Championing innovation in your public sector organisation

Renee Leon

Image from Canva images

Michael Schwager, director general of IP Australia, recounts the agency’s journey towards fostering a culture of innovation and offers a blueprint for the broader public sector to follow on IPAA ACT’s Work with Purpose podcast.

Ensuring vibrant private and public sector innovation ecosystems where new ideas are encouraged and protected is a key responsibility of Australia’s intellectual property agency, IP Australia.

Being at the forefront of innovation and digital transformation, Michael Schwager, director general of IP Australia says that being able to balance risk with the pursuit of new ideas is critical to fostering innovation.


Encourage risk-taking

Michael points out that workplace culture plays an important role in encouraging people to make good decisions around risks.

“We need a culture where we celebrate successes, big and small. [This] shows people that you’re encouraging, you’re valuing, and you’re rewarding risk-taking, and that implicitly helps people to be more curious and innovative.”

He adds that leaders need to clarify what the risk parameters are so that people know their boundaries as they try new approaches. It’s also important for leaders to focus on capability and provide clear direction to their staff.

“[Have] constant messaging about encouraging people with [the] capability to do more on risk-taking and innovation, cultivating ideas, and being prepared to fail. It’s a simultaneous approach from skilling people up but providing direction from the top down.”


Articulate what risks are worth taking

People tend to default to aversion when talking about risks. But Michael highlights that there are ‘hungry’ areas within an organisation where people are free to run innovative ideas to achieve a goal.

“There are some areas where we can’t break the law, we don’t want to embarrass the government, or we don’t want to put our staff at risk. But there are those hungry areas where we say, ‘Hey, we really need the best minds working in our agency. We’re hungry for recruitment. Go out there and look at really novel ways to make sure that we can bring people in.’”

Michael also emphasises that leaders should give clear and constant communication about the organisation’s risk appetite.

“I don’t think you can underestimate how important it is to be able to articulate risk appetite to your staff and to encourage innovation with your staff in a way that empowers them to do it. Communicate to your staff over and over and over with practical examples.”


Create an innovation framework

Michael underscores the tendency for innovation to depend on certain people, which can make it hard to sustain. Instead, innovation should be embedded into the organisation’s governance.

“You have to have the innovation champions who are pushing for [innovation] at a personal leadership level, but at the same time, you don’t want it to become just dependent on personalities. You have to be able to embed it into the organisation’s governance.”

“That’s why it’s so important to have something like an innovation framework that is looking at that whole portfolio of innovation across an agency – matching it to your capability development and your people, matching it with appropriate funding that is across the portfolio of innovation and then making sure it’s a regular agenda item on your executive boards so that you can pursue innovation in a very considered way. It’s not left up to individuals,” he adds.


Learn from failures

Taking the innovation road is not always a smooth ride – there will be bumps along the journey, but Michael gives encouragement to just give it a go and learn along the way.

“We’re not afraid of failure and we articulate that very clearly [to the] people in those areas where we’re hungry to achieve things. We say, ‘Go and give it a go. Failure will be okay.’ Failure is important because it’s where we do our best learning. It’s where we pause and think, ‘Okay, that didn’t go the way we expected. What have we learned from that experience? How can we apply a different approach?’”

For Michael, innovation doesn’t need to be a grand project or a whopping success. It can be as simple as doing something new, clever, and creative in your area of work.

“Innovation is something that can be done by one person in terms of improving a process that they run or interacting with customers in a different way. That can all be innovative… There’s a whole spectrum of innovation across the board. Then once you’ve realise that and you’ve established what your whole suite of innovation is in your agency, you can systemically manage it better and govern it better, which makes it stick.”

Listen to the episode here