Posted by:4 September, 2012
Nesta, together with the Local Government Association, is supporting innovators in local government across England and Wales through its Creative Councils programme. In the third blog of the Creative Councils series, Andrea Siodmok, chief designer, Cornwall Council encourages people to get out of the comfort zone and find room to think.
There’s nothing elusive about innovation – it’s simply making good ideas happen.
In Cornwall we are focusing our collective efforts on doing things better – so what’s new?
We are asking ourselves one simple overarching question to drive this ambition: ‘How can we increase our effectiveness ten-fold with no extra budget’. This is our ‘burning platform’ the impossible question (also called a wicked problem) that will propel us out of our comfort zone into new uncharted territory.
Innovation by definition means doing things differently; if you turn things on their head you usually get a new perspective. Take the ‘graph of doom’ as a prime example. If we focus our energies on fiscal capital we can be forgiven for forgetting about the abundance of social capital; what we are optimistically calling the silent ‘graph of boom’. We believe to improve services we will need to harness our collective creativity by radically re-drawing the boundaries between citizens and the state and we are investing in new ideas that will encourage this to happen.
Our experience at Cornwall Council over the last few years as we have seriously engaged with innovation (initially with the Design Council and then through Creative Councils) has made us think in new ways to energise our teams in light of the future challenges we face. We have put down a few reflections here as a common sense guide on what we have found works so far, and also what doesn’t.
Keep it simple and do it now
You can’t learn about innovation from a book (or a blog) you have got to get practical, just do it, and there is no better time than now. We have tried to de-mystify innovation and creativity and find straight talking ways of sharing good ideas. We call it ‘Thinking Room’ – creating space and time to think, opening up new possibilities before jumping into radical new solutions. We have taken our inspiration from the public and private sector and have found that creative leadership is critical. Our Chief Executive and management teams see the benefits, which in turn creates the trust and permission to take measured risks.
Turn conventional wisdom on its head
Whilst counter-intuitive, the truth is that financial investment does not necessarily lead to more or better innovation, in fact a lack of investment may be a significantly greater driver of transformational innovation – the old adage ‘scarcity breeds ingenuity’ comes to mind. If this is true then why aren’t we inundated with great ideas right now? The truth is we probably are, we just lack the skills and organisational capacity to ‘channel’ them in most organisations. It is really easy to generate ideas, it is much harder making them happen unless the organisation’s culture supports the change as part of its everyday business.
Don’t set up an innovation unit
Whilst it can be a lonely pursuit being an innovator, resist temptation to put them all together (assuming you think you know who they are) as it more often marginalises innovators at the fringe. If possible seek to spread and inculcate a culture of innovation across organisational boundaries. Logic says we should ‘kettle’ good ideas - bringing all the innovators in one place and hot housing them to enhance their potency, building a ‘safe’ place where people can go to develop new ideas. There is lots of precedent for this approach, but we have resisted this. In the old days, innovations could be trickle-fed into the organisation from the side, today our task is more urgent, we need innovation throughout the organisation and totally mainstream – an ‘innovation is the only option’ approach.
Innovation isn’t magic - it requires a blend of common sense, honesty and passion
For us, innovation is not a mystical art practiced by a few enlightened ‘change makers’. We often mistakenly focus our attention and obsess about the innovators or the innovations themselves, not necessarily noticing the culture that supports them and makes it more likely to happen again. When things work out we herald them, giving out prizes and praising those responsible… and when, as is also the case they fail, we retract our support. We think that good ideas can come from anyone, and the good news is that research shows so called Gen Y-ers are joining local government with a natural disposition to be creative thinkers, willing to be bold and take responsibility for making change happen.
Broaden your horizons, seek diverse viewpoints and build alliances
We live in a networked age. Networks support like-mindedness and encourage experimentation regardless of boundaries, whereas conformity comes from a lack of diversity. We think that innovation works best when it is devolved and shared, when it is open to scrutiny yet not stifled by bureaucracy. This means bringing together unusual suspects, getting closer to the real beneficiaries of services (terribly named ‘end-users’) – all in all being better at understanding problems. We have needed to create the space and time for this to happen; through Thinking Room and Shaped by Us we are creating platforms for innovation that are open to all and that enable us to build alliances and broaden our horizons so that ultimately we can make Cornwall one of the best places in the world to live, work and play.
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From Innovation in the UK
Nesta is the UK’s innovation foundation. We help people and organisations bring great ideas to life by providing investments, grants and mobilising research, networks and skills. We are an independent charity and our work is enabled by an endowment from the National Lottery.