David Alston: Problem Solver

David Alston. Image: Huddle Today

New Brunswick has problems. So we need problem solvers.

That’s the perspective of David Alston, New Brunswick’s recently appointed chief entrepreneur in residence. He sees his volunteer position as helping bring people together to take on some of the economic, social and educational problems that are holding the province back.

Alston was appointed last month and tasked with connecting entrepreneurs and innovators with government to better address public policy issues.

“We’ve got eight plus billion dollars to spend every year that we’re collecting in taxes on services and other things to help citizens of New Brunswick,” he says. “For me, the definition of that spend is how do we help every single one of those citizens…reach their full potential and be able to contribute back in whatever way they possibly can to the province.”

“I don’t think we’re anywhere near the potential we can reach.”

“If you look at New Brunswick, we rank, I think, the lowest in the country in terms of productivity, and we’re pretty low in terms of innovation and R&D spend.”

Alston says education is another critical factor, pointing to the disturbingly low literacy scores amongst New Brunswick second grade students.

“In order for New Brunswick to be successful, we have to find a way for everyone to have a shot at being successful,” he says.

“If we can believe that we will be something, it will be self-fulfilling.”

Going Beyond Talk

Many people in New Brunswick’s business community have attended meetings or planning sessions where smart, committed people gather together to develop plans to change the province. Lots of big ideas and bold ambitions are shared. But when the meeting is over, not much actually happens.

Alston says that New Brunswick needs to get things done. It means going beyond talk.

He wants to apply the thinking that helped turn Radian6, where he was chief marketing officer, into one of New Brunswick’s most successful technology stories. The social media monitoring company went from an idea with a small team to a $300 million acquisition by Salesforce in 2011 because it was relentlessly focused on execution, not just planning.

In “startup land” he says, “You don’t spend three months planning something, talking a lot about something, because by the time you do your three month plan it’s completely out of date anyway.”

“You go, you figure out stuff, you make a qualified decision, and you act on the decisions and you gradually iterate your way towards the solution.”

Embracing Risk

Alston says his focus is creating a “spirit of entrepreneurship within government.”

He recognizes that’s no small task given the culture of government bureaucracy where the idea of “failing fast,” a hallmark of innovative organizations, is widely feared. In a hidebound bureaucracy, it’s better to fail slowly than take a risk to succeed quickly.

“I know this is a massive cultural shift because typically in a bureaucracy risk is not something that most will be ready for. They’re highly risk-adverse,” acknowledges Alston.

Government “creates a lot of systems and processes and bureaucracy…that boxes people in…They get into a rut in terms of they’re ‘making the donuts’ and they don’t see the greater purpose.”

At the same time, the government of New Brunswick is repeatedly calling for the private sector to be more innovative.

“It’s really not fair for government to be saying ‘we need you to be more innovative’ when they themselves are not on the path to being more innovative. A big piece of why I got into this role was to say, ‘you know guys we need to be focusing on how to be become much more innovative.’”

“That creates the culture. You lead by example.”

Community-Driven Innovation

One way to help government become more innovative is to collaborate with outside organizations.

“I get excited about things like innovation labs and social labs, the stuff that NouLAB is doing, the stuff that NB+ Digital Lab is doing, the stuff that the folks at Brilliant Labs are doing, or what’s happening with Living SJ in trying new ways to tackle poverty,” he says.

“You have citizens that are excited and passionate about change and they are inviting folks from within government to – I’ll call them ‘intrapreneurs’ – to come out and join them on the edge of government to come up with possible ideas and new solutions.”

“It’s not about ‘c’mon out with your check book,’ it’s ‘c’mon out let’s brainstorm,’ let’s try things, let’s start small, let’s fail fast and do it in the safe space of the social lab. If it works, by all means, let’s take it in and try to scale it up. Politicians, you’re welcome to come in and get the photo op, it’s OK, it’s a success.”

“But at the same time the social labs are willing to say ‘you know what if it fails, it’s not a problem. It’s a lab, it’s supposed to be R&D.’”

“You want the community to feel like they own it.”

This approach also means that projects are more likely to survive changes in government.

“I think it’d be a heck of a lot harder to come in and say ‘I’d like to put a bullet in that. Hey, whoa, whoa whoa – you’re a third owner in this project’…you can’t just come in and say I want to shut it down.”

Building a Team of Problem Solvers

Alston’s title of chief entrepreneur in residence was deliberately selected. He wants to build a team of people from the private sector and not-for-profits to volunteer their time to supporting government.

Alston says he wants, “problem solvers, passionate problems.”

“When I say passion I mean positivity passion. I don’t mean their the biggest complainers about something. I mean they see possible solutions and they can’t wait to find out more and learn more and understand why things aren’t working. Then they can’t wait to dive in and brainstorm with people and encourage that spirit of entrepreneurship.”

“I’m hoping they’ll come out of the woodwork.”