I’m no ground-breaking inventor – no Elon Musk or Mars Curiosity Rover designer – but problem solving or, more specifically, finding new ways to solve problems has become my day job.
Last week I participated at the Public Sector Innovation event alongside Kevin Cunnington, GDS & Tabitha Goldstaub, Government Council for AI. Our discussions ranged from the opportunities of AI to the responsibilities and ethics surrounding technology. We agree that innovation has long been led by the public sector and that the current rate of business change is enormous. Indeed, if it continues at current pace, then three-quarters of the largest companies listed in the United States will be gone within the next 10 years.
Taking advantage of disruption
The effects of technology are everywhere. We have seen the impacts of this at Accenture and have looked to take advantage of otherwise threatening change. First, technology disruption has allowed us to grow a whole new part of our business. In 2016, Ad Age first ranked Accenture as the largest digital advertising agency in the world. This was a business we had only entered 6 years earlier. We realised that combining our capabilities in data with new creative talent could help our clients looking for marketing services as part of a wider transformation.
Second, in outsourcing – another part of our business – technology threatens the whole industry. Companies typically outsource work that is low-skill, repetitive and easy to measure. These tasks are ideal for automation. Over the last 5 years, we have used Robotic Process Automation to add 40% capacity – the equivalent of 40,000 full-time equivalent workers – to our outsourcing business. This has fundamentally reshaped the way we work and what we offer. Our own story has also served as a lesson in how to help our clients automate.
The truth is that the ever-increasing rate of emerging technologies opens even more options. The question is, how do we practically use this at scale in government?
Like us, our clients in both public and private sector have been through the “same for less” challenge and the “more for less” challenge, and they are now facing the “different, better” challenge. If embraced, “different, better” is a far more inspiring mission because it means finding smart new ways of working, to deliver new (and different) outcomes. It means transforming the core of your organisation.
Being smart is about being careful not to chase the latest or shiniest thing for its own sake. Rather, it is about taking advantage of new technologies for real-world uses. In government this means transforming public services efficiently so that time and attention can be focused on the people, the citizens, who need it most.
Most large-scale public sector organisations need to gather and manage millions of bits of information and here is an ideal opportunity to harness innovation. At the DWP, for example, AI is used to scan, index and route post, freeing up employees to coach jobseekers and support families in need. Here humans and machines work together in roles that best reflect their respective talents.
Times are changing
So what have I learnt? In particular, what have I learnt that might be of use to others? Here I’ll share 5 closely-related lessons.
1. Get comfortable with uncertainty
At one time, consultants strode into board rooms with answers. Today, our job is to collaborate with clients and the service users to discover the real issues, create ideas, test solutions and then scale and sustain whatever best addresses the problem.
Along the way, the learning process is constant. As leaders, we must support our teams to go from curiosity to solution and onto curiosity again in a cycle that delivers the best outcomes for citizens. Much of the time, this means rooting out and challenging current traditions and questioning the status quo.
2. The ecosystem is greater than the system
In September this year, we announced our collaboration with PUBLIC – a company that helps to foster GovTech start-ups to solve public sector challenges. For me, this collaboration is about much more than supporting start-ups; it’s about the way that we challenge each other. We are not better on our own. Our best work happens when we work in partnership with clients and with others.
3. Innovation at scale and pace needs structure
One-off innovations may be the product of genius or happenstance, but consistent innovation for an organisation needs structure. Within Accenture we have a structured approach to discovering, investigating, prototyping and scaling new solutions. Much like any agile methodology, this allows us to discover quickly whether we’re meeting the needs that we’re trying to address or if we need to think again and follow a different option.
4. Culture is crucial
The most successful and innovative teams are defined more by open, diverse, collaborative, can-do cultures than by any particular skill-set.
My first thought when presented with a problem used to be “how do we solve it”. Now, I try to fight that instinct and instead ask “who should solve it?”. The right mix of people and the right group culture is the starting point for innovation. The more we collaborate, the better we get.
5. Speed drives honesty
It’s easy to get caught in endless cycles of proofs of concept and trials that never get to scale and deliver meaningful change. Shiny objects and new tech are not innovation on their own. We need to be ruthless about whether the idea or solution at hand meets the current goal or not. If it does, scale it based on success and move on to the next goal. If it does not, drop it or amend it as appropriate and move on. Don’t be afraid of trying new ideas at pace.
Embracing the challenge
Innovation is happening across all sectors. It is a day job for all of us if we are to meet the challenge of “different, better”. To survive and thrive we must focus on the citizen experience, get comfortable with uncertainty and collaborate at pace and with structure.
We may not be talking about getting to Mars, but by building a culture of innovation into our day to day work, not only will public services improve dramatically, but Mondays will never be the same again.