Reflections on New Think Tank – 5. Simon Gough

This is a series of posts in which we’ve invited people to give us their reactions to Guerilla Policy (formerly the New Think Tank project). This post: Simon Gough from Redfront. Thanks to Simon for contributing the post, and we welcome your comments.

One of the biggest challenges awaiting New Think Tank is engagement. For its great ideas to take hold, and for real change to happen, New Think Tank has to capture the attention of a wide range of frontline public service professionals. This need to engage people is not unique to New Think Tank so, by way of exploring engagement, I thought it might be worth looking at an extreme example.

Like it or not, Mail Online is the most visited newspaper website in the world, having earlier this year overtaken the New York Times. It regularly sparks debates that extend well beyond the site itself, making a big impact on other platforms. And how does it do this? By provoking people. Its particular combination of forthright opinions and features that border on the outrageous leave us in no doubt that Mail Online’s agenda is maximum engagement. And it succeeds in that agenda, whether it’s attracting disgust or agreement.

No, I’m not suggesting that New Think Tank becomes the Mail Online of the think tank world. But the indisputable success of being provocative is not to be ignored. So what does provocation look like in the policy space?

Firstly, to some extent, provocation is an inevitable, and indeed desirable, product of the traditional Think Tank process. Think Tanks are built for opinion. They need to get attention and state a clear position. The people who employ them need it and the think tanks need it for survival in the marketplace.

And this raises my first question for New Think Tank. With a crowd-sourced platform what kind of threat is posed by the possibility of producing moderate opinions? In other words, will New Think Tank’s output spark a wider debate or just present unremarkable consensus? The nature of crowd-sourcing makes it a complex activity. It can produce extraordinary, innovative results or reduce everything to the mundane. Understanding these mechanics is an essential role for New Think Tank.

Of course, the challenges arrive much earlier than the policy-making function, so my second question concerns the earlier stages. What approach will New Think Tank take to engaging people at the outset? I believe this to be a bigger issue. High-traffic platforms, like my Mail Online example, don’t attract people by asking them to share their opinion. They pull people in through posing provocative questions, however they may be presented.

Provocation is an important part of user-centric design and it goes much deeper than getting people’s interest. If you want to develop continuous engagement you have to make people think. You have to challenge assumptions, spark dialogue and provoke.

Thankfully this doesn’t need to be a constant struggle. Rather it comes down to what we were talking about in the branding workshop: how should New Think Tank position itself? What is its voice?

If this is done right, and from what I’ve seen so far I fully believe it can be, then the first battle is won. With the right provocation, and the right attitude, New Think Tank has every chance of engaging people in a truly revolutionary project.

Simon Gough

http://redfront.co.uk/

http://twitter.com/mistergough


Reflections on New Think Tank – 1. Phillippa Rose

This is a new series of posts in which we’ve invited people to give us their reactions to the New Think Tank project. First up: Phillippa Rose from Redfront. Thanks to Phillippa for contributing this post, and we welcome your comments.

Last month I was invited to contribute to a branding workshop for the currently described ‘New Think Tank’ – an experiment to develop new ways of making, and influencing public policy, from the ground up.

The notion of a bottom up think tank is in itself a bit of anomaly. People associate think tanks with ivory towers, white cubes, sometimes intimidating, and organisations steeped in high-level thinking, in all senses. Think tanks are associated with thorough research practice, sometimes publishing insights or data which influence policy, and challenging the status quo. They are rarely associated with people actually delivering public services, testing assumptions in the policies of the day. New Think Tank however advocates that “the people who experience the effects of social policy should have the opportunity to help shape it.”

At the branding workshop we looked at driving forces behind the initiative, role play, future scenario setting etc, to get a sense of the driving forces behind New Think Tank, perceptions in the room, and where this thing is going. It was a fascinating afternoon, with 20-30 people with varied views on the subjects raised. The room was made up of people working at the forefront of policy, business, charities, social enterprises. For me there was only one missing link – front line practitioners and service users. I think there was only one person there who worked in social services.

As a service designer, I have found it refreshing to see the New Think Tank testing assumptions online, consistently iterating and revising its approach in response to contributions and feedback in such an open and transparent way. I believe in Minimal Viable Product and Agile Development – trial and error, learning by doing, and involving user input from the very start. For the New Think Tank to be meaningful and make lasting impacts on policy, it needs to move to the next level, to specifically target service users and practitioners, and involve them on key areas to focus on, and practical action.

The concept and the thinking behind New Think Tank is new, exciting, fresh and has the potential to make a significant impact on policymakers, practitioners, and end users, experiencing these services. The messages are strong, the communications channels are established. With the official launch date June 1st, fast approaching now is the time to focus, perhaps one policy area at a time, or one locality at a time, who knows. It’s time to ask the people working with, and using public services.

Phillippa Rose from Redfront has enjoyed over ten years developing strategies, services and projects in the public and private sector. She has special interests in the following areas: innovation, co-creation, talent development and enterprise. At Redfront, Phillippa specialises in user-engagement, strategic partnerships, service innovation and networks.

http://www.redfront.co.uk/

https://twitter.com/#!/phillirose


Ten reasons why we need a new approach to developing social policy – 6. Policy would be cheaper to research and develop

This is the sixth in a series of posts on why social policy should be developed by and with the people who use and provide public and voluntary services. We’re publishing the rest of the series over the next week and a half, and we welcome your comments.

Innovation means that products and services get faster, better and cheaper – but only generally and only over time. On any given project, engineers say you have to ‘pick any two’ – that you can’t cut costs and improve quality while delivering in less time. In 1992, then NASA administrator Daniel Goldin disagreed. Under his ‘faster, better, cheaper‘ management philosophy, NASA launched 146 payloads worth a total of $18 billion, and all but 10 were successful. The problem was that the ones that were unsuccessful were hugely embarrassing – among them the debacle of the $125 million Mars Climate Orbiter, which was lost because a contractor failed to convert from imperial to metric units when coding its software.

In previous posts in this series we’re suggested that a lot of policy research and development could be conducted better and faster than at present, by being conducted collaboratively by and with provider organisations, practitioners and the public who use services. But we also think that this approach could prove cheaper as well, and that in this case instead of working against each other, faster-better-cheaper could be mutually reinforcing.

First of all though, why does ‘cheaper’ matter when it comes to policy? At the moment, many valuable contributors to better policy research and development are effectively priced out of the market. No organisation that conducts or commissions policy and research work has money to waste, but smaller charities typically don’t have sufficient resources or capacity to undertake much policy work themselves or to sponsor a think tank or a research consultancy to do it for them. The result is a narrower set of voices in policy – and policy is poorer for it.

The heart of the problem is the business models used by policy and research providers such as think tanks. We’ve suggested before that the business model behind think tanks is ripe for disruption. The reasons for this echo why incumbents in so many other sectors, from retail to media, are being disrupted by new market entrants based around the internet and social media: high fixed costs; incumbents focusing on existing ‘high-end’ customers; over-specified, often expensive products; and limited use of cheap, commonplace ICT. Most of the time, most think tanks operate as part of the old economy rather than the new.

As a result, and because of a lack of suitable alternatives, think tanks have in effect played a gatekeeper role in helping only a minority of organisations to develop and strengthen their policy messages to government and introducing these organisations to policymakers. Think tanks provide a platform, but not to everyone. It’s not that they want to exclude smaller organisations, just that most smaller organisations can’t afford to commission them.

However, the lesson from other sectors is that the internet and social media can offer routes around existing gatekeepers, by creating faster, better and cheaper ways for smaller ‘producers’ to reach new audiences. And for many charities and other organisations, the engineers’ dilemma  is actually less significant, since if ‘good enough’ policy work was faster it would also be better (for example, so that they can input to a current policy debate or media story).

The key is this is finding and building a better business model, which is what we’re attempting to do here. Our approach is based on building an online platform – a social network – so that organisations such as charities can work directly with frontline practitioners and service users on policy issues, and harness the time, commitment, expertise and support of these groups in order to produce more credible, independent policy.

What’s certain is that if we don’t manage it, someone else will – that’s the inevitability of innovation. Like other sectors before it, policymaking is about to be disrupted.


What it is (nearly)

I had a conversation today about this project where I spent a fair bit of the time explaining what it isn’t. For example:

  • It isn’t a think tank, commonly understood, because it won’t have the infrastructure or staffing or resources associated with think tanks (indeed this is a critical part of the business model);
  • It isn’t a competitor to existing think tanks, because we’re looking mainly at a market that doesn’t commission research at the moment;
  • It isn’t a research supplier as such, because the point of our approach is that charities and other provider organisations often have much of what they need in order to conduct policy work already (credibility, experience and expertise, relationships to stakeholders etc).

I don’t mind having to take this ‘isn’t’ approach – though it does make what we’re doing sound more negative than I’d like – but obviously it begs the question of what this is.

One of the difficulties with innovation (if I can call this an ‘innovation’) is describing what you’re doing in a simple, easily-graspable way for others, when by definition it’s something new, and at the same time as you’re still exploring for yourself and potential customers what the ‘is’ is. This is why you find yourself using more ‘isn’ts’ than you’d like (and hedging these often makes it even murkier: “Well, not exactly, it isn’t quite like so-and-so…” etc etc).

One way that anyone developing anything ‘new’ tries to get around this is to compare their ‘it’ to some existing products and services (‘it’s like x but for y’). Or they cite examples of things we’d all like more of and then suggest that their product or service will produce these things more cheaply and easily. We’ve done both of these at various times here. We’ve suggested that it’s like ‘Sourceforge [but] for social policy‘ and that we’d like what we’re doing here to support the production of many more user-led Spartacus-like reports.

Both of these approaches keep some of your options open – but only for a while. (And after all, what does it really mean to claim, as thousands of entrepreneurs must have done over the past few years, that they’re developing ‘the new Facebook, but for [insert niche but potentially profitable audience here]’? And if it’s so much like Facebook, minus of course the hundreds of millions of dollars of investment in functionality that Facebook and its investors have made, then why wouldn’t your target audience just use Facebook instead?)

Inevitably you begin to approach the point when you have to say ‘this is what it is’, in order to give potential partners enough to provide you with an honest response about whether it meets a real need they have – in short whether they’re in or not. But you resist this because you also have to give something up: the idea that your project appeals to everyone or could ever appeal to everyone. Promise and potential (which are nice things that everyone can buy into) has to give way to practical appeal (which of course means a much smaller audience of actual buyers). In this sense, the more you define what it is, the more you make it something that isn’t for some (probably most) of your potential audience.

We’re getting nearer to this point – but we’re not there quite yet.


Finding the One Thing

There’s an argument that really succesful businesses are successful because they have a single-minded and uncompromising obsession with One Thing. I read about this on Jason Cohen’s excellent A Smart Bear blog a while back and it struck me as pretty convincing at the time. Then I forgot about it – until this week.

Jason makes the point that what many businesses, especially start-ups, think is their competitive advantage usually isn’t. Virtually everything can be copied by competitors, and anything that can be copied will be copied. The only real competitive advantage is that which cannot be copied and cannot be bought. It requires unwavering devotion to the One Thing that is (a) hard, and (b) you refuse to lose, no matter what.

For example, Jason notes that Google has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on their search algorithm and that this remains the single biggest focus of the company even today, a decade after they decided that was their One Thing. Their homepage continues to reinforce this message – it’s remarkably clean and clear, with the focus remaining absolutely on the central search box. The very first version of the homepage is pretty much identical, in fact today’s version is even cleaner than the original, despite everything else the company now provides.

Not only does this focus mean that your primary energy is always directed into your competitive advantage, the argument is that it makes pitching much stronger but also easier. We’ve been holding workshops with charities on this project to get their initial reactions to the idea (we’re targeting charities as our initial target customers). They haven’t been marketing seminars – they’ve been genuine customer insight workshops – but of course in introducing the idea we’ve presented a list of potential benefits of our proposed approach (having public service practitioners and service users lead policy and research work). These benefits have ranged from more credible and practical research, to more cost-effective projects, to better dissemination of outputs (because project participants will have a natural incentive to also help promote the results). But Jason makes the point that hanging your hat on just one advantage that you can own completely is stronger than diluting your message across many advantages. Also, why try to defend 10 points when you only need one or two to make your case?

I realise now that this is what we’ve been doing – albeit certainly not disastrously (I hope), just as a natural and inevitable part of the process of developing an idea from scratch in open dialogue with potential customers. But it’s meant that the offer hasn’t been as clear as it needs to be, and also that we’ve lacked a strong focus for the ‘product’ (or rather, that what we thought was the focus may not actually be the focus). It’s also meant that we’ve effectively been trying to appeal to everyone, and everyone has been telling us they like the idea (which is nice, of course) – but perhaps the definition of a successful One Thing product or service is that it doesn’t appeal to everyone, instead it appeals only to a section of the market but in a very strong way (that is, strongly enough to build a sustainable business from).

I knew we’d reached the stage in developing the idea that we had to make some important (albeit not irreversible) decisions, like what we were proposing specifically and so what the starting ‘product’ is. Then we got some useful challenge from a contact in local government who likes our idea but suggested we needed to simplify the offer a lot in order to make it explicable to customers, and he was right – and it was this that reminded me of Jason’s article and so here we are.

The result was that we had a really good discussion today where we may have begun to focus in on our One Thing. What’s interesting to me is that no-one mentioned this One Thing in any of the workshops, at least not explicitly. No-one said this was their greatest need or priority from policy and research work, and no-one said that they were being let down by their existing suppliers (including think tanks) because they weren’t delivering this One Thing. And yet it feels like it could be a unique competitive advantage that could position us nicely. And it’s not what we thought it might be either – it wasn’t on our list of potential benefits at all. But suddenly we can see how all of the other things we’ve been talking about could possibly hang off of this One Thing, and the way that it could play to our potential strengths and circumvent some of our weaknesses (or at least make them less important to the customer).

Of course, we need to kick it around a lot more – and that’s before we take it out to potential customers and partners to see what they think, and really begin to work on how it’s achievable and how we can deliver it. But that’s a decent and welcome conclusion to the first chapter of our project and, hopefully, a good start to the next chapter as well.