Employee Innovation Program Considerations

On June 14th Stockwell Day announced an Employee Innovation Program to incent public servants to find cost savings in government.  The program would see public servants with a “creative or practical idea” receive a cash award of 10% of the cost savings, up to $10,000.

Directionally, this is positive movement for the GoC.  No matter the discipline, aligning rewards to the behaviours you are seeking is a classic management approach.  Without a profit motive, and particularly given the heightened political risk of failure (see previous post Failing Forward), public servants often have little incentive to push forward ideas for improvements that might lead to cost savings.  This costs the public service dearly.  If you also layer on the fact that with a knowledge based economy it is invariably at the employees’ discretion whether or not they want to contribute their knowledge for the betterment of the organization, it is important to stack as many cards as possible in favour of the employee wanting to contribute what they know.

While the Program is directionally sound, running internal innovation programs can be very challenging.  Here are a list of issues Mr. Day and the Pilot Departments will have to consider as their Programs become operational:

Resourcing: one of the biggest challenges with internal innovation programs is how to free up the right resources to work on new initiatives.  In my experience, these programs create what I call “incremental work packages” to the organization which create a burden often seen as surplus to an individuals’ “9-5” job.  Each department will need to come up with a strategy that balances the need to free up resources from their current tasks with the need to complete what was originally planned.  Similar to aligning behaviour through incentives, ensuring the contributing to Innovation Program work is on the performance scorecards of resources, and those who own them, is one approach to finding the necessary resource support.

Intra-preneurship is not one size fits all: related to the above, not all individuals who have a great idea are fit to lead its implementation.  Conversely, not all great implementers are creative minds.  Any internal innovation program needs to take into consideration the skills required to pull the idea off.  This may mean, in some cases, that the idea submitters’ involvement in the implementation is not in a leadership capacity.

Governance: while the notion of an innovation program conjures up images of amazing ideas being submitted in terms of their quality, clarity, and alignment to organization objectives, this is often not the case.  Usually, ideas submitted have not had the benefit of time to be fully thought through, and they often miss the mark in terms of their ability to satisfy the organization’s objectives.  A Governance process that uses criteria to evaluate ideas and make portfolio decisions is important to ensure that investment dollars flow to the right kind of idea for the organization, that the organization has a good distribution of ideas, and that the ideas where possible related to one another to amplify their benefits.

Process: as I’ve said before, Innovation is both a product of a process and a process itself.  While an idea often requires random creativity, the implementation of the idea requires an innovation process that is disciplined.  Discipline doesn’t necessarily mean rigid, but structured enough to ensure that an organization can practice and habituate.  There needs to be rigor behind the execution but notional flexibility to ensure the implementation can move in the direction it needs to to realize the benefits originally sought.

The Right Incentive: given the size of government, as well as individual departments within government, the potential for large cost savings for good ideas is significant.  Capping the incentive amount protects the government, yet it could also limit the amount of creativity.  In the public sector context, the reward needs to outweigh the career risk of failure.  There is a risk that a $10K reward cap may limit the ideas to smaller improvements as the reward may not justify the risk of trying to implement larger ones.  This is where leadership in the department needs to step in and begin to change the culture to one that is more tolerant of risk.

Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat: Employee Innovation Program


Stephen Karam is a Systemscope Partner with over 15 years of experience providing thought leadership and consulting services in the areas of government service transformation, multi-channel service delivery and related information management projects. Stephen has extensive experience in providing business transformation, project management, and business development services, giving him a unique background that allows Systemscope’s customers to realize the value of feasible service solutions within the context of their business. His in-depth understanding of the Government of Canada’s policies, practices, and culture contributes to his ability to propose workable, reliable, and repeatable business solutions for Systemscope’s public sector clientele. Stephen has more recently focused on government service transformation initiatives, including business vision & strategy, service delivery strategies, enterprise architecture, information management and project management consulting services for Systemscope’s clients.


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