Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Boundaryless Problems and the End of the Elevator Pitch

by Kent Aitken RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Kent Aitkentwitter / kentdaitkengovloop / KentAitken

I've always been terrible at elevator pitches. My stock answer to most questions is "It depends". When people ask me "What do you do?", I tend to respond with a couple questions to gauge their level of familiarity with government. Providing succinct value propositions has never been my thing.

Last year a handful of us organized a talk and facilitated workshop with Joeri van den Steenhoven, Director of the MaRS Solutions Lab. While bouncing the idea off people, we were asked "What's the desired outcome?" My response was that it would be a combination of outcomes, and that it would be different for different people:
  • learning about social innovation
  • learning approaches to tackling problems
  • practice teaching and facilitating
  • meeting potential collaborators
  • generating ideas for follow-up

Which, I think, is reasonable. But we still ask for elevator pitches, and still demand a blindingly obvious causal link between solutions and problems. It's one of the 10 Tricks to Appear Smart During Meetings: asking "What problem are we really trying to solve?"

To be honest, I think it's an incredibly useful question - but perhaps insufficient. For public policy, the likely better question is something like "What environment are we trying to influence?"

In the interest of pragmatism, when someone asks you for an elevator pitch, you should probably have one ready. But I think it's in our best long-term interests to move away from that fiction about policy. This world doesn't actually exist:

It's more like this*:

  • the bubbles are all constantly moving around
  • the bubbles are always changing size and shape
  • not everything on the environment side is a problem
  • not everything on the effects side is positive
  • this diagram looks at least slightly different to every different player who cares about these problems and solutions
Last week Canada 2020 held a Big Ideas session, at which former Deputy Minister Morris Rosenberg pitched a governance rethink as a Big Idea, citing problems and solutions without clear boundaries in time, space, or definition as the burning platform. Don Lenihan's recap is worth a read.

This prescription isn't easy. Governments have duties pushing from the other direction, including to prove the success of their interventions, and to communicate accessibly with citizens - there's friction against wonkspeak about complex problems. But we can at least stop reinforcing the false expectation of easy answers by asking for and providing them, and recognizing the red flag when we hear them. 

*Venn diagrams are one of the other tricks to appearing smart.

Note: nothing I write on CPSRenewal exists in a vacuum. In this case, thank you to John Kenney, Blaise Hebert, and Abe Deighton for the conversation and ideas.

Another note: there are some parallels to this post on short- and long-term thinking; the issues stem from overlapping incentives for government.

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