Want to innovate? Don’t (just) ask the managers

The following article is inspired by reading Practical Innovation in Government and Ideas Are Free by Robinson and Schroeder.

Where do most innovation and improvement initiatives come from in your organisation?

I’ve asked this question to council colleagues over the past few weeks. The answer is nearly always the same: “from management”.

For those of us working in local government, it’s natural to assume that the scale of reform we now require (due to budget cuts and rising demand) necessitates large-scale change programmes. We conduct deep discoveries into complex, system-wide issues. We attempt full end-to-end redesign of services. We restructure whole teams and departments. And so on.

Due to their ambitious scope, such projects are nearly always initiated and led by those in management positions. They also tend to be complex, long-term, dependent on many factors outside the organisation’s direct control and have outcomes that can be hard to measure. As a result, success is far from guaranteed.

These sorts of improvement projects are and will remain important. Designed intelligently, and using methodologies that allow for learning and iteration (see, for example, LOTI’s outcomes-driven methodology), we can maximise their chances of making an impact.

If we were to try to create a formula for the success of such projects, we might write something like this: 

Correct diagnosis of problem Sound methodology + Strong programme management = Potential impact

But might we be paying attention to this sort of project at the expense of other, more feasible forms of innovation and improvement?

The leadership blind spot

One of the main downsides to management-led innovation is that leaders are often very distant from the detail of how their organisation’s operations actually happen. 

Their knowledge is based on a helicopter view of their organisation. They have what Robinson and Schroeder refer to as aggregate knowledge: key trends and indicators, but not the detailed inner workings of the machine.

I’d argue that this is especially – and increasingly – true of local government. 

Talk to anyone in our sector and they’ll tell you that after a decade of austerity (plus Brexit, Covid and other pressures), most staff are today doing what would have been the work of three or more people ten years ago. 

This appears to be true of senior managers, too. Look at council leadership teams and some of the management portfolios are truly formidable, enough to make you wonder how the post-holders ever find time to sleep.

Combine that with the fact that councils are – for their size – some of the most complex organisations imaginable (I challenge you to think of any similar-sized organisation that offers 500+ services) and leaders’ helicopter view is getting more and more distant from the ground.

How then can they hope to lead truly high-performing organisations?

The merits of continuous improvement

In contrast to leaders’ aggregate knowledge, more junior, and especially front-line staff have specific knowledge: a first-hand view of day-to-day operations, their pain points and results.

If only we were to stop and ask them, they could likely point to the dozens of little niggles that collectively add up to organisational inefficiency – and sometimes organisational insanity.

In Practical Innovation in Government, Robinson and Schroeder give the example of a customer service centre of a US state’s Department of Motoring Vehicles, which started out with a 9-hour wait time for users of the service.

Management had previously tried to improve the efficiency of the service centre by paying for one large printer to serve all the customer service agents. Sounds logical. But the service agents knew that every time they needed to print a form on behalf of a customer, they had to stand in a queue for the printer alongside their colleagues, averaging a 2-minute wait time.

That may not sound like much. But when 10 staff stand in a 2-minute queue dozens of times a day, the time adds up. Multiply that by weeks, months or years, and the inefficiency adds up, too. 

I saw similar inefficiency during a recent visit to an A&E department in England. Several small niggles seemed to be adding up to a giant waste of time, frustrating both staff and patients. I’ll give two examples.

The first was about signage. Just inside the A&E, a printed sign said “4 hour waiting time”. Yet just two meters away on a screen it said “7 hour waiting time”. Over the course of the few hours I spent there, I counted no fewer than 20 people asking the reception desk what the real wait time was. 

“It’s five hours,” the receptionist replied. 

“So why does the sign say 4 hours and the screen say 7 hours?” patients would ask.

“We don’t have a printer, and we can’t update the screen – that’s done by IT who are off shift”.

Second, was seeing doctors coming out into the waiting area to call a patient through. In a busy waiting room, they were wandering up and down the seating aisles calling names, often leaving without success after spending time on multiple laps, and having to return later. 

The point of these examples is to note that the issues – and their solutions – were completely obvious to the staff on the ground. Yet had anyone ever stopped to ask them?

Happily, in the DMV example, an enlightened manager listened to the customer service agents’ ideas and moved to individual printers – one of dozens of tiny changes that collectively knocked the wait time from 9 hours to just a matter of minutes. 

Clearly, no such process had happened in the A&E I visited, where simply giving the receptionist the ability to update the screen so they could display the correct waiting time and the name of the next patient would presumably have helped.

The key point is that frontline staff have the ability to spot the hundreds – and I do mean hundreds – of tiny, incremental changes that can collectively make a massive difference. Because the changes are tiny, the link between cause and effect is immediate and obvious – all but guaranteeing results. 

This process of constant tweaking is called Continuous Improvement (CI). What would the formula for CI’s success look like? We might describe it as:

Small change Repetition Number of changes Guaranteed impact

Yet all too often, we haven’t created the environment for staff to do this.

Don’t councils always do user research and engage frontline workers as part of their management-initiated projects?

Maybe – but that’s not the same as CI. In those larger projects, we may ask for the views of front-line staff, but only for a short period and within the confines of what management wants to know. Far too many frontline staff have been asked their views as part of the latest-of-many change initiative, only to receive no feedback and see no action resulting from their ideas. No wonder they may feel disillusioned.

By contrast, Continuous Improvement must be just that: continuous, and also empower frontline staff themselves to come up with, implement and test ideas within their sphere of knowledge. 

Implementing CI isn’t just good for improving processes. Giving all staff the ability to solve problems makes their life easier, gives them a sense of influence and control and increases job satisfaction. (And let’s face it: in local government, we’re not exactly competing on salary, so these things are doubly important.)

How to make continuous improvement work

Another excellent book by Robinson and Schroeder that covers the topic of Continous Improvement in depth is Ideas Are Free.

From that book, I’ve distilled 9 principles for what it takes to have a successful CI programme.

  1. Make it everyone’s job to propose ideas – in some of the most successful CI organisations, coming up with ideas is a formal requirement of the job.
  2. No idea is too small – the whole point is to find the tiny, incremental changes that can collectively make a big difference.
  3. Discuss ideas as a team to finesse them – every idea deserves some collective wisdom to make it better. 
  4. Take the decision to implement at the lowest possible level – CI cannot work if every minor change has to go up the chain to senior management to be approved. 
  5. Leaders must engage and show CI is serious and permanent – while leaders may not initiate the changes, they must create an environment where CI is both expected and valued.
  6. Ensure time from idea → action is as short as possible – if you want staff to engage, help them feel the dopamine hit of seeing their ideas in action. 
  7. Set time-bound experiments to test changes – if you’re not completely sure that a given idea will definitely work, try it for a few weeks and evaluate the results before deciding whether to make it permanent.
  8. Do not offer £ rewards for ideas – interestingly, there are many case studies showing that offering financial rewards to individuals for specific ideas creates perverse incentives. 
  9. Track changes to measure cumulative impact – this is the way to build confidence that CI works.


While management-led innovation and improvement projects are important, the books above suggest that the greatest amount of energy should be directed towards CI. 20% management-led to 80% CI may be an ideal balance to aim for.

Anecdotally, it seems like CI is under-practised by UK local authorities. I might be wrong about that. If you have examples, I’d love to hear about them.

Finally, I’m mindful that here at LOTI, most of our projects fall into the management-led paradigm. I’m keen to see how we might adjust that to help our members implement CI for the benefit of all.

What do you think? As always, readers’ thoughts and feedback are warmly welcomed.

Eddie Copeland
17 April 2023 ·
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