In my latest column for PA Times Online, I wrote about why innovation in the public sector is challenging. Public sector innovation (and innovation in general) is an emergent process in that new ideas build on previous innovations. However, as research has found, there is not a direct path to change. The indirect and surprising ways invention occurs was the basis for James Burke’s Connections series. I highly recommend watching the episodes available on YouTube.
The typical way that innovation occurs is that a vision of the new product, service, or method is created. Then, a program is launched to achieve an innovative goal. It’s a proven formula that works. Think of the major U.S. government projects like creating the atomic bomb, building the interstate highway system, and landing people on the Moon. There is a mix of moving directly toward the goal while taking advantage of unexpected side routes.
So, how to harness the power of emergence with its sudden leaps in the service of steady progress toward a goal?
One way is to recognize the symptoms of destructive goal pursuit. Dr. Kayes examined Mt. Everest expedition disasters to explore the destruction caused by a single-minded pursuit of goals. He called the intense focus on an objective, goalodicy. There are four limitations to the goal-setting process:
- Goals are difficult to abandon.
- Goals limit learning.
- Goals increase risk-taking.
- Pursuing goals may lead to unethical behavior (p. 50).
The warning signs of goalodicy are the acceptance of a narrowly-defined goal, high public visibility, pressure for face-saving behavior, an idealized future with few or no problems, pursuing the goal is the goal itself, and that achieving the goal is destiny (p. 76). The best way to overcome goalodicy is for leadership to encourage learning and questioning. Leadership also needs to encourage taking advantage of the unexpected to find new ways to achieve the goal or even modify the goal.
Stanley and Lehman (authors of Why Greatness Cannot Be Planned) wrote that “[b]eing open and flexible to opportunity is sometimes more important than knowing what you’re trying to do.” The goal is essential but allow for feedback and recalibrating the goal when necessary.
It is easy to fall into the goalodicy trap because people, teams, and organizations fear uncertainty. As Patrick Hollingworth wrote: “Kayes suggests that uncertainty prompts us to idealise the future, insisting that we tell ourselves that everything will be OK, just as long as we can reach this projection of the future (italics in original).” In my next posting, I will explore how to manage the effects of uncertainty on innovation.