On why innovations don’t scale

One of the reasons that insights in public services don’t readily scale is that we face such radically different contexts in our communities. How can we afford to invest time and effort in practices that might help drive innovation within our organisations and partnerships when we are also custodians of public money? Line up your accountants, risk management officers and internal auditors as witnesses for the prosecution. As businessman and politician Michael Bloomberg notes: “In medicine, or in science, [if] you go down a path and it turns out to be a dead end, you really made a contribution, because we know we don’t have to go down that path again. In the press, they call it failure. And so people are unwilling to innovate, unwilling to take risks in government.” 

Can we start to reframe this debate to the point where testing and innovating is part of the way we do business, a means of securing value for money because the new might work more effectively than the old? And if so, what challenges do we have to overcome to foster innovative practices in our organizations? 

Reading the examples and insights from this research it is easy to dismiss them as only being applicable to the area in which they have been developed, a product of the unique set of relationships and wider context in which they have arisen. However, the fundamental building blocks of successful, innovative partnerships are generalisable. Putting them in place requires more than a simple check-box approach, of course. Here are some provocations through which to help question the status quo and adapt these building blocks within a local context. 

Be determined, invest effort, commit for the long term. Innovation could be seen as analogous to signing up to the gym in January: there’s a clear need to tackle issues that are not as we would want them. But there is no correlation between gym membership and weight loss, any more than there is between a commitment to the idea of developing innovations and innovation itself. Both require systematic, diligent, on-going hard work to translate will into action. Reflecting on, and putting in place, some of the building blocks we advocate in this report is one such action, using local knowledge to translate the learning into your local context. 

Tackle organisational immune-responses. This is a more subversive provocation: the need to overcome what Birkinshaw and Ridderstrale call the organisational immune system which kicks in to protect the status quo. There are, of course, many such organisational responses that will crowd out innovation and help prevent change: think dead-end working groups, over-zealously applied rules, ‘not in my job description’, office gossip. The RSA’s work in other spheres has surfaced a wide variety. When considering innovation within a multi-agency partnership the strength of this immune-response can be compounded. It is essential that leaders in organisations and partnerships strengthen the sense of solidarity and entrepreneurialism to help overcome the immune responses that will inevitably arise. 

Don’t wait until you have everyone on board. Do you really need to start by trying to get all partners on the same page? Different people, different organizations, different incentive systems and motivations, each part of a bigger system but concerned with their own part of this bigger picture. As Adam Kahane notes, “Collaborating with diverse others therefore cannot and must not require agreeing on a single truth or answer or solution. Instead, it involves finding a way to move forward together in the absence of or beyond such agreements.” This is linked to the insight from our research of the need to work with the willing: sometimes it’s necessary to follow the energy and ‘do stuff’. Taking action in this way is an opportunity to prove the value of collaboration and generate trust among partners, which in turn can lead to agreement on a shared vision further down the line. In other words this is not a linear sequence to be followed at all costs. If we are to truly develop an entrepreneurial edge it is about recognising the need for flexibility which in turn allows opportunities to make a difference to be spotted and taken. 

Focus beyond organization-friendly innovation. Developing new service paradigms is clearly essential, but it will never happen unless those who make policy and those who deliver it are prepared to change their world views. This is not an easy shift to bring about. Are you starting a debate about possible new futures for your institutions and partners? And in so doing, how are you striking a balance between the need to foster the entrepreneurial attitude required to underpin innovation and the need to have in place the appropriate level of bureaucracy required to manage the risks associated with public money?

Embrace diverse disciplines and perspectives. In his book The Medici Effect, Frans Johanssen coins the term ‘intersection’ to describe how the more radical innovations arise when different disciplines are brought together around a particular issue. This can, in many ways, be analogous to the partnership table. However, are you actually bringing in a diverse set of perspectives from within the relevant system to help identify new approaches and ideas? Beyond widening out the number of public sector partners, to what extent are you courting opposing or dissenting views, bringing in people with no knowledge of the system at hand, but with expertise in a different field?  

Ultimately, the toughest assignment is to address the idea that the result of an intervention in a complex, adaptive system cannot be predicted with certainty. We ultimately need new ways of thinking and acting on the process of innovation to address such complex challenges.

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