New narratives and culture shift – Lab Exchange PART III

In this Lab Exchange Series, Chelsea (Public Policy Lab, NYC), Stephane (La 27e Région, Paris) and Carolyn (TACSI, Adelaide) talk with Rachel (Social Lab, Hong Kong) and Marco (SIX, London) about building new narratives and capabilities needed to work as a lab practitioner. This conversation was part of Social Lab Symposium in Hong Kong.

New narratives

Stephane Vincent (Paris): The narrative of our work is something really strategic.

When you start, you talk about labs and you think that people understand what you mean by labs, but then Christmas arrives and you have to explain what you do to your mother. Then, you realize that maybe you should find another narrative. So we spend a lot of time thinking about the narrative and try many things.

We are a country of the cooking, so, since a few years back, we’ve tried to use cooking culture to talk about change in administration (in French). There is a TV show, where Gordan Ramsay goes into a struggling restaurant and gets really upset about their bad cooking. We used this metaphor to criticise the bad “cooking” of administration. For civil servants. It was easier to talk about that. When you are empathetic with administration, you realise that many of them would like to be a social innovator like you. They are potential social innovators and they are looking for what you’re doing.

Capability-building approach

SV: For our public innovation programme, we select a group of 20 volunteers in the organisation, based on specific criteria, including enthusiasm, curiosity and availability. We get permission from their managers that they are available during 40 days a year. Even if they are enthusiastic, if they are not available, it won’t work. We make sure that these are not people who are free and available for the bad reasons. We make sure that they is diverse mix in the group: male and female, senior and junior, top manager and frontline staff. They work with us during 15 months. We call them the positive deviants, they are like double agents.

It’s a four year programme that we run in eight cities and in each city, for the duration of 18 months. There will be a gathering between all the cities on a regular basis – every three or four months.

The point is to empower this group of civil servants so that they understand how to use this kind of methods and they are the panel that we use to simulate the existence of a lab. The goal is to make it real. We get them to work on real cases.

Carolyn Curtis (Adelaide): What’s the value for the government? What do they get? Are you helping them solve one of their problems?

SV: We don’t call them “projects” – it’s “cases” so that there is not the promise of solving it. They don’t produce solutions, but they produce new scenarios and then they shift to another project. It’s a combination of research and training programme.

Chelsea Mauldin (NYC): But then, there’s no implementation?

SV: There is no promise of implementation. Sometimes things get applied as a result of the process. But the promise is not the implementation, we are very careful about that. It’s a test – we simulate it. This way, we decrease pressure of finding solutions.

CC: From a learning perspective, that’s going to be a far richer learning experience for a public servant to learn the craft — a capability building strategy rather than competency based approach.  

SV: We make it very clear that it’s an experiment.

CC: We’ve got a profound issue in Australia at the moment with everyone purchasing Human Centred Design workshops. We need to move to a much more apprenticing model. Then the challenge is — when they go back, are the conditions in place for them to be able to exercise and utilise their new capacity?

SV: The promise is not that they will become the future team but they prototype it. In all the cases, they decide to hire a professional – sociologist or designer. Most of the time, there is a mix between hiring a new professional, two or three of the twenty civil servants will play an active role in the future team and the others become the ambassador. So, we create the ecosystem of a lab.

This programme was built to avoid or to find a solution to the lab dilemma – either you’re outside or you’re inside. The idea was to say, okay, if we get strategy to be built by the civil servants themselves, then we decrease the risk of rejection. It’s built by the teams and it’s built not by the top management, which is high risk. It’s built by the technical guy or the governor.

CM: Do you do actually some kind of evaluation of that?

SV: We look at three levels: the change for individuals; the change for the group — does it create more cooperation? Do they have better empathy? And the impact on the policy and services.

New ways of working together

CC: One of the things we’ve thought about a lot at TACSI, and have been testing among ourselves is how you work together in social innovation. New ways of working together, making decision, different roles.

SV: There is one task in our programme which is about team building, making sure that people are comfortable working together and taking the time just talking about that. Evaluating how people feel in the group — this is a specific task. So it’s not about working on the project, but working on the “we” as a group. How do we work together? How do we listen to each other?

CM: This is very interesting because this, I think, independently we came to exactly the same thing somewhere halfway through.

And one of our fellows said to me once in the midst of the project, “You’re very verbal, you’re happy to just talk, but some of us don’t like that. We want to take turns.” So after that, we began this very deliberate investigation of “How does everyone get a chance to talk and also how are we all feeling?”.

Now it’s more almost kind of embedded in our practice. We do a daily standup scrum, which is supposed to be quite short and functional, often creates opportunities to have conversations about feelings. And that stuff is fundamental to being able to be successfully generative. In order to make a lot of ideas, you’re going to make many, many bad ones and in order to make many bad ideas, you have to feel safe having bad ideas. And you’re not going to feel safe having bad ideas in an environment where you feel scared or stifled, or unvalued.

SV: There is no natural context for cooperation, so you’ve got to create the context for cooperation by exercise.