Devil’s advocates

Kriss Deiglmeier’s latest column, just say no, on her CSI blog focuses in on the need for social entrepreneurs and organisational leaders to really identify and prioritise the most crucial actions to achieve the goals they have. “For those in the social innovation field, finding the 20 percent of activities that are going to give you maximum impact is paramount. Clearly, that means sorting through the list of innovative ideas and not trying to go for all of them.”  

Indeed, Deiglmeier points out that it is just too easy to distracted by multiple calls for your resource and time pulling in all sorts of different directions – the effects on organisational effectiveness can be highly damaging. Hence the importance of leaders to say no as well as yes. She then adds to this with some very practical advice: “This is not a call about resisting change; rather it is a call to deliberate choice and action.  As you get pulled in these directions, push yourself and those in your organization to think critically about priorities. If you could only do three things for the next year, would this item make the top of your list? Force yourself to answer.”

For organisations to do this effectively Deiglmeier suggests they seek out Devil’s advocates to ask the questions incumbents rarely ask. This got me thinking about the state officials and the decision-making that takes place throughout Californian counties. Each one of California’s 38 million residents lives within the boundaries of one of the state’s 58 counties. California’s counties serve a dual role. They provide a vast array of municipal services to residents, including roads, parks, law enforcement, emergency response services and libraries. Counties also serve as a delivery channel for many State services, such as foster care, public health care, jails and elections.

Now, within those counties I bet that path dependency is rife – a ‘this is the way we’ve always done it’ or ‘why would we change that?’ mentality. Surely many of these county service providers could benefit from some devil’s advocates to really challenge current orthodoxies and ask some critical questions about priorities. Who could these devil’s advocates be? Well, why not high-flying students from Californian academic institutes and business schools?

Surely there could be a win-win here – current students could get some additional hands-on time working with Californian administrators and gain new practical understanding of influencing and innovating within the public sector. Equally Californian administrators could build up new networks and bonds with highly skilled students that could support organisational purpose clarity and operational effectiveness in their organisation. Who knows, maybe such a connections programme could spur new spin-out service innovations that could be scaled up state-wide?

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