How do you get the best ideas?

OPSI Archive Posts, Innovation lifecycle

Written by Alex Roberts, Innovation Specialist @ OECD Observatory of Public Sector Innovation.
This post was originally posted on our previous blog, links and content may not display correctly.

When you have a problem that needs solving, where do you get your ideas? How do you know what makes for a good idea, as opposed to an ordinary or bad one? Is there a difference in the ideas that you need for different types of problems? These are some of the questions we’re looking at in our second study of the ‘innovation lifecycle’.

In our first study we looked at how public sector organisations identify and learn about the problems they have that require a novel response. We hope that the guidance we have developed in that report will be helpful for working out where innovation is needed.

Once you know that an innovative response is needed, you need ideas about what that response might be. So in this second study we are looking at how public sector organisations source the ideas for innovative responses to the problems.

To do so, we want to learn from those that have tried different approaches for sourcing and generating innovative ideas. We want to know what works and what advice we should give to others. If you have any suggestions, or direct experience, we’d love to hear from you. As you’ll see, I have some examples already, but not many from outside of my home of Australia – I’m very keen to learn about what has happened in other countries!

What does generating ideas involve?

What is involved in generating new ideas?

In some ways it can be straightforward. If you have a good understanding of the problem you are dealing with, it can sometimes be easy to come up with lots of ideas and identify those that are most promising.

At other times, having lots of ideas, even very popular ones, may not be all that’s needed or wanted. The story of Boaty McBoatface shows that asking for, and receiving ideas, is not the same as getting what you might want or need. So we can suggest that different methods and processes may be more appropriate for certain issues and problems than others.

The way the idea is generated may also shape the level of engagement and support for the idea. The process may be as important as the idea itself, as it will shape whether the idea is seen as legitimate, as appropriate, and as something that should be supported.

Having or getting the right types of ideas in the right ways is just one component. You also need to be able to filter the ideas – which are relevant to your particular circumstances? Which are those that fit your criteria (and what are those criteria)?

There may also be other considerations. Sometimes having the right idea too early or too late is the same as it being the wrong idea. Or it may be even worse than that – trying an idea too early may put people off the idea, and lead them to be resistant to it at a later time when it would have been better suited.

There’s also the question of testing and validating ideas. How do you know an idea is all it seems? Does the idea stand up to scrutiny? Does it look like the idea will work as intended? Even if it does, there may still need to be some evolution, some adaption of the idea to make it fit to the particular context.

And then there is the matter of choosing which idea(s) to proceed with. A good process may have led to many promising ideas that fit the need. How do you pick the best ones?

In short, generating ideas may be easy, but working out which are the really good ideas is unlikely to be straightforward.

What is currently being used?

How are government agencies currently generating or sourcing innovative ideas?

One common mechanism used is crowdsourcing. Examples range from the consultative, such as India’s myGov and the Canadian Government crowdsourcing ideas for its Innovation Agenda; to those around specific challenges and issues, such as the collaboration between US Aid and the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade on Launch: Food, the innovation challenges from US Government agencies on

There are also examples of using third party platforms to connect governments with communities (e.g. OurSay) or government agencies with experts (e.g. MindHive) or with specific types of problem solvers (e.g. Kaggle).

Then there are examples of governments working with different groups to generate ideas in more active ways. For instance there has been a ‘Workhack’ by the Australian Public Service Commission to come up with innovative solutions to six enduring workforce management problems. There was also a ‘PolicyHack’ event run in Australia for ‘ideas for policies that could grow innovative, globally competitive industries’ and that fed into the development of the Australian Government’s National Innovation and Science Agenda. There is also the annual ‘GovHack’ event in Australia, run by independent organisers but in collaboration with government agencies, which is more of an ‘opportunity driven’ approach. There teams come together for a weekend to come up with new ways of interacting with and using government datasets.

There are more involved and deliberative processes as well, such as citizens’ juries. For instance VicHealth used a citizens’ jury to look at options around the problem of obesity: “We have an obesity problem. How can we make it easier to eat better?”

There are also many examples of processes for generating the ideas within public sector organisations. For instance the US General Services Administration and the Australian Government Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade have both used events where staff can pitch their ideas. Such events may draw on formal ideas management systems or be done separately. Others may have ongoing systems for collecting and considering ideas from staff (see for instance the German Agency for Land Surveys and Geo-Data).

There are also innovation and policy labs that are increasingly being used to generate and validate ideas through design-led innovation, experimentation or other methods.

Another option that can be explored is through ‘reverse engineering’, looking at what worked in other successful innovations and how it might relate to the situation at hand. This can be about falling in love with the solution, with existing things that work, and seeing how they can be used elsewhere.

Governments might also use platforms to engage the community to validate and select ideas, such as in South Australia with yourSAy, or to both nominate and select ideas, such as with participatory budgeting.

Governments can also run targeted programs to find (and sometimes fund) new ideas. In Australia, a Business Research and Innovation Initiative has been introduced, asking businesses to propose ideas that meet specific government policy and service delivery challenges in return for the chance of government funding to test the ideas. This is different to traditional procurement processes, as the need may be clear, but the product or service to be bought is unclear.

And sometimes the ideas will be developed outside of government or the public sector. For instance, My Big Idea was a nationwide competition for generating and selecting ideas for ways to improve Australia. Such processes might not directly involve government, but can provide a rich source of ideas and intelligence.

For each of these mechanisms there will also be questions of how participation might be encouraged or supported, ranging from outreach (“we want to hear from you”) to incentives (such as prizes or the opportunity and resources to develop the idea – e.g. Bloomberg Philanthropies Mayors Challenge).

There are surely many more examples out there, so if you know of any (especially from countries other than Australia) then I would love to hear about them.

What is known about generating ideas already?

There’s also some existing guidance about how to use some of these different mechanisms. For instance there is advice about:

I am sure there is other relevant guidance and thinking about how governments can or should generate ideas, and if you know of any, we’d be grateful if you could share them with us.

Share what you know

I would love to hear from you about other examples from around the world (as noted, particularly from places other than my homeland of Australia) and other existing resources that provide guidance about getting and picking the best ideas. If you have some that you would like to share, please email us or add your thoughts on our LinkedIn Group.

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