Karen Tay, Smart Nation Director for the Prime Minister’s Office of Singapore, is on a mission to transform Singapore into the world’s leading smart nation, where technology is used for maximum public good.
She chats with Barry O’Reilly about how she is helping to modernize government by applying product development thinking to policy, organizational and talent development. She shares how this is changing the way the Singaporean government works.
[note: this was recorded before the coronavirus outbreak in the US. If you want to chat about how these insights pertain to Government management of the coronavirus, Karen is happy to chat]
In charting directions for a country, being responsive to citizen sentiments is important, but there is also a place for Governments to exercise leadership in decision-making, eg the decision that investing in preschool education is critical to social mobility, decisions on how to manage crises such as the coronavirus.
Regardless, how the central government implements their decisions should be driven by user behavior. Karen points out that using an iterative process is beneficial in many cases. She relates that they combined user research and iterative testing for policies in the Ministry of Education and found that stakeholders felt more engagement and ownership of the new policies. You have to be willing to listen to what your educators need and want from your product, and change it to something they are willing to implement, Karen says. Barry agrees that you should use user data to reframe your problem, then look at ways to improve. [Listen from 7:50]
Make Customers Feel Valued
Karen and Barry discuss several unlearning moments in Karen’s career. She points out that in government it’s not about what ideas you have, rather whether you can execute them. She says that she was surprised by how little she needed to get something done. She found that it was often as simple as listening to her potential customers’ needs and designing around them, instead of feeding into prevailing assumptions. “You want to make [your customers] feel that you thought about them when you designed the product,” Karen says. [Listen from 16:40]
“You need to really get to know the people you’re trying to serve… Focus on building that relationship and that trust with the community. Everything else – the dividends – come later.” – Karen Tay
Go Deep First
When you’re trying to build a policy or product, you must “go deep first,” Karen says. “You need to really get to know the people you’re trying to serve… Focus on building that relationship and that trust with the community. Everything else – the dividends – come later.” As you respond to those needs, you learn more about how to scale later on. Barry agrees. He argues that a one-size-fits-all solution never works because each company and culture is different. “The way to scale innovation is actually to descale it, to start with a small group of people. Go very deep with a narrow focus and demonstrate new behaviors. Show what works and doesn’t work in your context,” Barry emphasizes. [Listen from 26:05]
It’s All Relational
Building talent pipelines and communities is all relational. Magic happens when you get to know people as human beings, Karen says. You achieve outcomes by connecting on a human level: people feel inspired to change when they have an emotional connection to the change you’re trying to make. Barry comments that the most successful leaders role model the behaviors they want their employees to adopt. [Listen from 30:05]
Magic happens when you get to know people as human beings, Karen says. You achieve outcomes by connecting on a human level: people feel inspired to change when they have an emotional connection to the change you’re trying to make.
Karen outlines several differences between engineering culture and management culture. She wishes that more hierarchical organizations would adopt the hands-on approach of engineering culture. This is the experience economy, she argues: people want to feel that your company is thinking about them, that they are valued. In fact, you should see all your customers and your employees as ambassadors. As such, you should treat them well and create an amazing experience for them. [Listen from 33:40]