Originally published via Horizon Business Innovation

The point in which the IT industry began to conflate the words innovation and entrepreneur bothers me as a CIO in the public sector. On a regular basis public sector technology picks up negative commentary on two fronts; firstly it is not innovative and agile enough and secondly that it is not managed well enough with good and clear governance that captures risky contractual issues and manages them appropriately.

The conflation of the two words though makes it even more difficult to achieve both of these key outcomes at the same time in the delivery of technology to national sized projects.

Why should it though?

Well if we are to believe that innovation can only be achieved by SMEs with an entrepreneur at the helm then the very nature of these two functions will make it very difficult for large public sector contracts to innovate. Public sector rules are designed to replace good, relationship based governance with a safety net that awards size and sue-ability of the organisation and despite many different attempts (for example G-Cloud in the UK) we have yet to see a framework in public sector that truly enables innovation rather than concentrating on the contractual framework that can be put in place.

As a public sector CIO for the last 10 years I am starting to form a theory though, maybe innovation is a state of mind rather than a contractually obliging function or something that can only be attained by having a cool hipster as the founder. Innovation from the CIO through the organisation requires a culture to be in place, not just the typical fail fast and learn lessons but a culture that allows the team to build a relationship with the supplier.

So many experienced delivery focused CIOs will say to keep suppliers at arm’s length, a single throat to choke and all the horrific imagery that goes with that. But what if we became collaborators, even friends, willing to put in all those extra miles for the shared good of an innovative outcome.

And what’s even more interesting is if we could do this then we would no longer be limiting ourselves to SMEs for innovation, you can build a relationship with the Oracle, Microsoft and IBMs just as easy as easily as you can with the bright young idea that just stepped into the office.

How? Well in my last two roles through using two key skills as a CIO that manifest themselves in one clear way. Mike Altendorf in the January issue of CIO UK lists the five things he learnt in 2015, and number five is communications. To see such an eminent thinker pull this out as a key skill in 2015 shows that at last our collective light is coming on.

The two key skills that I believe can be seen outwardly as communications that simply enable the innovation culture to brew are empathy and marketing. Perhaps marketing is a bit cold as a skill description but ultimately it is what it is, persuading the team, the organisation, the bright idea that just walked into your office that a collaboration should be reached is absolutely all about the marketing. You, your team and your organisation need to sell yourself to the idea as much as the idea needs to become your ‘supplier’. Then the empathy skill kicks in because this is where the new burgeoning relationship will build from.

For a public sector CIO to show empathy to a start-up organisation can sail close to either patronising or patriotism dependent on how far you go though. Someone shows you an idea, the germ of something you need, how much empathy do you show without over playing the card?. It is easy to grab the idea and try to support it through the whole system, becoming the champion but you then need to be careful not to have opened up a can of worms around a challenge for over enthusiasm for one supplier.

What is great though is all this applies regardless of who the organisation is. In 2015 we have had great ideas pitched to us from the biggest of organisations through to an idea from a one man organisation, all of which will in 2016 build that digital fabric for our large public sector organisation and all are seen by our customer base as innovative and yet simple. Maybe this is another key performance indicator that needs to be taken on board, customer or partner perceptions of innovation, they are not always the cutting (bleeding) edge of technology, innovation can often be the best re-sue of a current technology into a new setting, and these communications skills and in particular the ability to see and understand a customers perspective spring to mind so clearly here.

More and more often in my public sector area, health, we need to build a physical presence for this kind of engagement to be the most successful. An Innovation Centre where through a location where the culture described above will be encouraged and even taught to suppliers. Technology and business leaders from across health can come together as easily as possible to share in the building of solutions, no matter the size or age of the organisations working together.

There is a risk with all of this innovation styles hitting public sector though that if it is not joined up properly then there can be innovation lethargy. If you consider health alone in the UK and Ireland we have a plethora of tech funds, innovation hubs, accelerator programmes and commercial initiatives. So, now the CIO role is also to navigate the partnership they have created through this quagmire of opportunity.

In the process of creating this blog I feel I have persuaded myself maybe the conflated words were wrong, and we had in fact substituted entrepreneur for leader, if we put that ‘e’ word back in its box where it belongs and replace it with innovative leader then maybe we have the right solution.