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Blog: Where DIY and innovation collide

Some skills can only be mastered with practice…

Andrew Niere - Manager Public Sector Innovation

It struck me the other day that being good at innovation is a lot like being good at DIY. It’s not a skill we're born with, or a technique that you can master by simply reading a manual. DIY and innovation are both skills that we learn through the act of doing.

I had plenty of time to come to this realisation as I spent Saturday morning tackling the old silicone caulking lining the shower. How hard could it be?

Take 1

Fast forward an hour, and with fingers covered in white goo, I realised maybe I should’ve had a cursory glance at an online tutorial before I began. I’d give the YouTube guru 10 minutes of my time and I’d have this sorted...

Right, so there it was, cut the nozzle at a 45 degree angle, even pressure on the trigger, fast movement with the caulk gun. Okay.

Take 2

Hmm better, but it still looked a lot like I was trying to fill the gap with sticky marshmallow. Back to the videos…

Ahhh, follow with a soapy finger for a non-stick smooth finish. But whether to tape the edges? The verdict was unclear, I’d need to keep researching.

And then a video from an Englishman amongst all the American accents: “Don’t follow any of these other techniques because they’re wrong and I’ll show you why”.

This video explained that while those other techniques look good, they’re supposedly all fundamentally flawed. It also provided a hypothesis, with evidence from someone willing to run an experiment to show why the status quo, while popular, wasn’t necessarily the best approach.

Ring any bells for work in government?

Take 3

Ok so now, cut the nozzle straight, don’t worry about the speed and the use the magical silicone edge tool to create a smooth finish. A tool which I could find at the hardware store for under $5!

Of course it’s the tools - it’s always the tools. How could any mortal be expected to get the right result without the right tool. This was sure to be the answer to my problems.

And with a $5 tool in hand a pretty decent job. But you know what? Not a perfect job, because even though I had the right tool I’d still had no practice using it, so I didn’t have the feel or tolerance for how it could be best used.

On reflection that shouldn’t have surprised me. When I watch my friend Geoff, a local luthier, working to craft a new guitar there’s an affinity between person and tools and materials that belies simple co-location.

What DIY teaches us about innovation

And so it is with innovation. It’s never enough to just ‘watch the video’, or to have only a theoretical understanding of a technique. Even having the right tools won’t help if you have no practical experience using them. You need to know when to use which particular tool to achieve what effect and to have a familiarity with what the tool feels like to achieve results.

Innovation is a craft, one that you need to master over time. For public sector problems, it’s about practice and repetition, building the muscle memory that makes it second nature. And while muscle memory, like learning to ride a bike or hit a golf ball, is typically associated with physical activities, scientists are just as convinced that the mind plays as big a part in the process of learning and retention as physical movement- so the analogy feels apt when describing the craft of innovation.

This is one of the messages the team from Nesta are delivering to the cohort of Victorian Government innovators within the States of Change learning program. Innovation is a muscle. It requires exercising and rehearsing if you want to get results. At times you may experience “discomfort”, but this is part of the learning experience, and innovation process.

Wish me luck. I’m off to tackle the bath.