Where Do We Start When So-Much-Is-Happening-All-At-Once?

Companies have been punched in the mouth, and whether they had or did not have a plan, it’s time for a new one. And not just a plan to deal with this or other viruses, but a completely reconsidered society.

Stowe Boyd

We exist at a time that has competing, intersecting, and sometimes conflicting crises.

This is leaving companies reeling as they attempt to recover from one blow after another. Innovation, or even continuous improvement, doesn’t really appear at the table.

I was involved in a discussion this week about dealing with the cost of living crisis. But of course it’s too late to deal with, it’s upon us and over us. I remarked , not particularly helpfully, to this effect. That the problem we were attempting to solve was unsolvable , it was upon us. Maybe we’d be best to prepare for the next crisis wave that we probably hadn’t even considered yet.

How can companies regain their footing? Even in more stable times it’s not as if organisations were particularly adept at preparing for looming threats.

A report by Dr Deborah Pretty analyses data from 300 corporate crises from the last 40 years . It categorises crises into three sorts and examines their impact on shareholder value while identifying the drivers of recovery.

  • Black Swan events (unprecedented, unimagined e.g World War I)
  • Grey Swan events (conceivable but neglected e.g Covid-19)
  • White Swan events (reasonable frequency, inherently preventable e.g most of the things that have happened to your company in the past 12 months)

The report highlights that limited, ambiguous and uncomfortable data are easy to ignore. We neglect preparing for low-probability, high-severity events. They are on the horizon but we simply don’t think preparing for them is a priority.

When the timing of a looming threat is uncertain, it’s hard for business leaders to make an action plan to address it.  Wharton marketing professor emeritus George Day and global management consultant Roger Dennis call it “the paradox of preparedness.” 

They suggest four stages of awareness: learning from past experience, staying alert to anomalies, creating engaging experiences through simulations, and narrating credible stories about the future. 

One of the problems at the moment is companies are (necessarily) operating in the moment with such intensity that they can’t see out of the building never mind look over the horizon.

It’s what Stowe Boyd has neatly titled The Fog of So-Much-Happening-All-at-Once.

To navigate out of this fog, we must live with two sets of values simultaneously.

We need to cope with the present and to get ahead of the next knockout blow – and that requires different skill sets, different people and different organisational design. Ambidexterity is a combination of two conflicting behaviours, such as exploration and exploitation.

What often happens is organisations confuse these two things. As Victor W. Hwang has written – the values are opposed. Successful companies often need to exist in both worlds—innovation and production simultaneously – and that’s hard to do.

Think about it – your organisation will have a generic set of values , or a DNA, the thing you talk about as culture. It’s generic and quite bland as you don’t want to leave anybody out or create any conflict. And that’s part of the problem – because the conflict is the solution.

It’s worth remembering that our organisations are generally bad at anticipating the future simply because they are designed that way.

What we need to do as organisations is to create the conditions for these two sets of values to co-exist.

Becoming Ambidextrous

Just as being ambidextrous means being able to use both the left and right hand equally, organizational ambidexterity requires organizations to use both exploration and exploitation techniques to be successful.

This may need:

  • A space (literal or metaphorical) to translate thinking into practical applications – and to ensure that any ideas that are pursued connect with the organisation’s overall strategy.
  • Bringing people -not the usual suspects – together to conceive, champion, and carefully develop new approaches that have not been tried before.
  • Acting as a conduit with external bodies, individuals and ideas outside your organisation – a pressure chamber that allows these external influences to flourish in a safe and controlled way.
  • Using a mix of methodologies including design thinking and prototyping to help visualise solutions, and not talk ourselves out of change where it appears too difficult or complex.

Most organisations create strategies that deal with yesterday’s problems (check your KPIs for proof). Now more than ever we must develop the capability to gaze forward.

What is that low-probability, high-severity event that is coming your companies way?

Photo by Katie Moum on Unsplash

If A Third Of What We Do Is Waste – Why Can’t We See It?

How do we create an environment where saying something is a waste of time is a good thing?

Andy Tabberer

There’s a fairly repeatable pattern in the behaviour of CEOs when they near retirement or leave the workforce entirely. They will often become more outspoken about the failings of the system they were part of. They will reflect back on their careers and become more self critical. For instance, I had a recent conversation with a former CEO who observed that 30% of what the company they had presided over had spent time on was ‘waste’. They didn’t think it applied solely to their organisation, rather it was representative of an entire sector.

Nearly a third of our activities equating to waste sounds massive but I think it is probably not far from the truth.

Waste as in: difficult-to-use systems that complicate processes and hamper what customers and colleagues really need.

Waste as in: corporate guff that fills time but adds no value and results in calendars chock full of back to back meetings.

So if nearly a third of what we do is a waste of time – how can it remain untackled by an executive?

Waste Hides In Plain Sight

Most companies think and see in vertical lines across a series of vertical silos. This leaves numerous blind spots where complexity and inefficiency can thrive: cross-functional, cross-geographical, cross-business activities. This space is like the dark web – an ungovernable place where no executive or team has a single point of accountability.

It’s in this dark place that the way the organisation really operates is revealed. This doesn’t appear on any structure chart, in any process map, or in any strategy.

It is also in this space where the ‘system’ lurks. According to W.Edwards Deming 95% of variation in the performance of a system (or your organisation) is caused by the system itself and only 5% is caused by the people. This is also known as Deming’s 95/5 rule.

Yet rather than looking here , or even becoming aware of its existence, we can often spend our time rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic instead. Doing restructures, bringing in new people and consultants, incrementally improving processes that often shouldn’t exist in the first place.

Perhaps we overstate the effect of the people in our organisations, and we spend too much time addressing what they feel and think without addressing the more complex, systemic issues that influence how they perform or behave.

Once you look into this space between the silos you see that whole system change is needed. Whole systems thinking: recognising that the parts of a system are all connected and, therefore, influence each other is required to address it. Rewiring this requires a commitment that few will be willing to make.

There is also a trust issue at play here. In most organisations if you put your hands up and say “a lot of what we work on is waste and doesn’t add value” and ask for help to eliminate it – you’re seen as an ineffective leader. Or you are asked to cut back on resource – which reduces the input but does nothing to fix a broken system.

If all this sounds negative, it’s not. People are up for change like never before, and smart organisations are recognising that their people must be empowered to change the system.

So how do we create an environment where saying something is a waste of time is seen as a good thing?

I’ve been running workshops looking at strategy development over the past few weeks. One of the common themes has been about how we must change the way we work to deliver more value, and concentrate on leap forward activity rather than just keeping heads down.

People have been incredibly open about waste and what doesn’t add value. People recognise that silos do exist and they are conscious that they sometimes work in them. People commented that we often don’t have conversations about this and need to talk more.

These workshops have in effect been adaptive spaces, that help facilitate the movement of innovative ideas and information across a system by connecting individuals.

The opportunity then is to build such spaces between the vertical silos. As Mary Uhl-Bien has described many of us deal with complex issues but our organizational systems are designed to go to order, an often bureaucratic or structured or standardized response.

Even when we are dealing with something as amorphous or non-specific as ‘change’ we’ll create a process to deal with it or a Change Demand Board to try and control it.

Instead we must build spaces that are more adaptive whilst resisting the need for order and keeping our organisations loosened up for change – so we can get innovations in and embedded as a new way of working.

Perhaps we fail to deal with the 30% of waste simply because we are looking at it the wrong way.

Never look vertically.

Look horizontally.

Once you’ve seen the wasted time, money and effort you can never unsee it.

Image by Hebi B. from Pixabay

The Growing Immunity To ‘Change Management Bullshit’

In an era of competing and conflicting crises few things are certain.

One thing we can count on though is our organisational ability to cope with change is going to be stretched to breaking point. This is concerning as our track record in delivering change in a more stable past has often been less than great.

We know that a large proportion of change programmes or digital transformations fail to deliver their promised outcomes on time, sometimes if at all. You can take your pick on the actual number that fail as the research is undecided. An optimist will say 50% of transformation programmes fail and a pessimist would go for 99% – which is a factor that led to the emergence of the ‘70% of change will fail’ narrative.

By the time people hit their 30s and 40s their experience of organisational change has been more negative than positive – so they build up a kind of autonomic immune system to Change Management Bullshit (CMB).

How do you know you’ve built up an immunity to CMB?

  • You begin to show disdain for roadmaps, ‘plans on a page’ or corporate visions.
  • The term ‘change readiness’ induces feelings akin to nausea.
  • You find yourself rolling your eyes when a new initiative is announced that sounds eerily similar to the last one that never happened but cost a hell of a lot of money.
  • You stop getting excited by the Change Evangelists who are indeed changing lots of things – albeit not the really important difficult things that need changing or transforming.

If everyone over 35 (a huge and growing percentage of the workforce) has built up enough CMB antibodies to repel an army of Change Management Consultants – how can our organisations manage to cope with a world that is experiencing what Tom Cheesewright has termed high frequency change.

Arguably we need to radically rethink our approach and move away from the tools and methods we have used in the past.

In his latest post Chris Bolton argues that we need to rip up our road maps to change and learn to use a compass instead.

Some of my irritation with these road maps comes from a feeling that they are a bit dishonest. They ‘promise’ a future that is certain and guaranteed. If you just do all of the things on the road map, you WILL get that better culture

This is true not just of road maps but of most transformation project plans. They promise a degree of certainty, almost arrogant in the determination that goals WILL be met and people WILL accept the change.

We know this is BS. Life just isn’t like that. Maybe it’s just me, but virtually nothing in my personal life has gone to plan in the last 10 years. Even a holiday has to pivot and change based on travel disruption, illness or global pandemics. We miss our targets. We don’t lose that weight. We do buy a new iPhone when we said we wouldn’t. We read fewer books, not more.

More from Chris:

A vector based approach is better. Work with the disposition to change within the system, use a ‘compass’ to guide you along the direction, and Trojan Mice to probe the territory. It has a far better chance if ‘arriving’, especially if it’s done together,co-productively.

When Chris talks of a vector based approach it makes me think of genuine holistic change, which means embracing the complex and the messy and being prepared to explore dead-ends and tolerate failure. You need to be ready to rework anything and everything – being constantly open to new ideas and methods.

Most organisations exist in a fixed state of transformation – time-limited programmes of change (usually 3-5 years) rather than a flow state. 

Amazon say they have never had a transformation programme. That’s because they exist in a flow state – where the culture is accepting that change is perpetual rather than something that – if we just grin and bear it – will be over in a few years.

The danger with a fixed state is that the driver becomes a business plan focused on implementation not experimentation. 

For too many people change management has become don’t change anything management. The opportunity here is to rip up traditional tools and techniques and instead explore new and foreign ideas and quickly assimilate (or abandon) them.

Additionally we need a culture where change is led by everyone – not initiated and owned by leaders and consultants. Where everyone is actively questioning the status quo and using that compass to find a better way.

“No bullshit” change would be to take back control from the bottom up, whilst accepting that the end destination will look significantly different when you finally arrive.

Photo by Luke Stackpoole on Unsplash

The Problem With Chasing Zeroes

Stowe Boyd posed a very good question in response to my recent piece on colliding crises.

What if crises are not of the sort that can be attacked and surmounted in a ‘short period of time’? The US housing crisis (and UK) is likely to require decades of focused effort to overcome. In the business context, how long will Boeing take to rework its foundations and return to an engineering-first culture? Likewise Volkswagen? A decade?

The climate crisis will take 1000 years to get ‘back’ to the temperatures of the 1960s. Can we stay in crisis mode that long?

It’s a great point. Part of the problem is it’s very easy to set a goal date for solving something or eradicating an issue. Actually mobilising the various people, players, industries to take action whilst allocating them sufficient resources is another thing entirely.

It is common in most companies and sectors for unrealistic goals to be set.

This should not be a surprise to us, as organisations are simply a collection of people – and in our quest to lead better personal lives, we often set ourselves unattainable goals.

And whilst the persistent pursuit of seemingly unattainable goals can lead to higher achievements (via breakthrough innovation or just incremental improvement), it can often make matters worse when a failure to reach the desired results leads to wasted time and resources or a lack of motivation.

The fact that we are so quick to label every problem a crisis leads to conflicting crises all vying for attention and can lead to a belief they be eradicated entirely.

It’s notable that eradication as a realistic goal has become something of a commonly held belief.

Net Zero.

Zero Covid.

Zero Tolerance.

Number one and two of the UN Sustainable Development Goals are:

1 – End Poverty

2 – Zero Hunger

Easy huh?

The downside of this kind of super aspirational goal setting is that it can create entirely new categories of problem as efforts to eradicate one issue create a new one or exacerbate another. We’ve seen this with attempts to reach zero- Covid for example where the Chinese policy appears successful in keeping deaths low but has profoundly affected the country’s economy.

It’s a controversial point to argue, but an extreme commitment to Net Zero can result in other important goals falling by the wayside. Certainly, Sri Lanka, which scored 98 out of 100 on the “ESG” – environmental, social and governance – criteria for investment, is an example of what can happen when one goal (sustainability) is valued over another (eliminating hunger).

Most of these issues on their own fall into the category of ‘wicked problems’ —issues so severe and so complex that finding answers almost seems impossible.

However – by attempting to place Net Zero next to Zero Hunger next to Zero Poverty you create a super wicked problem. This is where chasing zeroes can get you.

Wicked problems themselves are difficult to define because of their complex nature – and this means that finding solutions to them often isn’t easy. Especially in a world where organisations and even internal departments act in isolation. The chance of solving wicked problems whilst acting alone is virtually zero. The issue we face is that many of our organisations are driven by top down metrics that attempt to solve things through quite a narrow lens.

Because we don’t employ a rigorous process for understanding the dimensions of the problem, we miss opportunities to address the underlying strategic issues.This gives our organisations the illusion of solving problems, when in fact we often create more problems for others. Wicked problems are forever interconnected. You can’t solve them at organisation or even sector level. The challenge is connecting the various players and closing the gaps.

Many of our problems appear impossible but rather they are nijute (not impossible , just too expensive.) In the social sector this is more likely to be too expensive and just too complicated as well.

How To Tackle Impossible Problems

It’s actually fine to set big audacious goals as long as you encourage a number of experiments than can attempt to solve aspects of the larger problem. Let’s remember that breakthroughs emerge from the accumulation of numerous advances—some big and many small.

This is why all organisations should maintain an innovation pipeline that tracks all efforts to solve problems from different perspectives. It means casting the net wide and sometimes pursuing dead ends.

Innovation tends to start by generating ideas, but the hard work is selecting the best ones and prioritizing them, testing them, connecting them or killing them.

Sticking a big fat zero on the problem doesn’t solve it. It can inspire new thinking and galvanise people to a cause. But a singular focus on achieving nirvana can make our other problems immeasurably worse as well.

Photo by Jeremy Perkins on Unsplash

When Leaders Talk About Innovation, Always Be Sceptical

Declare yourself an innovation company and celebrate creativity, by all means. Then treat your employees to a little seminar in business history that emphasizes real-life time frames and the numbing necessity of trial and error, trial and error, trial and error.

Sir Harold Evans

In turbulent times beware the leader touting innovation myths. Myths like: If we just get the culture right and allow colleagues to , you know, be themselves and collaborate more and fail fast, everything will be OK.

Chris Bolton has written a great post on innovation urban myths, citing the invention of the 3M Post-It Note. The myth you’ll hear propagated at leadership conferences is that the Post-It was just a happy accident, a eureka moment when someone came up with a glue that wasn’t strong enough but was great for temporarily sticking bits of paper on walls.

Of course , as Chris explains, the Post-It story has been condensed into a pocket sized anecdote of what is a long and complex tale. It took 5 years of constant rejection for the new adhesive and another seven years in development (and a further phase of rejection) for Post-It notes to finally become a hit.

Most people in leadership positions do not know this story.

The story they know is:

If you get the culture right and allow people to make mistakes innovation will happen.

The true story is:

  • Innovation is a muscle that’s built over time – it doesn’t just happen by accident and the conditions for it need to be carefully curated.
  • Patience, and continued long term support is everything
  • Peer collaboration is vital for innovation and that needs management too

Yet there are scores of LinkedIn articles on a riff of “How Leaders Can Make Innovation Everyone’s Day Job” that seek to inspire confidence that the process of innovation is simply a recipe that needs following.

You can see why the ‘eureka moment’ stories spread – they are hugely powerful and full of drama and inspiration. But the act of creating or improving a product or service is far more often a long, hard, frequently boring slog.

Mainly this is because management just doesn’t get innovation. Managers got to where there are by managing well, not conjuring new things from discord.

So people tend to believe that the process for achieving breakthrough innovations is chaotic, random, and unmanageable, but as Noubar Afeyan and Gary P. Pisano write in HBR, this view is inherently flawed.

According to them the predominant strategy today is the “shots on goal” approach. That entails funding a large portfolio of projects in the hope that the profits from the rare success will more than pay for the cost of the numerous failures. If you invest in enough projects, the theory goes, by the laws of probability (sheer luck) you eventually will “score.” 

Instead they talk about ’emergent discovery’ defined as a rigorous set of activities including prospecting for ideas in novel spaces; developing speculative conjectures; and relentlessly questioning hypotheses.

This kind of discovery requires a culture of continual questioning, where it’s acceptable (even encouraged) to push back against the prevailing organisational dogma.

I don’t buy into the concept of organisations having a culture of innovation but do believe that you can have a culture conducive to innovation.

For me that’s about four elements:

Just enough friction: where there are regular, intense debates. We can have unity of purpose and still disagree more. Discord has to be allowed to take its proper place if we are to solve the problems that matter.

The practice of high standards: innovation requires a set of crosscutting practices and processes to structure, organise, and encourage it.

Permission to be different: a culture where it’s allowable, even encouraged, to push back. Everyone should be OK with questioning assumptions,  calling out inconsistent behavior and challenging old business models.

The ability to think and act experimentally: a tolerance for failure and dead ends through practical experiments that show whether the fundamental assumptions about innovation are correct and what they mean for the business.

And all of this can only be managed in the long term. Embracing patience is the key to creating the conditions conducive to innovation.

Shorthand versions of innovation truth that ignore inconvenient facts permeate at conferences or in executive presentations. We promote an untruth that innovation is chaotic, random, and unmanageable and the result of lone visionaries. “If we are just crazy enough something great is bound to happen!”

Instead we need to move to a kind of emergent discovery of loosely managed safe to fail activities that explore ideas in novel spaces. And that takes time.

Photo by Aron Visuals on Unsplash

When Everything Is A Crisis, Nothing Is

Who would win in a fight between the housing crisis in one corner and monkeypox in another?

We live in a world that now has competing, intersecting, and sometimes conflicting crises.

There are the old standards like the climate crisis, and the health crisis (now inflated to a national emergency by Rishi Sunak). The long term housing crisis is now so bad we need to consider 50 year mortgages. Then there’s the new kids on the block: the food crisis, the energy crisis and the cost of living crisis.

And let’s not forget the latest global health emergency Monkeypox , to add to the other two: the coronavirus pandemic and the continuing effort to eradicate polio.

That’s six crises and three health emergencies. Then there’s the small matter of a war in Europe. There are probably more crises you could add dependent on your sector or particular hobby horse. Prison crisis? Immigration crisis? Debt crisis?

Are we truly doomed, or in danger of exaggerating everything to crisis level?

When I say exaggerating in no way do I mean to downplay their individual seriousness. But I wonder if by turning everything into a crisis or an emergency we reduce people’s ability to pay attention to them. Or worse, diffuse efforts to actually tackle them.

Language is important. To most of us when we think of emergency we’d be thinking immediate threat to life like a house fire or a car crash. The seriousness and immediacy of a problem means the speed and approach of response is vastly different.

The change of language to refer to a climate crisis rather than talk about climate change was deliberate. Back in 2019 the Guardian noted that:

“Climate emergency” or “climate crisis” should be used instead of “climate change” as climate change is no longer considered to accurately reflect the seriousness of the overall situation”.

That makes sense, but it seems strange to claim equivalence for , say, Monkeypox given the latter is largely confined to men who have sex with men and at this point has only killed 5 people in Africa.

I’ll suggest that the repeated use of the word crisis is perhaps applied a little too liberally. Indeed, the tendency to call any issue a crisis can mean we overlook opportunities for innovation.

In a crisis everyone knows the worst thing you can do is panic. The second worst thing you can do in a crisis is to throw money at the problem.

By labelling everything a crisis we risk doing both those things.

It often takes the reality of a genuine crisis to shake an organisation out of complacency. It can boost courage and give us the impetus to take actions that would be unthinkable in times of calm.

Writing for MITSloan, Elsbeth Johnson and Fiona Murray identify five interdependent conditions that characterize a crisis and boost innovation.

  • A crisis provides a sudden and real sense of urgency.
  • This urgency enables organizations to drop all other priorities and focus on a single challenge, reallocating resources as needed.
  • With this singular focus and reallocated resources, it’s now everybody’s job to come together to solve the problem, bringing a new diversity of viewpoints and perspectives.
  • This urgency and singular focus legitimizes what would otherwise constitute “waste,” allowing for more experimentation and learning.
  • Because the crisis is only temporary, the organization can commit to a highly intense effort over a short period of time.

By their definition many of the issues I’ve mentioned aren’t actual crises but are longer term systemic issues. How many of our organisations – if any – have ‘dropped all over priorities’ to focus on a single challenge. Answers in the comments section please!

Let’s look at some real innovation , in a real crisis.

The publication of the genetic sequence of COVID-19 in early January 2020 triggered the mobilisation of an international response to find a vaccine. The fast tracking of clinical trials and regulatory processes achieved in less than 12 months what conventionally takes more than ten years.

Anne White highlights some lessons we should take from this:

More collaboration. In nearly every case, meaningful progress against Covid-19 has been the result of multiple organisations working together with a unified mission.

Rethinking user research. Social distancing measures and the lockdowns could have been a barrier to clinical trials (participants couldn’t travel nor could you go to their home) , but the use of new technology and thinking differently about user engagement meant a wider, more geographically diverse, set of participants could be reached.

Better integration of digital technologies. Existing and readily available technology – video conferencing and chat apps for instance – were used to engage participants and share results. Data analytics were used to speed up vaccine development by enabling more efficient design of experiments and by creating rapid-scale production rollout processes.

Three things: collaboration, user research, digital tech as an accelerant of learning. This should be used as Innovation 101 for all our organisations going forward.

Let’s not confuse a crisis for demand issues that are often self created over decades. Many of our issues are a result of complex problems , including our way of life, societal and environmental change, and even a lack of personal responsibility.

Conflating issues into catch all crises mean it is possible to ignore the systemic issues which created them. It also means we are predisposed to adopt a silo position in attempts to solve them. Why should the NHS colleagues I was talking to a couple of weeks ago care about the housing crisis when they’ve got a health emergency with a myriad subset of crises – mental health, obesity, ageing – to deal with?

Injecting billions of pounds into crises may give some short term relief but won’t tackle the root cause or return us to a golden age. The past leads to the present. The road we went down got us here.

Widespread use of the word crisis robs it of any power and results in , at best, confusion and at worst lethargy.

By calling problems all the same we risk dealing with them all the same. Or worse, doing nothing because when everything is a crisis nothing really is.

Photo by Luke White on Unsplash

Do Poor People Waste Money More Than Anyone Else?

Ever since I first started working in social housing, there’s been one trope that’s never really gone away.

Poor people waste money.

I was only a week into my first job when I was told that tenants kept spending money on satellite TV and we should ‘stop them’ for their own good.

I’ve heard it again in the past few weeks as millions of low income families receive a cost of living payment designed to help with rising prices, and soaring energy bills. Won’t people just spend it on frivolous stuff like a BBQ, a party or a holiday?

The evidence for this is often informed purely through ‘big TV theory’. This is the belief that most people on low incomes ‘have a bigger TV than I do’.

It was popularised in the quote by the US motivational speaker and (snake oil) salesman Zig Ziglar ‘Rich people have small TVs and big libraries, and poor people have small libraries and big TVs.’

Quotes like these are horrible oversimplifications of complex problems like income inequality – and lead to stigmatization rather than any positive solution.

First of all, let’s acknowledge there is a grain of truth in this thinking. People on limited financial resources crave the same things we all do, and not all those things are good for them. In The Road To Wigan Pier, George Orwell asks a family to list their weekly expenditure and finds half of it goes on “appalling” food high in fats and sugars -at the expense of fruit or vegetables. To use his phrase this is the “peculiar evil” of poverty, when it comes to diet, the less money you have, the less inclined you are to spend it on”good wholesome food”.

However, more generally, there is little evidence that when people are given a cash boost they will waste it.

The charity GiveDirectly has done a lot of work on this, mainly in East Africa. The idea behind it is simple. Poor people know what they need, and if you give them money they can buy it. Poor people don’t need middle men or women to tell them what is a ‘good’ and appropriate use of money.

To test this out researchers From MIT’s Poverty Action Lab did an experiment. They surveyed people in Kenya who received money from GiveDirectly, and a similar group of people who didn’t get money.

Johannes Haushofer, one of the study’s co-authors said “We don’t see people spending money on alcohol and tobacco. Instead we see them investing in their kids’ education, we see them investing in health care. They buy more and better food.” People used the money to buy cows and start businesses. Their kids went hungry less often.

Getting money made people happier, less stressed out.

Why would we think otherwise?

Work from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has shown us that attitudes towards those on low incomes are often more negative than attitudes toward the ‘rich’.  In a study 69% of participants agreed that ‘there is enough opportunity for virtually everyone to get on in life if they really want to. It comes down to the individual and how much you are motivated.’

This narrative circulates because we scrutinise the apparent life choices of the poor in ways in which we just don’t for the rich. Why have they got the latest trainers and an iPhone?

Across a series of 11 studies involving more than 4,000 participants, Serena Hagerty and Kate Barasz from Harvard Business School found that we tend to believe lower-income people need less than those on higher incomes, and that this in turn restricts our perceptions about what is acceptable for this group to buy.

In one study, participants could help a hypothetical family decide what to buy. Participants who read that the family was on a low income were much less likely to allocate money to “low permissibility” products like a television than those in the high-income condition. And when deciding whether to gift a low-income individual either a $100 food voucher or a $200 electronics voucher, only 25% of participants went for the latter, even though it was worth twice as much.

This helps explain how stigma takes hold – we’re much more willing to scrutinise — or even dictate — how people on lower incomes spend their money compared to those on higher incomes.

It’s an uncomfortable truth that many of us working in the social sector share exactly these same prejudices about poor people as everybody else. Recognising this is the first step to tackling any stigma.

Part of it is because of the demand led, deficit based system we have set up. If a system computes that the less you own the more likely you are to be a problem you’re on the first step to creating stigma. The organisational algorithm predicts that the lower your educational attainment, your income, the more insecure your background, the more likely you are to be a drain on its services.

There is no single silver bullet here to tackling stigma. However we can stop thinking of people as problems to be solved. We can move away from focusing on what’s wrong and designing systems around that.

And we can stop dictating how people spend their money.

Photo by Christine Roy on Unsplash

The More We Reduce Conversation, The More We Increase Demand

A few weeks ago I visited a GP surgery with a family member to discuss a few issues that had been bothering them. They were told – with no uncertainty – that they shouldn’t attempt to discuss more than one issue per appointment as they were limited to 10 minutes. It was stated that there was “no way anyone can deal with more than a single issue” within that time frame.

A letter in the British Journal of General Practice back in 2015 discusses the limitations of the 10 minute appointment. “When a patient’s problem(s) are not able to be safely and effectively dealt with in a 10-minute appointment there are only three possible outcomes: the problems are not adequately dealt with, they are dealt with but take longer than 10 minutes, or the patient is asked to make a further appointment.”

Indeed, as John Seddon has pointed out: ‘The effect of the rationing system is to make those in need keep presenting (creating demand that is not
going to be satisfied) until their problem becomes serious enough.’

Watching the GP at work I was reminded of the chapter in Radical Help where Hilary Cottam shadows Ryan, a recently qualified social worker, and observes that 74% of his time is spent on administration and recording and only 14% of the time with families he is meant to be supporting. She describes the question and answer session with one of his clients as being more like a ‘tetchy interview’ than a conversation.

You don’t have to be a service designer to be able to recognise when a system that was set up to serve the end user has flipped and is now in service to the system itself.

Last week a few colleagues and I had the opportunity to speak to a number of NHS leaders about Bromford neighbourhood coaching. The model focuses on spending time in the community, building connections through conversation, and has ‘caseloads’ about 70% smaller than the industry average.

I recounted that when I started working in housing you had one community visit day each week and the rest of the time (80%) was spent on office administration. Your ‘visit days’ were purely reactive , responding to things that had gone wrong during the other four days. I remember serving six notice of seeking possessions (effectively a threat to remove someone from their home) on a Friday afternoon, leaving some poor folk worrying all weekend with no way of contacting anyone.

The system had taken over from the original organisational purpose.

During the NHS session two of our coaches , Amy and Sinead, told powerful stories about what individuals and communities had achieved when relational approaches had been used that start – not with a 10 minute appointment or a form being filled in – but with a conversation. Rather than adding things (specialist teams, additional budgets, new policies, more ‘professionals’) they talked of fostering community connections, bringing people together to solve problems and empowering individuals to do things for themselves rather than being done to.

Amy told us of a resident who had been a tenant for over 30 years but had never been spoken to by their landlord in anything other than transactional terms. Through a conversation about her interests she was now running a community gardening club and looking after neighbours pets whilst they were in hospital. Sinead told us about bringing together a group of young mothers who individually had been dependent on antidepressants but when brought together collectively to plan community events and support each other had been able to move on from prescription medication.

Rather than just performing the transactional role of a professional they were strengthening the core elements that make up a community.

It’s not easy to change people’s mindsets from managing to connecting. It’s not easy to remove the scripts, policies and rules we have built around our institutions that suffocate creativity. It means investing in people and giving them the space to think and act differently. It means giving people permission to challenge preconceived practices and ‘rules’.

The social sector cries about being overwhelmed by demand but it is an entirely self created problem. Our services focus on needs rather than strengths, and as a result we have fostered dependency which in turn leads to increased demand.

Enlightened organizations know that people focused services build on existing strengths and promote responsibility instead.

The biggest problems we have across the social sector will not be solved by pouring more money on them. We need to rebuild the sector using the power of conversation and relationships. And you can’t do that in 10 minutes.

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

How To Make A Paradigm Shift

Last week I was in Amsterdam with the Disruptive Innovators Network (you can read my daily updates, here, here, and here) and it got me thinking about how we make the shift from current behaviours and ways of operating.

Travelling across the city you’d think Amsterdam had been designed in a lab rather than being a place that has evolved over 746 years. It’s great to walk around, there are no traffic jams, and there’s an easy and cheap to use train, metro and tram system. 

And then there’s the bikes. The Netherlands boasts 22,000 miles of cycle paths. More than a quarter of all trips are made by bicycle, compared with less than 2% in the UK – and this rises to over 38% in Amsterdam. 

Amsterdam wasn’t built that way – in fact less than 50 years ago the city was at risk of being overrun by cars.

So how did they change? The Dutch understood design thinking and that just because you build something people don’t automatically follow. It wasn’t enough to just provide cycle lanes, you had to make cyclists feel as safe as if they were in a car. And that meant rebalancing the power of the automobile. This has been done through wider cycle lanes protected from traffic and design principles. Many of the shared spaces – where cars do not rule – adhere to Hans Monderman’s theory that increasing traffic regulations reduces personal responsibility, the need for drivers and pedestrians to pay attention to what is happening around them.

The Dutch have successfully taken a problem and innovated around it, completely changing people’s behaviours NOT by penalising them, but through creating a more fulfilling and pleasant way to live.

Moving away from a culture of convenience

As humans we have become more and more impatient, demanding immediacy and instant gratification through increasingly digital and frictionless experiences. Convenience is now the driving factor when making purchases in our digital economy and it comes at a price.

In April 2020 Amsterdam became the first municipality in the world to publish a City Doughnut – a vision to emerge from COVID-19 as a city that ensures a good life for everyone. The vision is to transition Amsterdam into a circular city, adopting a smarter approach to managing scarce raw materials, production and consumption, and creating more jobs for everyone.

Why is it called a doughnut? It’s inspired by a 2012 Oxfam report by Kate Raworth. This was later developed in her book Doughnut Economics: seven ways to think like a 21st century economist.

For example, one of the venues was Circl restuarant which is shaped like a doughnut and is the centre of a movement to spread circular economy principles. Accordingly they start at the end – cooking with what’s leftover. Stale bread, leftover fruit and veg from supermarkets. Chefs adhere to circular principles and fight against food waste every day. They use sustainable cooking techniques such as preserving and fermenting in the kitchen.

The building itself is pretty impressive. Built around circularity principles, it reuses the fabric of company uniforms as heat and sound insulation; and you only get your coffee if you learn sign language to communicate with a deaf Ukrainian refugee. (I learned cappuccino – by far the easiest).

Additionally we heard about demolition crews being reframed as urban miners. Amsterdam (or any other town, city or estate) can be viewed as an urban mine with a wealth of metals such as aluminum, copper, gold and steel contained within its built environment. It is less costly to mine urban buildings and structures such as high-rise buildings for steel, cables for copper, window frames for aluminum and phones for gold. Nothing is ‘waste’.

What’s clear for me is the ambition here goes way beyond the minimum standard/box ticking approach to ‘sustainability’ we have in much of the UK. Paradigm shift is when a big chunk of a community swaps their old conceptions for new ones. That’s what is happening here.

One of the reasons that the wheels are starting to come off the Net Zero wagon is that it has quite a pessimistic message, asking people to give things up rather than live better lives. Now we’re all more literate about climate change we’re also more aware of greenwashing and virtue signalling activism. When tobacco companies outperform Tesla or a social non-profit on their environmental and social goals people stop believing in them.


We form a paradigm through the set of concepts we accept and the actions we take repeatedly. A paradigm shift occurs when the prevailing mental model has so many anomalies that it breaks and a new sense of the world is formed.

Today in the UK marks the 15th anniversary of the introduction of smokefree law, protecting people from secondhand smoke in restaurants, pubs, bars, shops, offices and workplaces. To anyone under 30 reading this it’s probably inconceivable for you to imagine a reality where you could sit smoking a cigarette in the cinema or even on an airplane. That reality existed: I know because I grew up in it.

It’s worth watching Elon Musk’s 2 minute explanation of First Principle thinking which allows you to make change in clear leaps, rather than building small improvements onto something that already exists. Musk gives an example of the first automobile. While everyone else was trying to improve horse-drawn carriages, someone looked at the fundamentals of transportation and the combustion engine in order to create a car.

Reality can shift quickly if enough people break the model of what is possible.

What are the mental models that your organisation holds onto today that could be vanquished tomorrow?

Cover Photo by Daria Nepriakhina 🇺🇦 on Unsplash

How To Make A Manager Receptive To Your Idea

According to Gallup , only 30% of employees strongly agree that their opinions seem to count at work – and less than 1 in 10 report having the freedom to take risks to improve products and services.

Amy Edmondson is correct when she says this a terrible state of affairs – with the dial hardly shifting on this for over a decade. It’s something that may have been acceptable back in 1922 on a production line which was all about volume, precision and sticking to a rigid one size fits all . The Henry Ford quote “A customer can have a car painted any colour that he wants, so long as it is black.” became iconic because it it exemplifies an era in which any interference or opinion from the customer or employee brought the system to a stand still.

One hundred years later though, most of us not are employed in such rigid roles and customer demand and employee expectation have changed beyond all recognition.

So why is management not receptive to ideas – and what can we do about it?

1 – an idea in search of a problem

Many of us have a bias towards getting quick answers. We favour execution rather than contemplation. 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 providing solutions— even if they happen to be the wrong ones.

Ideas are far more persuasive to management when they are rooted to a really wicked problem that costs the organisation time and money.

2 – The Idea Isn’t Fully Formed

There’s a reason the boss might not be enthused about your latest idea. Great ideas are almost never born fully formed. They usually start off half-baked. It’s only when you share them with others, challenge them, refine them, start building them, that they start to develop into something meaningful.

Pitching a half formed idea too early is likely to ruin your credibility – so take your time.

3 – The Idea Doesn’t Have team support

Ideas for most of us will require collaboration with others. Musician Brian Eno talked about a ‘scenius’ as a counter to the myth of the lone genius or innovator. Under this model great ideas are formed from the intelligence of a whole operation or group of people. These people support each other, steal and refine each other’s work and contribute their own ideas.

Doing this has the added bonus of forming a larger number or people invested in the idea. The more people involved, the more persuasive it is to management.

It’s worth reading Kevin Kelly’s exploration of the Eno approach and the key factors:

  • Mutual appreciation — Risky moves are applauded by the group, subtlety is appreciated, and friendly competition goads the shy. Scenius can be thought of as the best of peer pressure.
  • Rapid exchange of tools and techniques — As soon as something is invented, it is flaunted and then shared. Ideas flow quickly because they are flowing inside a common language and sensibility.
  • Network effects of success — When a record is broken, a hit happens, or breakthrough erupts, the success is claimed by the entire scene. This empowers the scene to further success.
  • Local tolerance for the novelties — The local “outside” does not push back too hard against the transgressions of the scene. The renegades and mavericks are protected by this buffer zone.

4 – the idea isn’t simple enough

I was listening to Michio Kaku talk about how great ideas should be visual and simple. “Einstein once said, ‘If a theory cannot be explained to a child, then the theory is probably worthless’. Meaning that great ideas are pictorial. Great ideas can be explained in the language of pictures. Things that you can see and touch, objects that you can visualize in the mind.”

Complicated ideas have a tendency to fall apart, because people can not describe them accurately or consistently.

Try pitching a simple idea that you can execute brilliantly.

5 – You haven’t generated enough ideas

The physicist Linus Pauling, a two-time Nobel prizewinner, gave us a great principle: if you want to have good ideas, you must have lots of ideas and learn to throw away the bad ones.

It’s always tempting to pitch your first idea which is often your worst idea. The skill is to generate lots and abandon most of them.

The Pauling Principle implies three important things:

  • You must be willing to generate many ideas
  • You must be willing to generate bad ideas
  • You must become skilled at idea selection not just generation

If you’ve followed all these AND got some data about the cost of the problem you should have enough evidence to get backing behind your idea.

And if you don’t succeed there is one final option:

Find a better boss.

Image by Alexas_Fotos from Pixabay

Do People Really Want Community-Led Solutions?

Trust in national politics appears to be tanking across the board – both blurring and eroding traditional allegiances to the left or right.

63% of people now believe politicians are mainly in it for themselves. Most strikingly, only 5% (one in 20) believe they are in it for their country’s best interests.

Does the answer lie locally? Some polling and focus group research from New Local seems to indicate so:

Polling found trust in national politicians at a catastrophic low, with a lack of faith in Westminster to help solve the cost of living crisis, deliver Levelling Up, or address issues in the NHS.

But we also found a warmth and appetite for community-led solutions, with large proportions in favour of devolving power away from central government and towards the people living with the impact of these crises.

It’s no surprise that the idea that good decisions are made closest to the people they affect attracts broad support. Three-quarters of people polled judged community-led decisions as both better and more cost-efficient.

But can we trust this kind of research? Do people just say that they’d like more local control, that they’d like to take over the local green space, that they’d help run the school given the opportunity, because it sounds like the right, virtuous, thing to do?

What people say in focus groups is often markedly different from how they behave in practice.

For instance it’s common for people to opine in group settings that the media don’t share positive news. What sort of person would say they want more bad news? However research has shown that negative news content, in comparison with positive news content, tends to increase both arousal and attentiveness. Newsstand magazine sales increase by 30% when the cover is negative rather than positive – the death of Princess Diana and the 9/11 attacks were fantastic days for newspaper sales. In comparison, one “good news day” resulted in a 66% decrease in readership in an online newspaper.

Contributing to the local community is indeed a popular idea , upwards of 90% of people express an intention to do it but statistically less than a third of us actually do. Like physical exercise or eating your five a day, everyone knows volunteering is good for them, but a high proportion of us show a degree of inertia in walking the talk.

And when we do finally get an opportunity to exercise our democratic right locally – the results are underwhelming. Only half the people who vote in a General Election bother to vote for the local equivalent.

So, on the face of it, it could be that the ‘warmth and appetite for community solutions’ that New Local talk about is wishful thinking.

I’m not so sure.

People don’t vote in local elections precisely because they don’t see sufficient local impact. The mechanisms we employ are from the 19th Century never mind the 21st.

One of the issues with Big Government is that it very quickly moves from Big Problems to Silver Bullet Solutions in a way that local networks would not be able to. Locally, everything has to be more specific, more contextual, more nuanced.

  • There is a growing movement of asset based thinking and the rise of a community of connected care.
  • There is a role for social technologies in helping us have more open and transparent conversations with communities about local decision making.
  • There is opportunity for hyperlocal journalism to help residents reinterpret their communities instead of relying on external, unaccountable forces.
  • There is a desire for a move away from a system where ‘professionals’ cast themselves as a superhero capable of solving all of society’s problems.

It’s no surprise there is such pessimism at national level. As Matt Ridley observed, we are less pessimistic about our own lives and communities than we are about larger units. We’re not very pessimistic about our village, we are not pessimistic about our town – but we are very pessimistic about our country, and even more pessimistic about the future of our planet. The bigger the unit you look at the more pessimistic people are about it.

Our politicians at national level have shown themselves to be uniquely unqualified to prepare for a number of eminently predictable crises (pandemic, energy, health, the list goes on).

Maybe it’s time to hand over the baton?

Indeed, in periods of crisis the best way to get traction behind a new idea or alternative solution is to make it as local as possible.

Your own community is the best unit of change.

Photo by Elliott Stallion on Unsplash

Society Has Digital Transformed, But It Isn’t Evenly Distributed

We often blame innovations for the way they make our lives faster, busier, more intrusive, but in reality our core human behaviours and beliefs are slow to change.

Marchetti’s constant, named after Italian physicist Cesare Marchetti, is the principle that humans settled on a 30 minute commute time to work long ago, and no matter how much we innovate transport systems we rarely break it.

This nearly universal rule of human behaviour has been observed since Roman times. Whenever a new technology (the horse and cart, the tram, the train, the car, the plane) arrives that gets people to work at ever faster speeds, towns and cities typically grow outward in a donut formation, but not so far that commutes expand past one hour per day.

From Rome in AD 275 to Atlanta in 2010 our commute times have remained stable at 30 minutes, despite commutable distances growing substantially.

Therefore most workers have been tied to the city – until now.

In a brilliant and fateful piece written just before the pandemic Jonathan English writes that the greatest promise for matching technology to the modern worker has always been the idea of divorcing work from transportation entirely: telecommuting. 

The pandemic and our subsequent digital transformation has disrupted this pattern. As the folk at Quartz describe, post-Covid people who work in-person once or twice a week may be willing to tolerate a much longer commute. The 30-minute preference Marchetti observed likely has to do with time-budgeting rather than animal instincts, says English. But if you’re working from home most days of the week, that changes the math for the first time in history.

The fact it took a global health crisis to make us think about the cost of commuting is rather sad, and is picked apart in an excellent Twitter thread from James Plunkett.

I agree with him that this is”the best and most concrete example yet of a society-wide digital transformation playing out”. This is something we need to reflect upon, he notes, as when you do digital transformation in an organisation you use a whole set of tools and mechanisms to design a system and manage the change.

Society was afforded no such luxury. There were no Change Consultants or Project Managers – the transformation happened pretty much overnight. Over a third of us switched to working from home, shops converted to digital payments (in some cases switching off cash completely), a whole new demographic learned to order shopping online. The most basic establishments developed an app. Even QR codes made a comeback.

I rarely use cash but this week I was in Northern Ireland doing a talk on this very subject , and on arrival at the venue I paid the taxi driver with a £20 note. He looked at me quizzically and said “wow, we never use this anymore.” For one moment I thought they’d changed their currency.

Pay the wifi, heat the home or feed the kids?

The problem , and there is one, is this digital transformation has been anything but equal. In fact it has built on pre-existing inequalities, and even deepened some.

For instance, not all children had at-home internet access or WFH laptop parents able to homeschool them . Thousands of children (some suggest 130,000) in the UK never returned to education after the schools reopened. Worldwide the number could be 10 million although that figure seems wildly conservative given 5 million won’t return in Uganda alone.

There are similar inequalities at the other end of the age spectrum. Analysis from Age UK shows that the pandemic has not in fact produced a sea-change in over 75’s use of digital technology. In fact it has now turned into a kind of ‘digital deprivation’ as many services have shifted exclusively online.

Whilst over half of adults in the 25–34 age group say they would be willing to turn to digital means for all their spending, only 20% of over 65’s have a positive view of a cashless society. As ATMs become less used and disappear 50% of people report having problems accessing cash.

Also many of our organisations have still not shown ourselves to be digitally capable. Polling suggests a third of people are unconvinced about the long-term use of digital in the NHS amid a need for reassurance about data security.

So whilst we have undoubtedly digitally transformed our society , it is anything but evenly distributed. Many people were simply not ready to be transformed.

The pandemic has exposed and exacerbated digital inequality and the gaps that still exist in digital access and capability. Therefore we need to begin a dialogue about how can we achieve a more equitable digital transformation that takes in both age and income related inequalities.

We finally went digital, but for some people it doesn’t feel any better.

Photo by Jadon Kelly on Unsplash

The Case Against Collaboration

The challenge is not to cultivate more collaboration. Rather, it’s to cultivate the right collaboration

Morten T. Hansen

One of the most popular arguments for getting employees back to the office is about collaboration. We need to be on site, we’re told, because collaborating with one another has been harder to do when everyone is working from separate locations.

Even if that were true – and there is some evidence for it – we risk placing collaboration on some kind of pedestal. 

The time spent by managers and employees in collaborative activities has ballooned by 50% in recent years.

In truth most of the people you work with have nothing or very little to do with your work, yet collaboration with them – for more and more of the time – has become conventional business wisdom.

It’s partly this that has led to us all being meetinged and emailed to death. The mantra of sharing your work and involving everyone in decisions naturally leads to inviting and copying people into things that add no value to them, or you.

The involvement of more people doesn’t automatically mean more diversity of thought, or guarantee any productivity gains.

Work at MIT found that brainstorming —where a bunch of people put their heads together to try to come up with innovative solutions—generally “reduced creativity due to the tendency to incrementally modify known successful designs rather than explore radically different and potentially superior ones.”

Businesses love the idea of this kind of ‘collaboration’ as it involves a lot of people, is visible, and is seen as a quick route to solving a problem. There’s precious little evidence though that it produces meaningful results.

meta-analytic review of over 800 teams indicated that individuals are more likely to generate a higher number of original ideas when they don’t interact with others.

As Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic writes ‘brainstorming actually harms creative performance, resulting in a collective performance loss that is the very opposite of synergy.’ Despite overwhelming evidence it’s a waste of time it continues to be used because it feels intuitively right to do so.

Solitude: The Benefits of Being Alone

Few businesses place any value on purposeful thinking – as ‘thinking about stuff’ looks too much like loafing about. We are in a world that places a higher value on being busy than on thinking – but genuinely great companies only obsess over productivity – never busyness.

Many people are at their most creative during solitary activities like walking, relaxing or bathing, not when stuck in a room with people shouting at them from a whiteboard.

Indeed a study found that “solitude can facilitate creativity–first, by stimulating imaginative involvement in multiple realities and, second, by ‘trying on’ alternative identities, leading, perhaps, to self-transformation.”

Essentially just being around other people can keep creative people from thinking new thoughts.

Solitude is out of fashion – possibly because of its association with the physical and emotional effects of loneliness – but any business that values creativity should be considering how it can get better at facilitating solitude.

The Value of Introverts

People who like to spend time alone, or who are less comfortable in group situations, are decidedly at odds with today’s team-based organisational culture.

The danger is that with a focus on all-out collaboration you miss out on the creativity of introverts.

When I started group facilitation I learned two things very quickly:

  1. Introverts have some of the best ideas but often don’t feel very comfortable talking openly about them in a group setting.
  2. Extroverts are only too willing to share their ideas (in fact they rarely shut up about them) but are sometimes reluctant to listen to good ideas proposed by others.

Avoiding Mediocrity by Committee

Knowing when, and when not to, involve customers and colleagues is key.

Once you’ve unearthed radical ideas from people, they need nurturing. They need protecting from group-think meetings and committees who largely express speculated unevidenced opinions based on current preferences from past experiences.

As this post on HBR points out collaboration is indeed the answer to many of today’s most pressing business challenges but not everyone is good at it. Indeed, up to a third of value-added collaborations come from only 3% to 5% of employees.

So, collaboration is useful when you are:

  1. Dealing with complex problems that require multiple ‘expert’ opinions.
  2. Getting buy-in. People are more invested in an idea when they were involved in defining the problem.
  3. Dealing with strategic issues. The more fundamental the issue is to the organisations purpose the more essential collaboration becomes.

Collaboration isn’t useful when:

  1. You need to really think about things. This benefits from solitude and purposeful exploration.
  2. You need to be really radical. Truly disruptive thinking happens in very small deviant groups.
  3. You don’t have time. When you have a burning platform or require an immediate decision you’re better off being autocratic than wasting peoples time through ‘involvement theatre’.

The myth is, you have to collaborate all the time.

Inclusivity has its limits.

Image from Pexels

Top-Down Approaches Hit The Poorest First and Worst

The cost of lockdowns, poor energy policy and new sustainability initiatives are conspiring to hit the poorest first and worst.

I’ve just got back from Sri Lanka, a country that has had a lot to contend with since I was last there in 2017.

In 2019 a series of bombs ripped through churches and hotels on Easter Sunday, killing at least 290 people and injuring hundreds. Tourism collapsed overnight. One year later and the pandemic hit and the world went crazy – with a series of lockdowns causing the bottom to drop out of the travel industry.

Not many tears are shed when the travel industry suffers, particularly by the more extreme climate activists. What people forget is that many countries and communities depend on tourism. Revenues in Sri Lanka were estimated to have fallen to by $2.5 billion a year during the lockdowns, relative chump change to an economy like the UK, but pivotal to some countries.

And then, with the pandemic finally over the Sri Lankan Government officially declared the worst economic crisis in the country in 73 years.

So far this year the country has cancelled school exams for millions of students after running out of printing paper, hospitals are stopping surgery and as I started writing this post the shops over the road from us were contending with 13-hour electricity blackouts.

As the basics slip out of reach (the header photo was taken by me of a queue for kerosene) and even school buses can’t afford to run, Sri Lanka sits on a precipice.

A badly managed economy hasn’t been helped by the introduction of some ill-thought out initiatives.

In 2019 President Gotabaya Rajapaksa unveiled his grand vision for Sri Lanka: it would embrace sustainable food production and become a world leader in fully organic farming.

Problem was, not many of these new food production techniques had been fully tested. The ban on pesticides led to immediate protests by the farmers who complained about the lack of preparation to switch to an organic farming mode at such short notice. The general public became angry due to food inflation caused by the low yields. Though the policy has been reversed (sustainability rightly goes out the window when people can’t feed their kids) it’s too late, the effect of the ban will reduce the rice harvest in 2022 by an unprecedented 50%.

As much of the world struggles with an energy crisis there are lessons for many of us here. Lessons of self serving leaders creating policies completely out of touch with the requirements of normal folk. Lessons of people becoming obsessed with switching to new and unproven solutions that are not fully tested or evaluated.

Policies rarely succeed or fail on their own merits; rather their progress is dependent upon the process of implementation as well as their timing.

Across the world we now face an energy crisis at the exact same time as we should be addressing a climate crisis. This is a failure of planning and an illustration of the lack of strategic foresight that exists in much of our leadership.

Innovation rarely happens in one great leap, but rather in a series of incremental steps. The first solution is rarely the perfect one.

More forward thinking economies will often accept that rather than resist what may be an imperfect step-change solution. For example, in the United States fracking is seen as an innovation, but in the UK is seen as something to be avoided at all costs. As Matt Ridley has written our instinct is often to resist innovation, as with coffee, margarine, GM crops and fracking, though it’s a retrograde step.

The successful introduction of behaviour change has to be carefully timed.

How can you convince people to upgrade their heating systems at the exact same time as their fuel bills soar out of reach?

How is it a good idea to introduce a ban on buy one get one free offers on cheap food just as as the cost of living crisis peaks?

A lot of these sort of policies smack of the work of middle class think tank types who have little grounding in the world of the poor or working class. This is nothing new. Throughout The Road to Wigan Pier, first published in 1937, George Orwell  laid bare Britain’s north-south divide. This is a passage from Chapter 5, and if you exchange ‘since the war’ for ‘since the pandemic’ and adjust the prices for inflation this could be written in 2022.

Trade since the war has had to adjust itself to meet the demands of
underpaid, underfed people, with the result that a luxury is nowadays
almost always cheaper than a necessity. One pair of plain solid shoes costs
as much as two ultra-smart pairs. For the price of one square meal you can
get two pounds of cheap sweets. You can’t get much meat for threepence, but
you can get a lot of fish-and-chips. Milk costs threepence a pint and even
‘mild’ beer costs fourpence, but aspirins are seven a penny and you can
wring forty cups of tea out of a quarter-pound packet. And above all there
is gambling, the cheapest of all luxuries. Even people on the verge of
starvation can buy a few days’ hope (‘Something to live for’, as they call
it) by having a penny on a sweepstake. 

There’s a reason that many Government’s introduce policies banning BOGOF offers, mandating calorie counts on menus, phasing out cheap fuel sources or introducing taxes on sugar or alcohol. They look good and it is a lot easier to do those things than tackle the big elephant in the room. Poverty.

Whether in Sri Lanka or in the UK it would be an interesting social experiment if the people most economically disadvantaged by new policy measures were involved at the outset in the design of them.

But I guess that would be a bit too radical.

Is Digital Bureaucracy Making Us Less Productive?

Bureaucracy is the death of all sound work.

Albert Einstein.

Some context for this post: I’ve been doing some thinking recently about why people keep saying they are ‘too busy’.

Is busyness an indicator of having too much work to do, or a sign of a lack of empowerment?

Or is it a sign of working within an overly bureaucratic system?

Back in 2015 Aoife McLoughlin from James Cook University‘s Singapore campus published an interesting hypothesis. What if our very use of technology makes time appear to go faster? She found that those who were almost always online overestimated the amount of time that had passed compared to those who rarely used technology. A person sitting playing with their phone in a waiting room would estimate that an hour passed in just 50 minutes. And it wasn’t just those who used technology often – McLoughlin found that even people who read an advertisement for the latest iPad perceived time as passing more quickly than those who had read an excerpt from a novel. 

“It’s almost as though we’re trying to emulate the technology and be speedier and more efficient,” McLoughlin told ScienceAlert. “It seems like there’s something about technology itself that primes us to increase that pacemaker inside of us that measures the passing of time.”

Whilst feeling busy and the pace of life picking up is nothing new, we have more technology available to us than ever before – and whether you are home based or a field worker, your work life is a constant series of reminders and prompts – a smorgasbord of digital nagging to keep telling you some work is outstanding. Hurry up.

It’s my contention that we have created a new digital bureaucracy – where everyone can invade our most precious commodity: time.

Parkinson’s Law 1 – “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”.

Parkinson’s Law, named after historian C. Northcote Parkinson, states that work creates more work, gradually expanding to the point of filling the time available for its completion. Parkinson believed that bureaucracies always grow. Managers wish to appear busy, so they increase their workload by creating rules or things to be filled in. Then they hire more subordinates, who in turn require more managerial time for supervision.

The theory has been developed in recent years by the likes of Gary Hamel and Michele Zahini who posit some useful indicators of bureaucracy:

  • In a bureaucracy, your power and compensation are the product of head count and budget.
  • No one ever downsizes their empire voluntarily.
  • Every new challenge begets a new CxO or head office unit. These soon become permanent fixtures.
  • As the organization grows, more layers get added, and the ratio of managers to frontline team members creeps upward.
  • With every crisis, authority moves to the centre, and stays there.

And as bureaucracy grows stronger, those who might resist it grow weaker

The new digital bureaucracy

It’s now easier that ever to delegate a piece of work or a task for someone to do. The growth of RPA, and the introduction of robotic managers could make our work lives heaven or hell – with freshly designed e-learning for us all to complete each morning.

Writing in Diginomica, Chris Middleton points out that in the name of efficiency the UK Government has created 21,000 jobs across 46 departments in support of its digital, data, and AI ambitions – and run up large consultancy fees in the process.

As he says ‘is all this frenetic activity and internal job creation better for citizens? The signs aren’t necessarily good. After creating a colossal bureaucracy, the government has also sought to shift the onus back onto citizens and businesses in some cases.’

And there you have it. Far from digital being our saviour it could unleash a whole new series of tasks for us to do.

As Gerry McGovern has said – this is the problem with digital. We make it easy. We make is cheap or free. Production and consumption explode.

There is a solution here but ending the busyness cycle may not be something workers can do on their own. Ending digital bureaucracy means designing out the interruptions and the prompts, it means taking more personal responsibility instead of endlessly delegating it to others.

It means remembering that digital is an enabler rather than our manager.

Image licensed from Alfredo Martirena

Strategic Foresight and Escaping the Tyranny of the Present

Most of us struggle to imagine the future – even our future selves are complete strangers to us. Studies have shown that when we think about our own future we imagine ourselves as a wholly different person. 

This week I attended an event run by the Disruptive Innovators Network featuring the futurist Tracey Follows. She questioned how many organizations routinely scanned the horizon for future trends. Based on the attendance (a third of the number who attended a talk on digital transformation earlier in the week) I’m guessing ‘not many’. Which is ironic, as one of the reasons that many transformation programmes fail is the lack of any strategic foresight. The vision set at the outset is one of an imaginary future organization, not based in any kind of reality.

Strategic foresight is a structured way of using ideas about the future to anticipate and better prepare for change. It is about exploring different plausible futures that could arise, and the opportunities and challenges they could present.

We can all get better at thinking about the future by attempting to seek out what Vijay Govindarajan calls ‘weak signals’. These consist of emergent changes to technology, culture, the economy, and consumer tastes and behaviour.  Weak signals are hard to evaluate because they are incomplete, unsettled and unclear – they exist at the edge of our vision, if at all. 

Tracey outlined that you’ll almost never pick up a weak signal from the mainstream media. The clue is in the name, once it’s featured in the mainstream – it’s no longer weak. Importantly she reminded us that if we are thinking about what the future looks like we should also look to the past. If you’re imagining what the next 10 years look like, you need to be looking at the trends of the past 20.

How much of our organizational time , if any, is spent looking for clues to the future? Smart organisations know that these weak signals exist but also take active steps to detect them. Is the ping of the signals getting weaker, or becoming ever more incessant? 

One of the themes that I think is getting stronger is that of a decentralisation of power, of a desire amongst citizens for more control over their lives. This will likely only accelerate in the post-pandemic years as people seek to rebalance what has been an , arguably necessary, extension of state power into the running of our lives.

Already we are seeing this in the employment market – where people’s newly found commute-free working has led to a reconsideration around the role of work in their lives. Work isn’t quite as important. Employers have lost a degree of power over the individual. 

My interest is less in this and more in how this trend affects communities. How will a desire for more control and influence shape our future social sector?

Power doesn’t flow downstream naturally. Whereas the internet promised us decentralization and empowerment, what we actually ended up with was the collective of FAANG – the power pooling with a small collection of titans: Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix and Google. 

The Web 3.0 movement , the next generation of internet that heavily relies on the use of distributed ledgers, machine learning and artificial intelligence, has the potential to build a more sovereign and open internet.

So how does this affect us? Well let’s just look at the social housing sector for example. 

There were more than 1,600 social housing providers registered in the United Kingdom in 2021 the largest share of which are non-profit (1,356), followed by local authorities at 215 and for-profit companies at 53. 

That’s 1,600 HR departments and CEOs. 1,600 different ways of forming policies and vying for homes and delivering services in a sector that exists to solve the same shared problems.  This puts an enormous amount of power in the hands of organisations rather than citizens.

What decentralisation might bring is an realization that organisations should scale back, doing only what they do best, partnering with others and delegating to the consumer through decentralized applications and blockchain infrastructure.  

In the future we may no longer be stuck with the choice between the public sector and the private sector. The citizen sector should be recognised as a viable, industrial force. We saw this in the original vaccine rollout where the NHS partnered with private suppliers and community groups to deliver a haphazard , but brilliantly effective supply chain. 

As J. Peter Scoblic has said, strategic foresight doesn’t help us figure out what to think about the future. It helps us figure out how to think about it.

Things take longer to happen than you think they will, but happen much faster than you expect.  Those weak signals are getting stronger and louder all the time.

Why We Try To Solve Problems By Adding Complexity

“Most geniuses—especially those who lead others—prosper not by deconstructing intricate complexities but by exploiting unrecognized simplicities.”

Andy Benoit

When companies want to change they almost always add something to the mix. A new team, a new senior leader, a new process, a new system.

We’re obsessed with adding new elements as a way of attempting to solve problems.

That’s why, at Bromford, we created a design principle that mandated that as we add something new we should also decommission something old.

I would be lying to you if I said it was wholly successful. It seems that when we want to change something, we are predispositioned to add things rather than subtract.

The authors of an article for HBR go some way to confirming this. They found that even when stakeholders suggested hundreds of ways to improve an organization, fewer than 10% of those improvements involved taking something away. Across a series of experiments, they found ‘that people systematically overlook subtractive changes, instead following their instincts to add’. They go on to say that ‘there is nothing inherently wrong with adding. But if it becomes a business’s default path to improvement, that business may be failing to consider a whole class of other opportunities’.

So, to improve a piece of writing, few participants in experiments produced an edit with fewer words. To improve a jam-packed travel itinerary, few removed events to allow them to enjoy the trip more. To improve a Lego structure, almost no one took pieces away.

Humans solve problems by adding complexity, even when it’s against our best interests.

In Subtract: The Untapped Science of Less, Leidy Klotz describes why we do this. Often it is just signalling that we’ve done something, our innate desire to add our impression and build upon what has gone before. As he says “The problem is that it can be harder to show competence by subtracting….No matter how beneficial an act of subtraction is, it’s not likely to leave as much evidence of what we’ve done.”

Seemingly, subtraction is not the way to climb the corporate hierarchy.

When Less = More

Subtractive design is the process of removing imperfections and extraneous parts in order to strengthen the core elements.

Many of you will know that during the 1980s and 1990s, the Dutch engineer Hans Monderman conducted a series of radical experiments on how road traffic could be managed. He stripped them of signs and other traffic controls in the belief that if drivers and pedestrians are confused, they are likely to behave more cautiously. And the evidence suggests that he was correct.

Chaos = Cooperation?

At the time, most of his colleagues believed in adding more traffic controls on the grounds that the better informed drivers and pedestrians were about the condition of the roads and how to use them, the safer they would be.

Monderman’s theory was that increasing traffic regulations reduces personal responsibility

As he said “The trouble with traffic engineers is that when there’s a problem with a road, they always try to add something. To my mind, it’s much better to remove things.”

What looks like chaos can sometimes produce cooperation.

When we first designed the role of the Neighbourhood Coach that was principle we attempted to follow. What if we stripped away the policies and the procedures, the rules and regulations, the back office support colleagues and stripped a role back so it could perform its purpose unfettered of bureaucracy and interference?

A couple of weeks ago I got to go out with one of our coaches , Amy, in a neighbourhood I’d worked in about 15 years ago. It was what we once called a “Bronze Estate” , one of those places that was beset by a range of social problems and the resultant indicators of high rent arrears and anti-social behaviour.

What was clear to me is that Amy was succeeding where we had failed. Rather than adding things (specialist teams, additional budgets, new policies, more ‘professionals’) she was fostering community connections, bringing people together to solve problems and empowering individuals to do things for themselves rather than being done to.

She was strengthening the core elements rather than adding in new and temporary resources.

We often find it easier to face a complex problem than a simple one. However, by taking time to seek out those unrecognised simplicities and resisting the temptation to add more stuff we may solve those problems in an easier and much more sustainable way.

Header image by CongerDesign

Are We Really Becoming More Distracted At Work?

Rather than blame technology we should accept that we over-value noise and activity, and under-value silence and contemplation.

According to a BBC piece a recent study found 20% of UK workers reported difficulties switching off from work and feeling ‘always on’ as they struggle to adapt to hybrid working and the permeable boundaries between home and work. Hybrid, it seems, can come with a greater risk of digital presenteeism with people feeling they need to prove themselves to eagle eyed bosses by being constantly available.

Like everything else that’s happened during the pandemic, this is just revealing what was already hiding in plain sight, the way we work is badly designed, if it’s ever been designed at all.

Workplace distraction is nothing new. Over fifteen years ago a study by Dr Gloria Mark and her researchers found that the average employee was interrupted by a colleague, email or phone call every 3 minutes and 5 seconds. Then they looked at device switching between the PC, the desk phone, any kind of paper document, the mobile phone. They found the average amount of time that people spent working on a device before switching was 2 minutes and 11 seconds.

This was before the smartphone. Before Microsoft Teams, Slack or instant messaging. Why would any of this have got any better?

A lot of people are talking about Stolen Focus, the new book  by Johann Hari in which he writes about our diminishing ability to focus, and what it means for our future. There’s a lot to like in the bits I’ve read of it even though the main thesis of the book, that technology is shortening our attention span, isn’t supported by a great amount of actual evidence.

True, technology is deliberately designed to distract because that’s the key to profitability. When we’re looking at our screens, Facebook and Google make money. When we’re not, they are thinking of new ways to drag us back.

However, people have made the argument that technology is messing up our brains before. They did it when radio was invented, and the cinema, and TV, and video games. And still we thrive.

If anyone is to blame for the distractions in the modern workplace it’s us. We were the ones who have rolled out tool after tool whilst never thinking to switch any of them off. We’ve been cheerleaders for agile working and have ushered in a maelstrom of constant interruptions from interaction tools in which we are all expected to respond to in real time.

If you can’t respond straight away you’re expected to broadcast your presence. As Jason Fried writes stay “away” (which most often actually means you’re working, but don’t want to be bothered) and people begin to question if you’re at work at all. Leave “away” on too long and you’re seen as unreliable. As he says, everyone’s status should be implicit: I’m trying to do my job, please respect my time and attention.

This way of working – constant interruption by external stimuli – is termed “continuous partial attention”. Simultaneous attention is given to a number of sources of incoming information, but only at a very superficial level.

This is destructive to achieving any sort of ‘flow’ – the state of consciousness where we feel our best and perform our best.

Steven Kotler writes that in a 10-year study,  executives reported being five times more productive in flow. This means, if you can spend Monday in flow, you’ll get as much done as everyone else does in a week.

The real issue here is how we design the future of work – rather than letting management and technology dictate what that looks like through a constant series of app notifications, prompts, and email reminders.

Why Time—and Silence—Is So Important

In a thought provoking piece Stowe Boyd writes that we need to learn to balance time with other people—which tends toward noise, but still can be high value—against time alone, which tends toward silence. ‘Fast gets all the attention, slow has all the power’.

One of the issues I have with agile working (which never feels very agile funnily enough) is the presumption that teams using agile methods get things done faster. And fast is always good.

Fetishising speed results in just hurrying up. And once going fast is on the table, things quickly start falling off.

It’s time to stop being slave to speed, to seeing technology and apps and digital transformations as saviours of our time. On this I’m very much with Johann Hari – they give us the illusion of saving time whilst stealing it from us.

We must remember there is no evidence human attention spans are shrinking. If we want to concentrate we can.

The new Batman film runs to nearly 180 minutes, the longest of the franchise.

The latest Jordan Peterson interview with Joe Rogan is 4hr 13 minutes.

I’m about 16 hours into the campaign mode of Halo Infinite.

If something is worthy of attention we give it our attention. The question is whether we think our work is worthy – and whether we give ourselves and each other the space and time to do it well.

Photo by Hugh Han on Unsplash

Can We Really Trust People To Do The Right Thing?

TLDR: the answer is yes

Believing in the good of humanity is a revolutionary act – it means that we don’t need all those managers and CEOs, kings and generals. That we can trust people to govern themselves and make their own decisions.

Rutger Bregman

It looks like this pandemic is, for the UK at least, coming to end. In terms of a narrative arc the story of Covid-19 started with people stockpiling toilet roll, hand sanitiser and eggs and ended with confirmation of something we had guessed long ago – that those who create the rules for the little folk rarely stick to them.

People really are shit aren’t they? Left to our own devices social order breaks down and we reveal ourselves to be self-centred, selfish and uncaring.

Except there’s little evidence that’s the case.

Whilst the media has delivered us a daily stream of bad behaviour – with even community street parties being weaponised as deadly super spreader events – the real story of the pandemic has been one of mass cooperation.

It’s not just the traditional media who told us how bad we were. Facebook and Twitter were full of pictures of ‘covidiots’ – a term that came to be used by both anti-lockdowners and the proponents of Zero Covid.

How people truly behave is never revealed by looking at the extremes. True – there have been anti-vaxxers intimidating kids outside schools and disrupting test centres. And there have also been mask fetishists who wear face coverings outside when on their own, alone in cars, even in their social media profiles. These people though are outliers, to be used as totems of idiocy by both sides of the argument that Covid isn’t really a big deal/or is a potential destroyer of humanity.

The vast, the overwhelming, majority of people were in neither of these camps. Most of us took it seriously, cooperated and followed the rules as we wanted to look after each other. The jury is out on whether such severe lockdowns were needed as there is evidence that people were modifying their behaviour before many governments introduced restrictions. Sweden, both praised and vilified for its “light touch” stance during the pandemic adopted a mass cooperation rather than mass restriction approach and is , at best, no worse off because of it.

Also the mathematical models that led to the most drastic restrictions have now been revealed to be exclusively bad scenarios based on the worst of us, never assuming that people would self-regulate their behaviour without enforcement.

Many would argue that this approach was necessary in a pandemic, that we couldn’t take the risk – and there is some merit to point of view. However, this is not a sustainable or even ethical way to form future public or social policy.

How Humans Really Behave

According to Rutger Bregman we have a rather pessimistic view – not of ourselves, but of everyone else. Without rules and leadership we are days away from anarchy. It’s been named “veneer theory” – the idea that just below the surface, our bestial nature is waiting to break out.

His research on over 200,000 years of human history counters this and shows that in reality we are hardwired to be kind, cooperative and caring. He has talked about how during the pandemic we have seen an explosion of cooperation and altruism with people organising stuff from the bottom up.

In his book Humankind he recounts numerous examples from history that show disasters don’t cause us to descend a few rungs on the ladder of civilisation, but often bring out the best in us. The media stories of looting, stockpiling are usually true, but selective – highlighting the behaviour of the outliers.

He writes that during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina we didn’t see New Orleans descend into complete chaos. In fact in seven hundred field tests following disasters since 1963 it’s never every man for himself. Catastrophe brings out the best in people.

As an explainer he quotes from Rebecca Solnit “elite panic comes from powerful people who see all humanity in their own image” and notes that “dictators and despots all too often resort to brute force to prevent scenarios that exist only in their own heads, on the assumption that the average Joe is ruled by self interest, just like them”

Exactly that. The people making the rules assumed the worst of us because that’s how they would behave if they were left to their own devices. And behind closed doors left to their own devices that’s precisely what they did.

This isn’t a lesson just for the politicians – it’s relevant to any of us who work with the public. If your job involves you encouraging someone to take a vaccine, to eat more healthily , to exercise more, to look after their home, to pay their rent or mortgage – there are lots of lessons from the past two years.

People can do good things, and more often than not that’s what they do when things are explained to them. The more we impose top-down rules and directives the more we risk paternalism or even authoritarianism.

If all we did was view how people behave slightly less cynically, maybe we’d create a much more relaxed, healthy and happier world.

Built Not To Last: Could Planned Obsolescence Be Good For The Social Sector?

Planned obsolescence is the practice of deliberately creating consumer goods that rapidly become obsolete (or out of date) and therefore need to be frequently replaced. If we designed our organisations to have an expiry date would we get better social outcomes?

If you’re of a certain age you’ll sometimes find yourself reminiscing about an age where things were built to last.

My own mother swears her first washing machine lasted for over 25 years. Today,  Apple expects the lifecycle for an average product to be just four years and 3 months. In fact it will stop supporting the product with updates past year seven.

Firstly – this is almost certainly a rose tinted view of the past.  I remember several washing machine breakdowns growing up. Data backs me up – in 1971 Which? found that 50% of washing machines broke down in their first year. Today the chances of a breakdown in six years is just 12%.

Secondly – the relative cost of technology has fallen dramatically. In 1970, the cost of a washing machine was extortionate – equal to about 8% of average annual earnings. Today it’s barely 1.5%. 

In truth – today’s goods are far cheaper and far more reliable than they ever were before.

The price we pay for this innovation is a much shortened lifecycle. And it’s known as planned obsolescence.

This is a strategy in which the process of becoming obsolete— unfashionable or no longer usable – is planned and built into it from conception.

Many see planned obsolescence as a driver for innovation.  Philip Kotler has described it as

the working of the competitive and technological forces in a free society—forces that lead to ever-improving goods and services.

Others regard it as an exploitation of customers – driving them through a never ending cycle of wasteful upgrade or repurchase. Arguably more importantly it raises serious problems from an environmental and ecological viewpoint. In the UK alone, we produced 23.9kg of e-waste per capita in 2019 (Global E-Waste Monitor Report), making us the second biggest e-waste capita in the world.

However, if the primary benefit of planned obsolescence is that there is a push to more research and development in the company, bringing out remarkable products year after year, then surely there is something to learn in the social and non-profit sector?

In these sectors the practice is closer to that of a circular economy, where the goal is all about keeping products in circulation for as long as possible. That means services that are built to last. But should they be?

Why do our services, which sometimes overwhelm and disempower the citizen have a right to exist in perpetuity? We seem to see a proliferation of services as success in itself when it can be a very visible sign of failing to pre-empt the problem in the first place. The fact so many options exist is a result of overall market failure.

  • So what if we designed our organisations with the life cycle of an iPhone?
  • What if our customers and colleagues knew at the launch of a service that the infrastructure was in place for just four years , after which a newer , more powerful upgrade was to be launched?
  • What if rather than plan on our services being around forever , we designed for the very conditions in which they would cease to exist?

Wouldn’t that be a better future than yet more failed attempts by services to fix society? 

As someone who works in service design I’m naturally involved at the early stages of a new service, product or approach, sometimes years before we see any change. It’s noticeable how obsolescence is almost never discussed, there’s almost an in-built belief that we will always be needed.

That’s why, to highlight just one sector, we end up with more than 1,600 social housing providers in the United Kingdom alone. That’s 1,600 lettings teams, HR departments, CEOs. 1,600 different ways of forming policies and vying for homes and delivering services to tenants in a sector that exists to solve the same shared problems.

I’m not seriously proposing that we build organisations like a smartphone, but as a thought experiment what would it look like if planned for obsolesence?

It might be a social sector where things didn’t last so long , but where services had more impact, were cheaper, and rarely broke down like they used to.

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