Innovation and improvement

One of our three inter-related programmes of work

This page is based on the contents of Iriss On...Innovation and improvement (PDF)

Doing things differently is high on the agenda for social services at the moment.

The Iriss Innovation and Improvement programme is focused on supporting the workforce to realise their potential to make change happen with others. We believe there are enough of us who want to make a difference. However, we know that innovation and improvement is challenging, because it means continually questioning, reflecting and sometimes rethinking our values, beliefs and assumptions. In essence it is an ongoing process of learning in relation to interactions, support models and the shape of systems. Part of our role is to support the sector to create conditions where ideas and new thinking can flourish.

What makes this programme different is that we are focused upon openly sharing what works, and what could be done differently. We are working from inside the system to build the capacity of practitioners, people and communities. Whilst we are focused on ways to 'do things differently', our focus - and the focus of those we work with - is always on the outcomes people wish for themselves and their communities.

Our working definitions

Innovation implies a real change in how work is done; using new knowledge, organisation or processes to develop changes in the ways people are supported. We believe that innovation can be new to sector, scale or place.

Improvement involves incremental change to develop support - constantly looking for better, more efficient and desirable ways to complete a task or process, but representing continuity with the past.

How we work


Finding, sharing and encouraging possible responses to issues facing social services by drawing on ideas and knowledge about what works elsewhere and testing new ideas.


Building evidence about innovation and creativity to improve the understanding and confidence of people in this sector


Providing creative, open spaces for people to come together to look differently at challenges facing the sector


Developing projects to test ideas practically and to contribute to our understanding about how innovation and improvement can be sustained and scaled

Our principles

These outcomes are delivered by undertaking activities that are underpinned by the following four key principles:


Encouraging positivity, open collaboration and mutually beneficial partnerships between service providers (practitioners), communities and individuals (both across organisations and within layers of the same organisation)

Person centred

Ensuring the focus is always on the person


Encouraging a culture where people are open with their ideas, successes and failures to enable greater learning


Encouraging visual methods to be used as a compliment to verbal communication to stimulate new creative thinking

Our process

Innovation is messy. It doesn't happen overnight, and it generally doesn't go according to plan. Hartley (2006) reminds us that the innovation process cannot be viewed as a linear process because factors like opportunities and risks (and setbacks) can happen along the way.

Although there are many different models for innovation, we think Nesta's approach is useful for the sector. It isn't one way and you can (and might have to) miss steps, double back or jump forward when necessary. But it does give us a simple process for us to hook on to. What we are not saying is that this is THE process that must be followed. We are saying though, that these are the types of components we have experienced, and therefore believe are likely to be needed for innovation to happen within your work or organisation.

  • Prompts
  • Proposals
  • Prototypes
  • Embedding
  • Scaling
  • Systemic change

Murray, Caulier-Grice and Mulgan (2010).


All ideas start from somewhere. It could be from a need, a gap or something that has been successful elsewhere. This phase is about attending to the triggers for innovation that inspire you to think about something from a different perspective. Prompts could be:

  • crisis
  • day-dreaming
  • talking to someone who has a completely different life experience or knowledge base
  • taking in stimuli that you don't normally, video clips, artwork, nature... the list is endless
  • technology developments
  • a shift in policy
  • chats with people in the park
  • new research
  • or, really, anything ...

The point about this phase is to be conscious about it and to share your thoughts with others. We have created 'prompts' at Iriss in lots of different ways. One of the most effective has been helping people to generate new insights through visualising data.


If we always made decisions based on what is 'safe', 'right' or what we think we 'already know' then we are destined to keep living in the same patterns and experiencing the same issues. This phase turns all that on its head. It is all about having ideas, thinking differently and responding intuitively, by acting with curiosity and thinking with an open mind.

For us, this 'proposal' phase is one of the most exciting elements of this kind of work! It's the time where a range of people come together to explore, throw things out there, have lightbulb moments, argue, be inspired and redefine the question that is being asked. There are lots of tools and techniques that can be used to help you think more creatively and to have ideas. For example:

  • Reframe the issue to are experiencing as if seeing it through someone else's eyes
  • Think about the positive elements of the issues and work from them rather than try to 'solve' a problem
  • Re-word the issues and explore through your use of language what assumptions, values or beliefs may be acting as a barrier to creative thinking
  • Think in reverse, from the ideal solution you'd like to get to, work backwards to where you stand now and think about the stages you may need to work through and how to reach those
  • Use visual imagery to stimulate thoughts, connections, metaphors, and emotional connections to the issue you face, talk this interpretation through with others and see if the discussion stimulates new thoughts and perspectives.

We know it can be difficult to take time to have ideas in our sector. But having too many ideas is just as bad as having none at all. There are no good or bad ideas - there are just the ones that work in your setting - make the ideas you have count. At Iriss, we have been testing out processes to help people to come together and have ideas. In 2013/14 we've done this through the creation of 'labs'. Labs are one day experiments that create a safe space for people to try out working differently with no repercussions. The learning of this will be shared so that others can create their own experiments.


One of the issues in our sector is that people spend too much time trying to perfect ideas or processes before they do anything about it. Instead of trying to plan every little detail, the point of prototyping is to DO something, and improve it as you go. It is the process of testing an idea in practice, and if it doesn't work, understanding why and trying something else. The key is to do this in small, iterative steps with a group of people so you can get many different perspectives and reflect on what happens along the way. This also helps you to minimise the risk associated with the innovation or improvement. We have found that you can learn just as much (if not more!) from what doesn't go well, as what does.

We use prototypes all the time at Iriss. Our Pilotlight project for example, has involved people coming up with concepts which we visualised and edited as we went through.

Sustaining (at Iriss, we call this bit 'embedding')

When an idea has been tested by prototyping you will be able to determine whether or not it is responding to the issues identified and you'll have gleaned some ideas about how to implement the idea in practice.

Embedding innovation is a complex process. This is particularly so as people and systems, by their very nature, tend to resist change. However, there is research to suggest that if the following enablers are in place, you can facilitate effective implementation:

  • staff and stakeholder buy-in
  • leadership
  • resources
  • teams or individuals who champion the innovation
  • a coherent plan (including monitoring and evaluation) for people to follow
  • free capacity to embed the innovation
  • supportive organisational culture
  • effective communication
  • learning from experience

(Burke, Morris and McGarrigle, 2012).

Iriss has a project focused on embedding ideas.

Spread and Scale

We are going to be honest with you. We are still trying to figure this phase out... and we're ok about that! Part of what we are beginning to do is to explore these different phases, and to look at them from different angles. Some of the questions we are grappling with are:

  • How can we scale ideas when the critical knowledge is tacit and therefore more difficult to standardise?
  • What happens if, in the standardisation, there leaves no further room for innovation?
  • How can we effectively determine the transferability of an innovation/idea?
  • Effective replication often depends on holding constant the context within which an innovation will operate - how do we do this when we have so much local diversity?
  • When it is appropriate to scale up or out? and what are the conditions that will be required in order to do both

NB: 'scaling out' is the replication of an idea to other location(s) at the same scale e.g. from one team to another team. 'Scaling up' instead, is the expansion in the area of coverage, for example from team, to department, to community to national levels.

In reality, the context we work in requires the capability to continually address issues by developing and redeveloping practices which keep the person (and their outcomes) at the centre. We think that this means that it becomes less about recognising static solutions and more about using processes and creating spaces which facilitate experimentation that will lead to better outcomes.

Please feel free to contact us if you would like to discuss our projects, strategy or how we can support you with issues related to innovation and improvement

Project Managers: Rhiann McLean