Innovation in government doesn’t have to be overwhelming

Lou Kerestesy, founder and CEO, GovInnovators, argues that agencies have the tools and ability to innovate, but need to ask the right questions.

The question of how to innovate is on the minds of many government executives and managers. Answering it might seem overwhelming, but knowing the right topics and questions makes it manageable.

The definition
Innovation is doing something different to add value for a customer. If that definition seems simplistic, bear with me a minute. It’s got all the utility you need to decide whether and how to innovate.

The three parts of the definition — doing something different to add value for a customer — make circles in a Venn diagram where innovation is the overlap. Deconstructing each set a little further will give you a useful way to structure innovation conversations.

Innovation questions

What will you do differently?
Here we have two more sets of questions: Which organizational models will you change, by how much. You can plan, resource, budget, implement and measure every innovation in terms of business, technology and cultural model change. Your organization probably has ways it thinks about the components of those models.

Also with every innovation, you choose to target an incremental, moderate, or game-changing degree of change. This has to do with which models you change, by how much.

To add value?
Every government innovation enables (or better enables) a customer to do something or know something they couldn’t do or know, before. These two basic value propositions are not mutually exclusive.

It’s also right to consider value to the organization in your innovation calculus. Innovation might be for the customer but it’s about the organization. As part of your trade-off analysis, consider which customer innovations build organizational capabilities you need the most. Building an internal capability to innovate by innovating is a great return on investment.

For which customer?

Primary customers are those your organization exists to serve, and organizations innovate to better serve them. Primary customers can be internal or external to an organization.

Supporting customers are people and organizations who care about how you serve primary customers.
Every government organization can segment its primary customers. A customer segment is a subset which justifies a product or service distinct from others, is reached by different channels, or requires different types of relationships with your organization. Thinking about customer segments makes innovation more granular.

Innovation decisions

Deciding what to do differently to add value for a customer requires conversations, decisions and actions you drive from these questions. You can run one process or build a repeatable process, but you can’t go wrong anchoring conversations and decisions to the definition.

Innovation conversations and decisions are highly iterative and incremental. You can start anywhere in the questions and move anywhere. If your team gets lost or stuck the next iteration will get them back on track. Be careful starting with the first part of the definition — what do differently. It can be a trap because there’s no end to things you could do differently. Starting here can feel like you’re remaking the world. Try these steps, in this order:

  1. Get everyone oriented by having your team describe what the organization is currently doing and trying to do differently, to add value for customers. This sets a baseline and allows people to take credit for good work underway. This is not a multi-month “as is” study. It’s conversation using the questions below.
    Outcome: Your team can succinctly tell you everything your organization is doing to deliver current value and create new value for your customers.
  2. Review what your team knows about the customer and compare that to your current value propositions. You don’t need to award a contract for this, your team can do it by talking and then they own it.
    Outcome: Your team can succinctly describe gaps between what your customers value and the value your organization is currently providing.
  3. Use the first two steps to propose alternative future value propositions. Some you will have anticipated. Some will have emerged. Your team will see innovation opportunities they like and that will make it real.
    Outcome: Further develop value propositions as needed, or select some for next steps in investment and other decision making processes.

Here are the questions I recommend to support these steps. There’s more than one way to have these conversations and there’s nothing that says these are your only questions. There’s a point or thrust to each set that you must respect, however, or you risk not reaching the outcomes you need.

  • Propose alternative future value positions
    • Which value-add for which customer segment?
    • How much value-add?
    • What are impacts to business, technology and culture models?
  • Review your current value position
    • What are our value propositions for customer segments?
    • Is there a gap between current value and value they’d like to receive?
    • How does it divide between doing and knowing?
    • How does it divide between citizen/business and agent?
    • Who are our customers? What customer segments do we have?
    • What’s going on in their environment? Is it changing on them?
    • What do they value?
    • If we helped our customer solve a problem for their customer, what would that look like?
  • Review what you know and believe you know about the customer
  • Get oriented 
    • What are we currently doing to deliver value for customers?
    • What are we currently trying to do differently to add value for customers?

How to innovate is a short question with a long answer. Your trek will hit some twists and turns, and nothing is ever as easy as we wish. But sticking to the definition and asking questions about its parts will make what might seem like a roadless wilderness easy to navigate.

Lou Kerestesy is the founder and CEO of GovInnovators.

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