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Exponential Thinking

Updated: Dec 1, 2021

Governments of the Future need to be innovative – simply because disruptive technologies, crises and citizen needs will evolve so rapidly that the pace of adapting for yesterday is not effective tomorrow or even today. Think of events like the covid-19 pandemic, global warming, and the refugee crisis for example? Even the smartest policymakers can’t predict some of these events in terms of timing and get enough buy-in because of the scale and rapid escalation of these events. This makes preparation close to impossible! If you looked at the World Economic Forum's top ten global risks over the last decade, pandemics were mentioned once and only in 2015. So though France as a government had a plan for pandemics, in 2011 and 2013 a decision was taken not to keep massive stocks of masks, considering that factories could deliver quite quickly, namely those in China. This meant when the pandemic hit, the country was caught unprepared as China stopped trade of masks as their priority shifted to its own citizens.

Governments are investing billions of dollars into innovations, digitalization of governments, training and upskilling, yet the reality is that worldwide, governments still struggle. Most government digital projects have a huge rate of failure. A BCG Consulting Group survey estimates that the number is 70-80%. So digitalization alone is not the answer! So what is stopping us in ensuring that an Innovation-Driven Government can deliver value?

The key is exponential thinking. Exponential thinking is defined as the ability to recognize the power of growth, and focus on making something different versus better. Making something better is an incremental mindset. It is about thinking 10X ahead now.

How can we deconstruct this mindset?

Firstly, Making Things Different rather than Better

This really means reimagining what the future can be and the way we can run and deliver the government services. Reimagining the future means looking at possibilities rather than probabities.

We need governments to think outside the box on the way public value is defined and the way it is delivered. This can be done by Bridging the Expectation Gap and Bridging the Talent gap.

The Expectation Gap: Let me take an example: If physical security is a key public value deliverable – what is the role of fear? So does a robo-guard dog and robo-team make you feel safe? Everyone (governments are inclusive), across the world has a right to feeling safe (this is part of global citizenship as a majority of governments have signed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights). So the difference in delivering public value, is the way we reimagine the customer and citizen experiences and it is understanding how it fits into the global context. Maybe today safely is having your health records and medical insurance easily available (NO - not reimbursement!!) when you travel – so you can find doctors and access healthcare anywhere in the world!

There is a shift to more personalization of services, simplification of processes, and better customer experience, which means that governments need to make services invisible, cutting out those pain points like time wastage, filling in the same date, or multiple fees because of poor backend coordination. This will also need to be done hand in hand with an increase in citizen data agency and protection. This movement has started with governments of Estonia and UAE. For example, providing new born babies documents and services needed by working with hospitals. We need to extend this to sick leaves, death, and other key moments of life. The issue is this often type of thinking in government services often stops at borders. This was evident with the complex nature of travel during a pandemic!

The Talent Gap: Another key challenge in the way we create, run and deliver government innovation is the poor understanding of what innovation is and the value it can bring. Adopting an innovation for the sake of the innovation, or technology without an understanding of how it can benefit the people it services is the main mistake. Too often we see new services deployed that are complex, do not add value to the citizen experience, and do not empower employees to serve the customer in an effective way. Part of this challenge is balancing short-term costs with long-term public value. Who does not hate automated voice answering systems? We all do! Yet, they exists even though they customers hang up in frustration (that would be a good KPI of satisfaction). Part of the problem is too much money has been deployed in a solution no one wants to accept as flawed.

Governments are one of the largest employers worldwide and hence already have a heavy HR budget. Because many departments work in silos there is a tremendous duplication of work and more there is a lack of seamless processes and data platforms across departments. This requires a government-wide skills upgrade and I’m proud to say that the Mohammed Bin Rashid School of Government is doing some excellent work on capacity building and changing mindsets! Leaders need to move away from only making decisions to empowering diverse teams to take decisions. Policy makers need to understand the complexity of implementation before coming up with the policies. It is impossible in this new word to deliver innovations without diversity of thought and the buy-in of diverse stakeholders! If your employees are only interacting with like-minded people, only from a certain nationality, or from a certain discipline background, or only within a certain level – you are creating echo chambers that will kill innovation or worse set you up for failure!

Worldwide, governments are struggling with upskilling their employees.

The Second Factor for an exponential mindset is: The possibility of 10X: Value versus Cost Savings

Too much focus has gone on cost savings and efficiency which are great, but very inward looking. The challenge is really thinking 10X value. This is not a challenge solved by skills, technology or finance alone, but it’s about a mindset for change. Here, we need to think systemically and exponentially. It requires a government where each employee has a mindset for change and is looking at possibilities and where you can influence the citizen and other stakeholders (we live in an international world) to adopt the new normal. So the question is backend (where a lot of digitalization efforts have focused on) or front end (customer experience). Ideally you want to do both. This can be done by embracing Systems Thinking and Human Centered Design Thinking for Sustainable Value.

Systems Thinking: Systems thinking is the ability to view the complex real world and see how the little parts and sub-systems combine to perform. By over emphasizing one set of the sub-system – things go out of whack! So focusing only on public health during the pandemic leads to other problems in the economy, society, health and education!

Another example that illustrates this is when governments do not have technical expertise and so to save costs began outsourcing projects. The challenges with these initiatives is

(1) the government does not own the IP

(2) there is poor knowledge transfer

(3) increases challenges with interoperability (technical systems do not talk to each other as they are proprietary platforms), and last but not least

(4) with data of citizens becoming more and more valuable, these outsourcing agreements open up citizen data to the private sector.

We need partnerships but these partnerships need to be long-term and allow for flexibility based on market changes. We probably need to relook our purchasing policies but this is another discussion. The German Federal Armed Forces’ had a modernization plan and they worked on a ten-year public-private partnership where the German Federal Armed Forces and its lead contractor Herkules—allowed for shifts in strategy. The contract had clauses that allowed the services to be revised at any time, based on new developments. To ensure the technology would always be kept up to date it also had a ‘modernization clause’.

To deliver 10x the value we need to focus on Human Centered Design Thinking for Sustainable Value. This means understanding that all innovation is for the benefit of the human and that untimely the value should be something that can be shared across diverse groups and across borders. Sustainable value looks at economic, environmental, and social impact. There are huge complex problems we need to tackle – the pandemic, global warming, poverty, bio-diversity, the terror of fear, refugees and conflict, and disinformation, and we need human-designed thinking for this. A method that understands why people behave the way they do rather than just observe them and assume cause and effect. A good example to highlight how a real problem was wrongly solved using AI, though the intensions were good, is the Appriss software used to identify substance abuse that was adopted in the US healthcare system. Wired has a great article on this.

In short,

We need to be able to see “our problems as inextricably linked to the problems of others… to imagine our collective futures, for humanity as a whole


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