This past weekend for me was filled with multiple workshops, a lot of networking, brainstorming, pitching, and laughter!
It was the first time the iTeam behind Thailand’s Government Innovation Lab got together to collaborate and kick-start this mega project, initiated by the Thai government in collaboration with UNDP, the Office of the Public Sector Development Commission, Thailand Creative & Design Center, Thammasat University, King Mongkut’s University of Technology Thonburi, Ministry of Commerce, Ministry of Interior, Ministry of Science and Technology, and Ministry of Public Health.
Being part of the iTeam over the past month has been an amazing opportunity for me to go beyond the scope of the business world and better understand the role and power of Design Thinking in a much broader context. Leaders, decision makers, and government officials will be able to tackle the country’s pressing issues and find sustainable solutions only when they really understand what life is like for citizens at all levels of our society. Not just what life looks like, but what life feels like for them. This is why a yearly visit, a workshop, or a “well-supported” assumption isn’t enough to get to the roots of such a wide range of complex problems. We must eliminate silos across different organizations and functions. The people involved must be able and willing to share insights, best practices, goals, and values. Most importantly, time, effort, and commitment must be there in order for this mega project to be successful.
The ultimate goal of the Government Innovation Lab is to take a citizen-centered approach to reform Thailand’s bureaucratic structures and public service delivery. The focus of our pilot projects is on the quality and efficiency of services in public hospitals, ISO certification processes, registration and approval of new herbal medicine products, and social protection payments to the elderly. To help guide us through the first (and hardest) steps, the iTeam invited Mr. Marco Steinberg, a former professor at Harvard University’s School of Design and the driving force behind Finland’s Government Lab, to lead our 2-day workshops.
In this post, I want to share with you what I learned from Mr. Steinberg and the experience of working with government officials, professors, physicians, volunteers, and design thinkers. Overall, it was a work-filled weekend that was definitely so worthwhile. Already, there’s a lot of interest and involvement from every member of the iTeam. The future of Thailand’s Government Innovation Lab looks bright and promising. As we move forward and start pursuing the key pilot projects, it’s just as important for us, as a team, to stay motivated, maintain our commitment and communication, and share a sense of co-ownership of this mega project!
Three words I would use to sum up what I learned over the past weekend were Break, Bridge, and Build. Break away from the status quo and the old rules. Bridge the gap between us and “the rest of them” by establishing a shared language. Ultimately, build our capacity for teamwork.
On the first day, when all the iTeam members formed a big circle around Mr. Steinberg, I asked him about how to remove the barriers among different organizations and free ourselves from the old rules, stagnation, and limitations that often hold us back from a successful collaboration. Mr. Steinberg’s response was to “get the outsiders in” and “make the majority the minority.” Through this approach, the outsiders who aren’t constrained by the same rules, traditions, or fixed mindset become a breath of fresh air and bring in a different perspective that can be very useful. In the Government Innovation Lab project, the insiders are decision makers at the top of the pyramid, government officials from the 4 ministries involved, and experts from relevant fields. The outsiders are, for example, younger generations, university professors, end users, and Mr. Steinberg himself. The insiders were able to share the breadth and depth of the problem at hand, while the outsiders were able to raise their questions and concerns and propose ideas and possible solutions. Breaking away from the rigid, top-down, and closed work environment is the first and possibly most important step to reform Thailand’s bureaucratic structures and enable organizations to achieve so much more.
One of the workshops that I enjoyed the most was when Mr. Steinberg drew a scale on the board with “hot” and “cold” on two different ends, labeling this scale “climate.” He then asked each of us (there were around 100 of us!) to take a small post-it and place it somewhere on the scale based on our personal preference. I put mine in the middle, slightly leaning toward “cold,” because I’m just so sick of the all-year-round humidity and stickiness of Thailand’s heat, but I’m not ready to go back to the extreme -20F and thick inches of snow that I experienced for four years in Boston either. It turned out that most people also put their post-its in the middle section of the scale. Only a couple of people put theirs on the extreme ends.
This phenomenon could have been interpreted in many different ways. Were people just going with the majority? Did we have totally different ideas of what was cold and what was hot? Is being in the middle/average/moderate the safest? This exercise got me thinking a lot about the importance of having a shared language. It’s easier for two people who speak different first languages but share the same vision, values, and goals to communicate than for two people with absolutely nothing in common to work together, even if they have the same mother tongue. For the iTeam members to be able to develop Thailand’s Government Innovation Lab, things like “innovation,” “teamwork,” and “action” must mean the same things for all of us. Coming from different organizations with different roles, different rules, and different expectations, we needed to talk. A lot. So, as the day progressed, we had opportunities to sit down and share our experiences, perspectives, and stance on issues in an open, caring, and respectful environment. These opportunities to open up to each other allowed us to see and learn to accept our differences, while helping us realize what we had in common and the potential we had to offer as a team. As the day progressed, strangers became friends and friends became partners and teammates.
The next question is, how do we build our capacity for teamwork? Sometimes teams fall apart not because people can’t or don’t want to work together, but because they don’t have a sense of ownership or feel engaged and connected enough with what they are doing. A good example I can think of is how salespeople in shopping malls work so hard to sell all these amazing features of a product or a service, but in the end they don’t benefit from any of these features, they aren’t end users, and they probably haven’t even used the product or service before. This is bad for both the brand and the salespeople. While the brand keeps uninspired and demotivated employees hired, the employees will keep working until they are eventually and completely burned out. Over the past weekend, one of the main focuses was to build our long-term capacity for teamwork from the get-go. Together, we visualized what our success would look like in the end. We established what our distinct roles would be, how each role mattered to the overall success, and what steps we had to take as a team to get to where we wanted to be. When members of the team understood their roles and their unique contribution, they gained a sense of co-ownership and became empowered, engaged, and even more involved than before.
In the Government Innovation Lab, I’m specifically involved in the subgroup that is working to improve the quality and efficiency of services in Thai public hospitals. For instance, think about spending half a day waiting in a depressing, enclosed waiting room just to see your doctor for less than 5 minutes. We want to change that! As a result, I’ll be working closely with physicians, experts in the healthcare industry, government officials from the Ministry of Public Health, and Associate Deans from King Mongkut’s University of Technology Thonburi. After the experience we had and the lessons we learned over the past weekend, I strongly believe we are off to a great start! This is truly an incredible opportunity for someone from a much younger generation like me to learn and contribute to our society at large, and I’m beyond excited to see how this project unfolds in the near future.
Stay tuned for more updates on the development and progress of Thailand's Government Innovation Lab here on my website!