Watch and wait or innovate: What kind of NDIS player are you?

This post is the first of five in a series on Navigating The Uncertainty of the NDIS.

by Chris Vanstone, Lauren Weinstein and Lucy Fraser


NDIS is the new National Disability Insurance Scheme that expects to cover 460,000 people with disability across Australia by 2020. Founded on an ambition to increase the control people with disability have in their choice of providers and services, NDIS has the potential to help people with disability begin to live their very best lives.

Rolling out a scheme of this size and complexity is, well… complex. As we’ve recently seen in the news, there’s a big transition to be made from concept to implementation. What we’ve come to know in service design and innovation is that often ideas on paper respond differently in the real world.

Regarding process progress, NDIS is somewhere between concept and implementation depending on geographic region. But across the country, there’s still a lot of uncertainty around how the NDIS will play out and how people with disability and their families will participate. Currently, the scheme is taking a different shape in Tasmania as it is in Queensland, and we have yet to see what it means for areas and age groups in South Australia, NSW, and Victoria.  What’s more, is that there are likely to be significant evolutions of the scheme over time, making NDIS a challenging environment to transition into as a provider or a consumer.

In our direct experience with people with disability, people have expressed uncertainty around what to expect in planning calls and how NDIS will affect their current services and routines. Our research in South Australia found that service providers — large and small — are uncertain about just what NDIS ‘readiness’ means in their organisations and how much to continue business as usual.

Over the last year, many NGOS have approached TACSI with the same questions: How do we innovate in the face of uncertainty? How do we prepare our businesses to be sustainable and also create impact for people with disability in the context of the NDIS? How do we leverage the NDIS to do something radically different and meaningful?

Many non-profits and service providers are aware that they need to be both business savvy and provide quality services to people with disability. How to get from current business operations to a financially sound and impactful future in a new environment, is another question. One that often yields more questions rather than concrete answers:

  • How do we continue doing what we’re doing well at new price points that might not be profitable or sustainable in the current method of delivery?
  • What do customers actually think of us and our programs? Are we meeting a demand?
  • How do we adapt our services to bring more value to people with disability as the NDIS is evolving?
  • How do we prepare our staff and programs without knowing how many people will be using our services?
  • How do we help our customers make the transition too?

So how do you innovate through this uncertainty?

Through this series of posts, we hope to provide some practical suggestions. We don’t think there’s a single right answer or silver bullet — we do think there are a set of strategies or options that will position NGOs to be responsive and adaptive as the NDIS matures.

NDIS: Like a market – but harder

Imagine if Apple had to design phones and computers in an alternative market: a market where the government set what people would pay for a phone or computer. Imagine if people could only buy an Apple product when technology needs are included in their plan and if their ‘local technology planner’ allocated funding to the  ‘tablet’, ‘smartphone’, ‘laptop’ or ‘smart watch’ parts of their plan. What if customers and technology planners never heard of a smart watch?

If Apple were innovating in this context, it’s likely their strategy would look very different.

Innovation in a developed consumer market is hard and risky. Innovation within a contrived market like the NDIS is even more challenging. There are multiple customers, decision makers and influencers: people with disability, their families, local area coordinators, planners. What’s more is these customers are accustomed to being consumers in this way, and the rules of the market are likely to keep changing. 

Organisations need to be thinking carefully about how, when and if to innovate. Many service providers are aware they need to make changes to address the needs of customers; that they need to get more business savvy; that they need to invest time and energy in innovation. 

However, in contrived markets like the NDIS, it’s not that simple.

In this post, we’ll propose a set of innovation ‘plays’ for service providers in the NDIS. We’ve identified four options. Two are more active and experimental — they explore radical approaches to NDIS entry. Two involve not doing much at all at the outset — they explore a conservative and patient approach to welcoming in the NDIS.

All are viable, but success requires certain conditions.

Evolving in Uncertainty

Some organisations are racing to be first to market with new services. Some are adapting all of their old services to fit the NDIS environment. Some are waiting it out to see what are the most important changes to make. Some are testing small changes to their services as they go. Some have decided to stay out of NDIS for the near future.

What’s your tactic?


The first approach is to be a pioneer, to build breakthrough innovations, to be bold and fearless, to invest significantly in research and development, to define and redefine the market. A breakthrough approach is what Apple has done with the desktop computer and smartphone and what Tesla has done for electric car manufacturing.

For example, Tesla hires the most experienced and exceptional staff to focus on building the next generation of electric vehicles. The Tesla team (which includes robots) tests and iterates in the most extreme conditions until Tesla cars are engineered to be exceptional and superior. Known constraints and barriers to making electric cars affordable and mainstream are methodically removed (No charging stations? No problem. Tesla built them at scale.) Tesla and Apple are innovators and category leaders —competitors copy much of what they do.

The ‘breakthrough’ play is bold and fearless. These organisations are committed problem solvers who take leaps of faith to invent and test new things, knowing that with big risks they’re bound to reap big rewards.

Tesla Autobots: a factory tour after the Model S drive on the track.

Tesla Autobots | Photo by Steve Jurvetson CC


Putting it into action

How you could do this:

1. Get the capability: Hire the very best innovation team possible or outsource innovation capability. Either way, you’ll need people dedicated to this mission and task, not divided across multiple projects.

2. Secure resources and agency: Bold innovation will cost money; make sure you’ve got the budget and authority to research, design, test and — most importantly — prototype and implement.

3. Define your objective: Name the fundamental shift you want to see and what would need to be in place for that to succeed.

4. Double check your ambition: Are you still in this quadrant or does the change you want to make align more with Netflix, Amazon or Google?

5. Know the endgame: Be clear about what success looks like and what it will take to get there. Develop a theory of change to be sure your idea will lead to the shift you want to see.

6. Know your constraints: Determine how you will work around them or how you will defeat your barriers.

7. Create an environment for innovation: Create space to grow. It might be physically working outside layers of management or creating new rules and culture for innovations to thrive.

8 Design, Test, Iterate: Test innovations on paper. Test innovations with your own team. Test innovations with clients and families. Learn about what works, what doesn’t and why. Iterate.


The second space, experiment, is a cautious and calculated approach to ‘doing’. The ‘experiment’ play is all about watching what others do and engaging in small tests or trials. This is similar to how Amazon watches the online market space and makes tweaks based on what they observe to be holding others back. They capitalise on bursts of ingenuity by experimenting in small, low-risk ways and adapting, iterating and evolving their knowledge and programs as they go.

Amazon is continually experimenting with their large market base by launching new features and services and learning from customer responses: instant video, 1-click Kindle purchases, grocery delivery,  and Amazon prime. They gather data on their customer’s behaviour and interests. Then, they develop micro-innovations to respond to unmet customer needs. They learn and iterate based on the ways customers use and don’t use products as planned.

‘Experimenters’ are inventors and tinkerers. These organisations make lots of informed, small-scale innovation decisions, throw new options into the market and see what sticks.

Photo by Carl Malamud CC

Putting it into action

How you could do this:

1. Develop a testing strategy: name the fundamental assumptions you want to test, experiments you want to trial and what you aim to learn from doing so.

2. Design small experiments: Identify ways you could run 15 minute – 1hour long versions of your service adaptation. Ask current or potential customers to participate and offer feedback.

3. Analyse insights: Be specific with yourself about what worked, what didn’t and why.

4. Re-iterate your experiment: Design the second version of your test that incorporates your learnings. Analyse your insights again.

5. Think bigger: Think about what it might take to incorporate ‘what works’ into a new program or business as usual (i.e. cost, human resources, risks). Assess what benefits you might gain by scaling this. Develop a staged and incremental plan to ramp up and spread more widely.


The third place to play is Repackage. Here, you make the most of what you’ve got to adapt your core capabilities to fit the new conditions of the NDIS. Repackaging includes looking more broadly and playing in new markets such as the private sector or revenue streams that target the wider mainstream. This space is all about continuing to do what you do well, while still staying relevant in an evolving arena.

The ‘repackage’ play is a lot like Netflix. Netflix entered the market by providing DVD rentals, much like their competitors. They played the DVD game, waiting for technology and conditions to be right for streaming. They were forward thinking and predicted shifts in the landscape. When the DVD industry became obsolete, they were ready to adapt and repackage their video viewing offer and be first to market in streaming.

The ‘repackage’ play is strategically optimistic. These organisations are masters of adaptation who thrive in changing environments.

Netflix Headquarters | Photo by Jim Watkins CC

Putting it into action

How you could do this:

1. Know your strengths: Identify your current intents and assets, strengths and weaknesses. Be clear about how shifts in the market will influence your delivery of these offers.

2. Ideate possibilities: Name the combinations of changes and adaptations you can make to your services to fit within the NDIS or to explore new markets. Be clear about what ramifications these changes will have to staff, to experience for PWD and to costs.

3. Rank and strategise: Map which of these adaptations will be more feasible and less feasible. Map which of these adaptations will be more impactful and less impactful. High impact, high feasibility options are your quick wins worth exploring first.

4. Draft and test: Share mock up adaptations with customers and staff for feedback. Make iterations based on what clients tell you.

5. Put it to Market and Learn: Develop a staged and incremental plan to make these changes to current business as usual. Once in the market, collect on-going data on responses to the new way of working and make changes as necessary.


The fourth space is ‘Watch.’ Here, organisations observe and learn from what others are doing well and from others’ mistakes; assess the evolving landscape from above and strategise opportune moments to make a move that fits with your knowledge and capability.

For example, Google was not the first search engine, email host or map interface. While they lead the market currently, the weren’t the first to the market. They watched; they waited; they learned.  They observed how the customers engaged with Ask Jeeves, AOL, Yahoo, Mapquest until they knew how they could offer what was missing.

‘Watchers’ know there is a lot to learn by being patient and analytical about the growing evidence base of NDIS successes and failures.

Bikes at Google Headquarters | Photo by Luis Villa del Campo CC

Putting it into action

How you could do this:

1. Develop a research strategy: Name the key questions you want to answer and how you will answer them.

2 Collect data: through desk research, observation, or immersion explore the positive deviance locally and overseas. Investigate what doesn’t work and seek to understand why.

3. Analyse insights: Assess about what conditions are needed for programs to flourish and also what the market is saying they want/are missing.

4. Identify opportunities: Identify the gaps and unmet needs you can fill.

5. Apply to your context: Plan an approach to test small.


What is your organisation doing? How do these ‘plays’ relate to your own approach? Reach out, and let us know — we’re keen to hear.