Friday, March 11, 2016

Paving the policy innovation cowpaths?

by Nick Charney RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Nick Charneytwitter / nickcharneygovloop / nickcharneyGoogle+ / nickcharney

If you aren't familiar with the idiom paving the cowpaths it essentially means looking to the paths that are already being formed by behaviours and then formalizing them rather than creating some arbitrary or artificial structure that ignores how people actually behave inside organizations.

Cowpaths are akin to the problem of design versus user experience highlighted in the image to the left. People are supposed to be walking the path but the path curves away from destination so they forge a more direct route to their destination. The cowpath metaphor also accurately describes much of the policy innovation ecosystem. People are out forging their own paths -- for example, with successful pilots -- and leaving trails behind them that others can follow. The very existence of the cowpath gives rise to the question: should or should we not simply pave them?

Within the policy innovation ecosystem the question of paving the cowpaths is one that seems to invoke a wide range of responses (See also: On Scaling Innovation). Some prefer to continue to quietly walk the path, and find success for themselves and their initiatives. Others choose to try to be a champion for change at the organization or systems level and take on the burden of rolling that boulder up the hill. Most of the people I've spoken to about this tend to land on the idea that actively paving the cowpaths is the right thing to do but tend to shy away from it when it comes time to lean into the problem. Its not a criticism so much as an observation. There's a myriad of different factors at play -- incentives, zones of control, social capital, degree of difficulty, scale of the change, and interdependent and/or cascading processes, to name but a few -- and its hard to fault individuals for doing the mental math and deciding its best to keep walking the path rather than paving it. Especially since its not a one sided problem; there needs to be both push (i.e. someone rolling the boulder up the hill) and pull (i.e. someone at the top demanding that people do so); in other words supply needs demand. Finally, if we assume that policy innovation cowpaths have natural tipping points (cow tipping pun!) then actually paving them doesn't seem to make sense because at that point the path is so well traveled that they are no longer risky. Investing scarce resources in paving an established cowpath could be a hard sell.

I can offer only one defence for paving them: eliminating the possibility of the backslide. After all, "[Change] requires sealing off the way backwards, not simply pointing the way forwards" (See: The Fine Art of Burning Your Ships).

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