You may have noticed that there are endless articles, white papers and products that have some relationship to innovation. Yet ‘innovation’ can be difficult to define and exploiting its potential advantages can be equally problematic and can leave you wondering, “what is innovation within my organisation?”
Fundamentally, we’re talking about change. That is to say, change in the way things are done and the tools needed to do those things. And nobody likes change, even when that change is for the better.
Evolutionary and breakthrough innovations
It’s probably unsurprising that one of the areas within Link that already embraces change is our digital services team. Our team understands that within Link, we see two types of innovation:
- Evolutionary innovation – the continuing changes and improvements in the tools needed for the business;
- Breakthrough innovation – new tools being brought into the business to do work that was previously done in a different and less efficient manner.
There are a number of concepts and methodologies around innovation and change such as ADKAR (awareness, desire, knowledge, ability and reinforcement). Or Lewin’s Change Model of unfreezing, changing and then refreezing. Or Kotter’s Theory or Nudge Theory. They are all about generating energy and delivering results – about moving from a state of inertia to one of dynamics.
What is and isn’t innovation?
And although we may be able to describe what innovation means within Link, it’s also important for us to understand what innovation isn’t.
We have a well-defined digital services team, from helpdesk functions to project managers, and from field engineers to business analysts. But we aren’t developers in the sense of developing products; we don’t have a room full of coders so we rely on software vendors to provide solutions for us.
Therefore, Link’s innovation isn’t about building robots, it’s about using other people’s robots. It really isn’t about invention, it’s about inspiration – it is about seeing a process or a way of doing something and having an idea about how that can be done better.
If Link understands how innovation sits within its organisation and already has an experienced digital services team with the varied abilities needed to make technological advancements in the business, then where is the problem?
The problem is that these changes, or innovations, come from the top. They rarely, if ever, come from the very people who are busy doing their jobs, without the opportunity to initiate innovation.
So how did Link go about getting innovation onto everyone’s agenda? We launched our first Link-wide Innovation Challenge.
The idea of the Innovation Challenge was to turn what had been done in the past on its head, and to drive innovation upwards from the bottom. And to do that we just had to ask everyone a (seemingly) simple question: how would you change things?
On the surface, it’s a simple concept but we needed a model to help guide us through the process, and that model was CivTech. This is a highly successful Scottish Government programme which seeks to solve problems experienced by public sector organisations, using a six-stage model to take the process from an initial challenge being set to a minimum viable product (MVP) being produced.
We adapted this model for our first Innovation Challenge.
- Stage one – Invite challenges from the business via internal promotion over a two-week period.
- Stage two – Further define the challenges to see if there was already a solution that our digital services team knew about and/or to ask for more detail to understand what the challenges were.
- Stage three – Invite solutions for the challenges. The submitted challenges were published on our intranet and all of our staff were invited to devise potential solutions.
- Stage four – Explore those solutions to see what would be needed in each instance.
- Stage five – Demonstration days, including external suppliers to demonstrate their solutions.
- Stage six – Adoption of a solution and changes made through our ‘business as usual’ (BAU) mechanisms.
We had a wide range of subjects and areas where challenges were being raised. These covered streamlining our complaints procedure, reducing waste from void properties, automating workflows, changing customers’ online forms and many more.
Although all the changes haven’t been implemented, we’ve estimated that the changes that have been made will result in cost savings of at least £25,000 per year. For those challenges which haven’t yet been met, we’ve kept them and we will revisit them later this year.
However, we didn’t get it all right first time and we had a number of challenges of our own.
One area where we expected there would be difficulties was staff engagement. Although we had a reasonable response for a first-time attempt at the Innovation Challenge, there were some areas of the business which were more engaged in the process than others.
One of the reasons for this may have been because the challenge wasn’t focused; we had left it open to include any possible subject, but in practice, this didn’t give a clear vision for what we were hoping to achieve.
From idea to implementation
And then there was the process of actually putting the Innovation Challenge’s solutions into practice. We over-estimated the ability of our BAU change processes to accommodate the implementation of changes being requested by individual members of staff, particularly where they had identified challenges in areas where they weren’t based themselves.
That was last year; this year we are launching Innovation Challenge 2. Considering what we learned from our first Innovation Challenge, we made some improvements when we launched our second challenge.
We focused on sustainability and have improved our communications around why we need to make changes and the benefits these changes are expected to bring. We also now have a dedicated SharePoint site for innovation where we can publish information in a better and more engaging way.
A simpler process in future
We also realised that we needed a simpler, four-step process for our second challenge, and to help deal with the overall process, all changes will be logged as requests through our helpdesk.
What’s our own assessment of Link’s Innovation Challenge? What we wanted was to give those people who often feel they don’t have a voice, yet can often see where improvements can be made, a way of bringing those improvements to the attention of the business. This has been successful; as well as the actual submissions to the Innovation Challenge, there was a general buzz around it across the organisation.
And in the spirit of evolutionary innovation, the Innovation Challenge initiative itself will naturally change as our requirements change.
Craig Stephenson is the digital participation and innovation officer at Link Group.