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The Importance of Being Earnest

Getting decent, viable project ideas out of an open innovation or hack process can be a challenge. I'veseen such events create wonders and fab new products. I've also seen them yield little, where it's clear that nothing of use will come of from the ideas. And that's clear even before the empty pizza boxes are cold.

So what makes some succeed and some fall flat?

As ever, there's no one single reason and it partly depends on what your definition of success is for the event (see my previous post - Hack The Block).

However, if it's tangible projects you are after, there are a couple of aspects which I see missed time and again with common results (or more precisely, a lack thereof!). One is having a clear specific problem to tackle (I'll write about that another time...) but another (and arguably more important to successful implementation) is the involvement of those who are motivated to solve it because it matters to them. People who are earnest about their cause and genuinely want to solve a problem. Better still, people that have a need to solve it.

I recently facilitated an open innovation event series in Cambridge, focussed on Learning Disabilities. This was a repeat of a similar process I have been running in Leeds. The event itself was over two separate days (and like in Leeds, dubbed #IdeasDayLD and #DesignDayLD, from the respective twitter hashtags for the two days).

Both days (as in Leeds) were very energetic and attended by people who are passionate about this area and committed to doing things that improve the prospects for people with learning disabilities and their families. People with LD still have some of the worst life chances in terms of things like good health outcomes and employment prospects.

What was evident was the level of passion and focus within the rooms during the event. On each day about 50% of the participants were people with a learning disability, their families or people who actively cared for them. Of the remainder, the majority worked in some directly-related field, either providing support services, advocacy or related activities in areas such as health and care. So all understood the myriad challenges only too well and a majority had a direct personal desire to solve them.

As a result, there was an evident and genuine need being conveyed. A range of very real problems which those present had a personal interest in solving - both for themselves and others with whom they could relate directly. They were very clear about what was challenging for them, what they felt was unacceptable in today's society and, crucially, a good range of ideas on what the solutions could be. These ideas were developed on the first day and then taken forward into some tangible projects on the second day.

What was staggering though, was both the quality of the resulting projects and the number of people who actively wished to continue working on them to create positive change. The passion and motivation to change things for themselves and those they care about (both personally or professionally) is a major motivator. At this particular event, many people were very skeptical beforehand. Comments like "no, I'm not coming; I'm sick of going to events, they never lead to anything" and "it'll just be another talking shop" were heard more than once in the run up to the first day. Where people still have an unsolved problem or cause that matters to them, there's a good chance that they've been disappointed more than once previously. This leads to disengagement and a lack of will to get involved in yet another promise of change.

So tackling these problems is challenging because you need to be confident in the process you are embarking upon if you are not to simply reinforce those skeptical views even further. But the flip-side of that is if you can break into it, work through the challenge with people and start a new and better way of working, those same people can provide a huge amount of support and momentum if they begin to see that there is a genuine possibility for positive change from the process. That conviction about the need to solve the problem can quickly flip from a negative to very positive force. People get behind it, become really powerful supporters, negative energy can be transformed to positive and be extremely powerful.

I saw this throughout this process and it mirrored previous observations. The most striking of which was probably during the Genius Open project under the URBACT cities learning & exchange programme. Working with the City of York at the time, transferring open innovation practice, we saw the citizens of a neglected neighbourhood in the small but beautiful city of Siracusa in Sicily exhibit a very similar pattern of behaviour. Just on a much more extreme scale! The problems they faced were significant and long-standing. They had little hope of positive change and a huge amount of frustration at the lack if it. Consequently, when the team from the city administration sought to engage them in an open process, they were not keen. So much so that the first meeting in the neighbourhood almost resulted in physical violence and the police being called!

But the project team didn't give up. They were equally convinced that the process could and needed to work and so they persevered. It was hard work, but their earnest determination to continue to engage and demonstrate a commitment to a different and more collaborative way of working eventually yielded fantastic results. 12 months later, the ringleaders of the angry mob at that first meeting were standing up in the civic city hall, talking to those assembled about how much they valued and were committed to the project; how hopeful they were of it making a difference to their lives and the lives of the community around them.

This only happened because of the commitment on both sides to define a common aim and pursue it. Together. The models, tools, techniques etc. are also key. But to use them effectively and get the most from them, you need to have that genuine conviction and commitment on both (all!) sides for it to have the desired impact. Great things can be achieved. But never underestimate the vital importance of being earnest.

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