What does it take to work in an agile way?
The tough social problems we have focussed on through Reboot Britain have often defied solutions for significant periods of time. When coupled with the fact innovators are experimenting with untested tools, this means development processes must be agile and able to evolve in the face of extreme uncertainty if they are to be successful.
Established methods of management in the public sector are often not set up to deal with development processes that are open, iterative and likely change. How then are public services to deal with these challenges and what should a development process look like?
The first point to make is that development processes need to be rigorous. Although the organisations involved in Reboot Britain have developed their ideas in different ways, all have gone through a planned development process to orientate their idea, test the concept, refine the design and develop a prototype.
Alongside this, developing an evidence base, even at this very early stage, is important because this makes it easier to either demonstrate an idea works, or show that there is a case that supports the reworking of an idea. This ultimately increases the likelihood that an innovation will prove successful in the longer term, because it helps organisations to understand how to build a sustainable approach that customers want around their initial vision.
For example, the original idea for Patchwork was to build a lightweight application that would pull data off existing systems to form a single comprehensive picture of children in need. However, early proof from concept testing highlighted that professional wanted something that facilitated relationships between them, rather than amalgamated information. As a result, the focus of the platform changed to one that makes it easier for professionals to connect with others and co-ordinate their involvement around an individual.
When approaches do change, it is important that commissioners are able to respond in a way that does not stifle or smother the innovation. Standard procurement processes can be very prescriptive, which poses obvious difficulties when change is an inevitable part of the development process, because it can be hard to deviate from a predetermined path. It is important that people have the space and freedom to come up with new ideas and pursue new approaches if the original proposition is shown to be flawed.
For example, Buddy went through a number of iterations, each of which was rejected for not being flexible enough, before the decision was taken to develop a daily digital diary. However, because the platform was co-designed with commissioners who were prepared to work in an agile way, the fact that it moved a long way from the original concept did not pose a problem. It is still an innovation that helps people move through the mental health system, but what we have learnt is that, although the end result will be the same, how this is achieved needs to be flexible.
As an idea starts to take shape, it will still face many obstacles and the risks and challenges associated with developing a digital innovation in this space mean it will sometimes come up short. The stark reality is that at some point innovators will encounter failure and this has to be seen as an acceptable part of the development process. It is also worth bearing in mind that failure in these circumstances can provide new inspiration on what needs to happen next and opens up the possibility of real ground-breaking success.
Perhaps more significantly though, it seems to make sense that service providers take steps to find out that an intervention works before large scale investment takes place. This requires working in a new, more agile way. Testing ideas before they receive significant investment represents a more sensible use of public funds in this difficult financial climate.