Seven steps to a (public) entrepreneurial culture

In this blog series we are looking at how to be a public entrepreneur — a practitioner in government who wants to move fast and fix things. Here, we break down some thoughts on how to foster an entrepreneurial culture in government.

Rowan Conway
6 min readJul 25, 2018

In the RSA Lab’s recent report on how to be a public entrepreneur we lay out seven ways to foster an entrepreneurial culture in government, using the RSA’s “think like a system, act like an entrepreneur” model of change as a guide. As Graham Leicester, author of Transformative Innovation says, this role means “acting both as hospice workers for the dying culture and midwives for the new”. This means that the public entrepreneur needs to master the art and practice of maintaining order (keeping the lights on, avoiding turmoil), while completely reinventing “business as usual”.

The seven ways to foster an entrepreneurial culture are:

1: Understand the wider system

If the purpose of innovation through government is to enable change to systems, then understanding the system is a vital first step. The RSA Lab suggests using at a simple set of criteria originated by Peter Senge. The process diagram below illustrates four steps towards understanding a system:

  • Start with the problem in the system that needs to be addressed
  • Understand the actors and assets that can be brought to bear
  • Understand and explore the institutions, incentives, and interests that shape behaviour and how they can be influenced.
  • Observe the energy in the system — the forces that are supportive of change and those that are obstacles to it. Where is the readiness in system? Who and what will increase the likelihood of change?

2: Identify incentives

Incentives are one of the main cultural forces that enable or block change. To cut out the policing nature of procurement, it’s important to understand the incentives that hold it in place. For example, in the UK, fear of “Special Measures” — the status applied by UK regulators when public services fall short of acceptable standards — reinforce a risk averse culture that runs particularly deep in local authorities, schools and hospitals. The stewardship of taxpayer’s money is the burden every procurement practitioner bears, with the omnipresent threat of a media headline exposing any misstep. Conversely there are very few incentives for a procurement professional to innovate. It is wise to map the incentives — gaining insights into what might need extra attention when shifting toward an entrepreneurial culture.

3: Anticipate immunity to change

A concept from a previous RSA report From Design Thinking to Systems Change that speaks to the enduring frustration of change-makers in government is that of “the system immune response.” In summary, it suggests that within any system there are always “reasons why not” to change: competing reward structures, custom and practice that form cultural norms, fears of sanctions from authority or humiliation in the media; or competing political imperatives. All contribute to immunity to change. Anticipating immunity to change can provide a depth of understanding of an institution or place that helps set the right tempo for change in that context. Go too fast and the system will reject you. Go too slow and you are part of the problem.

4: Understand power

In the RSA Lab, we have observed that entrepreneurs can demonstrate a blindness to the complexity of the cultures that they are seeking to change and oversimplify the role that power and authority play in getting things done which leads to immunity to change. We’ve been adapting a framework based on anthropologist Mary Douglas’ cultural theory, which recognises that change needs to take account of the different sources of power: individual power driven by incentives; group power, driven by shared values and norms; hierarchical power, driven by the rules of those in authority. Almost all strategic planning is based on hierarchical power, but according to thinkers like Henry Timms and Jeremy Heimans the “old power” era of the cascade or waterfall strategy is coming to an end. Even if old power is only in slow decline, the reality is that complex organisations rarely line up behind a top-down strategy, and if they do, the interpretations of it will be different across the system (e.g. different departments will all see the Industrial Strategy from different perspectives). Whilst it can be difficult to capture all the power, authority and incentives in a system, having a broad account of them fosters a conversation about where the fertile territory for change might be.

5: Create Safe/Fail environments

After all that system mapping, public entrepreneurs will be dying to roll up their sleeves and get into the action, but not all of their colleagues will be so keen. Government actors need time and exposure to get comfortable with experimental methods — such as open innovation platforms and regulatory sandboxes. Dedicated funds, experimental spaces and cross-disciplinary teams that prototype new ideas go some way to enabling this, but as our inquiry found, it takes more than the creation of an innovation lab to truly allow for “safe/fail” experimentation. New skills don’t just happen, they take continuous practice. Developing a commercial understanding of which businesses can be created through innovation funds, comes through practice with real money (at an appropriate scale).

6: Encourage flexible mindsets

Playing with rules and procedures can be very tiring. While recognising that this is uncomfortable, building resilient mindsets that are “comfortable being uncomfortable” is key to enabling change. Developing the confidence to be a “norm entrepreneur” is vital — this means stepping outside the current normal practice of an organisation and embodying practices that aren’t commonly understood or upheld in business practice. Acting as a norm entrepreneur means putting yourself forward to test out new ways of doing things by being a kind of “cultural crash test dummy”. While that may sound like no fun at all — and we observed in our inquiry that the practitioner burden of being a public entrepreneur is high — it is also a vital (and creative) role. The uncomfortable experience of pushing boundaries is also what builds the strength to create systemic change. This is the mindset of the public entrepreneur.

7: Practice agility — build supported learning environments

Learning cultures need to be loudly championed. Experimentation in an environment unused to it can mean the stakes are high and nobody “has your back” especially when there is no penalty for existing custom and practice. A shift like this takes traditional procurement out of its comfort zone, because it feels like it is pushing the boundaries of the law — and as we see from the sanctions that follow a collapse like Carillion, it is safer to do nothing. This is where the public sector bosses come in — for safe/fail environments to work, those in the ring need to know you have their backs. This is when hierarchy shows its usefulness — you’re paid the big bucks to take accountability for team efforts.

And an extra eighth one… Find a friend, build a tribe.

Changing systems is a tough ask, and as Steve Waddell puts it, the new power energy of the entrepreneur is often at odds with the institution:

“Entrepreneurs are not fixated on destroying the old, although that is typically the effect of their innovation. Their energy is devoted toward creating the new. These change agents usually face substantial skepticism and resistance by incumbents. This, problems with scaling, or simply the inadequate power of the invention may make the entrepreneurs unable on their own to bring about broad societal change.”

Public entrepreneurs are fighting the good fight to make the world a better place. We know that this is a tough job and that changing cultures is no mean feat, so finding friends is vital — and initiatives like One Team Gov go some way to building a field of change-makers. We want to grow this further and widen the network of public entrepreneurs within the RSA fellowship and beyond so do get in touch if you want to be part of this movement.

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Rowan Conway

Head of Mission Oriented Innovation Network at UCL IIPP. Former Director of Innovation at the RSA, on Medium just me.