Thursday, July 07, 2016

There's no silver bullets, but there's silver toolkits

During this Public Sector Innovation Month, I thought I should focus my eGovAU posts a little more closely on the topic of innovation.

I've commented previously on the 'shiny new thing' issue - whereby humans place unrealistic expectations on a new device or approach to solve a long-standing existing issue.

It's an issue that occurs regularly - and is even supported and encouraged commercially, where new products are regularly released with a 'unique' ingredient (not always unique), or a 'new' approach (not always new) promoted as solving a 'problem'.

Of course sometimes these unique ingredients aren't unique, the new approaches may not be new - and the problem may not be one that has kept people awake at night.

As a marketer I was trained on how to do this at university - either find an existing problem, or make people aware of a problem they hadn't thought about, so that it could then be fixed with a specific product or approach.

Products that are examples of this approach include 'Permeate-free' milk and many toothpaste additives advertised as promoting 'advanced whitening' or 'tartar control'.

Examples of approaches that fit into this basket include 'Nudge theory' (Behavioural Economics), 'TQM' (Total Quality Management) and Lean Methodology. All have positive applications, but none is a 'silver bullet' in all circumstances, and they can sometimes be applied to solve the wrong problems.

The same psychology applies in many human pursuits - from health care to the battlefield to management and government policy development.

New approaches are regularly discovered (or rediscovered) and promoted as silver bullets.

In most cases they aren't scams - they genuinely work, but only deliver measurable improvements within certain circumstances. This leads to case studies and advocates, even when they deliver limited or no value - it can be hard for senior leadership to say that the approach they supported and endorsed didn't lead to any significant positive impact on an organisation.

However over time it can often become clear that the success of these approaches applies only in a narrow set of circumstances or is based on factors that aren't related to the approaches themselves. At this stage another new approach often takes off.

This cycle may take years, or occur in a few months - what is traditionally called a 'fad'.

There can even be several new approaches at the same time, producing quite a heady environment where people and organisations fall into competing camps and can often expend more resources and energy on justifying why their new approach is better than on actual execution.

In reality there are a few situations where there are silver bullets. For example vaccines have been a silver bullet for population disease control.

Yes there's still a few cases of diseases we've vaccinated against, but the widespread suffering and death, long-term health issues and economic dislocation that accompanied mass outbreaks of major diseases, has been alleviated to the point where few have a living memory of these issues - leading to the present-day pushback we're seeing from people who have never experienced a mass vaccination-free world.

However in most cases new approaches are not silver bullets. They may provide an incremental improvement in the delivery of solutions to problems, or provide a solution within a limited set of circumstances, but do not have the widespread paradigm-shifting impact that the notion of a silver bullet encompasses.

Instead organisations should consider developing what I term 'silver toolkits' - collections of both new tools and approaches and existing methods applied in new ways that collectively provide development and delivery improvements to outcomes.

The notion of a 'silver toolkit' moves organisations away from any reliance on a single approach to achieve universal results - the equivalent of having only a screwdriver to solve any mechanical problem.

The approach also provides greater license to customise approaches and tools to specific situations, allowing for ongoing evolution in the adoption of new approaches rather than adherence to a rigid, unalterable formula for success that doesn't adapt to the specific attributes of an organisation.

So next time your organisation is considering a new approach or tool that its advocates claim is a 'silver bullet' for any or all problems you're seeking to solve, consider instead whether you can add it to your 'silver toolkit' - a non-exclusive set of new approaches and tools that your organisation can flexibly apply as appropriate to address emerging challenges.

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