Problems are not markets

A critical and often overlooked challenge facing those seeking to resolve challenges in the public sector is that that problems don’t always equal markets. Without a systemic understanding of the problem, any attempt at a resolution is likely to fall into ‘innovation theatre’ – it may look great, but once the show’s over there’s nothing left other than the impressions it creates in the minds of those who were watching. Yet at its best, ‘tech for good’ can be a game-changer. 

Core challenges follow. How can we figure out what to do in situations where there is clearly no existing market solution to a problem? How can we maximise the likelihood of innovative solutions being successful? Not only that, but how can we build in the possibility of identifying new solutions in areas where solutions already exist? 

To illustrate an approach to commissioning that addresses these questions, we have developed the following approach.

First, understand the problem. 

“We fail more often because we solve the wrong problem than because we get the wrong solution to the right problem.” 

Russell L Ackoff

We can’t tackle a problem when we can’t define it with any certainty, and the problems we are increasingly required to address through public funding are complex and often evade clear definition: how do we tackle homelessness, stimulate enterprise innovation, reduce obesity? We need an alternative approach to understanding the problem before we can think about investing in a solution, one that incorporates a greater understanding of systems. This phase helps identify the core elements of the problem that a potential solution needs to address. This is the traditional home of the service manager, performance or research lead. 

Key stages 

  1. 1. UNDERSTAND PROBLEM: undertaking research to understand the problem more deeply, including a range of perspectives
  2. 2. EXPLORE IDEAS engaging the market to gain a range of commercial and/or tech insights, including horizon scanning of new trends and developments, and historical review of what has been tried before

Next, start to create a solution(s). 

We certainly can’t start to tackle a problem when we don’t know whether there is a solution in the world or what the range of potential market solutions are. To do this effectively, we need to consider and broker between many competing ideas, drawing on creative and innovative approaches. This phase helps identify how the problem might be addressed by enterprise or market solutions  and enables a specification to be developed. This is the traditional home of the GovLab, designers and/or commercial experts. 

Key stages 

  1. 3. DESIGN CONCEPT potential solution providers developing early-stage concepts that might address the problem
  2. 4. ACCELERATE BUILD prioritised solutions being designed and a working prototype or MVP being built  
  3. 5. TEST PRODUCT potential solution tested until market-ready

Then, commission the solution(s) to achieve impact. 

Having arrived a proof of concept at the end of the previous stage, a more conventional commissioning process can be deployed through which to procure and deliver the intended solution. This is the traditional home of the procurement officer. A critical challenge here is to do so at speed.

Key stage 

  1. 6. COMMISSION SOLUTION the solution being commissioned using more traditional routes 

Beware solutionism

It is not necessary to elaborate on the need to avoid having solutions in search of problems beyond Elon Musk’s recent reflections on Tesla’s drive for automation: “one of the biggest mistakes we made was trying to automate things that are super easy for a person to do, but super hard for a robot to do”. 

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