As innovation professionals, we too often look for inspiration from organizations such as Apple, Amazon, Tesla, Spotify, Google, etc. Cultures within these businesses are encourage transparency, experimentation and autonomy resulting in engaged workforce of the best and brightest minds, pumping out game changing products on-schedule, on-budget and on-point. We want that for the organizations that we support. We want to drive those behaviors.

But the reality is that there are very few unicorns in the world and we can’t all work for them. Personally, I embrace my experiences work for, or with, organizations that may not always be that welcoming to innovation. Within these organisations I’ve been involved in driving some success, but also some failure.

So this raises the question of how do we drive new behaviors and execute innovative ideas in environments where change isn’t always expected or welcome?

As an innovation professional with one foot firmly rooted within the government world, or organizations with similar cultural makeups, here are some suggestions:

Align Around Purpose

While the private sector is now coming around to driving broader societal benefit, this has been a bedrock for the public sector from day-one. Innovation leaders need to position their efforts around the underlying societal benefit of the Department, supporting a mandate for stakeholder engagement, action and results. Don’t get distracted by the small stuff, draw a story around the big picture impacts.

More Sponsorship From Leadership

To drive an innovative agenda within these organizations you will need to draw on support from leadership. There are an increasing number of creative, commercially-centric leaders in government, often with a digital transformation agenda. Seek these individuals out as allies, so that they become a natural point of support in rolling out your programs, and resulting ideas.

Stakeholder Management Is Complex, But Perhaps Not How You Think

For any innovation development professional, managing stakeholders is essential. Within government agencies there is often a hierarchical culture of collaboration, which really just means anyone above you has the option to shut down an idea whenever they feel the need.

However, I am increasingly seeing actions where stakeholders are being mapped, their expectations understood, and if they are seen to be evasive to new ideas, active containment or mitigations plans are put in place. I’m not suggesting that you do anything illegal or against policy, but what I am suggesting (and seeing) is that there are some people who are just never going to support innovative ideas, and they need to be contained, aggressively. In the past, these people killed innovative ideas, now they are being actively contained.

Draw Out a Story of Disruptive Impact

There have always been plenty of examples of innovative successes and failures (often through disruption) from the private sector. Up until recently it was pretty difficult to find examples of disruption in government sector, but they are increasingly common, you may just have to expand your horizons a little. Some simple examples include the impact of Uber on the global taxi industry, or the spread of digital government services (often provided by embedded or partnering private entities), or the leveraging of data pools around public transport. More than ever, these examples can help set the template and context to your own efforts.

Get The Basic Processes / Actions Right

Too often we are seduced by the cool, sexy actions, such as creating incubators, building innovation centers, partnering with startups, etc., especially when starting a program. But too often these efforts get derailed by cultural pushback. While being cool and disruptive from the start is alluring, in reality you need to have the  basics well and truly established before moving onto the shinier actions and results. Get idea development processes in place, set up reporting mechanisms, launch a crowdsourcing challenge, get some ideas moving towards execution. It might not be that exciting, but important to get traction before you tackle the more interesting actions.

Start With Incremental Ideas, And Stay There For A While

I often talk to clients about the need to maintain a balanced pipeline of new, innovative ideas, with a mix of small, incremental improvements and bigger, more radical ideas. However, within government, especially when programs are relatively new, the focus generally has to be on generating incremental benefits. The bigger, more challenging innovative opportunities are just going to be too difficult to manage and will expose you if they fail.

Partner Externally, Don’t Recreate What’s Already Out There

Government departments often think that their circumstances needs are different from everyone else, and so any solution, service or approach has to be built to their specific requirements. However, I believe that government departments face similar challenges to the private sector, the differences aren’t that great. At the same time, government IT departments are increasingly open to engaging with vendors, who can be quicker, cheaper and deliver to a far better standard than with a native build. Use that to your advantage, see what’s out there and access the best-in-class solutions available, often at a fraction of the cost of a build effort.

Drive Towards Metrics That Are Important To Leadership

Metrics are tricky at the best of time, but within Government they can be either very directly attainable, for example improving someone’s ability to find a new job, or more ephemeral, such as benefiting society. Too often I see innovation leaders driving towards results that are not articulated or valued by leaders of the Department. This creates a dangerous position for any innovation leader, and should be avoided at all costs.

This list is not complete, but rather is just high-level examples of some key points that I have recently noted. Innovating within government agencies can be rewarding, fun and drive towards a higher purpose, but it can take some patience.

While developing this article I have prepared an innovation checklist for those driving change within government agencies. Contact me directly at to get a copy.

About the author

Anthony Ferrier is a well-regarded executive, entrepreneur, advisor and thought leader on corporate innovation. He has worked with organisations in the US, Europe, Asia and Australia to develop effective innovation strategies that guide organizational change and build cultures that encourage the development of new products and solutions. Anthony has worked with organizations such as Transport for NSW (Australia), Department of Defence (Australia), Bristol-Myers Squibb (US), Fidelity Investments (US), Pfizer (US), Volkswagen (Sweden), Ergo Insurance (Germany), etc.. He currently leads innovation and commercialisation efforts at Swinburne University, and previously led The BNY Mellon global innovation program, as well as co-founding two successful tech-driven consultancies. He has a Master of Commerce (University of Sydney) and Bachelor of Economics (University of Newcastle).

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