A genuine problem confronts policymakers and service delivery managers every day. These are problems that are indeterminate, they are difficult to grapple or bound and there are many views on the problem.
So, as I’ll discuss at next month’s ANZSOG conference in Sydney, how might we “solve” it?
If we take a design thinking approach, the immediate response is not what is the solution but rather what is the fundamental human experience that is at the heart of this problem. And how might we understand what is happening and what ought to be the preferred future experience.
This starting point immediately reframes the problem on a human experience, as a set of interactions, a series of events and patterns that defines the problem in real everyday terms. Paradoxically, resisting the need to bound the problem assists in working out the boundaries and determining what might the real problem be.“The very act of taking a human-centred view inspires public managers to directly interact with service users …”
By starting with a human-centred view this opens up the process to diverge and explore, exposing the problem to a range of perspectives — crafted in terms that may not be in the policymaker or service deliverer terms, but in real, everyday terms.
In design thinking the very act of taking a human-centred view inspires public managers to directly interact with service users, and the people in the community, to understand first-hand experiences. This opens up the public manager to deeper empathy with the problem, backed by evidence.
Empathy is critical when solving genuinely complex problems because empathy facilitates genuine insights into the problem systemically, not superficially. The value of design thinking is that it continues beyond empathy, through inquiry, to action through prototyping and modelling future possibilities that tackle underlying issues.
The power of co-designing with service users on the possible future interactions — whether that is a service, a product or a digital experience — builds genuine engagement and identifies early on features of solutions that work, and don’t work.
The power of making solutions quickly, rather than slowly is at the heart of prototyping. Prototyping is about creating a version of a solution and engaging with users, testing and refining the solution. It opens up the public manager to rapid learning and co-creation of solutions that will have higher chance of success, compared to desk-generated solutions underpinned by untested assumptions.
The genuine engagement with users facilitates an evidence base that provides a case for scaling a solution, with really little risk and cost to the public manager. The demonstration of a possible future experience through prototyping and how these prototypes address systemic issues is the most powerful way to influence decision-makers because the physical manifestation tests more than the idea — it user tests the assumptions, draws out deal-breaker requirements, identifies constraints (or challenge assumed constraints) and shows how a combination of policy and administrative tools, e.g. policy, process, services, operations might work to enable the future experience.
The power of design thinking is that it puts a strong case on genuine problem exploration, resulting in rich dividends of solutions that work for people.
Nina Terrey is speaking on day 1 of the ANZSOG annual conference “Hyper-government: managing and thriving in turbulent times” in Sydney on August 1-3. The stream session theme — “Institutions under pressure” — examines sound policy processes, fast-paced government and bringing the two together.