Innovation is not about turning everything on its head

Innovation: There is much to gain if public leaders manage to establish the right conditions for innovation in an everyday context. The key factors include knowledge of operations, knowledge generation and inclusion.


offentlig innovation artikel

We hear it often: if Denmark is to succeed in the future, we have to be innovative. However, while many believe this mantra to be primarily concerned with private companies, we are currently witnessing a growing focus on innovation in the public sector, where many changes are taking place, but where the conditions for innovation are different. 

In the private sector, we often see a separation of development and operations, whereas innovation in the public sector, to a much higher degree, is the result of collaborations between citizens, professionals and management in terms of handling and finding new solutions for everyday problems. Which is why public leaders who want to implement innovative improvements should engage in operations and find ways to cleverly balance changes and stability. This is the message communicated in a new anthology that provides various research-based perspectives on how to lead innovation as well as practical tools for leaders.

The book is entitled ‘Ledelse af offentlig innovation’ and it disseminate the findings of nineteen researchers and innovation experts. Behind the anthology are Anne Reff Pedersen, Professor (with Special Responsibilities) at Copenhagen Business School and Ph.D. and Management Consultant, Ditte Thøgersen.

For some years, Anne Reff Pedersen has conducted research on innovation in public organisations, and she defines innovation as intended change, which develops, implements and spreads new creative ideas that generate qualitative changes within a given context.

In one of her research projects, she studied the relationship between the level of importance leaders afford innovation and the amount of time they use on innovation, and she found a discrepancy.

“Many say yes, innovation is important, but at the same time, they say that they don’t spend much time on innovation. Perhaps because it can prove difficult, and it’s my hope that with this book, we’ll be able to better prepare some of the leaders,” she explains, and then emphasises that the best leader of innovative processes is not necessarily a great innovator in their own right, but rather someone who knows how to allow other people’s innovative skills to thrive and how to bring the right people together.

And this is something specifically public organisations need, the researcher explains.

“If we’re going to solve the great challenges we will be facing in the future, while still maintaining a welfare system like the one we know, we need continuous solutions, new collaborations, professional development and daring experiments,” she explains, and then continues:

“Each day, public leaders make many decisions that shape how the public sector works and what citizens meet. Regardless of whether you’re a head of department, a chief executive, a head nurse or a school principal, you play an undeniable part in the development of the public sector. Which is why it is important that you have the tools and methods to mobilise, guide and engage your employees and other participants in the development and implementation of innovative solutions,” says Anne Reff Pedersen. 

A high level of knowledge creates a great point of departure for innovation

So, how do we do it? How do we implement successful changes in the public sector, where democratic decision-making and the bureaucratic organisational structure are basic conditions?

First of all, innovation is not incompatible with bureaucracy, states Anne Reff Pedersen:

“In fact, we see a lot of innovation in the public sector in Denmark, and several studies show that private and public organisations are equally innovative. The difference being that innovation in the public sector usually has different premises and reasons compared to innovation in the private sector. Public innovation is more often driven by political decisions as well as external and internal collaborations rather than a competitive market.”

She points to the fact that one of the main reasons why the public sector in Denmark is so innovative is due to the high level of knowledge as a result of highly educated employees.

“Denmark has some very well-educated and highly skilled public leaders and employees with a great deal of personal engagement and professional ambition,” she explains.

Not necessary to turn everything on its head

Therefore, it is perhaps less a question of whether there is room for innovation in public organisations, but rather a question of how to understand and handle innovation.

“In the public sector, many innovative processes take their point of departure in everyday challenges and resources. So, innovation does not have to be about ‘turning everything on its head’. In fact, this approach can generate a lack of well-being and increased stress. With this book, we’re trying to open up various approaches to innovation that public leaders can use, and a great deal of these approaches look different to those pursued in a private company,” elaborates Anne Reff Pedersen. She believes that innovation is subject to many prejudices:

“There is this predominant belief that innovation means sitting under a tree, thinking radical thoughts about how to change everything. But innovation is much broader than that, and it might just as well be a question of leaders or employees succeeding in putting citizens into play in a new way. Which is why it is important that public leaders remain close to operations in order to understand the processes and how they can best be adapted and improved.”

And it is exactly this approach to innovation, where there is no dividing line between development and operations and where it is a question of balancing change and stability, that places specific demands on leaders.

“First and foremost, public leaders must create a framework for innovative processes. They also have an important part to play in terms of translating and making sense of plans implemented from above to their employees. What is the purpose of a given innovative measure, and what part is the employee expected to play? Public leadership is also very much about motivating employees to think and work innovatively. Innovation requires support from employees and it is dependent on the generation of time, space and energy,” elaborates Anne Reff Pedersen, who has four simple pieces of advice for leaders who wish to innovate their everyday:

  • Create a common understanding of the problems that need solving
  • Engage in the operations of your organisation
  • Provide others with the opportunity and courage to think new thoughts
  • Allow employees to unfold their ideas in collaboration with users


Join us for an exciting after-work meeting during The Leadership Week, where you can meet the people who have contributed to the book and discuss how to manage innovation in the public sector: Thursday 3 November at 16.30 – 18.30.



Martine Mengers (

Journalist, Sekretariat for ledelse og kommunikation, CBS 

The page was last edited by: Sekretariat for Ledelse og Kommunikation // 10/25/2022