Tuesday, 30 June 2009

Public Service Innovation: A Contradiction in Terms?

A few months ago I was facilitating the closure session on a leadership program for experienced public service managers and something weird happened during a serious conversation about public service innovation within the context of the recession.

This cohort of experienced managers were beginning to see themselves as leaders and not managers, and the facilitated conversation upon powerful lessons that could be drawn into future programmes and from their time together as a cohort, led to some unusual candour within the context of likely cuts in public service expenditure.
They concluded:

1. We need a new paradigm for leadership within the context of the recession. We don’t have enough leaders, but we have lots of managers and backwoodsmen strumming old banjos and busily riding rocking-chairs.

2. Public service investments have tended to institutionalise social problems , when the real issue is about having the courage to face and address the social behaviours within families (or lack of them) that are root causes of problems.

3. If we really want innovation in public services, then we need big cuts to destroy the old models embedded in “modernised” services. Nothing innovative will happen unless we face targets of at least 30% cuts.

It's the People, Stupid!

A few years ago I was working for a national organisation dedicated to innovation in healthcare delivery. The issue they wanted me to work on was to explore the reasons for failure in their customer organisations’ adoption of innovations and putting them to work. I was given a group of their experienced senior consultants in change management to work on this, using a creative approach involving the use of metaphor.

The top 3 solutions were frighteningly simple (which demonstrates the power of the technique):

1. Use the language of the user: try to introduce the innovation using the kind of language that the potential user understands, instead of consultant-speak which tends to alienate and trigger natural Not-Invented-Here behaviours.

2. Identify great benefits don't just apply to the customer of the service, but which also include benefits for the people applying the innovation.

3. Recruit individuals into your healthcare service who want to innovate, and make it clear that their role will involve continual improvement: the way we work will continually evolve.

This brings out an important issue, that if you recruit individuals who do not want to innovate, and who see innovation as someone else’s job, then you cannot be surprised at what you get. So maybe it isn’t about optimal processes, it’s about people. Having the right people with the right psychology.