As the latest (and way overdue) installment of my reflections on the NESTA States of Change public sector innovation program (Canadian edition), I wanted to share my ‘sketchnotes’ from our third session and highlight some tips that my GC Entrepreneur colleagues and I have collected on pitching innovation in government. (Sketchnotes from Session 1 here, and Session 2 here)
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One of my biggest takeaways from this last year as part of the first GC Entrepreneur (GCE) cohort, has been how essential ‘making the pitch’ is to advancing innovation in government.
Before starting this job, whenever I watched a presentation from a public sector team on new and exciting work that was underway — I’d be, frankly, jealous of the employees who got to work on it. How lucky, to be given the opportunity to work on such a cool project!
I was pretty naïve.
Over the last year, my GCE colleagues and I have been fortunate to engage with a wide variety of people who have worked, or are working, on transformative or disruptive efforts in government. And part of what we have learned is that teams in government are rarely handed everything they need to pursue an innovative idea (i.e., the mandate, the people, the time, the tools, the skills, the connections, etc.) — — they’ve had to make the case for what they need.
The teams we talked to built the space and partnerships in which their idea was developed, tested, adapted, and scaled — piece by piece, pitch by pitch. Even when teams had the mandate to pursue something new, there was often pressure from the system to take the least disruptive, and thus closest to business-as-usual, approach. These teams had to make the case to pursue their idea differently.
All of this is not surprising. In large bureaucracies like ours, management’s focus tends to be (& understandably so) on executing the detailed plans that we’ve carefully thought out to deliver on our approved mandates. New, ‘off-cycle’ ideas have to have a really good argument to justify drawing attention and resources away from our existing commitments. And the more unfamiliar the idea or approach being proposed is, the stronger the system requires that argument to be.
The GCEs spent our third NESTA’s States of Change week focused on testing the pitch for some of our own projects. We also had the opportunity to hear from experienced government innovators on the strategies behind how they made the case to both pursue something — and pursue it differently.
My ‘sketchnotes’ on this session are at the bottom of this blog, but I’d like to spend some time digging into the tips specific to pitching innovation in government that emerged:
1. Seed Doubt: Show the risks of the current approach.
I’m starting with the trickiest tip: To plant or sow concerns about an existing tool or policy sounds almost Machiavellian! But the truth is — there are a lot of things that government does that need to change or need to get better. But, as public servants, we know — and get to see first-hand — how hard our talented colleagues in those areas are working and the confines they have to work within, that may be leading to the current results. We hate to see good people have their efforts undermined. So, almost by default, we tend to want to shield the existing approach from critique.
Seeding doubt, by highlighting risks rather than finding fault, can help take the conversation to a less defensive place. An existing policy or program can have been brilliantly executed and have significant support from the public, but that won’t make it impervious to changes in its operating environment.
What this tip suggests is that you don’t always have to focus on the elements of the current solution that may not be working — in order to argue that a new approach is needed. Sometimes pointing out the changes that are coming (in policy, in the marketplace, in technology, etc.) will allow your audience to come to that conclusion on their own.
2. Show it’s an ingrained problem where business-as-usual tactics aren’t working.
Pitching an idea that is really outside-the-box thinking in a ‘traditional’ area of policy can be quite challenging. Your audience may be more receptive to an unconventional approach — if they are reminded that the problem you are working to solve is both a long-standing one and one where conventional policy and program efforts haven’t yet achieved the desired outcomes. Showing the long history of work done in the area and the (perhaps limited) progress made to date, could help make your case that it’s time to try something different.
3. Show the diversity of users to show the need for a diversity of solutions.
It’s been my experience that teams tend to focus their efforts on the one solution that they think will meet the most needs. Aiming for the biggest return on investment can be a practical and effective strategy (especially if resources are more limited)— but it doesn’t make sense all the time. Demonstrating the variety of stakeholders impacted by a problem, and their varied needs and challenges, may help convey the message that a one-size-fits-most approach won’t work for the problem you are trying to address — and open the door for consideration of other, additional and complementary tactics.
4. Citizens have new expectations that governments engage and be accessible. Show new tools and approaches are needed to deliver.
User surveys and evaluations are usually carefully scoped out. In my experience, they seem to focus on whether the program or service is working (as those-who-designed-it intended it to work, not always as users would love it to work) and whether users’ are satisfied (based on their expectations… which of government services, may not always be that high). As a result, we get very-specific feedback to action, which can/often/usually translates to improvements to the existing tool or service. We then show these improvements as a demonstration that we’re acting on what stakeholders told us they want. While true…. I’m not sure we’re always very upfront about how narrow our questions to stakeholders (about what they want) might have been.
When proposing to transform (not just improve) an approach, we may need to look outside our traditional feedback loops from stakeholders to demonstrate the appetite for big change. Examples including citing policy, technology, or demographic trends; creating future-oriented scenarios; or sharing the uptake of similar new tools from other jurisdictions.
5. Demonstrate learning: Instill confidence by capturing and sharing insights.
Make’em say “Huh.”
I can’t remember who said it (apologies) but someone recently likened pitching innovation projects to having continuous referendums on whether your work should go forward or not. Every presentation can feel like the last.
When pursuing an idea that’s outside current plans and processes — there’s no ebb and flow to carry your work along. The moment after you get a go-ahead of some kind, someone almost immediately switches the discussion to ‘demonstrating results’. Showing the return on investment. Fending off the doubters by declaring a success somehow, somewhere.
And the ‘someones’ aren’t exactly wrong. A lack of results can appear like a lack of progress — — as if your project is still in planning mode and hasn’t gotten off the ground. And depending on the amount of investment (time, people, taxpayer dollars, etc.) — it’s not inappropriate for the system to start thinking about when would be the right time to cut our losses.
Innovation, experimentation, testing, trying something new … at the core it’s all about learning. Learning what works and what doesn’t, to make evidence-informed decisions and achieve better results. You may have lots of little failures and no successes under your belt yet… but if you have learned new and relevant things (i.e. discovering an unexpected demand from users, an informal network already working on the problem that can leveraged, previously unidentified requirements for a future solution, etc.), that’s progress you can and should show.
Make it a practice to capture and share openly what you are learning. Incorporate your learning not only into your strategy and project plan, but into your pitch. Show your audiences that your work in a new area or with a new approach is already resulting in new knowledge or insights your organization didn’t have before.
6. Diversify the stakeholder base: Show how you are bringing in individuals, organizations, or sectors that don’t normally view themselves as part of the debate.
Another consideration when proposing a new approach in a traditional policy or program area — — is to outline how your method has the potential to bring new stakeholders to the table, or engage stakeholders that haven’t previously seen themselves as part of the conservation.
I think this tip speaks to the clear desire we’re seeing for government to work openly, engage different perspectives, and build more inclusive policies.
At the same time, gaining new insight on a policy or program issue — while an important step — is not the same as changing the policy or program itself. That your approach could bring new stakeholders into the discussion might be particularly appealing if your audience seems a little hesitant about change — because its not committing to changing anything yet.
7. Show, not tell: Create opportunities for people to experience, then experiment, then engage.
I think our colleagues in digital services have lots they can teach us on this tip. I’ve heard stories about senior managers that became really invested in web redesign projects after trying to navigate a demo site first by themselves, and then by observing user testing with impacted stakeholders.
On our NESTA training, we heard from one expert practitioner about an effort to explore service design in government. The project began with 1) week-long sprint design sessions with potential partner departments on one of their ‘sticky’ problems; that then grew to 2) embedding designers in short trials with service teams of now partner departments; that then supported 3) a broad, horizontal discussion on how design can be better incorporated into service teams government-wide.
While this tip may require a significant investment of time and effort, it can be quite impactful.
8. Explain what tacit knowledge or hidden expertise you are seeking to tap into.
This is pretty straight forward: When and where you can, be explicit about how your idea or way of approaching the problem is targeting new information or insights that we don’t seem to be capturing through traditional means.
9. Build in your audience’s track record of innovation
My GCE colleagues and I have heard from both employees and managers who feel the public service is too risk averse. And yet, I’m often surprised to hear that some of the tools or policies we now consider to be fundamental/standard — almost didn’t launch because there was too much resistance when they were first proposed. Our organizations have been, and continue to be, innovative — part of our problem seems to be that we don’t talk about it enough.
Reminding your audience of their team or their department’s history of experimentation and trying new things, might help make your case for more smart risk taking.
BONUS TIPS (not in my sketchnotes but have come up since!)
10. Show them they won’t be alone.
There can be safety in numbers.
If you are proposing applying a somewhat new-to-government methodology (examples include behavioural science or outcomes-based funding approaches like challenge-prizes), consider referencing for your audience other teams/departments that are also testing the new methodology, or list the help that is available (shout-out to the Impact and Innovation Unit, the Canada School of Public Service, our Digital Government colleagues, Public Services and Procurement Canada, Statistics Canada, and the many others who’ve been working hard to create new tools to aid departments in innovation). Give your audience comfort that you aren’t proposing they “go it alone”, and show them there’s an ecosystem that can be leveraged for support.
This tip also applies if you are proposing tackling a new problem area — show your audience the ecosystem, both inside and outside of government, that is working on solutions and that could be tapped for lessons learned or collaborations.
11. Give them a process.
If you are interested in public sector innovation, I highly recommend this webcast on moonshot thinking in government. One of the interesting tips that was suggested was that while it’s impossible to have a strict step-by-step plan to produce an innovation (you need flexibility to pivot, and even abandon) — people may feel more assured or comfortable when they see there is a process being followed. So where possible, show you have a structure in place for how you are progressing. If you are still in development-mode, consider sharing your next anticipated milestones, or provide a high level overview of the phases of implementation.
So — 11 tips on pitching innovation in government so far… but I’m sure there are more out there. Do you have any advice for public service change agents to make the case to try new things?