Why do we Reinvent the Wheel – The #UKGC15 write-up

I pitched a session at UKGC15 to try to explore the issue of why some innovation happens from scratch rather than being a case of adopting and adapting viable solutions developed elsewhere.

I was motivated to do this from my experience as a member of the Service Transformation Challenge Panel where we saw quite a lot of reinvention going on – quite frustratingly sometimes, and we mentioned this in the #ChallengePanel report.  We recommended the setting up of a “What Works Centre” for Transformation, to provide accessible, and evidence-based insight that could accelerate change.

So I pitched a session and a good number of people turned up – about 25-30.  My cunning plan was to brainstorm the things that tend to lead to wheel reinvention, then brainstorm the things that contributed to adapting and adopting, then think about how we could mitigate the reinvention forces, and strengthen the adaptation forces.  In the end we spent almost all of the 45 minutes coming up with examples of reinvention and understanding their underlying causes.

Rather than just copy out the flipcharts I’m going to an impose an order on the points that is my subjective judgement.  I am going to list reasons for wheel reinvention that are potentially “good” reasons and then reasons which are “bad” reasons, as would be judged by an informed citizen concerned about how public money was being spent (the context of UK GovCamp being about public money). My own comments about these things are in italic. I have combined similar points.

Good Reasons to Start from Scratch

Creating something from new ensures that you understand the underlying principles of why the solution works.  This came up in the context of writing code from scratch but I think has some relevance more generally.  If you are slavishly copying something someone else has done it may work for a while but if some of the fundamental underpinnings change and you don’t understand them, then you may not realise it is time to change.

You can bring people along with you, as they co-develop and co-own the solution.  I find this very persuasive.  It suggests to me that where an organisation is going for Adapt and Adopt the users etc need to still be involved in problem specification and finding the solution.

Monocultures are dangerous.  Competition drives further reinvention.  If everyone is doing something exactly the same way then flaws can bring the whole system down.  Moreover if (say) there are a handful of vendors developing solutions then competition between them results in new relevant innovation and continuous improvement.

Search costs exceed cost of creation from scratch.  If the thing you have to do is relatively straightforward, but it will be difficult to find a standardised solution, or if you fear there is a significant likelihood that search time will be wasted because a solution may not exist, then it could be rational to invent.

Fear of “over-selling”.  People with good ideas tend to be enthusiastic about them and there’s a human instinct to assume that they have cracked it  and that everyone can achieve the same results as them, despite the fact that some of the underlying circumstances (eg senior buy-in) may be different.  People (literally) “selling” an idea may have an incentive to exaggerate efficacy and ease of implementation.

Bad Reasons

Not knowing that a solution exists.  Failure to identify that the presenting problem is an instance of an already solved problem.  Shouldn’t professionals in an area be aware of good practice?  The Local Government Digital Pipeline and similar initiatives, including the What Works Centre if we get it, can be key here.

Fear of replacement/losing job if there’s a better way of doing this that doesn’t need me, so I’ll build a solution around me.

Money to buy in a solution is “real” and would require a budget but my time whilst reinventing is “free”.

Government grants to support innovation emphasise the importance of novelty, indeed they require it.  I will get funding for inventing from scratch but if I want to adapt and adopt I have to pay for it myself.  Beyond this I personally think there is a huge scope for results grants of this type to be made more replicable and scaleable if provider organisations of whatever sector are included – provider organisations have an obvious incentive to take ideas that work in one place and sell them in to others.  A public sector organisation typically doesn’t have as clear an incentive to spread the word.

I believe that my organisation is unique and special and therefore nothing done elsewhere can be relevant.  For me this just starts to specify the required “adaptation” that is likely.

The “technology” must always be fitted and bespoked to the business process.  Actually, sometimes it’s easier to change the business process to fit the standard technology.

Professional self-justification.  Someone pointed out that every council website has text with advice in dealing with pests. This text is invariably written by a pest control officer at the council.  To what extent do we say “hey – this text is great, let’s copy it (with acknowledgement)”.

Creating something new is stronger for my reputation, and more likely to attract kudos, awards etc.  Maybe we need the LGC “stolen with pride” award?  But who would want it?

So What?

What I take away from this is that the cultural and personal obstacles, which not “good” reasons are even stronger than I had thought.  Significant effort – significant leadership – is going to be needed to create a new culture.  As the saying goes “culture is the behaviour that worked in the past” and persual of these lists show that reinvention “works” well at the moment.  I am more concerned about this issue after the session than I was at the beginning.

This also gives a number of pointers for any mechanism that seeks to support the process of identifying prior working solutions.  I don’t think a database will ever cut it.  There does need to be a repository of material, but I think there will need to be a collaborative human “interface” to it, to encompass the inevitable tacit knowledge that exists in a situation of this type.

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The Maturing of GovCamp and an Iconoclastic Suggestion or Two…

So, 24th January 2015 (also known as “yesterday” on a special one-day-only limited offer) was UK Govcamp 2015. It was really good, in all the ways that such events are good, and not so good in ways where … it could be a bit better.  In some ways it is maturing well, in other ways some of the seams are starting to show signs of pre-burst tension.  That’s what this blog is about, and I’ll drop in some of the other things I learned on the way.

The good stuff about GovCamp is well rehearsed but it’s worth restating sometimes – for me UKGC (and variants such as LocalGovCamp) mean hearing ideas I won’t hear in other places, meeting people ditto, and increasingly it’s about meeting again people I have enjoyed meeting previously and getting caught up.  It is always energising to be in a roomful of people who have given up their Saturday because they care about making the world a bit better, for all.  And a big up for the organisers.  Selflessly to do what you do to create the space for others is a really great and generous thing.

This time I was thinking about not pitching and I am grateful to those who encouraged me to do so (thanks Glen, Catherine) because the session I did was well attended in both people and ideas and has moved my thinking about an issue on a bit (this will be another blog idc).

I went to Andy Hollingsworth’s session about digital leadership and I was struck by the way that, compared to other similar sessions in past years, the change-makers in the room had a much more nuanced understanding of the role of senior leaders, making change happen etc.  The dialogue was no longer “why oh why don’t they realise that if they only just talked to us and did exactly what we said and gave us money to do whatever we want, we could do awesome stuff”.  (I exaggerate to make a point, but not that much, actually). A massively stronger understanding now.

I did an experiment of, for one session, spending 5 minutes in each room in turn, wondering what I’d learn from that.  In the end I learned that it is a pretty useless way of spending a session!  However it did make me think about the format.

And, do you know what, I am starting to fall out of love with the unconference format.  I’m not sure it quite works any more. Or only sometimes.

Here are some symptoms:

– It can be hard to really get a good idea of what a session is going to be about from the pitch.  By the time you’ve half remembered what they said when they were standing pitching (whilst also thinking about your own pitch), mistranslated that into your understanding of the session title, and so on, there can end up being quite a gap between what you think a session might be and what it is.  Now obviously some of that is just the luck of the draw, but I think that some of it is because the nature of GovCamp is changing.

– For example, some of the sessions I saw yesterday were thinly disguised sessions by sponsors to promote themselves and their organisations.  “Let’s get together about how we achieve X”  was sometimes a genuine “I am really up for ideas about X, bring them on” (as in the best session I went to yesterday – Jon Foster’s session about how to get residents of blocks of flats to separate their recycling despite using communal bins).  And sometimes it actually turned into “let me tell you about how we did X at such-and-such a place”.  This might be useful but it wasn’t what was promised.  I understand that sponsors need value (believe me, I do!) but forcing it through the pitch format makes it slightly, and I’m sure unintentionally, deceitful.

– The rule of two feet is being observed in principle much more than in action.  I heard this many times – words on the lines of  “I know I should have left but I’d be walking into another session halfway through and the door was creaky and it would have been distracting to get up from the table and push past others to go, and the seats were big and comfortable and I thought I might as well stay and follow what was going on in other sessions on the hashtag instead …”.  Add in to that the fact that some of the sessions are more like conference presentations really – you can’t really walk into them half way through – there is a narrative thread running through them – then this is problematic and makes session choice all the more important.

The best unconferences I’ve been to are the Brighton City Camp.  One of the reasons for this is that they start with a set of presentations which give a context about the City and its community, and can then inspire people to pitch ideas to help solve problems.  That unconference also makes substantially more use of ideas online first, and initial voting, so that people can refine ideas, and have a more considered view of what someone may be presenting.

So this is building up to a thought – some suggestions for consideration.  This suggestion would mean putting a bit more structure on things.  Yikes!  Sorry about that.

How about this:

1.  Start with the intros and the one word offers / wants.  It was well worth trying out not doing this – excellent to experiment – but I’d like to see it back – and it needs to be really driven hard to be crisp.  Maybe literally just names. Apart from anything else this lets you put names and faces to twitter handles.  The idea of wearing a sticker with Ask me about / Tell me about was good – but I think people could handwrite them themselves (less admin).

2.  If you’re going to have a plenary speaker do it at the beginning so that pitches can develop it and the ideas further during the day.

3. Have a strand of pre-booked sessions – based on online pitching and voting.  People can explain what a pitch is going to be about more, online.  The “7” sessions with most votes 24 hours before it starts get to run.

4.  Then have a strand of completely blatant sponsor-led sessions, again advertised online beforehand.  No need to pretend.  These are sessions where people will try to sell you something, and if they advertise what they want to talk about clearly and accurately, and offer genuinely useful case examples and insights, then that will be genuinely useful, and you might even buy.  As someone who works for a big company that often works with smaller companies I’d find it really useful to decide which to go to listen to, to see who we might be able to work with and bring into our “supply chain”. And as a sponsor having five people in a room who have already expressed the beginning of an interest in buying, who have agreed that they have a problem that you may be able to solve, is much better than having a roomful of people who are uninterested or mildly cross.  One session for each sponsor – all at the same time – and you decide which one to go to, but you have contact info and so on so that if you want to chat with any sponsors offline you can do that.  Suppliers are really proud of what they do – give them the opportunity to explain why, unblushingly.  This will also really help explain to their lords and masters why money spent on GovCamp is a good investment, and so help make it more sustainable.

5.  Then have pitches, just like now.  People pitch ideas that they would like to discuss.  They would need to say whether these sessions were “help me” or “show you” sessions.  As in “I have a problem and I’d like some help” versus “I’d like to show you this cool thing I did”.  Both have value.  But let’s be clear which is which.  And it would be really neat if some of the pitches could be inspired by the sessions just gone.  “In that earlier session it occurred to me there’s a real problem in X but we didn’t have the time to nail it – anyone else have that problem and have ideas to share?”- that sort of thing.

6.  Then have lunch.  Yesterday’s lunch was great.  As a vegetarian I was pleased with how they structured the choice architecture – meaty food before the veggie stuff, so that the carnivores have full plates before they get to the only stuff I can eat!

7.  Then have the afternoon sessions, just like now.  So it’s mostly still an unconference really, for most of the time.

What do you think?