Intentionally Unreasonable Government

Transforming the way government works means no longer clinging to bygone processes. One way to break out of the mold is with a “disruptive hypothesis.”
by , | March 14, 2012

More often than not, implementing change in today's fast-paced world feels like riding a rail car careening down a steep hill. Sometimes, it takes everything you have just to make incremental adjustments that keep the wheels on the track. But what if there were a better way to reach your destination?

Just like restricting travel to steel tracks, thinking about a public service or government program solely in terms of the current process confines ideas to a flawed status quo rather than imagining ways of transforming the way government works. Frequently, legacy processes hold their ground because of a failure among policymakers to reimagine what might be.

Instead, try to envision the ideal way to accomplish your policy goals, but forget for a moment about how you currently do things. Begin by asking, "What is my goal?" For instance, thinking about how to improve schools can limit your thoughts to the confines of a brick-and-mortar classroom. Instead, one might ask, "How can we better educate children to prepare them for the workplace of the future?" The latter question opens up a range of possibilities that may not even include schooling as it is traditionally understood. For example, virtual charter schools now operate in 25 states and educate 250,000 students.

By focusing on the job to be done in this way and formulating a "disruptive hypothesis," rather than clinging to bygone processes, policymakers can improve their chances of uncovering better, faster, cheaper models.

Luke Williams, the author of "Disrupt," defines a disruptive hypothesis as "an intentionally unreasonable statement that gets your thinking flowing in a different direction." Disruptive hypotheses, formed correctly, can help policymakers see radically different ways of getting a job done.

To develop such a hypothesis, Williams suggests exploring the dominant clichés in the area in question and then inverting or denying them. To see how this might work, let's look at unmanned aerial vehicles. Could we have imagined, two decades ago, a model of military air operations that involved no onboard pilots, no large ground crews, days of uninterrupted flight time, very low maintenance and fuel costs, and no need to use ground assets for targeting? Some innovators did. The result: UAVs, which can provide several key performance capabilities that exceed those of manned aircraft. And at roughly $4.5 million, they cost just a fraction of the tab for manned military aircraft and satellites.

Sometimes, a disruptive hypothesis uncovers new ways an existing technology can be used in a radically different way to get a job done. For example, Boston's Citizens Connect cellphone application allows Bostonians to take a picture of a pothole, graffiti or road kill and send it directly to the city. The app automatically collects GPS information and allows the city to generate a work order for a public-works crew. A simple cellphone application that integrates easily into the lives of Boston's residents now accounts for roughly 10 percent of the city's service notifications.

Governments needn't try to develop all the disruptive ideas themselves. NASA's Open Innovation initiative involves the public in solving some of the agency's toughest challenges. The Green Flight Challenge, for example, aspired to develop an electric aircraft that would be a fuel-efficient "Prius in the Sky." The challenge was to find a way to not only beat the industry standard of 20 passenger-miles from the equivalent of a gallon of fuel, but to beat it by 10 to 20 times. The reward: a cool $1.5 million.

The winner attained a remarkable 403 passenger-miles per gallon, and NASA received more than three dollars in research and development benefits for each dollar it spent on the prize. "The Green Flight Challenge was one of our smallest expenditures yet one of our biggest achievements last year," says NASA's chief technologist, Joseph Parrish.

Facing shrinking budgets and public outcry for better services, it's hard for public officials to not get bogged down by prevailing clichés about how things have always been done. But with a compelling disruptive hypothesis and an openness to doing things differently, governments can discover dramatically better ways to accomplish their core missions.

This article is adapted from the Deloitte GovLab study, "Public Sector, Disrupted: How Disruptive Innovation Can Help Government Achieve More for Less."

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. You can enter an anonymous Display Name or connect to a social profile.

More from Management Insights