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The “pop-up” is one of the most iconic ways in which collaboration has yielded innovation in the economy today. Pop-up restaurants and boutiques, which seem to appear over-night, and disappear as quickly as they appear, bring creative minds together through a fun, often cutting-edge, always temporary, business venture. Once primarily ad hoc, pop-ups have recently caught the attention of marketing and PR professionals, many of whom now use pop-ups in corporate branding strategies.

While pop-ups are increasingly being mandated, the participants in grass-roots pop-ups are individuals that unite to showcase cutting edge techniques, talent, and emerging trends out of shared passion and excitement. Done well, pop-ups create experiences that expand consumers’ expectations of what is possible and acceptable in a given industry. Pop-ups generate demand for the individuals involved, for their products, and for their methods.

For example, a team of three chefs organizes a pop-up restaurant for a one-week period. Through the pop-up, the chefs have the opportunity to showcase their abilities and try newer, riskier, techniques than they would normally use in their full-time jobs. Even though only a small number of people are able to experience the pop-up first hand, word of mouth, digital and print communications reach a broad audience. Afterward, the restaurants of each chef might experience increased demand. And consumers might be more open to – or even come to expect – the avant garde cooking techniques and service approaches they experienced (or heard about) through the pop-up.

This same concept could be effective in public sector organizations that struggle to foster more effective – even innovative – ways of working. Pop-ups would enable visionary staff at any level to take the initiative to try something different, be it a new mobile application, a new style of flexible work arrangements, or a new approach to service delivery.

Pop-ups offer a highly interactive way to prototype new ideas, including those perceived as high-risk, without being overly threatening, because the pop-up is always time-limited. Even those who may disapprove of a given idea or oppose change in general can have little to take issue with, knowing that the pop-up will disappear as quickly as it appeared.

At least in principle, this has clear potential in operational and corporate areas like communications, IT, business planning, and human resources. Emerging techniques, especially in the field of digital communications and applications, have created endless potential for innovation in these areas – but are often seen as high risk and low reward. Implementing the pop-up concept in these areas could help test assumptions about the merit of new approaches and facilitate organizational learning in the process.

What is less clear is how public sector pop-ups would work in practice, how management would be involved in approving and “regulating” individual pop-ups, and whether there is application in areas other than basic operations – such as strategic policy. For example, would a pop-up Family Care Clinic be a useful way to deliver services on a short-term basis and/or generate discussion and feedback about how these new structures will work? Would a pop-up one-stop shop for disability services help test new ideas about integrated service delivery? What about pop-up citizen engagement?

To help explore some of these questions, I drafted this diagram on the lifecycle of a pop-up. However, I must add one major caveat – which is that no matter how tempting it is to turn this graphic into a process map, the bureaucratization and micro-management of pop-ups would largely defeat their purpose.

In the meantime, here are three guidelines for public sector innovators interested in further considering how pop-ups might work for you.

1. Pop-ups must be temporary. No matter how incredible the food is in a pop-up restaurant, no matter how many people are clamouring for reservations, there is always a close-out date. If something is worth sustaining, it should be folded into business as usual, not kept as a stand-alone.

2. Pop-ups are experiential. There is a world of difference between presenting a new idea in a well-lit boardroom, and introducing a new idea through a pop-up. The pop-up should be designed with the whole user experience in mind, be highly interactive, and persuade through sensory stimulation (such as through high-end visuals rather than tired powerpoint slides).

3. The success of pop-ups depends on hype. Most pop-ups would not reach a critical mass of people without building suspense and anticipation in advance, followed by ongoing praise and reminders throughout the operation phase. This can be achieved through digital communications, although other forms of marketing can be effective too – such as targeted word-of mouth advertising at events where potential consumers can be reached.

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