The Innovator’s Method: A book review

I bought The Innovator’s Method in Austin during SxSW and it took me a while to finish it, not because it’s not good, but because it’s the kind of book you can read, drop to test a couple of statements or assumptions, and pick up again to read on.

My angle when reading books about management methodologies is to see what could be useful for management and leadership in government positions or in public service. Unfortunately, most books of this kind never use government-related case studies or examples. This doesn’t mean, however, that what they offer is not valid or applicable in an institutional context.

A synthesis of different innovative product development methodologies

The book’s key message is that in a context of uncertainty traditional management techniques don’t work. In this context, you need to manage innovation differently, building on a series of existing methodologies for the different stages of your product development. It’s interesting that I came across this book AFTER having read about these methodologies: open innovation, design thinking, agile software development, lean startup and business model canvas.

The book has many merits:

  • it provides compelling diagrams summarising the key arguments and findings of the book;
  • it offers clear guidance on dos and don’ts at everyone of the four stages described; and
  • it builds on concrete examples and case studies to illustrate the different methodologies presented.

The part on leadership in managing innovation is also well structured and clear. The leader’s role in a context of uncertainty (whether it is demand or technological uncertainty) is to:

  • be a chief experimenter
  • set the grand challenge
  • build broad and deep expertise, and
  • remove barriers and provide tools for rapid experimentation.

Interestingly, this new form of leadership first builds on intuition – form leap-of-faith assumptions about your product -, but backs it up immediately with hard data – about how users react to the first versions of the product and later interactions with users or consumers, etc. The key difference lies in the approach to the manager’s role: it’s not about analysing existing data and taking decisions but about making assumptions and testing them in an iterative fashion.

Applying lessons learnt to the public sector

The modus operandi of the public sector is different depending on whether decisions are of a political nature or not. Politics, by nature, is about uncertainty, it’s about making assumptions for the future and proposing a way forward to make your vision of the future happen. Administration on the other hand, works – or rather used to work – in a completely risk averse fashion. No surprises, no failures were accepted.

With mounting pressure from public opinion and as uncertainty touches more and more areas of responsibility in the public sector, a different way of working is required. This evolution is quite visible in recruitment and online services for example. Recruitment by public institutions has become much more proactive, leveraging social networks and introducing talent management to gain a much better understanding how the skills and competencies available in-house. In 2013, the Australian government passed new legislation to simplify public sector recruitment practices and evolve towards more effective e-recruitment methods.

In the field of online services, the UK government has led a worldwide trend of focusing on users and products. This meant a complete overhaul of its communications capabilities, introducing a Government Digital Service (GDS) and a digital transformation roadmap among other radical changes. The GDS and other government agencies in the UK are now using agile software development, design thinking and lean startup concepts to inform its product design and delivery. Results have demonstrated that these methods are not only possible to implement in the public sector  but actually yield better results in terms of citizen satisfaction and cost-effectiveness.

If the ideas and proposals of this book were ever to make a difference in government services, it would be through a combination of:

  • a top-down realisation of the potential not to introduce innovation, but to manage uncertainty – to government officials, innovation is not an objective as such, but managing uncertainty is;
  • a cultural shift that empowers staff to experiment and be more proactive in achieving a number of set objectives; and
  • a stronger focus on data, which is available yet underexploited in many public administrations.

While these are necessary conditions, they alone cannot transform the public sector into an innovation hub: political will and a transparent, ideally co-created roadmap are also required.

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