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.

The Convoluted Mess of The Hybrid Workplace

What if hybrid ends up being a mix of the worst of both worlds?

Employers are ready to get back to significant in-person presence. Employees aren’t. The disconnect is deeper than most employers believe, and a spike in attrition and disengagement may be imminent.

McKinsey

Right at the beginning of the pandemic, Dave Hollis wrote a tweet that would prove to be prophetic. In the rush to return to normal, he said, use this time to consider which parts of normal are worth rushing back to.

Well , people did consider this. And they didn’t rush back.

Whether you term it a great resignation, or as I prefer, a great reshuffle – people are reconsidering the role of work within their lives. And the prize seems to be increased autonomy rather than simply increased pay.

The emerging data highlights distinct generational differences – but shows a trend of people moving away from restrictive roles towards those which offer a better work life balance.

The shockwaves for employers have only just begun to be felt. As lockdowns are lifted and work from home mandates ebb and flow employers have found that their previously compliant servants has discovered how and when they want to work, rather than wait for some top down ’employee offer’.

Employers may claim to have a distinct culture and purpose, but the behaviour of many of our institutions during the pandemic has left many doubting their authenticity.

People only truly believe that a company has a purpose and clear values when they see them sacrificing short-term profitability for the sake of adhering to those values. Has that happened?

Employee burnout has doubled since lockdown ended, according to Glassdoor, whose survey showed that flexible working was only one part of the jigsaw, with better performing organisations also having flatter structures.

Companies congratulating themselves on their newly found hybrid work approach should pause to reflect. What a lot of people are now experiencing is the worst of both worlds.

As Emma Goldberg writes, this sudden mash-up of remote and in-person work “has resulted in a mushy middle ground: video calls where remote workers have trouble hearing, a sense that people at home are missing out on perks (teammates), while those in the office are, too (pajamas). And the stakes aren’t just who is getting talked over in meetings. It’s whether flexibility is sustainable, even with all the benefits it confers.”

My most absurd experience , in a year of absurd experiences, was literally carrying a remote colleague around during an in-person workshop. Holding their dimly lit face on a laptop and positioning them so they could see some post-it notes on a whiteboard. My battery power died and I forgot all about them until they text me to ask if the session had finished.

Hybrid takes effort. Token attempts at employee engagement just don’t work (btw is there anything in the recent history of mankind that is more soul crushing than a festive Zoom quiz?). Companies that have crafted very strong, definable cultures have tended to be fully in-person or fully remote, not mixed.

Equally remote work isn’t equal for everyone. A study from Qualtrics, found that 34% of men with children had received promotions while working remotely, compared to just 9% of women with children. There are similar disparities for ethnic minorities.

Our offices, those that are still there, look increasingly adrift and desperate. Stowe Boyd , as ever, has a good take on this: “One of the potentially smart things companies might try to entice workers back: converting open office space — which almost everyone hates — to private offices with doors. Those who share a home with family or flatmates might find respite in a quiet place to work heads down, in peace.” He goes on to make another great point: “Taken to the most extreme: what if some of the unused office space was turned into something like Airbnb rooms, so those who have moved outside of easy commuting range might come into the office for a two- or three-day onsite, working and not-working in the office. This could be coordinated with team members for once a month intense working sessions, too.”

To get hybrid work to work it will take creative thinking like this, breaking the fourth wall between Microsoft Teams and real life. It means really getting to know individuals and understanding productivity at a very human level, listening to people as individuals with unique and frequently messy lives – rather than as efficient worker drones. It means letting our people become the designers of their own unique workdays, and giving them the right tools and permissions.

Or maybe we just need less work. Signalling that people will sacrifice some pay for a better life Spanish high-end apparel brand Desigual introduced a four-day work week at its headquarters in Barcelona last month, raising expectations in the business and political arena in Europe, where some other pilot trials have been launched.

No employee works on Friday and they can choose to work remotely any of the four working days. The company has subsidized half the cost of the 13% reduction in working hours, with employees overwhelmingly agreeing to a 6.5% paycut.

Four days a week, no meetings, you choose the hours and work where you want. Is this the future of work or just the late 2021 expectations of the many?

When people have a 60-Year career you need to design something that’s sustainable for the long term not built on burning people out by the time they hit 50. Indeed -“If a 60-year career sounds like a nightmare, perhaps that’s because we’re imagining 60 years of work as it is for many people today: inflexible, all-consuming, poorly matched to the rhythms of life.”

There could be a silver lining to all of this where people re-engage with their own work on their own terms , but this is going to require huge flexibility from employers. Most will find this a challenge, and I expect to see further pandemic workplace aftershocks between now and 2025

Let’s remember that for almost all companies hybrid work is an experiment, and most experiments fail. The best experiments are small and build upon previous evidence.

When nothing is certain in the short-term never mind the long; a good approach to take colleagues with you is to “test and learn” rather than “show and tell”.


Photo by Elisa Ventur on Unsplash

The Anatomy of a Great Idea

Ideas are not invented equally. I’d suggest that anyone who repeats the adage that ‘no idea is a bad idea’ has never attended a management away day.

So what makes a great idea?

There is no such thing as a new idea. It is impossible. We simply take a lot of old ideas and put them into a sort of mental kaleidoscope. We give them a turn and they make new and curious combinations. We keep on turning and making new combinations indefinitely; but they are the same old pieces of colored glass that have been in use through all the ages.

Mark Twain

This week has largely been spent talking about the generation and deployment of new thinking. We’re hot off the back of a successful launch of new programme for colleagues at Bromford (the stunningly titled ‘Ideas’), and then I also spent Tuesday evening talking to a Leaders Masterclass on moving from ideation to action.

Ideas are not invented equally. I’d suggest that anyone who repeats the adage that ‘no idea is a bad idea’ has never attended a management away day.

That said, bad ideas can be stepping stones to great ones. Ideas that solve a problem in a unique way are usually a combination of existing ideas, many of which may seem bad at first. If you accept that most ideas from colleagues will be bad ones that will help you move on to new ideas faster and more easily.

So let’s think about the anatomy of a great idea and the four components:

1 – The cost of the problem you are trying to fix is understood (or at least estimated).

Generally the idea must be ‘priceable’ i.e it’s got to be worth buying. This may be a cost, time, or inconvenience saving, but it’s got to make someone’s life easier. Most of us can’t remember a time before washing machines, but if you have an elderly relative ask them whether they are worth £300.

2 – The cost of solution needs to be less than the cost of problem

It’s simply not going to work if the solution you are offering isn’t convenient or cheap enough. The price of innovative solutions should reflect how much people value the problem you have solved. In other words, how much is bridging the value gap worth to your customers or colleagues?

3 – There should be no easily available alternatives that are just good enough.

A great idea should have a unique value proposition as people are lazy and won’t switch if they have something that largely does the job. Most people don’t tariff switch as the thought of saving £10 or £20 a year simply isn’t worth the perceived effort of switching. Similarly, Google+ failed because for all the faults with Facebook – it’s just about good enough for what most people need.

4 – It’s not a one shot

This one doesn’t always hold true, but generally a great idea solves a problem that is repeatable i.e people need the solution more than once. We wouldn’t all buy lawnmowers if grass only needed cutting once a year.

Let’s also remember that the greatest ideas are often the simplest. Your idea may be complex in execution, but it should be simple in concept. 

As we’ve established then, a good idea is founded more in the world of problems, but we rarely talk about them. I’ve worked in idea focused cultures and I’d argue that although they give the impression of being more ‘creative’, there’s actually very little of substance behind it. It’s often just innovation theatre

Coined by Steve Blank the term innovation theatre is where ideas – arguably the easiest bit of the innovation process – are valued more than the discipline of turning those ideas into profitable business models. This requires a level of leadership commitment that is often harder to get.

An idea focused culture is exacerbated by the following conditions:

  • Leadership putting pressure on finding quick fixes and the realisation of short term goals — rather than exploring long term impact
  • Discussing problems, or considering that organisation itself may be part of the problem, is seen as taboo or a sign of weakness, or even as a waste of time 
  • Management falling in love with a solution too easily even if it’s not solving the problem at hand

A problem focused culture is far more likely to generate great ideas as great ideas address a human want or necessity.

Perversely, the way to have the best ideas is not to encourage ideas at all, but rather to obsess about really great problems.

Whatever You Do Today, Don’t Start A Transformation Programme

New research indicates that corporate transformations have a 78% failure rate.

The default position is that most top down change programmes will fail. 

Smaller, well focused, spreadable changes, which are introduced on an ongoing basis in an inconspicuous way trump big change almost every time.

The global transformation market will be worth $2,279.4bn by 2025 with the consulting component alone at $44bn.

Who is really winning from transformation? It’s not necessarily going to be you or your customers.

More than 25 years ago, John Kotter made his now-famous assertion that 70% of corporate transformation efforts are doomed to fail.

New research shows it’s worse than that.

Only 22% of organisations successfully transform.

Using a meta-analysis the authors examined 128 global companies that had undergone transformation between 2016 and 2020. There are a couple of interesting points about their methodology.

First of all they actually defined the word ‘transformation’ as a “fundamental shift in the way that an organization conducts business, resulting in economic or social impact.”

Secondly, they considered factors other than just savings or cost benefit , the position that transformation snake oil enthusiasts always start from. Instead the authors (Paul A. Argenti,Jenifer Berman,Ryan Calsbeek,Andrew Whitehouse) crunched data on corporate reputation including impacts on employee pay, satisfaction, gender pay disparity and engagement. i.e did the transformation actually make the organisation a better and happier place?

The implications of their findings are clear: companies have a better chance at success if they focus on their people during transformation. And this is very important: “the type of employee engagement made the difference between top-tier performance and not. Companies that prioritized attributes that are fundamentally related to employee engagement, such as diversity & inclusion, in addition to traditional benefits, such as compensation or health care, saw stronger reputations and greater financial returns than other organizations”.

There’s a lot to consider in this as – in my experience – this is what most change or transformation programmes completely miss. The hallmarks of these programmes are big, 2-5 year initiatives with a number of technology drops and a greater number of consultants. The first release is usually many months, sometimes years away. Too often organisations deliver a form of ‘change-washing’: introducing reforms that purport to bring about change but fail to result in any substantive shifts in systems, services or culture. 

Interestingly, the authors of the report applied the mathematics of evolutionary biology to corporate data sets. Corporations, like biological organisms, also have to adapt to their environments. Just like our natural systems, our organisations are not machines. They are systems — often very large ones — that are run by humans. They are complex and they are adaptive and therefore the path for us to change them will be unpredictable and often counter-intuitive.

If we can recognise that organisations are people and people are complex then we can avoid simplistic transformations – and make real sustainable change.

However, it’s worth noting that not everything needs changing. Many change programmes are a form of corporate narcissism, like folk who continually strive for Instagram Face in the internet’s endless pursuit of physical perfection. Far from pursuing some unrealistic dream, perhaps we’d be much happier if we learned to live with our imperfections, neuroses and human frailties.

This title of this post is partly meant in jest but there is a serious point.

If transformation programmes have a 78% chance of failure why would you ever consider doing one? You certainly wouldn’t get on a flight that only had a 22% chance of a safe landing.

If you’re in the middle or nearing the end of a change programme it’s worth looking at your metrics and seeing how this programme is actually going to benefit your people – outside the day to day impact on their job roles.

It’s never too late to press on the brakes. Many digital transformations are the living embodiment of the Sunk Cost Fallacy: where organizations continue to justify spending additional resources to try to recoup already lost costs.

However if you’re still at the beginning it’s worth looking at why the 70% + who have gone before you have failed.

The default position is that most top down change programmes will fail.  Smaller, well focused, spreadable changes, which are introduced on an ongoing basis in an inconspicuous way trump big change almost every time.

What if, instead of trying to change the business you already have, you worked with colleagues to explore, experiment, test and build the company you should have?


Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

The Great Resignation and The Relentless Rise of Work About Work

We really need to start treating people’s time as being more valuable than the organisation’s money.

Mark McArthur-Christie

In 2012 a civil servant in the German town of Menden wrote a farewell message to his colleagues on the day of his retirement stating that he had not done anything for 14 years. “Since 1998,” he wrote, “I was present but not really there.”

People waste a lot of time at work. Or rather, we waste a lot of people’s time at work.

The fact that this isn’t a contentious statement is shocking. The only debatable point is what people waste their time on.

A recent piece of work from Zapier found that meetings aren’t killing productivity; data entry is. Although meetings have historically been blamed for sucking time out of the day, their survey of 1000 knowledge workers found data entry and covering for colleagues was the biggest non-value add. Some headlines:

The majority of workers spend less than three hours a day on impactful work. 81% say they spend less than 3 hours a day on creative work, and 76% spend less than 3 hours a week on strategic work.

Workers spend a lot of time doing work outside their role. 83% said they spend 1-3 hours a day covering for or making up work for a colleague.

Almost all workers spend a massive amount of time in chat apps. 90% spend up to 5 hours a day checking work messenger apps like Slack or Microsoft Teams. 

You and I probably don’t think we waste other people’s time, but intentionally or not we all do it.

  • We write policies and procedures that help us fulfill our outcomes but get in the way of the outcomes of others
  • We schedule unnecessary or last-minute meetings
  • We fill the inbox with messages that have no real value and are over long
  • We design processes that make it more difficult for our customers to do business with us
  • We wear busyness as a badge – proud of living a life in back-to-back meetings.
  • We fill people’s time with work about work – which gets in the way of actual work.

‘Work about work’ are activities that take time away from meaningful work, including communicating about work, searching for information, switching between apps, managing shifting priorities, and chasing the status of work.

We have whole roles in organisations whose remit is to generate work about work – distracting people from what they should really be doing.

After Covid we may be experiencing a reconsidering of priorities, the lasting effects of which will not only be personal, but economic. During lockdown many of us have recalibrated, finding that our life and work are intrinsically linked. They are one.

Unfortunately many employers have not realised this: Cutting the pay of those who work from home, or even utilizing ‘tattleware’– software to monitor workers’ online activity and assessing their productivity: from screenshotting screens to logging their keystrokes and tracking their browsing.

This in part is fuelling talk of “The Great Resignation” a period of high turnover as workers gain more confidence in the economy, and therefore feel more comfortable in making some career changes. For the first time in my career, I know of more people looking at making changes to their employment than I do people who are highly engaged.

Post pandemic we need to reshape the workplace so it reflects people’s lives today, not 20 or 30 years ago. If only one good thing came out it, it might be that we find a greater respect for other people’s time.

As Stowe Boyd writes “we should not start with the goal of conforming to the unreasonable demands of time-hungry corporations, that will use even the leverage of a pandemic to carve out an additional three hours a day from its workers.”

Full calendars and back to back meetings simply reveal leaders who are lost. There’s nothing to admire about this, it’s a very visible sign of a malfunctioning system.

We aren’t always in full control of how we spend our time. However we are in control of how we contribute to the the distraction and time wasting that happens every day in the modern world of work.

It ends when we say it ends.


Photo by Alex Kotliarskyi on Unsplash

Poor Service Isn’t Always An Accident. It’s Often By Design

In markets without much competition, organisations can deliver bad service not because of poor design and management, but simply because they can.

Benjamin P. Taylor shared a great thread on Twitter this week outlining the experience of attempting to get some housing support for an elderly relative.

I say ‘great thread’ when I really mean ‘depressingly accurate nightmare’. Unfortunately it represents a lot of people’s experience of accessing health/housing/social care.

Benjamin simply wanted to make an enquiry, to talk to someone, but is kept in a system designed to keep the user in a Moebius Loop of enquiry whilst they are assessed, processed and triaged. Anything to keep them away from the people they really need to talk to.

It does happen outside the public sector too. I’ve had a similar experience this week with an airline who emailed me to suggest I ‘try to speak to someone’ despite the fact I’d only emailed them out of desperation because I couldn’t find anyone who wanted to speak to me. I went on the ‘live chat’ to get help but was told the live chat was too busy and I should try phoning. The phone message said they were too busy and I should try the live chat, or send them an email.

This is what happens when cost-driven demand management decides how users must interact with the system. Humanity , and sheer common sense, have been designed out in the name of efficiency.

But what price efficiency?

Due to the nature of my work I’m routinely contacted by suppliers and vendors keen to get my view on their product. Many are great, but others talk of ‘putting you more in control of customer demand’, and of self-serve being the holy grail of customer service. Clearly people who’ve been to Nando’s and thought that was a desirable model for public service.

Back in the nineties call centres were designed to keep the customer away from who they actually wanted to speak to. It was never ever about customer service – just managing demand. Unfortunately – rather than seeing the call centre as an aberration, many organisations have decided to build out from it and enshrine it in digital form as part of a ‘transformation’.

Most ‘transformations’ are nothing of the sort, but simply a digital overlay on top of how business has always been done. The process that Benjamin describes is complex but can be made easy. People just don’t want to make it easy.

Many of our organisations — despite the rhetoric — have policies and procedures that are profoundly anti-customer. We have built checks, balances and verifications into our process because , deep down, we don’t actually trust the motivations of the public.

This is an uncomfortable truth — but goes some way to explain the difference in satisfaction levels between sectors. Customer service is often so bad precisely because it’s more efficient for the company.

In some rationed services – like health and housing – forcing customers to talk to a computer or chatbot, circulating them through phone menus or getting them to sit on hold “while serving other customers” serves a deterring role. People give up. This isn’t an accident, it’s by design. We are being purposefully shit – and excelling at it.

Earlier this week I spoke to a wonderfully helpful young woman trapped in the bureaucratic hell of the UK’s Best Loved Institution. When I asked if I could possibly change an appointment – even by two hours to help me out with a work commitment – she smiled and suggested I don’t try to change it. “First of all”, she said, “I don’t have authority to change anything. But if you try and change your appointment the system will just put you at the back of the queue and you’ll have to wait another month. I know, it’s stupid. We’ve all said that but they just won’t change it.”

Who are ‘they’? – and how can we make them accountable for shocking design that has real world consequences? As I discussed in the Outside Innovation podcast, it’s incredibly hard for individuals to change a system, but individuals can form a collective and challenge processes that are profoundly anti-customer and anti-employee.

Poor design will end when the public says it ends. When we name and shame and call things out publicly.

The pandemic has been an accelerant of most things. Any trend: social, business, or personal has locked on fast-forward. That includes customer dissatisfaction with poor service. As many companies have greatly expanded digital service options during the lockdowns the difference between those who did it well and those who have delivered a bodge job are there for all to see.

Customers won’t stay silent for long. They want contextualised interactions; seamless experience across channels; anytime, anywhere access to content and services and – guess what – the ability to speak to a human when they damn well want to.


Cartoon Image via Tom Fishburne

The People Vs The System – and Why The People Rarely Win

What if 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 problems that influence how they perform or behave?

The supposition is prevalent the world over that there would be no problems in production or in service if only our workers would do their jobs as they were taught. Pleasant dreams. The workers are handicapped by the system and the system belongs to the management

W.Edwards Deming

‘It’s all about the people. Our culture. Our values’.

This is a common cry from companies everywhere – proudly announcing to the world that they only hire the best. Come and work for us and we’ll let you make a difference.

It’s seemingly a meritocracy then. The best companies simply recruit better, more motivated people. So we should be able to solve problems like the NHS , for example, just through better recruitment and retention policies?

There’s an elephant in the room here: what if 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?

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.

Deming’s point , outlined in his famous Red Bead Experiment, was that in most processes any effect that the individual may have is swamped by the system they are a part of, in fact the variability they cause is just part of that system overall. As management owns the system, the workers themselves have little influence over the outcomes. When it comes to people vs the system, the system always wins.

In his book Beyond Command and Control, John Seddon states the change HR – or any people function – needs to make is obvious. “It needs to work on the 95% of the system that governs performance, not the 5% that doesn’t.” The starting place for these functions is after the systems have been redesigned. In practice, the typical HR function spends most of its time dealing with the fallout of performance failure, or training people for a battle they can’t possibly win.

One of the best posts I’ve read this week comes from Steve Blank, who tells of his frustration in attending an “innovation hero” award ceremony. His point is that rewarding people for ‘innovation’ and how they have battled against the system is actually just perpetuating the conditions in the system that prevent innovation. “The emphasis is on process, procedures, and sustainment of existing systems. Deviations from that which create chaos and diverge from the predetermined are not welcomed, let alone promoted, and funded. They are eliminated.”  Smart organisations recognise that people must be empowered to change the system – and instead of managers of process you need innovation leaders who shepherd ideas through an innovation pipeline.

I don’t 100% buy into the Deming rule – let’s remember that in his world he was talking from the perspective of a tightly controlled factory floor, assembling products. I don’t challenge the idea that the system affects performance, or that we pay too much attention to people problems. However, anyone who has worked in an organisation that has experienced a profound change in personnel has seen the disruptive effects (positive and negative) that people can have. They influence things way more than 5%.

For most of us our work is inseparably connected with the people who operate within the system. You can change a single person and suddenly the rules of the game have changed and everyone else operates in a different context. The same system maybe, but in a very different context.

However, overall this is why one-size-fits-all transformation approaches don’t work, and for good reason. Transformation measures need to be carefully calibrated to the complexity of different areas of the organisation. More attention needs to paid to complex systems and how they fit within the overall organisational design.

Many managers though don’t want to go here – it’s too much like hard work. It’s genuinely easier to focus on ‘leaderism initiatives’ and management BS than it is to change the system.

I contend that the root cause of a lot of this is short-termism. Of Boards and Execs are often focussed on backward looking performance metrics rather than sustainable goals that may take years to realise. Larger scale change dies or thrives from the top. Accordingly the role of Boards in understanding the process of transformation, and the innovation culture it requires to thrive, cannot be underplayed.

Will our organisations ever focus on genuine system change? The Net Zero and wider sustainability agenda might bring with it a shift to longer term thinking – of looking at change over a period of years , or even decades. To bring about these sorts of changes requires whole system change.

Whole system change is based on whole systems thinking, that the parts of a system are all connected and, therefore, influence each other. Rewiring this requires a commitment that few will be willing to make.

We are living in times when we need radical solutions to big problems. 

The world is , as Seth Godin said , begging us to be remarkable.

We have an opportunity to be more different, more memorable and make more change than we ever have.

Who wants to win the race to mediocrity instead?


Photo by Susan Q Yin on Unsplash

How Do You Solve A Problem Like The NHS?


There comes a point when numbers get so big as to become near incomprehensible.

Almost five million people are waiting for health treatment in England alone. Almost 1.2m of them have been waiting at least six months for ‘vital appointments’. Some within the NHS say that in reality that number is far, far greater – perhaps no one even knowing the true number.

I’m currently in recovery following an operation that (hopefully) finishes off my extended exposure to the NHS last year. I’ve been in the fairly unusual position of being an in-patient both at the very height of the pandemic in April 2020, and its low point a year and a half later. By no way am I an expert on the NHS but I would say I’ve now built up a degree of patient user experience that I didn’t have two years ago.

So – as a kind of innovation challenge: where would you start with tackling the NHS problem?

First of all – what actually IS the problem? My experience has been uniformly excellent, only ever let down by a creaking admin that admittedly became much improved through technology during the pandemic. However it seems to be true that once you’re ‘in the system’ the system largely works for you. However gaining access to that system , especially if you’re not an emergency, is a hopelessly disjointed experience. And many of the people working within it are simply exhausted – even before the pandemic NHS workers were taking an average of 14 days off sick every year, compared to 4 for the average UK worker.

Perhaps the biggest problem for the NHS is that you can’t have a sensible conversation about it. If you criticise it in any way the assumption is that you want to privatise it.

League tables have been used to support arguments that the UK health service is one of the best in the world – and also that it is a failing system. For most actual users it is neither of these things, so the obsession with deifying the NHS and its employees is actually unhelpful for everyone. The truth is that the NHS is sometimes great, often not so great and sometimes just plain bad— and it’s nowhere near close to the best healthcare system in the world.

Perhaps because we are dealing with multiple problems we need a multiplicity of solutions. In short though, problem solving should be a priority for the NHS – rather than disruptive innovation. As Greg Satell writes in a different context, we have the power to shape our path by making better choices. A good first step would be to finally abandon the cult of disruption that’s served us so poorly and begin to once again invest in stability and resilience, by creating better, safer technology, more competitive and stable markets and a happier, more productive workforce.

The most famous quote (wrongly) attributed to Henry Ford is “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” We don’t need faster horses is the cry of would be innovators everywhere. But in the NHS, faster horses are perhaps exactly what we need right now.

The NHS is observably an environment where efficiencies desperately need to be gained – and on tight budgets a lot of that will have to be through marginal gains and frugal person centred improvement – a sort of healthcare jugaad. Jugaad is a Hindi word that roughly means ‘solution born from cleverness.’ It’s usually applied to a low cost fix or work-around. In a culture where people often have to make do with what they have it’s an improvised or makeshift solution using scarce resources.

I’m not saying that we should rule out innovation altogether and only focus on the basics; but a greater emphasis needs to be placed on harnessing and developing ideas and spreading them across the system. NHS employees will tell you of something working on some wards that have been shut down because it doesn’t fit in with the overall ‘plan’. In any complex system there is often a drive to scaling up which destroys some local innovation. ‘Small, localised and spreadable’ is often more sustainable.

It’s also clear when talking to staff that many are victim to the very large number of administrators in the NHS and the urge to keep changing things. Many talk of process changes ‘all the time’ – something that has , necessarily, accelerated during Covid. The effects of this constant change trickle right through the system: employees wake up wanting to do something good and then find there are new regulations and new rules that act as a barrier.

Of course there is a whole other set of problems outside the immediate control of the NHS.

If the primary problem is demand, then that needs to be tackled. We’re living longer, getting fatter and people now have more chronic and complicated diseases. The Office for National Statistics attributes just 5% of total UK Government healthcare expenditure to ‘preventive healthcare’. We need to remove the politics from healthcare and have a sensible conversation about how much of GDP we are going to commit to not just treating problems, but preventing them in the first place.

The NHS has myriad innovation programmes, challenges and accelerators. It’s not for me to judge any of these. However it’s clear that right now there’s a capacity issue meaning the people, services and systems who would stand to benefit most from innovation end up missing out.

So perhaps it’s time for the NHS to focus employees on becoming better localised problem solvers who can work on existing real-world issues that staff and patients face every day.

Revolutionising the NHS is less likely to come from some grand plan and more likely to result from local trojan mice changing small things in big ways, attacking new problems, and spreading new ways of working. Not winning wars but infiltrating new territory.

All of that requires a less abrasive form of politics, a more forgiving internal culture, and a little less hero worship. Not easy to achieve, but absolutely worth fighting for.


Photo by Andy Holmes on Unsplash

The Hawthorne Effect: Why Employers Need To Be Cautious In Post-Pandemic Planning

In lockdown you can’t really experiment as people have constraints. There are too many variables at play. But now we have the opportunity to test out the best of multiple worlds; home, roam, office, wherever.

During the 1920s and 1930s a group of researchers began a series of industrial experiments in the Hawthorne suburb of Chicago. The research comprised several studies that tested the impact of changes in work structures on employee productivity.

The researchers looked to see whether workers would increase effort when physical factors like room lighting was changed. During the study, employee productivity improved both when the lighting was increased and when it was decreased. However, productivity decreased as soon as the study ended.

Other complementary experiments such as the effect of changes in working hours and work breaks also resulted in increased productivity, but again, this declined after the conclusion of the study. Ultimately, the researchers concluded that employees were actually responding to the direct attention they were getting from the researchers and supervisors during the study, rather than to any changes in the environmental variables.

The idea that merely consulting workers and slightly adjusting their conditions, without meaningfully changing anything, might make them more efficient and productive became known as the “Hawthorne effect” and entered the lore of leadership, HR and management BS. I say BS, as later research suggests that many of the original claims made about the effect are overstated.

That said – the central point is valid – the Hawthorne effect remains a useful term for referring to the tendency of some people to work harder and perform better when they are participants in an experiment.

When you know you’re being observed, you behave differently.

It’s worth remembering this as employers, pundits, and even Governments scramble to draw conclusions from the Mass Remote Work Experiment.

First of all , it was an experiment only in the loosest sense. As Bryan Lufkin writes, ‘we weren’t just working from home – we were working from home during a pandemic. The experiment began almost overnight, with minimal preparation or support. We worked at our kitchen tables, sometimes watching our children, as we sheltered from a virus. Everyone was in the same boat, working remotely without choice.’

I’d disagree that everyone was in the same boat, the pandemic has neatly illustrated the divides that cross our country. Even at the height of the pandemic in April 2020, only 46.6% of people in employment did some work at home. And that figure doesn’t tell the whole story as there’s a huge regional disparity, for instance 71% of workers in Richmond upon Thames did some work from home in 2020, in Blackpool: just 14%.

And from this flawed experiment, huge conclusions are being drawn.

Ministers and centre right commentators have suggested it’s time to get everyone back to the office – even suggesting that those who want to continue working from home make a salary sacrifice for the continued benefit.

The liberal left have responded with, um, exactly the same proposal – with Google employees potentially seeing their pay cut if they switch to working from home permanently in the wake of the pandemic.

The thinking behind all this seems to be based upon an ideological position that those working from home are getting a ‘better deal’ that now needs recalibrating in their overall package. It doesn’t seem to be anything to do with what you’d think employers would be more bothered about: productivity.

In an interesting piece that quickly goes down a dead end, Luay Rahil makes the point that the argument that “I’m more productive at home” isn’t always a good one. We should stop using an economic formula (productivity) to solve the office vs. home problem. It is a sociological issue (about collaboration, teamwork, belonging) and not a purely economic issue.

This is a point worth exploring in any discussion about the future of work. For years, people have predicted that the future of knowledge work would be remote and distributed, but rarely have we focused on what we mean by productive and valuable work, let alone how we measure it. For people like me, whose work is often hard to categorise and assess the value of, this is a much more interesting discussion than when and where that work is done. Is the work you are producing of value, does it make the world a bit of a better place, and will someone pay you for it?

Whatever that work is the post-pandemic fundamentals will largely remain the same: people will always need to find ways of collaborating and problem-solving together.

There IS something to explore about finding the sweet spot that works for the individual, the team AND the wider collective but the one thing I’m certain of is the answer won’t be “now, get back to the office”.

In truth, this isn’t the end of the minimum office experiment but its natural beginning.

In lockdown you can’t really experiment as people have constraints. There are too many variables at play. But now we have the opportunity to test out the best of multiple worlds; home, roam, office, wherever.

Enlightened employers will let their employees experiment with ways of working that look after people, the planet and productivity, in ways we couldn’t imagine pre-pandemic.

The less enlightened will continue to see their workers as lab rats to be observed, experimented upon and measured. Rewarding them for good behaviour.


Image by andreas N from Pixabay

Why We Stigmatize The Poor And How To Fight It

Stigma functions as a form of power which is why we need to treat it seriously. When it is left unchallenged it can lead to the exploitation, control or exclusion of others. More positively, stigma is not a one way street -it can be understood, tackled, and reversed.

George Orwell once said England was the most class-ridden country under the sun. “It is a land of snobbery and privilege, ruled largely by the old and the silly”. 

Throughout The Road to Wigan Pier, which was first published in 1937, the conditions of the poor are described in vivid detail. The most pointed language is reserved for those of the opinion that the poor bring those conditions on to themselves through wilful acts of choice.

Over 80 years later, those opinions are still prevalent. Everyday in the UK, people are judged negatively because their economic worth is less than others, to the extent that some are even actively discriminated against simply because they rent their home from a social landlord.

So begins a new report on Stigma and Social Housing in England, by Amanze Ejiogu & Mercy Denedo. Although stigmatization of social housing has long been a subject of conversation amongst landlords and tenants, actual research has been scant.

The word stigma derives from the Greek word stizein – a tattoo that was placed on slaves to identify their position at the bottom of the social structure and to indicate that they were of less value to society. Today stigma is understood to mean a social construction whereby a distinguishing mark of social disgrace is attached to others in order to identify and to devalue them.

The key words here are ‘social construction’: stigma doesn’t occur naturally. Stigma functions as a form of power which is why we need to treat it seriously. When it is left unchallenged it can lead to the exploitation, control or exclusion of others. More positively, stigma is not a one way street -it can be understood, tackled, and reversed.

Stigma has real world impact. Programmes set up with the best of intentions can inadvertently label people. My best friend at junior school received free school meals and literally had to stand in another queue in a very public demonstration of whose father had the best job. This had the inadvertent side effect of the ‘free meal kids’ tending to eat together, sitting on the ‘poor table’.

The reality is that most people have a view on the poor. Is their relative poverty tied to individual failure to pull themselves up by their bootstraps? Did they really try hard enough? Or is it really the product of forces beyond someone’s control?

Poverty is not only an economic or social condition that can determine real world outcomes – it affects individual psyche, self-esteem, self-confidence. Poverty is insulting to people’s dignity. The poor know they’re poor. So to reduce stigmatisation we may all have a role to play.

I’ve written before about how I feel fail we have failed to correctly diagnose the causes of stigma. The report confirms my view that social housing stigma is much more complex than is usually assumed because it intersects with other stigmas such as poverty stigma, crime stigma, mental health and disabilities, and race and immigration stigma.

As the report says the stigmatization material produced by the media through TV and news further conflates social housing with poverty, anti-social behaviour and dysfunctional value systems and is consumed by all facets of society. This has had a significant influence on the stigmatization of social housing and its tenants by the public at large. 

Importantly the authors point out that this stigmatization material is able to thrive because of the lack of a strong counter narrative. I’d agree. We’ve seen in recent years what happens when a movement begins to create a strong counter narrative. Social movements like #metoo #blacklivesmatter and #timetotalk are not without faults , but have undeniably changed how we talk about gender, race and mental health discrimination.

I recently interviewed a job candidate who talked openly about their mental health journey and clearly assumed that we would not make a judgement about them. I’d say that even five years ago that would not have happened.

It’s not perfect by any means, but if we can change the narrative around mental health we can do the same with income inequality. I’d rightly face public censure and possible sacking if I used a racist or sexist term. But if I referred to a group of people as chavs, or if I suggested people didn’t try hard enough, or joked that poor people’s homes smelt badly – would I be? Truly?

We must recognise that the social sector itself is sometimes guilty of stigmatization. For instance, we still talk about vulnerable customers and clients. The term ‘vulnerable’ implies that they cannot be expected to assume the same responsibilities as other, ‘normal’, people.

The way we talk to and talk about people has a material impact. It leads to bad decisions – by putting disparate groups of people together in one convenient box. It labels people and changes our behaviour towards them – reinforcing distinctions between the deserving and undeserving.

In last week’s post I reacted rather defensively to accusations that I, and my organisation, had sometimes been complicit in stigma. Alison Inman , a long time sparring partner and a fierce debater, private messaged me. Reading it back from her perspective I amended some of the text. She was right – it’s vital that we challenge each other and continue to do so. Even if it hurts feelings sometimes.

Reversing stigma means having uncomfortable conversations that risk offending all parties. Are we up for it?

We have to be, because if we don’t challenge this narrative of rich and poor, worthy and unworthy, of thriving or vulnerable communities, of winners and losers, we’ll not only fail to fight stigma, we’ll be complicit in its continuation.

This is an adapted version of a post that first appeared in Inside Housing

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

The Difference Between Good And Bad Organisations

Both good and bad organisations make mistakes, but the good ones are better at learning from them.

Risk is still a toxic word across much of the social sector.

It’s often still seen as something to avoid at all costs rather than embrace. In less complicated times it was the right thing to do. Everyone risk assessed each other and every activity. We told people to follow the rules whatever the situation. Customer experience , if such a thing even existed, was standardised rather than personalised.

But we don’t live in those times anymore.

Taking considered risks has to become part of our everyday roles. And with risk inevitably comes failure.

Innovation only thrives in a forgiving organisation. And if failure is the engine for innovation , our challenge is to make our organisations more forgiving.

This week I was involved in what turned into a rather fractious Twitter thread. I’m not going to link to it here as I like to assume people’s good intentions and it is vital that we challenge one another. Plus – I’m only using this by way of example. But here’s the background:

I wrote a piece in Inside Housing condemning the stigmatisation of poor people. A couple of commentators pointed out that the organisation I work for – Bromford – were complicit in that stigmatisation in a project we began 10 years ago. To add to that I was alleged to have personally contributed to that stigmatisation by writing pieces supportive of ‘poverty porn’. And the ‘gotcha’ moment is that despite my rhetoric, Bromford have still been highlighted for service failure by ITV News.

In a nutshell. Organisation tries to do something innovative – messes up. Refines it and succeeds. Another part of an organisation messes up. Holds hands up and apologises. Attempts to put right.

Now – let’s be clear. I’m not for a minute excusing any service failure, organisations simply shouldn’t mess up in such a way. And it is absolutely correct that people like me with a platform are called out for BS. It’s how we learn. The issue is rather how we forgive organisations and accept the nuances that organisations can do good and bad things – often at the same time.

Volkswagen engineers did develop a defeat device to cheat emissions tests but my next car is probably a VW.

Some Boeing employees deliberately concealed safety results from regulators but I’m almost certain to fly in one of their planes in future.

Oxfam are facing allegations of sexual misconduct and bullying but I’m not going to cancel any donations to aid agencies just yet.

The good news for companies is that they can gain customer and stakeholder forgiveness, depending on their culture and approach to forging and enhancing relationships. Customers will forgive you if you have made consistent and genuine efforts to build trust, and ensure efficient service recovery.

However, there is growing polarisation in our public discourse. People, and companies, are either good or bad.

Brexiteers: bad. Remainers: good. Trump voters: bad. Mask wearers: good. Amazon: Bad. NHS: Good. And so on.

Of course, none of these things are so simplistic – but it suits the media landscape as it divides people into tribes and generates a lot of clicks.

But none of this is good for innovation or for transparency.

In the social era many of our organisations are in the difficult transition of becoming human again. We’ve grown up broadcasting to people rather than engaging in meaningful conversations in public. Transparency means having these conversations and starting owning up to mistakes and admitting we sometimes fail. We are human. We mess up more often than we care to admit.

So with this new transparency has to come forgiveness. If organisations are to admit failure there has to be a maturing of public debate. This maturing of debate will only continue though if organisations are brave enough to take part in it.

  • We need to establish a new relationship with the public, and each other, where humility and failure is seen as a positive attribute rather than a weakness. 
  • We need to demonstrate that we are getting better at learning from failure, not repeating it. The true test of customer service is not when things are going right – but rather when things go wrong.
  • We don’t need to celebrate failure – but we do need to become more comfortable with it. It’s normal. 

Organisations are ultimately just a bunch of people – overwhelmingly good with a few bad. There’s no organisation on earth that is 100% ideologically pure. Organisations can do good things AND bad things at the same time. Just like people.

There’s a fallout to this line of thinking that we must be perfect —as truly improving our society becomes even more difficult work.

In reality, both ‘mostly good’ and ‘mostly bad’ organisations make mistakes, but the mostly good ones are better at learning from them.


Image by Tumisu from Pixabay

What Effect Does Environment Have On Our Ability To Think Creatively?

When you think of the “space to innovate” what immediately springs to mind? Is it the physical space , the mental space, the calendar space? All three?

I’ve been thinking a lot about spaces and environments this week: specifically what are the best creative spaces to boost collaboration?

Few companies measure whether the design of their workspaces helps or hurts performance, but they should. The physical space for innovation or even peak performance may look very different for each of us. For some of us it will be fresh air. For others it will be a whiteboard and post-it notes.

The term ‘innovation theatre‘ was coined by Steve Blank to describe those innovation activities (hackathons, design thinking classes, innovation workshops) that give the illusion of a creative culture but can lack substance. As Steve says, these activities shape and build culture, but they don’t win wars, and they rarely deliver shippable/deployable product.

Michael Hendrix of Ideo recalls seeing a door near a client’s boardroom labeled with a sign reading, “creative thinking room/DVD storage.” It’s a perfect metaphor. Without the strategy and the discipline all the fancy tools, like having a dedicated brainstorming room–ultimately won’t work.

During my time at Bromford Lab I’ve seen many organisations try and emulate the approach, but few have succeeded. This is the myth of the Innovation Lab – the belief that by creating a space your organisation will become more creative. Innovation will come from the strategies you deploy around that space – not within it. As Tendayi Viki says – it is very rare that you find a leadership team that has thought through the implications of opening a lab. The first symptom of this is the lack of a clear innovation strategy. 

That said – I think innovation spaces can be important. The biologist Jonas Salk claimed his discovery of the polio vaccine only came when he swapped his basement lab for an Italian monastery. There are some simple things we can do to our physical surroundings to help boost our creativity, and there appears to be plenty of evidence that suggests that personal creativity can be improved and not just reserved for certain people.

Of course, the place for creativity is everywhere. However small innovation units with dedicated investment can be useful because they can provide training, networks, and other resources to help colleagues think differently. Ideally though, there should be cells of innovation driven by colleagues dispersed across the organisation. 

Back in 2014 when we launched Bromford Lab – we needed to start somewhere. Establishing a creative space is a creative process in itself. We needed a space where the physical environment signalled collaboration and connection as well as high expectations. We needed an inspiring place that signalled to colleagues this wasn’t normal work. Innovation theatre? Maybe to begin with. But theatre can be good if it gets attention and starts to build a culture of experimentation – however small.

We used the space to swarm colleagues around problems and think creatively, to have a safe space where anything and anyone could be questioned, to host visits and to collaborate with different sectors.

We created it on the cheap, begging, blagging and borrowing to create somewhere different. Things like space and lighting matter in innovation as they affect mood which in turn affects outcomes, especially when chosen and designed consciously.

In March 2020 as the pandemic hit Covid seemed to kill the office. It certainly killed Bromford Lab as a space. It was mothballed – and filled with junk as we prepared to close down excess office space and refurb others to be fit for the future.

RIP Bromford Lab.

Long Live Bromford Lab.

This week as I walked into the newly reopened Bromford office – I saw that the way we imagined truly collaborative open spaces has been levelled up. We now have the perfect stage to begin to rewire the organisation and democratise innovation. The upcoming launch of the Ideas Hub – in which colleagues will be taught the skills to begin grassroots innovation using frugal jugaad principles at the same time as we develop the problem definition and experimentation skills of senior leaders promises some exciting times to come.

Not all organisations with creative spaces are engaged in innovation theatre, but all organisations engaged in innovation theatre have creative spaces.

Ultimately it’s great to have a space in your organisation for innovation.

However it’s even better if your organisation IS a space for innovation.


Image by Pexels from Pixabay

Moving From ‘Big Change That Rarely Happens’ To ‘Small Change That Always Does’

We’re obsessed with big change, but what if we’re underestimating the power of the small changes that lie more easily within our reach?

In 2002 the UK Government announced the beginning of a £12.7 billion NHS National Programme for IT . The aim was seemingly simple: to replace paper medical records with a centralised national electronic database, allowing a patient from Manchester to walk into a hospital in London and find all their details readily available online in one place.

At the time, this transformation was meant to constitute the most extensive, and expensive, IT healthcare development of its kind in the world. “The possibilities are enormous if we can get this right,” Tony Blair promised whilst clearly overlooking the possibility of getting it wrong. Nine years later, in September 2011 the government announced that the scheme would be scrapped.

That £12.7 billion investment into nothing is now dwarfed by the UK Test and Trace System that has so far cost £37 Billion, which is significantly more costly than getting a sustainable human presence on the Moon.

All over the world our organisations are experiencing profound change. The most common way to react to that is some kind of transformational change programme.

The hallmarks of these programmes are big, 2-5 year initiatives with a number of drops and a greater number of consultants. The first release is usually many months, sometimes years away.


According to Barry O’Reilly, the growth of investment in digital transformation is compounding at 18% year-on-year. By 2023, an estimated $7 trillion will be spent on these initiatives annually. To put that in perspective, total US expenditure on healthcare for 2020 was about $4 trillion—during a pandemic.

70% of these programmes will fail.

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Why? Well, generally organisations don’t change. People don’t like it and don’t see why they should.

They adopt a culture – a unique blend of practices , beliefs and customs – that takes a long time to form and an age to break down.

Think how hard is to is to make a significant change to your personal life: quitting smoking , losing weight , ending a relationship. Multiply that difficulty by the number of employees you have and the hundreds and thousands of inter-relationships.

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

The challenge then is not to embark upon another change programme , but to hack your culture. To deliberately set out to mutate your organisational DNA and make it more receptive.

This isn’t easy and will be resisted. As David Burkus points out, research suggests that there is often a cognitive bias against new introductions – a “hierarchy of no”.

It’s going to be difficult for any of us to abandon our organisational structures – but there are ways you can create a “hierarchy of yes.”

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As Tony Hsieh said – one of the biggest organisational barriers to change can be managers themselves. Hierarchies simply aren’t built to accommodate change. If change is going to happen, it often has to be project managed a year in advance.

We need a more democratic work environment. One where employees’ input is sought into areas once reserved for a select few.

It’s more than seeking inputs, though. If we are serious about hacking culture it means employees co-creating solutions with managers, not just feeding into meetings.

One of the mistakes ‘big change’ programmes often make is starting from the top. It’s almost impossible to innovate from the centre of the business. It’s easier to start at the outer edge and work your way in towards decision makers.

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

It’s why Jeff DeGraff argues for the creation of a “20/80 rule” to innovation: “It’s easier to change 20 percent of your organization 80 percent than it is to change 80 percent of your firm 20 percent,” he notes. Work your change from the outside in.

Keeping change locked up into a Lab or Hub type arrangement will only get you so far. You are going to need to infect emergent leaders if you want to bring about widespread change.

Leadership development programmes are a great way to make creativity part of everyone’s role. However they can often instill too much adherence to past organisational behaviour rather than a more disruptive future model.

Instead we need to develop more curiosity in our organisations. Socially curious employees are better than others at resolving conflicts with colleagues, more likely to receive social support, and more effective at building connections, trust, and commitment on their teams.

Giving people permission to be curious and to create new rules is the quickest way to eliminate fear , the biggest enemy of change.

There are big, bold ways to hack your culture – but there are lots of mini-hacks you can do that will make a huge difference. Most colleagues are annoyed with a limited number of things which breed mediocrity.

Our track record of introducing big change programmes is abysmal and yet your organisation is almost certainly about to embark on one right now.

The challenge is to think big about everything you want to change, but always to start small.

We’re obsessed with big change, but what if we’re underestimating the power of the small changes that lie more easily within our reach?

Turn Your Company Into A Problem Solving Machine

Last week I spent four and half hours in a room with my colleagues trying to get to the root of a problem.

Six colleagues: 27 hours of just thinking.

Einstein believed the quality of the solution you generate is in direct proportion to your ability to identify the problem you hope to solve.

If you jump straight to answers you can miss the root cause entirely and embark on silver bullet solutions to the wrong problem. Your first idea really could be the worst idea.

Many of our organisations 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.

27 hours of thinking time – with no measurable outcome – is likely to be questioned as an indulgence.

At the same time many of us will have spent a lot of this week in meetings, most of which will be about generating activity rather than purposeful deliberation.

Why Agile Transformations Sometimes Fail

One of the issues I have with agile working 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.

In the social sector addressing wicked problems is never going to be fast. It’s not just about a launching a new app, or customer ‘portal’.

We need to question some fundamental assumptions about how our businesses interact with citizens. And that may require unearthing some entirely new problems.

Screen Shot 2017-10-25 at 07.53.38

If we don’t nail the problem, and fully explore idea generation, we put all our efforts into actions.

This looks good in a project plan because it appears to reduce uncertainty. In reality our list of questions, our multiple lines of enquiry – should grow daily. But if you’re disciplined enough to be able to live with that ambiguity for a while, you usually end up with a better answer to your problem.

How To Solve Impossible Problems

I was reminded this week of the CIA technique for solving difficult problems. Phoenix is a checklist of questions developed by the Central Intelligence Agency to encourage agents to look at a challenge from many different angles.

It’s a deliberate and exhaustive approach to problem definition framed in three steps:

  • Write your challenge. Isolate the challenge you want to think about and commit yourself to an answer, if not the answer, by a certain date.
  • Ask the questions. Use the Phoenix checklist to dissect the challenge in as many different ways as you can.
  • Record your answers. Information requests, solution, and ideas for evaluation and analysis.

You can see the full checklist here but I’ll pick on a few things organisations often completely miss:

  • Why is it necessary to solve the problem?
  • What benefits will you receive by solving the problem?
  • What is the unknown?
  • Suppose you find a problem related to yours that has already been solved. Can you use it? Can you use its method?
  • What are the best, worst, and most probable cases you can imagine?

And then the plan…

  • Can you separate the steps in the problem-solving process? Can you determine the correctness of each step?
  • What creative thinking techniques can you use to generate ideas? How many different techniques?
  • How will you know when you are successful?

Our organisations and customers would be better served if we played detective a little more. Detectives solve problems by finding the relationship between facts  – they observe what others don’t. They eliminate the improbable or impossible.

In our workshop last week we considered how we could learn to solve problems like machines, endlessly mining our data to get more predictive

Imagine applying machine learning to a dataset across the social sector. Imagine the spread of machine learning to help solve the most challenging social problems in order to improve the lives of many.

Most of our organisations have a cultural bias for execution over thorough problem definition.

We are hardwired to doing things rather than purposeful contemplation. Developing a culture that has a bias towards questions, curiosity and deep thinking is necessary if we are to solve our most pressing problems.


Image by Hebi B. from Pixabay

Remote Work Is Always Efficient But Efficient Isn’t Always Effective

There is surely nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency what should not be done at all.

Peter Drucker

This week marked my return to in-person facilitation after 16 months. I’m not going to lie. As I began the week with a 5:30am start and a 90 minute commute, I was hardly overjoyed after a year and half of tumbling out of bed onto Teams.

Real life workshops can be expensive, inefficient, bad for the environment, and bad for you.

And they can be far, far better than collaborating online.

I’m going to risk upsetting the tech enthusiasts here – but when it comes to user experience – face to face workshops are the difference between watching a movie on an iPhone and seeing one in IMAX.

What was missing from workshops I’ve taken part in during the pandemic – although I was always looking at them, never actually in them – is the free-flowing, back-and-forth-and-sideways exchange of ideas that happens in person.

People just behave differently. They mess up. They swear. They spill drinks. No matter how much we’ve gotten used to being on screen, we’ve never actually forgotten that we are on screen. Days literally spent looking at ourselves.

It wasn’t just me saying this. Other people commented it felt like we were a team again.

The chance meetings – I literally had half a dozen in about four hours – don’t happen in our transactional world of screens.

Do chance meetings at the office boost innovation?

There’s no evidence of it, according to a piece in the New York Times.

“The idea you can only be collaborative face-to-face is a bias,” says Dan Spaulding, chief people officer at Zillow “And I’d ask, how much creativity and innovation have been driven out of the office because you weren’t in the insider group, you weren’t listened to, you didn’t go to the same places as the people in positions of power were gathering?”

As we take part in the return to the office we are seeing divergent thinking about the benefits of in-person work vs remote.

“Innovation isn’t always a planned activity,” says Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, about post-pandemic work. “It’s bumping into each other over the course of the day and advancing an idea you just had.”

Jamie Dimon, CEO of JPMorgan Chase, goes further – saying working from home “doesn’t work for spontaneous idea generation, it doesn’t work for culture.”

I think people are in danger of conflating three things: innovation, collaboration, and culture.

What Tim Cook is talking about is serendipitous innovation and the randomness of accidental insights. I had at least a couple of these insights this week based on what I overheard people say – this absolutely would not happen on a Teams or Zoom call.

When Jamie Dimon says remote work doesn’t work for culture, I think he probably means the ability to get to really know what makes a person tick. The ability to act authentically and unguarded. The mistake I think people are making is equating offices as being the only way of achieving that.

We can all think of remote first or remote only companies who appear to have great cultures. Buffer for example and (maybe until recently) Basecamp. However, both of these do international get togethers or retreats that bring people together on a semi-regular basis. That is – they recognise that remote work has its limits. No offices, but purposeful about culture.

The Impact of Loneliness

When it comes to innovation there’s a power in working alongside people. As Tristan Kromer writes – being alone is hard. “Innovating should be a joyful process, best shared with people whose interests and goals align with yours. But in a more practical sense, working alone makes it hard to spot our biases and misconceptions.”

This is a one size fits no-one problem. As I’ve written before the new world of work has to integrate some very different personas into the workplace.

  • The people that are raring to get back and be around people.
  • The ‘office resistant’ employees who would quit rather than return.
  • The group of people who have a fear of re-entry back into society because of Covid.

Innovation isn’t one thing to these people.

Collaboration isn’t one thing to these people.

And neither is culture.

Every employee may be experiencing your organisational culture differently. However, if we get the culture right for the individual, then most of the other stuff we do, like delivering great service, building an enduring brand, or innovating will just be a natural by-product.

Working from a screen is efficient (if you conveniently ignore the carbon impact of back to back video calls). But when it comes to culture, efficiency isn’t everything. We’ve all had very efficient colleagues who are total arseholes.

This isn’t about requiring people back in the office. It’s about letting them influence where they can do their best work and knowing where your best work happens.

And that’s about being efficient and effective.


Photo by Dstudio Bcn on Unsplash

How Do We Emerge From a State of Fear?

Be afraid. Be very afraid.

That is how the media approached Covid. Be afraid of everything. Be afraid of being tall. Be afraid of being bald. Be afraid of going to the shops and accepting home deliveries.

The fearmongering is relentless. Be afraid of your pets. Be afraid for your pets. Just be afraid.

Laura Dodsworth

In August last year I went back to the office, the first time I’d been to a workplace since March. As I arrived I felt sick, even though I’d felt perfectly healthy just thirty minutes earlier. I recognised it for it was: anxiety, like the feeling of a first day at school. If I’m honest – I briefly considered cancelling. I wasn’t frightened of the virus, I was just frightened of people. I bit the bullet and walked inside..

As we emerge from a pandemic , in the UK at least, it’s necessary to reflect how changed we have become, and whether that change is permanent or temporary.

A study into Covid Anxiety Syndrome, characterised by fear of public places, compulsive hygiene habits, worrying about the virus and frequent symptom checking showed 46% of affected people feared returning to public transport, 44% feared touching things, while 35% were checking their family members and loved ones for signs of Covid on a regular basis.

Polling from Ipsos MORI suggests it may be more than 20% of the general population that’s suffering from a form of Covid Anxiety Syndrome. It shows that 28% of British adults aren’t looking forward to “Greeting people with handshake/hug/kiss”, 27% aren’t looking forward to “going to large public gatherings such as sport of music events” and 24% aren’t looking forward to “Going to parties (such as weddings or birthday parties)”. 1 in 4 fear meeting new people.

I know of a fully vaccinated family friend who wants a hug from her fully vaccinated son more than anything. He won’t give it to her. More than half of Britons say they have not yet hugged a relative or close friend since restrictions on personal contact were eased.

Fear is a natural, powerful, and primitive emotion. It involves a biochemical response as well as a high individual emotional response. Fear alerts us to the presence of danger or the threat of harm, whether that danger is physical or psychological.

Marketeers have understand the unique value of fear for decades – it’s no surprise that the media has used the pandemic to sell copies with scary headlines and filled advert space with health warnings.

However – sex sells and fear compels – and according to the new book by Laura Dodsworth, Covid has seen the Government use fear as a behavioural nudge on a mass scale.

Laura isn’t a Covid denier or even a lockdown sceptic, but has written about how tactics that sometimes wouldn’t pass the ethics board of a social experiment have become normalised.

In Options for Increasing Adherence To Social Distancing, the UK Government were advised on 22nd March 2020 that a substantial number of people “still do not feel sufficiently personally threatened by Covid; it could be that they are reassured by the low death rate in their demographic group” and in bold “The perceived level of personal threat needs to be increased among those who are complacent, using hard-hitting emotional messaging”.

Now, most of us would agree that in an emergency situation some degree of behavioural nudging , a science I’m actually a fan of, is necessary. The question that the book raises is the ethics of how long this should continue, the tactics for ramping up unnecessary fear and the long term effect on society if anyone in authority becomes addicted to fear as a nudge.

Britain has been a world leader in behavioural insights since David Cameron set up the “nudge unit”. But has nudge become a shove? The book argues we went too far and that messaging that was initially designed to help us stay safe by scaring us has been so effective that we quickly became the most frightened nation in Europe, with people significantly over-estimating the spread and fatality rate of the disease. The British public think 6-7% of people have died from coronavirus – around one hundred times the actual death rate based on official figures.

I don’t go as far as Laura in her critique of behavioural insights as paternalistic. I think nudge can have a valid place in health , housing , justice and the social sector in general.

Where I’d agree with her is the ethical question about the overuse of fear as a motivator. It will be at least a couple of years before we can tell whether the cards were overplayed and understand the longer term impact.

Epidemics will come and go – but our basic psychology is here to stay.

I countered my fear by getting back in the office, and by having weekends away when I could. I went back to the gym and back to the pub on the day they reopened.

The best way to emerge from a state of fear is by being social, looking after friends and neighbours and being part of a community. The very things we were told to be afraid of are , ironically, the route out of this particular crisis.


Image by Engin Akyurt from Pixabay

Why We Fail To Predict The Future

rns out very different than we imagine.  The more our organisations actively think about the future the easier it becomes to close the future gap and put yourself into that future.

The emergence of new infectious diseases is unpredictable but evidence indicates it may become more frequent. In light of evidence from recent emerging infectious diseases such as Ebola and Zika, the likelihood of this risk has increased since 2015.

UK National Risk Register 2017

A lot of money and time is going to be spent on corporate risk registers in the year ahead. Following a crisis, regulators and managers naturally take steps to prevent a recurrence. There’s a danger of retrospective risk management: believing in and using a strategy that has been successful in the past but is no longer a relevant tactic in the present, never mind the future.

In military terms it’s called fighting the last war. A famous example is when France built a series of concrete fortifications along their border with Germany: the Maginot Line. What was a winning move in WWI didn’t help in WWII, when Germany flanked the Maginot and invaded from the North, from Belgium. A border that the French hadn’t fortified. The line has since become a metaphor for expensive efforts that offer a false sense of security.

It’s one thing to imagine a future scenario and an entirely different thing to preempt it. Pandemics have been top of national risk registers since the end of the nuclear threat, but that didn’t stop most of the western world failing to seal their borders in January 2020. In fact, amidst a global panic many threw out their carefully draw up pandemic response plans and did something entirely different instead.

This week I’ve been at a couple of events where we discussed horizon scanning.

Most executive teams will tell you they scan the horizon on a regular basis. I made a comment the other day that when you probe what horizon scanning means in practice it often equates to just reading the news and following Elon Musk’s Twitter feed. Helena Moore responded “I raise you a HBR subscription and a friend thats a futurist 😀“.

Far from something that is only done randomly, horizon scanning is a structured process designed to capture, make sense of and assess the importance of emerging issues and trends that are often not very obvious today.

In an increasingly complex world organisations need to horizon scan to prepare for future disruption. By the time significant emerging disruptive risks are known, quantifiable and recorded on a risk register, it may be too late to respond effectively.

Weak Signals Getting Stronger

How do you look for non-obvious trends?

According to Vijay Govindarajan weak signals consist of emergent changes to technology, culture, markets, the economy, consumer tastes and behaviour, and demographics.  Weak signals are hard to evaluate because they are incomplete, unsettled and unclear. “Planned opportunism” is his term for responding to an unpredictable future by paying attention to weak signals. Ultimately our organisations will succeed by exploring these weak signals – abandoning them as they fade or focussing investment when they get stronger.

What We Can Learn From Super Forecasters

Jean-Pierre Beugoms is the forecaster featured in Adam Grant’s book Think Again. He has an outstanding record in predicting the outcomes of elections. While regular pundits rated Donald Trump as a joke, with just a 6% chance of gaining the Republican nomination, Jean-Pierre gave him a 68% chance. How? By constantly challenging his own beliefs and biases.

As he says “I would advise people to question assumptions that are unsupported or weakly supported by the evidence. That is the best way to spot potential opportunities to set yourself apart from the crowd. You also need to become adept at evaluating evidence. I would also advise people not to trust their gut. Thinking with your gut is what pundits do and that is why they are so often wrong.”

Most of us don’t have the skills to become super forecasters, celebrated historians or futurists. So what can any of us do practically? I’d suggest:

  • Create a circulatory system for new ideas and provocations
  • Develop the capacity to prioritise, investigate, and act on those ideas
  • Build an adaptive culture that embraces continual change
  • Be prepared to constantly change your mind about what you think you know

No-one can predict the future but history shows us that it often turns out very different than we imagine.  The more our organisations actively think about the future the easier it becomes to close the future gap and put yourself into that future.

And let’s remember the future is not a far-off point: it arrives daily. Our choice is whether to be an active participant in what it looks like or just let it relentlessly unfold around us.


Photo by Paola Ocaranza on Unsplash

Innovating Against All Odds: The Endlessly Adaptable Future of Work

Received wisdom isn’t what it used to be. The future will be made up of shades of grey where few things are certain and the best you can do to prepare is to be endlessly adaptable.

Against the backdrop of a socio-environmental crisis of such complexity and scale that its not yet fuIly understood, let alone fully quantified – some businesses aren’t just surviving, but thriving. How, against such odds, do they do it?

Dr Melissa Sterry – Innovation Against All Odds

I first came across Melissa Sterry when I attended a talk she was giving in late 2019. She was challenging the received wisdom that we would all live a lot longer in the future. ‘Babies born today would live to be 100’. This was the received wisdom that much of the conference was founded upon.

“How can we say this?” she asked. “When everything around us is changing so rapidly?”

She went on to explain the complex global disruption caused by events such as climate change and proposed that there are few guarantees about anything anymore.

A full two months before most of us had heard of COVID-19, Melissa gave the example of new diseases emerging with strains capable of igniting pandemics. The message was clear: the world we think we know can alter rapidly or even disappear.

Melissa has now authored ‘Innovation Against All Odds’ – the inaugural report in the #OpenForesightSeries. An independent work, it discusses developments in science, technology, design and society at large that are shaping leading-edge innovation worldwide. 

I’d urge you to read the report as it begs the question of how to navigate not one, not two, but many possible futures, each of which is distinct and, by nature, messy in its expression. More specifically, how might our businesses both large and small, established and emerging, plot a path through such complexity?

Welcome To The Post-Usual

This morning I spoke at a breakfast seminar on the post-Covid workplace. My contention was the current hot favourite – hybrid working – won’t be as successful as many think in the long term. History shows us that the end state is rarely that which is adopted first. The predictions of deserted high streets completely robbed of office workers, or of 24/7 fully remote teams who meet up on off-sites in Bali are extreme positions, and neither are likely to to become true. As the report makes clear, recent studies have shown that those that go to extremes lack the ability to process complex scenarios, and thus mentally default to expectations that fail to accommodate the complexity of reality.

As I say in my introduction to the Evolution vs Extinction section, we are all going to have to learn to live through complexity – moving from single-point solutions to directional systems innovation. The organisations that think change is something to merely react to, or to manage or control, may struggle to survive.

As Melissa makes clear, working with change is a symbiotic process that involves businesses being constantly alert to signals of change both within and beyond their industries, regularly re-evaluating the relevance of their model, operations, positioning, and talent.

From my perspective this requires all our organisations to adopt new mindsets as well as skill sets.

  • A place where work has just enough friction. Far from all the talk of safe spaces the most effective teams will have regular, intense debates
  • A place that has permission to be different. Where it’s allowable, even encouraged, to push back. Everyone should be ok with questioning assumptions and direction
  • A place that harnesses the ability to think and act experimentally. Where happy accidents occur as much as planned foresight

In a post-usual environment there’s no right way to do things or hard and fast rules. Best practice can’t be true. What currently works will often stop working in complex and volatile times.

In the seminar this morning I pinned my hopes for the future on a more enjoyable, ethical, equitable and sustainable world of work. We need to focus on the principles of the outcomes we want to achieve as much as the outcomes themselves. Innovating Against All Odds makes this point in a different way. That businesses of old were, largely, consumed only with the odds that they and their industries faced, today, responsible businesses consider the odds that we, all humanity, face. The most innovative of those businesses seek to understand those odds to the greatest extent possible, and to do all in their power to help not hinder collective efforts. How you do this isn’t as important as the act of doing it. There’s not a print-it-out and stick-it-on-the-wall methodology to follow here.

Received wisdom isn’t what it used to be. The future will be made up of shades of grey where few things are certain and the best you can do to prepare is to be endlessly adaptable.

The companies who thrive will be the ones who are change seekers and change makers, not controllers, managers or inhibitors. 

The Return To The Office Has Begun. What Next?

39% would consider quitting if their employers weren’t flexible about remote work.

What happens next now more and more bosses are demanding a return to the office?

A six-minute meeting drove Portia Twidt to quit her job.

She’d taken the position as a research compliance specialist in February, enticed by promises of remote work. Then came the prodding to go into the office. Meeting invites piled up.

The final straw came a few weeks ago: the request for an in-person gathering, scheduled for all of 360 seconds. Twidt got dressed, dropped her two kids at daycare, drove to the office, had the brief chat and decided she was done.

Employees are quitting rather than giving up working from home

Gradually, glacially perhaps, we are returning to something like normal.

In the past couple of weeks, I’ve been on one management overnighter (In a hotel! With people! And flipcharts!) and had two weekends away. It felt odd at first, but reassuringly familiar. After so much disruption it’s quite remarkable how quickly we can return to old norms and habits.

At our away day we all remarked how disorientating it was on arrival – seeing colleagues we’d not seen face to face for 17 months, and meeting several colleagues for the very first time other than through a screen. But just a few hours later, over dinner and in the bar, how quickly we forgot about metre plus distancing and our year of fearing any other human contact.

At a theme park a couple of days later, thrill seekers all compliantly wore their masks on coasters despite the fact the sheer velocity removed them from our faces. Within about two hours no-one was wearing a mask. Even the most well designed behavioural nudges fail in the face of social norms that have been in place for decades. You scream on rollercoasters, you want the wind on your face, not half your face.

My point here is not to be cavalier about safety – I’ve followed the rules as much as anyone. But for all the talk of a new normal, it’s the old normal we’ve missed and the old normal to which we’ll shortly return.

Which brings us to the return of the office.

As I write Apple has announced it wants employees to return to offices by September. Workers must return to their desks for at least three days a week, chief executive Tim Cook wrote in a memo, saying “I know I’m not alone in missing the hum of activity, the energy, creativity and collaboration of our in-person meetings and the sense of community we’ve all built.” Apple aren’t alone, with Google also seemingly becoming much more cautious about a remote first working environment.

When even the CEO of Zoom says he’s got Zoom fatigue , and other executives say the perils of remote work make a return to the office an imperative – you know that change is in the air. It’s over.

The flavour of the month is hybrid working. The best of both. A few days in the office, a few days out. Everybody who is anybody is predicting the future of work is hybrid, seemingly without any actual evidence or experience.

In all likelihood, you’re going back to the office. As Daniel Davis has pointed out – existing as a hybrid is a hard act to pull off. As he says ‘the cultures of remote work and in-person work are so different that it takes a cultural transformation to bring them together. Unfortunately, this type of cultural finesse isn’t a strength for many companies’.

On the other hand a survey of 1,000 adults showed that 39% would consider quitting if their employers weren’t flexible about remote work. The generational difference is clear: among millennials and Gen Z, that figure is 49%, according to the poll on behalf of Bloomberg News.

The new drive to get people back into offices is clashing with some workers who’ve fully embraced remote work. As Anders Melin and Misyrlena Egkolfopoulou write ‘there’s a notion that some bosses, particularly those of a generation less familiar to remote work, are eager to regain tight control of their minions.’

Not that this is just about dinosaur bosses – seemingly some employees want to have their cake and eat it too. People have been enjoying unprecedented flexibility to work when and how they want – and yet the trade union Prospect is calling for the UK government to give employees a legally binding “right to disconnect”. This would ban bosses from “routinely emailing or calling” outside set working hours. What are ‘set working hours’ and how can this realistically sit alongside a hybrid, or remote work policy?

Let’s also spare a thought for the people who never left the old normal. The healthcare workers, the supermarket staff, the delivery drivers. The only thing that changed for them is that their bosses spent even more time in meetings.

The truth is, we don’t know what happens next – there are too many variables here. Variables we haven’t yet begun to consider.

There are people who can’t wait to get back out there, meet people, to socialise and to travel. There are many who are more cautious. And there are those who have been deeply scared and scarred by the Covid experience.

Up to one in five of us are believed to have developed a “compulsive and disproportionate” fear of Covid, which is likely to stay in place for some time. Warnings about the dangers of Covid have heightened the problem, and mixed messages about the level of danger have made it worse, says Marcantonio Spada, a Professor of Addictive Behaviours and Mental Health at London’s South Bank University, who co-authored a report on the recently identified condition Covid Anxiety Syndrome (CAS). CAS is characterised by a fear of public places, compulsive hygiene habits, worrying about the virus and frequent symptom checking.

Our Post Covid world of work has to integrate some very different personas into the workplace. Some of our colleagues will not be the same people they were in January 2020.

What we do know is this:

  • Some people are raring to get back, or to get others back, to the office.
  • There’s a new strain of highly ‘office resistant’ employees who would quit rather than return.
  • There’s a group of people who have a fear of re-entry back into society.
  • And there’s the people for whom nothing has changed , those who worked on the frontline during a global pandemic putting themselves at risk whilst the middle classes moaned about Zoom Fatigue.

What happens next? No-one knows. However managers now have to learn to deal not just with different personality types and skill sets – but completely different mindsets about what work is and where it should happen.

Nobody can predict the future — but everybody can choose their approach to it.

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