- Globalisation, urbanisation, and climate change mean the lifespan of a good idea is shorter
- Innovation under pressure can deliver better results than achieved more conventionally
- It’s incumbent on all those in public service to think creatively about the future
“Place the LCG bag over the top of the square lithium-hydroxide canister. The bag must be pulled down to just over the triangular ventilator slots on the side.”
And so began perhaps the most famous innovation in the history of space exploration.
The line is the first of a 19-step procedure that enabled Apollo 13 astronauts Jim Lovell, Jack Swigert and Fred Haise to construct a carbon dioxide filter on board their crippled spacecraft. The device would allow them to breathe normally, despite finding themselves in a tiny space designed to accommodate two people for 36 hours, not three for 96.
In record time, NASA’s Crew Systems Division used only the material available on the spacecraft – ranging from a flight manual cover to a pair of socks – to save the lives of the three men on board. It’s quite a story – made all the more powerful by being true – and one that is a prime example of how innovation and ingenuity under pressure can deliver results that surpass those achieved by more conventional methods.
There are not always lives on the line. But equally, there is little doubt that virtually all of us believe creativity to be important – perhaps more so than ever before. After all, ours is a world in rapid motion – globalisation, urbanisation, and climate change are just three trends that are reshaping our environment – and this means that the lifespan of a good idea is shorter than ever.
At the same time, we’re living longer – placing further strain on healthcare systems at a time when many governments remain short of cash – and yet policymakers are still expected to deliver prosperity to every citizen and to protect and enhance the crucial services that underpin society. No small feat – and certainly not one demanded of their counterparts in the private sector.
It should come as little surprise, then, that traditional approaches are no longer deemed sufficient. Creativity is now recognised as an increasingly important tool for navigating this era of uncertainty. But while ‘brainstorming’ has become an established part of the political lexicon, the results do not always match the vision.
A big reason behind this is that too often leaders gather a group together and merely instruct them to ‘think outside the box’, without taking stock of what already exists, from both a mental and physical perspective. What ‘boxes’, or mental models, are we currently using to think about the problem at hand? How do others do it? Which constraints, such as the items on board the spacecraft, are absolutely binding, and which ones might we be ready to challenge?
As the Apollo 13 example illustrates, constraints can actually help strengthen innovation. NASA’s team in Houston was limited by what was on board the spacecraft, but this proved to be no hindrance. By contrast, using unconstrained brainstorms to fire creativity is normally a recipe for largely useless ideas. If policymakers acknowledge their constraints – such as austerity, for example – they are then better placed to come up with practical solutions to whatever problem they are trying to solve.
Step by step
Examples abound of public sector organisations creatively addressing what may have once seemed insurmountable problems. Postal services are a good case in point. The advent of email, SMS and online payments means that the days when we relied on the mail are long gone. But all is not lost. France’s La Poste, for example, remains highly trusted by the country’s citizens. It has moved to leverage that trust to introduce a range of new products such as extended banking services, online backups and safety-deposit boxes. Japan has recently announced pilots of programmes where postmen will check in on elderly citizens, leveraging the visits they already make to each household. And other public sector agencies have found ways to rethink their interactions with unionised work forces, challenging constraints in productive rather than antagonistic ways.
These experiences show how public sector organisations can benefit from viewing existing challenges from different perspectives. Rather than look at problems the way they always have, what fresh perspectives might exist? How would leaders at FedEx, say, think about our operations; how would leaders at Ryanair, for example, think about our cost structure; how would leaders at Disney or other entertainment companies think about our customer experience?
Imagine that in 2020 a retired couple are talking excitedly about our agency’s technology offering – what did we do to make that happen? Or a 37-year-old with two children is raving about our new approach – how did we get there? Policymakers need to start from a clear understanding of the problem they are trying to solve and of their existing ‘boxes’ – assumptions, constraints and perspectives. Only then can creativity techniques like brainstorming prove useful.
Most importantly, they also need to recognise that the world is constantly changing and hence every box will at some stage become out of date. Even, and especially when, things are going well, it’s incumbent on all those in public service to think creatively and in fresh ways about the future. No good idea will last forever.
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