Case Study

Innovative policy-making at the Foreign Office

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) asked LeaderSpace to help enhance one of its teams’ ability to drive innovative policy making. We worked with the team leader, his staff and representatives of neighbouring teams to capitalise on their existing skills and insights, recognising and respecting the fact that they already innovate on a daily basis. Together, we identified and addressed the various forces within and around the team that were helping and hindering innovation. The result was a team better equipped to develop innovative policy across Whitehall and internationally.

Context and objectives

The FCO promotes the United Kingdom’s interests overseas, supporting its citizens and businesses around the globe. NATO is at the heart of the UK’s defence policy. The FCO’s NATO Team promotes UK objectives within NATO in support of Euro Atlantic security and prosperity. The team operates in a complex stakeholder environment, balancing the needs of the Cabinet Office, Ministry of Defence, Home Office, UK Parliamentarians, NATO and its member states, numerous think tanks, NGOs, the private sector, and the media, as well as a range of stakeholders within the FCO itself – all in service of the British public.

The team’s leader, Ross Matthews, asked LeaderSpace to help his team ‘up the ante’ when it came to innovation. Given the range of threats to Euro-Atlantic Security, Ross wanted to ensure his team had the skills and confidence to develop innovative policy solutions which could challenge the status quo. He also wanted to focus on how to achieve innovation working across government departments with his team scheduled to become a joint unit in the autumn.

The approach we took

We were keen to role model the core disciplines of innovation from the start. This meant focusing on:

  • Engaging key people
  • Ensuring clarity of purpose
  • Understanding the ‘problem’
  • Integrating creativity and respect for the status quo
  • Ring-fencing time to think
  • Injecting both challenge and disruption into established patterns of thinking and working
  • Keeping it practical – by demonstrating alternative approaches to gathering opinions, analysing data, generating and critiquing ideas, and selling new propositions to key stakeholders

We explored Ross’s objectives for the work, the FCO’s capacity to invest time and resources in the work, and participants’ past experience working with innovation and team dynamics. We were keen to build on existing foundations, such as the team’s awareness of Edward De Bono’s work on innovation and insights they’d gained into their own and each other’s working and thinking styles from using the Myers-Briggs (MBTI) personality tool. We also invited select members of neighbouring teams to take part, helping us attend to the objective of enhancing collaboration across organisational boundaries.

Ross then laid the foundations for the work before introducing LeaderSpace to the rest of his team and its guests. In doing so, he encouraged them to consider the rationale for a more innovative approach to their work and reflect on innovative policy-making they’d done in the past, as well as on some of the questions LeaderSpace would be posing once we came together.

Working with the team and its guests, we then invested in:

  • Clarifying what innovation meant in their context
  • Assessing how innovative they were in the day-to-day – both individually and collectively
  • Identifying their ‘innovation remit’, navigating their complex stakeholder environment to establish and challenge the boundaries within which the team had a license to innovate
  • Defining a handful of discrete topics on which the team felt it should be innovating
  • Exploring the various factors and forces helping and hindering innovation, which helped us create an extensive map of the obstacles to innovation in and around the team

From here, we applied our Three Core Disciplines to help the team take innovative approaches to addressing those obstacles – applying their learning to a real, current challenge. This included drawing on the MBTI, Edward De Bono’s Six Hats, peer feedback, offering psychological insights at an individual and team level, and a range of tools to stimulate lateral thinking.

Key challenges

No team coaching engagement is without its challenges. The challenges we faced at the FCO were challenges we face in any organisation seeking to be more innovative. It’s tempting for outsiders to ride in and dump lots of models, tools and techniques on a team, then ride off into the sunset expecting the team to put those tools to good, consistent and lasting use. The reality is, most people are naturally fairly innovative – that’s how we’ve survived and developed as a species.

Rather than making assumptions, we worked with the team to understand its environment, its self-perceptions and its existing assets for innovation, as well as the factors limiting its ability (and willingness) to innovate. The latter was critical: the reality is, like most people, these are people with busy, complex and high-pressured day jobs. Being even more innovative could easily feel like an expensive luxury or unreasonable expectation. So we needed to really get under their skin and work on the systemic and psychological barriers to innovation, as well as providing helpful hints and tips.

LeaderSpace provided a bespoke intervention at short notice which met our needs perfectly. Richard’s engaging style meant there was full participation from the whole team and everyone took something away with them. This included using a range of tools for collaboration and innovation and learning about themselves and their own and others’ ways of working. The work we did together generated an even more positive and creative approach from the team during a busy period. This proved invaluable to the team as it prepared for the NATO Summit in Warsaw.
Ross Matthews, Head: NATO Team, FCO

The impact we had

The team and its guests were left with a better understanding of themselves and their colleagues, a range of tools to help them innovate more effectively and a wide array of creative ideas to enhance innovation and collaborative working across their departments and in relationships with other governmental and non-governmental organisations. This proved invaluable to the team as it prepared for the NATO Summit in Warsaw. In the final months before the summit the team hosted a number sessions to quickly develop policy plans drawing on the techniques from the session. In one example alone, the approach helped achieve an additional £1m UK contribution towards NATO activity around the world.”