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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Photo by Jadon Kelly on Unsplash

The Case Against Collaboration

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

Morten T. Hansen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Solitude: The Benefits of Being Alone

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

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

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

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

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

The Value of Introverts

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

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

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

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

Avoiding Mediocrity by Committee

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

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

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

So, collaboration is useful when you are:

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

Collaboration isn’t useful when:

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

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

Inclusivity has its limits.


Image from Pexels

Top-Down Approaches Hit The Poorest First and Worst

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But I guess that would be a bit too radical.

Is Digital Bureaucracy Making Us Less Productive?

Bureaucracy is the death of all sound work.

Albert Einstein.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The new digital bureaucracy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Image licensed from Alfredo Martirena

Strategic Foresight and Escaping the Tyranny of the Present

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why We Try To Solve Problems By Adding Complexity

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

Andy Benoit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When Less = More

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

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

Chaos = Cooperation?

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

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

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

What looks like chaos can sometimes produce cooperation.

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

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

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

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

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


Header image by CongerDesign

Are We Really Becoming More Distracted At Work?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why Time—and Silence—Is So Important

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Photo by Hugh Han on Unsplash

Can We Really Trust People To Do The Right Thing?

TLDR: the answer is yes

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

Rutger Bregman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How Humans Really Behave

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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