Don’t just cut, connect!

First up, I’ll confess that I’m pretty obsessed with the forthcoming UK election and just 1 day before the big day i personally speaking i still haven’t quite made up my mind who to vote for. But professionally speaking I’m dissaappointed that the economic policies of each of the 3 main parties are so similar and are all displaying what I would call a 20th century mindset when it comes to supporting innovation.

We all know there are big cuts coming and all the parties talk about supporting growth businesses and sectors as part of the solution. The three traps they all fall into are:

Stop supporting ideas in a vacuum

Old school innovation policies and strategies were about supporting/funding ideas in a vacuum. The assumption is that a few might have impact, and without a clear picture of which ones and how they are realised. And yet the best thing a small company can have is a paying customer who wants what they are selling, not a grant to sustain their pet project for a few more months/years. Many private sector companies are now embracing open innovation and realise that by building networks and everything that goes with them (trust, integrity, agile business models etc) and there is much public sector organisations could learn from this. Funding supply without connecting demand is pointless.

Instead, a useful role the public sector could provide is to build and support cross cutting networks that connect the dots between large and small companies, universities, investors and public bodies. This is deliberately about non-core business and here is where the big innovation opportunities lie or the solutions to existing problems can be found.

Be bold – build momentum

I fully understand the need to be accountable for how public money is spent however this supposed thoroughness has a perverse outcome of death through a thousand decisions. We need to find the courage to make a bold decision and find a new accountability of our peers, avoiding consensus culture of public agencies and the slow pace of bureaucracy kills innovation.

It is often said that if Bill Gates founded Microsoft in the UK he’d now be running the 2nd largest software company in Guildford and we are at a stage where wealth or value creation is practically a dirty word in the public sector. I personally favour big bold projects and investments like the Large Hadron Collider, combined with lots of very small and easy to access start-up capital with follow on funding in place and distributed based on peer review not by committee.

Have the vision to support lots of promising opportunities quickly and the long term vision to create the bold publically funded programmes that have created the breakthrough innovations of the past.

Open up, don’t outsource

It is clear that out-sourcing has been a very successful strategy for large organisations in the last 20 years but works best for commodotised and non-core activities. However as most private companies realise, if innovation is outsourced then you throw away the baby with the bathwater. Outsourcing is about saving cost through transactions whereas open innovation thinking is about creating value through building new relationships. However too often public sector organisations literally don’t dare think or do stuff themselves, and instead hide behind the protection of having an external consultancy advising them what to do. This leads to lack of ownership and understanding for the recommended strategy and critically damages the chance of its success.

I think the next government needs to work hard to massively simplify and speed up innovation policies and strategies to reflect the reality of how innovation happens today and the urgent need for innovation we are facing. In our experience much more likely to produce innovations and crucially in an era of dramatic cost cutting, are much more cost effective.

Comments

  1. If we were to shop for people “to build and support cross cutting networks” – who would be the least likely people in the country to get the job? Yes, Sir Humphrey of Stovepipe Manor.

    Big projects; fine – use prizes as proposed by ‘a place to stand’ blog. But not state-funded R101 gravy trains.

  2. Thanks for the comment Brian.

    Yes the challenge of bypassing the self appointed community champions is a big one but I do feel we need to find away to do this well, possibly through a little social network analysis. I certainly share your dislike of the gravy trains that are designed to support a sector/region/theme but are primarily self serving. I’m thinking more of bold visionary projects that bring people together to solve a challenge.

    Re prizes, I take the point and love the boldness of stuff like X-Prize but actually prefer development funding rather than simply prizes as it enables future progress rather than recognising past progress.

  3. Roland, the outsourcing/open issue is critical. One of the first innovations we would need is to change the EU procurement rules. A conversation i had last week about “responding to tenders” turns around the fact that if the government source has put out a tender- it has already made up its mind about what it wants and any creative response to the problem the tender is trying to address is already off the table. However partnership is difficult under current procurement rules. You end up giving away your imagination to the PQQ’ed preferred supplier – which is usually a large enterprise.

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