The duck-billed platypus is a bizarre creature.
It looks strange and it’s one of the few mammals that lays eggs rather than gives birth. Its image has been used for many things from an Olympic mascot to a secret agent in a children’s animation. In evolutionary terms it’s a great example of innovation. If evolution was ‘playing it safe’, the duck-billed platypus wouldn’t have appeared on the original blueprints.
And isn’t it tempting to play it safe? On a tough improvement journey, when providing care and support, there is much to be said for keeping your head down and focusing on getting the basics right. Conversely, it can be tempting to embrace innovation for innovation’s sake but just because something’s new, that doesn’t always make it better.
Here’s a radical, platypus-shaped thought: however major the issues an organisation in trouble needs to tackle, a positive, responsible risk-taking culture will be critical to sustained development and success. That means ensuring there is room to breathe, try things out and learn from both success and failure. An organisation that has battened down the hatches and focuses only on the tried and tested may get the basics right but is probably not positioning itself for the future, for which a culture of innovation is essential.
We hear of innovative practice every day. Our recent work on asset-based approaches, where the skills and strengths that exist in communities are used to do things like reduce isolation, has eleven blogs detailing innovative practice from York to Barnet and from Oldham to Antrim.
In Lincolnshire they’ve mapped what community assets exist with a list of small businesses, sole traders, voluntary and community organisations that offer services to the public such as meal delivery, cleaning, pet care, yoga, household maintenance and housing. This has helped to identify and harness an untapped resource of services and support that local people can now easily access. But it’s not what the commissioners of services would have predicted 30 years ago.
In his book, Improbable Destinies, Jonathan Losos asks whether evolution is predictable. He says there are many cases where the tiniest change – a random mutation or an ancient butterfly sneeze – caused evolution to take a completely different course. Every now and again a strange thing comes along, like the duck-billed platypus – and perhaps that’s a good thing.
Tony Hunter, chief executive, Social Care Institute for Excellence