How do leaders foster innovation?

Reading Time: 3 minutes
Paper plane


Gwilym Ellis | Lead Trainer

Date: 21 June 2022

When thinking of ways to change what we do, knowing exactly what we are aiming for is key.  Your purpose needs to be clear, so that your team is motivated to make improvements towards that business goal, rather than simply streamlining what they already do.

“If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”

– Einstein

Getting everyone to the same point of understanding is perhaps the most important thing that a leader can do when innovating.  Typically, this involves customer obsession. When we maintain quality and ensure obligations are met by sticking to the established process, it becomes easy to lose sight of the end goal.

“Most innovation involves doing the things we do every day a little bit better rather than creating something completely new and different.“

–  The Business Warrior’s Dojo

However, we can use our established processes as a strength, ensuring that we keep delivering to our daily targets, while improving the way that we do that.  The people who know those processes best, and who can identify weaknesses and ways to better them, are the people who work with them day in, day out – your team.  Looked at like this, the challenge of innovation becomes simply to focus your team on the end result – that customer obsession – while finding ways that allow them to experiment with their own ideas for new ways of working.

“If you’re not failing every now and again, it’s a sign you’re not doing anything very innovative.“

– Woody Allen

As a leader, you have the strategic oversight to identify opportunities for your staff to experiment – and this means allowing them the space to get things wrong at first.  Even though their ideas for improvement may be worthwhile, the process of innovation is about getting those ideas from being just thoughts to being processes that can be worked with.

“Creativity is thinking up new things. Innovation is doing new things.“

– Theodore Levitt, Economist

Doing is what separates innovators from thinkers.  And leaders who can focus their team on the end goal, then identify safe ways for their team to experiment and, as will be necessary, make mistakes, are the ones who can lead innovation.

That focus can be provided by setting the agenda for your team:  what areas in your workflow are crying out for innovation?  Do you want your team to be more customer focussed, or maybe to think about sustainability targets?  This is where leadership can come to the fore in innovation, by leading everyone as a group to a common goal, in place of a vague imperative to “be more innovative” which can be daunting for staff and lead them in differing directions.

A well-known example of this working formally in government has been the DVLA’s Emerging Technology Lab.  By creating a place for their in-house tech talent to grow, with a specific remit for process improvement, they have successfully rolled out chatbots and other AI customer handling technologies that have deflected 30% of customer contact away from live advisors – an impressive win for the public sector, which has traditionally not been associated with successful large-scale IT rollouts.

It is implementing new technologies such as these, and the introduction of AI and machine learning in particular, that are perhaps the most challenging areas for a leader to encourage innovation.  How do we open the door for our teams to embrace these now essential improvements when the skills they require are so specialised?

This is where sociotechnical design can help your teams to innovate with new technologies.  By combining the technical expertise of data scientists and product designers with the many years of social expertise that both our and your staff have gained in local government, we can work together to liberate the many innovative ideas that already exist in your department and bring them to life.

Examples of this include Manchester City Council and Trilateral Research co-creating Honeycomb, an AI platform to combat Modern Slavery.  This was made possible by combining the deep and specific knowledge embedded in the council’s teams with the technical and domain expertise of our data scientists.  Read more about this here or speak to Dr Julia Muraszkiewicz to discover more success stories of partnerships between local government and our Sociotech Insights Group.

Related posts

AI is rapidly transforming industries. Take for example the legal field, which is traditionally conservative in relation to technology. More…

Let's discuss your career