How to create an innovative culture

11 Apr 12
In straitened times, public sector leaders have to look at their services with fresh eyes. This can mean tearing up the rule book, a frightening prospect for many staff. Managers must be encouraged to put their heads above the parapet, says Munira Thobani
By Munira Thobani | 1 April 2012

In straitened times, public sector leaders have to look at their services with fresh eyes. This can mean tearing up the rule book, a frightening prospect for many staff. Managers must be encouraged to put their heads above the parapet, says Munira Thobani

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Relying on standard practices might be comforting, but it can also be deadly when public services need to innovate quickly. The growth in devolution, personalisation and localism, combined with current financial realities, mean that new ways of managing and providing services are needed. No change is not an option.

To make this possible, leaders and managers must create a more trusting and supportive culture throughout the organisation – one that allows staff at all levels to feel they can take appropriate decisions to best meet users’ needs.

Too often, however, when something goes wrong, organisations and management systems resort back to highly risk-averse, protocol-following behaviour.

Lessons from national tragedies show that we must rebalance the levels where professional judgement is exercised. The Munro Review into child protection, published last july, highlighted the need for this to be nearer the front line, to help staff make better decisions rather than just follow processes.

Compliance with rules is not enough to help individuals and communities who need vital public service interventions.

Innovation calls for experimentation and a proportionate approach to accountability and risk. But how can public sector managers change the culture?

1. Start by doing something symbolic
Senior managers are in a strong position to take swift action that sometimes involves tearing up the rule book, or more accurately, creating new rules. In the riot recovery areas for example, local authority officials were able to put money straight into the hands of local businesses to help them return the high streets to normality, with no strings attached. In every organisation there are examples where stepping out of the constraints of rule books has allowed innovation. The best way to encourage others to have fresh ideas is by showing examples and, of course, openly stepping outside of traditional ways of working yourself.

2. Keep the 80:20 rule in mind
Public services run by the book have been shown to be ineffective and resource-hungry because of an overbearing focus on bureaucracy and compliance. Research into some local authority services, for example, suggests that professional staff spend 80% of their time on paperwork or behind a computer, leaving less than 20% for frontline intervention and support. Not only is this a waste but it de-skills staff who came into public services to make a difference. Wherever possible, ask your staff to reverse this ratio, and see the difference made when no less than 80% of time is spent with service users.

3. Show your workings
Making judgements and managing risks is what good senior managers do best. Helping others to learn and build capacity is the second best thing they can do. Making your ‘working out’ transparent allows others to see the links much more clearly between professional judgements, organisational values and effective outcomes. For example, it is useful for staff to see how managers consider their strategic priorities for the coming months, or deal with tricky decisions.

4. Embrace a degree of failure

In the age of austerity, it can feel acutely demoralising when an innovative initiative or service fails. And yet innovation is, by its very nature, something of a leap into the unknown – a departure from the norm – which means some innovations will almost certainly fail. Manage this natural risk by not loading too much into one grand scheme, and by ensuring that when things do fail, the lessons are learnt in a blame-free environment.

5. Make your core values explicit
The best way to hold diverse views and flexible practices together is to ensure that everyone understands and takes responsibility for  the organisation’s purpose and values. Relying on personal judgement can only be made safe where the ‘ground rules’ are easily marked and taken on board by everyone. Combining permission to innovate with a common purpose and shared values can be a great way to unleash good ideas.
6. Establish a culture of learning
Innovation happens in organisations that are committed to learning. Shifting from a culture of compliance to one based on judgement and trust requires effort. The labour of learning can help build understanding and responsibility as well as giving managers confidence to put their heads above the parapet. To make it safe for staff to exercise judgement means investing in building the competence and confidence of all employees.

7. Bring different teams together
In any organisation, each team or service area will have its own distinctive culture and ways of approaching risk and innovation. Some services will inevitably be way ahead of others in developing a healthier attitude to risk. By bringing various teams together, these differences can emerge in a way that is helpful and constructive, if handled carefully. A collision of ideas and experiences can help the whole organisation to work together and build on the successes of innovation and change.

8. Undertake a ‘process cull’
Process compliance is not the same as achieving good outcomes. No one is going to argue for burning the rule books but it is prudent to revise them: clarifying which are truly necessary, and losing those that add no value. Managers that we work with welcome rules that clarify boundaries. This can help everyone to understand constraints and realities while still allowing creativity and innovation in services and interventions.

9. Generate new thinking and new expectations
The alchemy of trust, proportionate risk and reflective practice make up the antidote to fear, resistance and inertia in organisations. Managers can help to stimulate new thinking by asking, in a safe space, powerful questions such as: ‘If the only management you did was that which your staff asked for, what would you be doing?’ Turning things on their head often helps to stretch the mind and allow people to consider risks in a new light. The question then becomes: can we take the risk not to take risks?

10. Keep your eye on the prize
Building capacity for innovation by trusting more and telling less can help people take responsibility for their own actions and behaviours. The prize can be better outcomes, cost-effective interventions, greater staff involvement and satisfaction and empowered communities. By gathering evidence about the impact you’re achieving, and publicising this widely, you can help your organisation go from strength to strength.


Munira Thobani is a senior fellow at the Office for Public Management and an experienced executive coach. She specialises in working with top teams in local authorities and health trusts to build strategic leadership capacity


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