What do we mean when we talk about innovation?

In the first year of the Innovate Project we are conducting a research review of what’s currently known about innovation in children’s social care – what exists, who’s involved, how it works and what it looks like when it’s going well (or not). This relies on agreeing a workable definition of what innovation is, which is a much more complicated – and interesting – question than it first appears. Is innovation one thing, or a set of overlapping processes and concepts under a common umbrella? Does it best refer to processes (‘doing innovation’) or the resulting model (‘an innovation’)? How much does it change according to context? Is innovation comparable between different sectors? Where are the lines drawn between innovation, transformation and improvement? To what extent is innovation in public services different from other kinds? And is innovation in social care a subset of that, or a distinct category?

In its most basic definition, innovation is the process of developing, embedding, testing and scaling different ways of doing things. This might mean creating something entirely new or taking a promising model or practice from elsewhere and adapting it to a local context or need. Innovation doesn’t have to be value-driven (it isn’t inherently a force for good or ill); on paper, it is a set of topic-agnostic methods for making change happen. Social innovation, including in the public sector, has the additional aims of having both a positive impact on individuals and improving the societal structures that lead to better outcomes for all.

But as a fully working concept in the real world, with all the implications and nuances that entails, it is trickier to pin innovation down so neatly. For a concept whose history is so rooted in quite prosaic economic and scientific processes, for those working in children’s social care ‘innovation’ can elicit strong positive and negative emotions – often both at the same time.

Innovation can mean opportunity, possibility, creativity, a leap of faith into the world we want, the ability to grow green shoots of change in difficult circumstances. From a social innovation perspective it implies human-centred design, collaboration, co-production and finding better ways to deliver support to those most in need.

But innovation can also imply (and cause) painful disruption, destruction of tried-and-tested structures, a needless rocking of the boat on already stormy seas. There are good reasons why the public sector is wary of innovation as a tool for radical top-down reform, with its connotations of cost-cutting, outsourcing and ‘squeezing assets’. In the context of children’s social care, the ‘managed risk-taking’ that forms a key part of the innovation process necessarily carries more weight and complexity than in other sectors.

This looseness or flexibility of the term poses methodological challenges when attempting to map the ecosystem of innovation in children’s social care. Comparisons are not straightforward – one person’s innovation is another person’s everyday practice, and vice versa. Much of what is billed as innovation could perhaps better be described as (crucially important) improvement work. And many of those working in children’s services would not describe themselves as innovators, even though they are constantly creating and iterating new and better ways of working, including taking models and practice from elsewhere and adapting them to the needs of local young people and families.

If we know anything about children’s social care, and social work more broadly, it’s that flexibility in all things is crucial. What matters is that innovation as a concept, model or set of processes is helpful – that it opens up conversations about what’s possible; galvanises people towards a common cause; helps to structure a process to get there. Clear boundaries around what is and isn’t ‘true’ innovation might help make our research task easier, but too strict a definition means we would fail to capture the inherently messy and organic nature of how innovation plays out in the real world.

At its heart, innovation in social care is not about formulaic process but about people – the interactions between them, the practice they use to support each other, how teams learn and adapt, and the ways in which organisational cultures grow and change. The best innovation tries to provide structures and language to support these complex, multifaceted and very human ways of working, without constraining them into defined boxes.

So where does this leave our research? Well, we’re trying to follow the best practices of good innovation and stick to the principle of what’s helpful. Where definitions and models help to clarify and explain, we’ll use them. But we are resisting the impulse to categorise and reduce the messiness and complexity too much, at the risk of modelling out what makes these processes valuable and human. We want to describe what’s happening in a way that brings to the surface the full picture of innovation in children’s social care, with all the difficulties and contradictions and triumphs it involves. A grand unifying theory of innovation is a worthy goal, but sometimes the best innovation is no innovation at all.