There is much buzz about public sector innovation from most governments, and related organisations such as NESTA and the OECD OPSI. The problem is that talk becomes jargon if people do not grasp the core skills for delivering innovative results in our organisations.
When I started my career, creativity expert Edward de Bono wrote something that stayed with me:
“The English language does not distinguish between idea creativity and artistic creativity. If you create something which was not there before, you are creative. Because of this failure of language, people are reluctant to accept the idea that creativity is a learnable skill. Once we have separated idea creativity from artistic creativity, then we can set about learning, and develop the skills of learning for new ideas.”
The concept of idea creativity as a learnable skill is not well understood in the public sector.
The Australian Public Service Commission’s 2015 State of the Service Report is a snapshot of the public sector in federal agencies. It found that “most agencies had not yet identified the knowledge and skills that their workforce needed to support innovation”. This comes from a country that brought a sophisticated approach to innovation.
Resources are spent to encourage innovation, yet often this does not define the core knowledge that staff should have. If this knowledge is not defined, it cannot be communicated effectively. If innovation skills are not defined, then they do not become part of the normal program for learning and development.
In 2001, I helped the Singapore Prime Minister’s Office launch a national innovation skills program. I wrote the innovation guide that went to 20,000 managers and staff. It was called “Changing the Way We Think”. It introduced an innovation skills framework called “The Hand of Innovation”. Each finger represented a skill needed for innovation at an individual level. These skills were:
- Generating ideas
- Harvesting and developing ideas
- Evaluating ideas
- Proposing and marketing ideas
- Implementing ideas
Public servants could take two to three days of training in each skill delivered by its Civil Service College. Most importantly, the guide was a communication tool to give people a practical understanding of what it means to be innovative on the job.
Skills or behaviours?
While there are attempts by NESTA and the OECD OPSI to define innovation skills, these often seem problematic. A weakness is confusion between innovation characteristics or behaviours and the skills needed to shape these behaviours.
For example, the OECD OPSI suggests concepts like insurgency, user centricity, data literacy, iteration, and curiosity are innovation skills.
If insurgency is an innovation skill, how do we train people to be insurgents? Does this make sense intuitively? I truly hope it has trialled training programs to ensure that people will understand how “insurgency” can be used on a daily purpose. User centricity and data literacy seem more like a body of knowledge.
A useful distinction is:
Skills: Skills develop over time with education and training, practice, and by the use of knowledge. We need skills for solving problems and managing ideas, and new ways for people to work for effective collaboration.
Attributes, characteristics, and behaviours: You may read descriptions of what some see as people being innovative; they “think outside the box”. The problem is that these descriptors are not skills; they are perceptions of behaviour.
There is little value in pronouncing something to be a skill if people cannot learn how to do it.
Start by recognising the difference between skills and behaviours that describe these skills in use. If we want to focus on behaviours, then we should understand cognitive diversity. This helps people see their style of thinking for solving problems and dealing with change, and how this shapes our behaviours.
A tool like the Kirton Adaption Innovation indicator would make it easy for people to see if they have a tendency for curiosity, originality, and insurgency.
Design thinking is the current problem solving process de jour. It has stages for ideation and judging ideas. There are as many tools to generate ideas as there are ways to shape criteria to judge ideas. I see little evidence that we are developing these core skills in people.
The current buzz on innovation led me to this conclusion: People talk about innovation as if talking about innovation makes them innovative. This is as true as talking about physical fitness as if this makes them physically fit.
(Picture Credit: Pixabay)