Managing uncertainty in the public sector
If you really want to make something new, you have to be prepared to invest and acknowledge that investments are always connected to the game of predicting the future. The basic logic of financial investment is: the more insecure the return of the investment is expected to be, the less you have to pay for the stock.
On the other hand, the higher the projected profit and impact is, then the more willing you are to invest and take the risk. One thing you cannot avoid while investing is that the higher the risk of losing the investment, the more uncertain you will feel as investor. Investing will always be a combination of sober gambling, experience and rational calculation.
One of my daily challenges is to find the right balance between different ways of taking risks and then to deal with the uncertainty that follows.
As Head of Design in the municipality of Kolding in Denmark, one of my daily challenges is to find the right balance between different ways of taking risks and then to deal with the uncertainty that follows. I do this both as a manager in the central administration, and as an co-advisor on several design-driven development projects within the organisation.
Recently I had the chance to discuss these matters during the Design Driven Society panel discussion at Design for Europe’s event at Helsinki Design Week. There is no doubt in my mind that design methodologies and design process models are primarily the tools of design craftsman. But in our organisation, they also play an important role as practical and emotional risk management tools.
In the design secretariat we have created our own variation of a design phase model to ensure the progress of our projects. We have found that using a stage-gate logic is valuable for most of our projects. This simply means that between each design phase we review the proposition comprehensively to assess if the idea is still worth pursuing. This allows you to make several iterations in the search for perfection before you move from one phase to another. However when you are dealing with political framed deadlines and multiple stakeholders, that is very seldom a possibility. But what you can do is insist on taking the vulnerable first design phase seriously!
We have found that if you enter the initial ‘discovery’ phase, the phase where uncertainty is the key to new insights, with courage and real empathy for all stakeholders, you create a solid platform on which to start the implementation process. We often say that implementation starts in the discovery phase, and if you want to create real change you have as a minimum to take the risk of committing sufficient resources to this phase. I think this decision is one of the biggest challenges in the use of design methodologies. This phase is crucial, and it could be said that the rest of the process is just a matter of good design craftsmanship, political flair, and creating the right support and mandate from the leadership – though the challenges of these should not be underestimated.
During the panel discussion in Helsinki Marco Steinberg of Snowcone & Haystack made an interesting distinction between risk-taking i.e. participating in an uncertain situation – and dealing with a incalculable problem.
Steinberg explained that when you take a risk, you are to some degree capable of making a calculation based on statistics and common sense. But when you move into “the field of uncertainty”, the relevance and reliability of using analytic tools decreases. From my perspective, if there are too many uncertainties involved, or the complexity has reached a level where you have to rely on strategy and aspirations, you move into a different paradigm of creation and problem-solving.
The uncertainty you face means decision-making becomes increasingly emotional and sometimes chaotic and frustrating.
In these situations the uncertainty you face means that decision-making becomes increasingly emotional and sometimes chaotic and frustrating. Judgements often will be made in a paradoxical atmosphere with few or no secure paths to the desired future result. But this is the situation faced by those who are engaged in the process of innovation.There is also a special and uncomfortable task given to the management in charge of this process – on what basis can the management take a defensible decision if the project happens not to succeed?
I think it’s fair to say that existential problems call for radical approaches and interventions, and they can no longer be fenced in the field of traditional analytic tools. Neither can you use traditional analytical arguments to justify your decision-making. As a rugby player would probably say: if there is no pain there is no gain.
Design tools have been created to deal with uncertainty.
So if you aspire to radical innovation, and for that reason have to work in the field of uncertainty, I suggest the use of design tools on the basis of well-defined value propositions and a strong strategic direction. Design tools have been created to deal with uncertainty, taking into account that the solutions to complex problems require critical elements to be discovered during the problem-solving process. This is a basic premise for innovation and something you need to accept. The design process can’t guarantee that the new solution will always work out, but design can make sure that the results lay the foundations for the next step in innovation.