6 weeks ago I (reluctantly*) finished my role in the Department for Work and Pensions’ Innovation team. I’ve now had some time to reflect on the role and the place of innovation functions in large organisations, with the following observations, insights, and tips for success:
You’re not an inventor
In the context of introducing change to large organisations, “innovation” doesn’t mean creating brand new technologies or innovations. It means introducing things which haven’t been done in that place before. Leave the research and inventing to smaller and more agile/ larger and richer organisations who can manage research and development functions.
… and it’s not all about the gadgets
Some of the latest and greatest technologies/ gadgets might have potential to save lots of money, but they are unlikely to go down well in the media. If it won’t go down well in the press, it won’t get approved. Be aware of (and and play with!) new things, but don’t expect to introduce them across the business. It may be frustrating and surprising to find how “behind the times” a lot of things are but it’s an inevitable result of being in an unwieldy organisation. The up side is that if you do introduce a change it can have a massive impact.
Keep a wide perspective on everything
It’s easy to be pulled in to the innovation bubble and forget the wider context. Remember that the team’s function is to support and serve the business and it’s customers. Seek input and feedback from all business units (including the front line), grades, and sectors. Online idea management systems (such as that which DWP introduced last November) can help with this.
A successful pilot/ trial doesn’t ensure the project will be implemented
Scaling up projects is hard in any company, and even more so in a large organisation. Likewise, external factors can have a rapid and dramatic impact. Don’t expect to get it right every time, and if it doesn’t happen then don’t take it personally. Volume helps; do as much as you can as quickly as possible. Some projects are bound to get through.
You need some very experienced people in the team
People who know the organisation inside out and are aware of what’s been tried before are invaluable. They’ll have the contacts to move things forward, the know-how to understand when to stop, and a full understanding of navigating complex governance to implement projects.
… and people who are fresh to the organisation
New ideas/ perspectives, fresh insights, and constant questioning will help keep the innovation function challenged and on the ball. Employ additional interns and apprentices where possible, give them responsibility and see what they create.
“Innovation” doesn’t mean there’s no paperwork
Some innovation is about rapid experimentation and testing. Following through and implementing projects, however, can involve working through a lot of governance and security steps. Making links with appropriate areas of the organisation will help smooth the processes.
Harness and enable the crowd
You’re unlikely to be the only ones doing/ wanting to do innovation in (and to) the organisation. Reach out, attend external as well as internal events/ meetings, and harness the skills of the whole business and those keen to help move it forward; if you become an enabler of innovation then you’re doing something right.
Push boundaries but don’t push too hard- you still need high level buy-in
Top level support gives you a mandate to exist and the funding to operate. It also enables you to put pressure on other areas of the organisation to work with you. Sometimes the innovation function will need to fight and sometimes it will need to flatter; try strike the right balance to keep senior managers on your side *most* of the time.
… and for that you need to produce a ROI
It’s not all about the money… but a lot of it is. Unless you’re in an unusual organisation, high level support will quickly run dry if a return isn’t forthcoming.
Sometime you have to forget the rules and just do it
In hesitant or cumbersome organisations sometimes you have to break a little rule to prove that something works and could be successful. Combine this with creating strong organisational links and a proven success rate to reduce risk, and if you push it too far then make sure you have a back-up plan.
* I am on a graduate scheme that means I change job role every 6-12 months. My 12 months on the Innovation team finished in September.