Esko co-founded The Satori Lab back in 2013 as a way to ‘fix’ government and public services. He also helps organisations navigate change, particularly the complex transitions required when society undergoes a transformational paradigm shift, in this case from the Information Age to the Networked Age.
I invited Esko to deliver a session at the ‘Digital Maze’, an event So-mo ran at the International Festival of Business back in 2014. I loved what he had so say, so shortly after, headed down to Cardiff for to hang out with him for a few days.
He has been called by turns heretic’ and ‘a visionary leader with a social conscience’ I can also testify that he cooks a mean pasta dish & has a penchant for very strong vodka!
This interview followed two days of talking & on some occasions talking and drinking well …Esko is from Finland!
Nicola: What’s the most awesome thing you’ve done or been a part of?
Esko:Ha ha start with a soft ball why don’t you!
I guess in recent history it is the Monmouthshire Intrapreneurship school, because ultimately we gave people this transformational experience that they will never recover from. We sometimes talk about it as a disambiguation process. You see someone who rediscovers the joy and passion of life and then rebuilds their practice from that point of view. It may be a small change for one person, but it’s very powerful. It feels like saving a life.
Nicola: Earlier today you described the intrapreneurship school as a ‘transformational experience’, which you summed up in the phrase, “we don’t live here anymore” tell me more.
Esko: We invite people to take a look at their individual values and to have a good think about how that correlates to what they’re doing as public servants.
In some cases, people find that they’re totally misaligned – they recognise that they’re doing the wrong job. For other people, they recognise that there is slight misalignment, but it’s entirely within their power to change their behaviours.
The recognition can be so powerful they are unable to go back to a state of not being aware. All of a sudden they can see their past work in light of this new perspective – but because of this, “we don’t live here anymore” is a conscious refusal to go back that place.
Nicola:or even an inability?
Esko: Yeah, Going back to the old ways of doing things becomes an impossibility
Nicola:we’ve also talked a lot about innovation practice, there’s many definitions of innovation, what’s yours?
Esko: I like two, one is ‘from the MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) & that is
innovation: the successful embodiment of a useful idea into the market place –
& I like that because a lot of people stop at innovation = new. An innovation with no traction into the market place is just an idea its not an innovation .
The other definition I like is from Tim Kastelle, an Australian academic who says
innovation is the process of idea management.
That implies there is a process. So for me innovation is idea management which gains traction into the market place.
Nicola: It can be a bit of a maligned term don’t you think?
Esko: Innovation is a discipline. It has definitions, methodologies and tools and it can be applied. So knowing and understanding what that really is, understanding what innovation means, is a pre-requisite to doing it. Sadly innovation has become the latest buzzword du jour, it’s being reached for as a magic bullet without being understood how it’s done. So what’s being called innovation isn’t actual innovation.
One of the prerequisites to radical innovation is the capacity to change your perspective. Taking a fully present view of the world as it currently is, rather than an artificial view, that justifies the logics of bureaucracies and the way things have been organised according to industrial principles. Being fully aware, is a more optimal departure point to doing the applied discipline of innovation.
Nicola: Social innovation, requires social methodologies. How easy do you think it is for the state to adopt these ways of working?
Esko: Most of these newer methods, things like human centred design & agile development – stuff that comes out of software development– essentially they constitute a threat, because they challenge the established orthodoxy for doing things as being not particularly efficient or even the best way of doing things.
The people who are currently in very senior positions in government have established their positions using these older tools & methodologies. If you were to classify these new technologies as being somehow ground-breaking or open ways of thinking, then the requirement for those to be successfully adopted in government has been to challenge traditional control that has been held. If you take that idea to its logical conclusion, it’s not so far from the idea of revolution.
It’s not people with pitchforks storming on the bastille, but it’s a growing group of citizens saying “we want to be dealt with in other ways, and that means you have to give up your traditional understanding of power and what government is about”!
Nicola: One thing we hear a lot is that citizens are apathetic, they don’t want to be involved in the system of government. Take for instance the poor local election turn outs. Or even the general dissatisfaction with our political systems – do you think people are apathetic or is that just a convenient thing to say if you’re in power?
Esko: So take local elections & we get around 30% turn out. That can be used to say “look! voters are apathetic, they don’t want to get engaged, so Ill take the responsibility”. Or, you could say, maybe that’s a reflection that they’re completely disengaged with the choices being offered to them and then it becomes an argument for testing and supplying alternative ways.
You can take a political philosophical view on whether people are good or bad? I think people are interested in their environment and the things that govern their living. I don’t think they’re particularly interested in reading the 100 page documentation written in, ‘legalese’ which is supposedly government allowing us to comment on what’s coming to government.
The professionalisation of civil service has been done in such a way to exclude people from involvement. France is an extreme case. There is a dictionary you can buy which translates French civil service terms into ‘normal’ French that normal people understand and essentially, if you want to get anywhere, in corresponding with the government you have to use this language.. I understand it’s quite expensive, like 500 euros, or so. I think the barriers to engaging with government is such that you even need to spend a lot of money to get the book that helps you translate the language that they’re using!
It’s not quite that extreme here in Britain but you know, we think it’s a good idea to engage with the citizens in the discussion of ideas and yet we create this mechanism which is impenetrable or impossible for them to do so. Meanwhile their experience of user interfaces is that they’re getting better and easier… who ever took a training course in Facebook? You’d probably need a lawyer by your side if you wanted to understand some of the more weighty government consultation!
Nic So tell me about satori lab
Esko: First let me explain what satori means, it’s a Japanese word for ‘experience of seeing your true nature’.. right? So implied within that is this idea of breaking through from the artifice of corporate culture, particularly in government. We all come from government, we all lived in that culture and we all have experiences of the bureaucratic logic that prevents good people from doing the right things.
I think, as we were talking earlier are people disengage because they really don’t care or because bascially they don’t understand?
We also see new tools, techniques and methodologies being developed in the wider world, some of which are extremely exciting in the context of public service and design. But we also recognise having seen many waves of management fads, that the success of using these tools isn’t dependant of the viability of the tools, but on the ability of the culture to listen and prevent friction. It’s really the cultural frictions which prevent ta good tool from being used well. So that’s what we focus on ..how do you shift that?
There’s other people better suited than us to teach you how to use these new tools, but we focus on how to shape the cultural landscape so that you can accept them for what they really have to offer, that requires telling some hard truths. Sometimes we feel like the fool in Shakespeare’s play, we may seem like the rambling idiot who is radically on the fringe but he’s the only one who has success in telling the king what’s going on.
Our process is engineered to create those moments of insight, introspective on a human level and more probably a collective level. You can’t create a new world from the ocean base, so establish a clean, open, present mindful base and then rebuild upwards. These are the tools we have developed to make that happen from wherever you happen to be now.