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Innovate by learning new dance moves on a safe dance floor

I am noticing higher levels of interest for innovation in the Belgian public sector. At the same time, I observe organisations often confuse the disciplines of change management and innovation management and, as a consequence, whether to include all or only some employees and managers in innovation trajectories. All too often change management and innovation management are thrown into one basket:

Innovation and change management are two distinct and important concepts within business management. Innovation is the process of introducing new ideas, processes and products, to improve the efficiency and effectiveness. This can include creating new strategies, technologies, or products. Change management is the process of managing and implementing organisational change, such as introducing a new system or process. It encompasses the planning, communication and execution of the change.

Innovating by learning new dance moves, not by trying to improve old routines

To make innovation trajectories successful, one must start by being open to new solutions and willing to challenge the status quo. Wanting to hear the feedback of citizens and companies served by the public sector is mandatory. Having a growth mindset is a prerequisite to getting started with innovation. We will not innovate by mastering the same dance only better. To succeed, new and fresh approaches are required. Colleagues who are not up for a new dance, who do not have the appetite to formulate real and clear challenges, and who are not immediately keen on new solutions are better off staying in the changing rooms. And that’s OK, arguably too many people on the dancefloor make it too crowded and messy to try out new moves and routines.

At NIDO, we start with a (small) coalition of the willing; a group of individuals composed of complementary skills and with an eagerness to shake things up! Genuine enthusiasm to delve into radically different solutions is a prerequisite, as is an environment conductive to learning.

Innovation requires a safe dancefloor

Einstein said: “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”. That is why innovation processes work best when they take place outside our usual structures and existing hierarchies. Innovation is best facilitated by a diverse but temporary set of experts, playing a role outside of their day-to-day duties. Their skill is to be able to adapt to the needs of the innovation process in question.

An innovation process can easily be understood with the triple diamond.

In the first diamond, we need a brave manager and a team, capable and willing to pinpoint the core challenge. It takes courage to be open to articulate real needs or problems and to implicate end user feedback. In the second diamond we need to create a safe space for new ideas and solutions.

Challenging the status quo and creating new ideas are often perceived as dangerous. Real innovators have the potential to disrupt a current situation, a culture and space we actively encourage at NIDO. As a lab, we deliberately commit to challenging the status quo, aiming at nothing less than pioneering shifts in approach and solutions.

Embarking on a challenge is an act of embracing vulnerability as a forward-thinking government. It signifies the acknowledgment that not all answers are known. This openness is highly valued by innovative companies eager to collaborate in addressing the complex problems faced by the government

Although it is to the benefit of citizens, not all managers and employees like this. This is another reason to consider the conditions to create a safe dancefloor and to carefully craft the invitee list at this stage. Avoid people who are stuck at the bar, commenting on what’s going on, on the dancefloor. This is not comfortable for those trying new dance routines. Also, exploring new dance steps does not mean that all dances performed so far were worthless. It just means that that the rhythm is changing. While it is important to communicate about the challenge and the milestones in any innovation process, it is important not to get too hung up on the feasibility or precise content of solutions at the beginning. This can be focused on at a later stage once colleagues are more open to test new solutions. Innovation is an iterative process.

Change management is the implementation of a well-choreographed dance involving the whole organisation

Finding and testing innovative solutions for a well formulated challenge make it essential to measure the results and impact of an innovative solution. By collecting this data, one will develop a business case that, in turn, allows to argue in favor of new solutions. The business case is the source that decides the implementation of a solution.

According to the OECD definition innovation is “new, has added value and is implemented”. Implementation means introducing the component of or adding a new routine across the whole organisation. This is where planning, co-ordination and change is needed. Change management guides change to success.


Innovation relies on challenging the status quo and generating new ideas, while change management is focused on the execution and implementation of those ideas. Innovation and change management are both essential elements in order to stay relevant. While each process has its own set of challenges, both innovation and change management are necessary to ensure success and competitiveness.

Involving the whole organisation is an honorable but inefficient and even risky approach that can have a negative impact on the speed of innovation processes. “You can go faster alone, but further together” is a truism. It is often advisable for a small team to go first on an expedition to a safe space and explore new opportunities, while the others look after the (equally important) day-to-day business. In the end change management will help the whole organisation to free ourselves from old routines and acquire new dance moves – that work (significantly better).