Our Next Innovation Challenge: Stop Talking To Ourselves

“Wicked problems”—ranging from malaria to dwindling water supplies—are being reframed as “wicked opportunities” and tackled by networks of non-governmental organisations, social entrepreneurs, governments, and big businesses.

The challenge is connecting the players and closing the gaps.

William Eggars Global Public Sector Research Director at Deloitte, speaking at Lab Works 2015

I had one huge takeaway from Lab Works – an annual event that brings together the growing international network of innovation labs, units, offices and teams working inside and alongside Government on society’s biggest challenges.

It’s this:

So many of us , right around the world , are working on solving exactly the same problems.

From Singapore to Malaysia to Denmark to Mexico to India to the UK- we are all working on the same things.

That’s huge amounts of global talent seeking to address climate change, income and health inequality, lack of affordable housing, unemployment, ageing, digital exclusion and loneliness. All uncoordinated and fragmented.

In Great Britain – the third most populous island in the world after Java and Honshu – it fragments even further. Health, Housing, Social Care, Education and the rest go about their business largely in isolation. They congregate on an annual basis at conferences (separately), they lobby politicians (separately), they communicate their ‘message’ (separately). Even on borderless platforms like Twitter they self-organise using their own hashtags.

Undoubtedly digital can connect us in ways never before possible – yet whole sectors are still just talking to themselves.

So – who is doing the joining up? Who’s making it their job to prevent duplication on a massive scale – to co-ordinate the research, the tests, the pilots and the learning from failure?

William Eggars made the answer to this very clear:

No-one. No-one is doing this.

So who’s job is it?

And it could be yours?

I reckon this sector silo thinking, this lack of knowledge sharing at national and international level,  is one of the most wicked problems we face. So how can we reframe it as a wicked opportunity?

Let’s take this right down to a practical, organisational level. Here’s four suggestions for how we could at least get started:

Identify the problem

First of all we need to identify our wicked problems. A lot of organisational strategies actually aren’t focused on wicked problems. They are often solutionist (e.g we’ll achieve this by 2020 or we’ll implement these things in the next three years). Wicked problems are different, they can be difficult to get to grips with. Often they won’t have a stopping rule,  the search for solutions never stops. Ageing is a good example, you’ll never “solve” it. It requires a different way of looking at it.

Reframe them as opportunities

Seeing them as opportunities automatically shifts your mindset into a far more expansive and creative state. An organisation that sees problems as opportunities will develop a much more positive relationship with our world of volatile change. We need colleagues as innovators and entrepreneurs rather than adopting deficit based behaviours. A good example is the UK social housing sector – which generally adopts an attitude of “no-one likes us, no-one will fund us”. Rather than being a problem that’s a wonderful opportunity. No-one in that sector has a brand value of an Apple or Amazon. Any one of 1500 players could step forward to claim it. 

Engage your people 

Once we’ve identified our opportunities – let’s open up our organisations and work out loud.  Silos emerged out of efforts to make our organisations more efficient. In 20th Century command and control management it made sense to operate an industrial mentality of division by function and department. But wicked problems are , by their nature, extremely complex . We need to embrace this complexity and form people around them with range of skills. Your organisational structure chart won’t help you here. We need a much more fluid and collaborative model that allows people (employees and citizens) to swarm around the opportunities they are most engaged with.

Embrace the network

People are working on the same things as us across the globe. We won’t solve things on our own. We are desperately inward looking. Our sectors , our organisations , even our teams. There will always be more talented people outside your organisation than within it – so lets seek them out. Collaboration is a central theme to innovation because of speed , connections , energy and the ability to fast track implementation.  Most of us have hundreds , thousands or tens of thousands of connections. Worldwide. Let’s put them to work.

Turning this problem into an opportunity won’t be easy. We face a hugely competitive funding environment and an incredibly crowded social space. Everyone is fighting for attention.

Removing the huge duplication might mean we don’t all need our own website, back office teams, or even chief executive. We might not all need to exist – someone might be better placed than you or I to grasp the opportunity.

But if we are serious about attacking real problems there’s no room for vested interests. To address wicked problems our organisations must be reshaped in the shadow of the network. The wicked opportunities lie at the heart of it.


15 thoughts on “Our Next Innovation Challenge: Stop Talking To Ourselves

  1. Brilliantly put, Paul. Puts me in mind of the tweet I saw from someone summing up a recent housing conference – “Everyone here is agreed we need to build more houses”. Really? You don’t say?

    1. Thanks John. Where. Do.You. Start. 😉

      Seriously – lack of affordable housing is a worldwide issue. I’d like to know what we’ve genuinely done as a sector to learn from China, South America, SE Asia.

  2. Agreed Paul – and to achieve cooperation I think we face three main challenges: encouraging “working out loud” mindsets in a competitive environment; social spaces to join up when there are so many; people paid to do the joining up across spaces, and other facilitation. Where best to model this?

    1. Completely agree David – I’m going to pick up this theme at forthcoming Learning from Failure workshops and report back..

      Might be worth a conversation sometime too

  3. Loved this post Paul! The link to the article “wicked problems” was really interesting too. The big takeaways for me were:

    “”Unexpected and even unsatisfactory results contribute to organisational learning.””
    “”To develop a feed-forward orientation as a complement to the feedback practices they currently use, corporations must learn to envision the future””

    Great post – Thanks

  4. I work on other wicked problems rather than the ones that Paul cites. Mine mostly involve security issues but his ideas are virtually the same as mine. Among other things, wicked problems require collaborative solutions, which mean talking to and working with people you disagree with.

    1. That’s spot on – so many people avoid working with viewpoints that counter their own when that’s exactly what produces the wicked opportunity.

      Thanks for commenting

  5. Hi Paul,

    I love your passion for a bigger and less parochial ways of working – including working out loud, avoiding a more linear solutionist approach etc.

    Here are today’s favourite ideas from me 😉 Maybe one of them will move things onwards for you, or someone else…?

    Perhaps we mostly just need more and more deliberately cross-silo blogs and websites to pop up?

    We have sought – with the new site ‘Enlivening Edge – news from next-stage organizations’ bit.ly/EnliveningEdge – to bring onto the same page those people who are involved in transforming their organisations in a ‘Next Stage’ direction.

    So it covers, for example, Britain’s NHS: ‘How to build bureaucracy-free health services in the UK: learning from Buurtzorg’ http://www.enliveningedge.org/field-reports/how-to-build-bureaucracy-free-health-services-in-the-uk-learning-from-buurtzorg/

    And commercial online retailers: ‘Media fascinated by the Zappos experiment’ http://www.enliveningedge.org/organizations/media-fascinated-by-the-zappos-experiment/

    The new wiki Frederic Laloux and others have created of ‘Next Stage’ tools, processes etc seems a good example of cross-silo work: http://www.enliveningedge.org/tools-practices/wiki-for-next-stage-heroes-launched/

    Another suggestion: I also sometimes wonder whether slowly beginning to normalise the use of engaging group tools in all our meetings would change things greatly – fostering real involvement and creativity in a way that is currently all too rare. The neatest/clearest route to doing this seems to be the palette of tools offered by Liberating Structures: http://www.liberatingstructures.com/ls/

    Perhaps this shift in our approach in meetings would be more likely if someone shared some good research to compare lots of organisations using their Inclusion and Engagement Quotient survey: http://www.liberatingstructures.com/ieq-survey
    (I was hoping to do some research to compare two organisations, but then my team in one of them got deleted and I had to drop it).

    Just seeing the reality of how much the level of creativity/engagement varies in our meetings might help to nudge things towards greater use of collaborative Liberating Structures. Once in use, it’s probably hard to go back to the more common way of doing things.

    I don’t know quite where this fits, but I feel that much of how we behave is in some ways an outgrowth of our own inner mindset (values, traits, orientations).

    When I invited the award-winning Educator Prof Robert Kegan to speak at the RSA a year or two back, his big message was that there are some generalised overarching shifts that people tend to make from ‘Socialised’ (conventional) thinking to ‘Self-authored’ thinking (where you learn to trust your own ‘inner compass’) and on to ‘Self-transforming’ thinking (a rarer, more fluid and self-challenging way of thinking).

    You can view the edited video here: https://www.thersa.org/discover/videos/event-videos/2013/05/thoughts-on-the-self-transforming-mind-/ (or listen to the full audio).
    And the key bit of his message – for me – was that only the 4 or 5 million (mostly older) people in the UK with ‘Self-transforming’ minds really have the capacity to wrestle effectively with ‘wicked’ problems. The (more common) Self-authored capability that we are encouraged to develop in our society does not feel drawn to listening to a range of contrasting stakeholders, to then reframing and transforming its viewpoint. Only the Self-transforming mind does that.

    So what? Good question! Perhaps we can help our mindsets to evolve towards this capacity to naturally listen to all stakeholders and craft new solutions to ‘wicked’ problems? Kegan might suggest using his ‘Overcoming immunity to change’ approach. I certainly found it surprisingly powerful doing a MOOC on it, along with some RSA Fellows: http://www.rsablogs.org.uk/2014/fellowship/join-mooc-education-revolution-free-learncreate-rsa-fellows/

    Maybe we need a ‘Crone of the Year’ award, precisely to reward the kind of open and self-transforming thinking (in older people) that can solve wicked issues? No-one ever seems to make the point that the self-transforming (dialectical) kind of thinking older people are more likely to be able to do can be the answer to our biggest challenges. It’s what embraces ambiguity and complexity, rather than pushing it away.

    Another place I thought of where the lessons will transfer across sectors – and so might be a good focus for collaboration – was around organisations that have set up Net Promoter-style listening/improvements systems. This is all quite well embedded in the commercial sector. But my sons’ school had no idea who they could speak with about it, after they ran a Net Promoter-style survey. The NHS’s version of it, the Friends and Family Test – despite being the biggest ever exercise in gathering patient feedback in the world ever, apparently! – gives the strong impression of having been done in isolation from other sectors. Often the NHS forms about this don’t even ask what improvement patients would most suggest, and feeding back to patients/public about the actual improvements made seems decidedly sketchy.

    So, a cross-sectoral ‘Net Promoter’ engagement/improvement clearinghouse?

    Matthew Kalman Mezey

    1. Wow – what a comment and link to some great resources. Going to be exploring them and will post comment back.

  6. I’m sure Borneo would have something to say about Great Britain’s claim to be the 3rd largest island on this dying planet. And Java will be surprised to learn they now dwarf GB. Otherwise a fine piece.

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