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Wednesday, 31 October 2012

52. Collaborative Innovation (civic solutions #1)

In my post about wicked problems I suggested that the answer to these problems might be civic solutions which I defined as:

Emergent strategies that involve the whole community including public services and the voluntary and business sectors.

In this post I want to look at collaborative innovation as one possible framework for thinking about civic solutions and consider what this approach might mean in practice for whole place partnerships. 

There is a large and diverse literature on innovation and I’m not claiming that this post is any kind of a review.  I’m going to draw mainly on just one recent paper that Sørensen & Torfing wrote as an introduction to a special edition of The Innovation Journal - it provides a nice overview and is of course well worth a read.

Innovation is a contested term insofar as there are a number of different ways to define it.  While the literature has historically been concerned with innovation in the private sector in recent years there has been a growing interest in public sector innovation to the extent that this now represents a field of research in its own right.  It is, however, important to understand the difference.  As Hartley argues in this paper in Public Money and Management:
... there is an important difference in innovation between private and public sectors. In the private sector, successful innovation is often seen to be a virtue in itself, as a means to ensure competitiveness in new markets or to revive flagging markets. In public services, however, innovation is justifiable only where it increases public value in the quality, efficiency or fitness for purpose of governance or services. Moreover, in the public sector at least, innovation and improvement need to be seen as conceptually distinct and not blurred into one policy phrase.
Sørensen & Torfing define innovation like this:
Innovation is a dynamic process through which problems and challenges are defined, new and creative ideas are developed, and new solutions are selected and implemented. It is a complex process with many jumps and feedback loops. Innovation can be seen as an intentional, learning-based practice that incorporates occasional chance discoveries. It brings about qualitative change as it breaks with conventional wisdom and well established practices. Innovation is not always based on an invention, but may also involve identifying, translating and adjusting new ideas and solutions from other countries, policy fields or organizations.
Innovation in this context is an emergent strategy process that depends on bottom up and frontline activity rather than top down planned solutions.  It is about recognising where public services need to be delivered differently, working through options ans implementing changes.   As Sørensen & Torfing suggest, the greatest public value is generated when innovative processes are collaborative, not just limited to individual organisations:
... we propose that public innovation can be further enhanced by bringing together different constellations of social and political actors in collaborative processes that involves a constructive management of difference . A constructive exchange between different kinds of actors helps to identify and define problems and challenges in ways that capture their complexity and to develop new, viable strategies for dealing with this complexity. Collaborative interaction facilitates trust-based circulation and cross-fertilization of new and creative ideas, and ensures a broad assessment of the potential risks and benefits of new and bold solutions and the selection of the most promising ones. Finally, the implementation of the new solutions is facilitated by resource exchange, coordination and the formation of joint ownership.
Hence collaboration is a civic process in the sense that it involves public, politicians and professionals.

But what does collaborative innovation mean in practice for whole place partnerships wishing to employ it as a means of tackling wicked issues?

Again we can turn to Sørensen & Torfing who have mapped out the different roles that managers will have to perform if they are to overcome ‘the different barriers to interaction, collaboration and innovation’.  They argue that managers must act as conveners, as mediators and as catalysts.  Below I attempt to translate each of these roles into a set of concrete tasks for whole place a partnership. 

Sørensen & Torfing suggest that:
...in order to create well-functioning interactive arenas with active and committed actors the managers must act as conveners. The convener motivates, empowers and brings together the actors, creates and frames the interactive arena, sets the initial agenda, clarifies the process and ensures a mutual adjustment of the expectations.
For the whole place partnership this could mean:
  • Identifying the wicked issues and setting out what is expected to change
  • Identifying the people who need to be involved in the collaborative process and inviting them to participate
  • Designing the innovation process i.e. as a one off event or a longer term project, determining the method that will be used
  • Securing resources; perhaps buying in external support
  • Investing in and managing collaborative events as part of the agreed process
  • Reporting back to participants at the end of the process
  • Giving account, for example to scrutiny or external auditors
Remember, the expectation here is that the process will not be hierarchical; the partnership has to trust participants in the process to design and implement solutions.


According to Sørensen & Torfing:
...in order to encourage and facilitate collaboration between the stakeholders the managers must act as mediators. The mediator aims to create or clarify interdependencies, manages the process by dividing it into different phases, builds trust and resolve disputes by aligning interests, constructing common frameworks and removing barriers to collaboration.

This is an interesting point to reflect on – it is important to recognise that conflict (even if it is with a small ‘c’) will exist in local governance and will need to be managed.  Sources of tension may include; competition for resources, funding relationships, issues of legitimacy between the elected and the non-elected; and tensions between organisational and partnership priorities. 

The partnership tasks might include:
  • Recognising and understanding tensions and conflict 
  • Defining what is shared in terms of values, vision, outcomes etc - but these must real for participants - they cannot be imposed top down
  • Managing conflict through the design of processes – using appreciative processes for example
  • Using overarching plans to provide a common framework
  • Intervening where strategies and plans overlap or are in conflict
  • Actively giving people permission to participate where they might otherwise feel constrained


According to Sørensen & Torfing:
... in order to spur innovation, the managers must act as catalysts. The catalyst exercises an entrepreneurial leadership that encourages re-framing of problems, brings new knowledge into play, explores existing and emerging constraints and opportunities, manages risks and encourages transformative learning and ‘out of the box’ thinking.
The point to reflect on here is that while members of the partnership cannot do everything, they certainly can be involved in the flow of the work and show ‘leadership by doing’.

This might include:
  • Getting directly involved as a participant inside and outside of events
  • Taking ownership of small projects
  • Acting as a sponsor / champion to encourage others
  • Talking up innovation and showing that they are relaxed about failure
  • Enthusiastically communicating to reinforce and appreciate successes
External facilitation might be good in this context as it gives members of the partnership a chance to act and be seen to act as participants rather than leaders.

Photo credit: Jon Fravel

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