The Octopus Beak: How the Octopus Inspired the 7 Principles of NS GovLab

By Jocelyn Yerxa, Design and Process Lead, NS GovLab

Power, privilege, and inherent colonial mindsets have been embedded in the Canadian landscape creating the status quo and must be addressed head on when creating innovative work. Without addressing these challenges, the social innovation community will find ourselves trapped in an impossible space where we can neither realize our full potential, nor find a way forward to an equal, just society. In the end, if you can’t break the cycle of your own biases, how can you hope to transform a bigger system embedded by them?

Sounds a little grim, doesn’t it? Don’t fear. The NS GovLab is here. And we’re offering how we’re trying to address these issues.

The NS GovLab has been around for just over a year and we are working to create positive impact in Nova Scotia. How far have we come in the first year? We’ve just welcomed a second group of fellows this September and now have 43 fellows in various stages of our social innovation lab process.

But you’re probably asking: How did you get to this point? The answer is our principles.

Truer words, Marge.

After finishing the first phase with our first cohort, our Co-Creation team took some time away to reflect on what’s next for NS GovLab. We wanted to figure out how to incorporate the learnings we’ve had so far and to identify the guiding principles for our work.

During a late summer gathering, we ended up on the site most people end up on at some point, YouTube. Some may call it falling down the rabbit hole, but we recognize it as a valuable part of our process. After watching 10+ YouTube videos of octopuses and through raucous tear-inducing laughter, we discovered something that clicked. Octopus are known for their abilities to escape from seemingly impossible spaces, if the hardest part of them — their beak — can fit through. Power, privilege and colonial mindsets are also seemingly impossible constraints. And yet is it possible that if we behave a little more like an octopus, we could work in ways in NS GovLab that help us to break free?

Social innovation labs are about changing the systems around us, but, at times, it can be hard to find our footing (especially with multiple appendages). But, just like an octopus, the only thing holding us, our fellows, and others we work with back is the size of our collective beaks. And if, we soften our hold on imposed, western ways of knowing and shrink our rigid beaks, we may be able to break free and find different solutions.

“Our hero”

The octopus beak has allowed us to truly explore the intersection of all the principles we’ve been working with at NS GovLab. The principles we have created reflect our agreed way of working and the things that are most important to us. Our Co-Creation team and fellows use them as a check back point when they find themselves in tough situations. Asking ourselves: “How does this fit with our agreed way of working and the things that are most important to us? How does this pull us closer or away from status quo?”

As our lab continues to progress and develop, so, will our principles in the coming years. Check them out below.

NS GovLab Principles:

Be in relationship with people and planet

○ We strive to build networks and connections. Relationships with people and the planet are central to achieving this goal. Therefore, we see relationships as results. We strive as a collective and as individuals to trust and be trusted.

Learning over knowing

○ Complex problems require constant curiosity and inquisitiveness. We approach NS GovLab with no predetermined outcomes, but with overarching questions and goals. We use an experimental process to test our hunches. We see inquiry as the answer.

Start somewhere, go everywhere

○ There is no wrong place to start with a complex problem. We take a systems approach that looks at all levels all the time. We are committed to being multimodal and working across scales to have the biggest impact possible, but we realize it will often start with small steps first.

Everybody is needed

○ We seek multiplicity and diversity. We invite people to be whole humans in NS GovLab. We accept that multiple contradictory truths are possible and embrace that ambiguity.

Be scrappy, care deeply

○ It is up to us. We want to change systems. We must recognize ourselves as actors in those systems. We must work across and from our own power to make change. Power matters. We are committed to paying attention to those most vulnerable.

Discomfort happens, it’s temporary

○ Group work and innovation follows a fairly predictable pattern of divergence and convergence. The groan zone is the place between divergence and convergence that is often most uncomfortable and feels like you might be going nowhere. This work is hard. Systems have a vested interest in status quo, so making change often means an immune response.

Whimsy, creativity and wonder

○ We have fun! We stretch our ways of knowing. We fall in love with problems. We approach those problems with creativity and wonder.

Special thanks to the brilliant work of Tuesday Ryan-Hart and her Shared Work model, Centre for Social Innovation, and adrienne maree brown’s book Emergent Strategy. These works and organizations have heavily influenced our principles.

Do these principles resonate with you? What are the principles you work with? Does the metaphor of the octopus have meaning? We would love to engage in a conversation about what principled based work means and how are incorporating it in your lab or organization. Please leave us a comment, send us an email or Tweet us to get the dialogue going.

P.S. You can learn some really cool things about octopuses here.