Innovation, Powered by People

Darren Lemon, General Manager at eir Business NI, talks about the race to innovate in order to keep pace with evolving demand, available technologies and tech savvy citizens. According to Lemon, in this race to innovate, the public sector’s most valuable asset will likely be its people.

“We call it the ‘innovation imperative'”, explains Lemon. “Organisations know that their survival is strongly linked to their ability to innovate: it keeps them ahead of the competition, maximises productivity and helps them meet the evolving needs of citizens. It also helps them to deal more effectively with technological threats like cybersecurity and technological opportunities like Blockchain. Innovation will be key to managing increasingly large volumes of data and making the most from game-changing political challenges like Brexit. With so many real benefits to be achieved through innovation, we are now seeing it moving up the public sector priority list.”

“But, what we’re seeing is that the innovation is a process, not a project. The question then becomes, how can you innovate continuously, with a constantly refreshed spring of ideas to fuel growth today and into the future?”

Develop an idea-nurturing culture

The key to this constant flow of ideas, says Lemon, is fostering a work environment where employees feel confident about brainstorming. But this setting is proving elusive. “A recent study by IBM showed that the single biggest roadblock to innovation is an unsupportive culture and climate. In fact, almost 35% of CEOs said they were concerned that the inability to motivate and support people who have good ideas can effectively derail a greater corporate focus on innovation.”

This challenge is not solely in the private sector domain. At the most recent NI Civil Service Conference in October, entitled Fact + Fiction, the theme of culture for innovation ran through the presentations from Hannah Cockroft’s inspirational ‘Be the Best that You Can Be’ to Kainos Build-a-Bot team challenge and Belfast Trust Paul Duffy’s reinforcement of active & visual leadership and the importance of team involvement in creating game-changing solutions. It is no surprise that the same theme is running elsewhere, in progressive public sectors across the world. Speaking at the Public Service Conference 2017 in Singapore in October, Education Minister Ong Ye Kung said “public sector officials need to take stock of how often they say no and instead find a way to say yes, when it comes to the pursuit of innovation.”

There are, says Lemon, other barriers to innovation: budget allocation, immature processes, an aversion to risk, lack of enabling technologies, legacy infrastructure and insufficient access to necessary information and data. “However, all of these elements require that change of mindset and environment that we’re talking about. If an organisation is committed to innovation, and creating a workplace where innovation is championed, this will be reflected in an organisation’s objectives and budgets.”

“I was struck by a quote I read recently by Adena Friedman, CEO of Nasdaq, Inc. She said, ‘as a CEO you have to recognise that your business will be radically different in the next five to 10 years, and then build and lead a team to succeed in that new world’.

Start small and scale up

So how can public sector organisations build a team to succeed in this new world? “Let’s return to Ong Ye Kung for a second. He astutely said: ‘make a start, no matter how small. Innovation is not about grand plans, KPIs, technology, a big budget and ample time and resources. The main obstacle is ourselves – our organisation and all its entrenched processes, bureaucracy and a culture of being afraid’.”

At the first joint Thinkathon with eir Business and the Northern Ireland Civil Service (NICS) in September 2017, people proved powerful and collaboration came to the fore, said Lemon. “The event worked by stripping everything back and finding real problems, coming up with ways in which they can be solved and how technology can be applied to this process.”

“The pace of technological advancement can be overwhelming. Tech sand, we sometimes call it, where you are in effect paralysed by the sheer scale of things. We found that by asking the teams to think about tangible or relatable issues, no matter how small or how ‘out there’, that they produced some excellent ideas. It can be easy to take the obvious approach, but innovation is about thinking differently, taking a risk. The group scenario worked too as it acted like a cross-team collaboration: people from different areas of expertise, backgrounds, technical know-how, all working together, teasing out ideas and finessing them. Solo performers can shine but working together can yield greater results and the Thinkathon proved that. ”

The idea is just the start though, says Lemon. Organisations need to ensure that a supportive environment exists all the way through the process. “We’re asking people to be brave enough to voice their ideas, so we need to make sure we don’t derail the innovation process by not following through. Ideas might die a death, and this can of course be demoralising, but it’s important to communicate why the idea failed – whether it’s a developmental problem, a budget constraint or another practical issue. The goal is to create a workplace where employees feel like they’re being listened to and their ideas are being taken seriously, rather than disappearing into a black hole.”

Technology is completely useless — without people behind it

“With the pace of technological change making heads spin, we – as people – need to keep up. Technology is meant to be used to build tools that we can apply, with thoughtful human processes and ideas and good old fashioned trial and error, to the larger problems that we face. The Internet of Things, for example, needs design and not just technology.

And this is where ideation and the creation of eco-systems is key. The more ideas you have, the more chance you have at winning. The same can be said of managing customer and supplier relationships for innovation. Close collaboration and mutual understanding is crucial to making the technology work.”

Innovating is a skill that can be learned

Innovators, for the most part, are not born, they are made. In his book ‘The Innovator’s DNA’, Hal Gregerson outlines the five skills an innovator possesses: associating, questioning, observing, networking and experimenting. “Gregerson, and the book’s other co-authors believe that about two-thirds of the skills it takes to innovate can in fact be learned. This is an important point to note and to take further. Sure, there are the Steve Jobs of this world, who are born to innovate, but this is the exception rather than the rule,” says Lemon. “For most of us, it’s about learning to think differently.”

“And that brings us right back to the environment and the culture. If we’re agreeing that innovation is a skill that can be learned, then we need to look at ways in which we can hone that skill in the workplace. Group ‘think-ins’ such as the NICS Thinkathon are proven to work, and these can be taken further by the introduction of an ideas league table where employees ‘vote’ for the idea they think has the most merit. This involves the entire organisation, and fosters that sense of ‘we’re in this together’ culture, where ideas are appreciated and can grow.”