How to lead and manage collaborative innovation

Tessa Coombes
Tessa Coombes

by Tessa Coombes, guest blogger for P&P conference

The final plenary session of the conference was delivered in energetic fashion by Prof Jacob Torfing, Roskilde University, who took us through a whistle-stop tour of what we can achieve through collaboration and how it enhances innovation. He explained that the last 30 years or so has seen a growing focus on public sector innovation, where previously this had been seen as something of a contradiction in terms, it is now seen as a means to boosting  the private sector. Innovation is now pretty high on the public sector agenda.

Using an analogy of the ‘good’, the ‘bad’ and the ‘ugly’ he took us through three key areas of innovation narratives. The ‘good’ was used to describe the existence of high political ambitions, which is a good thing, but where there is the need to invent new practices in order to achieve those ambitions. The ‘bad’ referred to the ‘wicked problems’ that exist and can’t be solved through standard solutions or by just throwing money at the problem. In this case, creative problem solving is needed. The ‘ugly’ related to the disconnect between expectations and ability to deliver, where there are increasing expectations from citizens at a time when public resources are limited. This disconnect is driving the need to pursue innovation in order to deliver more for less.

Jacob then raised the key question, that is, can the public sector innovate? To which the answer is obviously yes, but where there are various caveats. The public sector is far more innovative and dynamic than its reputation would suggest but it is often episodic and accidental, so as a result enhanced organisational capacity doesn’t always follow. He then added a word of caution, reminding us that innovation is not an end in itself, it is about providing solutions to problems and improving performance and it doesn’t always work!

According to Jacob, one of the biggest problem with public sector innovation is the search for innovation heroes, an approach that is well known in and translated from the private sector. In the public sector it works less well, who are the innovation heroes, are they the elected politicians, the public managers, private contractors, public employees or service users? There are just too many options in the public sector and it is important to remember that innovation is rarely triggered by single individuals, but is more of a team sport. There is greater potential for innovation where multi actors are involved, providing different perspectives and generating joint ownership of bold solutions.

The question then arises of how we lead and manage collaborative innovation and the need to explore the link between theories of collaborative governance and theories of innovation. There’s a massive literature out there on leadership that can be drawn into the debate on innovation, from pragmatic and adaptive leadership to distributive and collaborative leadership, there’s plenty to offer the discussion.

Perhaps one of the key points of this discussion is what this means for public managers and how it changes their role? Jacob describe three new roles for public managers – the convenor, facilitator and catalyst – with all three needed to generate collaborative innovation. A big challenge for the future for all those in the public sector.

Tessa Coombes has just completed the MSc in Public Policy at Bristol University, is a former Bristol City Councillor and regularly blogs about policy, politics and place.

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