iMPOWER

Innovation – the art of saying “yes”

August 31, 2011

There is an interesting article in the Guardian about the importance of innovation, now more than ever, in the public sector (http://www.guardian.co.uk/public-leaders-network/blog/2011/aug/30/innovation-adopting-new?INTCMP=SRCH) The article explores the conditions necessary to foster innovation and recognises that “the public sector isn’t exactly known for its dynamic innovative culture”. It got me thinking about my family’s own (failed) attempts at encouraging innovation in the public sector about 20 years and what has changed since then.

As anyone who has known me for more than 5 minutes will know, I grew up in a very small village in rural Leicestershire, with more sheep than houses (only 58 back in the day when I had a paper round). The village was subject to a 30mph speed limit, but due to the popularity of the area with local bikers, and the “blink and you’ve missed it” nature of the village, very few motorists slowed down to notice the 58 assorted cottages or the lanky youth struggling under the weight of 58 copies of the Herald and Post. At a parish meeting to discuss the traffic problems with the local police, it was suggested that police should come and catch a few culprits using one of those new-fangled speed guns. The villagers were told that as police numbers were short, and there had been no fatality on the road to date, enforcing the speed limit was not a police priority for an already overstretched rural constabulary. So, the options seemed clear. Either one of the villagers had to be ritualistically sacrificed to the road, or we could ourselves don fluorescent tabards and wave speed cameras in the face of speeding motorists. But our offers to volunteer as speed enforcers were rejected. There were not enough speed cameras, no one could train us on how to use them, we wouldn’t be legally able to pull motorists over, numerous health and safety laws would be flouted and there weren’t any spare fluorescent tabards.

Fast forward 20 years, and “Community Traffic Enforcers” are a fairly common sight on the rural highways and byways of the East Midlands. Volunteers may have to raise the money to pay for the speed guns, and their powers may be limited to sending people letters requesting them to abide by the speed limit, but they are still there! And what’s more their presence is making a difference – fewer people are being caught and repeat offending is low. So what changed? Well, as far as I can tell, all it took was someone to say “yes” instead of “no”. Someone who was prepared to investigate how the hurdles could be overcome, rather than just see the hurdles and run in the opposite direction. People are naturally innovative – we wouldn’t have survived for 200,000 years if we didn’t constantly evolve and innovate – what we need is people in the public sector to listen to our innovative ideas with open inquiring minds. Too often bright ideas are stifled by someone with a “can’t do” attitude before they have even been fully explored. For me, the way to create a truly innovative public sector is to empower people not only to come up with the ideas, but also to explore for themselves how they could make them a reality. Oh and to give public sector managers lessons in saying “yes”.

Caroline Throssel is a Senior Consultant at iMPOWER. To contact her to discuss this blog, please e-mail cthrossell@impower.co.uk or leave your comments below.

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