Alignment and Competition

Friday, September 1, 2017

by Gray O'Byrne RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Gray O'Byrnetwitter / GrayOByrne


“Let’s set up a meeting to make sure our initiatives are aligned and we’re not duplicating effort.”

I have become wary of this line. On the surface, I couldn’t agree more. We want our time to be well spent. The phrase taps into my human aversion to waste, but like everything else, it can be taken too far.

First off, duplication is sometimes necessary. In a sense it’s impossible to replace an existing system without duplicating it. As we build digital services for citizens, we are duplicating the existing ones. Introducing digital services may not be controversial but what if the existing system is trying to slowly digitize itself? How do we decide if it’s worthwhile trying something new rather than invest more in the improvement efforts?

In a lot of cases there is no clear answer and rather than investing in the new idea, we align ourselves with the existing initiative to avoid duplication. This could be contributing to how long it is taking governments to built digital-first services.

When developing new services we also have a choice to make about what tools or approaches to use. Sometimes a single team has the resources and expertise to try out several options instead of picking just one, but what happens when it’s two different teams each with their own idea? We seem to have very little tolerance for allowing both teams to continue even if it’s unclear which idea is more promising.

In this scenario, instead of waiting to see what we learn from each team, we tend to ask one of them to stop. I’ve seen several promising initiatives shut down this way. The project team eventually met with a group who had more authority and who felt their own project would be doing the same thing. “Why would we create two solutions to the same problem?”

These tendencies to stop others from trying different approaches to solving the same problem are what I am pushing back against. We need to be investing in a variety of approaches because they can all teach us something. Sometimes the alternative projects will result in better services, sometimes in wasted effort but if done properly we will always learn.

Unfortunately multiple groups tackling the same problem means there will be competition between ideas, projects and even the people who want to see their own approach succeed. But there are benefits to competition as well! We’ve come to accept that it is a net positive and helps drive innovation In the private sector and just because there is some competition between groups, it doesn’t mean we need to have winners and losers vying for space in government.

Rather than aligning on execution we can align our goals. Through collaboration we can ensure each project takes a unique approach so it will generate unique insights. Information sharing at all stages will be key, we need to experiment and learn as a whole. The hard part will be for everyone to come together once individual projects have been tested, but it can be done.

I’ve had some success with this approach. 

When collaborating to build a micro-tasking platform for the federal government, my team took a conscious step back from the working group. We knew we could rapidly deploy something in our organisation and felt the group could learn more from us building an advanced prototype than if we participated in the same way as everyone else.

We kept in touch, we built in the open and challenged our colleagues to make something better. This was deliberately duplicative but we got to benefit from our prototype quickly and were able share our work and insights back with the group. A year later when the working group had their solution in place, it had many of the features we had designed. At this point we shut our prototype down so our users would join the superior platform and benefit from the broader community that had access to it.

The strength and weakness of this approach are the same to me: we are working with humans. On one side, a little competition and a strong sense of ownership are both extremely motivating. Trying out a few different ideas in earnest can also help when our intuitions are wrong. On the downside, competition is uncomfortable. If people feel like “it’s us or them” they could stop sharing openly and even create barriers for others. As a believer in human awesomeness, I think these downsides can be managed by aligning our goals (not our approaches) and collaborating openly within our organisations. To get us started though, we will need to become comfortable with the idea that attacking a problem from multiple angles is an acceptable form of duplication.