Innovation in the Public Sector: It’s a Learning Process

Mr Phil LeNir, President, CoachingOurselves: a Henry Mintzberg programMrPhil LeNir is president of Coaching Ourselves, an organisation he co-founded with Henry Mintzberg. Through their unique  approach  to management and leadership development they have transformed organisations around the world by changing culture and the way  in which management is practiced.  Mr LeNir has a Master’s degree in international management and an electrical engineering degree from McGill University in Montreal, Canada. He has authored numerous articles on leadership development and published a book in Japan on Social Learning for Management development. Prior to  CoachingOurselves,  Mr LeNir held senior management positions in software firms specializing in speech recognition. He developed a patent in Speaker Verification systems and was responsible for developing speech recognition systems used by millions of people a year.

Innovation is an old concept but it wasn’t always considered a compliment. In the 1600s in England, those accused of being an “innovator” could be sentenced to life in prison and even have their ears cut off.1 The inherent risk of failure in organisational innovation today needs to be kept in perspective because no one is at risk of having their ears cut off anymore!
The fundamental concept of innovation was defined as the introduction of something new and relevant, perhaps contrary to established norms or customs. Over time, the concept of innovation developed a more prestigious and positive connotation. During the industrial revolution, innovation meant “invention” and became associated with science and industry. It was only in the 1930s that economist Joseph Schumpeter promoted innovation as being how organisations figure out how to craft inventions or ideas into constructive changes in their business or operational model. Today, for public sector organisations, innovation is typically seen as a means to address budgetary pressures and respond to new societal demands. It generally falls into three broad categories: new or improved processes, new forms of organisation and management, and e-government and digitization of services. Yet we should not lose sight of that original concept of innovation: something new and relevant, contrary to the norm. And this is what makes innovation so challenging.
Innovation is usually viewed as top-down or bottom-up. Top-down is goal driven with extrinsic motivations. New Public Management is essentially a top-down approach to innovation. Bottom-up innovations are the unexpected discoveries fuelled by human intrinsic motivations; curiosity or discontent with current ways of thinking. Research shows that the best innovations come from supervisors and middle management who are connected to both the senior leaders and what’s actually happening on the ground. Of course, to actualize innovation, you need a culture of trust where people can accept and learn from mistakes, and you need collaboration. Innovation in an organisation is fundamentally a process of continuous organisational learning.
Ole Ingstrup and Paul Crookall are two very innovative public sector administrators. In 1988, Ole became head of the Canadian correctional system, a position he held for a total of about 8 years. At the time Corrections Canada had about 15,000 employees with a hugely important and sensitive mandate for Canadian society. Politicians envisioned “safe streets and safe homes for Canadians” and the correctional system played a huge part in achieving this vision. But, like many correctional systems, it had its challenges.
When Ole started in his new role, he believed that the people overseeing the system were too preoccupied with the idea of making prisoners good prisoners as opposed to helping prisoners become good citizens. It is easy to control people in prisons but to contribute to society you need to focus on what happens when prisoners leave. So Ole innovated. He focused on changing the dominant mindset in the organisation and this ultimately substantially reduced the rate of recidivism in Canada at that time.
In the beginning, he worked on humanizing the view of prisoners. This simple but radical innovation had some immediate benefits. The correctional system shortly adopted a regime of dynamic security that was much less expensive and much safer than the old regime of static security. Ole and his team hired psychologists and researchers to establish a research division to investigate and interpret the existing research that showed that this mindset of helping prisoners become better citizens would lead to lower recidivism. One unfortunate side effect of this was that these researchers were seen as a threat to the role of the traditional correctional officer. It was a new way of doing things and a new way of seeing the world. It was innovation.
Ole and his team had six thousand correctional officers who not only had to change their mindset; they additionally needed to develop new skills. Surprisingly, it did not take nearly as long as Ole had thought for the mindset to change. As the violence in the prisons went down with the new system of dynamic security, relationships with inmates became more positive, The correctional officers were increasingly convinced with the efficacy of Ole’s ideas. New training programs were rapidly adapted based on the new mindset.
There is an important lesson here: an organisation needs to increase focus on learning and development to support innovation. Yet when budgets are cut and organisations are told to innovate their way into doing more with less, the knee jerk reaction is to reduce learning and development, which makes it even harder for employees to innovate their way into doing more with less. And of course it needs to be the right learning and development. Sitting still in a classroom listening to an expert is not going to make anyone more innovative; in the end they’ll just understand more about innovation, not be more innovative.
In parallel, Ole and his team also worked very closely with parliamentary ministers to understood how to frame the vision in alignment with their priorities. This allowed Ole to clearly articulate how the correctional system, with this new mindset of helping prisoners learn to be good citizens, would directly contribute to safe streets and safe homes for Canadians. Once framed in their language, he had their support.
How did Ole become this type of leader and make these very innovative decisions? It was really quite simple, yet quite difficult. He simply used common sense and then moved forward with a sense of purpose combined with great flexibility. When he began, he thought of all the money, people, and hours spent to make prisoners good prisoners and decided it did not make sense depriving inmates of the opportunity to be law-abiding citizens after prison. The research division he established indicated that if one developed these types of programs, it would result in crime reduction. Ole was very careful in how he convinced senior bureaucrats that if they invested in these treatment programs, recidivism would go down.
Ole met another challenge with an innovative response. The aboriginal gangs in the prison system were fighting each other, so he personally met with the gang leaders and negotiated peace between groups. The Canadian prison system went on to become the first country to build a prison specifically designed around aboriginal philosophies and allowed band elders into this prison like a priest was traditionally allowed into other prisons. Ole’s decisions had such an impact on the aboriginal communities that the Cree tribe made him an honorary chief, which further garnered him the respect of aboriginal offenders.
All this contributed to bringing down recidivism to one of the lowest rates in the world at the time.

Ole Ingstrup and Paul Crookall went on to write a book based on a study they did of why some public sector organisations sustained success. These were the 1980s and 1990s and people didn’t talk about innovation like they do today. They spoke about sustained success. Ole and Paul spoke with dozens of highly successful and respected public sector organisations, and various levels of government from around the world. They published their findings in a book, The Three Pillars of Excellence. Their findings align almost exactly with current literature identifying key traits found in innovative public sector organisations.2 These traits include: clarity in the mission and the focus; trust in the people and freedom for them to operate and make decisions; use of management tools and processes which result in teamwork, collaboration, and the ability to constantly learn and change. Sustained success as a public sector organisation really means an organisation that can, and is, constantly innovating or renewing itself. In other words, to renew one’s self means to constantly learn and develop. Ole and Paul are now applying these lessons learned by leveraging Henry Mintzberg’s CoachingOurselves approach to management learning and development to build capacity for continuous learning and innovation (i.e. sustained success) in Danish public sector organisations.

Today, one of the key ways organisations are catalysing innovation is by starting with a disruptive hypothesis: “an intentionally unreasonable statement that gets thinking flowing in a different direction”. The trade offs typically faced in the public sector, such as cost vs. quality or cost vs. quantity of services provided, only defines the limit of what is possible right now at this point in time, not what is possible for all time. A disruptive hypothesis gives direction to learning. These seemingly unbreakable trade offs can be broken through if people are given a chance. People and organisations will figure it out, learning and improving in the process, resulting in innovations.
Disruptive innovation is the broad definition of the process by which this happens. Typically a product or services begins by taking root in simple applications at the bottom of a market and moves up market. Usually this will involve new technologies or new ways of getting things done. In the past fifteen years many disruptive innovations have been making their way “up market” in the public sector and breaking down seemingly unbreakable trade-offs. For example: many correctional systems are shifting low level offenders to electronic monitoring system, which breaks down the fundamental trade offs of cost vs. efficacy of the punishment regime.In health care many think it would be impossible to simultaneously lower costs and increase quality. Yet we see many examples of this occurring, such as the emergence of single organ hospitals, like cataract hospitals. They producehigher quality results at less cost than when the same operation is done in a general hospital. And they are constantly getting better and less expensive, unlike typical healthcare.5
Secondary education is also undergoing a host of disruptive innovations. The Khan Academy started as a side project by Salman Khan to provide tutoring for his cousins, nephews, and nieces. There are now over 2700 free online video modules covering all standard secondary school subjects. Ask almost any 16-year old student in Canada and they will say they use the Khan Academy constantly. The online system built around this video library is rapidly moving up the performance curve. There are now teacher dashboards to track students’ progress, and the beginnings of a dynamic adaptive process enabling the system to automatically individualize the learning journey for students. Hundreds and even thousands of schools are incorporating this into the classroom, which allows school systems to raise the quality of education AND increase the volume AND reduce cost.6
We are now seeing how the concept of disruptive innovation has sown the seeds of a next wave of processes through which public sector innovation and innovation in general is spreading even faster. These are the Hackathons, Accelerators and Incubators. A Hackathon is like a competition in which people with specific needs partner with programmers or designers to collaborate intensely to develop solutions. An Incubator is a program for early stage start- ups and an Accelerator is a cohort- based program to accelerate start- ups to market. These innovations in how to innovate are resulting in an explosion of positive changes for the public sector. Quick Google searches uncover dozens of examples of how the public sector has been using these concepts in the past 6 to 12 months. For example, there is an annual global weekend-long Fishackathon in which fisheries experts challenge programmers to create usable solutions to the challenges of fisheries management. The third one happened a couple months ago and produced a host of useful new tools for fisheries management.The state government of Kerala in India hosted a Health Hackathon in early 2016 in which the medical community simply asked for a large number of very specific medical devices to be created, such as electric pants to prevent bedsores, and hand held nerve locators. The coders and designers who showed up worked to build prototypes and the hospitals presumably agreed to pilot the resulting devices.8
In June, 2016, in Kuala Lumpur there was an AngelHack event, an initiative to build and connect developers and designers for social good.In late 2015, there was a “government open data” Hackathon in Malaysia. Over 17 ministries from across the Malaysian government opened up 363 datasets and challenged young people to design data visualization apps for the good of Malaysian society. A team of young women won this event. They called themselves the Data Rock Stars. They developed an amazing mobile application called the Malaysian Dengue Explorer, which shows Dengue Hotspots, number of cases, location of nearby schools, and more. They did this in 33 hours.10 In February of this year, there was a 3-D printer Hackathon in Malaysia, challenging teams to use 3D design for a better and healthier world. These initiatives are happening everywhere with increasing rapidity. Even a small public library in Montreal has just installed the first public 3D printer. They called it the Library Fab-Lab. The municipality sponsored it and the library implemented it. What an amazing innovation for public libraries! Unlike what was happening 50 years ago when the focus was simply on bringing research into usable products, now the focus is very much on co-creating tools and services for society and even to help local governments provide better and more cost effective services.
One last story shows that regardless of how innovation begins and the processes through which innovation continues, it all comes down to learning, reflection, and dialogue. The borough of Hackney in London introduced the first Council Hack-ney-thon. They challenged their community to look at three areas where the council believes it can do better: 
  1. The online registration of births, marriages and deaths.
  2. Notifying interested parties of currently available commercial properties.
  3. An open category following suggestions from Hackney residents.
It was a 24-hour event. The cabinet member of the council, Guy Nicholson, said this event was an example of a continued partnership working with local organisations to stimulate economic growth and support council services at a time of government spending cuts.11 It’s unclear whether they did or did not build anything specifically useful during the 24-hour event, except it’s clear the Council and the citizens learned a lot. A bit more research led to the discovery that a couple months after the first event, the Hackney community law centre hosted the first legal Hackathon to find ways to improve access to legal services for the most vulnerable in their community. Over 150 coders showed up to work all night. The winning team created an interactive tool that could automatically answer simple legal queries and the community centre agreed to put it online to pilot it.12
A couple months later, the Hackney Learning Trust sponsored a Teacherpreneur Hackathon. They defined the concept of a teacherpreneur: as accomplished and imaginative teachers who look at creative ways to engage students and think beyond the classroom to make the learning experience meaningful.13 At the event the potential teacherpreneurs had the opportunity to present their ideas to professional coders and developers to assess the concept, viability, and develop working prototypes for testing and further development. The whole borough is in essence learning how to co-create solutions for themselves and their governments through collaboration between local governments, private sector and the community, or the plural sector as Henry Mintzberg calls it.14 Ultimately it comes back to learning. People need to learn, and this is not the learning that happens in our typical corporate training programs. Henry Mintzberg likes to say no one ever created a manager in a classroom. Similarly, no one ever learned how to become innovative by listening to a lecture about innovation. It must be experiential.
So find the time to reflect and learn from experience, find ways to help the organisation to learn and give people the freedom to reflect, collaborate, dialogue and simply figure things out. They will.

1 “Innovation: The history of a Buzzword” by Emma Green, The Atlantic, January 20, 2013

2 “The three pillars of public sector management: secrets to sustained success”,                                                      

3 CoachingOurselves: The Henry Mintzberg approach,

4 “Public Sector, disrupted”, a GovLab study by Deloitte Federal practice,

5 Ibid.

6 Ibid.

7 Global Fishackathon.

8 Kerala Government Startup Mission: Health Hackathon,

9 Angel Hack 2016, Kuala Lumpur,

10 Government Open Data Hackathon, MAMPU and MDec,

11 Hackney Council News, Oct 23, 2014

12 Hackney Citizen, March 22, 2016,
13 Hackney Learning Trust:

14  “Rebalancing Society”, by Henry Mintzberg, an online pamphlet,