Our big vision is to build an open learning collective that is action-focused and based on real life practice, and a key part of this is the States of Change foundational learning programme on public innovation. This 9-12 month programme aims to reinvent traditional government learning by championing a bias towards action and solving problems together. This means that public servants take part in teams and work on live projects connected to their job throughout.
We’ve spent the past year in development, and so were eager to test this new approach in Victoria. The Victorian cohort consists of 10 teams of 42 civil servants from a range of departments including Consumer Affairs Victoria, Department of Education and Training, Transport for Victoria and the Department of Treasury and Finance. Over the next nine months, our goal is to help the teams build their capacity to practically deal with the complex problems they face by supporting them to adopt a more experimental approach and mindset.
Over the last few months we've been working with the Victorian State government on planning the programme and selecting the teams, and at the end of April we were in Melbourne to run a two and half day ‘Scoping’ session with the selected teams. After the many hours of preparation, there was a real sense of excitement and anticipation amongst us all that the moment had finally arrived.
As we said earlier, States of Change is about building an open learning collective where we can share our experiences and knowledge, and so in that spirit the rest of this blog explains what we did, and includes some of the tools and resources we used.
Moving to an experimental approach
The ‘Scoping’ session was designed to get teams up to speed on the programme, as well as to equip them with some basic tools and skills to explore their challenge and prepare them for developing the next iteration of their project plan.
To help participants get into an experimental mindset, after an official welcome ceremony we ran an activity that highlighted the difference between typical ways of working (which often default to brainstorming ideas) and experimental ways of working (turning ideas into testable hypotheses). This helped to demonstrate the core narrative of the programme: that we need to experiment outside our comfort zone and move beyond the obvious in order to develop better outcomes. Together, the teams also read aloud a collective pledge to affirm their commitment to their learning journey and their intentions going forwards.
Exploring challenges using the six innovation principles
Day two started with each team sharing their challenge and then exploring various aspects of it using the six principles of innovation.
These principles served as ‘lenses’ to look at their challenge from different and new perspectives (see slide deck day 2 and 3). The aim was to ‘open up’ the challenge statement, and look beyond the obvious to explore the unobvious. Each principle focused on a question:
- People: what do you know about the people who are most affected (directly or indirectly) by the issue?
- Systems: what does the bigger picture look like? Who or what is influencing the challenge?
- Facts: what evidence or data do you have about the challenge? What trends or patterns do you see?
- Futures: what possible futures have been considered to explore how this challenge may develop?
- Solutions: has anyone solved a similar challenge to you already? What can you learn from them?
- Problems: what causes the problem? What are the ensuring effects?
For each of these areas, we asked teams to identify (validated) knowledge, assumptions and knowledge gaps:
- (Validated) knowledge: what do you know for sure? For which you have evidence to support your claims.
- Assumptions: what do you think you know for sure? But for which you don’t have any evidence to support your claims.
- Knowledge gaps: what is it that you don’t know? For which you may need to carry out research.
After exploring their challenge through these six lenses, teams then filled out the worksheet below to draw the principles and knowledge questions together, and create a rough project plan for their challenge.
Developing the team
The final day focused on organisational and team dynamics (see slide deck of day 3). Each team did a ‘pre-project post mortem’ to identify potential risks that might ‘kill’ their project and to come up with measures to help prevent this. We also helped them to build their advocacy skills by letting them explore the arguments that sceptics in their organisations might have to "not do innovation", and how to counter these arguments.
The session wrapped up with some activities on team design, looking at how to design and manage an effective innovation team. This focused on developing habits and rituals that build a psychological safe space for learning, e.g. doing an emotional check-in at the beginning of a weekly team meeting, sharing each other’s user manual (how each participant likes to work).
Some quick reflections
While it was an intensive two and half days, it achieved its aim of shifting the participants’ perspective on their challenges. When the teams shared their key insights and reflections at the end, we could see that the exercises had helped open their eyes and inspired them to look at their challenge in a new way, reframing it. The learning activities sparked a process that teams will continue over the next couple of months, where they continuously revise and improve their challenge statement as they learn more about it along the way.
One participant commented in particular how at the beginning, exploring the unobvious had seemed quite random - but that by the end of the session, they could see there was a logic to the uncertainty of the innovation process. For us, this demonstrated that we were helping give the teams confidence that innovation isn’t a ‘dark art’ but that it involves a process.
Securing senior support
We were also pleased by the strong levels of senior executive support for the programme and their respective teams. Each team is backed by a project sponsor; somebody senior with their department who can provide high level support. These sponsors were keen to ensure that their teams are willing to push the envelope about what might be possible and not interpret their remit too narrowly.
This encouragement to 'challenge the brief' will enable teams to think more broadly about the nature of the problem and to think more creatively about possible responses and intervention points.
Over the next three months, the teams will follow a learning journey that is structured around three categories of experimentation. These form the ‘Fundamentals’ of the programme: Explore, Trial & Error, Validate. Next week, we’ll be back in Melbourne with faculty member Joeri van den Steenhoven for the 'Explore' week, where the 10 civil servant teams will be introduced to a range of innovation tools and techniques that will help them identify their assumptions, uncover their cognitive and social biases and (re)frame their challenge.
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