Friday, February 17, 2017

Innovation: Design Process or Street Fight?

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

So last week Kent posted a long and detailed overview of public sector innovation that he had prepared as a response to an inquiry we received (See: Public Sector Innovation). The post prompted a series of comments as well as back channel conversations. My favorite comment had to be Blaise's, who said (emphasis mine):
"As a seasoned practitioner reading this, I still find this post so effing meta and portraying a grandiose version of innovation romanticism. You and I have spent countless days and nights, talking about this stuff while being on the wide spectrum of sobriety. In my opinion, I don't think this post or any other comes close of connecting to the actual reality of being knee deep this proverbial "sh!t". As someone who does this stuff for a living, your zone of influence is so minuscule and granular, and the continuous battle for the ever fleeting victory of success on the project level, is that even thinking about "changing the system" is implausible and counterproductive.

Here's the hard truth about practicing "innovation": You just end up finding what works in the moment, or you fail. End of story. There is no "tried and true" list of best practice, playbook, guide or singular method to do this; there's just a hell of a lot of sleepless nights, constantly thinking on your feet, loads of adaptation and and far more compromise than you would normally assume. I could go on forever on this subject, but I feel that that the honesty will be lost on this audience, and that it just isn't good for my overall sanity to dwell."

I agree. The public sector innovation discourse in town is far too meta (so is the digital governance discourse btw), everyone's sphere of influence is limited, and there is no tried and true approach to innovation.

Having recently moved from a team focused on policy design to one focused on program implementation I'd go one step further and add that innovation isn't simply the fancy d-school process that puts words on paper but the nasty street fight that brings them to life.

I've a number of observations about the fight worth noting:

  • there's a fundamental disconnect between the innovation discourse from the centre and the practical considerations of implementation in line departments
  • we wrongly expect traditional delivery mechanisms and standard operating procedures to deliver innovative policy solutions
  • even the sharp edges of fully approved "innovations" can be ground smooth through the iterative processes associated with implementation
  • not enough is done upfront to ensure that implementation is a consideration in the design phase and that implementation concerns and timelines are well understood
  • there's a lot of rent-seeking behavior masquerading as accountability
  • successful implementation requires key players to have a higher risk tolerance
  • we lack an internal service culture and its to our detriment
  • key enablers are often more concerned with enforcing rules from the centre rather than enabling the organization to achieve its mission
  • not everyone you come against is actually looking for a fight or know they are in one

In short, the public service discourse has really focused on the question of what innovation looks like. As the conversation becomes increasingly more granular I would expect we will turn more of our attention to the question of how. In other words, roll up your sleeves, the fight is just getting started.

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