Leading for innovation: the one thing you need to know

I have seen a lot of blog posts lately with titles such as ‘The 20 Top Leadership Traits’. It reminds me of magazines at Christmas emblazoned with ‘300 ideas for an easy Christmas’. So I thought it would be simpler to identify the one thing a leader for innovation cannot do without: it’s curiosity.

Curiosity is the key to all things innovative. We have known this for a long time. In Ecclesiastes it says ‘Be curious in unnecessary matters for more things will be revealed to thee than men understand’.  Let me explain why I think curiosity is so important.

Curiousity about yourself

A leader must also be a learner and that means being curious about yourself. To lead well you need to understand your strengths and weaknesses, adapt to new situations and learn all the time. I find active reflection a very valuable part of my day. I think about a situation, how I have behaved and what happened and reflect on how I might have behaved differently to get better outcomes. Reflection should not just be navel gazing, that is why I say active reflection: it should result in some learning about yourself and be a catalyst for improvement.

Curiosity about ideas

As a leader you have a big responsibility to support new ideas. New ideas are fragile and can be killed by a shrug or a negative comment, especially if it comes from a person with power. So instead of saying ‘We don’t do things like that’ or ‘We’ve tried that’ when a new idea comes along, a leader needs to be curious about it and show interest. Even if it turns out to be a bad idea, a great deal of damage can be done by crushing it: not only will you lose a possibly good idea, you will also send a message to staff that you are not interested in hearing new ideas. In the first weeks of my starting a new job there was an ideas competition. As a fresh new recruit, I could see lost of ways of doing things differently so I submitted an idea. At the whole organisation meeting about the future the CEO announced that there had been five ideas for the competition but that they were all ‘rubbish’ and that was that. I never gave him another of my ideas.

Curiosity about people

Of course whilst a new idea is necessary for innovation, it is not sufficient. It needs to be the right idea for the situation and you need to make it happen. You will not be able to make it happen without the right team. You will not know who that team needs to be or what skills they need if you are not curious about people. Being curious about people you meet, your own staff, beneficiaries and volunteers will introduce you to a wealth of skills and experiences. I met a social entrepreneur recently who knew he wanted a particular style of crafted website. He had no web skills or art skills but because he was very curious about people he happened to know an animator and a web design person. Connecting them together resulted in the look he wanted for his website. Being curious about people allows you to make the connections you need to innovate.
Curious enough to take a risk

Innovation by definition involves doing something you have not done before. That involves taking an informed risk. If you are curious you will want to know what will happen if you try something. It will give you the courage to take the risks that you need to innovate. Whilst I said I would stick to one quality, I’m going to sneak another (connected) one in here…


Innovation requires courage: the courage to take a risk with something new; the courage to hold on to a shared vision and not lose your nerve when those around your are doubting; the courage to trust a team to develop an idea with freedom to experiment and adapt the idea; the courage to admit when you have to give up and a new thing has failed; the courage to be honest and open with your team; and the courage to challenge orthodoxies, ask questions, break rules and live with uncertainty.

To quote from Ecclesiastes again

Just as there is no perfect moment, there is no perfect knowing, no certainty. To remain inactive until you are certain of the result is to do nothing at all. So accept uncertainty.’

Have courage: try something new!

This blog was contributed by Katherine William-Powlett. Katherine is an Innovation specialist, and blogs about innovation for the National Council for Voluntary Organisation Blog, and has written a series of posts on Leading for Innovation.

Further reading article: The Demand for Curiosity Creativity and Innovation

More on Innovation:  http://www.ncvo-vol.org.uk/innovation


Visualising Data Narratives

Guardian Narrative Data Visualization
Example of narrative data visualization from The Guardian

To say that we are living in The Information Age and that we suffer from information overload has become something of a truism. However, it is true to say that for many of us there is a growing requirement that we make sense and use of complex data. This is partly due to advances in personal and mobile computing power, allied to faster broadband speeds, which mean we are collecting, processing and distributing datasets that are far larger than was previously practical. In addition, there are also new factors such as social networking, social media, the successes of the open data movement and the growth of companies such as Google whose whole business is data. Furthermore, these trends look like they will only continue as personal health monitors, smart energy meters and such like come into common use.

One response to this has been the growth in data journalism in which interactive data visualization techniques are incorporated into the story telling process. These narrative visualizations offer the reader the opportunity to gain insight into the story’s subject through guided exploration of the data, which may be enhanced by enabling the reader to personalise the data to varying degrees, thus making the story more relevant to their own perspective. Many excellent examples of this can be found on the websites of The Guardian and New York Times newspapers. Another response has been the idea of social data analysis using online resources such as ManyEyes, where data is visualised publicly and the resulting insights discussed and shared.

Such developments point to ways in which people can engage with complex data in a creative manner and make positive use of it. They also highlight the influence of the different perspectives that groups or individuals may bring to the original data and how their points of view and expertise can be shared productively. This shows that the purpose of visualising data is not simply to provide an accurate representation of it, but also to act as a platform for argument and discussion, for storytelling and scenario testing. This is creative analysis in which individual narratives can be constructed and compared, and it is likely to play an increasingly important role in making important decisions.

Take for instance the process of designing and launching a new car. This is not simply a matter of engineering improvements in aerodynamics and power to weight ratio followed by a clever advertising campaign, important though these are. It also involves appreciating trends in taxation and petrol prices or the availability of electricity charging points; understanding population migration patterns between country, city and suburbs; tracking changes in family size, demographics and the number of cars per family; and following social attitudes to factors such as safety and status. This is all before the arguably more subjective and emotive elements of styling come into play, reactions to which are also collected, collated and visualised. Each of these is a data story that represents the perspective of one or more domain expert and the success of the project is likely to depend on how well they can be combined.

My work as a PhD research student in the Centre for Creativity in Professional Practice involves developing and studying tools that will help support people as they construct and share data stories that reflect their personal or professional perspective. The aim here is not to promote a situation where all decisions are made by compromise or committee, but to give people the tools with which they can effectively argue their point of view and also to better take on board the implications of issues raised by experts from other domains. This, I hope, will eventually lead to better, more informed decisions and a more effective design process for both products and services.

Reflections on Reflection



I was asked recently to prepare and deliver a talk for Business Studies undergrads at Cass Business School on the topic of Reflective Practice.  Pulling strands together from my current academic endeavours, my career to-date and my busy family life, I realised just how important it is to being a fully rounded human being!  How I wish someone had introduced me to Reflective Practise as an undergraduate or even earlier in my education.  It seems to me to be a life skill we should all learn early so that it becomes second nature.

I started my own blog a few months ago to help with my own personal reflection.  During our recent Technologies for Creativity and Innovation module, we were required to write reflective tweets and I’ve carried on doing it (@AlisonDuffyMICL).  I’m also putting together a reflective journal for assessment as part of our Creative Industries module.  I’m finding all of this activity fascinating, energising and really helpful.  I’m discovering who I am and what I’m capable of and I’m listening to my ‘inner voice’. 

Looking back on something to examine what went well and what didn’t is so important in all aspects of our lives.  Recognising feelings, behaviour patterns and mental models is relevant to relationships, team working, leadership, creativity, innovation, self-awareness, confidence, motivation…

Why is it then, that very few organisations seem to encourage it? 

Reflection requires time, space and a desire to discover how things really are.  And it’s personal.

Have I just answered my own question?!


Microblogging in a Care Home Context

Can microblogging be used to improve the richness and quality of care notes made by care staff?

Screenshot showing test data – not real data.

In our research project MIRROR we are working with the Registered Nursing Homes Association (RNHA) to support the capture of more reflective observations by care staff through the use of microblogging tool to improve sharing of work relevant information and collaborative work as well as improving the data capture processes for information about a residents daily activities, health, mental health and needs.

Carers already make notes about the care they deliver, the health and the mental status of the residents in their care. This is often still done entirely on paper. Only a minority of care homes currently use digital care plans, and where these are implemented there are usually only one or two computers available for carers to use to enter their notes – resulting in a queue to type up their notes at the end of each shift. Not exactly ideal for encouraging rich care notes. Also, in their current form, the care notes are not easy to review and it can be difficult to identify a very gradual change in a resident’s condition which may occur over a longer period.

So in MIRROR, we are planning to use mobile devices running apps that enable care staff to record information about care in situ at the time that it is generated. As a proof of concept we ran a 3 day trial using protected Twitter accounts and the free Twitter App running on an Apple iPod Touch locked to provide only the capabilities needed by care staff during a shift.

Unlike regular tweets that can be followed by members of the public, the observations captured could only be accessed by the other devices being used by care staff and the shift supervisor who monitored the tweets throughout the shift. And unlike the current process with paper notes, each observation was shared in real-time, which increased communication between the care staff in the residential home.

For the next phase we are implementing an enterprise microblogging tool called Yammer. Unlike Twitter, which is designed to be a tool to broadcast public posts that can be accessed by anyone on the web, Yammer is designed to be used internally within an organisation and is accessible only to members of that organisation. This provides a closed, encrypted network where carers can post observations and care notes for their residents. These posts will be monitored by the shift supervisor for patterns in resident behaviour and changes in mental or physical condition. The posts will also be incorporated into a daily or weekly summary for each resident, which the nurses and senior carers can use to track changes over time and to input into revisions of care plan for each resident.

We’ll be trialling this later this year, and we’ll keep you posted. We’d love to hear from you about your experience using micro-blogging tools in an organisational context.

Author: Kristine Pitts

Creativity to Design and Support Care for People with Dementia

Can we design creativity tools to support residential care staff?

On the 31st January 2012 – Professor Neil Maiden gave a talk on the mobile apps we have developed as part of the MIRROR project. His slides have been made available here (through Slideshare).

Creativity techniques and software support tools have the potential to be applied successfully to a wide range of problems. In the EU-funded FP7 MIRROR project we are working with the UK Registered Nursing Home Association to apply creativity to the design and delivery of new tools to improve the care for people with dementia. Our focus has been to support the care staff in residential homes.

Neil talked about two uses of creativity in this domain. The first was the use of creativity techniques such as improvisation and role play to engage and empower care staff in the design of new mobile technologies and apps that can improve their care of residents. The second was the design and implementation of a new mobile app intended to support care staff to think creatively to overcome challenging situations. Care staff can use the app to generate more novel, person-centred resolutions to these situations based on different creativity techniques that it supports. Neil also described how this creativity support app can be used along side other tools also under development, such as a life history app and digital rummage box running on portable tablets.

We’re interested in hearing from anyone working with similar solutions or with technology & care. Do get in touch.

Author: Kristine Pitts


Transforming local councils

Wordle of the Innovation FrameworkMost local authority chief executives are heavily engaged in transforming their councils, in response to the resourcing pressures. Could they be doing more to achieve radical innovations more quickly and more successfully?  From our recent interviews with 12 chief executives from larger authorities we believe many of them could.

We found that many chief executives were doing some of the things that encourage innovative working across an organisation, but that few had a comprehensive and systematic approach to fostering innovation.

How were chief executives encouraging innovation?

Most chief executives were optimistic and positive about the future.  They had all consulted local residents about future priorities and supported politicians in agreeing their councils’ ambitions.   Most had identified the major areas for radical innovations. Many had been striving to get the ‘right people’ in their top teams.   Many talked passionately about the importance of honest, two-way communication (with employees, service users, residents and partners). All were conscious of the importance of employee morale, and the challenge of maintaining it given jobs losses and other major changes. And most were encouraging managers and employees to think about how they might ‘do things differently’. All were engaged in a range of cross-organisational and cross-boundary initiatives. And most had systematic ways of driving and tracking progress, to deliver new initiatives–with many highlighting the importance of their programme and project management systems in turning ideas into reality.

So what more might they do?

Not all chief executives were:

  • Developing explicit politically supported policies on managing risk, including a no blame approach to intelligent failures.
  • Working on getting the pace of innovation right, including creating as many positive moments as possible.
  • Ensuring that their managers had a deep understanding of their services users’ aspirations and priorities.
  • Deliberately attracting, retaining and making the most of employees with the skills and attitudes required to implement innovations.
  • Working with unusual partners, such as people from the creative sector.
  • Ensuring that organisational practices encouraged innovation.
  • Safeguarding time for reflection and creative thinking.
  • Recognising, rewarding and celebrating innovations.

And very few were:

  • Ensuring that a major proportion of top team (politicians and senior managers) time and effort was focussed on achieving major innovations.
  • Putting innovation processes in place, appropriate to each service.
  • Ensuring that managers successfully operated these processes.
  • Protecting those working on radical innovations from day to day work and organisational pressures.
  • Involving ‘leading’ service users and front line staff in innovation processes.
  • Looking at new places for fresh ideas, e.g. the creative sector, the private sector, other countries.
  • Employing sufficient people with expertise in: a) innovation processes and b) the opportunities provided by latest new technology and social media.

Taking a comprehensive approach

To capture the key actions chief executives can take to support and accelerate innovation, we’ve created a ‘Local Council’s Innovation Framework’: http://creativity.city.ac.uk/accelerating_local_govt_innov.html.  The current Framework is a draft, so please let us know what you think of it by 28th February 2012.  Post your comments below or email them to: joan.munro.1@city.ac.uk

What next

In late March, having reviewed your comments, we will issue a revised version of the Framework.    Under each of the factors, we will be adding quotes from chief executives as well as examples of the actions they are taking.  We will also create an anonymous electronic benchmarking tool, so that chief executives can compare their scores against different aspects of the Framework.

We will be using the Framework as the basis for more detailed research with frontline staff in two or three councils.  If you would like more information about what this please email: joan.munro.1@city.ac.uk or ring: 0779 2952 498.

Taking the MICL – Lived experience

We here at the Centre for Creativity could tell you all about our Masters in Innovation, Creativity and Leadership (MICL), but there is nothing quite like hearing about the experience directly from current students, so why not have a look at some of the things the current MICL students are saying about the course:

Alison Duffy, one of the students on the MICL has posted a very nice piece on her experience of the first year of taking the MICL on her company website, Per Diem Projects (www.perdiemprojects.com).

Marc Scheimann, last year’s scholarship competition winner writes about the MICL experience in his blog,  http://scheimann.tumblr.com/

Katherine William-Powlett, also a MICL student writes a blog about innovation, you can read it here: http://www.ncvo-vol.org.uk/networking-discussions/blogs/194

By the way, the 2011 scholarship competition is still open until the 5th July – don’t miss out!