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Column: Leadership and the Real-World Risks of Innovation

The terms transformation and innovation are imbued with a sense of solving old intractable problems and modernizing old, tired processes to produce better outcomes through better and smarter means -- and that's a tall order.

by / March 28, 2013

Innovation. Good. Machiavellian. Bad. Niccolò Machiavelli is both revered and reviled for The Prince, his posthumously published treatise on practical politics. Even given his infamous reputation, the 16th-century Italian political theorist got the core challenge of innovation exactly right:

“There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things. For the reformer has enemies in all those who profit by the old order, and only lukewarm defenders in all those who would profit by the new order, this lukewarmness arising partly from fear of their adversaries … and partly from the incredulity of mankind, who do not truly believe in anything new until they have had actual experience of it.”

The quote contains at least eight reasons not to accept the role of reformer — or change agent — or innovator. Yet people do, often enthusiastically. This magazine is named for a group of such people that began to come into its own in the late 1990s — chief information officers in public service — and who, coincidentally enough, share initials with a new cadre of chief innovation officers, who also have been charged with leading a change in the order of things. For the former group, the watchword was transformation. For the latter, it is innovation.

The two terms — transformation and innovation — are imbued with a sense of solving old intractable problems and modernizing old, tired processes to produce better outcomes through better and smarter means. It’s a tall order. Clayton Christensen, whose seminal 1997 book, The Innovator’s Dilemma, details the reasons why disruptive innovation is incredibly hard. For his part, Scott Berkun explodes The Myths of Innovation (2007) by documenting the many times things have gone terribly wrong in the name of innovation — along with extracting the lessons from the successful translation of a good idea into a real innovation.

A third book out just this year, Innovation Economics: The Race for Global Advantage, completes a trilogy on innovation by underscoring how high the stakes are and where our relative strengths and weaknesses are. Rob Atkinson, who wrote the book with Stephen Ezell, is president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, an independent, nonpartisan think tank in Washington, D.C.

Atkinson’s roots are in state government, and he’s still a keen observer of the challenges and opportunities for states and localities in securing a place in the innovation economy. He credits them with having a street-level understanding of the need to grow and be more competitive, an innate sense that’s been bolstered over the years by an increasingly sophisticated ability to analyze where they are on the global competitive landscape.

We talked recently about the themes of his new book and the appointment of chief innovation officers. “Fundamentally I don’t think it means as much as people think it means,” said Atkinson. “When they say innovation, they don’t mean systemic innovation.”  

To confront the systemic challenges, Atkinson thinks both varieties of CIOs should have a more expansive span of control over enterprise operations and management. Concentration of power comes with its own risks, but the level of authority must be proportionate to the magnitude of the challenges, including taking on entrenched interests and bureaucratic thinking.

Atkinson has a short list of systemic innovations that matter: Focus state and local incentives and investment on building a platform for competitive growth — worker training, new equipment, and R&D in science and technology to the exclusion of almost all others; bite the bullet and raise revenue to pay for public investments; and coalesce around a single state and local voice to lobby the federal government for a true national growth and innovation agenda.

And innovation still inspires big dreams. “I would love to find one county that says, ‘You know, we’re going to blow everything up. We’re going to start over. We’re going to do bold, radical things,’” said Atkinson. “Let’s see what happens if you free an agency from the accretion of lame rules. I’m waiting for somebody to go all in on that.”

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

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Paul W. Taylor Chief Content Officer, e.Republic Inc.

Paul W. Taylor, Ph.D., is the chief content officer of Government Technology and its parent organization, e.Republic. Prior to joining e.Republic, Taylor served as deputy Washington state CIO. Dr. Taylor came to public service following decades of work in media, Internet startups and academia. He is also among a number of affiliated experts with the nonprofit, non-partisan Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) in Washington, D.C. He is creator, producer and co-host of the GovTech360 podcast.

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