Don’t strangle your innovation culture with inflexible software

If we just have the right software platform, then people will log in and start innovating.

It’s amazing how much this basic formula informs technology decisions in the public sector and other large organisations. This approach might work if the problem is simple and known with a common set of rules (like book-keeping). But the process of innovation, and the collaboration it requires, are neither simple nor known. Each organisation’s people and culture demand a unique path.

This is why innovation and collaboration software solutions in the public sector usually have a brief flash of generative activity before collapsing into disappointment. Software is not a replacement for good practice. Rather it serves to accelerate and scale a practice that is already good. This becomes more complicated when good practice is in a state of rapid change and evolution. The turbulent nature of a system in transition demands more of a ‘leaf on the wind’ approach to applying software.

What do we know?

Decades of experimentation with digital innovation and collaboration have revealed certain reliable patterns. Enterprise micro-blogs like Yammer showed the value of cross-silo hierarchy-breaking conversations. But they didn’t go anywhere, didn’t store knowledge well, and weren’t connected up. Meanwhile, the revival of the “IMS” (ideas management system) promises to turn digital engagement into tangible results. But “early- adopter” departments are learning just how hard it is to close the loop all the way from ideas to impact.

Software is not a replacement for good practice.

The public sector’s journey towards effective innovation challenges bureaucratic business as usual. It demands the adoption of a host of new mindsets and practices. At the same time, the public sector feels the squeeze of negative perception of experimentation, given that the public purse pays for any failures. So buying or custom building software to complement a program is a question of careful consideration. A custom built software may be more likely to get engagement, but an off-the-shelf solution will be a lot cheaper and therefore less risky if enthusiasm flags.

Getting started, differently

In the context of public sector innovation, this means thinking differently about software. It is possible to embrace the promise of agile software, using an off-the-shelf product as a starting point. This provides a quick and lean way to prove the concept and learn, while leaving room to customise and adapt to the next stage.

For this to be possible, the software must strike a fine balance between being easy to adapt and reconfigure, and having a highly refined user experience. Users need quick, easy engagement opportunities such as online conversations and ideas challenges, that can demonstrate early innovation wins. From there, the question of how to customise the software to fit with existing and new organisational processes will take time and experimentation to answer. This is where most attempts fall down.

Using software that cannot change is like trying to grow an oak tree in a seed pot.

Working with a great team to analyse how to translate business processes to software can bring into focus all kinds of small details. This journey takes into consideration a broad range of non-software factors such as governance and decision-making structures, budgeting, and deeply held cultural norms around sharing and secrecy. This analysis regularly raises uncomfortable questions about business as usual. These human challenges must be addressed directly, in concert with improving the software.

There is no recipe for this. Each organisation is at a different point in their journey towards innovation, with their own unique constellation of business processes, digital systems, and culture. A mature, stable practice of collaboration and innovation takes time and plenty of savvy to nurture. This delicate process needs a flexible digital platform to help it along.

Using software that cannot change is like trying to grow an oak tree in a seed pot. Whereas software that keeps step, changing only slightly faster than users’ practices, makes the new ways of working just a little easier to bear. Your ability to nurture software and practice in unison will ultimately determine whether your online platform accelerates your innovation, or strangles it.

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