How to be an everyday innovator

PlugsAlongside watching James Graham Gardner’s book on innovation develop online, I was reminded recently about the concept of ‘everyday innovation’ – making innovation something that we all do in our day jobs, rather than something mystical and abstract which is done by pointy-heads in research labs (and alternatively, as more than something as meaninglessly fluffy as a bit of random brainstorming).

In as much as the stuff my team does is ‘innovative’ in a low-key, process-oriented kind of way, I thought I’d describe how we go about it. There’s really not a great deal to it.

1. Gather stuff

Read lots about the work and experiences of people in similar fields to you (for me, government webbies), parallel fields (government non-webbies; webbies outside of government; supplier blogs; technology magazines) and totally different fields (random New York bloggers; lifehackers; science bloggers).

Use tools like Delicious, Instapaper and starred items/favourites in Twitter and Google Reader to keep track of interesting ideas, technologies and individuals. For example, I tag interesting WordPress plug-ins, themes, projects and people so I can find them when I need them.

Go to events (like UK GovWeb Barcamp, TeaCamp, gov 2.0 conferences) and make time to talk to people who work in interesting fields, even if there’s not an immediate project on the table to work on. My first professional WordPress project, the commentable version of Innovation Nation, came out of a chance coffee with Glyn from Open Rights Group about their use of the tool. Of course, there’s a small risk of developing a reputation as a time-waster here, so be up front about your interest and whether you’re just interested or want specific help.

Play (briefly) with new tools you come across. Get a sense of whether they’re useful yet, whether they’re good value and how they might be used. Most tend to be free, after all, so try them for 10 minutes and see what you get out of them.

Bottom line: have plenty of links, tools and contacts floating around ready to use.

2. Connect things together in a new way

Take something you’ve gathered – maybe a tool, a contact or an approach – and see how it would fit into one of the projects that lands on your desk:

Build in analytics and measures to help you track the success or otherwise of the new approach – Google Analytics, stats, or some manual work to benchmark before and after mentions/downloads/perceptions and feedback from the people involved. When you’re innovating, it’s not just about the output – whether the process itself worked is a valuable learning too.

Think about the risks involved too and what you can do about them. What if it doesn’t work? (Fall back to the traditional way of doing it). What if we get overwhelmed with feedback? (Great problem to have! Anyway, in that unlikely event, there are people who can help) But it’s not accessible! (Do your best, and have good, accessible alternative content in place. If it takes off and you start using the approach regularly, you can make it more fully accessible in due course).

Bottom line: take a real world project, try doing it with a new tool or technique. See if it works better or worse than the normal way. Have answers to people who ask you about the risks involved.

3. Share it widely

On the face of it, this looks like the hardest part, in that projects that don’t work or seem risky are potential bad news stories that won’t do much for your credibility. Personally, I’ve hardly ever encountered resistance to talking about the things we’ve tried or negativity when I’ve done so, though to be honest I usually try to couch the less successful results in context of some positives too. Being human, I sometimes don’t bother writing – even though I should – about the most dismal failures. But without talking about your approach and its results, I’d argue you’re not really innovating – to do that, you have to provide something others can see, learn from and build on.

Blog and tweet about it. Take screenshots and present them as warts-and-all case studies at events. Volunteer to run seminars internally and externally to share your learnings. If you can, release what you’ve done in a form and with a licence others can re-use – especially if it’s code or a methodology. Sure, it takes time, but not only will others get something, you’ll benefit from the feedback and improvements people suggest.

Bottom line: make an effort to communicate what you did, how, and what you learned. Be frank and open, but above all, be shameless.

Steph works in digital communications in central government and blogs at

Photo credit: Eisenrah

5 thoughts on “How to be an everyday innovator”

  1. By the way it’s James Gardner’s “Little Innovation Book” not James Graham’s.

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