Experimentation as a method in public innovation
Approaching complexity through exploration
Approaching complexity through exploration
How do you move forward with innovation when the challenge is so complex that you cannot see a solution or even know where to begin? You try experimentation. Experimentation enables you to interact with insights and explore different possibilities, going from insight to action. In this article, Hanna Øfsti explains how we as designers experiment and why we believe it’s a useful method, especially for innovation in the public sector.
This article was originally published in Norwegian in Forum for offentlig service: Read it here.
Working with the public sector, we often see that public servants have a very good understanding of the challenge at hand. The will to innovate is there, but many times there is a lack of capacity to go beyond ones responsibilities. Moreover, they often feel that they don’t have the mandate to do so. Already established frameworks and expectations are deeply rooted and they lack a forum for sharing and exploring ideas that challenge existing practises.
In this case, experimentation can be a valuable method to approach complexity. It provides an opportunity to explore ideas across professional roles, services, and departments. It’s an effective way to learn about possible ripple effects, consequences, and needs that otherwise would have remained undiscovered. What you learn during experimentation can later be used to make the correct priorities in the project.
Most people think about experimentation as a scientific method. The way we design and execute experiments as designers is quite different, but it has the same purpose: We experiment to learn about how one thing impacts another.
An experiment can be built on one or several hypotheses. With user insights as a basis, we identify areas with innovation potential and define concrete hypotheses. To find out which consequences a possible change will have, we experiment.
Since experiments are done during a limited period of time or in a fictive setting, we can allow ourselves to remove any frameworks that influence a real-life situation. For example, we can explore the experience of a new service without considering economic limitations. We can also explore what happens when different service providers are allowed to interfere in each other ‘territory’, not having to consider where the limits are. That way, experimentation can help clarify which frameworks possibly are standing in the way of innovation. Perhaps we find that we are, in fact, able to deliver the services of the future within the existing framework.
In the ongoing StimuLab project Trygg Stafett (‘Safe Relay’), we are, together with Vestre Viken, a mental health and addiction clinic at Blakstad Hospital, starting three different experiments. The project aims to develop solutions that provide patients, next of kin, and staff with a safe transfer between services. The experiments will be done in actual practice for a limited period.
In the first experiment, we aim to learn about the value generated in the specialist assessment. We will explore how this value can be harnessed and not lost during transfers between staff. We’re implementing a mapping tool that will be used during the patent’s first hours at the hospital. The experiment will run over a period of five weeks.
In the second experiment, we will look at the value of collaboration regarding frequently admitted patients and examine how this collaboration could be organised in a sustainable and scalable manner. During the experiment, there will be a direct dialogue between the healthcare staff that know the patient best both outside the hospital and. at the hospital.
During the project, many new ideas for seemingly uncomplicated improvements have surged. As a thirst experiment, we will use elements from the so-called sprint methodology to learn about how this type of problem can be solved more efficiently in the future.
Experimentation can take many shapes and forms, and sometimes it won’t be possible to perform an experiment in real life. In the StimuLab project Alvorlig sykt barn (Severely Ill Child), we used the method to answer the question: To what extent do the service providers' mandates limit them to act today? Are established practices and habits hindering collaboration across public agencies and departments, or are existing frameworks hindering it?
We designed a fictive situation where the collaboration between the service providers and the families of the severely ill children was no longer limited by existing frameworks. With optimal conditions for collaboration, user involvement, and individually tailored services, the participants co-created a service offering centred around the child and the families. Later, we examined which parts of the fictive offering could be realised within the existing framework, and the result was stunning. The majority of what the families desired could, in fact, be realised within the current framework.
In other words, it became clear that the problem mainly consisted of established practices and that the most significant barrier was simply that the service providers were not used to cross-collaboration. The experiment showed that successful service innovation primarily requires a shift in the way of thinking and resulted in a series of suggestions for changes on a systemic level.
Patience – Even if we experiment to get started with practical change quickly, it’s not something that is done instantly. It takes time to create ownership and engagement, and the experiments must be carefully planned.
Safety – This is crucial for successful experimentation. It must feel safe for participants to contribute with their reflections.
Trust – Change, and exploration is unfamiliar to many. The change process is less intimidating when key people speak positively about the process internally and encourage and enable participation.
You have to dare! In a result-oriented culture, freeing yourself from a delivery focus can be challenging. We never know beforehand what the result of an experiment will be, but we know that we will learn something from it. Dare to trust the process.
Do you need a partner in the innovation process? As designers, we know how to work exploratively. Our goal is to support our clients to take the step from insight to action and make them feel comfortable exploring unknown possibilities.
Are you curious about experimentation as a method and how it could help your organisation? Please don’t hesitate to get in touch.
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