Five ways public sector managers can ignite innovation

It’s crucial that managers and leaders foster a culture of innovation and creative thinking within their teams, writes Gabriella Goddard

Artificial intelligence and digitisation are transforming the public sector, with procedures, data-collection, analysis and even decision-making becoming increasingly automated. In the face of this change, creativity and innovation are more important than ever for government workers.

Leaders in the public sector can help improve services and better engage workers by encouraging a culture where fresh ideas, new ways of working and innovation can thrive. However, a recent research report by YouGov and Microsoft showed that while 73 per cent of British workers surveyed considered themselves creative, they felt their workplaces were stifling innovation. Furthermore, the report showed that British companies are at risk of falling behind because of a failure to encourage creativity among their staff.

The good news is that managers can be proactive in enabling greater creativity in their employees by enhancing their own creative and innovation leadership skills. This will create a halo effect on the people around them.

Here are five ways public sector managers can become better innovators:

1. Encourage curiosity
The reality for most managers is that they spend their time fire fighting, working through their busy to-do list, and delivering short-term goals. Problems often get solved with the first answer that comes to mind. However, with the fast pace of technological change, we also need develop new ways of working and thinking.

Curiosity is about questioning the status quo, assumptions, and established beliefs. This involves encouraging exploration outside your field, researching best practice for inspiration, and new technological developments. For example, how could we use block chain technology to transform government practices and experiences? Or, how can the Internet of Things (IoT) make cities smarter by improving public transport or drainage systems? Or how can machine learning technologies lead to earlier diagnoses within the health system?

2. Take a coaching approach
Employees, especially those working at the coalface, are often brimming with good ideas on how to improve things. However, they may not feel confident sharing their ideas, especially if they are unproven and could fail. In order to empower employees to think for themselves and boost their confidence to develop their best ideas further, managers can take a coaching approach. This involves keeping an open mind, practicing active listening and asking more exploration questions like ‘what about?’ and ‘how might we…?’

For example, Sean Frayne, chief officer at Derbyshire fire service, decided to listen to employee ideas and feedback, saying: “Some people still think managing people is about telling them what to do. From my experience it is about motivating, coaching them and encouraging them to be the best they can be.”

After he inspired a change in the culture, independent assessors found that even in the face of budget cuts, they could not find a single employee nor partner who would say anything negative about the service.

3. Develop user centricity
Improving services to the public depends on an innate understanding of their changing and unmet needs. Design Thinking is an approach developed by Tim Brown, founder of IDEO innovation consultancy. At the heart of this approach is empathising with your user or key stakeholder, understanding how their world is today, and how it could be in the future. So spending more time researching your primary users’ views and experiences will quickly reveal new opportunities for improvement and innovation.

For example, Hanover Housing Association, which manages homes for older people for multiple local authorities, conducted detailed research with their staff. They found that their employees knew little about dementia and that other residents had little empathy or patience with dementia sufferers. This led them to develop a range of solutions to improve their services for dementia patients, such as awareness campaigns, and training for staff and residents.

4. Stimulate the work environment
The YouGov and Microsoft research showed that the three main obstacles to creative working were uninspiring workplaces (41 per cent), a stressful atmosphere (34 per cent) and a lack of appropriate spaces to focus (28 per cent).

Managers can help shift this creative apathy by encouraging their team members to get out of the office, and take a walk in the fresh air. Incubating ideas is a key part of the creative process, so for extra challenging problems, giving people time to ‘sleep on it’ can actually be highly productive.

In addition, exposing employees to talks, conferences and new sensory stimuli is great for sparking new ideas and improving motivation. For example, when Canadian Deputy Municipal Clerk Natasha Letchford saw a TED talk entitled The Antidote to Apathy, it inspired her to re-think the design of local government signs and notices in order to make them clearer.

5. Adopt an experimental mindset
As the landscape of public service changes, what works today may not be the best solution for tomorrow. But doing things differently in a way that has never been done before is risky, which can invoke the fear of failure in some managers.

Adopting an experimental mindset means testing concepts early and often. By making prototypes, sharing these with users and getting feedback, teams can quickly learn what is working and what is not. Refining concepts in smaller stages reduces risk by converting potential failures into opportunities to learn.

For example, Finland, where an experimental mindset is official government policy, systematically tests new policies, such as a basic income, before deciding whether to introduce them on a larger scale.

As our world rapidly changes, so too will the demands and expectations citizens have of public services. To stay ahead of the curve, it’s crucial that managers and leaders foster a culture of innovation and creative thinking within their teams. Training courses can be useful for developing skills and capabilities, but to be most effective in practice, the workplace needs managers who are better innovators themselves.

Gabriella Goddard is the coaching director at the Brainsparker Leadership Academy, specialising in developing innovation and creativity capabilities in the workplace. She is also a member of the Forbes Coaches Council.

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