What is innovation? How to show you are innovative in job applications

Facing a role description that wants a person who is innovative, fosters innovation, and who engages in continuous improvement, change initiatives and reform projects?

Common ideas about what innovation is, include new ideas, products, services, processes, or a change made to any of these. But what constitutes ‘new’ in this context? How big a change is needed to be regarded as innovative? What is seen as ‘innovative’ to one person might seem mundane to another. If you see what you’ve done as ‘innovative’ but no one else does, where does that leave you?

Six reports on innovation can help with explaining what innovation is and how you demonstrate it. In summary, these documents on innovation suggest some tactics for job applicants:

  • Understand what innovation is and isn’t, and why it is important.
  • Consider what you have done as a leader and manager to foster innovation and what challenges you faced in the process.
  • Understand the culture of the organisation where the role is based and what challenges this may present for innovative thinking and working.
  • Assess your skills against the capabilities and skills documents.
OECD Declaration on Public Sector Innovation

Australia is a signatory to the 2019 OECD Declaration on Public Sector Innovation, a legal instrument containing five principles to inform and enhance the systemic use of innovation in the public sector to achieve policy goals. Some of the clauses in this declaration throw light on how innovation is defined and described.

The declaration recognises that innovation is multifaceted, needs to be tailored to relevant needs, priorities and goals, and requires investment and support to do well. It outlines a “deliberative portfolio approach to innovation management”, one that entails:

  • “Enhancement-oriented innovation, which upgrades current practices, achieves efficiencies and better results, and builds on existing structures;
  • Mission-oriented innovation, which achieves clear ambitions and priorities, developing new methods and approaches as needed;
  • Adaptive innovation, which responds to a changing environment and encourages curiosity to interpret and respond to changes in society and in technology;
  • Anticipatory innovation, which explores and engages with the uncertainty around emergent issues that will shape future priorities and future commitments.”
OPSI Innovation Playbook

The Observatory of Public Sector Innovation (OPSI) has produced an Innovation Playbook (Australia was part of the steering group). The Playbook translates the Declaration into practical guidance, intended for top officials and middle-managers, providing options for action (“plays”), tools and global examples.

The Playbook has sections on each of five principles that inform innovation, with multiple ‘how to’ questions:

  • embrace and enhance innovation within the public sector
  • encourage and equip all public servants to innovate
  • cultivate new partnerships and involve different voices
  • support exploration, iteration and testing
  • diffuse lessons and share practices.

There are sections on improving various aspects of innovation, such as leadership, portfolio approaches, strengthening engagement, stimulating a supportive culture, building stakeholder partnerships. Links are provided to tools and case studies.

The OPSI has developed an Innovative Capacity Framework and a model of Innovation Skills.

OPSI Innovative Capacity Framework

The Innovative Capacity Framework takes a systemic view of the elements within a public sector system. The Framework and analysis explore key drivers, enablers, barriers, capacities and impacts through four key questions:

  • Purpose: what is driving the intent to innovate?
  • Potential: what determines whether innovative efforts are attempted?
  • Capacity: what is needed to carry out innovative efforts?
  • Impact: how is the impact of innovative efforts understood and informing future practice?

An important point made here is that innovative capacity can no longer be seen as a “sporadic activity, fuelled predominantly by crises” but must be systemically embedded in organisations and be at the heart of policymaking and public administration. This suggests that aspiring leaders need to see innovation as central rather than peripheral to what they do.

OPSI Core Skills for Public Sector Innovation

The OPSI skills model for public sector innovation identifies six core skills areas. The document points out that not all public servants will need to make use of or apply these skills in their day-to-day job. Officials should, however, have at least some level of awareness these six areas to support innovative activities in the public sector. The six skills are:

  • “Iteration: incrementally and experimentally developing policies, products and services.
  • Data literacy: ensuring decisions are data-driven and that data isn’t an after thought.
  • User centricity: public services should be focused on solving and servicing user needs.
  • Curiosity: seeking out and trying new ideas or ways of working.
  • Storytelling: explaining change in a way that builds support.
  • Insurgency: challenging the status quo and working with unusual partners.”

For each of these six skills areas the model provides four elements of practice against three levels of capability. The four elements of practice for each skill area break down the skill area into tangible components that relate to the real-world usage of innovation skills. The three levels of capability represent an evolution of skill understanding and adoption:

  • Basic awareness
  • Emerging capability
  • Regular practitioner.

Leadership and management capabilities are recognised as crucial for the success of public sector innovation. However, they are not included in the skills model because their research did not identify any aspects of these skills that are distinctly different from leadership and management skills already found in public sector capability frameworks, (such as openness, honesty, trust, strategic thinking, staff development and capability building). Reference is made to the value of “adaptive” and “pragmatic” leadership to public sector innovation.

Crucial roles that leaders and managers need to play are:

  • to better manage the interface between their team(s) and the wider organisation, taking into account structure, culture and operating environment. How this is done will vary. One leader may need to unblock procedural barriers, while in another setting the leader may need to overcome silo-mentalities, both of which demand strong mediation skills.
  • to promote and advocate the work of their teams.
Improved Innovation Decision Making

The Global Knowledge Initiative produced, in 2017, Improved Innovation Decision Making, An abridged toolset and guide for decision makers, aimed to support global development organisations. After lamenting the hype around innovation, their guide suggests that innovation is a learnable decision-making process. Innovation is “the culmination of a series of decisions — both small and profound— made within a deliberate process of experimentation and design, all in an effort to unlock new value and achieve significant outcomes not achievable through status quo approaches.”  (p. 5)

The authors suggest the innovative thinker needs to use both creative thinking and systems thinking, and make suggestions on how to develop an innovation mindset.

Much of the document explores three opportunities to exert influence within the environment in which they work:

  • “Cultivate: How might we cultivate an innovative culture across an organization? How might we better understand how each member of an organization can contribute and improve innovation decision making?
  • Resource: How might we take stock of the resources we have, and those that we need, to innovate effectively?
  • Network: How might we build networks equipped to tackle complex challenges and deliver on proposed solutions?” (p. 17)

Tips are provided for how to work within your organisation’s current culture to achieve buy-in for improved innovation decision-making processes across your organisation.

Creating a Culture for Innovation: A practical Guide for Leaders

Another document to consider is Creating a Culture for Innovation: A practical Guide for Leaders, published by the NHS Institute for Innovation and Improvement, (Coventry House, University of Warwick Campus, Coventry, 2010). This document is designed for the UK National Health Service.

The authors have identified seven key dimensions of culture that distinguish highly- innovative organisations:

  • Risk taking
  • Resources
  • Knowledge
  • Goals
  • Rewards
  • Tools
  • Relationships

The guide describes the literature base behind the seven dimensions of culture for innovation, gives guidance on three applications for the framework, and provides 37 practical tips and examples of ways to enhance the culture for innovation in organisations and systems.

Innovation is defined as: “Doing things differently, and doing different things, to create a step change in performance.”

The authors point out that the terms ‘innovation’ and ‘improvement’ are commonly used interchangeably. What really matters, they say, “is whether the change makes a small or large difference – that is, whether it is an incremental or step change in performance and thinking.”

Incremental change is a small to medium change and the underpinning thinking is largely unchallenged and unchanged. A step change is a medium to large change and the underpinning thinking ins fundamentally challenged and changed.

Dr Ann Villiers, career coach, writer and author, is Australia’s only Mental Nutritionist specialising in mind and language practices that help people build flexible thinking, confident speaking and quality connections with people.