Interview with Dr Kelly Clark, innovation expert at PA Consulting

  • Q. Can you tell us a bit about your innovation journey so far?

    I developed a real passion for innovation probably seven or eight years ago when I had the privilege to be working in the Northern Ireland Civil Service and was head of public sector reform, which included responsibility for innovation in government. We had the Northern Ireland Innovation Lab, which would have been one of the first government policy innovation labs in the world and it's probably still one of the most successful.

    I always say that I learned about innovation the hard way. We had this innovation team aimed at “supporting innovation in the public sector” and there was a little bit of sitting around the table, scratching our heads and not even being entirely sure what innovation was. So in that role, I had the real privilege to work right across the public sector not doing the innovation, but helping create the conditions for innovation to succeed either within an organization or a team and working across very broad and complex ecosystems of organizations.

    Q. In order to facilitate innovation, what's the starting point?

    Believe it or not, it’s actually around innovation management which is the structures and processes for innovation. It’s not a rigid, linear process but making sure you're getting good ideas and having a mechanism in place for deciding which of these ideas are the best. With innovation, we tend to have lots of ideas and in fact often far too many ideas. We need to have the ability to filter them, trial and test them and then ensure that innovation is adopted.

    Innovation hasn't taken place just because there's an idea, it has to be applied in the real world and actually has to make a difference to the people who are touched by that innovation.

    Q. What do you consider to be the key barriers to innovation within an organization?

    It can actually be really simple stuff. There are so many misconceptions around innovation and often people don't really understand what it actually means. In some organizations, it can be about people not knowing how to share the ideas that they have or having ways of allowing the organization to do things differently. Sometimes, especially in the public sector, it can be a risk aversion to innovation as people are afraid that it's going to be very costly and the outcomes uncertain.

    Q. Can you think of a number of projects or innovations that you've been directly involved with, that have had a great outcome?

    So the one that stands out most for me is I spent a year with the UK Health Security Agency on a program that tested sewage for traces of COVID-19. In the space of less than six months, this went from being "scientists think that COVID can be detected in wastewater" to a national program where we were testing across England every week, with a national monitoring program. It was absolutely astounding and incredible how something went from a scientific "we think we can see it" to a fully proven mechanism for monitoring the pandemic.

    Often, innovation is born out of absolute necessity and sometimes the very best conditions for innovation is when there's an absolute deep-seated need for something and in these circumstances, people tend to come up with really big and different ideas to solve problems.

    Q. For any company that wants to innovate, where do they start their journey?

    Starting with the absolute innovation essentials we need to first ask ‘what does innovation mean to us and why is it important for our organization’?

    It's important for private businesses and public sector organizations for different reasons. For public sector, it's about improving services to citizens and being creative around the solutions that are delivered. For companies, they need to innovate to survive. If you stagnate and stay still, then your long-term future is quite possibly in jeopardy as a result of that. So I think that the starting point is really understanding the purpose around the innovation for the organization.

    Q. How easy is it to measure the success of innovation?

    It can be very difficult. I'm currently involved in ISO, the International Standards Organization, where we're developing guidance around innovation measurement. You need to understand what value innovation has delivered and you need to measure what that value is. It doesn't mean hard measurements of innovation. Sometimes it can be less tangible things like how people experience something or how they feel. It could be social value, a benefit to the environment or it could be making more money. It is at the outset, understanding clearly what value the innovation is designed to deliver and then having something that allows you to measure whether those benefits have been realized.

    Q. For any company looking to innovate, typically who the key people within the organization who would manage that process?

    There are many different models. Sometimes there is an innovation team or an innovation lab is created, or very often someone is given the title of head of innovation. These aren’t necessarily the best approaches as all of a sudden innovation can be seen as that one person or team’s responsibility. While it's good to have that leadership and ownership, it is also about making sure that innovation leaders and teams are equipped to facilitate and support across the board and not being expected to single-handedly do all of the innovation on their own.

    It is also around raising awareness around the purpose of the innovation and what you're hoping to achieve and clearly stating what the expectations are of people, how they can expect to be involved and actually how they can expect to be recognized and rewarded for their involvement in the process.

    Q. You carried out a piece of research in collaboration with the UK Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) called “The Innovation Opportunity". What were the key findings of that report?

    The UK will spend £22 billion a year by 2026 but investment in innovation isn’t enough alone. If we are to prosper from great ideas, innovation needs to diffuse and be adopted. This report looks at the challenges of innovation diffusion and adoption and the wider societal benefits of an increased return on innovation.

    So we found three key things, the three missing ingredients needed for innovation to succeed. Firstly, was inspiration for innovation. We just touched on some of the things that I said before about really understanding what the purpose and the difference that it’s going to make. So really it’s about understanding what the deep need is and then coming up with solutions that meet those needs and that people are going to use and apply in the real world, at scale, in a way that really generates money for the UK economy.

    Next is inclusion, something that's very often overlooked with innovation. Having diverse teams in terms of the people, the backgrounds they come from, the disciplines and the expertise that they have and ensuring that we have teams with diversity of thought. This is about creating and supporting diverse teams and really prizing collaboration over competition.

    Then there is iterating. When it comes to innovation the term ‘fail fast’ is thrown about a lot and it's a term I don't particularly like. I get the sentiment behind it but we need to move past this ‘fail fast’ idea because it's not just about, “I have an idea, it's not going to work, ditch it”. Innovation needs a bit more than that. It is about applying a mindset of iteration so you keep pushing an idea forward and you drop expectations of perfection.

    Sometimes there may be ideas that aren't ready for the world or we don't have the mechanisms for taking them forward right now. So you've got a good idea but the world's not ready for it? Let's park it there and maybe we can come back to it at another time whenever the environment is different.

    The Innovation Opportunity report can be found here

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