This workshop, run on behalf of NEREO (North East Regional Employers Organisation) aimed to cover the principles and characteristics of creativity, innovation and entrepreneurship, followed by an in-depth exploration of how large public sector organisations can overcome barriers and encourage enablers to support a more entrepreneurial and innovative culture.
Participants came from across the region, including Hartlepool, Sunderland, Darlington, Newcastle, Stockton and Gateshead representing a rage of roles from planning, policy and HR to anti-social behaviour, housing, finance and enterprise.
The workshop presented a blend of theory and practice to investigate the topic at individual, team and organisational levels.
The group were highly participative in tackling a range of issues and practical exercises.
An initial exercise exploring benefits and challenges to innovation highlighted potential benefits including continuing and maintaining services; motivating and retaining staff; challenging the status quo to find new ways of working; effective use of resources – including freeing up resources to use elsewhere; stimulating a culture of continuous learning; generating income and enhancing competitiveness.
Internal barriers including culture and fear of change were raised as challenges, along with balancing top down and bottom up drivers, finding the time and space away from the day to day activity and managing risk.
The group were then asked to assess a number of small examples, published as ‘innovative’, and identify what characteristics made them innovative, or in fact, if they weren’t innovative, why did they think so. This exercise raised some interesting different perspectives from the group, in particular the originality of the basic idea versus whether the initiative was an innovative approach in that particular context. For example, was the use of social media to attract potential museum visitors with disabilities a novel approach for the museum, or simply copying methods used widely elsewhere? One comment described the public sector as “catching up” to the private sector, and the increasing expectations of the public in comparison to services and facilities they can readily find elsewhere.
A fairly even spread of positive and negative comments on average suggested that the interpretation of what is novel, original or innovative varied considerably. Another aspect was the availability of demonstrable impact, that some felt was key to providing evidence of adoption, rather than simply experimentation.
Benefits identified included providing new routes of access, greater community involvement, new and expanded services, creative engagement. Outcomes included residents having more pride in their area, enhanced relevance, widening the reach of services, and more users of the service.
Some examples were seen as improvements and problem solving rather than new innovations, lacking in identified need or evidence of real impact. Others were described as simply a new way of presenting existing information, or providing a service that was already recognised as needed more broadly. Clearly the issues around innovative ideas versus innovative application and adoption, and the relevance of the context and the demonstrable impact remains questions of interpretation and expectations.
An exercise that most found interesting was attempting to identify characteristics of individuals who are creative, innovative or entrepreneurial, respectively. Whilst some commonality was found, for example visionary appeared in all 3, other differences were identified. These included that an innovator was thought to need to work well with people, whereas a creative person might be chaotic and challenging, and creativity was associated with thinking outside the box and imagination, but entrepreneurs demonstrating a practical and proactive aspect.
An exploration of personality styles and behaviours followed, looking both at how individuals might be identified, but also the potential for development on topics such as creativity, and questions of motivating drivers that enable innovation to thrive.
The importance of balancing individuals within a creative/innovative team was introduced, to create the right mix of idea generation, reality testing and implementation.
This concept of teamwork continued in sessions investigating the implementation of ideas, identifying the sources of ideas through networks, collaboration, horizon scanning, user participation, residents groups and knowledge cafes and methods for testing these ideas through piloting, prototypes, early adopters and greenhouse innovation.
A number of challenges and barriers were explored, both in the public sector context of continuing to provide essential services and managing expectations of the community, but also internally with the consideration of organisational change and developing an organisational culture for innovation. This included the need for a climate of psychological safety for taking risks and allowing experimentation and failure, but also recognising different contributions from different people.
A number of case studies and examples were used to explore the value drivers for pubic service, and illustrate user participation, risk and integrated approaches. Two examples of interest to the group were the use of mediation and conflict resolution techniques from Northern Ireland in improving race relations, and combining planning agreements with commitments from developers to employ ex-offenders.
The day ended with an exercise the group found useful on assessing their innovative capability using an innovation checklist. A number of participants commented on their intention to use this further back in their organisation. This was combined with exercises on how individuals and organisations can improve their own behaviour and enhance structures and procedures. Suggestions included improving the message from senior managers, using creative methods including story telling; building in the encouragement of idea generation through feedback and facilitation in team meetings; being more questioning and open minded; exploiting networks more effectively; recognising contributions and improving the clarity of boundaries to allow flexibility within reasonable limits.
The workshop certainly generated some enthusiasm for taking things forward, demonstrated by their participation in the exercises right up to the end of the day. The pressures of impending funding cuts certainly focused minds and perhaps means that carrying on in the same way is no longer an option, so looking for new and improved ways of delivering services is high on the agenda. The time is right to put this into action – as one participant put it, sometimes you have to ‘just do it’.
With good luck and best wishes to all participants in taking forward all their ideas in uncertain times.
Rob Allen, director, Hapsis Innovation Ltd