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Saturday, December 1, 2012

Challenge-Led Innovation

#oipsrv One view of innovation is that it is motivated by a series of challenges. Once upon a time, we would have used the word "problems", and called this the "problem-solving" approach to innovation. But the word "problem" is now taboo in business world, and we have to find various euphemisms such as "opportunity" or "challenge". Necessity is the mother of invention.

At a seminar at the British Library yesterday (Open Innovation in Public Services), I heard several ways of managing innovation in these terms.

  • Challenge Prizes - Offering cash prizes to the first person or team that can solve a well-defined problem. This approach has been used for centuries, although the history of technology is littered with unfortunate inventors who have produced something brilliant only to have the prize taken by a rival, or unfairly denied for various spurious reasons. Furthermore, a poorly designed prize can discourage collaboration and thus inhibit innovation instead of encouraging it. However, as Vicki Purewal explained, prize schemes do not have to follow the winner-takes-all, loser-gets-nothing rule, and are often designed to distribute the rewards more fairly and in stages. See Centre for Challenge Prizes
  • Hack Days - Bringing volunteers together for a day to build quick and dirty solutions to a broad range of problems. This approach is most commonly seen in the software arena, and the example presented was NHS Hackdays.
  • Challenge Platform - Creating a social network and/or funding for collective problem-solving. Contrasting examples from Barking and Dagenham, Camden, and York.


I think these are all good and useful initiatives. One of the benefits is that they open up the organization or ecosystem to ideas from a much larger community of people. This can be both more democratic and a lot more cost-effective than hiring one of the large consultancies, which seems to be the default method in some organizations. One way of putting this is that it changes the available scope of Organizational Intelligence.

However, problem-solving may be necessary for innovation, but is not sufficient. These initiatives concentrate on invention, which tends to be the sexy part of innovation. @davidtownson from the Design Council showed two slides that placed invention into a broader context. The first of these slides showed the Design Council's design process, drawn as a Double Diamond.  The first diamond is devoted to clarifying the problem or requirement, and the second diamond is devoted to solving a well-defined problem. If the challenge-led approach starts from a well-defined problem, then it is just doing the second diamond. 

The second of David's slides showed a spiral model of innovation, culminating in Systemic Change. (I can't find a version of this spiral on the Design Council website.) This might suggest extending the Double Diamond into a Triple Diamond, where the third diamond tackled the difficult and unglamorous end of the innovation process - rolling out the solution, integrating it with systems and working practices, and embedding it into the target organization or ecosystem.

This triple diamond faintly echoes the three-phase innovation model proposed (in a somewhat different context) by Abernathy and Utterback, which combined product innovation, process innovation, competitive environment and organizational structure: 
  • Fluid phase (exploratory)
  • Transitional phase (convergence on solution)
  • Specific phase (focus on costs and performance)
Within the public sector, there may be broad demand for innovations (individual challenges), but there is also extremely strong demand for innovation as such (focus on costs and performance). So a suitably modified version of the Abernathy and Utterback model would be extremely relevant to the public sector.

Let us return to the question of Open Innovation. In her presentation, Heather Niven contrasted a large tanker with a flotilla of small boats. In the specific area of NHS information systems, Heather's metaphor applies very well to the contrast between the NPfIT - a grossly expensive centralized white elephant - and a large number of small but useful apps developed in the NHS Hackdays Carl Reynolds has organized. The "bottom-up" approach may be more promising than the "top-down" approach, as well as more exciting, but there probably needs to be a stronger element of coordination and integration before we can see this innovation as anything more than a load of well-meaning but marginal efforts by a bunch of extremely clever geeks.

Finally, there was some discussion about the word "innovation", and resistance to this concept within the public sector in particular. Perhaps we need to go back to talking about problem-solving?



Abernathy, W.J. and Utterback, J.M. Patterns of Innovation in Technology (Technology Review 1978) via Innovation Zen

For @LucyInnovation 's report of the British Library seminar, see Because not all the smart people work for you ...

1 comment:

  1. Not using the word innovation is a special case of a general degradation in our ability to say what we mean and be heard. The Tower of Babel is the original goal driven activity that produced this effect. Does anyone know of any studies that map our ability to be heard by our fellow humans as a necessary resource for our viability?

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