Breaking Through

Earlier this year, Doblin New York hosted a team from the city’s Housing Preservation & Development Agency (HPD) to facilitate an innovation workshop designed to expose and challenge old ways of thinking and apply commercial innovation tools for the public sector.

As experienced as we are with workshops like these, it’s always especially gratifying to extend Doblin tools like the Ten Types of Innovation to an audience without primarily commercial objectives. It’s not unusual to tailor our Ten Types examples to our client context, but this workshop required a greater degree of adaptation to resonate against their challenges. Instead of emphasizing profit models, for example, we explored program funding possibilities and stakeholder value the organization delivers.

But we also face bigger, more fundamental questions about what value Doblin brings outside the commercial context. Will they trust us? How different is this audience, really? Are their challenges unique or unfamiliar?

It is a unique challenge, for example, to face public election cycles and the shifting priorities they bear. Long-term goals exist but many tenures are shorter-term, a condition less typical of commercial teams. Other challenges are more common between public and private sectors: “we’re bureaucratic,” “we don’t prioritize well,” “we can’t get the funding.” As with many organizations, public or private, it can be especially hard to regenerate optimism for new initiatives because few things feel genuinely new anymore — especially among veteran staff. It’s hard to overcome the “we’ve tried that before” mindset, even as internal and external conditions for change evolve.

In some ways, the success of our workshop was in simply getting so many stakeholders in one room for most of the day, so they could surface these challenges in a constructive and shared way. Two tools proved particularly valuable: the Ten Types, as mentioned, which helped our client see new ways of creating value, and orthodoxies, which helped our client identify where they were stuck and holding themselves back.

The Ten Types of Innovation

The impact of the Ten Types for this government audience was notably different from what we normally see among commercial teams we help. Not surprisingly perhaps, Innovation Types related to user experiences were the most successful at inspiring ideas — not just about how to engage users, but also how to think about who the users are. Innovation examples for other Types, like different offerings and how they’re configured, were harder to confront. Some innovation stories resonated better than others: Acumen Fund, a non-profit tackling global poverty, partners with for-profit companies for non-monetary support, for example; Zipcar’s clear brand values were compelling, while its demonstration of profit model innovation was harder for a government agency to consider.

Of course, the Ten Types examples aren’t the point; they’re making a point. About something bigger. For private sector clients, we can show that tapping into multiple Types of Innovation is more transformational in the industry and lucrative for the business. For the HPD Agency team, however, it was more interesting to see how the Ten Types broadened their view of the opportunities for innovation. Many commercial organizations struggle with bureaucracy and governance, but the red tape government teams face is extreme and pervasive every day. While these systems are important for protecting constituent interests, they can also create a culture that stifles new ways of thinking.

The Ten Types of Innovation is a valuable framework in that climate because it moves people past roadblocks — not by plowing through them but by offering new routes for possibility. We observed an agency team full of commitment and passion for their mission; that kind of energy needs channels that open for ideas, especially when obstacles feel so ubiquitous and out of one’s control.

One of the workshop ideas has already taken hold in the agency. A team has formed to develop a set of “Agency Core Values” to clarify what the agency does — both internally and externally. This can impact strategic decisions and priorities but should also help practitioners in the field and support hiring and on-boarding of new talent. “One of the cool things is that it allows us to be aspirational,” explained one of the Agency directors.

Orthodoxies

Teams were enthusiastic and generative in all the groups, but they drew on more than the Ten Types for inspiration. In fact, much of their energy that day and in their conversations since came early from the “Orthodoxies Discussion,” another classic Doblin exercise used to expose pervasive beliefs that often drive an organization’s activity but go unstated and unchallenged — for better and worse.

“I hear the ‘flipping orthodoxies’ thing seeping into the language now,” reported another agency leader, several weeks after the workshop. “It starts the change.”

In one example, in a later discussion with the agency’s commissioner about customer service, someone identified the orthodoxy that a federal department is typically recognized as the customer, because it controls the budget and many activity approvals. Our workshop still fresh in their minds, the team recognized this is too narrow a view, and that strategies can change if they consider the constituents they serve as their primary customers. The orthodoxies awareness thus shifted this team from a natural bureaucratic mindset to a consumer-client focus.

For the Doblin team, one of the successes of the workshop has been another reminder that our job is about so much more than ideas. It’s about facilitating a process and instilling the tools — even if it’s just simple language — to seed deeper, more lasting change for our clients. Ultimately, it’s about opening new perspectives that create a mindset shift. That shift is what opens new possibilities and makes them attainable.

In this case, “orthodoxies” sounds at first like something little. A word. One small stone to throw at the innovation pond.

In fact, the ripple effect is indeed much bigger.