Friday, July 24, 2015

Redefining innovation within the public service

The Canberra GovCamp dialogue was held on Wednesday, one of a series of events across Australia, both part of Public Sector Innovation Month and a lead-in to a full GovCamp in November.

Attendees included both current and former public servants, academics and private sector interested parties - all interested in discussing how to foster and focus public sector innovation towards material improvements and outcomes.

The half-day event had an interesting panel discussion on what is (and isn't) innovation, and the factors that support or hinder it's use as a tool to improve governance and service delivery outcomes, with a number of interesting points raised.

It also featured a Conversation Cafe mapping the room's views on what triggers public sector innovation and what type of innovation occurs, as well as views on the value of public sector innovation - which will be mapped together with the results from the other GovCamp Dialogues across Australia and should prove interesting reading. I tweeted the Canberra responses on Wednesday as below.

Following this, the GovCamp Dialogue gave participants a taste of how full GovCamps tend to operate, holding three participant-driven sessions where those attending could nominate topics and discuss each for twenty minutes in various groups.

This was a useful introduction to those new to GovCamps, and participants took to it with gusto.

For someone who's been around this scene for awhile, the event was a good opportunity to refresh my views on public sector innovation, and the biggest idea of the day for me was outlined by Mick Chisnall, formerly the Director of the ACT government's Government Information Office.

Mick suggested that government needed to treat innovation more as experimentation than as a project.

While I'd not thought of it specifically in this way, I believe he's on the money.

Projects in government have clearly defined scopes, resources, timeframes and steps in order to achieved the desired outcomes and don't generally support failure within the fabric of the process.

Innovation, on the other hand, is a process involving exploration and experimentation. While it can involve a defined scope and desired outcomes, often the path to success is littered with learning experiences - what might be otherwise termed 'failures'.

Innovation often involves a large component of rapid and iterative testing of assumptions and exploration of different avenues, with the data collected from each attempt helping to inform and focus the path towards the desired outcomes.

As Thomas Edison said to American Magazine in 1921:
"After we had conducted thousands of experiments on a certain project without solving the problem, one of my associates, after we had conducted the crowning experiment and it had proved a failure, expressed discouragement and disgust over our having failed to find out anything. I cheerily assured him that we had learned something. For we had learned for a certainty that the thing couldn't be done that way, and that we would have to try some other way."
This innovation process is hard to foster within today's project methodologies. Prince II, PMBoK and others of their ilk all exist to systemise projects to minimise the risk of failure and efficiently manage resources towards the delivery of a clearly defined objective.

Few support an iterative failure-led approach to success where many avenues must be explored to identify those that may be productive.

Indeed, a formal review of innovation within the APS in 2013 found that senior managers were very reluctant to discuss their failures at all, To quote from the blog post linked,
Innovations can fail and information on why this has occurred is highly important. However, there was reluctance amongst respondents to provide information on unsuccessful innovations, with around 80% survey participants stating that they “did not have a least successful innovation”.

So how do we marry innovation processes with project methodologies?

My thought is that we provide some tolerance for both the known and unknown unknowns, supporting feasibility studies and Agile-based methodologies within a project framework. We should also follow more start-up thinking around 'minimum viable product', continuous A/B testing and improvement and break larger projects into smaller goals, achievable in a few months.

We also need to foster a rethink of the concept of failure in the public service. A failure is a situation where something didn't work AND we learnt nothing at all. Even learning that a given approach doesn't work is valuable information that can support further effort towards a solution.

So long as a 'failure' allows us to redefine the scope to exclude certain paths, and data is collected and shared to understand why an approach or solution didn't work, it is not a failure.

This may require some reshaping of Project Offices and management of the expectations of public sector decision-makers, Ministers and citizens, but it would be well-worth it to support a more innovative public sector.

In an age of wicked problems we need to foster creative thinking.

This can only happen if we ensure that innovation is treated appropriately as experimental and exploratory work, rather than shoehorned into existing project management processes with little tolerance for 'failure'.

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