they do busy-busy little projects that don’t ruffle any feathers.
You know the innovators have no clout when things that are ordinarily business-as-usual start being called" “innovation”. I’ve talked to an innovation group that managed to get RSA tokens deployed for security purposes. Ramping up security using off-the-shelf-products is not innovation. But the innovators, fearing the backlash, go where things are safe, and the need for change is self-evident. Tokens are a good example of going where things are safe.
The innovators have no clout when their diaries don’t have meetings with senior people. They know they can’t “deliver” (they are scared the backlash will take out their projects) so they only commit to things which are small enough not to get noticed. Of course, being small, they are also not worthy of the attention of senior folk, so no meetings get set up.
But here is the number one thing that tells you your innovators have no clout: talk with them about innovation, and they’ll tell you how their organisations aren’t innovative. No matter that they are in place to make their organisations innovative. No matter that all their training and professional experience suggests the raw materials they need are all around them. They give you an excuse instead. They’ve been hit one too many times by a backlash for which they had no defence.
There is a downside to giving innovators clout, of course. The downside is they then have the ability to disrupt strategy and “get distracting”. My own view, though, is that a strategy that doesn’t know how to deal with the new stuff without falling apart isn’t very much use anyway. It’ll only be current in the short term.
Try this: give your innovators their head and protect them from harm. You’ll be surprised as the results you get.