I was in a meeting this week and found myself invoking Google’s approach to innovation – or at least my take on it, and wondering if this approach could work in the public sector, in this instance schools involved in the Learning Futures programme, but I think it’s pertinent in a far wider context.
The challenge for programmes like Learning Futures – which is supporting and observing a wide range of innovations, which are themselves made up of ‘sub’ innovations – is ‘how do you know what’s going to work, and therefore target support and scrutiny toward it? Of course, the difficult answer is that you rarely can be sure what’s going to work, and even less rarely can you be sure of which of the ‘sub’ innovations is making the difference.
Clay Shirky has identified the inverse dynamic – from ‘edit then publish’, to ‘publish then edit’ – which the internet has fostered. So we increasingly see companies putting stuff out there, watch what gains traction, and then focus energies, and revisions, on those. I was was in a band whose record company invoked a slight variation on this: they called it, rather blatantly, the ‘Shit Against The Wall Principle’ (i.e. if you throw enough shit , a.k.a. artists, against the wall some of it will stick). But when development costs rise, that tactic begins to look a little foolhardy, as many ex-labels can now testify.
When you’re trying to innovate in the public sector, development costs can be significantly higher than in internet start-ups, so caution is needed, but I still think that editing-then-publishing isn’t the way to foster an innovative culture. Which is where Google come in. They’ve created a culture whereby ‘everything is in beta’: ideas, projects, and products are never ‘finished’. Instead they’re reviewed, critiqued, amended and improved. Continuously. Publicly. The point at which their ideas embark on a very public quality improvement cycle gets earlier and earlier. They do so because they believe that the more eyes, and hands, are involved, the quicker it gets to the point of acceptance by the public. People engaged in the process accept that mistakes will happen, bugs, crashes are inevitable, but it’s actually quite empowering to be a part of that improvement. (though only a mug thinks Windows 7 was their idea….).
When these two strategies are adopted in the public sector the whole dynamic can change: far from being though of as ‘guinea pigs’ students get what you’re trying to do. The thing they tried in science wasn’t quite what they wanted, but they’re willing to work with teachers to show them how it can be improved. Those that are managing this process, have therefore to consider some of the Google ethics too (as found in this book):
make mistakes well
remember life is a beta
and, of course,
don’t be evil