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Startup innovation is alive and well in UK GOV

I’m a fan of startup innovation having followed the practice and written about it extensively. This culminated in an eBook/trend report a few years back: Startup Innovation. The Information has just written a post about how the UK government is embracing the practice: How Silicon Valley Is Rewiring Downing Street’s Brain (registration required).

I’m not necessarily a fan of the characters/players in the UK government (Cummings – cough cough), nor the approach but I still believe there is merit in the idea. Some points from The Information article stand out that I want to elaborate on (they are highlighted at the start of each section).

Tech Intensity

Cummings has made a point of reaching out to friends and allies in the tech industry to bring more digital expertise to government.

Love it or hate it, you’ve got to embrace it, with intensity I say. Tech Intensity is a term coined by Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella that I’ve written about here (disclosure): Tech Intensity and the Adaptive Organisation.

Technology and digitisation of businesses will continue apace and those that do not embrace it with intensity will not only be left behind, but will soon be out of business to those that do.

A wonderful way of intensifying your efforts is to either work with startups who are often “born digital” or bring in expertise by hiring from startups, just as Cummings states.

There is a strong counter movement 👇

The aversion to big tech

At a time when governments around the world have become disenchanted about big tech, 10 Downing Street—the U.K.’s equivalent of the White House—appears to be wholeheartedly embracing the ideas of Silicon Valley. 

CEO’s of 4 of the biggest technology companies in the world have just appeared before the US Congress in a well publicised Antitrust Hearing. Other than specific concerns about their market power, there is a general distrust of big tech.

This countervailing view by 10 Downing Street is to be admired in my opinion. And again, even if you don’t like the approach (Cummings is a divisive figure amongst many and I also question his methods), the strategy is correct.

Which doesn’t mean to say it’s an all or nothing proposition. You can question how you work with technology and how you approach things.

Which begs the question, when you do decide to embrace things, what to prioritise 👇

Build, Build, Build

The prominence of the word was no coincidence. Johnson’s chief aide, Dominic Cummings, had picked it up from a couple of influential essays written by his favorite Silicon Valley thinkers, according to a person close to Johnson.

The essays in question are It’s Time to Build by venture capitalist Marc Andreessen and one by Ben Thompson, the influential analyst behind the Stratechery blog, who took Andreessen’s ideas a step further in his own essay, How Tech Can Build.

The essays are well worth reading. Whatever you build, building capability in whatever form is crucial. The things I think should be focused on are as follows:

  • Culture. This is covered in The Information article. Here too there is a lot of negativity around Silicon Valley culture that Cummings is trying to emulate and this is mentioned in the article. And again, there is no need to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Take the best of what in essence has helped create some of the most iconic technology companies in the world and make the most of it. Things like speed and agility, innovation, risk taking, etc.
  • Skills. Microsoft have just announced a massive digital skills initiative, especially for COVID-19 times. This is aimed at society at large. As an employee I know how much we emphasise it internally too. Leading companies will be doing the same. It is especially in these times but in general too, that building skills to leverage new technologies and cope with massive change will be needed,
  • Data and AI. If there was one priority for government I would probably suggest this is it. Also covered in The Information article as a priority for Cummings through the creation of new data unit within the government called 10ds—short for 10 data science.

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