We are used to seeing innovators lauded for their brilliance. They are insightful geniuses who see around corners and live ahead of their times. In practice, most innovators stumble into success. Innovation is more about implementation and execution than it is about inspiration. Of course Edison figured that out over 100 years ago when he said: "Genius is 1 percent inspiration, 99 percent perspiration."
It pays to take a more opportunistic approach. Twitter started off as a side project at a podcasting company that had been made irrelevant by Apple. Steve Jobs didn't want apps on his precious new iPhone. Facebook was a social network for Ivy League colleges and Netflix mailed DVDs. Change and adaptation are crucial to success.
Don't discount the importance of ideas. They are the starting point and the motivator to take action, just don't stick to closely to those original ideas. As a government leader you should be careful to design your project planning to allow for adjustments and learning. Often the best insights come from ideas that occur during implementation. The original idea doesn't always work but it leads you down a path to something that does. In other words don't spend all your time planning up front.
Many leaders in government make two related mistakes. They demand too much validation of ideas before allowing them to go forward and once that validation has occurred they overcommit resources. Whatever you decide on most likely won't work as advertised so why pretend like it will?
To maximize your chances of success think of yourself as a venture capitalist. Fund many small proof-of-concept projects, set up gates that projects must meet to move to the next stage, kill the projects that don't make it, and gradually give more resources and focus on the few that do. A few tips that can help you on the way are:
1. Establish what success looks like. Think about a successful project or initiative your organization has completed. What made it successful? Customer adoption? Leadership validation? Those factors should be your ultimate measure for success. These are the end goals you are pointing all projects towards.
2. Set the key performance indicators. I don't like to think of KPIs as goals in and of themselves. They are simply indications that you may or may not be on the right track. If customer adoption is your end goal, customer interest might be a KPI. That could be number of visits or time spent at a booth, downloads on a website, social media shares, etc. Don't fall into the trap of thinking KPIs ensure success and don't reward or punish projects on the basis of any one KPI. This leads to the problem of gaming the KPI and not all successful projects get to success in the same way. Booth visits might be meaningless for a certain project but downloads might be key. KPIs are simply indications and you should monitor a diverse set of them for hints on the direction your project is headed in.
3. Set formal gates or project reviews that projects must pass through. As the famous investor Howard Marks once said: "Being too far ahead of your time is indistinguishable from being wrong." Even if an idea is great, if you can't prove that it is within a certain amount of time, it is the same as having a bad idea. Few project managers will kill their own projects. You as the leader have to do it for them. Setting up formal project gates that are time bounded and require projects to demonstrate certain outcomes to pass through is a good way to instill some discipline. Where your organization's gates should be is a case by case decision. For example, basic research programs have different timelines than policy offices.
Managing innovation is a dynamic and shifting process and many aspects of managing in a government environment will push back against maintaining this type of flexibility. It's your job as the leader to create the space to allow innovation to happen.