Move beyond technically possible to humanly possible

What's humanly possible

There are solutions to our social and economic challenges in the infrastructure, resources, health and education sectors. They’re exciting, affordable and achievable. But are we smart enough to recognise and implement them?

On 15 September 2015, Australia got its fifth Prime Minister in eight years. The nation’s new leader, Malcolm Turnbull [1], pronounced:

The disruption that we see driven by technology, the volatility and the change is our friend … if we are agile and smart enough to take advantage of it. There has never been a more exciting time to be alive than today and there has never been a more exciting time to be an Australian.

His statement felt like a breath of fresh air. It also took many people by surprise. “We live in interesting times” seemed more apt [2]. Bad news seems the norm for business and the economy, punctuated infrequently by a good news story. “Innovate or die” is the message.

Innovate – for what purpose?

It’s undeniable that businesses and governments face big challenges. In effect, that means we’re all being challenged to adapt, to innovate. Yet calls for innovation must be put into perspective and made explicit if useful progress is to be made. While new technologies and business models can be a catalyst for greater prosperity, it’s wrong to equate ‘innovation’ with digital start-ups.

In an organisational context we can think about four types of innovation:

  • Strategic innovation: changing business models to exploit new avenues for public and shareholder value creation.
  • Programmatic innovation: using resources and technology in better ways to achieve organisational outcomes.
  • Product, project or service innovation: delivering products and experiences with higher net worth to customers.
  • Process innovation: business system and administrative changes that improve productivity.

To achieve an effective return on effort and investment, organisational leaders need to be clear about what form of innovation they need.

Are we intellectually lazy?

Let’s be brutally honest. In practice, many leaders advocating for ‘innovation’ are often masking their underlying frustration at being unable to resolve complex, persistent problems. People are hoping for a ‘silver bullet’ that will fix their problems and avoid the need for any fundamental shifts in their business practices.

Consider the education sector in Australia, for example. Despite regular government reviews and increasing expenditure in public education over many years, educational outcomes have been declining [2]. Is the problem being misdiagnosed, solutions under-developed, action avoided, or all the above?

Investors and managers of public and private infrastructure are experiencing similarly persistent problems. Gas companies seem unable to find a productive path through community opposition to coal-seam gas development, while government transport agencies struggle to create the projects and conditions that serve as magnets for much-needed private investment [4].

We know how to make progress

What must be appreciated is that the experience, tools and practices exist to resolve these problems. They include practices like systems and design thinking for better problem diagnosis, market-based approaches for resource allocation, and deliberative stakeholder methods to guide difficult public policy decisions. It’s not that we don’t have the tools, it’s that we don’t use them.

Overlooking what’s humanly possible

Our governments and businesses are led and managed by intrinsically clever, well-meaning people. So what’s thwarting progress?

Much of the time people are working on technically feasible solutions. This is safe territory, but it’s causing harm in terms of failed initiatives and erosion of trust. Leaders are overlooking, or avoiding, the real question of what’s humanly possible. By this I mean solutions that people can support, fund, implement and sustain.

Few initiatives really fail on technical grounds. Mostly they fail because they were poorly conceived and socialised. Our technological prowess has outstripped our social and emotional intelligence.

Which leaders can be relied upon?

Fundamentally, the lack of intellectual rigour and social intelligence must be addressed by business and public leaders. But which ‘leaders’ will act? To find out, ask them these questions:

  1. Do they believe that fresh perspectives are necessary to resolve contemporary challenges?
  2. Are they in a position to influence how customer needs are met, whether external or internal customers?
  3. Do they believe their people are willing and able to adopt new approaches to their work?
  4. Can they develop and sustain the authority and peer support to achieve change?
  5. Is the personal cost of business-as-usual too high to tolerate any more?

Leaders that authentically answer ‘yes’ to these questions deserve our collective support. They’re people ready to embrace the proven (yet under-utilised) practices that drive genuine progress. They’re the people that will unleash our collective human potential.

P.S. If you’re a progressive leader, you’ll want to know how human-centred, intentional design can unlock high-value solutions to your challenges. Innergise’s white paper illustrates what intentional design delivers in an infrastructure context. You can download it here.

[1] Transcript of press conference of the Hon Malcolm Turnbull MP and the Hon Julie Bishop MP, Parliament House, 14 September 2015
[2] Geoff Masters (2016) Five Challenges in Australian School Education, Australian Council for Educational Research, Melbourne.
[3] John Fraser (2016) Infrastructure: Setting the public policy compass, GIH-CPPC-WEF Conference on Building Capability, Managing Risks and Enhancing Efficiency, Shanghai, 26 February.