Capitalising on culture: how your people unlock innovation

Solving our most pressing societal challenges will require innovative thinking. How do you develop a culture that makes innovation business as usual? Shaun Delaney, Global Head of Public Services at PA Consulting, has some advice
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I recently had the privilege of reviewing over 130 nominations for the Civil Service Awards on An Innovative Civil Service. These stories were a powerful reminder of the public sector’s reach and potential to make innovation a platform for genuine growth in the UK. It was also clear that the recurring theme of innovation success lay in achieving a culture that naturally drives it from idea to reality. Because while ideas themselves aren’t hard to come by, making them a reality can be a huge challenge.   

Three calls to action 

Leaders in the civil service have a unique opportunity to change this. They can create the kind of culture nationally and sector-wide that can make innovation success more likely and more repeatable – but they should start with their individual departments. In a recent report for DSIT and its predecessor, BEIS, my colleagues and I explored what would make the difference. We highlighted three calls to action, which, in terms of culture, involve inspiring with purpose, being proactively inclusive, and creating the conditions to enable scale.  

Inspire with purpose 

Authors like Simon Sinek and Daniel Pink long ago identified that ‘purpose’ has a powerful influence on behaviour. When it comes to innovation, clarity around purpose and communicating it effectively are essential. That’s easy in a crisis. We all saw people pull together to overcome specific challenges during the Covid pandemic. The Vaccine Taskforce’s mission was clear and urgent: to drive the development and manufacture of life-saving vaccines and make them available to the public as quickly as possible. While operating continually in ‘crisis mode’ isn’t feasible, bringing clarity, a sense of urgency, and energy to a problem that needs solving will focus minds and galvanise effort.  

Be proactively inclusive 

It’s well established that skills- and neuro-diversity reduce cognitive bias and drive better outcomes. To begin with, I’d suggest creating and fostering opportunities for people to work together who don’t do so in the normal run of things. Consulting widely and looking for opportunities to collaborate at every stage should be the norm. Take, for instance, Team Protect, a consortium we are leading to deliver CRENIC – a major programme for the Ministry of Defence. Together, the consortium is building an ecosystem of innovative suppliers and SMEs that will collaborate to provide the next generation of technology to counter the threats posed by radio-controlled improvised explosive devices. 

The target users for the innovation should be brought in as early as possible in the design process – functioning as co-creators, not just participants in market testing. It’s the type of consultative approach that DEFRA’s Future Farming initiative has taken, where farmers, growers, and foresters have been actively looped into a £10 million innovation fund exploring the feasibility of new projects, including digital crop management. This approach has the added benefit of providing advanced stakeholder engagement. Furthermore, including groups early who will be needed for ideas to scale means innovations stand a greater chance of being more accessible, more refined, and more likely to be adopted. Involving those who’ll be paying for the scaled-up version – as Transport for London did with their approach to contactless payments – could prove vital. 

Create conditions to enable scale 

The final piece of the puzzle in developing a culture that drives innovation relates to systems and processes. The trouble is operating models tend to be based on linear progress. But innovation is not like that. And getting from an idea or design to a real-world product, service, or policy relies on a variety of human factors.  

Our research established a range of ‘blockers’ that can be cleared away by understanding the impact of how knowledge and information are used and of emotion and relationships. It allows you to identify tangible interventions in systems and processes to give innovations a greater chance of getting off the ground. Such interventions could include actively recruiting people who have taken risks successfully in the past or rebranding failure as a step on the road to success, for example. It could also mean rethinking traditional civil service decision-making protocols or making it easier for paused projects to restart when the time is right. 

A multi-layered challenge 

The rewards of this kind of culture will come in various forms. Organisations with a pro-innovation culture experience a 30 per cent higher growth in enterprise value. Scaled up at national level, this would bring a significant return on the government’s £22 billion annual investment in research, development, and innovation. It could put the UK at the forefront in energy, AI, quantum, and biotechnology, for example.  

Innovation drives growth, but it also changes lives, breaking down barriers for previously excluded groups and enabling a better future for those that come next. Yet, with public sector organisations like the NHS under significant pressure, it can be hard to create an appetite for innovation, but that is precisely where it is most needed. I don’t underestimate this multi-layered challenge. But I’m optimistic that with a focus on culture, you can bring change, whatever your remit. For example, the nuclear industry has already shifted from an inhibiting safety-first mindset with the recently established Great British Nuclear initiative, and other areas, such as the NHS, remain ripe for increased appetite and delivery. 

Long-term, I’m confident that forward strides in developing innovation-driven cultures will reap rewards all-round. In the shorter term, I’m looking forward to an even larger in-tray of awards nominations next year. 

Headshot of Shaun Delaney


About the author:

Shaun Delaney, Global Head of Public Sector at PA Consulting, has led work across a number of Regional and UK Government bodies, including the Ministry of Justice, Communities and Local Government, Welsh Assembly Government, Department for Education and Home Office

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