Exploring the unobvious: an overview

This post introduces a series of blogs from Nesta’s Innovation Skills team on building an experimental culture in governments.

As an Innovation Skills team, we aim to demystify innovation and help people in practical ways to become better innovators for the common good. As part of this, we work to understand, codify and share innovation practices and how to embed them in everyday practice. Examples of this can be seen in our Practice Guides, and the R&D work we’re doing through the States of Change learning collective.

In this series of blogs, we wanted to give an update on our current work in progress. We recently discussed the value of building an experimental culture in government, and in this series we look at this in more depth and explore how to do so in practice. To make it easier to digest, we’ve structured our thoughts into three separate blog posts – which form one comprehensive narrative, but can also be read separately.

Why governments need to experiment outside their comfort zone

In the first blog post, we argue that governments need to experiment outside their comfort zone. In our work with governments and development organisations, we often see that bureaucracies tend to explore only a small, fairly predictable subset of all possible solutions to a given problem. The solutions that are then chosen and implemented are in many cases the obvious but not necessarily most effective ones.

In contrast, we have seen solutions from problem solvers - who may or may not identify themselves as innovators - that on first glance seem counterintuitive, but that manage to tackle complex issues by taking an unconventional and experimental approach.

To us, this suggests that governments actually need to increase their appetite to experiment outside their comfort zone. By doing so, they’ll be able to stretch their practice and move beyond the obvious in order to develop better outcomes.

This leads to the question: how do you actually go about exploring the unobvious? Where do you start?

From methods to mindsets

In the second blog post we explain how innovation methods can help us explore the unobvious, but why we also need to move beyond thinking about methods in isolation.

When it comes to putting innovation into practice, there is a wide range of methods and approaches to choose from. However, we see that governments often have a bias or preference to one specific method (e.g. design thinking, behavioural insights). We need to be aware though that applying just one method is not the answer: every innovation method has its strengths, but it also has weaknesses. And by focusing on one particular approach, we limit the range of possible solutions – as “if all you have is a hammer, then every problem looks like a nail”.

We therefore need to move beyond just methods and focus on building a mindset that allows us to explore the unobvious with a more holistic understanding and application of innovation approaches. So, how do we go beyond methods and apply a broader perspective on innovation approaches?

Six principles to establish experimental practices

In the third blog post we present six principles that cut across most proven innovation methods and describe practice areas that help establish experimental practices in government.

The practice areas are grouped in pairs, showing the contrasting dynamics that need to be managed effectively. Toggling between all six principles helps government officials to challenge their ingrained “success” models and stretch entrenched “best” practices by exploring more of the unobvious than one single innovation method can do.

Together, the blogs in this series describe both why we need an experimental approach to explore the unobvious in government, and how to go about doing this in practice.

  1. Exploring the unobvious: why governments need to experiment outside their comfort zone
  2. Exploring the unobvious: from methods to mindsets
  3. Exploring the unobvious: six principles to establish experimental practices

We welcome your thoughts as we continue to evolve our thinking and test these ideas in practice, so please do get in touch with any comments or feedback.

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