Governments are not usually known as a hotbed of innovation. But these are unusual times. A recent article in The Economist (link) captures a spur of innovation in British governmental organizations in the wake of the Covid-19 outbreak.
Innovation is a child of urgency, sometimes referred to by the proxy measure of “customer pain”. For companies the urgency is directly linked to competition. Shorn of pesky competitors, companies are as likely to inflict pain on consumers as they are to resolve it, as any passenger in competition-free routes can attest. But when forced to compete, companies will take the high-risk route to relieve consumers pain by improving their products, services and processes, resulting in higher productivity and overall gains to all stakeholders.
For governmental organizations the urgency to innovate arises from public (and political) pressure, such as experienced in the current crisis. Yet under most circumstances, governments (and many large companies) are under equal pressure to maintain firm grip on their finances. While this is a reasonable demand, it often results in centrally controlled budgets, lengthy approval procedures and deliberate procurement protocols. All hostile grounds for innovation.
As The Economists accounts, the relaxation of procedures to combat the Corona virus, resulted in increased innovation. In some cases that may come at the expense of good governance, which will not be justified when life returns to normal. Yet successful and innovative companies are able to balance between good governance and innovation. Using the examples from the article to I suggest how that might be achieved.
· Revise the external engagement protocol: In order to increase the number of available intensive care units the National Health Service (NHS) struck a deal with private hospitals and data analytics firms. This appears as obvious as it is laudable. Organizations should focus on the key parameters that matter to their customers. How they get about achieving them is secondary. Organizations are mostly efficient in their key delivery. For the NHS that should be curing people. Not developing data analytics algorithms. Hence cooperating and outsourcing this activity to an outsider is the right thing to do. Similarly for the contracts with private hospitals for temporarily increasing capacity. Of course, these are not the first deals the NHS struck with external organizations. What is extraordinary is the speed in which it had been agreed. The lesson is to review each component of the engagement approval procedures and assess their contribution, based on few simple parameters. When unnecessary components are removed, or remodeled, it should result in simpler, faster and more transparent procedures that would encourage innovation while maintaining clear governance.
· A culture of experimentation: A second, and more widespread phenomenon, was the increased usage of video conferencing to replace face to face meetings. This was already beginning before the advance of the Corona virus, but the stay-at-home, keep-away policies accelerated the pace considerably. Including by physicians who now use it to consult patients. Despite their drawbacks, video-conferencing offer substantial time and cost savings, as many reluctantly discovered in recent weeks. This points to the second lesson. The only way to know whether a technology/product/service/approach is beneficial is to try it rather than endlessly debating. Organizations should use the experience to mold a culture of experimentation and learning in place of suspicion and obfuscation still common in large (and governmental) organization.
· Applying Agile development principles: The sudden adoption of video conferencing tallies another moral. Focus. The British court services have long been developing a bespoke system for remote hearings when Corona struck. (unsurprisingly?) It was not ready. So off-the-shelf solutions have been adopted temporarily instead. Notwithstanding the merits of the designed bespoke video service, many governmental software development suffer from over-engineering, over requirements, waterfall approach, often resulting in delayed, expensive and technically inferior solutions. Completely unrelated, but highlighting this point, US states are hastily recruiting software engineers fluent in Cobol (a computer language developed in the 1950’s !!) to update finance software for handling compensations to businesses and individual affected by Covid-19 imposed shutdowns. Part of the problem in big organizations is their over-reliance on bespoke solutions. For many requirements, of-the-shelf solutions should be good enough. Besides being faster to implement and cheaper, they can be replaced by newer versions in the future (rather than being stuck with antiquated legacy technologies like Cobol). It is worth noting that Amazon allows innovative teams to select whichever technologies they consider suitable regardless of corporate policies.
Where existing solutions are unavailable, or inadequate, bespoke solutions should be designed to handle the most urgent needs first and less urgent needs later. By applying lean (or agile) principles the development team grapples with one problem (or requirement) at a time, implementing and validating the solution with each development sprint. This not only ensures that a rudimentary solution is available earlier in the process, but it reduces risks, since many requirements and problems could not have been known at inception. From organizational prospective it means relinquishing some control over the innovation process, and ensuring that the teams for whom they are developed have a say in the process.
There are additional actions that both companies and governmental organizations could do to increase their innovativeness and productivity. Starting with encouraging employees to share ideas and recognizing their efforts, reuse components and software for different departments, provide innovation trainings to employees on fostering their innovative spirits and more.
Innovation is always beneficial. It will become even more so under the economically depressed environment that is predicted to follow the Covid-19 shutdown. A swift rise in productivity, will spur a speedy recovery and reducing the overall pain to society.