Innovation can herald important changes but the innovators tend to be free spirits whose radical ideas may face resistance, writes Peter Mason

A metaphor often used to describe the problems NHS managers have in dealing with people who don't quite fit in is 'herding cats'. The question is, can the NHS be corralled to deal with innovators and innovation?

Innovators are often seen as the 'loose cannons' on deck who should be hurled overboard. Innovations, or new things, change the existing order of custom and practice, are not generally trusted, and are often considered someone else's success. The effect is often to stifle innovation.

As PCGs, HAZs and HImPs, to mention a few of the latest acronyms, displace the old order and we all complain of 'initiativitis', the only constant thing in our lives is change.

What is innovation?

Innovation is not newness or novelty or change for change's sake; it can best be defined as an explicit test of a new or distinct approach that outperforms present practice. It generally comes from individuals rather than books, budgets, or committees, when they are enabled to practise innovative behaviour. It does not happen simply because an organisation removes perceived barriers to it.

While creativity is having a new idea, innovation is doing something with it. It is often based on a new combination or ordering of existing elements, rather than the creation of new elements themselves.

Innovation generally involves displacement from present practice. This new practice usually adds value by creating rather than consuming resources.

An innovation's real value may lie in its unintended results, so that they are often not well understood until complete. Almost all have unanticipated consequences, including adverse ones.

Luck plays a role; although innovators probably receive no greater share of luck than other people, they are simply more prepared to capitalise on it.

Innovation has some strong similarities to entrepreneurship: both are driven by opportunity, and animated by a person more than a plan. But innovations are often driven by an evident problem experienced by a client, customer, or consumer.

Who are the innovators?

Innovators see prospects and potential. They tend to focus on opportunities, not problems, because problems are ongoing and timeless; opportunities are immediate and time-bound.

They prefer feasibility tests to feasibility studies, as most wish to implement an idea on a small scale as part of the process. They prefer learning to evaluation.

They like to take personal responsibility for results, an intensive focus, have an abiding desire to improve things, and an optimistic bent. They generally have a strong need for independence. They tend not to want to be closely managed or to closely manage others, which may override their need for power or status. They take full advantage of change and fluidity. They are not at the forefront of those who press for clarity on procedure and structure, but know and use the value of 'fuzziness'.

How to manage it

Most innovators will accept boundaries and limits. As long as they support experimentation within those limits, a boundary is enabling, not constraining. An innovation need not succeed to be useful. Failure is an ideal, and even necessary, condition for learning.

Innovation brings to the organisation a capacity for change that will be needed sooner or later, as external shifts occur in the organisation's environment. Innovators are frequently irreverent, do not fit nicely into typical organisational roles, and can be irritants in organisations typically oriented toward avoiding the possibility of error and to rewarding predictability.

Many of the rules for managing employees in a public service context do not apply to innovators. Freedom and flexibility to innovate are among the few rewards that they value.

Innovation is one form of human resource development. It builds capacity for some. It allows others to better use the capacities they already have. The key support for innovators from their managers and champions is more often interpersonal rather than structural.

Managers who encourage innovation must embrace the idea of learning by doing.

The effects are often best understood through impact-assessment methodologies. Policy planning and other forecasting methods common to the public sector often ignore cross-impacts and second-order consequences.

How do you spread it?

In organisations and problem areas, the spread of an innovation is as rare as innovation itself. An increase in pilots, models, and demonstration projects has little effect on this reality.

Staff vary greatly in how they receive innovation. In general, the distribution curve starts with a few early adapters and moves through a large middle group to a final number of people who resist change.

Innovations are more often transferred from one place to another at the periphery than through communication to the core and then back out again. Successfully transmitted innovations are simple to grasp, although not to practise.

They are more often spread by personal message than by mass media. Hearing a person and reading their book on the innovation have quite different consequences.

Innovation does not come about through exhortations, or writing the word on every page of a project proposal. It comes about through people, who need to be given a chance.