59. Jennifer Wilde and Dan McClure: Systems innovation: reimagining ideas and solutions

Sue Stockdale talks to innovation strategists Jennifer Wilde and Dan McClure about how to reimagine systems and navigate through the complexity that exists when addressing big challenges, such as organisational change or the aftermath of a humanitarian disaster. They explain how to avoid overwhelm, why pictures or drawings can help bring clarity, and outline four keys that can help people understand systems innovation.

Jennifer (Jen) Wilde draws on over 15 years of hands-on experience as a senior manager in humanitarian response. She has developed strategies for fostering innovation during emergency response, in challenging, volatile contexts. Jen is currently serving as Managing Director at Innovation Ecosystem, an organisation that offers practical tools and support to deliver a step change in innovation effectiveness. She met her business partner, Dan McClure, when she was invited by the UN to speak at University of California (UC) Berkeley about the innovation lab that she set up in the middle of the earthquake response in Nepal.

Dan McClure is a specialist in disruption. Throughout his 40-year career, he has been a choreographer of ambitious messy change, reimagining complex systems in business, government and international aid. His work spans multiple sectors and engages leaders in both global firms and fast-moving start-ups. Dan is a thought leader that has helped pioneer practical approaches to system innovation, drawing on insights from a wide variety of past roles such as the Global Innovation Lead at the international consultancy ThoughtWorks, and the Chair of the Advisory Board for the UK based Humanitarian Innovation Fund.  Today, Dan is right at the cutting edge of innovation and loves to talk about why systems innovation is such an important part of the future of work.

After working with Fortune 500 companies, governments and some of the world’s largest non-profits and philanthropists, Jen and Dan are looking to share some of their insights into how all types of businesses need to think outside the box to solve problems.

Find out more about Jennifer Wilde and Dan McClure at Innovation Ecosystem via the website or LinkedIn or Facebook or Twitter 

Jen and Dan quotes

‘To come in as an emergency manager, it’s not just about how do you provide food and water and shelter and emergency health care and education, but it’s how do you deal with individuals and families and some of the best and worst of humanity’ 

‘The thing to remember is complexity is not chaos. Inside the seemingly chaotic complex challenges there are real patterns’ 

‘The way to get beyond the emotion, or the narrow solution that you’ve already conceived is to step back and really try to understand what that problem is’.

‘Significant globalization is tying us together and making the world more complex’. 

‘Once you’ve got a picture, you can share it with somebody else. So other people can start to work with you collaboratively on that same complexity.’

‘What’s interesting about a garden is also true about a system innovation – each change you make affects the rest of the garden’. 

‘I’m not all that interested in just small, incremental change, but reinventing how the world works’. 

‘The thing that people miss about complexity-  is that complexity is bountiful’. 

Jennifer Wilde and Dan McClure transcription

Sue: Welcome to the podcast, Jenny and Dan. It’s great to be with you both today

Jen: Thank you.

Dan: Great to be here. Thanks. Sue.

Sue: and you’re both in different parts of the world. I understand. Where are you based?

Jen: Yeah. At the moment I’m down in New Zealand, avoiding COVID soon to pop out, back into the rest of the world.

Sue: Fantastic. And Dan, what are you?

Dan: I’m actually in Michigan. So in the United States, only a half, a dozen times zones or so away.

Sue: So we’re really having a global conversation.

Dan: it is, it is.

Sue: Fantastic. Now I’m curious to understand in our conversation today all about systems innovation, which I know you’re both experts on and maybe a good place to begin with is how did the two of you come to be working together on this?

Dan: Well, you know, I think from each of our perspectives, we’ve both been fascinated by big, hard, complex, gnarly problems. I started out in an industry that was being massively deregulated. And as a result, the first 10 years of my career were about the entire industry being changed every two years. And that sort of attraction to big messy problems eventually led me over to the aid sector where there a lot of big, messy problems and surprise, surprise. I found other people who were doing that. And that’s where Jen and I met.

Sue: And in terms of your background, Jen, how did you come into this world of systems?

Jen: So I worked in global emergency management, so typhoons and earthquakes and civil conflicts for a long time. And you find a lot of big opportunities and messy problems there, whether it’s educational systems or governance systems, getting water to people in desert populations who are moving because of violence or, or many other challenges. And so that led me to looking at innovation methodologies that dealt with bigger challenges and bigger opportunities which led me to Dan at a round table in Berkeley where we said, Hey, we’re working on similar things, but in different places, we should do more of that.

Sue: Well, it sounds like that was a very serendipitous opportunity for you to connect together, just to pick up on what you’re saying there, Jenny, around humanitarian response. And certainly every time I hear something on the news about a disaster in some part of the world, we always hear about a whole number of agencies turning up on the ground to be able to work on that disaster and the appropriate response. Is that the sort of situation that you were described as a big messy problem?

Jen: yeah that’s almost the context you start with, or the marketplace for those in private sector. You know, a huge earthquake wipes out, Port Au Prince in Haiti and then lots of emergency agencies from governments around the world from non-profit and companies show up and say, what’s happening here. And what do we need to do to support people to first survive and then have opportunities long-term in their lives. It’s essentially a two-fold problem in that sense, because from the beginning, from day one, people really,  lost their future. I think it’s the hardest time in a lot of people’s lives because, maybe they imagine their kids going to university. Maybe they imagine having a different job. Maybe they were looking at building a house or whatever you imagine your dreams for the next five to 10 years, when an emergency hits suddenly you’re saying, I’m going to tear those up. I’m going to throw those away. And, where am I and what am I doing?

And I’ve had friends go through this they’re in a country with no media, no ability to find out what’s happening. And they’re hearing that the whole world’s underwater that, there’s been some crisis globally and this is the new,  it’s terrifying at many different levels. Many people have lost families or friends. And so to come in as an emergency manager, it’s not just about how do you provide food and water and shelter and emergency health care and education, but it’s how do you deal with individuals and families and some of the best and worst of humanity to say.

What future can you have now? How do we support you with some future, some hope that you want to look towards in the future? So I think that’s where the complex problems come from. So that’s where you start looking at. So what does a kind of housing solution that is durable look like? So what does support against gender-based violence look like, what does supporting your children, get some kind of care and education, you know, from the first month through the years afterwards, look like what kind of new governance systems need to be in place. So they’re, they’re the kind of big problems, but also big opportunities that that I’ve worked in supporting people.

Sue: As I hear you described that, Jenny, I can even almost feel overwhelmed by the complexity of the challenges that are facing that type of situation, Dan, from your perspective, if we have to consider something like that from a systemic perspective, how does one tackle that type of situation and not be overwhelmed by it at the same time.

Dan: Well, I think the thing to remember is complexity is not chaos. So inside the seemingly chaotic complex challenges. There are real patterns. There are people doing things for reasons there’s cause and effect there’s actual systems that are in place. So, if you simply look at the whole mess of things, it can seem like, well, there’s no way I can understand this. And it doesn’t even have to be something is truly daunting as you know, an earthquake or a hurricane, a lot of businesses face this sort of, oh my gosh, everything’s happening in my industry? What am I going to do about it? Or government agencies as they try to tackle hard problems. thing that’s good about complexity is that there is this structure underneath it. And so the real trick to not being overwhelmed is to step back and actually see that structure, see how all the pieces fit together and then start to work with that.

Sue: So in a business or in a disaster situation, I’m wondering whether managing emotions, managing uncertainty is also part of what you would help leaders and individuals to be thinking about how to manage.

Dan: Well, you know, it’s funny because I think emotion might seem to be the thing that always trips you up, I think what we find is it’s often the person who’s in their thinking brain, that’s the most dangerous because they ‘have thought about the problem’. Like with quote marks around it and they have a solution.  I was actually on a call this morning, talking about responses to climate change. And we had some very passionate folks on the call who knew what needed to be done. And it was a very focused approach that had a lot of validity to it, but it began from them having already thought through the problem. And in many ways, the way to get beyond the emotion, the way to get beyond the narrow solution that you’ve already conceived is to step back and really try to understand what that problem is.

Sue: The temptation to jump in and do something immediately is almost to be unlearned,  I guess it’s what I’m hearing from you, Dan, in your experience, Jen, from putting that into practice, what helps anyone to be able to do that? Stepping back effectively?

Jen: Mm, I think, especially when you look at kind of entrepreneurs and innovators and people who want to do things from an evolutionary perspective, humans want to solve stuff, it’s why we’ve survived. It’s why we’ve evolved. It’s why we’ve done so well in the world. The reality that we now live in is complex. And difficult to understand, and we need to see that reality first, , especially now in this decade that’s been dubbed the roaring 2020s where AI and biotech and energy tech and blockchain, and a number of really world changing technology is maturing that is starting to shift all industries. You can do two things you can say we’re going to make some incremental change. In a decade that that significant change, significant globalization is tying us together and making the world more complex. And that’s not enough. You can say, well, I see a small problem. know, I’m going to kind of look through this keyhole and I’m just going to work on this one piece of the problem. And maybe I’ll come up with an app or a new water filter or whatever that might be and solve for that. Or you can say I’m going to open that door and I’m going to see that complexity. And you can say, I’m going to open that door and I’m going to look at all of the different parts of this. What are the kinds of shifts that are happening in the world? What are the new entrance to the marketplace? What are the social trends and new capabilities. And to take that in it really does take a stepping back and not just jumping in, but I think that’s where you can look at. The harder problems and the bigger opportunities, and you can act very practically towards them rather than getting stuck on some of this incremental change.

Dan: You know, so one of the things that I think makes a lot of that work well is getting in the habit of drawing a picture, just as I’m listening to Jen, give the list of: study the competitors and study the global trends…. I’m going like, gee, that sounds terribly intimidating, but when you draw a picture of it, when you put those things down and show how they’re connected and here, I’m not talking a wallpaper size thing that covers,  the side of a room, but you know, a diagram that you could set in front of your desk or on your computer screen that shows all the pieces and how they connect together. A lot of this stuff that feels like very daunting complexity becomes something that we work with practically. And importantly, once you’ve got a picture, you can share it with somebody else. So other people can start to work with you collaboratively on that same complexity.

Sue: I think I watched a little video Dan, of you illustrating this picture concept in the idea of a garden.

Dan: Oh. I probably did at some point I love gardens. And for me, the ideas of gardens are sort of like being able to do system innovation with God. They are complex pieces that all fit together and you get to move the parts around and see how they interact. And. What’s interesting about a garden. That’s also true about a system innovation is that each change you make affects the rest of the garden. And that’s part of what makes this both exciting and difficult is that you don’t get to engineer the pieces in isolation. You get to draw that big picture and see how all the pieces fit together. But then when you move one piece, it affects the other pieces. Just in the same way. If you move a day lily it’s going to affect the darn Peony that’s up on the hill.

Sue: It’s a lovely picture to have in one’s mind of, of a garden and that dynamic, changing nature of where you place the plants and how they’re affected by everything else. I’m also curious to know what excites you about working in this space? Cause I’m always thinking people follow their passions. What makes both of you passionate about this?

Jen: So for me, it’s the fact that you can do things that you couldn’t do before. So Doctors without Borders have this fantastic program at the moment where they’re bringing new scanning technology together. Big data 3d printing and robotics together with telemedicine and they’re providing people in the back of Yemen or Syria or wherever that might be in Jordan and otherwise was with prosthetically. With great with really strong support from medical professionals and these people, these people really have very little access to hospital or medical care, but because of what is now available, because they can bring the pieces of tech together with people who can access these areas with the kind of tele medicine of medical professionals, all around the world.

You can scan someone’s limb. You can hear about the kind of range of movement they have day to day and where they live and what they need. You can get them professional support from anywhere around the world, and then you can provide them with a cheaper, faster, better prosthetic limb that is more customized to them that is even in their skin color and, and there’s things that might seem basic, but end up being significant to the wearer. Within days within weeks. And so that was not possible before, but by combining these pieces and it’s not just tinker with processes, it’s the way people think about telemedicine, it’s attitudes and behaviors, you can do incredibly impactful things that are not possible. When you just look at one part of a problem.

Sue: How about you Dan? How did you get passionate about this?

Dan: Oh, you know, it’s funny because I was thinking, how am I going to follow up with Jen on this particular thing? I think for me, All the really interesting problems in the world are these complex system problems. There are some problems that you can invent something like a thing, and boom, it’s going to make a big difference, but that doesn’t happen really all that often. And I’m not all that interested in just small, incremental change, but reinventing how the world works. Like when you sit down. In a business that has been around for 50 years is an established stalwart in its industry. And then you realize they’re rethinking their entire role in the industry, their entire way of going to market, how they’re going to create value for customers. They’re going to deal with issues that have been outstanding for decades in their marketplace. Like there’s a buzz that comes from that. It’s like, you’re being where the world is getting invented. And I think, you know, this idea of you get to play in the best problems and most exciting opportunities. I mean, that’s what system innovators get to do. And you know, if you look at the things that Jen and I have been. Lucky enough to participate participated in the last year, we’ve worked on issues of climate change of COVID pandemic, response of commercial business re-invention of humanitarian aid response. I mean, these are all just like, they’re the kinds of challenges when you imagine what you would really like to spend your life doing. This is exciting stuff. And it’s the tool set that allows you to deal with that exciting stuff.

Sue: Well, it’s a lovely segue into this practicality element that always intrigues me down. When you talked about toolkit there, if we had a bunch of business leaders from an organization that showed up in our conversation today wanting to reinvent their, the way of working in that industry, how would you suggest that they go about started doing this?

Dan: Well, so the key thing to understand about system innovation, it’s really four key things. So first is that you’ve got to see bigger problems. So you’ve got to take the chance to step back and see a bigger challenge. The second is that you have to imagine more powerful, complete solutions. So you don’t see the big problem and then propose to do a mobile app. Third, you have to realize that all the stakeholders of a system need to buy it. So everyone who’s involved needs to get a pony. And that means you have to be a powerful storyteller, a person who can design trade-offs. And this is true, even if you’re creating market products, quick example there was an organization that. Building out large hospital systems and they came up with great technology for doing that. But what they realized is they had to figure out ways for all the different support organizations to get a reward for adopting this. And so it wasn’t simply enough to have a big problem, a powerful solution. They also had to bring everybody along. And then finally, the fourth key skill is that you have to be able to evolve your transformational solution. So it’s not, you plan your project and deliver it, but rather you’re continually evolving as you go along. And those are the four key skills that organizations need to be.

Jen: , and maybe to add to that. Dan and I work with companies on digital transformations and agile transformations. And I think, we go into a lot of companies and they say, well, we need to spend 10% of our budget on large scale innovation, or we need to create a portfolio that looks like this and all of those are good things to do, but I think it’s shifting a question rather than everything needs to be digital to how does your organization easily and quickly Go after big opportunities. How does your organization rapidly solve big challenges in the marketplace? And they’re the kind of organizations that are winning today. So, you know, Elon Musk is setting up systems for new transportation. Mark Zuckerberg is setting up an entirely new world. The metaverse a new system. Tim Cook has made Apple a trillion dollar company through his ecosystem strategy. So those that are winning are shifting their companies through shifting systems and, that sounds big and powerful, and it is. But essentially it is it’s going through the right kind of thinking and processes in the organization. So, it’s building an organization that works together with the right kind of strategy, alignment, leadership, and outcomes. This concern kind of big and scary, but none of it is rocket science. It’s just about having the right tools.

Sue: I kind of imagine it like a pair of glasses that it’s, how do you change your paradigm in the way that a leader looks at their business or that organization. And also, I get a sense as you’re both of your speaking about the difference between scarcity and abundance. I can think of so many boards that I’ve observed that sit around the board table and finances facing with marketing. And there’s not happy with sales and it’s, everyone wants to keep their share of the pie and be recognized for their role in something. And yet I’m what I’m hearing from both of you is it’s almost turning that on its head. It’s about looking for something bigger and how we collaborate together to change a system that for many people, isn’t the way of their normal way of things.

Dan: You know, I love this idea of scarcity versus abundance because so much of traditional project management is based on the concept of scarcity, right? Scarcity of resources, scarcity of investment, scarcity of time, the thing that people miss about complexity is the complexity is bountiful. There is so much stuff you can do once you say the entire world is my toolkit. And you know, it becomes possible to imagine many more things simply because you can bring anything together. And this is one of the reasons why system innovators generally earned in innovation lab. Because innovation labs are about, we’re going to make a little small spot for innovation to happen. And system innovators are about seeing the entire world as something that is part of what they can weave together.

Sue: It’s sending very aspiring and inspirational as you’re both describing it to me. And the theme of the series that we’re recording is creating impact. So I think what you’ve been talking about so far is really giving me a sentence that organizations can create even greater impact. If they adopt a systemic perspective to how they’re looking at their, their industry or their product or service or the impact they want to make.

Dan: Actually I’d like to be even more aggressive with that. I don’t think it’s simply system innovation makes it possible for you to create greater impact. I think there’s a good argument that in today’s disrupted world where change is bigger, faster than ever, the only way you can create impact is to really embrace complexity and do system change.

Jen: So Dan and I recently did a study on innovation and change methodologies, where we looked at 500 approaches to innovation, change tools, methods, you know, what are people doing and how do they do it and what kind of problems to the various methodology solve and what we found with. There’s a lot of work being done on project management, you know, great at building huge buildings in Dubai, incredibly complex. There’s been a lot of work methodologies tools done on the kind of incremental change. Ask , the people in your company, how we can improve, ask people who use your products, how we can improve them. There’s been a fair amount of work done on thinking about small, fairly unexplored problems. So, what’s a new kind of app, we’re, we’re being pretty harsh on apps here, but what’s the new kind of app, how are you going to make the next angry birds and make a billion dollars? But the area of some of these big opportunities. Really that’s where system innovation fits. There’re complex problems. And we found very little outside system innovation in that space. So that was very interesting to us as we looked through all the options of what, what can people practically do. And so that’s where we’ve landed on, on systems innovation as the solution to the challenges we’re gonna face today.

Sue: You’re blowing my brains. The two of you in terms of what you’re making me think about. If you were going to recommend, the first two or three steps for somebody who’s intrigued by what you’ve been talking about today, and they wanted to. Effectively look at their garden from a systemic perspective or they’re small project that day-to-day challenge they may have in their business. So that organization, maybe somebody who doesn’t have a great deal of power influence over the organization or the environment in which they’re operating, where would you really recommend them to start on this journey of looking at the world?

Dan: So I think actually that is the beginning of the journey is start looking at the world……in a different way. You know, look broadly and just start looking at more pieces and see how all the pieces together. You know, we’ve already talked about the idea of drawing pictures. That’s a big part of it, but there’s also sort of a personal version of the hat of. Crossing boundaries start engaging in different fields that are not necessarily officially aligned with your job or your role. One of the positions we talk about as a choreographer, which is if you think about a manager is about top-down control. A choreographer is about cross cutting, they work across the silos, across the organizations, across the business domains. And I think this is one of the most profitable and easiest ways to get started in this field is to just start looking more abroad. And read different books, watch different things you know, explore different spaces and it may seem like that’s not going to get me anywhere right away. And in some ways, it isn’t. On the other hand, it is going to provide you a foundation of broader thinking, and then you can start taking that into, into the different problems. Jen, do you agree with that?

Jen: Yeah, I love it. I would also say if you’ve got a problem or if you’ve got a solution already, Draw the way the world works. Now, you know, Dan talked about drawing pictures, who are the people involved? Where do the resources come from? What kind of activities do they do? How they connected to stuff. how does that world work and, and keep drawing it. And you can go on our website to have a look at some ways to do that. Some examples of this. When I say draw a problem of what the world looks like, it’s really drawing that system around that problem or solution. And then you can start to look for leverage points. So, if I work on scanning technology Within, this kind of community in the back of Syria, what does that mean? If I work on 3d printing technology in in London, what does that mean? So, you can kind of play with how the world works with find points of leverage and then say, okay. So if I was going to change the world, if I was going to change my problem or create my solution, What would I have to change in the system? What would I have to change in the way the world works now, without my eyes closed, without pretending it’s simple, taking it, all that complexity. And, and I think that’s a really simple way to do that. And you know, we’ve done that with south Sudanese innovators in a couple of hours. So it doesn’t, this doesn’t need to be a big, hard, difficult challenge. It’s just. What’s my problem? And where can I really create?

Sue: Well, I think what, what you’ve both said, we have realized we were really trying to. For within the Access to Inspiration podcast, since we’ve had 56 episodes featured in guests from I think, 20 countries now, and hopefully our listeners are really getting a sense of that. Finding out about the world, just through listening to a series of podcasts, opens their mind I’m always a great proponent of any of any of us putting our money where our mouth is and applying our principles that we expose to others to ourselves. So, I guess my final question to you both is how do you keep innovating together? If both of you are a system, how do you innovate?

Jen: Well first, I think it’s impossible for Dan not to come up with new ideas and new ways of working. I mean, Dan is a global thought leader in innovation, so he didn’t get there by staying static. And, and I think for me, it’s about continuing to bite off harder problems and learn from them and change because of them. And again, you know, it’s a very practical, it’s not difficult to do, but it’s taking some time to say, what am I learning here? What’s the reflection and what do I need to change knowing about the way that the world works right now?

Dan: Yeah, I think one of the things that’s interesting talking about specifically the dynamics between Jen and myself, which I think is often reflected in many other creative partnerships is Jen is an action hero. So, you’ll hear Jenny talk about here’s how you do things. I am a notebook filler upper. So I generate ideas in frequent perfume. And, we’ve talked about this choreographer role and we really see these two types of choreographer, the visionary choreographer, and then the action hero choreographer. And you know, when you pair these folks up, they’re really powerful together. And I think that’s part of the energy that makes us work is, Jenny makes action happen. I make ideas come out and the two of them together work really.

Sue: Well, I think you’ve given us a real living example of that value of having diverse teams. First of all, bringing different strengths together and leaving our listeners with a way of looking at the world slightly differently from what they were before. So, it’s been a real pleasure to speak to you both today. If our listener wants to find out more about the work that you’re doing, how might you do that on the internet and social.

Jen: Thanks Sue it’s been lovely spending time with you. They can go to our website innovationecosystem.com. They can find us on Twitter and we’re on LinkedIn as well. So yeah, go and have a look at some of the articles, have a think about being a choreographer, have a think about drawing pictures and, where to start or where to continue your journey.

Dan: Or just go plant a garden. good too.

Jen: Get some day lilies. They’re really pretty.

Sue: Thank you again, both. It’s been brilliant to speak to you, and I wish you all the best with your next innovations, whatever they may be.

Jen: Thank

Dan: Thank you Sue.

Sound Editor: Matias de Ezcurra (he/him)

Producer: Sue Stockdale (she/her)