Vishaal Kishore: in praise of the ‘deep’ government generalist

By David Donaldson

Tuesday May 10, 2016

Vishaal Kishore
Vishaal Kishore

If your colleague is reading a book on astrophysics or some obscure area of social philosophy — instead of the core functions of your portfolio — that’s probably a good thing. So says Vishaal Kishore, head of strategy at Victoria’s startup promotion agency LaunchVic, “there might be something amazing we can pull out that’s relevant to the policy sphere.”

The pace of change in the world of government today means the bureaucracy needs to get creative. It’s a situation that favours generalists.

“There’s this great thing I once heard: a competent person can hit a target. A skillful person can hit a target while it’s moving. Real innovation or genius comes from hitting a target no-one’s seen yet. That tells us there’s something about new ideas or innovation which comes from seeing things more broadly, from looking in unexpected places,” he tells The Mandarin.

It’s a principle Kishore himself aims to practice — apart from moving between the public and private sector, he’s had experience in the law, consulting and policy. He was most recently deputy secretary of portfolio coordination and reform, in the Victorian Department of Health and Human Services.

He also wrote a PhD at Harvard on comparative advantage in international trade, where his supervisors came from a range of backgrounds — law, economics and philosophy.

“We sit together and debate ideas and we check at the door thoughts about having to have the answers … ”

Although specialists are, of course, an important part of any team, “deep” generalists — those who have a set of flexible lenses through which to analyse new problems — are invaluable as a source of new ideas.

“In the late 1800s and early 1900s, there were a lot of generalists sloshing around — people like [John Maynard] Keynes, people involved in the New Deal. These people were generalists in a sense, but they were not shallow generalists, they could debate you in any field that you cared to mention. They were deep in economics, deep in law, at the same time deep in art, philosophy, religion. There was a depth of generalism that was really important,” he argues.

“A generalism that is driven by learning takes you deep, as opposed to a generalism that is driven by being able to speak superficially on a range of issues. Almost better than the title of generalist is learner.”

Not about picking winners

Given Kishore’s own varied experience, it only seems appropriate he’s working on a project involved in the new economy like LaunchVic.

But even within the realm of startup promotion agencies, LaunchVic is a bit different — it doesn’t pick winners.

While similar initiatives in other states take equity stakes in startup firms, it focuses instead on building up a startup “ecosystem”, of both infrastructure and culture, to increase the chances of success for those with innovative ideas.

Its first funding round, which closed last week, saw “overwhelming interest”.

The key to creating a successful startup sector is relationships, says Kishore, who has been working on LaunchVic since October.

“All the best evidence we’ve looked at internationally says that one of the best things you can do for this part of the economy is build the ecosystem,” he explains.

“It’s not picking winners, but rather increasing probabilities of success. Where can you do something that the market’s not going to do fast enough, or well enough, or enough, or at all.

“Some of it is about ecosystem infrastructure, so co-working spaces, accelerators and so on. But a lot of it’s about culture. How do we make sure the startup ecosystem is a friendly place for women, for people from diverse cultural backgrounds, people with different kinds of ideas?”

The importance of shared values

From his last job in DHHS Kishore moved with his boss, Pradeep Philip, across to LaunchVic. That took him from one of the largest government organisations in the state to one of the smallest — LaunchVic has “about four” staff, he says.

Too much on implementation and not enough on ideas means you’re going to keep doing the same old stuff in a not quite right way.

With this experience in the running of two vastly different agencies, Kishore thinks the single most important factor in making things run smoothly “is probably shared values”.

“We don’t just genuflect to the way things happen to be, because we constantly measure against the yardstick of purpose — what are we here to do — and values — how do we treat each other, what are we committed to, what’s important,” he explains.

Once you’ve done that, flatten out your the team as much as possible.

“You flatten the hierarchy out so there’s not too much funnelling, you don’t have to go through five people before it gets to the top. We sit together and debate ideas and we check at the door thoughts about having to have the answers if we happen to be at one particular point,” he explains.

This facilitates the communication of new and creative ideas, something he argues we need more of in Australia’s policy community, which Kishore thinks focuses too much on tweaking existing policy settings over the development of genuinely new ideas, a central point of an essay he published recently.

“Focusing too much on ideas and not enough on delivery is just pie in the sky. Too much on implementation and not enough on ideas means you’re going to keep doing the same old stuff in a not quite right way,” Kishore argues.

He cites the UK Cabinet Office’s Behavioural Insights Team as an example of a successful “marrying together of practical focus and ideas”.

“What you see at the other end is a slick little app or a nice intervention or a sticker put somewhere or a painted thing on the ground. That’s what you see, but you don’t realise it’s supported by this wealth of research and thinking,” he explains.

Read more at The Mandarin: avoiding the public policy simplicity trap

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