All too frequently design thinking and innovation methods are indiscriminately taken from the private sector and applied with mixed results in public and not-for-profit settings. Applying any design method or principle must consider the people involved in the policy change, and their specific responsibilities and motivations. For example, whereas an executive in a commercial business may be willing to have the marketing team make a number of small bets and see which one works best to keep or grow customers, a public service manager (and senior management) may be more motivated by a Minister’s mandate letter or ensuring the delivery of a public service to a large, eligible population in as inclusive a manner as possible and without discrimination.

While it is true that every sector is accountable to someone or some group of people, what shareholders find valuable differs from one sector to another. Legislative requirements also differ greatly between different sectors, sometimes constraining what a charity, a government department or a business can do. Understanding these differences requires adopting both a mindset and specific set of skills aimed at adapting generic innovation methods for specific policy developers or decision-makers in each sector.

Adopting a flexible and appropriate mindset is critical to starting any policy journey right. Focusing too quickly on “the problem we need to solve” obscures the reality that people help or hinder the achievement of results.

It also means knowing what skills you will need to understand your environment, convene and listen to people, and/or implement specific policy options in certain settings. More importantly, knowing how to develop these skills in others could be the pinnacle of your public affairs and policy skills development journey.

Using research evidence and practice from a wide-range of disciplines, we have isolated specific skills related to organizational management, stakeholder engagement, communications, strategic planning, design thinking, partnership development, influence, visual communication, government relations and evaluation.

These skills have been organized in a novel matrix with the specific purpose of helping public policy and organizational policy designers and decision-makers increase their ability to create options and solutions that are more responsive to their respective constituencies.

A balancing act, for sure – as both internal and external stakeholders can greatly influence how policies are developed (for better or for worse) and what policies are developed. Meeting every stakeholders’ expectations or needs is not always possible. Planning for this potential disappointment also requires specific design skills and a mindset.