Innovation: a risky business

It’s been an interesting week of workshops, training courses, conferences and presentations this week. And the buzz word this year is without doubt ‘innovation’.

I’ll try and summarise four days’ worth of learning into four bullet points:

  • Innovation has to be done fast. Delays are fatal. Committees, checkpoints, reviews and gateways are mortal enemies.
  • Innovation is inherently risky. If you even try to take the risk out, you actually kill the innovation.
  • Innovation is unpredictable – you may well not get what you expect, or want. It can be creative, but it can also be destructive.
  • You’re going to fail – frequently. Expect it. Deal with it, roll with it, learn from it, and then try again.

And now apply that to an organisation such as the Civil Service, which is what we have been doing for most of the last week. Can you imagine an institution less capable of being innovative when matched against those criteria? We’re talking about an organisation that literally wrote the book (PRINCE2) on following strict processes to completely eliminate risk. You may as well cast PRINCE2 as the anti-matter to innovation – the two simply cannot exist together without one annihilating the other.

But as a civil servant myself, I’m naturally going to argue that it’s not the Civil Service’s fault. We’re just here doing a job to the best of our abilities, doing what the Civil Service has been set up to do for hundreds of years – to manage efficiently and without risk. It’s what the politicians, the press and the country demand from the Civil Service. But how do we balance the necessary risk management with the drive for innovation? It may be a very fine line, but you still can’t manage to stand on both sides of it at once.

Ministers know they will be held personally accountable for any risky failures by the civil service; the press will take up any case of failures and costs arising from risky projects. And if the media doesn’t, then there’s always the rest of us – the great British public – ready to pounce and decry a waste of taxpayer’s money at any risky failure, and to cast our outraged vote to oust the transgressors.

So from the ordinary man on the street to the journalists at Wapping, the Whitehall mandarins and Secretaries of State, the entire system can end up becoming risk-averse by design; and a risk-averse system becomes a static one resistant to innovation. Who knows, maybe that really is for the best – maybe simply aiming to keep everything on an even keel and avoid ice bergs en route really is the best way to go. After all, the captain of the Titanic would have given anything for such a quiet passage.

It’s important then that we don’t get carried away with cries of “innovation” – if it’s not possible to allow the risk necessary for that innovation then let’s not get everyone worked up, frustrated and let down when it gets stymied. If we’re not going to be able to carry through real innovation, then don’t reduce it to a word to bandy around to score points and beat up institutions and organisations or we are all the poorer for it.

But let’s not get too determined to avoid all risk at all costs, either – otherwise we’ll never innovate at all, and then we really will be sorry as we head deeper into the 21st centrury. I’m worried that Britain is more inclined to the risk averse corner – that risk management will win the day here and innovation will be consigned back to its cupboard where it can do careers no harm. Maybe it’s time I looked into a green card.

Then again, is anywhere else really grappling with these issues any better?

[Special note: in case anyone thinks I’m referring to my own department here, despite my standard disclaimers, let me clear: I’m emphatically not, except in as far as the arguments above apply to the whole system of government and society in the UK.]

[Updated: pruned the very messy second half to keep focus. Doubtless I’ll come back to some of those extraneous issues in the future in a better-written post in due course.]


  1. David Whelbourn

    I hear you and you make good points. Being one of the others (private sector) I can honestly say that we have similar problems. The financial departments play the risk reduction role with the investors being the general public. Although they are more forgiving than the general public and less unrealistic in their expectations.

    Just one point it is how you implement PRINCE2 that stifles innovation. If your organisation is highly procedural and adherence to process is a major measure of objectives, then PRINCE2 can be a nightmare. If your organization recognises that key is to follow the principles and processes as they fit your PROJECT (not organization) then life can be easier. Take a look at the last version of the PRINCE2 manual I think you will find it refreshing.

    Best of luck


    PS I emigrated in 2005 and havent looked back

  2. andrewlewin

    I agree. I’m fortunate to work for a very enlightened department that’s taken a long look at PRICE2 et al, determined what works well and kept those bits while amending or dropping those parts that don’t.

    Our problems can sometimes arise where other parties insist on working full PRINCE2 processes, however.

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