March 4, 2019

"Move slowly and build things"

Moving fast and breaking things might work for some startups, in some sectors — but it’s definitely not the way to win over the public sector, argues doctor-turned-entrepreneur Jing Ouyang.

Jing Ouyang

5 min read

Credit: Jeff Eaten/Flickr.

Facebook’s former mantra of ‘move fast and break things’ is still frequently held up as the best way to scale a successful technology business. Despite founder Mark Zuckerberg’s attempts to pivot away from this culture in recent years, people working in the startup sphere continue to be bombarded with messages of this ilk. LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman’s Blitzscaling has become the literary equivalent of the Sports Direct mug — there’s one in every office. And as tech behemoths such as Lyft and Uber race to IPO, it can seem that speed and scale trumps all.

As innovation assumes an increasingly impactful role in the public sector, the move fast and break things mantra has the potential to become toxic.

It’s undeniable that such a strategy has paid dividends for many founders. Outpacing competition and embracing a culture of failure can be fuel for success. But as innovation assumes an increasingly impactful role in the public sector, the move fast and break things mantra has the potential to become toxic.

Previously, most startups would have baulked at the prospect of creating a product whose main customer base was a government department or public sector body. But having learned some painful lessons in the pitfalls of working with private sector behemoths, the public sector is now making an effort to accommodate smaller, more innovative players.


The creation of the new NHSX unit is testament to the UK Government’s belief in the role external innovation should play. Other departments are taking steps to reduce the barriers faced by fledgling businesses when it comes to selling to government, with procurement processes becoming less proscriptive. And new incubators such as Public are working closely with governments around Europe in order to support companies building products for the public sector.

Yet with the some of the roadblocks to success shifted, startups looking to gain traction in the public sector should not be lulled into thinking that this is a signal to rev their engines with abandon.

One of the biggest disservices that popular startup rhetoric has done is to create a false dichotomy between incumbents and disruptors. Ambitious entrepreneurs have a tendency to see the markets and organisations they are looking to move into as the enemy, just as the ‘move fast and break things’ mantra directs. But as scope for innovation is cautiously welcomed by previously reticent bodies such as the NHS, we must embrace a new approach.

Seeing established institutions as potential collaborators can unlock huge opportunity. While working closely with large corporates or bureaucratic public services can feel like wading through treacle compared to the frenetic world of a tech business, slowing your pace and listening can lead to better applications of innovation than could otherwise be achieved.

For every Facebook striking out into unchartered territory, and for each Uber actively looking to replace the existing market offering, there are companies working hand-in-glove with traditional providers. Training schemes TeachFirst (for teachers) and Frontline (for social workers) have shown how innovative approaches to public service can complement rather than conflict with existing structures (although they do have their critics). Companies such as Apolitical are using tech to pool public sector knowledge and best practice from across the globe. And the evolution of the Behavioural Insights Team — now a joint venture but which started life as a UK Government initiative — shows how public-private collaborations can help advance good ideas and flex in order to stay relevant.

In healthcare, Elvie’s partnership with the NHS will get femtech products into the hands of patients through traditional routes. Proximie are building augmented reality tools to help improve surgery outcomes, working hand-in-hand with NHS departments to do so. And the creation of the Clinical entrepreneur programme, of which I was an inaugural fellow, shows growing enthusiasm from the NHS when it comes to embracing the aspirations of entrepreneurial medics.

There are many more examples of innovators quietly working alongside existing institutions in order to achieve mutually beneficial outcomes. It’s not as exciting a narrative as that of startups smashing the system, but the long-term impacts from this early-stage mindset can be extensive.

Bowling in and shaking up the status quo Silicon Valley-style would not engender us to the very clinicians and teams we are trying to help.

At Patchwork, we work with individual NHS Trusts to introduce modern staffing software; saving hospitals huge amounts of money and creating a better process for clinicians. Seeing our NHS clients as partners is fundamental. In fact, our product was originally created in partnership with Chelsea & Westminster Hospital: a true example of public-private collaboration.

Our systems won’t have the impact we want them to have unless we learn from and listen to those on the frontline. Bowling in and shaking up the status quo Silicon Valley-style would not engender us to the very clinicians and teams we are trying to help. Nor would we be able to build the trust and legitimacy needed to scale a tech startup in an area where data security is paramount and where the failures of decades gone by are still freshly felt.

While it is tempting to emulate the practices of startup founders we admire, we mustn’t forget that every sector of our economy is nuanced. A strategy that works for one sector could see you crash and burn in another. The ability to listen, absorb feedback, forge partnerships and, most important of all, focus on building the best possible product for your market, should never be undersold. While there might be less fireworks, you’ll also be less likely to set the house on fire.


Jing Ouyang

Jing Ouyang is cofounder and COO of British healthtech Patchwork Health.