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The Innovators Series: Why Collaboration is Key for Innovation


The Innovators Series

Why collaboration for innovation works and is key to success – Nic Tan, Manager of Innovation Capability at NSW Department of Primary Industries

To spotlight Public Sector Innovation Month Anna Chatburn, Marketing Director at The Strategy Group chatted to Nic Tan, Manager of Innovation Capability at NSW Department of Primary Industries, about his experience of collaboration for innovation in government, and how collaboration is one of the key components to enable innovation.

What is your biggest interest around innovation currently?

I’m interested in the type of innovation that comes from collaboration. The random meeting of minds – being earnestly challenged, having someone build up your thinking or tear it down, and the inspiration you get from others’ experiences. It’s not particularly flashy, sexy or what everyone thinks about when they think innovation but to me it’s what I find really interesting.

When you strip away all the workplace policies, bureaucracy, authority and pay you get to what really drives and motivates people to collaborate. There are lots of opportunities to collaborate in government generally. An aspiration is to break down subject matter barriers between problem solvers. More conversations with people you don’t already know in different locations working in different areas.

You do need a minimum level of process or admin to get people to work together – a group I work with outside of government talk a lot about MVA (minimum viable admin!) to enable collaboration. We’re essentially volunteers (at The Mad Cow Project) and so we’ve got very limited time together. It’s a throwback to that saying ‘necessity is the mother of innovation’.

Different people need different levels of certainty, whether this is a vision, a plan, or an individual’s role. There is a need for a vision to be well articulated – people have to get excited to want to be together. Similarly the plan or role. I’m talking here about clarity rather than detail. At the heart of clarity, it’s needing to understand the people you’re working with quite well. But how do you scale that? In a big company you can’t know everyone. So that’s an area to explore.

That might be related to why startups are often so successful in innovation, because they tend to have small teams with clear goals who know each other well, with minimal admin.

Yeah that’s right, I think there’s definitely something in it.


“There is a need for a vision to be well articulated – people have to get excited to want to be together. .”

   Nic Tan, Manager of Innovation Capability, NSW Department of Primary IndustriesAnna:
What’s changing in your department in terms of innovation and collaboration?

Well the starting point is that there’s more acknowledgement of it – the link between innovation and collaboration. We’ve recently gone through a discovery process to understand how staff relate to innovation and collaboration. And there’s now a broader acknowledgement that we could do better in that area and that if we did there’s a lot of latent potential.

We have teams all across the state dealing with different issues in compliance, policy, research and service delivery that deal with similar issues but aren’t always sharing learnings. This doesn’t come from not wanting to share or not getting on, but I think comes from humbleness and a high workload.

The less obvious connections of where there might be crossover are where we could get more value in the department. The acknowledgement is there now and we’re going to have a conversation with the executive about a few initiatives that have come up through the discovery process soon so fingers crossed..Anna:
Do you have any examples of cases where teams have been working separately on similar things and then realised they could have been collaborating?

There are lots of examples out there. We work across so many areas where there is overlap – agriculture, biosecurity, fisheries, forestry, hunting etcetera. We have teams focussing on technical issues such as drones, and they’ll find an application for that particular technology. Drones can be used for compliance reasons, information gathering, dropping seeds to plant, crop and stock monitoring, checking fences with them. Moving from understanding what a drone could be used for from an initial specific use-case (dropping seeds), lets us move out to see the bigger potential use-case (aerial deployment). In this case it was an agricultural use-case, but it could be applied to deploying things from an aerial perspective for other industries and situations. For example, drones are used to drop floating life saving devices to rescue people at sea. 

“We have teams all across the state dealing with different issues in compliance, policy, research and service delivery that deal with similar issues but aren’t always sharing learnings. .”

How are government offices changing to encourage collaboration and flexible work?

In DPI it’s pretty good – we have meeting rooms with big video conferencing screens, desk phones with cameras to have more in-depth conversations as well as Workplace, which is Facebook at work. There’s always a budget element to these things, but there’s a strong impetus to adopt remote technology as we’re quite geographically spread.

We have pretty reliable conferencing facilities on everyone’s computer – virtual rooms and Google hangouts come with all laptops so if you can’t find a meeting room you can use those. Previously you’d have issues if people are on different systems, needing to download software, but it doesn’t seem to be as much of an issue anymore. It allows you to participate in meetings while you’re on the road. It’s a real time saver if you’re travelling somewhere remote or away for a while, it avoids delaying meetings.

Workplace has really allowed staff to connect across different offices, to build relationships that would not otherwise have formed. Not everyone uses it but it’s important to acknowledge lots of people do and it’s another way for us to connect – a really visual and powerful way. Unsurprisingly the most popular things are the executive video updates but also the groups that aren’t necessarily work related but still important to our work culture. For example, there’s a group called Eat, Stay and Good Coffee that people use to share with others that travel around the state.

How did you collaborate during Project Hive? (Project Hive was an innovative policy project where DPI and The Strategy Group used Design Thinking to develop citizen-centric policies for beekeepers)

That was actually the ideal situation for collaboration. We had executive endorsement to clear the path. We had someone to show the way to give us confidence in the methodology. And we collaborated with another Government Department (Office of the NSW Small Business Commissioner) It all came together really well. There was high motivation and energy due to the newness. It was an interesting project. There were no barriers between departments or organisations and a flat structure in terms of seniority. The project team were very lucky to have Emma (Emma Marshall, Senior Policy Officer, NSW Department of Primary Industries) as the project lead, who really integrated what was done into existing processes. I could talk about the tools we used to collaborate but as you probably picked up I place more emphasis on the culture and behaviours of those in the team. Tools certainly help. You can have all the tech and still have poor collaboration. But if you have the right attitudes then you’ll get the collaboration regardless of the tools.Nic is a member of Sydney Corporate Innovator’s Network, powered by The Strategy Group. The group meet every two months in Sydney to discuss executive-level issues relating to strategy in large organisations. Members come from both corporate and government backgrounds. If you are interested in joining Sydney Corporate Innovator’s Network please contact us to enquire and introduce yourself. 

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