Sunday 16 January 2011

Innovation (and JFDI)

There is a discussion, elsewhere, on whether skunkworks (the link is to Dave Briggs' post on the subject) can work in local government, and in passing whether local government is the right place for innovative ideas to be thought of, thought around and then implemented.

It's an alien discussion to me. I don't know if that's because I am not a manager or because even if I were I would be wired the way I am, but I just can't agree with the belief that local government is full of boring, unimaginative, follow the line painted on the floor types. Even in my old Department, Enviromental Services, there were more than enough big ideas, small ideas and frankly, ridiculous ideas to go around. For example, in the face of cuts and despite refuse collection being ringfenced as it is a legal requirement for a Local Authority to provide waste collections, someone pitched the idea that collections should switch to 4 days a week, terms and conditions should be re-assessed and changed and as a result, a large amount of money has been saved, contributing to the over all pot of savings. (I don't know exact figures but I can get them if anyone is interested, it's just no one in that Department tweets yet!).

The same amount of bins are being emptied, but the way in which they are being emptied is more efficient, better use of time, gives crews 1 day off a week, doesn't effect their pay, but reduces costs and overheads on vehicles, yard space and overtime. That, right there, is thinking outside of the box. Doing more with less. Thinking differently. And I don't think the person responsible will mind if I say that he's not exactly in the top 5% of known innovators in our LA. In fact thanks to being 3 miles away from the Town Hall on a remote site, hardly anyone knows who he is which is a whole different story around being better about shouting about the stars that we do have, but there you are.

Stories like this, as a result of internal consultation, are coming thick and fast. Our Chief Executive asked for ideas on how we could save money. He published every single one on the intranet, and every single one got a response from someone in a relevant Department about whether it was a valid suggestion, if it wasn't why it wasn't with supporting statistics, and if it was viable, where the suggestion had been sent and who it was sitting with to be implemented. One of those involved using Eco Font across the whole organisation to save money. We already set all new printer installation of drivers to print double sided and in black and white - but there's always one more idea, one more step, another level to take things to - perhaps in the absence of someone seeing that it was possible that a suggestion could be made about printing double sided across the whole org, and seeing it being implemented, perhaps the eco-font suggestion would never have been made?

If you sit and think that innovation, ideas, changing cultures, suggesting and doing the ridiculous things is not possible, as a leader, that attitude will permutate throughout your organisation. If you decide that whatever suggestion someone makes will receive consideration and you are transparent about the process in examining those suggestions for their validity, you will cause a snowball effect. Employees right now have to feel valued. Have to feel listened to. Have to feel that they are not simply throwing words into the wind.

Being dynamic is a weird thing. The people who are, don't think they are. My old Head of Service, over in Environmental Services, most definitely doesn't think he is. But he is. Because he sees a problem, thinks about it for a bit, writes a proposal, consults the unions, and then he implements. And the last stage of the process is the most important but with the attitude of 'we cannot innovate in this space', the last stage will never be reached.

We must do more with less. We must accept the voluntary and community sector cannot fill the gaps, that big society is a concept, and we must accept that there is simply no money any more. Instead of becoming frustrated and depressed and demoralised, it is imperative that those people left behind in the great cull are continually updated and communicated with, but also continually encouraged to inspire, to lead, to dare to think, to destroy boxes and shoot for the skies. Social media can play a massive part in this, but it must be a part of a wider strategy, one of openness, transparency, humour, determination, leadership, dynamism and passion.

It's going to be a tricky one.


  1. I think you must be a bit telepathic. Whenever I think or worry about something up pops a post from you, gets me thinking and i sort stuff in my head...
    Today I was at a birthday party for my friend Bren. One of her guests is a retired chap who was a head teacher.
    We were discussing stuff. As you do.
    I mentioned the monkey tree, where all the monkeys were climbing up, furthering their careers and getting 'to the top'.
    All the monkeys below could see when they looked up were a**holes. I mean this is what people talk about in a pub on a sunday...
    He then said something very interesting, which ties in with this post and is why I am commenting.
    He said, that all through his career, and I know it was a successful one, he has found the best stuff came from the bottom of the tree.
    The grassroots. He said it could be fairly dull and stressful at the top. He said that to stay on the ball he had to keep going to where the buzz was, and the buzz was ALWAYS at ground level.

    I said well if that were so, surely those monkeys would rise to the top?
    He said, a lot of the monkeys are quite happy staying at the base of the tree. He said BASE not bottom.
    I said, 'are all the monkeys at the top of the tree a**holes, because if they are, that is what you were, cos you were pretty well up the tree?
    he said, there are many trees. Some are full of people looking down, going up and down, bringing others up, bringing ideas up and feeding the tree from the roots. Not all trees are full of climbing monkeys.
    In some trees the monkeys below are just busy - and not just looking up to climb for the sake of it.
    we had a good chat.
    (we were both driving so it wasn't done in drink)
    Then I read your post when I get home.
    Its not the monkeys.
    Its the trees.
    Some trees need cutting down and new ones planting.
    Some trees need pruning to grow stronger.
    Communication is key to it all.
    And as usual, your last sentence says it better than me
    "Social media can play a massive part in this, but it must be a part of a wider strategy, one of openness, transparency, humour, determination, leadership, dynamism and passion."


  2. I left a long comment but it got trashed. appen as well. great post as ever though.

    Request-URI Too Large

    The requested URL /2011/01/innovation-and-jfdi.html... is too large to process.

  3. I am genuinly laughing out loud at the last comment, because 'too large to process' is just too funny in relation to the epic comment of epicness just above.

    That is about the most fantastic way of explaining how organisations work I've ever come across. Good grief.

  4. Another good post :-)

    My only comment would be that I worry about people trying to do 'more for less'. The phrase suggests that either people were slacking before or that they're being expected to produce impossible results with finite resources.

    I think the freedom to innovate allows us to do different for less, whereas a heavy-handed top-down approach can lead to attempts at alchemy.

  5. thanks Lou, glad you found the comment! I thought it was well lost in t'ether.
    lets hope that this next year or two finds us some decent top monkeys huh?

  6. "dare to think" ... love it! In between processing stuff have a little think about that idea that's niggling you in the back of your mind and make a difference. Enjoy reading your posts :)

  7. Hi Louise, excellent post - I love your insight and enthusism, and you are dead right IMHO.

    And I also love the comment about monkey trees, and the opinions of the retired head teacher - I come into contact with lots of organisations in my work and there are definitely many different kinds of tree. I think maybe my job is partly about changing tall pines into scruffy interconnected energetic shrubberies :-)

    Anyway, as well as looking after innovation in our small company I've spent the last couple of years thinking about the digital future of local councils and helping to foster change here in Sheffield.

    May I offer links to a few of the resources that I have found to be the most useful in shaping my thoughts about innovation in the public sector?

    Gregg Fraley at TEDxNASA provides a lovely way of thinking about yourself as an innovator and preparing yourself every day - if everyone came to work thinking like this things would be easier I think...:

    Charles Leadbeater outlined a useful framework for thinking about public sector innovation at the Beyond2010 conference last year (his is the first talk in this video):

    Nesta produced a good guide to what they call "Radical Efficiency" last year, which I think is a great way of 'explaining the possible' to people:

    And finally, McKinsey did a very interesting report called "Creating value in the age of distributed capitalism" which sounds very corporate and requires registering with their site to read, but does tell a good story and offers some theoretical and economic ammunition to help convince some more, shall we say, entrenched colleagues of the need to think wider, experiment more and involve communities in devising solutions:

    Hope those help in some way (and apologies if you've seen them before), and I _will_ write a post about what innovation means to me sometime soon :-)

    Cheers, Chris D.

  8. Just thought I would post here an example of the wrong sort of tree, the sort where the monkeys ignore the innovation at the base and sell out the grassroots to a higher monkey in a higher tree...

  9. Thirty years ago I would have suggested people got together in a supportive group and dropped the then pure acid. That's not an option today but the same principal applies. You have to take people out of the zone to where there are no rules and break through and out of concepts that are considered normal and restructure your world. We need socialogical shaman, people who can help others attain a different state of consciousness. You could be one of those.