How Technology Is Changing Our Conversation

In 2013 a Communications Director named Justine Sacco landed in Cape Town after a flight from New York.

As she switched her phone back on she was met with two messages.

The first was from someone she hadn’t spoken to for years:

“I’m so sorry to see what’s happening.”

The second was from her best friend:

“You need to call me immediately. You’re the No. 1 worldwide trend on Twitter right now.”

Then her notifications went haywire – and her whole life blew up.

Hours earlier, during a stopover in London,  she’d sent a tweet to her 120 followers that had gone viral whilst she was in the air.

It read:

“Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!”

Many of us on Twitter at the time remember the incident as we participated in it. We were rapt with excitement at we followed the hashtag #HasJustineLandedYet – with tens of thousands of us waiting for the real time sacking of a villainous racist.

Except, as Jon Ronson revealed in So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed , Justine wasn’t a villain, and she wasn’t a racist. She’d made a really badly worded joke intending to make fun of her own privilege. It had backfired in the most horrible way possible. She rarely left her house for a year.

I tried to change my social media behaviour the day I finished that book. I tried to resist joining in. Social media shamings are now a daily occurrence, as if we are becoming addicted to the experience of bringing others down.

Last week Sky News presenter Jayne Secker was the subject of her own tweetstorm. During an interview about the housing crisis she made comments about the competence of young tenants and whether they knew how to change a lightbulb.

“Do you think you’ve found amongst your friends, perhaps, that you’re aren’t equipped with the necessary skills to rent?” she asked.

The interview was certainly bizarre and her comments completely irrelevant to the subject at hand – but was the response entirely proportionate?

Haven’t many landlords , social as well as private, asked themselves exactly the same question?

Twitter was unforgiving and brutal, even in the face of an apology.

“I am sure many of us will have made a mistake at work – unfortunate for me mine is a lot more public than most” she tweeted.

In the responses below I saw two tweets from people who follow me. People who I’ve had many positive interactions with.

One of them used the hashtag “#scumbag”. The other just said “sack this c**t”.

We are now truly down the rabbit hole, with shamings leading to sackings leading to shaming and more blaming. It’s as if we can’t adapt to the new power of instantaneous communication, compelled to comment in ways we’d never do in a real life situation.

In her excellent TED talk Carole Cadwalladr rightly calls out the ‘gods of Silicon Valley’ for their failure to control the awesome tools they have given us, but arguably the responsibility is shared with us too. We have to re-calibrate our online behaviour based on values of free speech, but also have empathy and consideration for others.

I’ve just finished listening to The Last Days of August in which Jon Ronson returns to the subject of shaming.

It details the story of August Ames, a porn star, who came under heavy criticism for saying she didn’t want to work with men who have also appeared in gay pornography.

Finding herself engulfed amid accusations of homophobia she posted her last ever tweet the next day – which simply read “f*** y’all.”

A few hours later she was found hanged. She was 23.

In the podcast, and its excellent companion piece, The Butterfly Effect , Ronson charts the effect technological disruption is having on us. Much of it is funny and wonderful, and some of it is sad and deeply troubling.

The most worrying aspect is the effect on our public discourse. 

Conversation is all we have. It’s only through talking with those who disagree with us that we can hope to achieve any form of progress.

However we must also recognise we will make mistakes in our online behaviours. I’m not intelligent all of the time and I doubt you are too. We all have a lot of stupid in us.

We have to be able to criticise bad ideas. But we don’t want to close down those ideas as without the conversation we become more and more entrenched in our views, and that is good for no-one.

Last week I had a bit of a Twitter spat when someone misinterpreted a tweet I sent. I was having a bad day and sent a bit of a snarky response. In real life I’d have probably offered to buy them a pint and talk it out down the pub. However the lack of eyeball contact on social media is where so much can go wrong. We haven’t yet developed a complete set of cues that guide conversation.

This is the first time in human history that we’ve had a space in which we can collaborate with total strangers.

We desperately need to protect that space and that conversation.

That means we need to be lot more tolerant.

We need to try to get our facts straight before commenting.

We need to resist the temptation to join in with public shamings.

Most of all we just need to breathe a little more and be a whole lot nicer to one another.

Black Swans Can Inspire A New Era of Innovation

A black swan is an unpredictable event that is beyond what is normally expected of a situation and has potentially severe consequences. Black swan events are characterized by their extreme rarity, their severe impact, and the widespread insistence they were obvious in hindsight

Back in November I was listening to a talk from Melissa Sterry, the Design Scientist and Systems Theorist. She was challenging the conventional wisdom that a child born today would live until they were 100. “How can we say this?” she said. She went on to explain the complex system disruption caused by events like climate change and proposed that there was no guarantees about anything – as new diseases would emerge with strains capable of igniting pandemics. 

The nature of our connected world provides the ideal base for new entrants to spread and scale  – as facts, predictions, opinions and lies intermingle across all forms of media, creating viral opportunities to spread fear—and overrun the science that should guide communication as well as action.

My original post on risk probability admittedly downplayed the seriousness of COVID-19, and in the intervening weeks our entire lives have been turned upside down. Arguably we are living through a black swan event that will change the course of our lives.

Black Swan theory was popularized in a 2007 book by author and former options trader Nassim Nicholas Taleb. The book – written a year before the financial crash – focuses on the extreme impact of rare and unpredictable outlier events — and the human tendency to find simplistic explanations for these events, retrospectively.

Why a black swan? Well , for centuries people agreed that swans were – of course – white. That was until black swans were discovered off the coast of Western Australia in 1697 by Dutch explorers. The only reason people were convinced swans were white was because they’d never seen a black one.

Never confuse the absence of evidence with evidence of absence.

Pandemics have been at the top of national risk registers for decades and our culture is full of apocalyptic visions of the future , with zombies rather than viral infections admittedly . Some have argued that the correct metaphor for the crisis is a “gray rhino,” which refers to highly probable but neglected threats that have an enormous impact. It was coined by Michele Wucker,  who recently said “Given what we know about pandemics and their increasing likelihood, outbreaks are highly probable and high impact. I coined the term “gray rhino” for exactly such events: obvious, visible, coming right at you, with large potential impact and highly probable consequences.”

In terms of attempting to predict future disruptions on your business it’s useful to make this distinction:

  • High Impact, Highly Improbable Crises
  • High Impact, Highly Probable Crises. Coming right at you. 

And yet – out of this darkness can come a period of opportunity.

Wars and other crisis events can have beneficial effects on innovation and technological development. For example, wars tend to accelerate technological development to adapt tools for the purpose of solving specific military needs. And later, these military tools may evolve into non-military devices, such as radar or even the internet itself.

Additionally , the fact that we are now living in ways that are highly irregular to us , puts us in a far less passive and more creative state. We are experiencing a mass perspective shift that could lead to new thinking and new opportunities.

In this short video clip David Snowdon talks about the troubled Apollo 13 mission. Snowdon explains that for innovation to happen three conditions need to be in place: starvation, pressure, and perspective shift.  In terms of the current situation, we are being starved of our usual way of working and living, we have a pressure to maintain the services we provide and our perspectives have shifted towards self-isolation, limited social contact and the stark realities of covid-19.

As Simon Penny writes “perhaps during this time of isolation and slow living, we might gain a fresh perspective on what’s really important, and paradoxically our social distancing might actually bring us all closer together”.

In the past week I’ve spoken – actually spoken rather than text – to family and friends more than I have in the preceding year. I’ve spoken to neighbours who I’m ashamed to say I didn’t even know the names of.

When life returns to ‘normal’, we may never go back to living and working in exactly the same ways we did before. In fact it would be a collective failure if we were to do so. 

Whatever happens during the Coronavirus post-mortem we have to accept a couple of things:

  • We must getting better at preparing for high frequency, high impact events
  • We have to get better at understanding and reacting to exponential growth across complex systems.
  • We must understand that we’re all connected. In a globalised , perma-connected world we are all linked by increasingly close chains of acquaintance.

In the midst of a pandemic it’s sobering to be reminded that we can look after each other best by just thinking globally and acting locally.


 

Image by Alina Kuptsova from Pixabay 

The Way We Work Isn’t Working

The office, after management, is arguably the biggest inefficiency tax that organisations layer over themselves.

They cost huge amounts to procure and maintain, they become an all too convenient base for meetings (another inefficiency tax), and they set a precedent for the expected hours that people are meant to work.

Offices promote lengthy commuting which has consequences for both the environment and our own mental health. A recent study found that just a 20-minute increase in commute time is equivalent to getting a 19% pay cut for job satisfaction.

Most importantly – our workspaces have a productivity problem.

Despite technology which previous generations could only dream of we’ve never felt so unproductive at work.

What’s the problem here?

A recent report from Asana finds that employees spend nearly two-thirds of their day on “work about work”. Constant emails, message notifications, and unexpected meetings consume the best part of most days.

Over 10,000 people were interviewed globally and there’s some significant findings:

  • The majority of respondents’ time (60%) is spent on work coordination, leaving just 27% for the skill-based job they were recruited to do.
  • Responding to a constant barrage of emails and notifications is the primary reason that nearly one-third of employees regularly log extra hours, followed by unexpected meetings and chasing people for input or approval.
  • Respondents surveyed believe that nearly two-thirds of meetings are unnecessary.
  • Over 10 percent of an employee’s day – 4 hours and 38 minutes per week – is spent on tasks that have already been completed. This amounts to more than 200 hours of duplicated effort and wasted efficiency annually.
  • Less than half (46%) of respondents surveyed clearly understand how their output contributes to the achievement of their organization’s objectives and mission.

Screenshot 2020-03-08 at 10.32.27

It’s astonishing to me that this isn’t bigger news within organisations – the cost of unproductive downtime plus the wellbeing impact is mind boggling.

Parkinson’s Law. Work expands to fit the time available for its completion

In a post that is more relevant than ever Chris Bolton asks why do we waste so much time on trivial things in work? One of the reasons is our tendency to hoard unnecessary resources – to fill work with work.

“The basic theory is that an individual within a large administrative organisation will reach a point in their career where things start to get a bit ‘too much’ for them. Rather than leave the job or share it with anyone else, they make the case for acquiring subordinates. Subordinates will lead to more subordinates and eventually there is a department to manage. However, the quantity of real work hasn’t actually increased very much (if at all).”

Brooks’s law – Adding manpower to a late project makes it later

The ways most organisations respond to a new circumstance is simple: hire more resources. Even though everyone knows that throwing more resources at things is the very worst thing you could do.

The growth of ‘work about work’ seems unstoppable.

As Gary Hamel has explained – a small organisation might start off simply – one manager and 10 employees.  But as it grows it will often keep this ratio and sometimes reduce it. So an organisation with 100,000 employees will have at least 11,111 managers. Because an additional 1,111 managers will be needed to manage the managers.

And that’s before you go near management related functions whose entire function is , well , management.

The constant interruptions to our work day means very few of us spend time in a state of flow. Flow, a state of consciousness where we feel our best and perform our best, is the most desirable work state on earth, but it’s also the most elusive.  According to Steven Kotler , the average person spends less than 5% of their day in flow. If you could increase that to 15%, overall workplace productivity would double.

What’s the solution here?

Arguably we are into wicked problem territory – with a complex web of technology, management and bureaucracy.

Screenshot 2020-03-08 at 11.30.48

In the report Asana naturally put a lot of emphasis on the role technology could play – and they are right – it is ridiculous that in 2020 colleagues are duplicating effort on the same tasks. The tools are here to design that out today.

I’d go further and suggest that every manager should attend productivity training on an annual basis – and be assessed at their competence at using collaborative tools.

We also need to challenge our culture of busyness which worships at The Altar Of Having Too Much To Do.

We haven’t got too much to do – we’ve got too much ‘work about work’.  And the onus is on each and everyone of us to fight it.


 

 

The Asana Anatomy of Work Report can be downloaded here 

What Coronavirus Tells Us About Risk

As I sit down to write this post I’ve just received an email from a weekly design blog I subscribe to.

This edition is titled , alarmingly, ‘Pandemic Prep’.

It begins “We are interrupting our regularly scheduled newsletter format and rhythm to advise our clients and subscribers to prepare for the possible impacts of the coronavirus”.

Now I don’t know about you, but when seeking advice about pandemics I might look to the NHS or the World Health Organisation but I’m not sure service designers, innovation labs or bloggers would be my go-to source.

At the time of writing COVID-19 has led to approximately 3,000 deaths reported worldwide.

Deaths from regular flu on the other hand are somewhere between 291,000 to 646,000 deaths – every year.

Coronavirus is extremely serious and could yet reach pandemic levels –  but it is also a  good illustration of how we can overestimate personal risk. UPDATE 4/3/20: The virus has killed about 3.4% of confirmed cases globally. The seasonal flu’s fatality rate is below 1%

That said , why are people worrying about receiving post from asian countries , or whether you can catch the virus from beer, or even choosing not to order food from chinese takeaways?

According to Dr Ann Bostrom,  the mind has its own – entirely non-evidenced – ways of measuring danger. And the coronavirus hits nearly every cognitive trigger we have.

Paul Slovic, a University of Oregon psychologist who helped pioneer modern risk psychology, speaking to The New York Times, helps explain what is going on in our minds here.

When we encounter a potential risk, our brains do a quick search for past experiences with it. If it can easily pull up multiple alarming memories, then our brain concludes the danger is high. However it often fails to assess whether those memories are truly representative.

“A classic example is airplane crashes. If two happen in quick succession, flying suddenly feels scarier — even if your conscious mind knows that those crashes are a statistical aberration with little bearing on the safety of your next flight. But if you then take a few flights and nothing goes wrong, your brain will most likely start telling you again that flying is safe.”

When it comes to the coronavirus, Dr. Slovic says, it’s as if people are experiencing one report after another of planes crashing.

This week we’ve launched the new Bromford Lab Podcast and in the first edition we interview Vicky Holloway and Mitch Harrington exploring the relationship between risk management and innovation – and our propensity to sometimes see risk in the wrong places.

Many of our organisations, we know, are risk averse and constrain innovation. The culture is superbly designed to repel anything new or mysterious.

There are two main reasons for why we over emphasise risk:

We are scared of making mistakes

Failure is rarely promoted or even talked about in organisations. This can breed a culture where there is a fear of failure.

Existing in a culture like this will promote risk aversion as once colleagues are fearful about something they will tend to overestimate the likelihood of things going wrong. Research show that fearful individuals overestimate the danger associated with their feared objects or situations.

In the same way as my fear of spiders leads me to overestimate the ability for a spider to harm me, an organisation whose biggest fear is negative media attention will tend to overestimate the reputational damage of trying out a new service or project.

Successful innovation however requires us to fail more often, and to get better at how we fail.

Arguably it’s not fear of failure we need to tackle but fear itself. How does fear manifest itself where you work? What are you frightened of and what is it preventing you from doing?

No-one ever gets fired for exaggerating

The second reason organisations can overestimate risk is there are few negative consequences for estimating risk too highly.

Underestimating the risk of something bad happening has seen organisations go under and many people lose their jobs, but no-one has ever been sacked for over-estimation.

In 2002 , the Guardian predicted that the world would face famine in just 10 years , and a few years later the UK Prime Minister went a step further and said we had only 50 days to save the planet.

Arguably these are just well meaning attempts at highlighting a serious problem that also illustrates how hopeless we are at predicting the future. However a climate of fear is never a good climate for clear eyed problem definition.

This is why fear of failure should not go unchallenged, as it ultimately becomes debilitating and either stops you innovating or leads you to make bad choices.

As Vicky says in our podcastwe are all risk managers and generally we do it very well. We manage risk everyday in our personal lives and we largely make the right choices.

We need to look for risk in the right places and make intelligent assumptions, constantly challenging ourselves to seek out new experiences and solve problems.

The future requires us to be cautious , yes, but also to be a lot less fearful.


 

Labcast , the new podcast from Bromford Lab , will feature special guests discussing the innovation and design challenges of our day, the big ideas and the bad ideas. 

WhatsApp Image 2020-02-28 at 12.47.25

It’s available now. 

Subscribe on Spotify 

Subscribe on Apple Podcasts

Featured Photo by Hello I’m Nik 🍌 on Unsplash

The Creative Value Of Open-Mindedness

Innovation is, essentially, about being endlessly curious.

Curious, and a little bit paranoid that the way you do things isn’t the best way.

Looking outside your organisation means gathering and understanding trends and weak signals that indicate emerging needs or opportunities. These weak signals are often overlooked or ignored by organisations that will only listen to a sure thing.

Often, by the time the sure thing emerges, you’ve left it far too late.

Let’s be honest, most of us are hopeless at predicting the future. Despite our organisational 2030 strategies, our five year forward views, it’s nearly impossible to predict what our world looks like in the years ahead. Our business plans are merely business guesses.

Even the smartest of us tend to be terrible forecasters. We shouldn’t even listen to the so-called experts says Dominic Cummings , the Chief Special Advisor to the UK Prime Minister.

There is some truth in this. As Wharton professor Philip Tetlock showed in a landmark 2005 study.

After conducting a set of small scale forecasting tournaments with 300 experts from a variety of fields (government officials, professors, journalists, and others), Tetlock uncovered roughly 28,000 predictions about the future and found the forecasters were often only slightly more accurate than chance, and usually worse than predicted by basic algorithms, especially on longer–range forecasts three to five years out. Forecasters with the biggest news media profiles were especially bad, and that’s what Dom Cummings is alluding to when he derides media pundits.

What traits and characteristics make one person a more accurate forecaster than another? 

Tetlock found that those higher on fluid intelligence, higher on open mindedness , and those that a make commitment to cultivate their skills made better forecasters.

Now – it’s not achievable ,or even desirable, to have lots of superforecasters in our organisations. But the traits of the forecasters give some valuable insights into creativity and innovation:

  • They are comfortable thinking in guesstimates
  • They have the personality trait of openness
  • They take pleasure in intellectual activity and curiosity
  • They appreciate uncertainty and like seeing things from multiple angles
  • They distrust their gut feelings
  • They are not ideological and neither left or right wing
  • They constantly attack their own reasoning
  • They are aware of biases and actively work to oppose them
  • They constantly update their current opinions with new information
  • They believe in the wisdom of crowds to improve upon or discover ideas
  • They are not afraid to look stupid..

I definitely find when working with people on creative projects that many of the best participants share a lot of these traits – particularly those of being open minded.

How can we develop open-minded organisations?

Most people don’t think they are close minded.

However a quick look at Twitter will confirm that many people are. Technology encourages us to believe we all have first-hand access to the ‘real’ facts. That’s why I’ve all but given up watching or listening to mainstream current affairs and shifted to longer form podcasts. What passes for ‘debate’ is often just a series of short exchanges of people presenting their positions and refusing to shift.  You know what someone is going to say before they open their mouths.

In assessing how open-minded you are to new ideas, ask yourself the following questions:

  • When was the last time I asked for feedback about my work?
  • Has there been a time recently when I’ve changed my mind on an important issue?
  • Do I solicit new ideas from my colleagues and customers?
  • Do I show recognition and appreciation for the ideas suggested by others?
  • Does my team support a culture of openness and continual feedback?
  • When did I last express uncertainty about what to do next in front of my team?

Questions such of these are arguably at odds with our traditional idea of leadership.

When we think of an ideal leader, we often conjure the image of a confident, assertive individual who is not afraid to make decisions and lay down a clear direction. Because of this perception, openness to new ideas, approaches, or suggestions by others is an increasingly overlooked and underrated skill.

Now more than ever we need to prepare our organisations for multiple possible futures.

Therefore, open-mindedness is the quality that we need to cultivate. It allows us to entertain various ideas, even ones that are contradictory to our initial beliefs, and deliberate them.

Weak signals and early ideas are hard to evaluate because they are incomplete, unsettled and unclear. The skill is in spotting trends and creating a pipeline of exploration that allows to you to accelerate ideas from nascent, vague concepts into prototypes, tests and ultimately, products or services.

Future ready organisations will be the ones that maintain an inquisitive and outward-looking nature, searching for new influences that challenge all that they do. In a world of high frequency change and complex problems it’s time to start rewarding people for their learning rather than just their performance.

There’s a business case for being curious and not believing the same things you did yesterday.


Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

How To Resist Corporate Hoarding

Many companies are still using software built or purchased from a time when Blockbuster were fining us for late returned videos.

Most of the companies we admire for their innovation , your Amazons, your Netflixes or your Apples have no such legacy ways of working holding them back. They either cleared them out years ago or never had them in the first place.

It’s often difficult to have an ambitious organisational clear out – as standardisation and minimalism isn’t seen as very exciting, or innovative. It can be expensive too, just like renovating an old house, and you can understand why many put it off,  or choose not to bother.

Last week I was talking about this with David Anderton the Transformation and ICT Director at Bromford.

It was David who identified the requirement for the Bromford Design Principles as well as the need to have a clear out of what was a 50+ year old organisational infrastructure that was disconnected and messy.

The problems we were set up to solve were once relatively simple, but as organisations get larger there’s more technology, more people, more regulation. We put together processes, controls, reviews, and structures and these factors together create a great amount of complexity.

Unravelling this – at the same time as keeping business running as usual – is no easy task.

  • Some of us simply don’t like letting go of the working practices we have become used to.
  • Some of us don’t see the need for connectivity and interoperability beyond our own functional silo
  • Some of us become overly attached to the tools we use to do our jobs despite them being well past their sell by date (In the same way as I can’t get my Dad to move past a Nokia 3210 – “It still does the job, son”)

According to David there are five factors hindering effective transformation:

  • inertia
  • risk aversion
  • lack of investment in operating models
  • an overinflated sense of delivery excellence
  • too much celebration of mediocrity

Additionally many organisations have become afflicted by a kind of hoarding disorder. This disorder means the organisation acquires an excessive number of policies, systems and structures and stores them in a chaotic manner, resulting in unmanageable amounts of clutter. This clutter isn’t just an aesthetic problem. In an era reliant on the instant transfer of information and data it hoards knowledge and makes it inaccessible rather than opening it up.

This is why the replacement of legacy systems is the modernisation headache, because it’s not an IT issue, it’s all about organisational behaviour.

One of the reasons people can be resistant to change is because – from their perspective – it doesn’t add any value. The case for a simpler operating model is often hard to see from a siloed perspective.

However, standardised and simplified operating models are the bedrock of innovation – as you can’t make a leap forward when you’re disorganised and disconnected.

And that’s what we’ve been trying to do.

  • A new operating model based on services
  • Designed from ground upwards
  • Focused on services required for strategy
  • Then build out a transformation journey with enabling technology

The problem is you can’t achieve this simplicity without a lot of hard work and some resistance.

The innovative companies we all admire have done this hard , boring , work years ago. Which is why they can experiment with AI and VR – they’ve built future ready platforms to which tech innovations can be seamlessly integrated.

Our old model organisations thrive on complexity. Many of the problems we set to solve are indeed complex, but that complexity doesn’t need to be mirrored internally.

Simplicity means saying no to things and doing less. Many of an organization’s activities are misaligned from , or have poorly defined, strategic objectives. We often anchor around the wrong thing. That’s why some big institutions have no chance – they are hit by random plans and transformations rather than anchoring around purpose.

This takes discipline though as it means killing vanity projects and saying no when something doesn’t fit into the plan.

02 (1)Doing more stuff gets people noticed and promoted.

Doing less stuff – but the right stuff is what we should now recognise and reward.

Consistency of operating model, clean data and standardization aren’t sexy.  But every one of the innovative organisations we admire has been through the pain of achieving that.

A future ready operating model eliminates corporate hoarding and replaces it with an agile framework that companies can adapt and morph on an ongoing basis,

They match the speed of today’s change and run with it, rather than constantly trying to catch up.


 

You can get the full set of the Bromford Design Principles here 

Cover photo by Wonderlane on Unsplash

The Complex Problem With Big Change Programmes

Change-washing (noun): the process of introducing reforms that purport to bring about change but fail to result in any substantive shifts in systems, services or culture.  — Thea Snow and Abe Greenspoon

One of the unfortunate side-effects of writing a post that becomes popular such as  People Aren’t Sick Of Change. They’re Just Sick Of Change Programmes is that you simply don’t have the time to respond to all the comments on Linkedin and Twitter.

The overwhelming majority seemed to identify with the main points, particularly the need for more Trojan Mice.

However a few people interpreted it as an attack on change management in general – and an argument in favour of just letting people free to change things as they see fit.

So let me clarify.

My default position is that most top down change programmes will fail.  My experience has shown me that small, well focused changes, which are introduced on an ongoing basis in an inconspicuous way trump big change almost every time. These changes still need management though.

Your organisation is more like a living organism than a static structure. Increasingly we need to see our organisations as complex, ever-evolving, adaptive systems. That’s one of the reasons top down change programmes fail – they are too big, unwieldy and structured to cope with a living, breathing, growing, thing.

And yet… there is sometimes a need for big change programmes.

If you have a large infrastructure project , such as a digital transformation, there’s a need for unified vision and a lot of standardisation. A trojan mice approach could be disastrous – as it could reinforce silos.

Large scale transformation is about the transformation of organisations from silos, limited capability and unclear strategic goals, to being an organisation that understands the vision, that knows where it delivers the most value and how to focus on it. Doing this across a whole organisation is complicated, but is often needed if you are attempting to solve multiple problems.

When we began our transformation at Bromford we realised that we had 32 individual service areas – all of which needed better coordination.

We started by defining nine overall design principles, which leaders all signed up to before developing their own principles for each of their service areas. Doing it this way means we can better connect silos and optimise the organisation for the future. It’s a people driven approach – we hope – rather than a process driven one.

The problem for many big transformations occurs when the simple meets the complex.

Universal credit and smart motorways are two examples of big infrastructure programmes that have hit the similar problems.

Universal credit – a benefit for working-age people, replacing six benefits and merging them into one payment – was a simple vision and a correct one. The problems came about when the desired simplicity of the system also led to an oversimplified view of the life circumstances of many recipients. The early warnings from the oddly titled ‘Demonstration Pilots’ (implicit meaning – ‘we are going to do this anyway, whatever the results’ ) that this approach could hit the most vulnerable people very hard were pretty much ignored.

Smart Motorways – where drivers can use the hard shoulder – but the lane is shut down in the event of any accident or breakdown – is another simple idea that runs into trouble when it meets complexity.  A physically fit single driver can abandon their vehicle and get to safety pretty quickly but that’s not so easy for the driver with disabled or young passengers. “You spend an average of more than half an hour sitting there in a broken-down vehicle praying,” say the AA. Again, lessons learned from the pilots appear to have been ignored. In the original pilot, the emergency refuge areas were 500-600 metres apart, compared with 2,500 metres on other smart motorways.

Both of these examples have run into trouble when the intended transformation meets people.

Complex, messy people.

This thinking that if we take apart processes and tasks and put them into smaller units—we can improve those parts and thus the overall performance of our business is flawed.

There seems to be a belief that if we can ‘systems think’ or PRINCE2 it to death the people will comply. Sorry – it just isn’t true.

Just like our natural systems, our organisations are not machines. As Thea and Abe write – our organisations are systems — often very large ones — that are being run by humans. “As such, they are complex and they are adaptive. This means that the path for us to change them will be unpredictable and often counter-intuitive”.

The problem with big change programmes is also their opportunity. If we can recognise that organisations are people and people are complex then we can avoid simplistic solutions – and make real sustainable change.

Indeed – redesigning organisations for the future is also about learning to live with complexity.