This post is about the lessons learning through developing the Mid West Innovation Agenda and Mid West Innovation Action Agenda (unpublished*). This is most relevant if you are doing something similar in another region, though may also resonate with anyone facilitating collaborative strategy development. This is not a report about what do grow innovative ventures themselves, rather how to facilitate strategies and initiatives that enable the ecosystem that enable individual ventures.
We were sub-contracted by Pollinators to complete this work, collaborating with FarLane, Progress Economics and other members and partners throughout the process. This post is dedicated to all those who contributed their time and expertise. The intention is sharing is that others in the Mid West and other regions will be able to learn from our learning, and so better realise their regions' aspirations.
In December 2015 Mid West Development Commission finalised a partnership with Pollinators Inc to deliver the first phase of a Mid West Innovation Agenda. Pollinators Inc was founded in 2010 to nurture people and innovations that enable healthy resilient communities, particular in Greater Geraldton (though with an intention the lessons learned could be relevant more widely).
Engaging a local social enterprise as a partner in strategy development is a significant innovation in itself, different from doing it in house or through a commercial capital-city consultant.
The initial scope was to do an initial map of the innovation landscape, define the framework and scope for a Mid West Innovation Agenda, and identify cases and programs that could move the Agenda forward. In April 2016 work commenced further phases, leveraging other funding and resources to grow networks, programs and ventures. The culmination of the work has been to develop a strategy and identify leaders and resources to carry the work forward.
Right from the initial scoping of the work we made some decisions and commitments based on learning from other regions. These included:
- Define a scope. There are a surprising number of strategies and policies that don’t define key terms or scope. We chose to do this explicitly in the Mid West, and define a meaning of innovation that was tested with stakeholders at every opportunity. This definition included the social value and community benefit, and differentiated it from the implicitly technology-focused State Innovation Strategy of the time.
- Learn from precedents. The literature review and innovation framework were strongly informed by government, academic and practitioner lessons from around Australia and the world. We tried to minimise creation of new frameworks, rather applying or adapting those to local circumstances and explicitly benchmarking this region against others.
- Delivery as strategy. Rather than the outputs and outcomes of this period being just documents and events, the success criteria for the project included numbers of participants in programs, ventures supported, investment attracted. For the same cost as a professional to write a strategy, using a local social enterprise created the possibility to do delivery and deliver outcomes not just reports on paper.
- Test assumptions. The process had built-in a number of initiatives designed to test hypotheses e.g. whether relevant Perth government agencies were interested, whether local programs could be sustainable, what types of ventures would respond to offers of support. This deliberate experimentation informed later decisions and strategy priorities.
- Make it attractive. Innovation adoption literature has great lessons for adopting innovation as a political imperative e.g. recruiting early adopters and champions. The lack of visual attractiveness of brilliant precedent reports on the same topic at a state level had affected their political and practical impact. So, we invested in beautiful branding and a designer to format the 'Agenda' document.
The lessons learned about innovation frameworks, definitions, drivers of successful ventures and enablers of mature ecosystems of support services are documented in the Mid West Innovation Agenda. This includes a visual map of the relevant policies, stakeholders, and benchmark regions.
Having said that, two lessons were obvious.
- Share your work. It was very timely to share early draft findings in appropriate forums, ahead of their final formal endorsement. Sharing definitions, frameworks, ideas as early as possible meant they were either positively influential (e.g. affecting the State Innovation Strategy), or quickly identified as not as useful as hoped (e.g. the cube), or turning out to be the key to communication (e.g. s-curve),
- Enact immediately. Rather than just writing about innovation, aim to embody and enable it at every step. In this case it meant being open about what we were working on, inviting community to co-create the content, identifying way to test ideas and assumptions as soon as possible, and creating things that were durable, replicable and scaleable (e.g. strategies, frameworks, programs, diagrams, content).
There were several rounds of formal consultation with stakeholders in the region and metropolitan area. The participants were all very generous with their time and feedback.
- Clarify the problem. There are several ways people orient towards concepts such as innovation, and in most cases they see it as being about problems and solutions (rather than creating future potentials). This meant that
- Compelling invitations enable new collaborations. At times we were reluctant to take up the time of busy stakeholders, already-stretched volunteers. However much of the time the feedback from participants was that they made new connections or had conversations that haven’t happened in any other forum. It seemed that
- Strategy without action isn’t strategic. A common concern with the project and from other stakeholders was about the reams of strategies that have not been implemented. Without commitment to implementation, strategies can tend to be based on un-tested hypotheses or unlikely scenarios rather than actually being strategic.
- Projects trump policies. In early consultation, during implementation and in the final drafting it became clear that most stakeholders favour projects over policy changes. That is, any concept or idea must be made ‘concrete’ for it to be understandable, acceptable and its implementation imagineable.
- Measures reveal meaning. In some of the consutlation we focused on how people would measure what they meant or were advocating for. This was found to be a very rapid way to reveal the meaning they were making e.g. a long discussion about defining social innovation was able to be summarised through agreement on a few metrics that could be used to measure it.
- You might already be doing it. Some of the most productive conversations were discussions about practical projects that were and weren’t innovation.
Consistent principles emerged from the process of developing the Action Agenda. These principles align with the goals and were recommended to guide further development and delivery of recommended programs and initiatives.
- Act - There are an abundance of strategies, theories, ideas, consultants and support services. What actually matters and changes metrics is taking timely action to respond to needs and opportunities to grow innovations. In practice, this means acting, now, and making quicker decisions based on all available information, to allocate resources in response to local demand or outside opportunities.
- Align - Improving alignment of existing initiatives across government can increase effectiveness and innovation. In practice, acting in alignment requires frequent, deliberate and collaborative reviewing of goals, programs and their impact.
- Outreach - Agencies and ventures in cities have more resources and access to expertise relevant to innovation, while locals in our regions have the context, connections and the motivation for successful implementation. In practice, communication, outreach and translation is an essential, specific activity that needs investment.
- Leverage - There are existing national and state programs, champions, organisations, networks and spaces aimed at growing innovation. Supporting and leveraging these initiatives can increase impact and avoids duplication. In practice, increasing regional innovation is a long-term aspiration and shift and has already started, so leveraging each other’s investments is an intelligent strategy.
- Grow - The growth trajectories of ventures, support services and the ecosystem are not always predictable (like the source of the next big innovation). In practice, this means being committed in intention and flexible in implementation, in supporting the ecosystem and innovations.
- Target - Our regional population and networks are relatively small, which means initiatives must be broad to attract enough participants. And, not all innovations have the same potential impact on the region. In practice, this means programs and promotions must reach out to the edges of regions and networks, while also clearly communicating their purpose and being selective about what’s the best investment.
Ideally, for any initiative oriented towards innovation, the responsibility, ownership and implementation are ever-expanding and there isn't an 'ending'.
There are, however, lively to be phases, pauses and review points. In ending and beginning there is always the opportunity to reflect on learning, and share that with others who may benefit within and beyond your current community.
In this case specifically, it's not over yet, and there are perhaps some learnings about ht effectiveness of this process that haven't fully played out yet, to do with: ownership within the procuring organisation, two-way informing relationship with State-level priorities and strategies, growing local capability, and immediate relevance and application in other regions.
The effectiveness of the implementation of the Action Agenda are also an open question and primary concern, and mechanisms to enable that learning were built into the recommendations.
* The Mid West Innovation Action Agenda, appendices and many other useful documents were finalised in 2017, however haven't been published or promoted by the Mid West Development Commission. If you are interested to access them, please contact them.