My esteemed colleague Carl Haggerty has been blogging heavily just lately about systemic innovation. It’s a fascinating topic, on which he writes intelligently and thoughtfully, but it’s one of those things that makes me go “Meh”. Partly that’s because I have the attention span of a kitten at a knitting convention, but also because I disagree with trying to put a framework around just about every damn thing. That’s my issue, as I know it works really well for others, but still …
This discussion paper that Carl refers to contains a brilliant analysis of how systemic innovation happens, and the conditions required to make it so. It largely depends on individuals seeing the opportunity, and making their idea something that others will use in enough volume to make it a new standard. Twitter is one example – a simple messaging app has become a major communications tool across all sectors, and has some quite literally life-saving applications.
What we are looking for here is change that leads to more change … we can’t design it that way because we can’t possibly know what people might go and decide to do with it. It might be nothing like what we intended when we made the first innovation.
I’ll try not to just reproduce whole sections of the paper’s text here, but I want to share some phrases that jumped out at me. I can’t reword these in any better form than they already have, so here they are:
Drive = relentless, incremental innovation
Lots of little steps, or lots of people taking the same step … This is not about having a whole system change dropped on your head, this is about doing something small that works, sharing it with others, and then looking at what’s next. The biggest projects depend on dozens, hundreds of tiny actions if they are going to work. This is what I like to think we are achieving with our current focus on innovation – imagine something, try it, share it, change it, imagine something else, rinse and repeat. Some of the little things we have come up with are so simple, so effortless, we have no excuse for not coming up with them before – apart from “that’s not the way things are done around here”. Sometimes the only way to change how things are done, is to change how things are done. Or to put it another way, this IS how things are done around here, because I’m here and I’m doing it this way.
Driving systems to improve assumes that the goals of the system do not need changing
If the goal is to serve customers more quickly, but the system itself delays service because the resources aren’t available, then the system’s goal is to prevent service. Improving the system will just make it better at preventing service. Never forget, the purpose of a system is what it does.
Driving a system to do more will not be enough if something different is needed
If I’m supposed to be serving customers, but my system allows me only to tell 10 people a day that I can’t help them, it’s clearly not an improvement to be able to tell 100 people a day that I can’t help them. Although somebody I know worked on a helpline where that was actually a target. No, really – their goal was to answer a set number of calls per day, telling the customer that there was nothing they could do. If actually helping the customer made the call go over 4 minutes, they were supposed to end the call by any means necessary. The ‘highest-performing’ staff were those who simply put the phone down mid-sentence.
Systems make life hard when they seem to work against us
It can seem that most systems are in place to prevent rather than enable us. I believe that the systems that fit the description are those that have been put together wholesale, big picture view, rather than starting at the front end and working out how to resolve problems. It is always and ever the little things that matter when we are talking about helping others.
Here’s a thought; food banks. It’s intolerable, in 2013, that there should be food banks. That there should even need to be food banks. What society have we created, where people need free food handouts to survive? It’s a disgrace. And many of my colleagues, and our partners across the country, are working on schemes and campaigns to change the system. We might get the law changed, or benefits increased, or categories tweaked, and so on. And these are all good things, but while we wait for changes to take effect, somebody somewhere has missed another meal. And another, and another, and another. By the time we have a system that truly meets everyone’s needs, how many vulnerable people will have starved? Sometimes the best way to tackle world hunger is to buy somebody dinner.
Here’s my favourite phrase, describing systems that make life hard:
Unyielding, clumsy and self-interested
That’s a perfect description, and an excellent way to sense-check our proposed solutions.
Does our system protect itself at the expense of our customers?
Can our system cope with non-standard cases?
Does our system react to what is really happening, rather than focusing on what it can recognise?
I hope we can get this right. I really don’t like putting in all this effort just to completely miss the point.