We need to change government’s innovation mindset

17 July 2019

Mindsets greatly affect the tools we use and the outcomes we achieve; it’s time for governments and those working with public services to confront this reality rather than keep futilely trying to control it. 

Why is it futile? Because, as philosopher Alan Watts describes, controlling dynamic, changing landscapes is akin to his childish desire to send someone a parcel of water in the mail:

“The more one studies attempted solutions to problems in politics and economics, in art, philosophy, and religion, the more one has the impression of extremely gifted people wearing out their ingenuity at the impossible and futile task of trying to get the water of life into neat and permanent packages”.

Think play-pumps

As part of my work with Y Lab, the public services innovation lab for Wales, I recently held workshops in two very different contexts: The first in Maseru, Lesotho with local NGOs and community leaders from the Lesotho Highlands and the second in Berlin, Germany at IGL2019, the Innovation Growth Lab Conference. Both, however, led me to the same conclusion: mindset matters more than method. 

Framing innovation

Embracing the importance of mindsets is about focusing on preparation and process over outcome. 

We often desire the outcomes of “innovation” and “inclusive growth” but rush through the critical steps it takes to get there, overlooking relationships that need to be built, trainings that are necessary, and conditions that need cultivation for change to take root and sustain. 

Embracing the importance of mindsets is about focusing on preparation and process over outcome. 

Being process-led versus outcome-led is about being emergent, adaptive, and responsive rather than fixated on success and predetermined targets that lead us to act in prescriptive ways. “Abandoning a purpose is only an issue if we believe in incrementalism”. 

I do not claim to be an expert on inclusive growth, but with the subject receiving increased attention, I have found myself critically questioning its applications. 

When we’re talking about inclusion, I often sense that people think of a more geographically distributed growth; one that, when plotted onto a map, allows you to see large cities with businesses and industries scattered across a country rather than confined to one or two urban centres such as London. That image constitutes success. 

Although this vision is admirable, it’s insufficient for inclusion. 

What is inclusive growth?

Inclusive growth is about understanding assets and enhancing capabilities that people themselves have identified and value. 

This requires a different kind of mapping and mindset; one that is layered and provisional. One that seeks to understand rather than dictate. An inclusive approach is about reimagining the future because the reality is, that we live in societies that exclude and marginalise. 

Working towards inclusion is about discovering the foundations that permit lives to thrive and for the prosperity of growth to be more fairly shared rather than concentrated; in the word’s of the visionary John Dewey, it’s about enacting “the kind of world [we] wish to participate in making

Abstract, I know, but tools and mindsets can help us to make these aspirations concrete and that is what my work centres on.

It all begins with the frame that an innovation process uses to examine a given problem or a challenge. A frame can be roughly understood as a lens, a new vision used to examine a problem space; it should be the new future you are reaching for. Compare the two frames outlined below:

  • Frame 1: more geographically distributed growth
  • Frame 2: growth that enhances capabilities now and into the future

Each frame could be applied to the same problem such as the “future of work” or “ageing well”, but each will dramatically alter the questions, approaches, tools, experts, etc that will be engaged with and therefore, the solutions that will be created. 

This is a critical point. With a growing number of people lashing out against their political systems and feeling that their governments have left them behind — frames and mindsets cannot be ignored.

Four beliefs to innovate by

So what does it take for governments to fully embrace the importance of mindsets? 

At IGL2019 there were various calls for culture change, to get government to take more risks. As one IGL2019 speaker said, their department has learnt to value believers over technical experts; another aspires to make “innovation everyone’s duty”. All appropriate culture shifts, but the question is: how do we create the conditions for these calls to take root and sustain? 

I believe it begins with accepting the following four beliefs: 

1. We need to challenge and shift current conceptions of what is “science-based” and “data driven”; when working with complexity, research needs to be done rigorously, not rigidly.

Speakers at IGL2019 spoke of how governments need to leverage things such as design for creativity and the search for new frames and angles. 

Another spoke about building spaces for “serial innovation” and the creation of “arenas” for this to occur. 

Both aspirations require disrupting the status quo, and in my opinion, call for government to be evidence-informed, building validity in an end result through iterative testing, rather than evidence-based, which looks to the past for proven solutions. 

There are spaces for both and for the approaches to be infused, but governments need to be supported to understand the difference and to stop demanding evidence-based solutions where there are none.

To make search and process more digestible, my IGL2019 workshop presented a new framework I have been developing to breakdown the methods and sample sizes people should target when working in spaces of high or little complexity. 

The framework pointed participants towards which types of methods they should use to move out of spaces with numerous “unknown-unknowns” and into spaces with more “knowns”: spaces where they can begin to rigorously test their emerging hypotheses and build certainty in an end-result. 

2. Participation is a mutual exchange and often authentic participation is something that needs to be developed, it’s not just given freely. Further, diverse engagement needs to be meaningfully and thoughtfully leveraged; it’s not a box to tick or a risk to manage.

“Inclusive growth” is more than a large sample size and consulting numerous people. It’s more than crowdsourcing and democratising the innovation process. 

It’s about depth and quality of engagement; it’s about critically examining how people are enabled to engage with you, testing and retesting what they are telling you, and the accessibilityof that engagement.

Research has continuously found diversity to be an asset to outcomes and workplaces, but, diversity takes many forms and needs to be more than just a box-ticking exercise. 

A good place to start challenging the way your workplace harnesses the power of diverse views internally and externally is by using Liberating Structures, 33 tried-and-tested facilitation techniques that unleash and include everyone.

3. Problem framing is not problem solving. Governments need to be slower to define and bind a problem, and concentrate more on critically questioning whether they are on the right journey.

Many people have been drawn to my recent talks on problem framing, but I kept falling short of truly helping people to understand the process they need to go through and adopt. 

Thus, for IGL2019 I created a “board game” of sorts, a simulation to help guide people, and their teams, through the problem framing process to get them to be explicit about their knowns and unknowns and how they were going to examine each. Although the board game is still a prototype, by the end of the 90 minute session I finally felt that it had clicked. As one of the IGL2019 Methods and Mindsets workshop participants said:

“Although I have taken several innovation methods courses, I have to say your has been one of the best. Difficult to get it at the beginning (due to time constrain) but once you kind of understood the system (at least in my head) I was able to see the flow and logic, great exercise!”

Slowing down doesn’t necessarily mean the process towards an end-result will take longer. 

Instead, slowing down is about being ambivalent rather than solutionising. Solutionising creates path dependency, an attachment to our solutions, and assumes that we already possess the answers before leaving the office to challenge that assumption in the real-world. 

Slowing down means being more deliberative, crafting safes spaces to challenge, and intentionally develop and test slow hunches which are often the product of many minds rather than just one.

4. Good leadership is about attunement; favouring sense-making over decision-making.

At IGL2019 there were many calls for governments to move into an anticipatory space to envision what is the next big thing and/or address problems before they cause catastrophic consequences. 

But to do so, governments need leaders who listen, rather than leaders who naively believe they can have all the “right” answers. Leaders who ask the right questions and know how to interpret as well as distribute decision-making. This is what I call attunement: leaders who are tapped in, and know how to bring people and information into harmony. 

As the famous organisational academic, Karl Weick, describes, sense-making is “a continued redrafting of an emerging story” because what a team or a person may know is most likely incomplete.

Sustaining change 

If we want to achieve government ambitions of inclusive and sustained change, then we need to think more intentionally about preparation and process. This begins with mindsets. 

This blog shouldn’t be interpreted as a call to toss out the tools and approaches you currently use, but rather to reinforce them with the four mindset points outlined above.