Innovation: Shiny Object or Existential Crisis

Friday, April 15, 2016

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

I had an interesting conversation with a colleague a couple of weeks ago about spectacle as a driver of innovation. His observation: often folks see something 'cool' somewhere else and decide it would be equally 'cool' to do it too. They grab hold of the public face of the innovation (which is often different than the real face), strip it from its context and jam it into their own. They use the evidence that its worked elsewhere as a proxy for evidence that it will work here.

This is innovation as shiny object syndrome, it's fuelled by the perception that those who ushered it through the system were rewarded, it's more common than any of us are really willing to admit, and it's categorically the wrong approach for public institutions that are supposed to be creating public value. The ugly truth of the matter is that 'innovation' makes and breaks careers, and there's competition -- sometimes fierce -- even if we are all rowing in the same direction.

Where we landed in our conversation was the need to approach innovation from the perspective of existential crisis, where we question whether our approach/intervention has any meaning, purpose, or value. If we truly believe that we are in the midst of fundamental societal changes than we need more introspection, we need to ask ourselves tough questions and be willing to abandon long-standing assumptions.

And yet we also agreed that most folks simply aren't there yet for one reason or another. Perhaps they can't feel the heat from the burning platform from wherever they are in the system. Perhaps they are simply responding to the incentive structure around them (perceived or otherwise). Perhaps the list goes on ad infinitum, well, because culture, and the truism that culture eats strategy for breakfast.

Anecdotally I've heard a lot of talk about how if we tried to apply the same level of rigour to current government activities as we do to proposed government activities we might find more than a couple of glaring discrepancies in terms of what constitutes acceptability. For example, how many of our current activities are measured against clear baselines that demonstrate the unequivocal impact of those activities? Or, how many of our current activities are based on a robust theory of change that has been clearly and publicly articulated?

In many ways I think the shift we -- the public sector innovation types -- are seeking to hasten is one that moves from shiny object syndrome to existential crisis. Of course I say all of this with all of the caveats and hedging of bets that one would expect from a bureaucrat (e.g. not tearing down the whole Westminster system and/or baby with the bathwater inspired hooliganism). One where everyone speaks the same language and has a shared understanding that the world is changing and we need to change with it. Where you don't need to spend time arguing about the need for change and move that time downstream to arguing about the crunchier questions about what that change ought to look like and how it can best be achieved.