Dinosaurs, Chaos, Innovation 3.0 and Game of Thrones – an overview of the Pattern Breaking Summit of Innovation Month

[Originally published on the Australian Government Public Sector Innovation Network under a Creative Commons 3.0 BY AU licence]

How can we break out of our routines, the patterns that we fall in, and consider new ways of doing things?

Attendees at the Pattern Breaking Summit, held as part of Innovation Month, heard from seven great speakers with a diverse range of perspectives. You can see the program here and some of the key points from each of the speaker’s in the following sections.

I found it to be a really good event with some very interesting discussions happening. A great Day 2 of Innovation Month!

My colleague Rob Thomas and I would like to give a big thank you to Dr Abby Robinson from the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) for all her work in pulling the event together. We’d also like to thank Bill Turner from the TGA for his work as Chair on the day.

Key Themes

Some of the key themes that I took from the event included:

    • Change is here and it is staying – we need to embrace agility and engaging with change, or face dealing with irrelevance (or robots taking our jobs)
    • Aiming for smaller changes and building on them is probably better in most circumstances (but we can’t be complacent and big changes can happen, and sometimes need to happen)
    • There is a lot of power in understanding a problem, or the context of a problem well, as well as how the problem is experienced by the people it affects (but we need ideas too)
    • Innovation starts with individuals, with people. Innovation is a social process and networks are important (though don’t be too networked)
    • We need room to make mistakes and to learn from them
    • Constraints can support the innovation process rather than act against it
    • We should look to measure our innovations (but recognise that when we consider the future there are no known facts)
    • That Game of Thrones can be applied to more than you might think…

You can also take a look at the Storify version of some of the Tweets from the day (thanks to Oakley Kwon) which give a flavour of some of the discussions and key points that people took away from the event.


The following is my summary of each of the speaker presentations. We’ll add links to the slides where possible.

John Sheridan – Department of Finance – ‘Feel the wind: set yourself the bolder course’

John’s presentation covered negotiating the Cretaceous period, the last time of the dinosaurs. He paralleled the Cretaceous period (a period of big things) with our current context (of dealing with wicked problems and seeking big solutions).

John noted that big solutions can have big issues – they are hard to turn, and they are not agile. Like the dinosaurs, these large projects are potentially vulnerable to large extinction events, whereas more agile and nimble projects might be able to continue.

He provided the RAPTOR (resources, agility, permission, technology overcome, risk) framework as an approach to public sector innovation.

    • Resources – we should identify the innovative projects that we could do if resources become available, and also recognise that innovation can help free up such resources
    • Agility – chunking a project into smaller components, and delivering on a staged basis. An Agile approach allows you to pause at the end of each stage, and allow you to take advantage of changes and move quickly between different opportunities
    • Permission – leaders should give the room for innovation, and focus on what outcomes are wanted, rather than the specifics of how they will be reached
    • Technology – technology has allowed us a lot more options that can support innovation, including
        • social media and the ability to reach stakeholders
        • mobility and the ability for staff to work from different places at different times and record ideas when and where they happen
        • the applications environment which conditions us to accept that initiatives will change over time and evolve
        • open source approaches which allow people to contribute to the whole rather than be limited to their silos, as well as building over time
        • cloud computing which provides a better and cheaper way to get computing services, making it easier to try and test new arrangements and ways of doing things
    • Overcome – we need to reduce the barriers to innovation, and encourage people to put forward ideas
    • Risk – we have a tendency to overestimate the likelihood of some things happening, and appropriately assessing consequences. What are the realistic chances of something happening, whether the consequences are significant, and what can we do reduce the likelihood of major consequences? We also need to recognise that we will fail occasionally, but that in failure we will have gained knowledge.

John proposed that we need to take responsibility for our ideas – innovation isn’t having a good idea and then dumping it on someone else with the expectation that they will do it. Innovation is about looking at an idea and growing it a little bit and testing assumptions and identifying risks and resource consequences in a way that can give people a way to take the idea forward.

John Body – ThinkPlace – ‘Innovation at the edge of chaos’

John started with the illustration of a glass of water on edge of desk. If you put the glass in the middle of a table there is stability and order (and few possibilities). However if you move the glass closer to the edge, there are new possibilities, and the glass of water gets more attention the closer to the edge it gets. As it starts to get more chaotic, there are more opportunities for change.

John used this to highlight that innovation happens in the space between order and chaos. Where there is order (an arrangement of things in a particular sequence, pattern, or method leading to predictability) or when there is chaos (a lack of organisation leading to randomness and unpredictability) innovation is less likely.

John shared his definition of innovation as “new perspective + transformational ideas + flawless execution that delivers value”.

He outlined that new perspectives often come from understanding customer (citizen) experiences. Customers don’t always know what they want, but we can observe and understand their needs. This gives us the new perspective, but the solution requires innovation.

John noted that constraint is powerful and an integral part of the design and innovation process. We cannot view innovation as something that we will do when we have the time, the resources, when it is not raining, etc.

Transformational ideas come from between order and chaos (‘the edge of chaos’). If we want to innovate in an ordered system, we need to disrupt it. If we want to innovate in a chaotic system, we need to stabilise it.

John also advised that failure needs to be seen as learning what doesn’t work. No tolerance of failure works against innovation.

Allan Ryan – Hargraves Institute – ‘Work different: success in a connected world’

Allan started by noting that everybody is doing innovation and that business and government are not that different in that respect. Success is the goal for lots of organisations, and innovation is the tool.

Allan shared a wonderful quote with us that in today’s world “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting the same results”. In today’s fast changing world, if we are not moving forward, we are effectively moving backwards. If people don’t change, they are effectively going to become redundant.

Allan spoke of how successful innovations are those that build on what has come before (for instance Moore’s Law and how every increase in computing power is used to reach the next increase). He advised against disruptive innovation and suggested that singular vision and incremental change is what has achieved success in the world of business.

Allan outlined four types of innovation:

    • Innovation 0.0 – ensuring effective leadership, strategy and goals
    • Innovation 1.0 – brainstorming
    • Innovation 2.0 – think different – using tools to help us become better innovators e.g. using design thinking (Allan suggested the best tool was coffee as it is a stimulant, it facilitates networking and collaboration, it gets us away from our desk, and it is a time limited activity)
    • Innovation 3.0 – work different.

He suggested that effective innovation requires applying all four types.

Allan noted the importance of being connected – but not too little or too much. He also warned against expecting everyone to be innovative, identifying four roles (leader, innovator, catalyst, supporter) that people can play, with the role of supporters probably being the most important.

Allan put forward four questions to help develop a strategy for success:

    1. How confident are you that your org has the strategy and goals to be successful at innovation? (Innovation 0.0)
    2. How happy are you that your org is doing the little things right? (Innovation 1.0)
    3. How happy are you that your org has the skills and support for people to deliver the best of their capability? (Innovation 2.0)
    4. How confident that your organisation is doing the right things? (Innovation 3.0)

Allan asked us to give a rating out of five for each of the questions and then multiply the answers together (helping demonstrate the exponential nature of innovation).

Kate Delaney – Delaney Foresight – ‘Thinking-in-time’

Kate shared some important points about how to think in time and how to project into the future about what be, so that we can aid decision makers to make better judgement calls. These points included:

    • Good thinking and good ideas are useless unless you can ask and answer the question what will work on the ground
    • The value and importance of being able to work collaboratively with people who you disagree with
    • That breakthroughs don’t come from ordinary thinking
    • You need to have the great ideas in order to innovate, but you also need people who can help negotiate through difficult organisational waters
    • That most organisations fail because they didn’t expect a surprise that they should have seen coming
    • Horizon scanning and strategic foresight is not about trying to predict the future, but provides mental agility and flexibility, and at the very least, anticipation is rehearsal for the future
    • That we can develop habits that allow us to see what is and what could be (and Kate suggested a number of resources to support this)
    • We need to challenge beliefs that everyone else takes for granted – what has remained unchanged for 3 to 5 years? That will likely be where the innovation will be
    • Pay attention to emerging trends – the nascent discontinuities that have the potential to reinvigorate our organisations.

John Whiting – Crown & Marks – ‘the human bottleneck’

John began by outlining that rapid cycle change is the new normal. He provided us with the acronym VUCA – volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous – to describe the new state of affairs.

With accelerating growth in technology the routine jobs are decreasing (many of which are being replaced by robots), but there is an increase in analytical jobs. Jobs are therefore getting harder to learn, more complex, and bigger. The supply of talent to meet these jobs is getting smaller however.

John explained that organisations with a comprehensive talent management strategy outperform their competitors by 2.5 to 3 times, and that a star performer is worth 1.9 times more than a good performer.

John noted that the key thing for ensuring that people will be successful leaders and innovators is learning agility. People with high agility are the people who can thrive on change, and who can create stability from uncertainty.

John suggested that organisations need to provide more emphasis on innovation in their recruitment and development strategies.

Michelle Lambert – Social Media Navigator

Michelle outlined the power of social technologies in providing people with the information they need and freeing up time and resources. She noted that on average the knowledge worker spends around 25% of their time retrieving and or reusing business data.

Michelle gave some good examples and figures about the value that could be achieved through getting a social productivity dividend.

Michelle made some other points including that:

    • If change fatigue is happening, it is usually because the change is not being managed well
        • Social technologies can contribute to significant  productivity increases
        • The number one reason for failure for many projects is because the focus is starting with the technology first
        • Leadership doesn’t always have to be in a hierarchical sense – leaders can come from across an organisation.

Pia Waugh – Department of Finance – ‘Collaborative innovation: challenging the status quo and doing more with less’

Pia used Game of Thrones as her frame for her presentation to us, which was an innovative way of approaching the subject!

Pia outlined a number of pressures that we face:

    • Resources – there are a lot of assumptions around what it takes to innovate, and that many of those perceptions are out of date. We can do a lot more than we think with few resources
    • Changing expectations – citizens are more powerful than ever before because of the Internet. Governments need to collaborate because often they may not be able to innovate fast enough on their own to meet expectations. A lot of the problems that we face are new, and so we can’t use old methods to address them (if we look back, we are lost)
    • Upper management – we need to engage with upper management and understand the pressures they are facing, as well as the risks and how we can help them with those
    • Systemic silos – people see government as one entity, but we see ourselves as multiple fiefdoms, with myriad organisations and cultures.

Pia also outlined the value that innovative collaboration – the concept of forging strategic partnerships – can have. If we view ourselves as part of a wider network, then we can more easily leverage resources across our organisations to achieve common aims.

Pia provided some advice around proceeding with an innovative project:

    • Ensure that you have someone with the necessary technology skills, as they can help navigate what’s possible and what’s feasible
    • Seek to align people’s natural motivations with a common vision
    • Form an A-Team who can coordinate and lead the project
    • Plan realistic outcomes/milestones – identify the scale of what you are trying to do, and identify what processes are therefore appropriate (so make sure they are fit for purpose). Ensure there are tangible outcomes, and avoid scope-creep. Make sure someone is responsible for each bit of the project
    • Don’t reinvent the wheel, and make sure that your wheel is connected to the greater system/context
    • Measure, monitor, report
    • Share the glory
    • Great things start small – release early, release often. Early failures will provide you with early lessons about what works
    • Be a leader – you lead through doing
    • Identify what you can do now, without needing further permission.

Take away messages

Some final take away messages from the speakers included:

    • bring the value of innovation to the fore in the recruitment and development processes
    • ask ‘if you don’t have a clear business need, why are you doing it?’
    • innovation is not a spectator sport
    • you can make a difference, but be careful how you go about it
    • find allies, find precedents, and just be awesome.

(As always, I apologise if there are any misquotes or mistaken attributions! And thanks to Andrew Power for his graphic recording skills.)