Thomas Prehn’s innovation diary: What I learned at MindLab

Nine lessons from the director of the world's longest running lab

MindLab was the world’s oldest government innovation lab and has spawned imitations all over the globe. It stood at the forefront, both in theory and practice, of efforts to make government cleverer, faster and more inventive. Here, its former director Thomas Prehn shares his experiences and ideas in a regular update.

Apolitical has previously interviewed Thomas here. He can be contacted on the Apolitical network here. The views expressed here are Thomas’s own and not representative of any public body. His work forms part of our feed on government innovation

What I learned at MindLab (24.May.2018)

On the morning of May 1st I found myself no longer the Director of MindLab. The world’s first and longest running policy innovation lab had been shut down. Political priorities had moved on from innovation to disruption.

For three years, I worked with great, ambitious people, embedded in and interacting closely with the political system, trying to distil and pioneer viable templates for the future of public organisations.

These are my humble lessons learned from working in this determined, resourceful, yet bureaucratic system:

1. Failure is not an option

In political systems, failure is not appreciated, because it exposes the minister and ministry to public scrutiny. And for public servants this is a huge concern, for various reasons. So it’s imperative that you rigorously return to the problem until it’s resolved. This must be what you promise at the outset, rather than promising a smoothly facilitated workshop.

2. Climb down from the ivory tower

Innovation units often define themselves in opposition to the rest of the organisation. Please, lose the arrogant centre-of-excellence attitude. Always be humble: no matter your effort, success is never yours alone. And remember that it actually makes you stronger if success happens in the core of the system, and not on its outskirts.

3. Don’t promote methods

Yes, design methods might be utilitarian and easily applicable, but they don’t help usher in a sustainable change to how organisations work. Instead strive to leave a cultural dent in everything you do, by challenging inherited assumptions and behaviours, and using the power of example to prove impossible wrong.

4. Be generous

Ideas, successes, appreciation — pass it all on. Infuse what you do into the organisation’s workings without taking credit; let it take root and grow strong in the gardens of your colleagues. Only then will it become relevant and scale to truly valuable proportions. Yes, the celebration party will be on a different floor, but if that really matters to you, you’re in the wrong business.

5. Stop dreaming

Be realistic, be pragmatic, be sensible. Changing government and political structures is a tough job. Also many of the processes and behaviours you’ll find in these systems are there for good reasons. Instead, commit to audacious ambitions, to change what’s changeable, and to doing what creates real value — for the organisation and society.

6. Be an awesome colleague

Build professional friendships, be ready with advice, a hand, a shoulder. Hold your colleagues high, and lift them even higher when needed. Have a cup of coffee, have their back, cover their ass. Always give more than expected. And leave room for surprise.

7. Celebrate nuance

Acknowledge that in policymaking there are no perfect targets for your beautifully designed silver bullet. Insist on curiosity and pay attention to the periphery — of the problem, the solution, and the organisation. Ignore hierarchal legitimacy and praise anyone who brings you a surprising perspective from the corners of your organisation.

8. Create legitimacy through relations

Policymaking is a complex, fast-moving target; it’s difficult to draw baselines and it’s impossible to isolate and measure the impact of interventions. That’s bad news in organisations thriving on the idea of evidence by numbers. However, building genuine, compassionate relations will fortify the overall organisational narrative of the value your efforts bring. And hopefully you’ll stay around a bit longer.

9. Stay true

Remember your initial ambition and moral compass, and when organisational turbulence arises, stick with it.

(Picture credit: Unsplash)

Thomas Prehn

Read other instalments of this series:
Thomas Prehn’s innovation diary
Design sinking
How to scale up public policy
A backlog of curiosity
Innovation is not a room
Innovation labs measure success to justify themselves—but it can’t be done
Bring me problems, not solutions
How to build a team of innovators


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