Experiences of DesignGov as a government start-up – balancing options and focus

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

How do you know that a task, a meeting, a phone call, or an email conversation is relevant to your job or going to be a waste of your time?

If you are in an area where there is a lot of certainty, then it is usually pretty easy to have confidence that you know what works, what you should be doing and why. When you are doing something experimental then it is likely that you don’t know what will work. In such a situation, you need to maintain a portfolio of options, as some are not going to work and you cannot afford to put all of your efforts into something that may not ‘pay off’. The emphasis in your decision making has to move some way from ‘this is outside of our scope’ to more of ‘well this could lead to something so we might need to try it’.

But how do you find the right balance?

With too small a number of options, there’s the risk that they may not play out as hoped – in which case, you may not have the time or resources to salvage anything from the resources that you have already invested.

Too many options stretch your focus and effort. It can become hard to give sufficient attention to all of the options in play, and give sufficient focus to ensure that enough of them come to fruition.

From my experience in DesignGov, it is clear that finding the balance, and getting better at assessing which options might be relevant and valuable, is no easy thing. Some things that would appear to be ‘obvious’ and a natural fit with what we are doing have turned out to be less so, and some things which have seemed unlikely have turned out to be highly relevant and valuable.

It is also apparent that it can be very hard to communicate this outside of the work area. There’s the risk that you will be seen as trying to do too many things at once, rather than focussing on the core activities. But then if those core activities do not turn out as hoped, those same stakeholders will expect that you have something else to show for your efforts.

One strategy is to try and ensure that all activities address multiple parts of our work streams. That way if something isn’t successful for one work stream, it may still deliver value for another.

It’s also important to keep options open – so not to close off an opportunity prematurely, rather wait until you the moment you have to decide/or make the investment decision. Many options can be kept ‘open’ with a small amount of effort and can then be reassessed at a later date.

For instance, if Option 1 costs x amount of time/resources to keep an option open, but where the potential payoff might be many multiples of x, then it may be better to invest x rather than definitively close off the potential payoff by saying no.  Such an approach allows you to be open to new opportunities (and preserve options) that may seem tangential to what you are doing, but that could have a big benefit. Closing off options early can have a very big cost – by not acting to keep the option open, you have permanently closed off a set of opportunities that you may not have be able to retrieve without a much bigger investment. (Of course making those assessments is not easy, particularly in the public sector where ‘value’ is less easy to define).

Another approach is to have a continual process of self-reflection and assessment as you go rather than just at the end. For instance we at DesignGov have a quick meeting once a fortnight to discuss where we are at against each of our work streams and to reflect on where things are at (or not at, as the case may be) – these meetings for instance have led to this series of posts about our experiences.

If you ever find yourself in such a situation, my suggested take-away messages from our experience are:

  • Recognise early that if you are doing something innovative, you cannot confidently predict what will be successful, so you need to have a number of options open to you at any one time
  • The risk is that others might think this appears uncoordinated or unfocussed – so try to give stakeholders an understanding of the wider context, or ensure that the relevant decision makers share in the choices of which options to keep open or close off
  • Try to ensure that any one option or course of action has relevance to multiple aims/priorities or work-streams
  • Be entrepreneurial – be open to opportunities that may not be in your business plan, but that could still offer a lot of value
  • Have a continual process of self-assessment and reflection so that you can pick up early when one option might not be doing as well as hoped/needed/intended or where another option has become more relevant and timely and resources need to be switched over.

Are there any other suggestions of how to manage this balancing act of keeping options open but not to the extent that you are ‘wasting’ time or losing focus?