Innovation and the merits of the moan

What is innovation and where does it come from? Necessity is the mother of our invention, so the saying goes. It’s an old saying which many attribute to Plato, since it was printed in the 1894 translation of his Republic. 

Innovation is about finding new ways of doing things, or doing things in a new way. Drucker (2013) talks about innovation as the means by which the entrepreneur creates, or finds enhanced potential. Henderson and Clark (1990) discuss radical (new) and incremental (refining and extending) forms of innovation.

We should mention, without getting bogged down, that there are subtle differences between innovation and adaptability. Generally, adaptability is about improvement and change of something that already exists. Henry Ford did not invent the motor car – but he saw a way of manufacturing it at a rate that represented a huge adaptive development. Grothe (2009), in a military context, discusses innovation being more about seizing the initiative via creative thinking, whilst adaptability is more about reacting to the enemy. What both words share in common though is in being progressive, so if the words we use to label things bother you go with that one. The last thing we need is to hinder progress by getting caught up in semantics!

Exnovative risk

Now we’ve got that over with, let’s get down to business! Policing is an inherently un-innovative environment. Why is that? Seddon (2005) points to the limiting hierarchy of a command and control culture and the extent that this can permeate not just systems but even cultural mindsets. Coyle (2019) points out that large and permissions-ridden cultures are at a distinct disadvantage to agile and nimble alternative cultures.

Bowling, Reiner and Sheptycki (2019) chart the high profile media and legal pressures upon policing and the College of Policing’s Authorised Professional Practice (2020) notes that:-

“making rational, effective and defensible decisions can be difficult, especially in the complex environment of policing, which is characterised by uncertainty, multiple views of a particular problem and numerous possible intervention points and solutions.

Characteristics such as these turn most policing decisions into risks. Police decision makers can, therefore, be more accurately described as professional risk takers, with risk taking being at the core of police professionalism.

Although the majority of risk decisions that police personnel make are successful, terms such as ‘risk’ and ‘risk taking’ have negative connotations. The media and public tend to focus on decisions that result in poor outcomes and this has led the to police service becoming risk averse with some officers and staff afraid to make decisions in case things go wrong.”

So perhaps unsurprisingly, policing tends to be pretty much exnovative – it prefers tried and tested ways and sticking with them; life is less risky and safer that way. Right? Only if the rest of the world is standing still too – which it never was and never will be. So exnovative is being proudly unprogressive, but means you slowly (or sometimes quickly) can be losing your touch, losing credibility, losing the market, losing relevance.

The reason is exnovativeness runs contrary to the natural laws of evolution. There aren’t many prizes nowadays for being the best dinosaur are there?

Is there a choice?

Nothing here sets out to be just critical of policing, but more seeks to point out the potential benefits of being more creative, progressive and innovative and maybe strike a better balance. There is a choice, and it can mean evolution rather than revolution.

But first we need to spell out what the difference is. Many folk embedded in a culture can’t see it – it’s like going ‘nose blind’. Coyle (2019), Edmonson (2019) and Ridley (2020) talk about the importance of a culture of agility and safety – essentially freedom. That means a freedom to dream, imagine, experiment – building on Plato, Ridley calls “innovation the child of freedom” (2020:359). The required cultural organic flexibility means that, despite the police’s love of systems, having a mandatory ‘creative hour’ between 2pm and 3pm every Wednesday, and of course a form to fill in, probably will not work.

Innovation is not a system, it is a mindset

Just appointing a senior officer ‘in charge of  innovation’ might not be the way forward. If policing has a command and control, hierarchical culture can you see the tension in being creative? You are more likely to find policing activity looking like the managing of project implementation – an important function of course – but that’s not innovation.

Having an idea drop-box also does not really get to the tipping point of enabling a creative mindset culture either.

When Coyle (2019)  talks about the on-line marketing development race in 2002 between the multi-billion corporation Overture and the (then) tiny by comparison Google, he summarises that Overture was handicapped by bureaucracy whilst Google was ‘safer’. In hindsight, paralysed might be a better description than handicap. The fact you’ve probably used Google a dozen times already today but that you’ve never even heard of Overture (and that they don’t exist any more) is the proof of the pudding here.

That notion of ‘being safer’ means – and let’s not mess this up by trying to over think this – people were able to think and speak their minds. That simple? Yes. Without cynicism, blame, ridicule and the ne’er sayers choir. The culture was open-minded. Maybe policing should get a policy and process to mandate ‘open-mindness’? (Please don’t – I was being ironic.)

It’s too complex to do

That’s just not good enough as an excuse because it’s just untrue. An innovative mindset is simple, but requires an organisation to have the courage to become more vulnerable with itself: to set thinking free. Consider those definitions of innovation, and how similar (but not exactly the same) the word is to invention.

Think about where inventions come from, and why. We had telephones and they worked fine, but we wanted to be able to make a call from anywhere so we found a way to make mobile phones. Some folk now text each other because they can’t be bothered to go and speak, sometimes to someone in the same room!

Think about the invention of the reclining chair, the escalator (rather rather the stairs) the T.V. remote control. What’s the difference between calling this efficiency or laziness?

Did you know Agatha Christie commented “I don’t think necessity is the mother of invention. Invention, in my opinion, arises directly from idleness, possibly also from laziness – to save oneself trouble.” Mark Zuckerberg tells of developing the Facebook concept from crowd sourcing his homework to fellow students. Bill Gates said, “I will always choose a lazy person to do a difficult job, because he or she will find an easy way to do it.” Benjamin Franklin once said that he was “the laziest man in the world. I invented all those things to save myself from toil.”

You can end up with easier, more convenient and sometimes brilliant ways of doing things. Case (2016) makes the case for ‘self-disruption’, as a way of constantly re-inventing what you do but better, as a much preferable and sustainable alternative to just carry on doing what you did yesterday and the day before.

Our people are not innovative, they just moan

Let’s just explore that. before the brilliant invention suddenly appeared, what do you think happened first? Somebody somewhere noticed the trudge and the effort and thought (moaned) ‘why are we doing this, this way, and isn’t there another way of doing this?’ in that sense we give moaning a bad name, because it’s actually being really smart.

The inventors who made the staggering changes did it overnight? No, pretty much never. Worse that that, many inventors went bust along the way, and experienced a lonely place of ridicule quite often. When the big, and often incremental,  breakthrough came, suddenly they got a lot of friends, but in the midst of thinking differently were often ostracised and told to go away.

So one of the trends about successful inventors is persistence. Maybe we haven’t all got it in us to be as ruggedly persistent as Alexander Graham Bell was in patenting the telephone, but many of us have ideas. What happens to those ideas? Well, if they are perceived as a ‘moan’, they get rejected and kicked back pretty quick and guess what? Ideas stop coming along (or being talked about openly).

That’s ideal for the exnovative organisation because that has all the fancy ideas it needs thanks very much, and is quite happy to run in compliance mode. But think of the wasted potential, the demoralised workforce who can point out the pain points of the job in an instant and can show you the things that get in the way of the job like no far removed executive could ever do. There lies the gold of innovation. Challenge comes before change in innovation, remember. What’s needed here is more nurturing and less resistance to ideas – and that includes what are called ‘moans’.

 “A moan in an innovation opportunity in disguise”

Policing professionals operate in a hugely complex world, and need to operate with substantial levels of self-autonomy as part of their situational judgement making. In short, they know a lot about the job they do, its highs and lows, and often have valuable insights – so they really should be listened to. The merit of the moan just asks policing to listen to itself more in a non-judgmental fashion and have an open mind. That would not cost a penny, but could save a fortune.

At Loughborough University we are interested in policing innovation and enterprise. So, we’re seeking policing’s top moans, because we want to examine these as the potential seeds of progress. We want to explore if  we can help ‘unblock the plumbing’ by trying to harness creative solutions to help fix the things that are preventing policing from being as great as it really could be.

John Coxhead is Visiting Professor of Policing Innovation and Enterprise at Loughborough University and founder of the UK national Innovation in Policing competition. If you are interested in our ‘survey of the moan’ contact