Ynnovator at Defensie (the Dutch Defence organisation)
When you’re talking about innovation in the Defence organisation in the Netherlands, it’s impossible to overlook Fleur’s efforts in bringing creativity, energy and connection. For years, Fleur was the driving force behind the Innovation Coaches, a network of change facilitators within the organisation. Time to ask her about her motivation and struggles in innovating the Dutch Defence organisation.
Hey Fleur, tell us: who are you and what is your story?
Hi, my name is Fleur Tillekens and I work at the Dutch Ministry of Defence as a civilian.
I have been working since 1998 for various organizations, both commercial and government. But for the largest part of my career, I worked for the Dutch Defence; about 20 years in total.
Defence is a fascinating organization. It employs 60,000 people, both military and civilian. The diversity of themes is enormous: hi-tech, healthcare and operational combat power, to name just a few. And the diversity in culture and behavior is also interesting. In short: there is always something to do and it never gets boring.
The recurring theme in my work is to support colleagues in finding new perspectives using creative space: social innovation. I look for opportunities and work on realizing them. For me, a few themes are essential in this: Active learning, Collaboration, Creativity, Entrepreneurship and Trust.
“The recurring theme in my work is to support colleagues in finding new perspectives using creative space: social innovation”
This may sound very cool and collected, but to be honest, for I long time I asked myself: “what do I actually want in my work?” It felt that what I wanted didn’t exist.
What helped me in finding my purpose is trying to see myself in the role of an external consultant instead of an employee. Operating that way, helps me keep my distance from the organization. I also like to learn about things I see happen and experience in the organization. I try to research and investigate the issue in order to learn from it and grow. I also always look for like-minded people.
“What helped me in finding my purpose is trying to see myself in the role of an external consultant instead of an employee”
What is your background? Were you always a creative person?
I have a background in technical business administration. I like to analyze, but I’m also a creative person. When I was younger, I wanted to become a psychologist too. It’s fun to realize that this combination is exactly what I’m doing nowadays in my work.
After learning about anthropology, I started to understand more about how people interact with each other. Curiosity brought me into theory of change, complexity and systemic working methods. I always want to know what’s going on and why. That’s also why there are always stacks of books on my nightstand.
“I always want to know what’s going on and why”
All these different angles and perspectives are important when innovating. Why? Because innovation is about people and always causes change to happen in organizations.
Does your public organization need innovation?
Pooh, well yes but where to start? 😉
In the Defence organization, the word ‘innovation’ has a mainly technological meaning; it’s often about developing hi-tech equipment. Dozens of people work in the innovation centers within the Defence units and together they form an innovating playing field, connected to technology departments, the market and other institutes.
However, in my opinion, there is also a more hidden world of innovation; the world of non-tech innovation, as I like to call it. This is about innovation of processes, working methods and leadership for example.
Non-tech innovation is about organizational development with the aim of increasing the innovative and learning capacity of the organization in order to become more agile. It is about creating a culture where employees are able to realize their ideas. And of course, it has to do with tech innovation as well.
I see social innovation as a big opportunity in the military context. You should know that military personnel are trained to work in an operational setting: quick decisions, tight structures, predictability and carrying out assignments with a can-do mentality. In a situation where the leader always makes the decision, this person is also supposed to have the whole picture in mind.
“Military personnel are trained to work in an operational setting: quick decisions, tight structures, predictability and carrying out assignments with a can-do mentality”
This may sound ideal in relation to innovation, but paradoxically, it can be counterproductive.
In innovation, making decisions is much more a process of a diverse group. In the Defence organization, often there isn’t sufficient time for analyzing the problem thoroughly from different perspectives. While taking time in the first stages of the innovation process is essential in creating commitment for the best solutions.
This is why sometimes I struggle with the can-do mentality of the organization. The influence of 30 years of cutbacks also plays a role in our innovation culture. Caution, tightening our grip on our wallet and accountability. These factors make innovation more challenging and complex.
“Sometimes I struggle with the can-do mentality of the organization”
When were you first introduced to Ynnovate?
In 2015, we started the project Defence Innovation Coaches. The goal of this project was to tackle wicked problems using the power of design thinking. It was an experiment, in which enthusiastic colleagues were offered a training design thinking so they could apply this method to challenges in the organization. The colleagues formed an innovation network and worked on improving the problem-solving capacity of the whole organization.
The experiment was innovative in three ways: it’s was a social innovation project, it created innovative results and it was organized innovatively (outside the formal structure). Just after this project had started, I got the initiator’s role. The training we wanted to offer was provided by external parties and one of the partners we looked at was Ynnovate.
Since I was curious about Ynnovate’s philosophy, I decided to follow their training in 2016. The Ynnovate Training focused on both the innovation method and the facilitation skills, which I found very positive. Unfortunately, at that time there wasn’t a perfect fit between the Ynnovate method and the culture in the Defence organization. Ynnovate was very active in municipalities and was way more playful and energetic than the colleagues in our organization were used to.
Can you tell a bit more about the network of Innovation Coaches you helped create?
In total, more than 300 colleagues have been trained in design thinking and about one-third of them is currently actively applying the methodology in their work. I worked very hard to get this internal start-up off the ground. It’s an amazing result which I am very proud of! Some of the people that followed the training told me that this was the coolest thing they had ever done in the Defence organization.
“In total, more than 300 colleagues have been trained in design thinking and about one-third of them is currently actively applying the methodology in their work”
We learned quite quickly that the Innovation Coaches (which turned out to be a confusing name) had three different roles in the organization: group facilitator, internal entrepreneur (realizing their own ideas alongside their work and supporting their colleagues with their ideas) and creative thinker (applying the design thinking approach in their own daily work).
Surprisingly, the best results were often not the “creative solutions” of a meeting or session. The main benefit came from the interaction between colleagues and a different way of working together. Having a new kind of conversation and interaction together. We need to understand each other better, because we need each other to solve problems and the Innovation Coaches played a very important role in this.
“The main benefit came from the interaction between colleagues and a different way of working together”
Recently, I ended my coordinating task for the network and provided my insights to the senior management. At the moment, I am developing a new concept in the organization bringing together all the (innovative) change initiatives and networks in our organization. The main goal is to improve the agility of Defence. If we connect the dots, we can reveal internal change energy. There is still so much we can learn from each other!
How have you been able to apply the Ynnovate method in your work?
I use the principles of Ynnovate and design thinking daily in my work. Particularly the first phase, empathize or understand brings me a lot. Often, we use judgments too early in the process, but new possibilities arise when we learn to look from multiple perspectives and enter into a dialogue with each other.
“I use the principles of Ynnovate and design thinking daily in my work”
As initiator of the network, I have facilitated workshops to test how and in what form design thinking best suits the target group. We developed a Defence Design Thinking Toolkit, a step-by-step program, by which the facilitator can compose their own program using a creative tool selector.
I also set up, coordinated and executed use cases: programs of several weeks and design sprints. Here, I noticed that a good intake process is essential. What does the challenge holder say YES to? What are the expectations? And what is your role as an innovation coach? Is it about generating a lot of sticky notes? Or does the challenge holder really want to solve the problem and implement change?
What has the Ynnovate method changed for you when it comes to innovation?
My biggest insight is that it is not about the solution, but about learning to understand each other. To slow down together and to reflect on the challenge, embracing the unknown. And to use this attitude and trust to make a diagnosis together about what is really going on, taking ownership of the necessary steps to be taken. It is all about trust and ownership.
Which creative technique(s) do you regularly use in your work and why?
I noticed that I don’t apply so many creative techniques myself, but I do often apply associative thinking / lateral thinking.
The innovative way of thinking and acting is so intertwined with me by now. When I work with groups, I often use creative tools such as quick sketches, associations, other people’s glasses and stealing ideas. Reframing is also a great tool. Furthermore, I am a fan of working methods in which the participation of all participants is essential, such as liberating structures.
What are your biggest lessons in innovating within your organization?
I have developed a workshop in which I show self-experienced “wisdoms” about innovation. They are:
- innovation is something you don’t know the outcome of, don’t let it be a surprise
- innovation is and leads to change
- a coveted idea is the difference between being right and being put in the right
- innovation is an interplay between all parties
- letting go is about trusting someone else and your own leadership
But the biggest lesson of all for me is that innovation is a process that you have to learn together.
Innovation always causes hassle and change. And fun of course. It requires letting go and trust. Not everyone is aware of this. If you don’t pay attention to this, you are stuck doing superficial things. And that is of course not the intention.
“The biggest lesson of all for me is that innovation is a process that you have to learn together”
What is your ultimate tip for anyone that wants to innovate?
Innovating is exciting but there are always hundreds of reasons not to start. Still, entrepreneurship tickles: you see opportunities. And you hear from everyone: just do it. Well, that’s such a one liner.
I would say: look at a micro scale, somewhere in a corner of the organization where you can mess around. What can you start tomorrow? Start small, in the right place and test. Sometimes your boss doesn’t even need to know. Tell only your trusted peers about your ideas. Get your first followers and and surf along on the opportunities that arise. Stay out of the spotlight as long as you can. Adjust your language to what is hip and happening at the time. Raise your head above ground level only when necessary. Learn, and enjoy it.
“Look somewhere in a corner of the organization where you can mess around.”