How to lead and manage collaborative innovation

Jacob Torfing
Jacob Torfing

In advance of our forthcoming annual conference, plenary speaker Professor Jacob Torfing, Roskilde University, Denmark, gives us a preview of his presentation on ‘how to lead and manage collaborative innovation’.

The current drivers of innovation in the public sector are easy to spot. Internal pressures from budgetary constraints, policy failures and rising professional ambitions of public employees as well as external pressures from demanding citizens and stakeholders, critical publics, inquisitorial mass media and political demand for enhancing the structural or systemic competitiveness of nation states in the face of globalization have all contributed to placing innovation at the top of the public sector agenda where it is likely to stay for quite some time.

Innovation can be defined as the development and implementation of new and creative ideas that creates some kind of step-change. As such, innovation creates new policies, services and organizational designs that break with common wisdom and established practices in a certain context. Multi-actor collaboration offers a promising method for spurring in public innovation. By bringing together public and private actors in collaborative processes the problem understanding is improved, the richness of ideas is increased, processes of mutual learning are encouraged and there is a good chance that participation will foster a joint ownership to the new and bold solutions.

However, given that the public sector has been dominated by bureaucratic logics emphasizing stability, hierarchical rule and specialized decision making and service production, and given the recent attempt of executive managers to incorporate a market-based logic based on competitive tendering of public service production, the idea that public innovation should be driven by trust-based collaboration between a plurality of public and private actors might appear unrealistic and far-fetched. However, there are also crucial drivers supporting the enhancement of collaborative innovation. The public character of the wicked and unruly problems confronting the public sector may encourage cross-sectoral participation and the absence of cut-throat competition makes interorganizational collaboration easier in the public sector than in the private sector.

Nevertheless, there are a number of barriers to collaborative innovation in the public sector. It is often difficult to get the relevant and affected actors to interact in a constructive way and the interaction may lead to conflict rather than collaboration. Even in well-functioning collaboratives there is no guarantee that collaboration will lead to innovation. Innovation management plays a key role in driving the process from interaction, via collaboration, to innovation. As such, public managers must play the role of conveners, facilitators and catalysts.

The role of the convener is to bring together the relevant actors and spur interaction in order to trigger an initial exchange of information, views and ideas. The role of the facilitator is to get the actors to collaborate and thus to manage their internal differences in a constructive manner and engage in processes of mutual learning that bring them beyond the least common denominator. The role of the catalyst is to create appropriate disturbances and encourage the actors to think out of the box and use the competences and capacities of the different actors to develop and implement new and bold solutions.

I shall elaborate on these points more during my presentation in Bristol.

Jacob is director of the Centre for Democratic Network Governance in The Department of Society and Globalisation, Roskilde University.

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