The overlooked magic ingredient behind every successful innovation

Reflecting on the Civil Service Awards, Sally Bibb, Strengths Lead at PA Consulting, brings a new perspective on the importance of strengths to innovation
Image courtesy of PA Consulting/Getty Images

I was delighted to present the Creative Solutions Award for an Innovative Civil Service recently. Across the submissions, I was struck by the fact that most of the innovation stemmed from two factors: a problem that people cared about and were determined to solve, and the doggedness of the people involved.

Take, for instance, the way that individuals and teams from HM Revenue & Customs came together to deploy network analysis and machine learning across large amounts of data. On the surface this may seem like technology innovation alone – but the submission revealed some of the characteristics – or strengths – of the team. And their insatiable curiosity, persistence, and desire to make a difference really came through when I spoke with them after they scooped the award. It’s a salient reminder that while innovation can be brought about by technology or new approaches, it’s just as much about realising and harnessing people’s strengths.

Valuing innovation beyond the return on investment

Something else struck me, too. That as well as the obvious value of these ideas – in this case, stopping fraud and protecting revenue – there is wider value being delivered. Those involved are demonstrating strengths and modelling behaviour that bosses who are trying to create innovative cultures need to recognise, leverage, and seek to generate.

The numbers are important, for sure. Some of the most successful innovations can save millions. The HMRC winning submission has shown that and will undoubtedly continue to save taxpayers millions, as well as protect citizens’ accounts against criminal activity. But assessing the value of innovations goes beyond the bottom line. This is especially true in public service where all innovation is ultimately about improving things for citizens. Just as with any successful enterprise, understanding what accounts for success is important. If you don’t, you won’t be able to repeat it. You need to understand your strengths, cultivate those strengths in your people, seek out people with those strengths, and create the right conditions for them to succeed.

Understanding your strengths

Programmes like the Civil Service Awards highlight the strengths inherent in both teams and individuals. Adjectives the host used to describe the shortlisted entries included ‘resourceful’, ‘dynamic’, and ‘proactive’ – and these all paint a picture of the qualities that foster innovation.

Activities like no-holds-barred problem-solving sessions, listening to different perspectives, keeping lines of communication open, and getting to know colleagues well were all mentioned as key contributory factors to the success of innovative projects. If you don't know what strengths and actions made you successful, repetition is left to chance. If you do, you can bring about innovation with intent.

Moving from producing an innovation to creating a culture of innovation

Most organisations want to be innovative not just because they want to solve problems for citizens or consumers, but to stay relevant and valuable. For this reason, sharing success stories is important. Stories move hearts and minds. It’s what happened at the awards ceremony.

People were visibly inspired by those who walked on stage to collect their awards. It wasn’t possible in one evening to understand all the innovations and impact that these people had achieved. It was their joy, passion, and energy that people responded to.

Creating the right conditions

In research PA carried out for The Department for Science, Innovation and Technology (DSIT) and its predecessor, The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), three ingredients emerged as essential for innovating: inspiration, inclusion, and iteration.

Across the nominations, all of these elements came through. Inspiration should come from deep need. Inclusion should be at the heart of every innovation – both in identifying those deep needs and in developing the new product, policy, service, or system. And iteration goes beyond ‘failing fast’ – recognising innovation isn’t a linear process, giving things time, and leveraging learnings.

Unleash innovation’s power to perpetuate success

My plea is that you don’t forget – in fact, that you celebrate – the strengths that your people have that mean they innovate. Understanding the importance of individual strengths is crucial to creating a culture of innovation. Recognise – or recruit to bring in – strengths like persistence, optimism, determination, empathy, and courage. Without these strengths, innovations that make a difference won’t be possible.

Intriguingly, often the most innovative people don’t think of themselves as innovators. They’re doing what they do because of the types of people they are. Real change makers and innovators are often not in it for the money. Sometimes they want to change the world, they thrill from challenging the status quo, or they're wildly curious.

As one of the most famous innovators, Steve Jobs said: “Here’s to the crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers, the round pegs in square holes... the ones who see things differently... they push the human race forward.” We need to value these people, put our arms around them, and recognise them as we did at the Civil Service Awards.


Sally Bibb

Sally Bibb, Strengths Practice Lead at PA Consulting, has led talent and organisation development programmes globally, across the public, private and third sectors


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