How Thinking Like a Startup Helps Governments Solve More Problems

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As we work on challenging public problems, embracing the entrepreneurial spirit can help in developing solutions, says Harvard Business School Professor Mitchell Weiss in a new book, We the Possibility: Harnessing Public Entrepreneurship to Solve Our Most Urgent Problems.

Weiss explains in nine chapters how entrepreneurs both inside and outside of government can tackle problems by viewing them as opportunities, trying new ideas, scaling them up, and improving public life.

“I’m not saying we should take all the behaviors of entrepreneurs and import them into government. But we should be adapting the skills and practices of entrepreneurship for the public sector,” he says.

Before joining the HBS faculty and creating the MBA course Public Entrepreneurship, Weiss was chief of staff to Boston Mayor Thomas Menino. In 2010, Weiss cofounded the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics, one of the first big-city innovation offices in the United States. In April 2013, he helped guide the mayor’s office’s response to the attacks on the Boston Marathon. At HBS, he has helped build the Young American Leaders Program and is an adviser to the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative.

One thing he has learned during his years in public service: Officials don’t cut projects loose when they are failing, nor do they scale projects when they are succeeding.

“Anybody who has ever been close to the public sector will recognize this problem of pilots that are left to linger,” Weiss says. “And if public entrepreneurship is going to work, we have to cut off the failing projects and invest in those that are working. So it’s essential for us to try new things in quick and efficient ways and move on from them, eventually, if the original idea does not prove fruitful.”

In an interview, Weiss discussed other key points from the book:

Martha Lagace: What do you mean by “possibility government”?

Mitchell Weiss: Possibility government is the pursuit of novel programs and services by public officials and their outside private partners that, by virtue of their novelty, are only possibly likely to work, which means they probably won’t work. This is in contrast to probability government, which is the pursuit of programs and services that “work” but often achieve middling outcomes. Probability government is what we have most of the time in most places, and possibility government is what we need more of if we are going to truly solve public problems anywhere.

If there were ever a time for it, this is it. Given the loss of faith in governments around the world, we need a new approach. And, given advances in technology, there are opportunities for us to try to make use of them in appropriate and helpful ways now. There’s the mix of a long list of problems, potential solutions, potential solution providers among entrepreneurs in and outside of government that’s a call to action. What we’ve witnessed over the last couple years is people turning on each other, and I think possibility might afford a way for them to actually work together and solve problems.

This is already happening, with pockets of public entrepreneurship all around the world. In the US, there are amazing public entrepreneurs in some places. And it is also true elsewhere. We would all be wise to know about what they are doing. When I am with mayors across the globe through our Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative, I have met unbelievably innovative leaders whom some of my American colleagues and counterparts could learn from. Even where we should not replicate precisely what they do in different countries and regimes, we do need to up our sense of urgency, and part of that is seeing and learning from what other people are doing.

Lagace: Why is this book relevant to business managers and leaders not in government?

Weiss: A couple answers. If we are going to move toward possibility, we have to move together. We are going to need public officials who are willing to take on riskier projects and scale them, without taking on more risk. But we are also going to need members of the public who are granting them their permission, encouragement, and even co-participation. More specifically, private entrepreneurs, for example in the govtech space, have been on the increase. Large numbers of entrepreneurs are self-deploying in this space and will be, and large amounts of capital are being deployed and will be. More companies are finding themselves trying to solve public problems.

There are a lot of lessons in the book for how to do that well, whether you are a new startup in govtech or a public sector group at a large company working on public sector cloud solutions, for example.

Another reason is that people not in government, such as private business leaders or philanthropic leaders, may say, “Leave the innovation to us.” And that is not a viable strategy. The book has lessons for private and philanthropic leaders for why you want to have public partners who are as entrepreneurial as they can be.

Lagace: What’s different about public entrepreneurs compared to other entrepreneurs?

Weiss: First, there are similarities worth recognizing. We can have entrepreneurship in the private and public sectors just like we have bureaucracy in the private and public spaces. Big companies, too, struggle to find ways to be new, novel, and innovative. I think we overestimate some of the differences, to our detriment and the detriment of the work in both sectors.

As for differences, clearly public entrepreneurs are ultimately responsible to and accountable to voters, citizens, people living in the community. And that’s different from being mainly responsible to private stakeholders and private customers.

Motivation can also be different. Public entrepreneurs are presumably motivated to solve public problems. There’s a larger sense of mission orientation. Though, many private entrepreneurs say that’s why they got into public work.

And there are the kinds of problems we work on. Public entrepreneurs find themselves working on the most vexing of problems, the ones the private sector has decided they can’t solve on their own. The problems can be harder and more widespread.

Lagace: What is an example of a public startup?

Weiss: James Geurts, who started SOFWERX, was responsible for buying and deploying all the technology and equipment for the US Special Forces. He had at his disposal a large part of the $600-plus billion Department of Defense budget and some of the most inventive people at DARPA, the DoD’s research arm, and other places. And yet he still began a startup outside the confines of the Special Operations command, and sought ideas in non-intuitive places. How SOFWERX unfolds is a fascinating example of why governments struggle to do new things, how entrepreneurs work to remedy those struggles, what they all do to experiment, and what the opportunities and perils are along the way for both parties involved.

Lagace: If you lack that kind of budget and really want to work on public problems, what do you need to be good at?

Weiss: It is vital to engage with the public. Jimmy Chen, who had spent most of his prior career at LinkedIn and Facebook, began public entrepreneurship by doing problem identification and the beginnings of solution identification. To help the hungry, he went to SNAP offices to observe and talk to people applying for food benefits. So, the practicalities involve customer discovery and even some prototyping, but with the public, not to them or at them. As I also explain in the book with an admittedly more fraught example, about TraceTogether—a smartphone app to support community-driven contact tracing to slow the spread of COVID-19—that public entrepreneurs leave their office to ask people for feedback.

Lagace: How do you hire talent for this space?

Weiss: Hire people with strong heads and strong hearts. That is what health tech entrepreneur turned public leader Todd Park said, and I agree. Hire people with a set of modern skills around user-centered design, product management, UX and UI, or software engineering, and who have empathy for people who are facing public problems as well as empathy for public servants already trying to solve these problems. Don’t show up assuming you know everything about the problem and why it hasn’t been fixed.

We absolutely want to bring outsiders in. We also want to bring the insiders out of the woodwork. They’ve been hiding a little bit, not being told they can invent and bring new ideas. They are there. There is amazing talent already inside government.

Lagace: How can public entrepreneurs manage tensions between experimentation and failure?

Weiss: In the book, I quote organizational behavioralist James March, who says the trick is to be impatient with old ideas and patient with new ideas. That’s true. When we start trying a new program or service, it’s not going to roll out perfectly. We do have to give it a meaningful chance. And if it works after some learning, some trying, scale it. And if it doesn’t, we have to try something new.

About the Author

Martha Lagace is a writer based in the Boston area.

[Image: damircudic]

Chapter 1: Problems as Opportunities

By Mitchell Weiss

We the Possibility: Harnessing Public Entrepreneurship to Solve Our Most Urgent Problems

There is a particular and much loved kind of administrative/convergent/scarcity thinking that appears so similar to its opposites that it’s hard to detect. But it is limiting our efforts at imagining new solutions to sticky problems and therefore our abilities to solve them. And that’s “best practices.” Too often in government, the search for a new solution begins and ends with a call for finding the best of what others are doing, and then doing that. I understand the appeal: replicate what works. And we should do that. We could lift up the lives of billions of people around the globe if solutions that had been developed and successfully implemented in some places made their way to all appropriate places. But we also must recognize that in many cases, best isn’t good enough. That “solutions” aren’t really solutions at all, but just the things that are being done. If you asked for best practices on what’s being done today to add affordable housing, reduce congestion, thwart climate change, narrow gaping inequalities, etc., you would get a list of very interesting and sometimes helpful practices. And if you, as a public leader, aren’t doing the things on that list, you should. And if you, the public, aren’t demanding them, you should. But the reality is, if you subjected the list to the test of “Will it be enough? Will it solve the problem?” the answer would likely be no. The best is only the best yet, so I think as possibilitists, we must beware best’s siren call.

Following the [2013 Boston] marathon attacks, the decision was made to cancel that night’s Boston Bruins hockey game, with a city in mourning and terrorists on the loose. Not long after that, Mayor Menino wanted to know if canceling had been my stupid idea, and I could honestly tell him it hadn’t been, because I hadn’t had an idea, stupid or otherwise, since those sobbing people had come streaming toward my home. (I think it was the right call, by the way, and I think eventually he did, too.)

An idea was forming in my head, though. And in his, and in a few others’. And the idea was that we needed to set up a brand-new fund to collect and distribute donations that were going to start coming in from around the world. The mayor was already taking the calls of people asking, “Where can we send help?”

The answer, in most US places affected by tragedy, was a local foundation. Best practices was to have an established, trusted organization collect donations and administer the funds. After the mass shootings in Columbine, Aurora, and Newtown, versions of this process had been put into practice in those locations. My mayor wasn’t inclined in that direction, however. He felt that when money went into foundations (which are the epitome of HBS Professor Howard Stevenson’s “trustee”), it took too long to get out, and that when it ultimately did get out, it went in too many directions and not to those who most needed it. I agreed with that worry. I had, by pure chance, seen articles documenting some of the delays in disbursing funds to the Sandy Hook survivors. The shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary had happened 122 days before the marathon bombings, and still the major fund collecting donations hadn’t finalized a process for distributing those donations. In Columbine, it took years for donated funds to make it to victims, and even then they received only 58 percent of what had been collected. After Aurora, it took 259 days—almost a year—for the funds to make it to victims.22 The idea of best practices is beguiling, but it wasn’t going to be good enough. The mayor insisted, with the governor joining him, that we would start up our own new fund. “You can’t start something new,” we were told, a statement rooted in trusteeship that left unaddressed the matter of doing better. So, I had to tell the foundation head we were going to anyway.

22 Dana Liebelson, “Where Did the Money Donated to Columbine, Aurora, and
Virginia Tech Mass-Shooting Victims Go?” Mother Jones, April 8, 2013; Mitchell Weiss, “Lessons from Boston’s Experiment with the One Fund,” Harvard Business Review, January 22, 2016.

Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business Review Press. Excerpted from We the Possibility: Harnessing Public Entrepreneurship to Solve Our Most Urgent Problems. Copyright 2021 Mitchell Weiss. All rights reserved.

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