How Do You Change A System That Doesn’t Want To Change?

There were two recurring P words throughout the New Local ‘Stronger Things’ event in London’s Guildhall.

Permission: give it.

Power: share it.

The Guildhall was built in the 15th century to demonstrate the continuing power of the merchants of the City of London who regulated trade, and to ensure they preserved that same power. A fitting venue then to bring together the boldest and brightest thinkers at the forefront of the Community Power movement.

Community Power is the idea that local communities should have much greater influence and control over the plans, decisions, and public services that affect their lives. It’s an alternative to the status quo where big business and the state have the greatest power over the lives of communities rather than communities themselves. 

So the recurring motifs of permission and power are important:

Will our organisations and institutions give us permission to do things in radically different ways?

Will our organisations and institutions show themselves to be power sharers or power hoarders?

Based on recent history we can probably take an informed guess to answer those questions.

Will our organisations and institutions give us permission to do things in radically different ways?

Radically? Probably not

Will our organisations and institutions show themselves to be power sharers or power hoarders?

Not without radically different leadership.

What does radically different leadership look like though? Prof. Donna Hall spoke of us needing a different style of leader who has read Radical Help by Hilary Cottam and fully understands community power and the urgent need for us to give power away.

Leaders who have all read Radical Help? Perhaps we are being unfair but my colleague and I were musing about how many senior leaders had even heard of it, never mind read it.

Donna went even further, suggesting that every CEOs performance appraisal should be based upon what radical transformation they have overseen in the past year, with remuneration adjusted as a result. How do we transform a system? ‘We need teams of rebels within organisations, across systems’.

I agree with all of this but when power is pooled so heavily at the top of the system I think we need more than teams of rebels.

Dominic Campbell tweeted that perhaps we need more creative destruction if we are to truly transform. He’s correct that very little time is devoted to organisational or system design and its role in perpetuating the system. I feel that you could completely replace the leadership of most organisations and the system would keep running as before.

In another context I was struck by comments of Brendan Marsh talking about the challenges of introducing progressive structures – in this case Big Consultancy attempting to do a copy-paste of the Spotify Agile model, into an established hierarchical organisation. He says it’s like ‘trying to introduce modern technology to an Amish community’. The shock to the system is like electroconvulsive therapy, so of course the system will reject it.

Perhaps I’m wrong though, and you can change the leader and subvert the system. Certainly Mark Adam Smith showed the power of leaders simply removing barriers for people and freeing them to innovate (“They were pissed off but didn’t really know why”). As he said “We didn’t start by trying to improve services, we started with people. We didn’t try to do things better, we try to do better things. We’re not going to assess people, we’re going to understand them.”

In Gateshead he has promoted “a liberated method” for colleagues on the frontline, freeing them up to be more creative in the support they provide to people providing they stick to its two rules: do no harm and stay legal.

“If you give people freedom they will innovate”.

It seems a lot of the time it’s the very institutions that are supposed to be helping that are actually getting in the way.

So, how do we practically change a system that doesn’t really want to change? Because once you truly understand a system determining how to change it can quickly overwhelm your capacity to comprehend it, let alone act.

Perhaps practically we can have more conversations about another P word:


Paternalism is characterised by a dominant attitude of superiority, “We know, you don’t”.

And the visible signs of paternalism are meetings where community is never mentioned and has no seat at the table.

Perhaps if we brought the community to the table ( or better still, took the table to the community) we’d change the conversation and by changing the conversation we’d change the system.

Ultimately we do need both a different leadership behaviour and a different system.  People who carry a lot of power don’t always realise what it’s like to walk around in a place that’s not made to operate in their favour. 

Tony Benn once said there were five questions to ask people in power which indicated what kind of democracy was in operation.

  • What Power Have You Got?
  • Where Did You Get It From?
  • In Whose Interests Do You Exercise It?
  • To Whom Are You Accountable?
  • How Can We Get Rid Of You?

They sound like good questions for any organisation to answer if we are to build momentum with this movement. With perhaps the addition of one more:

Will You Give Your Power Away?


Technology Is Not Innovation.

[The following is a version of a talk I delivered to HQN members on 17th May 2023 on the subject of blending old and new approaches to create meaningful improvement and change]

Digital evangelists often imply that technology will solve all our problems. By slavishly following this advice we risk embarking on the worst kind of technological solutionism that ignores the richness of skills, assets and sheer talent that exist already in our organisations and communities.

We can focus on technology as a solution when at best it is an enabler.

Technology is not innovation. Innovation is not technology.

Innovation is only a small piece of what happens with technology. Innovation is often what comes after technology. Today you will use your smartphone in ways never dreamt of by its inventor.

Of course the technology is important, because we will come to rely on it more and more in order for our communities and organisations to continue to thrive in the future.

The UK has a declining birth rate, exacerbated by the housing crisis.

The average age at first marriage is now 31, compared with a 20th century low of 23 in 1970.

There are currently around four working-age people for every pensioner in the UK.  But based on current projections, in just one generation’s time – in 2053 – there will be fewer than three working-age people for every pensioner. 

If you want to imagine where this could be heading look at Japan where the median age is 48 and by 2050 over half the population will be over the age of 53.  In Japan the newest technologies have inspired public and private sectors in the fields of health policies and innovation, to provide older people with a better quality of life. They have had to, there simply aren’t enough people to go around otherwise.

So we are going to see a continued acceleration of attempted technology solutions to all sorts of problems, and we risk being swamped by them. The challenge as always will be how we integrate successful new technologies with legacy business models.


AI is nothing new and we all use it everyday without ever thinking about it. Tools like ChatGPT, that can increase efficiency and reduce costs for businesses, are now available free to everyone. Getting new technologies into the hands of those best placed to make a difference with it was always a barrier to bottom up innovation – it was high cost and hard to use. That has all changed.

So what would a digital counterpart of our organisations look like? What would it tell us about how we work? How it could be improved?

A digital twin is a digital representation of a physical object, process, service or environment that behaves and looks like its counterpart in the real-world. Tesla creates a digital simulation of every one of its cars, using data collected from sensors on the vehicles. In Singapore they’ve made an alternate copy of Changi Airport that updates in real time.

However, whilst every car that rolls off the Tesla production line has a twin tracking its lifecycle from birth to death almost every house constructed in the UK has none of this technology built in. An investment that will last between 70-100 years is being handed over to the resident in the same way it was in the 1960’s.

Digital twin technology has now been democratised to the point where just about any organisation can tap into the benefits. So why aren’t we doing it?

It’s almost ten years since comments I made about the potential use of drones in the housing sector nearly caused the sky to fall in. However, my assertions have proved to be correct albeit a little premature: drones working together can create large 3D-printed structures made of foam or cement. The experiments are paving the way for a future where swarms of drones could help construct extremely tall or intricate buildings.

As a minimum every building surveyor should be a trained drone pilot. Sending a surveyor out without a drone in 2023 is a missed opportunity.

The blending of reality with artificial intelligence and offline and online social networks is genuinely exciting. In Amsterdam they are a creating a city selfie that brings existing policies, projects, initiatives and
start-ups together with stories, histories and images from diverse neighbourhoods. Overlaying this with visions, proposals and new initiatives for transforming the city creates a genuinely participatory economy accessible to all citizens.

The young woman in the photo has never existed. The pane of glass she is looking through was never created. The lighting never switched on. None of it is real, it’s an image created in Midjourney – a text-to-picture artificial intelligence (AI) service developed by an independent research lab of the same name. It is putting huge creative capacity into the hands of non-creatives. I love the idea that generative AI could help non-experts visualise unusual social and housing projects, in such a realistic way that they seem buildable.

For all the talk of technology, let’s remember we are human businesses and we exist to help other humans do better in life. It’s our only real purpose. So let’s think how we can use technology to leverage the huge talents and skills lying within our communities. Putting it directly in their hands will yield far better results than putting a firewall around your organisation or outsourcing to consultants.

Finally, let’s go back to Japan. We are often implored to be more like Google, or Amazon or Apple. For the social sector a far more relevant north-star exists in Nintendo. They are a legacy organisation that were formed in 1889.

One hundred years after their birth a video game designer called Gunpei Yokoi changed the world with the launch of the original Nintendo Game Boy. It took gaming out of the hands of geeks and paved the way for the industry to become the most profitable and popular form of entertainment.

However the Game Boy was far from best in class. Its black and white display was made up from old technologies well past their sell by date. Gunpei called his philosophy Lateral Thinking with Withered Technology. 

Withered: mature technology which is cheap and well understood.

Lateral thinking: combining these ideas and technologies in creative new ways

Innovation doesn’t actually need to be cutting edge. Rather it needs to be simple, useful and to make someone’s day that little bit easier.  Our sector has loads of withered technology, it just needs a little more lateral thinking.

Be more Nintendo.

Work Is Mostly Mundane. And That’s Not A Bad Thing

Words seemingly lose their power through overuse, and nowhere is this more proven than in the workplace.

The average corporate strategy or plan is full of what are known as crutch words – that collection of phrases we fall back on when we’ve lost our footing while speaking. We grasp for familiar words to fill some space.

These crutch words include things like customer experience, agile working and high performance used in contexts in which, if you scratch the surface, you’ll see mean absolutely nothing. Arguably though, no one word is as used and abused as innovation.

Things are labelled as innovations that are nothing of the sort: every strategy is in search of it, the thought of being seen as not particularly innovative is career threatening.

So is innovation overrated?

Jason Fried maintains exactly that in one of his excellent provocations, saying the unsayable. The unsayable being the thing that deep down everyone knows to be true but saying it out loud would render them as a stick in the mud, a blocker or a relic.

“Innovation should almost never happen. It’s incredibly rare. It mostly happens by accident, not by intention. It’s wonderful when it does, but you merely fluctuate in and out of it, it’s not steady state.

Work is mostly mundane. It’s mostly maintenance. It’s mostly local improvement and iteration. Work is mostly… Work. Any innovation is an outlier, nearly a rounding error.”

Some of this is spot on. Innovation is incredibly rare, so the constant talk of it being common place, something our organisations do everyday is disingenuous. As I tweeted, ‘innovation’ is too often someone who doesn’t know what they are talking about avoiding doing the job they should be doing , and distracting everyone from the things that would actually make a difference to customers in the process.

Bruce Nussbaum declared that innovation died in 2008, killed off by overuse, misuse, narrowness, incrementalism and failure to evolve.

That’s why you get people here, here and here (quite understandably) calling for us to ‘just get the basics right’.

An outright focus on innovation, or even worse, agile methodologies, can lead to a lack of focus or even blatant disregard for the basics. 

Andrew Russell and Lee Vinsel argued this in a landmark piece written back in 2016:

“Critics point out the peddlers of innovation radically overvalue innovation. What happens after innovation, they argue, is more important. Maintenance and repair, the building of infrastructures, the mundane labour that goes into sustaining functioning and efficient infrastructures, simply has more impact on people’s daily lives than the vast majority of technological innovations.”

They point out that the most unappreciated and undervalued forms of technological labour are also the most ordinary: those who repair and maintain technologies or processes that already exist, that were ‘innovated’ long ago.

In a typical company 99% of what people do is maintenance, as it should be. 99% of the time should be spent fine tuning the system. It’s not sexy, but it is necessary.

We need to start praising the importance of the maintainers, those individuals whose work keeps ordinary existence going rather than introducing novel things.

Workers are being sold a pup by being promised jobs that are exciting, ambitious, creative and innovative. Most work is pretty boring.

Even if you are one of the 1% and your role is more specifically around ‘innovation’ and future focus, most of it is grunt work with the occasional flash of inspiration. I had that flash in a one hour session with customers yesterday, but that’s probably it for this week.

Just like the modern world implores that we should be happy all the time (we aren’t and we are not meant to be), the modern workplace wants everyone to be engaged, energised and innovative when they simply don’t need to be.

People just need to be fulfilled

Fulfilment does not come from some fruitless search for innovation. It’s found in the little things – the everyday occurrences that come from our daily habits and interactions that make our world a little bit better, a little bit easier, for someone. Fulfilment because you attended to someone’s needs.

The maintainers of our organisations are hopelessly devalued compared to the consultants who promise a future which will never ever be realised.

So Jason Fried is right. ‘Work is not often very exciting, but it can absolutely be fulfilling. And you can be excited about that’.

Photo by Marten Bjork on Unsplash

Do You Really Need An Innovation Strategy?

Without strategy you have no direction, without innovation you lose relevance

Greg Satell

Whilst strategy and innovation both play crucial roles in the success of an organisation, they are not applied equally.

A good strategy helps an organisation set clear goals, define priorities and make informed decisions, while innovation enables a company to think differently, create new products, services, and business models to meet changing customer needs.

Innovation is an essential, but frequently underfed, component of strategy as it helps organisations to achieve their strategic objectives by generating new ideas, products, or processes that can differentiate them.

If you Google ‘Do You Need An Innovation Strategy?’ you’ll get just under one billion articles affirming “Yes, you absolutely do“.

Gary Pisano has argued that companies without an innovation strategy won’t be able to make trade-off decisions and choose all the elements of the innovation system. He maintains this is the responsibility of senior leadership.

However, I’m unconvinced and I’ll attempt to explain why.

Over the past ten years I’ve been acutely aware of balancing the need to tie innovation to corporate strategy, while not being so closely bound to it that innovation becomes only incremental improvements to the status quo. I’ll acknowledge that in the past some attempts at Bromford Lab have been too haphazard and disconnected from strategy, and also at times too constrained by it.

However, having an ‘innovation strategy’ risks setting efforts apart from the organisation itself. It risks encouraging initiativitis – with more and more random innovation efforts becoming disconnected from core purpose. Innovation hardly ever works when introduced from the side. Never mind culture: strategy eats innovation for breakfast.

Also – who sets the innovation strategy? Senior leaders? An innovation team? Again that potentially acts as a constraint to bottom up opportunities that emerge from the people closest to the opportunities. Senior leaders are often not the drivers of innovation that they think they are.

The answer I think could be to develop a corporate plan that – in itself – is an enabler of innovation. Embedding the requirement for innovation in your core purpose.

The new Bromford Strategy was developed through the use of ‘adaptive spaces’ – a series of workshops and conversations with an intention to harness a degree of ambiguity within it, as it will require all colleagues to contribute to a collective shift in thinking and doing over a four year period.

Research by Mary Uhl-Bien found that successful innovations emerge from informal/entrepreneurial networks but must be supported and developed in temporary ‘adaptive spaces’ if they are to fulfil their potential for transforming formal bureaucratic organisations.

Adaptive spaces are a way of introducing more transformational thinking into organisations. They are best used for making key strategic shifts where organisations require a new mindset rather than just incremental improvements.

Adaptive spaces occur in the interface between the operational and entrepreneurial system by embracing, rather than stifling, the dynamic tension between the two systems. They do this by organising internal and external networks to spark the emergence of novel ideas and then fostering idea development and sharing.

This leads to idea diffusion across the organisation to gain formal endorsement from the operational system. In this way, novel ideas are more readily introduced, more openly shared and more effectively integrated into formal processes.

So imagine if your strategy actually facilitated the emergence of adaptive spaces for new thinking rather than forming a specific roadmap that can be easily followed almost without thinking.

Imagine if your strategy had the requisite amount of uncertainty so that it outlined some broad strategic shifts that must be made – but didn’t spell out how they would be achieved.

Essentially, we’ve tried to create a strategy that is built for exploration rather than ticking off KPI’s. A strategy that cannot be achieved without innovation.

So, do you really need an innovation strategy?

I say no.

You need a strategy that sets out a challenge and invites everyone to ask questions and go on a journey of discovery.

You need a strategy that is founded upon principles of good innovation management, rather than innovation simply existing within the confines of a room full of beanbags and sticky notes.

As Steve Robbins has said, more than one strategy is actually no strategy at all. You only need one strategy, everything else is tactics.

So you need a really good strategy that enables the right innovation tactics to achieve the end goal.

Will it work? Ask me in four years time.

Cover photo by FORTYTWO on Unsplash

Is The 15-Minute City A Bad Idea?

How do relatively straightforward ideas become so controversial?

The 15-minute city (FMC or 15mC) is an urban planning concept that aims to make cities or towns more liveable by ensuring that all essential services — think schools, medical care and shops — are within the distance of a short walk or bicycle ride.

If you have visited places like Amsterdam or Paris, that have both borrowed from FMC principles, you’ve probably thought ‘this seems like a pretty nice way of living’.

Not so in Oxford, UK. A rally attend by thousands in February claimed to be protesting plans to reconfigure the city as a “Stalinist-style, closed city” that could lead to the eventual enslavement of local citizens. Similar plans in Bath, where residents could be divided into ‘cells’ that limit travel, have been compared to The Hunger Games.

Speaking in the House of Commons Tory MP Nick Fletcher, demanded a debate on the “international socialist concept of so-called 15-minute cities”, and said that the schemes could “take away our personal freedom”.

I’m a declared fan of the concept of 15 minute cities, but equally I don’t think we can dismiss all criticism as the work of right wing conspiracy theorists. So what’s the problem?

Alain Bertaud is an urban planner and author who has been critical of the concept of 15-minute cities. Bertaud argues that the idea is too idealistic and impractical.

Bertaud has pointed out that cities are complex systems with many different types of land uses and activities, and it is not feasible to organise everything within a 15-minute radius. He argues that cities should be more flexible and adaptable to change, and that they should be designed to allow for the efficient movement of people and goods.

His more interesting point is that the focus on the 15-minute city is misplaced because it does not address the underlying issues that create urban problems, such as poverty, inequality, and environmental degradation. He suggests that policymakers and urban planners should focus on creating affordable and accessible housing, improving public transportation, and promoting economic development in areas that are currently underserved.

So: the state and institutions should focus on what they should be doing anyway, and leave communities to do the rest.

In his book Order Without Design, Bertaud notes that most Parisians have already achieved access to a wide number of grocery stores, bakeries, and the like within walking distance without the help of planners.

“The abundance and variety of bakeries are not due to meticulous municipal planning but to market mechanisms,” he writes. “If Parisians were to prefer herring to croissants for breakfast in the future, the market would adjust, and herring merchants will gradually replace the bakeries without any ‘redesign’ of Paris.”

Writing in The Telegraph, Neil Garratt builds on this theme: “planning cities is like herding cats: people have their own ideas. They go where they will, make their own plans, and real-life cities emerge from all those individual decisions.”

The Planners vs The People

The objection to 15 minute cities has possibly been stoked by over-reach from local authorities. Surely no-one objects to the idea that we shouldn’t be building new housing where people have to drive to buy a pint of milk, go to school or visit the doctor because there’s no shops, schools or surgeries close by?

However, in the Oxford case it appears that authorities plan to go a lot further than that. Traffic filters would be in place designed to reduce traffic, make bus journeys faster and make walking and cycling safer. The scheme will be enforced using automatic number plate recognition cameras. Residents in Oxford and some areas just outside the city will be able to apply for a permit to drive through the traffic filters for up to 100 days per year.

It’s measures like limiting people to car travel 100 days per year that could appear top down and authoritarian and seem to be fuelling the resistance.

Let’s compare the Oxford approach with the small northern Dutch village of Makkinga which is entirely free of traffic signs or rules. People living there have to find their own way around, negotiate for themselves, and use their own brains.

It’s part of a movement started by the late traffic engineer Hans Monderman of “designing for negotiation” where everyday citizens are given agency and can co-design their own rules. Monderman once responded to a question as to why he didn’t see traffic signs as a way to change behaviour: “I don’t want traffic behaviour, I want social behaviour.”

Oxford, it seems, are designing for traffic behaviour not social behaviour. They want a system that is unambiguous. But ambiguity has a lot going for it.

As Mark McArthur Christie has said, when you introduce ambiguity, rather than control, into a system, people think for themselves and find a way to reach the right answer.

So, 15 Minute Cities aren’t a bad idea in and of themselves if we allow the citizen to play an active part in the design of them.

Sometimes good ideas turn into bad ones because of the implementation rather than the intent.

The Case For An Organisational ‘Day Of Silence’

On Wednesday 22nd March I was back in lockdown, confined to a hotel room for 24 hours. Don’t feel sorry for me though, I was in Bali, Indonesia.

On Nyepi day , which is New Year’s day in the Balinese Saka Calendar, the island turns off all lights and sounds, stops traffic, reflects and meditates. You can’t go for a walk, visit the beach, check in or out of a hotel, and the international airport is closed.

Complete silence and serenity reigns over the entire island.

And it got me thinking, do our organisations need a day of silence?

And by an organisational ‘Day of Silence’ I don’t mean meeting free days, which are often just days filled with hours of ‘work about work’ or mind numbing bouts of e-learning. I mean a complete disconnection and meditation on the meaning of work, our purpose, our role within it.

If you’re thinking I’ve inhaled too much frangipani incense, let me present my defence. Less than a third of Americans are engaged with their work, whilst in the UK only 9% feel energised by their work or the workplace.

We are also have a productivity and creativity paradox:

The more investment that is made in technology, worker productivity goes down instead of up.

The more leadership support that is provided the more employee creativity is stifled rather than released.

As a culture, we don’t do very well with silence. We are taught to say our piece as a sign we are engaged. Those that don’t – those that might actually be thinking rather than mouthing off – are often undervalued or even dismissed as blockers. “Maybe we should think about this?” is the hallmark of an indecisive leader.

Few businesses place any value on purposeful thinking – as ‘thinking about stuff’ looks too much like loafing about. We are in a world that sometimes places a higher value on speaking and commenting than on thinking.

We are also obsessive about collaboration when many people are at their most creative during solitary activities like walking, relaxing or bathing, not when stuck in a room with 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.

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.

Organisational silence often refers to a collective-level phenomenon of saying or doing very little in response to significant problems that face an organisation. It’s a bad thing. But what if we flipped the concept and became a more meditative organisation?

Perhaps an organisational Day of Silence may hold back the macho high energy leaderist default to doing things, and make them lean – in to the thoughts and wisdom of introverts not just their louder counterparts?

Perhaps we could start thinking about the dysfunctions in our whole system rather than just within our teams?

Perhaps we could empower teams across all levels and silos to think holistically.

Maybe , just maybe, if we did that organisations might move beyond the cycle of start-stop-forget-repeat that we are seemingly locked in.

What could an organisational ‘Day of Silence look like?

As a minimum it would mean an organisational blackout on non-essential work, the work that gets in the way of real work. At its most radical it would follow the Bali model and shut down everything that wasn’t an immediate threat to health.

  • It would mean every employee taking time out to think deeply about the dysfunctions in the system and what prevents them from delivering value regardless of the consequences for them.
  • It would need to be collective and focus on the needs of the user not the organisation or its regulators.
  • It would need absolute commitment by management to firstly allocate one day each year for silence and then 364 days to act on the results regardless of what it means for them.

The cynics would say with those three bullets you’ve answered your own question. That’s why we don’t have an organisational day of silence and never will.

Maybe they are right. However, almost every survey on employee engagement, every report on productivity, every piece on the perilous state of trust in institutions suggests that that it might be, at the very least, worth a try.

Big Consultancy and The Rise of The Non-Expert ‘Experts’

No one ever got fired for hiring McKinsey, or so the saying goes.

The total size of the global transformation market is expected to grow to $2,279.4bn by 2025.

So, someone IS winning from transformation programmes and it’s not necessarily going to be you or your customer.

Mariana Mazzucato, who alongside Rosie Collington has authored the new book The Big Con says in an interview with the FT that these companies have  “have no expertise in the areas that they’re advising in.” She claims it’s a confidence trick. “Consultancies and outsourcers, Mazzucato argues, know less than they claim, cost more than they seem to, and — over the long term — prevent the public sector developing in-house capabilities.”

In May 2020, McKinsey & Co. won a £563,000 contract from the U.K. government just to shape the “vision, purpose and narrative” of a new organisation leading England’s Covid-19 contact-tracing efforts. Half a million to describe your purpose? Apparently the capability of some elements of the public sector doesn’t even stretch to articulating why it exists.

Naturally ,the professional consultancy trade associations aren’t great fans of the book. However, anyone who has worked as or with a consultant know there are at least two types:

  • Those who see their role as transferrers of skills and knowledge, building the internal capability.
  • Those who see themselves as expert advisors, imparting wisdom to organisations that don’t know the way forward.

Yet, if we believe what’s outlined in The Big Con, more operate like the latter. Indeed it’s rare that big consultancy leaves behind a more capable, more highly skilled workforce when, and if, it exits.

Mazzucato and Collington argue that governments and the public sector have simply stopped investing in their own capacity and capabilities, and because they fear failure, they do not take risks. Management consultants rush in and promise to fix the problem but end up enfeebling them instead.

Companies or Government’s haven’t always operated in this way. The birth of the change management movement only began in the 1960s and 70s – when big consultancy began to see a vast new market – convincing organisations of the benefits of ‘transformation’.

Alongside this came the development of a distinctive, pseudo-scientific language of change which the consultants needed to pitch themselves to new clients.

Arguably, people are now wising up to the Big Digital Transformation Con but according to the book the money making machine will move on to the next one: ESG and sustainability are the latest manifestations of a tried-and-true strategy for the consulting industry.

It’s boom time if you are offering advice on environmental, social and governance advice goals. Mazzucato and Collington point to a forecast predicting that the global market for “climate change consulting” could exceed $8.5 billion by the end of 2028. ESG is officially the new digital transformation.

As Adam Lowenstein writes there’s some real chutzpah here, the very people advising us on ESG “continue to do work for oil and gas interests whose business models—and thus their ability to continue hiring consultants—depend on extracting fossil fuels and obstructing efforts to regulate their industry.”

Perhaps if our organisations were more amenable to gentle iterative change rather than lurching forward intermittently to catch up on digital or sustainability initiatives we’d become less reliant on these ‘experts’.

I was talking this through with Rob Rowlands (a consultant who falls into the Type One category!) yesterday about how organisations really need to develop their understanding, skills and confidence about how they approach problems and explore solutions.

Too often organisations just outsource the thinking or the problem to someone else. In a post Rob wrote last year he talks about starting where you are. “There are problems – old and new – still to overcome and ideas to develop so that you can move forward more effectively. Maybe your first reaction is either to feel overwhelmed by the size of the task and give up or you find someone to come and do it for you.” It’s that mindset rather than developing internal capability that Big Consultancy can thrive on.

What are the gaps in what you know?

What can you do to fill them?

I’d suggest capability needs building in at least four areas:

  • More reflection and contemplation rather than lots of management activity. Getting better at asking new and unusual questions.
  • Devolving resources and influence to those closest to the problem rather than outsourcing them.
  • Changing little and often through small-scale experimentation.
  • Not rolling anything out until we have evidence that it actually works.

In his piece Adam Lowenstein points out that when governments can’t solve problems or deliver effective services to their citizens, people become more disillusioned.  This is equally true within our organisations.

When colleagues see all the thinking outsourced to highly paid hired hands who depart as soon as the contracts end, they suffer the same disenchantment.

We all need a little outside help, for sure. But ultimately it’s your company, your purpose, and your people.

Culture is devilishly hard to copy and should ultimately be unique to each organisation. And I know that to be true, because McKinsey said it.

Image by www_slon_pics from Pixabay

Innovation Doesn’t Happen By Accident

What’s your favourite innovation myth? Michele Zanini started a good Twitter thread on this subject, to which I responded:

Trickle down innovation, just like trickle down economics, doesn’t trickle down very far.

When leaders are implored to innovate they often go for the easiest and most attractive option, innovation theatre:

  • You bring someone in to give an “inspirational talk” on innovation 
  • You hold a one-day workshop to get your company to be more creative
  • You can get a cool space with loads of beanbags and motivational posters 
  • You have a hackathon

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 or concepts. This requires a level of leadership commitment that is often harder to get.

A ideas 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

Innovation will mean different things to different people in your organisation – there is no one size fits all.

  • The colleague on the frontline often just needs barriers to doing their job removing rather than moonshots. Removing that barrier is often all the ‘innovation’ they need.
  • The CEO fears becoming irrelevant and losing market share. They are looking for big shifts.
  • The People and HR functions want to foster an environment that promotes creativity, where people can generate new ideas that build a culture folks want to be part of.
  • Customer services want innovation management that enables them to identify and address changing customer needs and create new value.
  • Finance teams want to develop new revenue streams, or more often than not, just to cut costs.

In an innovation mature company all of these things can uncomfortably co-exist – but it cannot happen by magic. It needs curation and , yes, management. There are no shortcuts in building an innovative and productive culture and it requires operating on different levels and across multiple silos.

Because of these competing requirements and viewpoints any alien idea is usually rejected or resisted by the prevailing system. Therefore ideas that are new and that could complicate or even threaten the existing way of working means creating space where we can protect them.

It also needs protection from the organisational desire to complete things quickly. All the talk about agility is somewhat misplaced. If you work in innovation or design you’ll always see a time lag from inception to implementation. Even in the best organisations, it will take months, sometimes years, for new concepts to be assimilated into the everyday culture. Many (most) never make it.

That’s why there are always questions about how innovation or design teams spend their time and whether it’s worthwhile. When you’re working two years into the future it’s really hard to demonstrate outcomes that fit conventional performance frameworks.

There are some things you can do though:

  • Have a consistent way to define and measure innovation, so that it’s unambiguous in your company
  • Look for good problems rather than great ideas
  • Periodically assess the areas of your business so that you know where each stands in terms of innovation capability and capacity
  • Get senior leaders to identify and sponsor specific initiatives designed to address the key problems
  • Assemble smalls teams to work on the challenges. Use disciplined protocols to help these teams succeed.
  • Document, and track progress and share progress internally and externally.
  • Create a pipeline of ideas that aligns with an innovation strategy or plan. Pipelines enable companies to drive innovation momentum, solve customer-centric problems and engage in a meaningful way.

To be an innovative organisation you need to be great at defining problems, at generating ideas, at selecting and executing them, and at getting them to spread.

Innovation doesn’t happen by accident – it happens by design.

Image by Uday Kumar from Pixabay

The Creativity Productivity Paradox

You can’t endorse a top-down authority structure and be serious about enhancing adaptability, innovation, or engagement.

Gary Hamel

Employers are facing a conundrum: a generational gap in job satisfaction.

Research seems to indicate that while Gen Z and millennial workers report higher job satisfaction, they’re more likely to be looking for new roles. In contrast, older generations are significantly less satisfied at work but will stay put, contributing to so-called ‘resenteeism’. As one of the report contributors notes “the best way to keep people engaged is to create a culture of continuous improvement where their team members are encouraged to seek out new projects and skills.”

Simply put, there isn’t a great deal of joy in most people’s work at the moment.

But why? As Dion Hinchcliffe writes, the typical worker is now able to be more creative than in almost any time before. “While middle managers and team leads of yore might say that strict control and direction is required to get the proper outcome, in today’s far more dynamic, fast changing, and innovation-driven times, this no longer makes nearly as much sense. Work is becoming almost entirely what we make of it. And this is a good thing that will unleash far more personal and professional fulfillment along with much greater innovation.”

If Dion is right, that the future of work is 1:1 personalised and fully customisable, then why does is seem to be that people appear to be working more and producing less.

The problem I guess, is the system itself. The way we work doesn’t work.

As organizations grow, they become more complex, and it becomes harder to manage them effectively without formal structures and procedures. A larger organization insists on more rules and procedures to maintain order and control over its operations and its people. In addition, the larger the organization, the more specialized roles become, which can lead to increased levels of bureaucracy to manage them effectively. The end result : complicatedness.

This desire (and I say desire rather than need) for consistency and standardization, for control and accountability, comes at a cost: reduced creativity and flexibility.

As Gary Hamel wrote in an almost 10 year old but evergreen post; “Most of us grew up in and around organizations that fit a common template. Strategy gets set at the top. Power trickles down. Big leaders appoint little leaders. Individuals compete for promotion. Compensation correlates with rank. Tasks are assigned. Managers assess performance. Rules tightly circumscribe discretion. This is the recipe for “bureaucracy,” the 150-year old mashup of military command structures and industrial engineering that constitutes the operating system for virtually every large-scale organization on the planet.”

As Dr Tim Baker outlines – there is a creativity paradox here too, instead of enabling new initiatives (something everyone says they want) the interaction between manager and employee does the exact opposite – it stops initiatives and makes the employee dependent on the manager.

  • Leaders generally DO want employees to show initiative.
  • Leaders invite initiatives but employees aren’t sure they are serious so they do nothing or they submit ideas that don’t get full backing
  • Leaders fill the void and take control and the employee scepticism is validated

As Tim writes “The process in other words makes proactive behaviour harder not easier. ”  Ultimately , the actions of the manager speak louder than the words they speak.

The productivity paradox: the more investment that is made in technology, worker productivity goes down instead of up.

The creativity paradox: the more leadership support that is provided the more employee creativity is stifled rather than released.

The number one thing I find employees are seeking when talking about their ideas is someone who will listen. Number two is permission to try something out. Number three is budget.

To solve the creativity productivity paradox we need to become permissionless organisations – ones who push decision-making and exploration out to the furthest edges of the business rather than power being maintained with the very people who need to step out of the way.

Image by Robert Pastryk from Pixabay

Analysis Paralysis and The Threat To Innovation

A much delayed first post of 2023, which has been for a couple of reasons. Firstly I’ve taken a super relaxing break and switched off completely rather than my usual rambling around. I’ve been staying in one of those Caribbean mega hotels beloved by East Coast Americans looking to escape the winter freeze – and whilst that’s enjoyable -it doesn’t really get the creative juices flowing.

Secondly, I wanted to take a break from doom scrolling and the sheer misery of UK news feeds, as I recognised I was in danger of becoming overloaded, inhibited even, by the constant trauma and death spiral updates.

In my privileged all-inclusive adult playground there’s no cost of living crisis apart from the inflated cost of getting here. Covid is a memory. There’s no talk of a climate emergency and politics is a no go. “What happened to your president, the blonde guy with the hair all over the place? We digged him” is the closest it gets. No-one knows who Rishi Sunak is, and frankly why should they?

There’s a great scene in the second season of The White Lotus, in which at their first vacation dinner Harper and Ethan learn that their companions Daphne and Cameron don’t ever read or watch the news (“You can’t obsess”) and Daphne admits she isn’t sure whether she voted or not.

In a later scene that Wired said epitomised 2022, Essex lad Jack is dumbfounded when Portia expresses dismay at the declining state of world “Literally everything is falling apart”. Jack is dumbfounded. What decline? What is falling apart? “You’d rather live in the Middle Ages then, would ya?  We’re living in the best time in the history of the world—on the best f*cking planet. If you can’t be satisfied living now, here, you’re never gonna be satisfied. So let’s get pissed. Ay?” He grabs her by the hand. And off they go.

If you haven’t seen White Lotus, you should, as creator Mike White has perfectly summed up the dilemma many of us face both personally and in our organisations. Should we be hopeful or fearful for the future? And what is the best response to prepare for that uncertainty?

We know that constant exposure to the news is not good for us. “Media saturation overload” exists. Similar terms that have emerged recently include “doom scrolling,” “headline anxiety,” and “headline stress disorder.”

As news organisations and social media feeds prioritise clickbait, headlines become more dramatic and doom laden than they often need to be. Reading about negative events can even be as stressful as being directly involved in them.

A study was conducted into the impact of reporting on the 2013 Boston Marathon Bombing. The researchers looked at two groups of people. The first group watched 6 or more hours of news coverage about the bombings. The second group were runners in the actual marathon.

Those who watched 6 or more hours of news coverage about the bombings were more likely to develop Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and experienced a higher level of chronic stress than people who were actually at the marathon and personally affected by it.

I see similar things happening within our organisations. As we struggle with competing crises, some real, some exaggerated, we can enter a fugue state of analysis paralysis, a state that you can find yourself in when feeling extraordinarily confused and overwhelmed around a certain situation or set of possibilities.

Psychologist Barry Schwartz coined the phrase “Paradox of Choice” to describe his findings that, while increased choice allows us to achieve objectively better results, it also leads to greater anxiety, indecision, paralysis, and dissatisfaction. Being overwhelmed by a conflicting set of deficit based scenarios is the death of creativity and innovation as it leads to a lack of impetus. Literally nothing gets started. No mistakes are made so nothing ever is learned.

My contention is that organisations cast the net far too wide on the scenarios that affect them. By intentionally limiting the amount of information you consume, you can increase your productivity.

This is the productivity paradox of today – where growth in established economies is minimal compared to the speed of technology adoption. It seems clear that technological innovations aimed to make communication faster and more ubiquitous have clearly failed to boost our aggregate ability to actually get things done

I don’t do new years resolutions but looking back at the Covid and early post Covid era it seems organizations have become stuck in indecision mode as the old world model has ended and the new one is yet to fully emerge. The overwhelming response is, seemingly, no response.

The world is pretty screwed up at times, but is also beautiful and full of endless possibilities. We don’t push things forward by being doom laden but equally it is reckless to believe that our bigger problems will be solved through wide eyed naivety. 

Indeed the next few years will require discussing dangerous ideas that need to be explored in forums free of political ideology. I largely support what Musk is trying to do with Twitter but we don’t yet know whether it will be successful, as our echo chambers are stronger than ever. 

The main problem we face is that viewing the world through the lens of a collapsing health service, an aging population, a digitally distracted youth, and an apathetic and careless community is that we start to see life as an endless succession of deficits. 

It isn’t like that. Life is mostly good. When people are freed from bureaucracy they do amazing things. So let’s enable them to do it.

But right now, I’ll settle for another Margarita.

Designing For Ambiguity

When you introduce ambiguity, rather than control, into a system, people think for themselves and find a way to reach the right answer.

Mark McArthur Christie

The only traffic sign in the small northern Dutch village of Makkinga says ‘Verkeersbordvrij’ which translates as ‘free of traffic signs’. 

People living there have to find their own way around, negotiate for themselves, and use their own brains.

It’s part of a movement started by the late traffic engineer Hans Monderman of “designing for negotiation” where everyday citizens are treated like , you know , actual adults who , given agency , can co-design their own rules. It’s novel, as it is based on the radical assumption that not everyone is a complete idiot.

Of course, the idiots do exist. But as Monderman said in fascinating interview with Tom Vanderbilt “There’s a little part of society who don’t accept rules, who don’t accept social structures, It’s not up to a traffic engineer to change it.” A few weeks earlier, he said, a local 21-year-old who had just gotten his driver’s license had died in a crash. “He used drugs, alcohol. There’s not a street that can cope with that problem.”

And yet, all over the world, probably in the place you work, people design policies and rules aimed at stopping the 21 year old drunk driver lurking in all of us.

From your expenses policy , to the way you bill customers, to the way you monitor annual leave – the system all too often assumes the worst of us. That we aren’t to be trusted.

Corporate executive types and politicians assume they are far more trusted than they actually are. A recent survey by PwC found there is a glaring gap between the trust consumers have in companies (30%) and the trust business leaders think consumers have in their organisations (87%) – a 57 point chasm!

People forget that trust is reciprocal and should never be assumed. Indeed trust and trustworthiness should be understood as some kind of ‘reciprocal cooperation’. Why would you trust someone who behaves as if they don’t trust you?

So how can we design for trust? Partly this comes from the opening quote: if we introduce some degree of ambiguity and allow people to make personal choices it gives them agency. This in turn stops them feeling powerless – and moves them closer towards a position of trust.

Therefore if we designed our systems and institutions for users to negotiate themselves rather than dictating rules and controls – we might just find we are more trusted , as well as costing them a whole deal less.

On Monday I spent the afternoon with a customer of ours, and during the course of the conversation we identified probably half a dozen ways the organisation was standing in the way of potentially beneficial outcomes, probably without meaning to. It made me think again that many communities become apathetic precisely because of the way our services stand in the way of aspiration, killing bottom up innovation one tiny cut at a time.

There’s a curious train of thought across the social sector that seems to say “If we involve our customers more, we’ll be more trusted and therefore more accountable”. I’m sorry – but this is nonsense. The lack of trust in our organisations is driven by overly complex business models that fail to put the customer in any position of power. The idea that this will be solved by inviting them to read the minutes of your last Board meeting is, frankly, ludicrous.

We build transactional services despite the fact that we know that it’s relationships which make many services work.

We insist on knowing possible solutions are tried and tested despite the fact that communities are built by giving it a go and seeing what happens. Life is not something you can plot on a Gantt chart.

Hans Monderman once responded to a question as to why he didn’t see traffic signs as a way to change behaviour: “I don’t want traffic behaviour, I want social behaviour.”

How many of our processes, policies and practices truly promote social behaviour? And what would the world look like if they did?

A little risker?


But surely a world that was infinitely more co-operative and sharing. Where people felt they, not invisible and unaccountable others, had the control.

(Photo: Peter Biľak)

Why Big Teams Keep Getting Bigger

Big teams usually wind up just wasting everybody’s time

J. Richard Hackman

Traditional management structures reward success with ever more resources. That “reward” is often through giving someone a bigger team — either through additional headcount being added to your existing people, or just getting promoted and therefore having more direct reports.

In small teams – there’s literally no avoidance of scrutiny. In large teams, though, there’s plenty of opportunity to keep your head down.

The Inverse Relationship Between Resources and Productivity

The Ringelmann Effect is used to describe the inverse relationship between the number of a group of people and its productivity. Max Ringelmann was a professor of agricultural engineering who, in the late 19th Century, conducted a very simple experiment – he took piece of rope and asked two people to pull on either end: a simple tug of war.

Then he asked those same people to pull on the rope with the addition of a group. He observed that when people pulled with a group, they put in significantly less effort than when pulling on their own. So the more resources you add doesn’t always aid productivity, it can have the reverse effect.

This doesn’t always hold true as more recent research has found that individuals are less likely to decrease their individual effort within a group if they believe their individual effort is identifiable, or the group task has some personal relevance for the individual (i.e., is important), the group is more cohesive or tight-knit, and successful completion of a task depends on the effort of all group members. However , if people know their effort can drop without being easily identified and there are no negative consequences , they are likely to sit back and let others push ahead. This phenomenon is known as “Social Loafing”.

Often, people genuinely do think that if their team gets bigger, they can make things happen more quickly. Yet, Brooks’s law states: “Adding manpower to a late software project makes it later”.

I have literally seen Brook’s law happen in real time, most notably with large transformation programmes as more expertise is brought in and more resources are consumed until the whole endeavour nearly grinds to a halt. Everyone knows this to be true , but the conventional response is to keep adding resource, when all the evidence suggests the opposite should be happening.

One of the problems with big teams is simply communication. The coordination cost of a big team increases with every new addition, and management becomes nothing more than “link management”.

The Harvard psychologist, Prof. J. Richard Hackman,  found that as a group increases the management gets more complex. As he said “A colleague and I once did some research showing that as a team gets bigger, the number of links that need to be managed among members goes up at an accelerating, almost exponential rate. It’s managing the links between members that gets teams into trouble. My rule of thumb is no double digits.”

Having large bureaucratic teams is often thought of as being the preserve of the public sector but there’s little evidence that this is the case. Despite the online outrage I’ve detected no discernible change in service from Twitter which lost half its staff almost overnight. On that topic Jason Fried points out that Slack has 2500 people working for it and supplies a not dissimilar product to his own , 37signals, which has only 80 employees none of whom work for more than 40 hours per week.

Small = Optimised for Innovation

Research suggests that smaller teams are more optimised for innovation. Indeed, as Dashun Wang and James A. Evans write for HBR, large teams can be better at development and deployment, but small teams are better at disruption. Their analysis of over 65 million patents uncovered a nearly universal pattern: whereas large teams tended to develop and further existing ideas and designs, their smaller counterparts tended to disrupt current ways of thinking with new ideas, inventions, and opportunities. In an metaphor that any CEO should hold onto they state that “large teams, like large movie studios, are more likely to generate sequels than new narratives.”

So why don’t smaller teams proliferate? Everybody knows about Two Pizza Teams, but most teams could eat the entire contents of a Pizza Hut, with room for a Domino’s for supper.

Unpopular opinion, but I think it can come down to a desire for power and profile.

Earlier this week Adam Lent of New Local, spoke to our Board as we prepare to start a new Bromford strategy. We want to move to a position where our people are much more autonomous and there’s a more permissive culture, where people are free to innovate and respond as the community and our partners need.

As Adam said, to enable this means moving beyond a “paternalist” hierarchy where institutions exist merely to ‘do to’ people – a position that if it ever was desirable is no longer sustainable, so “we need to move to a relationship where communities… take more responsibility for what they do and we move to a much more collaborative way of working”.

Adam wasn’t talking about large teams vs small teams but he absolutely could have been. Large organisations and teams are about the concentration and accumulation of power, whereas small teams give power away. And that’s why we still have large teams.

What To Do When You’ve Become A Legacy Organisation

The outside world can push you into Day 2 if you won’t or can’t embrace powerful trends quickly. If you fight them, you’re probably fighting the future. Embrace them and you have a tailwind

Jeff Bezos

Highlight of my week was the annual get together of the Disruptive Innovators Network, back in person after three years, and hosted by Amazon at their UK headquarters in London.

The opening pitch on legacy organisations came from Prof. Mark Thompson whose expertise is the digital economy. A legacy organisation is defined as one where all processes, technology and ways of working where in place before the modern internet.

How many in the social sector can be described as ‘legacy organisations’? Quite a few.

  • 430+ Local Authorities
  • 168,000 Charities
  • 650 NHS trusts
  • 43 Police Forces
  • 143 Universities
  • 1500 social housing providers

None of whom can survive in their current form

All facing extinction in a digital economy

The message was bleak, but there is hope: survival is possible but only if leaders are willing to change.

As Mark wrote here we can have more, and better, public services – but we need a new, more radical approach to digital modernisation.

“Leading ‘customer-first’ organisations tend to remain very focused, all the time, around their purpose: the reason they exist. They regularly cut away all the other distractions and agendas that creep into all organisations over time, and refocus their energy, time, and budget on that purpose, which is usually organised around some sort of customer.

Anything that doesn’t directly touch customers is rigorously standardised, reduced, re-used, recycled, consumed, and commoditised. Strategic focus, and budget, is constantly reoriented to the frontline – the only part that customers actually care about.”

So what’s the problem? Amazon Web Services AWS (a subsidiary of Amazon that provides on-demand cloud computing platforms and APIs) neatly summed it up in one slide:

When less that a quarter of our leaders are digitally fluent after 30 years of the modern internet is it any surprise we have whole sectors on the brink of collapse?

We need a new set of questions:

  • What are the implications of new technologies for leadership at all levels?
  • How will these changes disrupt and impact the business model?
  • What knowledge and skills should be our priority?
  • What do we hold on to from our past? What do we discard?

Just like knowledge has been decentralised through social media, leadership needs to be decentralised and ever more flattened. Making the transition from the individualist nature of leadership to a more collective focus won’t be easy.

Unless we all feel that our Digital IQs are improving – that we are ready for the challenges of an increasingly automated future – we may find we have no place in it.

Establishing a Day 1 Culture

How do companies like AWS avoid the slide into legacy? They operationalise a culture of thinking and acting as if they’d only just started – and that every day is day 1. Day 1 is about being constantly curious, nimble, and experimental. It means being brave enough to fail if it means that by applying lessons learnt, we can better surprise and delight customers in the future. Contrast this to a “Day 2” mentality: as a company grows over time, it needs to adjust its approach to effectively manage the organization as it scales. The danger is that as this happens, decision making can slow down, and the company can become less agile, moving further and further away from the customer as it rotates focus towards internal challenges rather than external customer-centric innovation.

It’s this obsession with internal challenges that preoccupies legacy organisations.

None of us can compare ourselves to Amazon – a company who are single minded in their dedication to owning the future. In 2019 their spending on R+D was $35billion which has increased year on year since they spent a paltry £12billion in 2012.

You cannot match Amazon for R+D spend , but you can emulate their mentality.

“Day 2 is stasis. Followed by irrelevance. Followed by excruciating, painful decline. Followed by death. And that is why it is always Day 1.”

The only way out of a legacy organisation is to start again. Tomorrow. Day 1.

Turning Constraints Into Innovation Opportunities

As we enter a further period of economic uncertainty we will undoubtedly see a slash and burn approach to cost reduction in many of our organisation’s. An impending crisis often triggers suboptimal decision making that tends to focus on survival and forgets about investing in the future. Talent is lost only to be re-recruited again or passed to consultants at additional cost once the downturn is over.

Watch it happen.

Only 10% of companies emerge stronger from a crisis. Many go under or are forced to merge, a few manage to limp on , but just 1 in 10 become more successful.


According to Todd Ford, the successful companies are the ones whose Chief Financial Officers figure out the balancing act between surviving an immediate shock and protecting the future. They reduce costs very selectively with a focus on operational efficiency, while at the same time using their balance sheet as a weapon to boost vital spend on R+D.

As McKinsey point out, organizations that focused on innovation during the 2009 banking crisis, outperformed the market average by 30% and their growth continued to accelerate in the following years.

Clearly innovation should still play a role in your priorities, even in a downturn. In fact, economic or other constraints are great opportunities for innovation, as frugality can actually work to our advantage.

Constraints help you better understand the problem

When any and every option is in front of you, it’s difficult to decide what to do.

In a piece for HBR. Oguz A. Acar, Murat Tarakci, and Daan van Knippenberg find that when there are no constraints, complacency sets in, and people follow what psychologists call the path-of-least-resistance – they go for the most intuitive idea that comes to mind rather than investing in the development of better ideas.

At Bromford Lab we are currently running an experiment with one of our teams where we’ve denied them any use of technology in the initial test. The solution to the problem will almost certainly have a technological requirement but making it harder for them in the beginning helps you understand the problem better.

So constraints are actually a design tool because they force a few early decisions on you.

Innovation thrives when we have constraints – as it shows us where to focus and, more importantly, where not to.

Constraints force you to be creative

We’ll all know what it’s like to start with a blank page – more often than not you won’t start anything.

Dr. Caneel Joyce, has written that “giving people too much choice limits creativity, just as giving them no choice at all does… just enough constraint incites us to explore solutions in new places and in new ways.”

She uses the analogy of a playground as a starting point for understanding the whole concept of constraints. Research found that when a fence is put up around a playground, children use the entire space to explore and play; the fence giving them a sense of safety and security. On the other hand, if that fence is removed from the playground’s border, the limits become unclear and the children stay toward the middle because that’s where they feel safe. Importantly, in team work within organisations Joyce found that the absence of clear constraints actually created conflict stemming from the unarticulated assumptions that people brought to the table.

Even stress has a benefit.  According to research done by Dr. Kelly McGongial and Professor Todd Kashdan, stress has the potential to activate the parts of our brain that are linked to critical thinking, problem-solving, and creativity.  Want creativity? Create a constraint for someone.

Constraints can help you innovate in a frugal way

Thinking in constraints is a key element of frugal innovation. ‘Frugal innovation’ means innovating to create solutions that are better and cheaper, from fewer resources. In India , it’s know as Jugaad, 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.

In an economic downturn plus a major cost of living crisis can communities harness the spirit of jugaad to solve local problems? The question is whether institutions – often risk averse rather than risk seeking – would get out of the way and allow innovation to flourish.

So will organisations continue to support innovation throughout the downturn?

Depressingly, it’s unlikely.

The archaic business planning of most of our institutions exacerbate short-termism and stifle innovation in my view. The statistics from the last financial crisis back me up: only one in ten emerge stronger and more successful.

The only negative constraint to innovation is one word of just two letters: no.

Photo by Shane Teague on Unsplash

The Unintended Consequence of Putting People in Boxes

The world’s population will reach 8 billion sometime in November 2022, and each one of those people has a different personality, different background and different set of values – making us all unique.

You wouldn’t know it though if you looked at how we design interactions with users in the social sector. I recently saw a mapping exercise taking place in the housing sector that listed 50 ‘customer groups’. Here’s a few of them:

  • BME Groups
  • Dual Diagnosis Offenders
  • Graduates
  • Homeless People
  • Lone Parents
  • Over 25s
  • Over 50s
  • People who are drug or alcohol misusers
  • People with physical health conditions
  • Professionals or Executives
  • Sex Offenders
  • Travellers
  • Whole Families
  • Women Offenders Involved In The Sex Industry
  • Women
  • Young People Not In Education or Employment

And in case you felt left out..

  • Other

How on earth can we categorise people like this?

And which box do you tick if you are a 50 year old executive who misuses alcohol as a result of previous involvement in the sex industry?

Seriously though – who would design services in such a way? What are we trying to say about people or achieve?

It’s certainly not just in housing. After John Seddon pointed out on Twitter that categorising NHS users as ‘frequent flyers’ or ‘bed blockers’ are living examples of failure demand, Alex Morrish asked a good question:

My take is that it can be both. Leaders who can’t see or have become unable to for all sorts of reasons. When the system has become accustomed to seeing people as walking problems it becomes self fulfilling. It becomes demand led – consuming more and more resource until it sinks under the weight of an entirely self created problem.

Seddon defines failure demand as demand caused by a failure to do something or do something right for the customer. Customers come back, making further demands, unnecessarily consuming the organisation’s resources because the service they receive is ineffective. 

Picture via Cormac Russell

Placing people in these convenient boxes results in what people have termed misery mapping – putting humans into categories according to their particular problem. Although often borne out of good intentions it has the effect as John Wade describes: ‘the more examples of being broken that a service can find, the more things there are to fix and the more there is to fix the greater the need for the service or charity’.

Thinking about others in terms of their group memberships is known as social categorization—the natural cognitive process by which we place individuals into social groups. This helps us to make mental shortcuts, which are vital for quick decisions but an overgeneralization makes it more likely that we will think about and treat all members of a group in the same way. When we label people we end up limiting our curiosity about a person.

That’s why categorisations are so dangerous in a social sector contexts when understanding the needs of a user are so crucial. We’re not selling someone a Tesla, we are understanding their housing need or medical requirements.

If you’re using one of those 50 different labels to define someone you are literally failing to see the whole person. You are not having a conversation, you are not seeing, you are not listening – and that’s why you will misdiagnose the problem and keep them coming back.

50 different labels equals 50 different processes and 50 different ways to store data – the multiplier effect of this bureaucracy results in a system perfectly set up to go wrong.

Language, labels and jargon create confusion, risk and stigma but they also result in unnecessarily complicated and burdensome systems.

Photo by Brunno Tozzo on Unsplash

Understanding The System Beats Recruiting People Every Time

How much better off would we ALL be, if all the resources poured pointlessly into chasing talent were instead poured into understanding systems, and systems thinking?

The Quintessential Group

This week I got the opportunity to speak at the prestigious Archbishop’s Palace, a place steeped in history and first mentioned in the Domesday Book nearly 950 years ago. It’s one of those places where as you talk about today’s problems you can’t help but mentally place them in a better context. I was talking to a group of Education Executives having been invited by Forum Strategy as part of day discussing leading and generating improvement at scale across multiple sites and contexts that remove silos.

Most companies think and see in vertical lines across a series of vertical silos. This leaves numerous blind spots where complexity and inefficiency can thrive. This is the overlooked part of your organisational operating system, yet we often fail to learn from it.

Who better to be talking to about the failings of organisational learning than a group of very senior educators?

Our teachers often leave an imprint on us that will last our entire lifetime. You can ask the question “Who was your best and worst teacher at school?” to pretty much anyone on the planet and get a very rich and vivid answer. We don’t forget them.

Despite this, education is just another sector in crisis – 44% of teachers aspire to leave the profession in the next few years citing unmanageable workloads and a lack of support. In a Guardian piece from earlier this year Dr Mary Bousted said successive education secretaries had “failed to get a grip on the issues facing teachers”.

However, as we discussed at the session , ‘failing to get a grip’ is the hallmark of our housing, education, health, and energy secretaries too – and I’m sure readers from other sectors will add other departments. As I said on the day, I genuinely couldn’t list the last 10 housing ministers we’ve had and I frankly couldn’t care. It’s an irrelevant distraction. We are masters of our own destiny because we have to be.

Of course , generating improvement at scale often means abandoning ways of operating that you hold dear and tackling the system itself. But instead of tackling the system we often spend our time recruiting, restructuring or buying software.

Rarely do we tackle the system. As Deming outlined in his famous Red Bead Experiment any effect that the individual may have is generally 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.

Try this thought experiment. How much of management time is spent in your organisation optimising how the system works?

Now think how much time is spent launching new initiatives, HR ephemera, chasing KPIs for processes that shouldn’t exist, issuing colleague announcements and training courses for courses sake?

That’s the system that creates the duplication, the meetings, the bikeshedding, the heavy workloads.

Image via Chris Bolton

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.” I agree but I’d argue that’s beyond HR and beyond most teams as if they had that capability they would have solved it already.

In the session we talked about how we need to rewire our organisations so they don’t crave more and more resources and cash. That’s all central government hears from health, housing, social care, education, justice, defence. And yet we know that 30% of what we do is waste.

So we talked positively about moving away from craving resource towards optimising strategy. Focusing on essential core purpose and resisting chasing the latest fashions or sector trends.

Where to start though?

I’ll end as I began, with someone else’s words rather than my own, as I can’t say this any better.

The place to start is to really understand your system, from the perspective of how well it meets its purpose (as defined by its customers, not you), and then critically reflect on what this tells you, and why it is like this.

Then…think about what really needs to change.

This will be different to what you are currently thinking.

If not, you probably haven’t seen what you needed to see.

Few People Get Promoted For Asking Difficult Questions

Research indicates that even when everyone within a group recognizes who the subject matter expert is, they defer to that member just 62% of the time; when they don’t, they listen to the most extroverted person  

Khalil Smith

Innovation must be founded on a deep understanding of the problem we are seeking to solve. It takes a lot longer than you think too – the bad news is that all the talk of agility is often misplaced.

Unfortunately we live in a world that places a higher value on talking and having a hot take than on thinking. So we often leap to doing things rather than solving the right problems.

Relatively few businesses place value on purposeful thinking as ‘thinking about stuff’ doesn’t look like work. Some of my best work over the past few weeks has been thinking – but there’s precious little to show for it right now.

Too often we default to task-oriented leadership and “doing whatever it takes to get the job done.” It’s an autocratic management style from another age that emphasises completing (often needless) tasks to meet (often pointless) goals.

This focus on production leads to ideas and plans which fail to get exposed to the tough love of effective questioning.

It stems from school, where we are assessed and graded on the quality of our answers, not the problems we are contemplating. As we enter the workplace we get rewarded for the solutions that we propose, not the questions that we have asked.

Very few people get promoted for asking difficult questions.  So our organisations become very good at solving problems – even if they happen to be the wrong ones.

If you’re serious about solving the right problems, you need to be very good at hearing a lot of diverse opinions and seeking out a way forwarrd.

The Dangers of Listening To People Who Talk a Lot

One of the problems we face is that we are drawn to extroverts. Those who talk well and talk lots can command attention in meetings – and they get an unprecedented amount of airtime in modern organisations.

Whilst extroverts put it all out there for the world to see, introverts often keep their best ideas inside. If you’re ignoring them, you’re at risk of missing the problem and the solution.

As Khalil Smith writes – when our brains are left to their own devices, attention is drawn to shortcuts, such as turning focus to the loudest person in the room. And in a group setting “airtime” — the amount of time people spend talking — is a stronger indicator of perceived influence than actual expertise.

What Is An Expert Anyway? 

The other challenge is organisations often have quite a narrow view of expertise. They rely on things like position in the hierarchy, titles and years of service. However – more expansive experience, like time spent with actual customers, tends to get overlooked.


The ‘iceberg of ignorance’, the idea that most problems in organisations are invisible to leaders, and therefore unsolvable, is quite a blunt way of thinking about expertise. However, I’m betting that most people regarded as experts are positioned near the top of the iceberg.

Again – we often miss addressing the right problems as we listen to the ‘expert’ or the highest paid persons opinion. Remember – we are hardwired to defer to authority and seek guidance from the hierarchy.

Tapping Into The Inner World of Introverts 

We have forgotten that solitude and taking time to think have a crucial role in problem-solving.

Between a third and a half of the population of the world define themselves as introverts. They have more activity in the part of the brain involved in internal processing: problem-solving, remembering and planning. Introverts get energy from an “inner world” of thoughts, ideas, reflections and memories.

Think about that. Pretty much half the people you come across today:

  • Don’t thrive on endless meetings
  • Don’t enjoy brainstorming
  • Don’t want to attend away-days and conferences all the time.

Due to that inner world – introverts are ideally placed to absorb complex information about a problem and combine it into an elegant solution.

In the networked age the surest path to success is no longer just listening to the loud and the powerful, but widening and deepening connections with everyone.

Image by Miguel Á. Padriñán from Pixabay

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

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

Stowe Boyd

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Becoming Ambidextrous

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

This may need:

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

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

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

Photo by Katie Moum on Unsplash

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

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

Andy Tabberer

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

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

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

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

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

Waste Hides In Plain Sight

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Never look vertically.

Look horizontally.

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

Image by Hebi B. from Pixabay

The Growing Immunity To ‘Change Management Bullshit’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More from Chris:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Luke Stackpoole on Unsplash