Governments are busy innovating. Federal, state and local agencies are setting up innovation centers and operations. Agencies are innovating programs, processes, R&D, and acquisition. They’re using technology to involve citizens and deliver better services. And they’re recognizing innovation in titles and awards.
But what is innovation? What does it mean for governments to innovate? And why innovate, anyway? This is the first blog in a four-part series that answers these questions.
A Simple Definition
Innovation is doing something different to add value for a customer . Government innovation enables, or better enables, customers to do or know things they didn’t do or know, before. This is true for every customer an organization exists to serve – citizens, businesses, mission offices, buyers, other agencies or governments, and so on.
If this definition seems simplistic, bear with me. It’s got all the utility you need to decide what innovation means to you, your organization, and your customers. Next let’s clear up some confusion about what innovation isn’t.
What Innovation Isn’t
Invention is a commonly confused concept. If an invention adds value for someone, it’s innovative. But not all innovations are inventions. Some were best practices in one field and cross-applied to another. Boxcars were on trains for a century before someone put them on ships and completely innovated transoceanic shipping. They were already invented and were re-purposed.
Improvement is another. If an organizational unit is the beneficiary of its own change, let’s call that improvement. Streamlining a process, upgrading equipment, adding resources to a task – these and similar improvements are unquestionably wise. But being your own customer isn’t what it means to innovate. Improvements that add value for a customer? That’s innovation.
Technology is a big source of confusion. Some innovations are technologies. Most innovations use technology. But innovation changes an organization’s business and culture models, and those changes are often more profound than deploying new technology. In fact, degrees of innovation are determined by whether and to what degree an organization changes business, culture and technology models.
Finally, I need to bust a big myth: Innovation is creative, chaotic and can’t be managed. Not so. Innovation certainly requires creativity but it isn’t art, magic, or luck. It isn’t subjective and you need not worry that defining it will constrain it. Innovation is a business proposition that can be planned, managed, measured, and linked to other organizational processes and objectives.
I hope this distinguishes innovation from some close cousins and clears up some confusion. I elaborate on the definition in my solution paper, What Is Innovation? Below let’s answer the $64,000 question – why innovate?
Why, indeed. Reasons to innovate range from the practical to the grand.
Agencies can use innovation to get the most from limited resources. In a world where everything is a priority, innovation helps organizations decide how to spend scarce resources to create and deliver value. Innovative organizations can provide the same benefit at less cost, or more benefit at no additional cost.
Agencies can use innovation to better control a program’s destiny. You know the line, 'If you're not telling your story someone else is?' Well if you're not driving your program someone else will. Change is inevitable so the only question is how to manage it. Innovation provides practical ways to plan, manage, and evaluate mission delivery in a relentlessly changing environment.
Agencies can use innovation to refocus on the customer. Customers judge innovation as satisfaction with being able to do or know something they couldn’t do or know before. Governments exist to serve them, and they value innovations which better deliver a government’s many missions.
Within an organization, innovation can reconnect people to each other and the mission. Involving people in planning and implementing a change which adds value for a customer is what it’s all about for individuals, teams, and members of every organizational culture. That’s why many people enter government service, right? To make something better for someone. Innovation can reignite individual missions.
If you think about it, innovation is in government’s DNA. Agencies and programs are created (that’s something different) to enable citizens (customers) to do or know something they couldn’t, before (adding value). If governments didn’t exist it would have to be invented to meet shared needs that make no sense for individuals and groups to meet. So every program, program improvement, better use of technology – everything an agency does to add value for a customer – delivers innovation.
Looked at it that way, innovation doesn’t support the mission. It is the mission.