Civil Service / Fast Stream / Government / Innovation / Technology

Innovation functions in large organisations

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:


science-experiment-girlYou’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.

knowledge-managementYou 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.

lemon… 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.

paperwork_250“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.

imagesHarness 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.

Mature Businessman Seated at a TablePush 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.



Break a little ruleSometime 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.

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14 thoughts on “Innovation functions in large organisations

  1. Another interesting read, Kate. I wholeheartedly agree with your point about innovators in large organisations (/Public bodies) not being inventors. In organisation’s like ours (DWP and DfE) we have the luxury of letting the market show us the way. Still far from easy to innovate, but at least we can follow in the footsteps of the trailblazers.

    PS: Love the pics, especially Buster Keaton!

    • Thanks for your comments.
      Perhaps an alternative view of “follow in the footsteps of the trailblazers” is “let others make the mistakes first”?

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  3. Thought I’d provide a view from the other side of technical innovation – from the point of view of someone that works in a large private company in the health and personal care sector as an “end-user”

    In this context I take “innovation” to mean largely cool new software tools (such as wikis, blogs, yammer, etc). I suspect you may baulk at this description but ultimately that’s what the end user will see despite any verbiage scattered around.

    Personally I am always the first to volunteer to play with new technology and have been involved in a number of such things over the years! There are some patterns here:

    1. Such innovations tend to be dropped in from a great height – Someone Important decides we need Innovation and hires bright young things from a place the end-users would consider to be outside and gets very excited by their technology demonstrations.

    2. Large organisations tend to have restrictive IT policies because IT can be managed much more efficiently centrally (or even externally), which mean that end-users find it difficult to try things out for themselves, or even propagate their own preferences up the chain. It may well be that some people in the organisation know the tool they want to do the job, but getting it even seen in the organisation is difficult and having it suppressed in favour of an outside authority’s preferred solution is not uncommon.

    3. People are no where near self-aware enough to understand how little they and others understand new technology. As a vignette – I regularly attend meetings that involve Powerpoint, the number of people that know they can start a presentation by pressing F8 is not much different from zero. People talk about blog and wiki software being simple to use but actually it isn’t if you think about it. One of the few innovations that has taken off in the organisation I work for is Office Communicator – which really is fantastically simple.

    4. The 90:9:1 rule is king – 1% of people are heavily involved in contributing to new technology, 9% are semi-interested but contribute little, 90% are close to completely uninterested! This means small demos often fail because the “1%” really is 1 or less people.

    5. There is no end to these innovations and they all seem to be implemented without consideration for any of the other innovations because there are multiple “Someone Importants”. The single technology I’d like to see implemented is single sign-on (i.e. one set of credentials to access all tools) – I’m not holding my breath!

    Congratulations – you are the first person outside my organisation to receive this rant 😉

  4. Innovation and Continuous Improvement – only really delivery if their aligned to the goals and strategy of the organization. Quite a lot of time in many organizations is wasted on so called Innovative “GUCCI Gadgets” – that are merely there to please top level management in the same way their Watches and Cars express their egos.

    Innovation only best serves an organization if the organization knows where it wants to go…

    • I think that sometimes innovation can challenge and drive a change in the goals and strategy of the organisation- so sometimes it’s good to go against the general consensus.

      Agree with your point about gadgets (as mentioned in my original post); if an innovation function is just introducing “GUCCI gadgets” it’s unlikely to be thinking of the long game… though sometimes getting the top management on board with gadgets can pave the way for other, less exciting innovations.

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