How To Become A Disobedient Organisation

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Imagine being given $250,000 for deliberately breaking the rules. No strings attached.

That’s exactly what MIT are doing.

Recognising that societies and institutions lean toward order and away from chaos they have launched an award and cash prize that will go to a person or group engaged in an extraordinary example of disobedience for the benefit of society.

MIT want to see if they can identify creative and principled disobedience.

Perhaps 2017 is a time for not doing what you’re told.

70% of us are not engaged in the work we do with over a third saying our jobs are meaningless.

This lack of engagement with work comes at a time when we need more world changing ideas than ever before.

Maybe the answer lies in a move away from complex and bureaucratic systems.

As Joost Minnaar and Pim de Morree write – organisational complexity has gone up 6 fold since 1955.  The number of procedures & rules to fight the same complexity have seen a 35-fold increase.

In the most complicated organisations managers spend more than 40% of their time writing reports, and between 30 – 60% of their time on meetings.

There could be a very simple reason for the growth of organisational complexity:

We are employing more managers than ever before.  And management is the least efficient activity in your organisation.

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As Gary Hamel has pointed out, the U.S managerial workforce has grown by 90%, while employment in other occupations grew by less than 40%. In the United Kingdom the employment share of managers and supervisors increased from 12.9% in 2001 to 16% in 2015.

Removing managers is never going to be a popular choice  – not least with managers –  so a better focus might be to encourage people to overtly identify complex or perverse rules.

  • Hootsuite has appointed a  Czar of Bad Systems – with the authority to challenge the rules and fix the things that never get fixed –anywhere in the company.
  • Adrian Cho at Shopify (who has possibly the greatest job title ever) is  Director of Getting Shit Done , a role aimed at breaking tradition and accelerating decision-making.
  • Philippa Jones at Bromford encourages colleagues to “Do the right thing, not the rule thing” –  building positive rule breaking into everyday service.

On the latter – it’s interesting to note that some people have interpreted this as a potential route to chaos when it’s anything but.  It’s perfectly possible to get rid of rules without unleashing anarchy.

Generally getting rid of rules doesn’t bother anyone except managers.  The average colleague sees needless complexity every day.

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Whilst most executives have a very good understanding of collective complexity at a strategic level, relatively few consider the forms of individual complexity that the vast majority of employees face.

 

I’m deep in the midst of some service redesign work at the moment – helping colleagues detoxify the organisation of needless complexity. I had a long conversation with John Wade yesterday and it reminded me that it’s important not to think of complexity as a bad thing in itself – it can be very good for business too.

Older organisations are often bad at change and innovation for a reason – they are designed that way. They are built to execute on delivery — not to spend time thinking about things or engaging in discovery. That execution is what made them successful in the first place.

However – if we want to be world changing rather than system sustaining we need very different behaviours. That means leaning towards chaos and rewarding positive deviance.

Whilst organisations need to get better at encouraging rule breaking, but they also need to get better at understanding why the rules needed to be broken in the first place.

Some of the greatest breakthroughs in history have come about through people breaking the rules for the right reasons.

The answer then lies in replacing rules with values and by leaders encouraging behaviours that don’t follow the script.

It’s a time for disobedience, not acquiescence.

Digital Transformation is Failing. Why?

“A key reason why true mobile working isn’t being implemented is because of management culture. The case for mobile working has been proven; it is the people who are the biggest barriers.”- 2017 Deloitte Human Capital Trends report

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The way we work , it seems, is no longer working.

What we’ve long suspected – that organisations are failing to maintain pace with technological advancements – is now evidenced.

It wasn’t meant to be like this.

We were promised that digital would revolutionise the workplace. Although the use of mobile devices is practically ubiquitous, true mobile working is not growing at the rate predicted.

  • Despite huge advancements in video messaging and conferencing workers still spend a year of their lives in physical meetings. If you’re employed in the public sector it’s worse – with nearly 2 years clocked up for every worker.
  • Commuting to work – far from being a thing of the past – is actually increasing. The number of people with a 2 hour commute has risen 72% in the last decade.
  • We spend about 60% of our time on email, a crude technology from the 1970’s. The UK’s biggest employer, the NHS, hasn’t even got that far and still sends pieces of paper to contact patients.

As the 2017 Public Sector Mobile Working Report makes clear – our leadership is certainly in question. There’s a lack of strong pioneering leaders prepared to take the plunge and spearhead change.

The UK is a now a high-employment, low-productivity economy lagging behind almost all of its peers.  Yet despite this and with an obvious skills deficit , seven out of ten people say they receive no basic digital training from their employers.

With such a huge gap in business potential – this appears to be a dereliction of duty by leaders. What’s the reason?

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The diagram shows that individuals are relatively quick and adept at adopting new innovations.

However, whilst you and I may adapt to technology relatively rapidly, businesses and organisations move at a much slower pace.

If it is people who are the biggest barriers – why do we behave differently in a work context compared to our home lives?

The argument – so it goes – is that this may be a generational thing. That those currently at management level weren’t brought up in the digital era and may have an innate fear of technology.

To me this assumption that a new breed of younger savvier digital natives are going to usurp the incumbent dinosaurs is a dangerous one. It’s casual ageism for a start – I know people in their 70’s who can code, and people in their 20’s who can’t tweet.

More importantly though – it lets business leaders off the hook.

What if there’s a deeper problem here , what if it’s the way we work that is impeding progress?

What if work no longer works? 

The practices of corporate planning, organisational structure, job profiles, performance indicators, and management were developed in the industrial age. It could be that some, or all, of these are wholly inconsistent with the behaviours required in a digital age.

It is these legacy practices that any business transformation programme should be addressing. Too often they focus on the digital tools themselves which are largely irrelevant.

Anyone can introduce a new IT system- but as digital organisational models emerge, it’s leadership that needs change.

We are at a crossroads – at the intersection of paths towards a new digital economy or an adherence to the traditional world of work.

Being a leader in the digital era means casting aside old strategic frameworks, processes, relationships and values. It also means being brave and bold enough to step into the fray: challenging every aspect of tradition.

Digital transformation isn’t really anything to do with digital tools.

It’s about redefining the concept of work itself.

How Not To Involve Customers

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In 1985 one of the biggest brands in the world nearly destroyed itself – by listening to what customers said.

Coca-Cola developed a product dubbed “New Coke” that was slightly sweeter than the original. Almost 200,000 blind taste tests were conducted and most participants said that they favoured New Coke over both the original formula and the companies bitter rival, Pepsi.

Hundreds of thousands of people can’t be wrong, right?

New Coke tanked – costing the company millions, with the CEO later commenting that they had “drawn a moustache on the Mona Lisa.”

There were two main lessons learned:

1: The research was flawed as it was based almost entirely on sip tests—a comparison of sips, not someone enjoying an entire drink. A blind test in a lab type environment was out of context compared to the experience of , say, drinking a Coke in the garden on a summer’s day

2: No-one realised the symbolic value and emotional involvement people had with the original Coke.  What customers said was “yes, this tastes a lot nicer” but when the product hit the market they behaved entirely differently. Influenced by their emotions and a status quo bias to keep things the same, they demanded the old Coke back.

Many of our organisations are still making these same mistakes – assembling focus groups and panels and involving users in ways that are wholly artificial compared to an actual customers lived experience.

In my last post I argued that we should know our customers, just never ask them what they want.  It drew quite a lot of comment and challenge with some points that merit further debate.

The top three charges were these:

1 – You’re saying professionals know best

No I’m not – but I do think the ‘customer knows best’ argument needs some challenge.

Whilst I agree that users are almost always closer to the problem than the average senior manager or executive, proximity to the problem doesn’t automatically make you the best person to solve it.

‘How can staff know the customer experience better than they do themselves?’ was a typical comment.

I think we are in danger of conflating two things here.  Experience of the problem and the creation of a potential solution.

As a road user I can sit in a traffic jam and moan about it all day long , but I can no more design you a solution than I can build a rocket to Mars.

Solutions require subject matter experts who have a deep knowledge of the root cause of the problem and can look through multiple lenses to craft a response.

The idea that a customer can provide that based on fairly limited knowledge (or interest) is naive.

2 – You’re saying customers are irrational

No – I’m saying we are all irrational and often make decisions accordingly.

At least three of my friends have chosen to holiday in the UK this summer citing concerns over terrorism. Statistically you’re 10 times more likely to die by falling down the stairs than you are in a terrorist attack – but none of them, as far as I know, are moving to bungalows.

Designing the right solution means testing for irrational behaviours.

And that can only come by observing what people actually do rather than basing decisions on what you think , or what they say, they’d do.

3 – You’re saying don’t listen to customers.

No – I’m saying just don’t let that be your only basis for decision making.

The research of Clayton Christensen found that companies that fail often listen to their customers too much.

As users we struggle to envisage the future. Indeed, asking someone to consider the future is a bit like saying, “Tell me how you will behave in five years time when I’ve rolled out the service I’ve just asked you about.”

At Bromford we are considering how we maximise customer input where it really adds value.

For us it’s the feed into the problem definition – and then at every stage through iterative testing, pilot and subsequent release (or shelving).

It’s balanced by robust internal insight measures as well. As this graphic by Tom Hartland shows – just because a customer likes something doesn’t mean it’s good business sense.

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You’ll see that customers are generally not involved at the initial design stage – where we see that it’s our job to find out what they need, without directly asking them.

It’s useful to frame this in three steps:

  1. Know your customer. What are their likes and dislikes?
  2. Know your product. What are you offering and what problem does it solve for them?
  3. Know the thing. What is the ONE thing that the customer wants that makes what you’re providing special?

Saying “don’t ask customers what they want” isn’t anti-customer – it’s saying you need to work much harder at really knowing them.

Muhtar Kent, the outgoing CEO at Coca Cola said this recently:

“We’re still talking about New Coke and its lessons, which become clearer with each passing anniversary. We no longer control—if we ever did—the conversation about our brands. But we must be part of it. We listen, we analyse, we respond.”

Right now I’ll bet your organisation is developing services, transforming existing ones or getting hugely excited about new product launches – based upon what people say they want.

One of them could be your New Coke.

Question is, which one?

Know Your Customers, Just Never Ask Them What They Want

We do not really know what our potential users will really respond to, what they will understand or what they’ll hate until we really see them using it –Jonathan Courtney

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If you are working on any new service change or product there’s one question I guarantee will be asked of you at some point:

“What do your customers think of this?”

The thing we never say – but we need to be brave enough to is this:

“We haven’t asked them – it would be a complete waste of time”.

Despite no evidence of any real impact, each year millions of pounds are spent across the social sector on market research, focus groups, and ‘coproduction’.

At best it’s well intentioned paternalism , at worst a cynical tick box exercise.

95% of products launched this year will fail – and it won’t be for lack of customer involvement. Many of these will have asked people to articulate what they want whilst failing to actually get to the core of what they need.

It is difficult for us as users , of any service , to think in abstractions or envision a new concept.

There is little evidence that we can even predict our own behaviour. We don’t necessarily know why we make decisions.

When anyone proposes a change – even humdrum day to day changes (think self-serve check outs in supermarkets , or charging people for plastic bags) – we don’t react rationally.

Our status quo bias, the tendency for us to lean towards doing nothing or maintaining our current or previous decision – is a strong reason for never asking customers what they want. Unless you want your business to stand still.

Customers often don’t know what’s good for them.

If you ever go to an airport here’s a quick experiment. Look at the queue of people checking in manually versus the queue for people who’ve checked in online and are using bag drop.

Despite all the benefits (huge time saving, plus the airline can’t close the flight and move on without you) people are disposed to stick to what they know.

These are probably the same strange group who applaud the pilot and crew when the plane touches down, simply for doing their job and not killing you.

Asking them to design your next service would be catastrophic. They’d request a lot of features that they would never use.

As Jason Fried has said – a great question to ask ourselves is  what are people going to stop doing once they start using our products or services?

That’s how Amazon and Google have conquered the world – not by surveying us to death – but by understanding our problems and taking them away one day at a time.

The challenge is understanding the problem better than your competitors and then road testing solutions. As Jonathan Courtney writes, the useful data comes not from research, not from surveys – but from the first user tests.

Every pound we put into asking customers what they want is basically wasted.  My aspiration at Bromford is for us to the become the best organisation at understanding the problem, before deploying rapid experiments to prove or disprove any solution.

Our customers have big problems to solve, the social sector faces unprecedented challenges – and we simply don’t have the time anymore.

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As David Arnoux has pointed out, after you’ve taken out weekends, holidays and sickness we only have 215 days a year or less to do any work.

That five year strategic plan you have has to be achieved in just 1,075 days.

Have you really got the time to be distracted by what customers think they want?

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It’s a great line but there’s no evidence that Henry Ford ever said this. It never appeared anywhere until about 1970.

A better quote , and one he did say in his 1922 book, is this:

“I will build a car for the great multitude. It will be large enough for the family, but small enough for the individual to run and care for. It will be constructed of the best materials, by the best men to be hired, after the simplest designs that modern engineering can devise. But it will be so low in price that no man making a good salary will be unable to own one – and enjoy with his family the blessing of hours of pleasure in God’s great open spaces.”

Ford understood his customers aspirations before they did.

Knowing our customers is about a deep understanding of the day to day problems they face and the opportunities they haven’t even begun to realise.

You won’t get that from your next customer workshop.

How Automation Helps Us Solve The Problems That Matter

“One machine can do the work of fifty ordinary men. No machine can do the work of one extraordinary man.” – Elbert Hubbard

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Automation gets a bad rap.

The original draft of our design principles stated “Automate everything that can be automated”. People flinched – it was seen as too harsh.

Mention automation and people make a mental jump to a transactional, robotic service devoid of warmth and humanity.

‘Going digital’ is often seen only as a move to cut costs – punishing customers with a lesser service.

It shouldn’t be that way.

Successful automation – and digital transformation –  is about freeing people up to tackle the problems they don’t normally get the time to solve.

If you’ve ever been to an Apple Store you’ll have seen this in action. Apple employ a lot of people in their in-store experience – about three or four times the number employed in a typical retail outlet.

Every employee is trained to walk a customer through five steps aimed at delivering a unique experience:

A: Approach customers with a personalised, warm welcome

P: Probe politely to understand the customer’s needs

P: Present a solution for the customer to take home today

L: Listen for and resolve issues or concerns

E: End with a farewell and an invitation to return

Their formula is simple – build relationships = sell more products.

Of course Apple can only afford to do this because of their profit – and their ceaseless focus on automating anything that gets in the way of customer experience.

We’ve been running design sessions across the whole organisation since last October. Embedding our new principles and taking people out of the here and now to imagine a 2.0 version of how we work.

One of the things that’s been most heartening is people’s honesty about the challenges of working within complex systems. One colleague explained how a team had to perform a manual task 20,000 times every year.

The creativity and sheer determination employed to resolve the problem was incredible. However, the problem didn’t need to exist. It’s capable of redesign and automation.

Across the social sector we have a lot of problems and a lot of people.

50% of day-to-day spend in the public sector is on employees.

37% of working British adults say their job is not making a meaningful contribution to the world.

Only 18% of people say the jobs they spend most of their lives doing are “very fulfilling”.

An awful lot of people are doing meaningless jobs.

That speaks of poor leadership and a wholesale failure to embrace technology and new ways of working.

Imagine if we harvested all our creativity and determination and unleashed it on the problems worth solving?

At Bromford we are attempting to follow the Apple model. In our case it means putting people where the problems and the opportunities are – right in the centre of the community.  In an age where people are withdrawing personalised services we are pushing them to the fore – boosting the ratio of people to customers.

Digital transformation is absolutely not about designing out people. It’s about designing out the ordinary and reserving people for the extraordinary.

Indeed , the paradox of automation says that the more efficient the automated system, the more crucial the human contribution. People are less involved, but their involvement becomes more critical.

Automation gets a bad rap, but it shouldn’t.

It makes us all much more important, not less.

Why We Solve The Wrong Problems

untitled-presentation-2Everywhere I look I see organisations and people investing heavily in new initiatives, transformation, and change programmes.  And in almost every case the goals will never be met.

One of the most crucial causes of the failure? The right questions were never asked at the outset.

We default to ideas and plans. Too many of which fail to get exposed to the tough love of effective questioning.  We get wrapped up in solutions.

It’s no surprise: we are conditioned to find solutions rather than define problems from an early age.

  • We start off being very good at it. Kids ask about LOTS. Annoyingly so. We tell them to stop asking so many questions.
  • In school we start to be assessed and graded on the quality of our answers, not the problems we are contemplating.
  • As we enter the workplace we get rewarded for the solutions that we propose, not the questions that we have asked.

Indeed, great performance at work is usually defined as creating and implementing solutions rather than finding the best problems to tackle.

So we become very good at solving problems – even if they happen to be the wrong ones.

Here’s a few things to watch out for when considering if your organisation is leaning towards solution rather than problem. And some questions you could ask.

Management is becoming excited by transformation as an end in itself.

Question: What exactly are we being transformed into and who asked for it in the first place?

People start talking a lot about what Apple would do. Or Netflix. Or Uber.

Question: We aren’t Apple, Netflix, or Uber. How are the problems our customers face similar to theirs and if they are, are we the best people to solve them?

Getting excited about building a new app or website

Question: What’s the unique benefit of your solution compared to what’s already available on the market?

Fancy PowerPoint business case pitches at corporate away days and Board meetings

Question: Before you tell us what Google did  can you explain what the impact of your last project was, what failed, and what you’ll do differently this time?

You see – ideas people are regarded as sexy. They are positive, optimistic and the people you want to be around.

The person who keeps asking the difficult questions is often regarded as an obsessive – a detail person -a procrastinator. A complete pain in the arse.

This is the very problem we face – and why we see so much innovation theatre rather than genuine impact.

  • Initiatives and projects come with an over simplification of the problem statement. If indeed such a statement exists at all.
  • There’s a lack of penetration into the root causes of problems. We don’t understand our world half as well as we think we do.
  • Most of our organisations have a cultural bias for execution over thorough problem definition. We simply want to get the product on the street. Even if it’s the wrong product (or the wrong street).

Not so long back Tom Hartland , our Lab Designer, was sitting evaluating a new concept. A senior leader walked past and asked him what he was working on. Tom told them there was a problem with the data, the impact was inconclusive and it needed lots more work.

The response came back – “Well, don’t spend too much time on it – we’ll probably do it anyway.”

I share that anecdote not to embarrass anyone but to illustrate the point.

We are hardwired to doing things rather than purposeful contemplation and questioning.

Innovation , as Philippa Jones said, is all about getting better at being wrong. However it must be founded in a deep understanding of the problem we are seeking to solve.

To have the most impact, it’s simple. Just ask the right questions.


 

Hey – we have a great job going as Design Lead in the Lab. You need to ask a LOT of questions before you go near designing though. Take a look here or message me if you want a chat. paul.taylor@bromford.co.uk or DM me on Twitter @paulbromford

 

Why We Love Silo Working And What To Do About It

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In 1988 Phil. S. Ensor coined the term the functional silo system.  His contention was that narrow, specialised teams and jobs were easy to manage but imposed a very damaging learning disability on the organisation.

  • We become focused on addressing organisational fixes rather than exploring the underlying symptoms.
  • Social chasms emerge resulting in people not seeing any problem in context. Indeed – cross organisational problem solving can break down.
  • And as every function focuses on its own objectives and KPIs – the organisation slowly becomes reactive.

Nearly 30 years later, silo working is one of our most enduring management buzzwords.

They’ve gone nowhere – so are silos really such a problem?

Truth is, we love them.  They give us a lot of security and belonging.

Silos don’t just exist at team level.  Our sectors organise themselves into siloed echo chambers – each with their own system of professional bodies, conferences and award ceremonies.

You may have your own silo at a personal level. Most of our online social networks – particularly professional social networks – conform to the functional silo system. We follow and connect with people just like us.

You see, the much maligned silo actually has a great deal going for it.

untitled-presentation-3Silos are great for teamwork, but a barrier to external collaboration. And in a networked era – we need to adopt very different strategies.

I’m currently doing some work with David Anderton and the team at Bromford to redraw the relationship between 30 different service areas. It’s a fascinating exercise as you get to work with colleagues to draw a fantasy version of your organisation and then make it happen.

The lesson I’m learning is that our desire for operational efficiency has adversely affected interoperability between teams.

That’s not a bad thing per se – Bromford has a Moody’s AA3 rating and a core operating margin of 43%. Efficiency has a definite benefit! However we don’t want to rest on our laurels as we move to the dizzying challenges of the future.

In the book Team of Teams, General Stanley McChrystal describes taking command of the Joint Special Operations Task Force in Iraq. He quickly realised that conventional tactics were failing. Although the allied forces had a huge advantage in numbers, technology and training – they were no match for the adaptable and networked nature of Al-Qaeda.

After watching Al-Qaeda confound the army and win battles, McChrystal saw that the problem wasn’t one of capability, but interoperability.

Each time valuable intelligence was gathered it tooks weeks for the data to be distributed. Also – the information flowed through silos. Information was sent up the chain of command, where it was passed on to other teams who would then develop strategies for the frontline.

The individual teams were all experts , armed and trained beyond the capabilities of their foe.

They were meeting all their individual objectives.

Yet the shared mission—defeating Al Qaeda—was being lost.

The answer was to build a “shared consciousness,” through the creation of a network of teams.  This encouraged agile interaction, embedding the data intelligence within localised units and conducting daily status calls that included all of the stakeholders.

As McChrystal has said, “it takes a network to defeat a network”.

The focus on interoperability did reduce the efficiency of individual teams but the overall mission was accomplished. 

Our job right now is exactly that – to reduce the efficiency of silos, whilst boosting the interactive capacity of small networked teams.

In the digital age we can no longer afford to think in conventional terms of efficiency.

We must optimise our silos to work together – as networks in the context of a fully understood mission.

Learning faster than the rest, and acting accordingly, is a new competitive advantage.

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Bromford Design Principle Eight – Joined Up

Embracing Challenge to Build a Stronger Innovation Culture

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Just as your body is designed to fight a common cold, most of our cultures protect the organisational DNA from any antibodies. Add something new and it can get rejected.

As Chris Bolton has written organisations can have immune systems and idea antibodies. As Chris says – It’s not personal. It’s just an automatic survival mechanism.

The stronger your culture – the more resistant it can be to change.

The challenge then is not to embark upon another change programme , but to disrupt your culture.

I’m writing this on the way to talk to a group of Non Executive Board Members alongside Helen Bevan – on the subject of embracing challenge to build a stronger innovation culture.

We need a system upgrade for sure.

What does a 2.0 version of organisational change look like?

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At Bromford we’ve learned to distinguish between wicked problems which might require widespread organisational change – and the smaller changes and innovations we can introduce from the edges.

Scalable innovation in our world is often about joining the dots & making optimal investments. Marginal gains rather than big bang programmes. This involves less reporting and more doing. Discreet tests and pilots that explore a new world without fully committing to it.

However – larger scale innovation dies or thrives from the top. Accordingly the role of Boards in understanding the process of transformation, and the innovation culture it requires to thrive, cannot be underplayed.

nhf-boards-paul-taylor-2Boards themselves, not just executives, need to reflect on whether innovation receives sufficient attention during meetings, and also consider what role they should play in supporting transformative efforts. Supporting the attitudes and mindset from which effective innovation is born is a responsibility of all leaders.

Establishing a governance that supports disruption

If the culture is risk averse you have a problem as innovation always entails risk. A culture of innovation must accept and even encourage considered risk-taking – including failure.

Risk-aversion of corporate governance structures has the potential to quash innovation.

The organisation of the future will be one that differentiates their customer experience from the competition. Those who rip the rulebook apart, rather than slavishly follow the herd,  will be rewarded.

Giving people permission to create new rules is the quickest way to eliminate fear , the biggest enemy of innovation.

There’s an inherent tension here – and for good reason. Permissions need to be managed or chaos reigns.  The trick is finding the balance – and creating an innovation process that also practices good risk management.

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The first step to change is recognising there is  often a cognitive bias against new introductions.

Most Change Fails because the case for change has not been made strongly enough and communicated well enough.  If it’s only leaders and managers who understand why the change is important it’s doomed.

Our track record of introducing change programmes is abysmal. And yet we now need to rewire our organisations for disruption.

What does a 2.0 version of organisational change look like?

It’s less a time limited programme and more a way of life.

It’s a culture where everyone is actively questioning the status quo and is rewarded for it.

It’s a culture that constantly asks: “How can we do this better?” or “What would we do if we started again?”.

It’s a culture that can sustain as much rapid change as possible without falling apart.

Why Collaboration Does Not Equal Innovation

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Photo credit: Jonatan Pie

Transformation can’t happen without discovery and discovery can’t happen without experimentation.

It’s a new year and at Bromford we are planning a reboot of our approach to innovation (actually we are planning a reboot of everything).

My emerging thoughts are we need less talk of accelerated fast fail innovation and more a systemic and systematic approach to experiments.

Why?

Because innovation is almost never a single event.

As Greg Satell has written it can take decades for new solutions to be adopted widely. People cling to old models out of habit and convenience. Systemwide change doesn’t come easy.

The idea of putting a few people together in a room and expecting them to have some eureka moment about complex problems is , at best, naive.

Corporate away days, brainstorming, hackathons, conferences, unconferences,  all promote the myth that bringing a few random people together solves problems.

It’s good to talk for sure – but let’s stop conflating collaboration with innovation.

Most hacks and conferences do not solve problems – and certainly not big problems. Problems are there for a reason. People are working to solve these problems constantly, spending much more energy and resources than a single group of people ever can.

As part of the programme I’m working on at the moment potential solutions often only emerge weeks, or even months, after the initial creative session.

The reality is that innovation is an ongoing process. A process that requires problem definition, research, creativity and testing. Lots and lots of testing.

Currently only a small proportion of organisations in the social sector incorporate this process alongside the introduction of a wide range of new knowledge, new process and new technology.

Organisations are jumping to the latter. However technology cannot magically mend broken systems or solve intractable problems.

The real opportunity in 2017 is combining experiments with larger scale transformation.

I’m no longer interested in the cheerleading of innovation and transformation as an end in itself. My interest lies in the practical examples of learning and exploration that organisations are able to evidence.

Smart organisations will:

  • Build a portfolio of many different types of experiments from new customer offerings to new business models.
  • View small experiments as a natural constraint to bloated and expensive ‘projects’.
  • Conduct multiple experiments at the same time and be able to evidence their impact and share the learning.
  • Use the governance, scale and resources of transformation programmes to ensure the adoption of proven experiments.

Our job is to set the stage and create the right environment for those experiments.

We need a safe space for exploration. We need permission to cross organisational silos and assemble diverse co-creators. We need to move out of our ivory towers and shift innovation as close as we can to the colleagues and customers who know the jobs that need doing.

Organisational change doesn’t come easily.

A joined-up process of collaboration, research, experimentation and transformation would certainly make it a lot faster.

Is Your Organisation Making The Impossible Possible?

2016 was the year the social media bubble burst. The year we woke up to the fact that – despite what Twitter and Facebook tell us – a lot of people think exactly the opposite to what we do. It was us, not them, who were in a bubble.

I spent New Year travelling – so only read a few of the “2016 sucked” type posts that swamped my feeds. My view is that 2016 wasn’t the end of days – but rather the necessary conclusion of a cycle that’s been playing out for years.  The new cycle is beginning and is open for us to shape.

I began writing this post on the early morning ferry from Tagbilaran to Lamu Lamu City in the Philippines – after a conversation with some Filipino commuters.

The Filipinos are blessed with breathtaking landscapes , astonishing waterworlds and true Asian megacities.  It’s also situated smack in the middle of the typhoon belt and the Pacific Ring of Fire. Storms and earthquakes are part of everyday life.

It’s one of the most beautiful countries I’ve been too – and it’s in an almost constant cycle of peril.

People have to continually rebuild, reuse and readapt.

There’s no time for navel gazing about change management programmes and cultural readiness for transformation. It’s transform or die. 

The Fili culture has a word for this mindset – “Bayanihan”.

The word came from the tradition where neighbours would help a relocating family by literally carrying their house and contents to a safer location.

More generally the word has come to mean a communal spirit that makes seemingly impossible feats possible through the power of unity and cooperation.

The term bayanihan has evolved over time – being incorporated in many projects that depict the spirit of cooperative effort involving a community of members.

In 2017 many of us have to rebuild our organisations to face challenges that may seem impossible. And we can’t do it alone.

Saving the NHS from implosion seems impossible, but 1.5 million people work for the health service. If that were a country it would the 150th most populous in the world – ahead of Estonia, Cyprus and Iceland. That’s a huge amount of skills and knowledge that if harnessed correctly could surely transform any system.

If you stop thinking of the NHS as an end in itself and start adding in the wider social sector you’ll have more than 5 million people – and that’s before you start untapping the skills and resources in communities.

The reality is that the health and social sector isn’t an untouchable thing of beauty.  It’s a clunky system built for another age. It’s been patched so many times that it’s astonishing it still works at all.

Whilst short term emergency funding may be necessary – it is in no way the answer.

We need to to invest in scaling up promising community based initiatives at the same time as scaling down paternalistic systems and bureaucracies that stifle innovation.

This , as Alex Fox has written, is the scaling challenge of the digital age.  Scaling down bureaucracies to be human and family sized again.

I’m lucky to be working with organisations who are actively exploring these concepts, some of which looked fanciful in 2012.

  • In 2014 they started to take shape and gather momentum. More people took interest and got involved.
  • In 2016 post-Brexit, post-Trump, post-truth it looked increasingly persuasive.
  • In 2017 amid a global implosion of trust  – moving our organisations from the reactive to the preemptive and challenging the whole system as we have known it – is now the day job.

In the Philippines it’s interesting that the spirit of bayanihan – of communities themselves doing impossible tasks – has not spread upstream into Government.

The cooperation that works so well at community or baranggay level has been stunted when it meets the inflexible institutions that supposedly serve it.

This is the big challenge for us.

Can we reshape our organisations to be more like people – or are our institutions the very things that are standing in the way of unity and cooperation?

Are we letting communities make the impossible possible – or are we the ones stopping it dead in its tracks?

 

Here’s to a challenging and productive year!

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