Experiences of DesignGov as a government start-up – being innovative vs being right

[Originally published on Australian Government DesignGov under a Creative Commons 3.0 BY AU licence]

Have you ever heard the phrase ‘desk-bound perfectionism’?

Early on in DesignGov’s discussions with stakeholders, this phrase was used by one stakeholder to describe the mindset of many public servants in the Australian Public Service. It refers to a tendency to keep working on something until it is almost ‘finished’ – to be bound to your desk until you have perfected it – rather than to share at an earlier stage.

The criticism of this approach, which fits very well with the emphasis of design thinking on testing new ideas, is that this ‘perfectionism’ does not actually give others a chance to say whether the work fits with their expectations or needs. It also doesn’t allow people to share any relevant insights that could help shape the work. If others can be involved at a much earlier stage, even in a very brief way, it can stop a lot of effort being wasted in exploring a ‘solution’ that may not ultimately work or be the best fit.

Now the prevalence of a desk-bound perfectionism mindset is hardly surprising. In many ways our education system rewards people for having the right answer – not for being half-right or for collaborating early. In a work situation, it is easy to fall into thinking that you do not want to waste other people’s time with something that is half-done – everyone is busy, so it can feel natural to want to ‘save’ time for them by only sharing it with them when it is almost finished.

It is also part of the expectations of professionalism to demonstrate that you do not need help to finish something – if you are competent, then surely you can do it by yourself? In addition, showing someone your incomplete work might be interpreted as an admission that they know more than you – and that doesn’t tend to be something that many professionals enjoy.

In short, leaving behind ‘desk-bound perfectionism’ can feel like it is leaving you vulnerable to criticism (and might even lead people to question your competency).

And, as a general rule, institutions/large organisations (and therefore the people who work within them) don’t tend to like feeling vulnerable. It’s uncomfortable.

However, if you are in an area that is changing, and new ways of doing things are needed, desk-bound perfectionism is unlikely to be the right approach. If you are going to innovate, such as by using design in the public sector, you cannot simply present a ‘finished’ product to the other people who are going to share responsibility for realising, delivering or using the product. The more people an innovation affects, the more the innovation process has to involve others so as to make sure it will actually fit with their experience of their work, their organisation or their lives.

As I recently heard someone say “if you think you can do it alone and in your head, then you will probably do it badly.” Most abstract tasks are sufficiently involved and interconnected now, that to do them well requires collaboration of many people.

Yet in putting forward an early version of your work for comment, you are much more likely to be criticised and critiqued. Though this is an important means of improving whatever it is you are working on, it can take a while to switch your mindset to see it as valuable feedback, rather than as a form of personal criticism.

In the case of DesignGov we have tried to be transparent and to share early and often, most obviously through our blog, but also in our conversations and in our project documentation with our partners and stakeholders. However, despite our best intentions, it can be very easy to slip back into thinking ‘oh, this isn’t ready to be shared yet’ or ‘we need to do more work on this first’ (and of course sometimes public service procedures do take precedence and may prevent sharing).

Sometimes of course this inner voice of caution is quite right! But, in part, I think ‘desk-bound perfectionism’ in the public sector arises from an absence of well-established protocols for inviting input on our work at an early stage. Even in a small, close team such as we have at DesignGov, it can sometimes be a mental effort to think ‘yes, I should ask someone else in the team about this now rather than continue to dwell on it myself’.

It can also be difficult to share early because it can be very tempting to think that there is a right answer and that you will get there if you just have enough time. In reality, I have found that I make the most progress in solving or getting closer to a solution when I am able to expose my thinking to others, particularly to others who have a different view.

Now lest this be seen as ‘woe is us’ post, I should clarify that this is not a plea to you our readers of ‘don’t criticise or critique’. Rather, I am hoping it provides an illustration of innovation at the personal level and some insight into the difficulty of integrating innovation in a system with such well-established work practices and cultures. While nothing I’ve written in this post is particularly surprising or revelatory, I think grappling with the temptations of desk bound perfectionism has been a big part of my shift (or attempted shift!) to design thinking at DesignGov.

In the spirit of criticism and critique, please feel free to disagree in the comments! Do you think this post is a fair insight into the culture of the public service and/or design thinking? Or does the perfectionism I’ve written about merely relate to individual personalities and working styles?

[This is the second in a series of posts about the experience of DesignGov as a ‘start-up’ in government.]