Innovation in public sector

A fascinating talk by David Snowden on innovation in public sector, in which he talks, among other things, about complexity of adaptive systems and why methods used in managing manufacturing systems don’t work in services sector, for example in government’s interaction with its citizens (think education, health system, etc) .  An excerpt from the talk:

“The best way to understand this is through how you would manage childrens’ party.  Everybody can imagine a party for 10-11 year olds? There are a number of ways you can manage a party for a bunch of 11 year olds. One is a sort of chaotic systems approach in which you buy the drugs and alcohol so they go on a personal experience of self-discovery. I don’t recommend this – teh recovery cost is high…On the other hand you could organise it in the way you organise it in the government [substitute with “education”, “university”].  You make sure you agree learning objectives for the party in advance of the party itself. The learning objectives should be aligned with mission statement for education in society to which you belong. And you should print the learning objectives off on motivational posters with pictures of eagles soaring over valleys and water dropping into ponds. Put them around the walls in the room where you are going to hold the party. You then produce a project plan for the party. The project plan should have clear milestones throughout the party against which you can measure the progress of party against an ideal party outcome. And you should start the party with motivational video tap, because you don’t want the children to waste time in play which is not aligned with learning objectives. The senior adult should then use a powerpoint slide set to demonstrate their personal committment to the party’s objectives and also show children how the pocket money allowances are linked to the attainment of targets. Following the highly successful completion of the party, you conduct an after-action review, update your best practice database on party management and mandate future process improvements.  If at the end of this for any reason children aren’t happy, you hire an appreciative inquiry practitioner and then get them to tell happy-clappy stories so they have happy mental models and are suitably indoctrinated so that they will like it whatever you put in front of them next time. Everybody familiar with this approach to party management?”

Some soundbites:

  • tensions between manufacturing methods vs services (eg government interaction with its citizens)
  • context is essential: what works in one context won’t necessarily work in another – but this doesn’t mean we cannot learn from experiences in otehr contexts
  • we know what we need to know when we need to know it – situationally non-transferable practice
  • don’t imitate, innovate – receipe based approach is damaging
  • best practices don’t work – humans learn from failure not success; humans prefer to talk to other humans rather than searching for best practices in databases
  • beware of retrospective coherense – hindsight doesn’t give you foresight – anyone who thinks they can hypothesise on the basis of retrospective examination of case deserves a place in a pantheon of witch doctors
  • major mistake of management science is to confuse cause and effect
  • creativity is not the casue of innovation – innovative people are creative but creativity alone won’t make you innovative
  • 3 conditions for innovation: starvation of resources, pressure of time, perspective shift (life and death situation) – eg Appollo 13 film
  • innovation in public sector is discovered in the context of real-world problems not 3 year research projects
  • You cannot manage outcomes but can manage the nature of interactions between people – the way to do it is to expose people to others who think differently
  • distributed congintion vs wisdom of crowds
  • data shouldn’t be intermediated – decision makers who encounter raw data make better decisions
  • the way to innovate is to detect weak signals before everyone else does, then act on good ones and disrupt bad ones

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