Innovation and design-thinking are increasingly permeating government taxonomy, processes and agendas in hope of finding new and creative solutions for the community. Yet so often I observe or am told that most of the time, it doesn’t lead anywhere, or ideas never turn into reality.
Organisations have become so focused on brainstorming and testing new and novel ideas that we have forgotten about the most important part of creating lasting change — seamless execution. Ad where I have seen organisations who do try to execute ideas it is done through the usual legacy structures and processes in silos that are not conducive to success…but haven’t found a way to bridge the gap between design and execution, and it all falls apart. And they rule that innovation and design-thinking is a fad that is little more than a buzzword.
In my experience in government and the professional services sector, experts primarily focus on helping government on the earlier part of the process, on being innovative or using design-thinking to develop possible solutions. It stops there. Where is the help to make it happen? Where is the help that turns ideas into reality? Where is the help to bridge the gap between design and execution?
This gap, is what I am passionate about and what I believe is the ingredient for successful reform. To achieve this and create lasting value from design and innovation, there are additional capabilities and elements organisations need to build.
Bottom up, top down
Design-thinking innovates new solutions based on a ground-up process. What is missing is ensuring that we consider the top-down — the broader system in which the solution is being executed within and around. This is where I believe the nexus between design-thinking and systems-thinking comes in. Systems-thinking is about the top-down, big picture view. I like to look at this in two ways.
Firstly, how does the internal system align its organisational design, governance, operations, strategy and culture to ensure it is conducive to successful innovation and execution of ideas? These elements are often missing from design-thinking and needs to also be designed with intention to allow seamless execution. Does what we have learnt about the problems and our users, and the potential solutions align with the organisation’s strategy? Does the organisational strategy need to shift, along with governance and how it is structured? Do we need to change the way we deliver programs and policies to be more in line with design thinking, and build capability of the people who are involved in this?
Secondly, systems-thinking can also relate to the external systems in which a possible solution will interact with, including the environment, other domains or sectors, stakeholders, political system and the regulatory environment. How will the solution or idea interact with these? Have we taken a broader view? For example, when I was working on improving the employment outcomes of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, I realised just how interconnected this was with other domains, including health, education and the justice systems. There was also so much to consider regarding diverse and at times opposing views of organisations and stakeholders that needed to be involved. When we did further exploration of the ideas we developed, there were peripheral consequences that we hadn’t considered.
Don’t stop at prototyping
I often reflect on when I first contributed to a design-thinking policy initiative many years ago and had to prototype possible policy solutions. Perhaps you are all thinking it too…how on earth do you prototype intangible policies? It isn’t like creating a smart phone or a mug…. We had to do it through story-boarding, role plays, paper models and other creative approaches. Getting to a “Minimum Viable Product” was more like a user-journey story board with some narrative captured around it. That is when our external expertise packed up and left and we were there to implement….a piece of paper with some pictures and words on it. It was overwhelming and to us, seemed impossible. We ended up stopping the initiative and were left with figuring out how to handle subsequent stakeholder expectations and potential loss of trust. I learnt a lot from that experience — it was the firm time I started gaining a real passion for bridging the gap between design and execution.
Don’t stop at prototyping is my key message here. Find a way to bridge this and the broader implementation. How will prototypes eventually make it into a fully-fledged policy? Do you need to do more research to validate what you have learnt? How will you more thoroughly evaluate prototypes? Can you move into formal pilots to understand how it may work on the ground and interact with other systems? Have you positioned these efforts to fit into the broader policy and budget cycles?
Commit to your idea as if it was a new business venture
We need ideas to be successful in the system and on the ground. Just like businesses needing commitment and investment to adapt and be desirable in the market, so does government policies and services within the system and for the community.
Business operating models can be one way of bridging the conceptual design with execution. However, I believe this needs to be tested far earlier in the process. When you are prototyping ideas, don’t just test and prototype the idea, but also how its operating model will work within the system. This will provide valuable feedback on whether the idea, the broader system or both need to shift and may result in the idea just not being feasible in the context you are testing it within. It also allows the opportunity to understand how this idea (for example a policy or service) needs to be executed, what capabilities is required to do this, and who should be responsible. Ensure there are evaluations and metrics along the way where insights can support decision making about where to pivot to ensure it is successful. How desirable is the idea? How will stakeholders respond and react? Ideas need commitment.
This is not an exhaustive list, but they are a couple of key takeaways of what differentiates the successful initiatives from my experience working directly on major design-thinking efforts or helping organisations to do so.
By bringing these practices, it can help bridge that gap between design and execution. It provides design-thinking and innovation the ingredients to turn the idea into a reality, and for government to create better outcomes for the community.
Would love to chat further with anyone who has their own thoughts 😊 Message me for a coffee!. Mish.