What Coronavirus Tells Us About Risk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We are scared of making mistakes

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

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

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

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

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

No-one ever gets fired for exaggerating

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

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

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It’s available now. 

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Featured Photo by Hello I’m Nik 🍌 on Unsplash

The Creative Value Of Open-Mindedness

Innovation is, essentially, about being endlessly curious.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How can we develop open-minded organisations?

Most people don’t think they are close minded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

How To Resist Corporate Hoarding

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

According to David there are five factors hindering effective transformation:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

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

Cover photo by Wonderlane on Unsplash

The Complex Problem With Big Change Programmes

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

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

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

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

So let me clarify.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Complex, messy people.

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

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

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

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

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

People Aren’t Sick Of Change. They’re Just Sick Of Change Programmes

I don’t buy into the idea that humans intrinsically hate change. I just think that by the time we’re in our 30s or 40s, lots of our experience of change – particularly in the workplace – has been more negative than positive. Instinctively rejecting it is a learned response – Tom Cheesewright

People , we hear, are tired of change. They have change fatigue.

We are sometimes told that people will resist our ‘change efforts’ or even need to be assessed for their ‘change readiness’. Change readiness, in case you’ve not had the pleasure, is the “ability to continuously initiate and respond to change in ways that create advantage, minimize risk, and sustain performance.”

Failing your change readiness assessment could be seriously career threatening. 

Despite this so-called change resistance all the evidence shows that people want change on a scale like never seen before , both in our wider society and the workplace.

What is to blame for this apparent ‘change paradox’?

My contention is that there are some similarities with how change – or rather the lack of meaningful change that make people’s lives better or easier – manifests itself in our communities and in our offices.

Simply put, people’s experience of the delivery of change is often far from what they have been promised.  This is put even more simply by Peter Vander Auwera – “people don’t resist change, they resist bullshit”.

The Big Problem With Change Programmes

The birth of the management change movement dates back to the 1960s and 1970s when big consultancy began to see a vast new market – convincing organisations of the benefits of ‘transformation’.

The philosophy proposed that there’s always a better version of you out there in the future and by following a series of best practices, toolkits and templates that version of you can be easily realised.

However change is not just about going from one point to another, reaching a mythical ‘to be’ state and stopping there. The most important thing is what takes place from point A to whatever happens next – and that will almost never be what you predicted or what it says on a Gantt chart. None of us can predict the future and nobody can possibly know the butterfly effect when you begin to change things.

That’s why large-scale transformations become too big to fail – resulting in a ‘wall of silence’ when objectives don’t get met. They simply cannot deliver on what was promised. So what’s the point of doing them?

We Need Trojan Mice, Not Trojan Horses

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Image courtesy of @whatsthepont

Chris Bolton has written an excellent series of posts (links in here) on the concept of Trojan Mice. Trojan Mice is a phrase Euan Semple used in his blog about ten ways to create knowledge ecology .  Unleash Trojan Mice. Don’t do big things or spend loads of money. Set small, nimble things running and see where they head.”

For Trojan Mice think of small safe to fail tests and learning exercises rather than big change. Trojan Mice are small, well focused changes that address a problem but are introduced in an inconspicuous way. without the fanfare of transformation. They are small enough to be understood and owned by all concerned.

This is grassroots change rather than top down. And because the change is being made by people close to the problem they don’t resist it – they lead it. 

Many organisations don’t like this approach though because it is , by definition, unpredictable.  Trojan Mice will eventually deliver rewards; but you may not get what you were expecting.

I’d argue that big change never gives you what you were expecting anyway – so you may as well embrace a bit of uncertainty and release the mice. It’ll cost you a lot less money – that’s for sure.

Towards A Community For Change

Change does not always happen where, when or how we want. Organisations are just collections of people but we often forget that and make it more complicated than it needs to be.

I don’t know how change happens where you live but where I am people just connect with each other over shared interests and they try things out. There aren’t any spreadsheets that I know of.

The problem with employing lots of Change and Transformation people is that they often start changing and transforming lots of things that never asked or needed to be changed or transformed in the first place.

Grass-roots change presents senior managers with a paradox because it means directing an approach to change without insisting on or even approving specific solutions.

However , if we are to bridge the gap between the appetite for change and the experience of change delivery, we need fundamentally new approaches.

People hate change?

No, they don’t. They hate to get changed by other people.

Enabling A New World Of Public Service Delivery

The UK now finds itself in its lowest-ever position in the Global Trust Index, just one place off the bottom, with only Russia below it – Ed Williams President and CEO, EMEA

The results are in: Nobody trusts anyone anymore.

The 2020 update of the Edelman Trust Barometer, which aims to survey trust and credibility around the world, reveals that we are living in a ‘trust paradox’.  We have almost reached full employment with more people lifted out of poverty than ever before. And yet – globally –  no institution, be they government, business, non-profit or media— are trusted.

There’s also a lack of faith that the government can address our problems. Sixty six percent of respondents said they do not have confidence that “our current leaders will be able to successfully address our country’s challenges.”

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Institutions are variously described as remote, too slow. Too bureaucratic. Not agile enough.

However , there is hope.

75% of people want to see much greater collaboration from institutions, with each other and involving citizens. Indeed, across the board, collaboration is key to regaining trust. Partnering with other institutions to solve complex issues is one of the most important steps to regaining people’s trust.

Many more people place their trust in experts and local communities.  80% of respondents said they trust scientists, 69% said they trust “people in my local community” and 65% said they trust “citizens of my country.”

When nearly 70% of people trust others in their community and want to see greater collaboration from civic institutions, you have something positive to build from.

Yesterday I was in Cardiff with Wales Audit talking about the opportunities and challenges for accelerating innovation across the public and private sector.

These kind of debates about how organisations can move from the old world to the new are increasingly vital if we are to do anything about a trust deficit.

The excellent sketchnote in the header (thanks Chris Bolton! AKA @whatsthepont) nails the key behavioural shifts that organisations need to make to become ready for an era of equal partnerships rather than one based upon command and control.

  • A shift from targets and sanctions to supportive coaching
  • A shift from compliance and rules towards continual learning and improved outcomes
  • A move from hierarchy to partnerships through networks and collaborations
  • A move from broadcasting and controlling the message to conversations across trusted networks
  • And a seismic shift in transparency about failure – a move to a test and learn culture

As Chris said – we’d be naive to think this is going to happen overnight – and it’s a spectrum rather than a binary choice. Sometimes you DO need sanctions and you need a hierarchy.

That said, and as the Edleman report lays bare, incrementalism is no longer enough. People are looking for big bold change to deliver a discernible improvement in their lives.

More than ever people need to feel that organisations are competent and have the ability to fulfill their commitments. We need to believe they have the right motives, are benevolent, act fairly and honestly. We need to see they are transparent, that they are learning from mistakes and failure.

Enabling this new world of service delivery means shifting from ‘what matters to us’ towards ‘what matters to you’ . This requires quite a profound behaviour change from our organisations.

It means reducing the gap between organisational rhetoric and the reality. It means doing less talking and more listening. It means stopping saying how great your organisation is. It means engaging rather than broadcasting. It means defaulting to transparency. It means partnering.

The first step to regaining trust is to believe in someone or something. Perhaps that’s a good place to start for many of our organisations.

  • Do people believe we are benevolent?
  • Do people believe we are even competent?
  • Do people believe we even understand the problem we were set up to fix?

Distrust will only be combatted through leaders being open and accountable and having public discourse with one another and with the people they collectively serve.

Concern about disinformation will only be combated by providing real evidence of the kind of outcomes we are achieving. It’s time to kill it with the awards for ourselves.

The real positive here is that people aren’t sick of change, they want change on a scale like never before.

Whether we are capable of delivering it, or whether we are even prepared to, remains to be seen.

Putting The Needs Of The User Before The System

Are some countries more innovative than others?

Certainly many have tried to measure it, with the UK being outperformed by the likes of South Korea, Israel and Finland.

As the CEO of Pfizer, Albert Bourla has said, the role of Government when it comes to encouraging innovation is crucial: “We need to make sure that we change the way that we operate so that we can remove bureaucratic processes. Innovation and bureaucracy, like water and oil, they don’t mix well together”.

Government regulations can have both positive and negative effects on the innovation process. How can we get the balance right?

Last week I was in Newport, Wales, hosting a couple of workshops at the Future Generations X Conference.

Wales is a country that is putting its money where its mouth is when it comes to innovation and collaboration. It is attempting a seismic shift in the way that public services are required to think and operate.

In 2015 it enacted the Well-being of Future Generations Act which requires public bodies in Wales to think about the long-term impact of their decisions, to work better with people, communities and each other, and to prevent persistent problems such as poverty, health inequalities and climate change.

The ambition is to take the big ideas in Wales and across the world that can be adopted, shared and advanced across all public services.

That requirement to think differently about the wellbeing of future generations has all sorts of practical impact on day to day decision making.

  • What is the future generational impact of evicting a family from their home?
  • What is the future generational impact of jailing a father?

These are big complex problems and there are no easy answers.

The people attending my workshops spoke of the genuine challenges of collaboration at scale, of moving away from top down funding arrangements and targets where performance indicators drive the behaviors rather than the users.

Changing structures that have been set up with the specific purpose of measuring predetermined outcomes is never going to be easy.

When a target is set by someone sitting in an office who has never met an actual customer how on earth can we expect the outcome to be what the user actually wanted?

However, there is an acceptance from the top of Government that shifting behaviours towards a genuine user focus is the way forward.

The challenge here is simple to say but complex to achieve: putting the needs of the end user before the system.

All of this means investing in people and giving them the space to think differently.
It means giving them permission to challenge preconceived practices and ‘rules’.
It means taking a different attitude to risk and learning from failure

This theme is developed by Russell Webster citing a report by Professors Chris Fox and Kevin Albertson. The recommendations are specifically about probation services but I’d argue apply equally to almost all public sector innovation.  It recommends:

  1. Developing innovative ecosystems where a mixed economy of public, private and Third Sector organisations collaborate together for the greater good.
  2. A collaborative approach where different partners work together in pursuit of shared value.
  3. A co-created and personalised approach both at the system level in terms of service design delivery, and at the individual level in terms of more personalised services.
  4. A system which fosters localism in order to foster innovation.
  5. Greater investment in a broader understanding of evidence.

As I wrote last week pre-emptive change doesn’t lend itself to conventional approaches to governance. It’s likely to need adaptive or visionary models of change, rather than heavy-handed, top-down approaches.

What’s happening in Wales seems like a genuine attempt to move away from ‘simple but wrong’ approaches to public policy. It’s a huge ambition and I’m sure it will be a rocky road but I wish them well.

Putting the needs of the user before that of the system sounds simple but is in fact hugely complex.

But no-one ever thought doing the right thing was easy did they?

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Moving From The Reactive To The Pre-Emptive

As Matthew Manos has written, many of us in the social sector are employed in the expectation that the things that go wrong will always go wrong. 

Indeed, our work often profits from past societal failure rather than the contemplation of the signals of failures that have yet to exist.

The entire premise relies on reaction. 

  • The prisons are full. Build more of them.
  • People feel unsafe. Put more Police on the beat.
  • A+E = overflowing. We need more nurses.
  • There’s people sleeping on the street. Just build more homes.

Reactive services are not wholly bad – far from it – but our relentless focus on managing the past rather than inventing the future is limiting our scope for something a lot more radical.

The challenge is how to switch our organisations and our work to be pre-emptive. And that requires a whole system change.

  • A move from telling to listening.
  • A move from managing to coaching.
  • A move from filling the gaps with services to closing the gaps through connections.

That’s not easy when the whole system is built on reaction.

Let’s be honest, anyone can be reactive. And cynically you could say that reactive approaches keep a lot of people in jobs.

To be pre-emptive on the other hand, to truly anticipate future need and to create an offering around it, that takes real skill.

As a society we’ve now tested to destruction the idea that we can solve a problem by just throwing money at it.

Too often we’ve become trapped in a reactive spending cycle on public services none of which will not solve the underlying problems of short-term thinking and even shorter term spending decisions.

Everyone knows the cycle of crisis, cash, repeat doesn’t work. So why do we do it? 

One of the issues is the funding itself and how we approach financial planning.

Most financial planning is actually financial guessing the same as strategic planning is often strategic guessing. Wrapping things up in a 20 page report makes it seems like we know we what we are doing – but the truth is, we are just managing and reacting to the failures of the past.

And this is one of the problems we have: innovation and the pre-emption of the future is treated the same way as everything else – whether it’s forecasting how much coffee people drink or estimating annual sick days.

We seek certainty where this is none and assurances of success where it can never be assured. We have grown afraid of failure. And if there’s one thing we all know it’s that if you fear failure you cannot innovate.

Pre-Emptive Change: Fix It Before It Breaks

Moving to a pre-emptive mindset means shifting to a business model that acknowledges the fundamental ambiguity in everything it does.

Simplistically it could be broken down into four stages.

FutGenX - Paul Taylor Prevention Workshop

Shifting Perspectives

Many of our organisations have a bias towards getting quick answers. We favour execution rather than deliberation and contemplation. A pre-emptive approach means acknowledging we don’t understand our world half as much as we think we do. It means creating the time and the space for getting to the root cause of our problems.

Reframing Problems as Opportunities

If creativity is applying imagination to address a challenge then innovation is applying creativity to generate unique solutions. However to arrive at unique solutions you often have to reframe the question you are asking. The first step in reframing problems as opportunities is about unpacking all the assumptions we have. Remember – the point of reframing is not to find the “real” problem but to uncover whether there is a better one to solve.

Exploring Opportunities

We need to balance the right mix of fresh ideas and experience to foster innovation and ensure that new ideas are constantly explored and entertained.

This means becoming comfortable with abortive early attempts to solve problems in new ways. As we wrote over at Bromford Lab – whilst it might seem like the quickest way to get results is to jump straight to pilot, in fact doing things this way can often take longer to arrive at the right solution, or in extreme cases it can even lead to bad ideas being scaled. The best approach is to use prototyping and testing to rapidly learn more about a problem, fail safely, kill bad ideas early, and move on quickly.

Preventative Interventions 

Pre-emptive change doesn’t lend itself to conventional approaches to project management. It’s likely to need adaptive or visionary models of change, rather than heavy-handed, top-down approaches.

In preemptive change, R&D expenditure and an approach to constant iteration are decisive factors, reflecting a need to properly invest in the future.

Whatever our business plans say – there is no certainty in the future.

Let’s stop pretending there is.


This post was written as an introduction to a workshop taking place at ICC Wales on January 10th 2020 for FutureGen X. The session itself will be shared in next weeks post. 

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Ending Our Obsession With Leadership

Organisations need to completely rethink what it means to lead. It’s not about one person or even those residing at the top anymore. In today’s world, everyone has to adopt a leadership mindset. We have to think of ourselves as members of a leadership community  — Patty McCord, former chief talent officer, Netflix

Leadership worship – the act of mythologizing those near the top of organisations – is holding us back now more than ever.

When we look to others to make decisions, set the rules or uphold the culture we actively disempower ourselves, levying a huge inefficiency tax upon our organisations.

How much inefficiency? It could be 75% or higher.

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According to a recent report –  the vast majority of employees wish their boss or manager would give them more responsibility, with 83%  wishing ‘leaders’ would ask for their opinion or input more often.

Far from shirking, employees are actually crying out to make more of a contribution at work.

Those kind of numbers suggest enormous amounts of talent, ideas and innovation are being squandered – all in the name of supporting a hierarchical approach to leadership by the few, rather than the many.

It’s not as if those leaders appear to have all the answers anyway. According to the World Economic Forum  86% of people agree that ‘we have a leadership crisis in the world today’ with an alarmingly weak correspondence between power and competency.

Additionally, a series of reports from MIT argues that current leaders lack the mindset needed to bring about the strategic and cultural changes required to lead in the new digital economy.

So you have two things going on:

You don’t have to be an expert in innovation to see that’s a busted model.

But is it our own obsession with leadership that is actually supporting this dysfunction?

As Neil Tamplin has written , in today’s world of work people want to be accountable for their own actions and our leaders can’t possibly know the fullness of every decision they make. In our increasingly uncertain operating environments, this model is setting ourselves up to fail because we choose to avoid vulnerability and uncertainty in favour of comfort.

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Fear of Failure

So what’s stopping us? One reason organisations might not want to include their employees in their decision-making involves our focus on outcomes and a fear of failure.

The more people involved in decisions means the greater the risk of screwing things up – or so the conventional thinking goes. Mark Robinson has argued though that it’s often better to have poor outcomes with a great decision-making process than it is to have good outcomes with a poor decision-making process. His reasoning is that “you need a culture where people aren’t to blame for decisions. What your culture should be about is learning from bad decisions.”

Perhaps we need to lose the language of leadership altogether.

A Google search for leadership traits reveals a tiresome focus on visioning, strategizing and feedback loops – the kind of management bullshit we should have left back in the 1990s.

The real traits that matter such as empathy or self awareness, are key attributes for all human beings , not just for those of us who have a couple of line reports.

You will be hard-pressed nowadays to find a business that does not have some sort of a mentorship or development programme geared towards the leaders of tomorrow or emerging or aspiring leaders.

Hardly any of those self-same businesses will have programmes aimed at developing the ideas of tomorrow or creating the organisation of tomorrow.

It’s all about leaders. 

Arguably we are prioritising the perpetuation of existing systems and structures over meaningful change. Unless we address the root of the system, unless we really address how organisations make decisions and engage people, then we are not changing anything materially.

The new world of work requires us to become less fixated on the leader and more focused on leveraging the community at every level of our organisations.

Breeding the idea of the leader as superhero is getting us nowhere fast.

As we begin a new year the most radical thing you could do is rip up your plans for leadership development – and concentrate instead on how you can democratise innovation for the 80% rather than the 20%.

 

Collaboration, Creativity and Crap Offices: The Top Five Posts of 2019

The word blog is a conflation of two words: Web and log.  This blog is essentially a diary of what I’m thinking; albeit a diary that is meant to be read by others, and that hopefully inspires some creativity.

I started the year with an intention to post each and every Friday – something I managed just 34 times this year. We all know consistency is the key to successful blogging so my New Year’s Resolution is clear:

Be. More. Consistent.

I know that what is most popular is not always what is best but it’s always interesting to see what people come looking for on your blog.

Here’s the five most popular posts in 2019 – in reverse order with the link to the original in the title.

5 – The Danger Of Listening To People Who Talk A Lot

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One of the problems we face , according to this piece, is that we are drawn to extroverts. Those who talk well and talk lots command attention in meetings – and they get an unprecedented amount of airtime in modern organisations. This obsession with leadership – the loud and the powerful – is something we need to rebalance in 2020. Can we let the introverts in a bit more?

4 – Why We Don’t Collaborate

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Despite the hype – collaboration isn’t easy and isn’t the way most of our organisations operate. In fact – if we don’t teach, measure, encourage or reward collaboration it doesn’t tend to happen. This post helped bag me a couple of speaking slots and the contacts I’ve made/ conversations I’ve had since have convinced me that when we do collaborate we tend to collaborate on projects not best suited to collaboration! Watch out for an early January post on that.

3 – If We Want Different Relationships, The Doing Must Be New And Different Too

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In 2019 there’s a been a lot of talk of giving communities more power but precious little evidence of it. Perhaps next year we’ll see some of the resources that are meant to trickle down finally have some impact.

As the post says – you can’t change a relationship without actual changing your behaviour.  So let’s change it. As I said in my last post, the most important thing all organisations could do right now is simply demonstrate that we see ourselves as equal partners with communities rather than as supreme rulers of the vulnerable.

There’s a once in a generation opportunity here if we are brave and bold enough to embrace it.

2 –  Five Ways Social Media Can Inspire Creativity

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The second most popular post this year was actually published in 2016 – when almost no-one read it! It exploded in popularity in 2018 and continued it again this year.

The central message – break out of your bubble and actively follow people you don’t agree – is one that a lot of people still aren’t hearing. To quote Nick Cohen – never mistake your Twitter feed for your country.

1 – Why The Death Of The Office Can’t Come Too Soon

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The most popular post of 2014 is also the top post of 2019 – by some way.

I guess this demonstrates the power of a catchy title but also the stresses the need for us bloggers to not neglect older content that could be still relevant.

I think this post is popular because a lot of people are still frustrated with crappy workspaces and what comes with them . When and where we are productive is as individual as our genetic code. Five years on we are still waiting for a radical review of the purpose of offices and that means having to think very differently about what it means to “go to work” in the next decade.


 

Thanks to everyone who has read my posts this year and particularly those who have shared and commented on social media.

Remember you can also never miss a post by subscribing at the top of this page.

I hope you had a wonderful Christmas and I wish you and your family a happy and healthy 2020!

Very Best Wishes,

Paul x

The Problem With Seeing People As Vulnerable

Now, more than ever, it’s easier to exist within a bubble.

We spend a lot more time communicating through screens than talking face to face.

Our digital social networks are powered by algorithms designed to feed us information confirming what we already believe.

I started writing this post just before dawn on the day of the UK election result but didn’t publish it as I was interested to see what the reaction would be.

Would people accept that this is something that’s been coming a long time?

Or would people, because of the social bubble effect, be surprised? 

Far from being aberrations, or even reactions, the rise of populism and the latest election results are simply the logical conclusion of the path we’ve been on for a long time.

An era of hyper-consumerism, of seeing billionaires and paid professionals as the ones to solve social problems.

An era in which organisations and brands come first and communities last.

An era in which there’s a lot of talk of giving communities more power but precious little evidence of it. Where the resources that are meant to trickle down rarely do so.

Arguably we’ve viewed citizens only as atomised consumers rather than through the lens of neighbourhoods, This individual consumerist approach has only led one way – to a sense of alienation and frustration with public services and the state.

There’s a positive here – people want change.

There are huge opportunities for our organisations and institutions. However if we fail to respond to people and communities’ desire for change, we’ll eventually lose our legitimacy.

The Problem With A Deficit Mindset

Unfortunately the reaction to the election result , largely but not exclusively from the centre and the left, has shown a profound misreading of the problem.

‘Who is going to look after the vulnerable now?’

‘How will they cope with five more years of this?’

Nobody likes being vulnerable, but our organisations and institutions are all to prone to defining people’s entire lives by it.

They can’t cope.

We need to look after them before they do themselves some harm.

Despite our talk of vulnerable communities and customers we don’t often hear precisely what it is that people are vulnerable to, how this vulnerability is produced, or by whom.

In truth, no group of people is inherently vulnerable. If people are experiencing vulnerability in a particular situation that vulnerability is often produced by other people, institutions or circumstances.

If your organisation defines anyone as vulnerable it’s useful to consider your own role in the production and perpetuation of that vulnerability.

Defining people as vulnerable is the first step to removing their agency and self determination.

Over the past few years in our work at Bromford we’ve been trying to step back from seeing people as problems.

About six years ago we had a hunch – without much evidence at the time – that if we simply believed in our people and took away all of the bureaucracy they’d have conversations with residents and make the right decisions. We switched our model. We retrained our ‘managers’ to become ‘coaches’. A crucial part of that was to stop looking at people as problems to be solved and instead to see their skills and life experiences.

This still emerging relationship rejects the hierarchical and transactional mindsets of traditional service models which all too often bypass people’s assets and capabilities.

The Challenge And The Opportunity

The reason our organisations and our politics will often reject these models is that they threaten the existing order. Hierarchical and status-obsessed cultures militate against relationships based on equality, empowerment and collaboration. Most of our organisations don’t share power, they accumulate it, often at a very senior level.

If we don’t talk about power and how we redistribute it we’ll just continue to address the symptoms, rather than tackle the root causes of mistrust. We’ll just seek comfortable solutions rather than address deep institutional dysfunction.

Deficit based thinking sucks the life out of communities.

If you were part of a community that other people are defining as vulnerable, as continually needing help, you’d be pretty insulted.

If other people said you were incapable of making the correct choices because you’re not in full possession of the facts , you’d surely vote for something else.

What we’re seeing is a huge desire for something else.

Something different.

We don’t know what that looks like yet but that’s one of the reasons it’s a bit frightening and a bit exciting.

The most important thing all organisations could do right now is simply demonstrate that we see ourselves as equal partners with communities rather than as supreme rulers of the vulnerable and the needy.

There’s a once in a generation opportunity here if we are brave and bold enough to embrace it.

Why You Shouldn’t Ask Customers What They Want

The customer is always right. 

If you involve customers –  you’ll make better decisions. 

The only problem with statements like these is that they don’t seem to account for all those occasions when the customer wasn’t right. They don’t explain the fact that, despite high degrees of customer involvement and extensive market research, between 70-90% of all new product launches still fail.

Perhaps then, customers can’t actually tell us what they want, because they don’t know themselves.

{Note: for the following article I’m using customer as shorthand for any user of your organisation or service, including employees}

Last week, Nick Chater, Professor of Behavioural Science at Warwick Business School, delivered a talk to our Board. It made me think that we tend to take rational ‘commonsense’ for granted, so much so that we design new products and services without taking into account irrational or illogical behaviours.

We have irrational customers but we design rational customer experiences.

Indeed – we are fighting the idea that customers are often irrational. 

There is little evidence that we can even predict our own behaviour. We don’t necessarily know why we make decisions. When anyone proposes a change – even humdrum day to day changes (think self-serve check outs in supermarkets , or charging people for plastic bags) – we don’t react rationally.

That’s why , for example, so few people switch fuel suppliers despite the fact they’d be better off by doing so.

Our status quo bias, the tendency for us to lean towards doing nothing or maintaining our current or previous decision – is a strong reason for never asking customers what they want.  Every pound we put into asking customers what they want is basically wasted.

Have you really got the time to be distracted by what customers think they want?

Lessons from New Coke

In 1985 one of the biggest brands in the world nearly destroyed itself – by listening to what customers said.

Coca-Cola developed a product dubbed “New Coke” that was slightly sweeter than the original. Almost 200,000 blind taste tests were conducted and most participants said that they favoured New Coke over both the original formula and the companies bitter rival, Pepsi.

Hundreds of thousands of people can’t be wrong, right?

New Coke tanked – costing the company millions, with the CEO later commenting that they had “drawn a moustache on the Mona Lisa.”

There were two main lessons learned:

1: The research was flawed as it was based almost entirely on sip tests—a comparison of sips, not someone enjoying an entire drink. A blind test in a lab type environment was out of context compared to the experience of , say, drinking a Coke in the garden on a summer’s day

2: No-one realised the symbolic value and emotional involvement people had with the original Coke.  What customers said was “yes, this tastes a lot nicer” but when the product hit the market they behaved entirely differently. Influenced by their emotions and a status quo bias to keep things the same, they demanded the old Coke back.

Many of our organisations are still making these same mistakes – assembling focus groups and panels and involving users in ways that are wholly artificial compared to an actual customers lived experience.

The ‘customer knows best’ argument needs some challenge.

Whilst I agree that users are almost always closer to the problem than the average senior manager or executive, proximity to the problem doesn’t automatically make you the best person to solve it.

Solutions require subject matter experts who have a deep knowledge of the root cause of the problem and can look through multiple lenses to craft a response.

The idea that a customer can provide that based on fairly limited knowledge (or interest) is naive.

Designing the right solution means testing for irrational behaviours.

And that can only come by observing what people actually do rather than basing decisions on what you think , or what they say, they’d do.

The research of Clayton Christensen found that companies that fail often listen to their customers too much.

As users we struggle to envisage the future. Indeed, asking someone to consider the future is a bit like saying, “Tell me how you will behave in five years time when I’ve rolled out the service I’ve just asked you about.”

Arguably the best time to engage customers is the feed into the problem definition – and then at every stage through iterative testing, pilot and subsequent release.

If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses – (not said by) Henry Ford

It’s a great line but there’s no evidence that Ford ever said this. It never appeared anywhere until about 1970. A longer quote , and one he did say in his 1922 book, is this:

“I will build a car for the great multitude. It will be large enough for the family, but small enough for the individual to run and care for. It will be constructed of the best materials, by the best men to be hired, after the simplest designs that modern engineering can devise. But it will be so low in price that no man making a good salary will be unable to own one.”

Ford understood his customers aspirations long before they did.

We’ll only ever solve problems through having a deep understanding of our users and customers. That means accepting their flaws, their biases, and the fact they often make bad decisions.

Only by testing real products and real services with real customers in real-world situations can we hope to understand how people truly behave.

Redesigning Organisations For Positive Deviance

What if the traditional way that we think change happens is all wrong? What if our focus on the spread and scale of innovative business solutions isn’t the answer – but is part of the fundamental problem?

In 1990, an American couple named Jerry and Monique Sternin were sent by Save the Children to fight severe malnutrition in the rural communities of Vietnam.

Tired of ‘do gooder’ approaches that had cost lots and delivered little the Vietnamese Foreign Minister gave them just 6 months to make an impact.

When you’ve got weeks rather than years to solve a problem, and children are literally dying before you, you don’t have time for the theatre of change management. Equally you can’t lose yourself in the complex systemic causes of poverty.

Instead the Sternins decided to build upon what was already there –  rather than parachute in new solutions. So they travelled to various villages and sought out the real experts: the mothers.  They asked these mothers to help identify the villagers whose babies were bigger and healthier than the others.

In every community, organisation, or social group, there are certain individuals or groups whose behaviours and strategies enable them to find better solutions to problems than their peers, while having access to exactly the same resources.

Sternin later termed these people “positive deviants” – those who have – without realising it – discovered the path to success for the entire group.

  • Positive – in that they are doing something that achieves a fundamentally good outcome.
  • Deviant – in that their methods are not normal or universally understood or accepted.  They may even be frowned upon or distrusted.

In Vietnam the Sternins found that the mothers of the healthiest children were indeed doing things differently.

  • They were were feeding their children smaller portions of food rather than larger portions – but they were feeding them more frequently.
  • They were taking ‘low class’ food – like brine shrimp from the paddy fields – that was stigmatized by others and adding these to their daily soups or rice dishes.
  • They were ignoring the socially acceptable norm to feed family elders first – and serving their kids from the bottom of the pot, making sure the kids got the most nutritious food that had settled during cooking.

Alleviating the problem didn’t require huge resources or some transformation programme – it simply required connecting other community members with these ‘positive deviants’ and encouraging them to start emulating their behaviour.

Sternin went on to define Positive Deviance as a strength-based approach based around five core principles:

  1. Communities possess the solutions and expertise to best address their own problems
  2. These communities are self-organising with sufficient human resources and assets to derive solutions to communal problems
  3. Communities possess a ‘collective intelligence’, equally distributed through the community, which the approach seeks to foster and draw out
  4. The foundation of the approach rests on sustainability and the act of enabling a community to discover solutions to their own problems through the study of local “positive deviants”
  5. Behaviour change is best achieved through practice and the act of “doing”

The problem with much of our social innovation is that many solutions are programmes, projects or models run by well-meaning professionals, rather than building on what’s already strong.

In organisations , it’s even worse. We have standardised conformist models to ‘manage change’ top down, rather than identify positive deviance from the norm and nurture it.

Can Positive Deviance Work In A Corporate Environment?

Many of you will know the story of of the NASA ‘pirates’ but it’s worth reflecting on. This innovative team formed in the 1980’s and created an award-winning mission control system for the space shuttle program in record time, on a shoestring budget, and in the face of huge political resistance. Their values and methods challenged the established hierarchical culture.

The pirates were formed from a group of ‘troublemakers’, the kind of people who are most cynical about your latest change programme. Rather than booting these people out of NASA they created a safe environment that could amplify positive deviance rather than suppress it and offer the best chance for other renegade groups to appear and make a difference.

The seven pirate rules were:

  • Don’t wait to be told to do something; figure it out for yourself.
  • Challenge everything, and steel yourself for the inevitable cynicism, opposition, rumors, false reporting, innuendos, and slander.
  • Break the rules, not the law.
  • Take risks as a rule, not as the exception.
  • Cut out unnecessary timelines, schedules, processes, reviews, and bureaucracy.
  • Just get started; fix problems as you go along.
  • Build a product, not an organization; outsource as much as possible.

Realistically, you can’t run a whole organisation with rules like that. But you can create a safe environment in which those conditions can flourish. I’m presently doing some work on redesigning change at Bromford – and reading the story of Sternin and the Pirates again has made me challenge my instincts to try to make everything fit together nicely.

Not everything is meant to fit together nicely.

As Sternin later said – conventional change management just doesn’t work in practice. Rather than importing practices in from elsewhere you are often better at finding small, successful but “deviant” practices that are already working in the organisation and amplifying them.

If we want to be truly world changing rather than just sustaining the current system we need very different behaviours. That means leaning a little closer towards chaos, taking greater risks, and rewarding positive deviance.

The Complex Task of Simplicity

If you want to make things truly simple to use by your customers, you will nearly always have to make your organization take on more complexity – Gerry McGovern

Yesterday, I delivered a talk at a conference that was aimed at getting organisations ‘back to basics’.

The problem, I proposed, was that we live in a complex world and many of us just can’t help trying to help tackle every issue.

  • Climate Change
  • Wellbeing
  • Income inequality
  • Health

That’s often in addition to the core reason we were set up in the first place. The problems we were set up to solve were once quite simple, but as organisations get larger there’s more technology, more people, more regulation. We put together processes, controls, reviews, and structures and these factors together create a great amount of complexity.

There’s a paradox here. Although we appreciate the benefits of simple customer experiences and great design in our everyday lives, we often forget all about it when we walk through the door at work.

My contention is we have stopped seeing it. We don’t even recognise how complex we’ve become.

There’s some science to explain how we may have become ‘complexity blind’.

Our brains cope with complexity by identifying key features and filtering out unnecessary detail. On seeing that the space you enter has walls, a floor and a ceiling, you know you have entered a room and can usually ignore the details. You can find where to sit quite easily without getting all distracted by the view out the window or the pictures on walls. This is an example of what the French psychologist Jean Piaget termed a “schema”. Schemas can be useful because they allow us to take shortcuts in interpreting the vast amount of information that is available in our environment.

When your working day is crammed full of meetings and emails it’s easier to just screen out the bullshit and the complexity and just , well,  try to cope.

And sometimes we don’t just take mental shortcuts – we take physical shortcuts too.

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Desire paths were beautifully described by Robert McFarlane as “paths & tracks made over time by the wishes & feet of walkers, especially those paths that run contrary to design or planning”, They spring up when humans vote against design – with their feet.

But desire paths exist within our organizations too, when colleagues make illicit shortcuts through bad policy and procedure to make their working lives a little easier.

Sometimes there are very visible signs of complexity , such as long lists of KPIs or structure charts that look like a company is preparing for an invasion of Europe rather than serving customers.

Last year Sky admitted that they had identified over 2,000 KPIs within their business. They took radical action and reduced it to just 30. Interestingly , they did this by cutting the people involved by 84%. They admitted the KPIs fulfilled no purpose whatsoever and  were just in the business because “someone liked them”.

How can we simplify complex organisations? 

As Steve Jobs said, simple can be harder than complex. Most of our organisations default to the difficult for a reason – it’s easier.

Being simpler means spending more time in problem definition, and more time observing what users need and how they behave. Einstein believed that the quality of the solutions we come up with will be in direct proportion to the quality of the description of the problem we’re trying to solve. Not only will solutions be more abundant and of higher quality, but they’ll be achieved much more simply.

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

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

It also means taking a different view of design – and removing activities rather than adding them in.

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The Dutch traffic engineer Hans Monderman challenged this thinking with his idea of “Shared Space”. His concept was simple. Remove all traffic lights, signs, and road markings. The results were the opposite of what most people expected. The traffic moved slower, people paid more attention, and accidents ultimately declined.

Monderman’s theory was that increasing traffic regulations reduces personal responsibility, the need for drivers and pedestrians to pay attention to what is happening around them.

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

What would our organisations look like if , when faced with a problem, we focused on removing things rather than adding them in?

What if every time we added a new activity we abandoned an old one?

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The second of the Bromford Design Principles is abandon activities that don’t add value. I’m going to put my neck on the block and suggest it has been the least successful of the nine principles we introduced. Yesterday certainly reminded me that should be my personal focus in 2020.

Ultimately simplification means making it easier for your people to get things done and for your customers and other partners to work with you.

As the world becomes more complex, simplifying strategy, leadership, decision-making and all of our communication becomes more important than ever. It should be our number one focus – but it certainly isn’t.

Being simple – it’s complex.

 

How To Keep Focussed (And Remain Sane) In A World Of Complex Problems

In our heart, we know the solution does not lie in reforming silo by silo but in organizing our silos the way people organize their lives, so that the neighbourhood becomes our primary unit of analysis and change – Cormac Russell

I’ve spent two days this week with both the Connected Places Catapult in London and the Energy Systems Catapult in Birmingham. I’ve had long conversations about climate change, automation, the ageing society, housing shortages and technological disruption. And that’s before we got to health inequality, crime or poverty.

My brain is a little fried. 

We are faced with countless wicked problems in the world—issues so severe and so complex that finding answers almost seems impossible.

And yet right now as I write this there’s a politician on my TV claiming they’ll have ‘solved’ four or five of these by 2030. Good luck with that.

In truth every single one of this intractable problems will affect our organisations to some degree. How do we respond without going bankrupt (or insane) in the process?

First of all – let’s take a deep breath before we launch any new initiatives.

Earlier in the week I learned that for all the millions spent on smart metering and fuel initiatives precisely nothing has changed in our behaviours. We still use the same amount of fuel.

It’s valuable to look at the outcomes we are getting before launching something new.

The National Health Service we are told is the world’s best healthcare system.  Yet the NHS has a poor record on one fairly important indicator – actually keeping people alive.

We often hear that housing associations prevent homelessness , but in the 50 odd years since Cathy Come Home rough sleeping has increased from about 965 people each night to over 4000.

We have a ‘world class legal system’,  but most of our prisons are overcrowded.  By contrast the Netherlands has a shortage of prisoners. 

How can it be that so many sectors face such crisis at exactly the same time. Is it rising demand? Lack or resources? Or the impact of years of austerity?

Or is it something more fundamental. A deeper design flaw.

Perhaps we are too keen on firing magical silver bullets – that look like attractive ways to solve deeper problems.

As Chris Bolton has written – in organisational life the term Silver Bullet has come to mean anything new that can miraculously solve difficult problems. But as he says silver bullets should actually be called Silver Boomerangs, because they fail to address the problem and keep coming back. How to avoid them? Well, I’m with Chris , if something seems too good to be true, it probably is.

My reflections on this week is to return to themes that I, and many others, have written about before.

How much of our impact across the social sector is diluted by our lack of connectedness?

How much of our impact is wasted through by-passing the process of facilitating citizen-led discovery, connecting, and mobilisation? 

When all of the bullets are being fired by disconnected organisations at disconnected individuals it’s hardly surprising that most of them miss their target.

Why don’t we have seamless health, care and housing that isn’t compartmentalised, siloed and rationed across disparate organisations?

And how much of our collective resource is tied up in back office ‘management’ rather than pushing ourselves ever closer to the community?

What would it take to make such a radical shift?

In a provocative piece Adam Lent makes the case for a new law that would shift power from public institutions and into the hands of citizens. If institutions are reluctant to drop their paternalistic mind-set,  handing power and resource over to communities to solve their challenges themselves – why not force them to through legislation? 

Placing unconditional devolution and a duty to collaborate on local authorities and institutions may sound radical, but it shouldn’t be dismissed given the challenges we have.

Whether we legislate or not we need to see a transformation in leadership within our organisations. People simply aren’t prepared for a world requiring citizen led change. As I’ve written before, there are reasons for why we don’t collaborate, and our organisations are largely complicit with them.

To paraphrase Cormac  – it is time to awaken to the fact that we don’t have a health problem, nor a social care problem, nor a climate problem, nor a housing problem, we have a neighbourhood problem.

The worst two things you can do in a crisis is panic and throw money at the problem. Pausing, reflecting and doing some deep problem definition, could be the least exciting but most radical thing we could do right now.


 

Image via Straighten The Maze

An A-Z of Office Jargon

Apparently – ‘Touch Base” is the most-hated office phrase for a second year in a row.

Certainly – it’s a mainstay of contact requests I get from Linkedin. And if I fail to touch base I usually get someone ‘circling back’ to remind me.

But surely the most in vogue phrase is ‘we’re on a journey’. I was recently at an event where it was used five times – in the first 30 minutes.

None of us are immune to jargon. Defenders of jargon say it acts as necessary professional shorthand – it conveys complicated ideas succinctly. Used well, it does.

The danger comes from using it out of place, especially when dealing with the wider public. It can often distort or confuse.

I’m often guilty of this – words around innovation and design can be especially arcane – often dressing up a simple idea.

And it winds people up. A survey by the Institute of Leadership & Management, revealed that management speak is used in almost two thirds (64%) of offices, with nearly a quarter (23%) considering it to be a pointless irritation.

So I’ve refreshed my A-Z for 2019, here they are:


Agile

Was once the ‘collaborative effort of self-organising and cross-functional teams’ but now best used in meetings to make yourself sound down with the kids e.g “is this really agile enough?”

Bandwidth

As in “I don’t have the bandwidth for this” – meaning “I don’t have the time for you today sorry”

Circle back

As in “I’m just heading to a very important meeting but we’ll circle-back later”

Deep Dive

As in “We’re going for a deep dive to make sure we utilise all the functionality”

Engage (or Consult/Involve)

See also co-creation, co-design, co-production or co-anything else

Future-proof

An assertion that your latest idea is immune to obsolescence

Going Forward

Meaning “from now on”.  Bonus points for “Go forward together”

Hackathon

Usually a meeting. Just with pizza and t-shirts 

Ideation

A word that “has come under informal criticism as being a term of meaningless jargon” according to Wikipedia

Joined Up

Taking a ‘holistic, helicopter view of the business’

KPI

Key Performance Indicator. Easier if everyone just said ‘target’

Low Hanging Fruit

An open goal. The fruit is hanging right there in front of you – grab it

Mission Statement

A written, but very rarely demonstrated,  ‘reason for being’ in respect of a company and its activities

No ‘I’ in team

Meaning – in case you were in any doubt – that there is no letter I in the word TEAM. Entirely reasonable to hit anyone who says this

Offline (Let’s Take This)

Or even better “let’s ‘touch base’ about that offline”

Pivot

To change your mind after realising that your project is doomed. A useful euphemism for failure

Quick Win

Small steps or initiatives that produce immediate, positive results without any actual evidence

Radical

Use this when you want to make something that’s not remotely exciting sound like it really is 

Singing from the same hymn sheet

Widely used by managers with no idea of how to get everyone in agreement

Touch base

The LinkedIn translation of ‘let’s talk’

User Centricity

Placing your customer at the ‘centre of the service experience and prioritising their needs’ without actually meaning it 

Value Add

Managerial speak for “to make something better”

We’re on a journey

Highlighting that a company, team, project or person will never reach the final mission or objective

Your take

As in I’m keen to hear your take on this as I haven’t got a clue what to say or do

Zero Sum Game

As in “we should never, ever, have started this project in the first place”


You might agree or disagree or want to add more (anyone got an X?)

Let me know!

How Technology Can Increase Collaboration And Build Trust

This post is an shortened version of a plenary talk delivered in Cardiff for the Wales Audit Office 


Depending on your age it’s likely that the two things you were not taught in school were:

a) how to collaborate effectively

and

b) how to use technology to connect and share with others

And yet these – the essential skills of the digital economy – are hardly ever talked about, much less taught and promoted, in our places of work.

Our 21st century economy demands workers excel at collaborating through technology, but as employers we struggle to work out how to equip our people with these vital skills.

There’s a reason for this of course, most of our organisations are still obsessed with organising ourselves into neat little directorates with clear accountabilities and reporting lines. This creates a very efficient looking functional silo system – encouraging employees to stay in their lane and get things done.

However in a digital economy we can no longer afford to think in conventional terms of efficiency. The more interdependent the world becomes, the less it needs lone problem solvers and the more it needs great collaborators and orchestrators. How to collaborate productively is a skill we all need to learn as it’s essential to our having greater impact in the digital world.

Problem-solving, creative thinking, digital skills and collaboration are in greater need every year yet are not the focus of our learning and development.

We still spend most of our time and resources on leaders. This incessant focus on ‘leading’ ‘and ‘leadership’ is actually a throwback to an industrial model and unwittingly acts against collaboration. When we continually promote the importance of leaders we imply that they are ones to take charge of situations.  They are the the ones to sort our problems out.

However, this concept of the heroic leader is fundamentally anti-collaborative as it compels those being ‘led’ to be submissive and unquestioning.

How can our organisations become more collaborative? 

Ultimately , we’ll only build collaborative organisations if we design them that way.

At its best, collaboration in the workplace can help people think more deeply and creatively about a subject and develop more empathy for others’ perspectives. It can boost productivity and innovation and create better workplace engagement.

But, it takes time and requires space and patience. And – it’s incompatible with cultures built on ego and fiefdoms.

As I’ve written previously, if we don’t teach, measure, encourage or reward collaboration it doesn’t tend to happen.

At Bromford we’ve begun the process of democratising innovation and design by training all our colleagues in collaborative problem solving and cross-team working. It won’t happen overnight, but it’s supported by an organisational DNA that has a design thinking – and hence a collaborative – mindset at its core.

How technology can increase collaboration and build trust

What are the challenges?

The technology is there to enable cross-team, cross-sector, and cross-country collaboration. Much of it is free to use.

Legacy thinking is more of a barrier to this than legacy IT.

We still have a tiny percentage of leaders who are really living a digital lifestyle. There are still relatively few having open debates , showing transparency in public discourse , answering questions online and sharing progress.

Too many of us are hiding behind unfounded concerns about data privacy and fear of working in the open.

We need to teach and support people how to make the best use of social technologies to connect and collaborate at scale.

What are the opportunities? 

For the first time in history, we now have the ability to ‘go beyond’ our organisational boundaries, connecting and sharing with the public and each other.

The basic unit of innovation is not a creative individual, nor even a team, but a creative community.

Millions of people connected without hierarchy and working together to solve some of our biggest challenges. This provides the opportunity for a 10x improvement in our communities. 

For organisations and systems that are used to ‘providing services’ rather than ‘connecting people’ that’s clearly a challenge  – but it is one we can and must step up to.

We can’t change the world on our own. We need to build movements.

The Smartest People Will Never Work For You

Joy’s law is the principle that “no matter who you are, most of the smartest people work for someone else”.

Bill Joy, the computer engineer to whom it’s attributed argued that if you rely solely on your own employees, you’ll never solve all your customers’ needs.

It’s a quote that’s never been more true.

Joy was not talking about the hackneyed “war for talent” trope. Even if you somehow manage to get the best and the brightest to work for you, there will always be an infinite number of other, smarter people employed by others.

Even if it was possible – these days we don’t need to employ those people. We live in a networked age – and having people who can master ‘distributed problem solving’ and collaborate at scale – will be a differentiator for organisations.

This week I was in Wales speaking at an event organised by the Good Practice Exchange – all about effective collaboration using technology.

Harnessing the power of collective thinking is one of the most effective ways to maximise innovation output. The more minds, brain power and insight you can gather, the better.

It’s recognised that CEOs with connections to diverse social environments built of people from a variety of backgrounds can create more value for the organisations they lead.  In today’s digital economy this knowledge exchange is open to any of us – IF we stay clear of echo chambers and embrace genuine diversity. (That means, not blocking people who disagree with you.)

Social media gives you access to people who behave and think differently.  Used wisely it can encourage people to break out of your own sector.  By actively following people you don’t agree with your people will become less prone to groupthink.

If you’re only surrounding your people with those who think like them – you are limiting your companies capacity and capability for innovation.

Groupthink – “a deterioration of mental efficiency, reality testing and moral judgment that results from in-group pressures” – historically only happened to small groups.

Hashtags have changed all that.

In a society in which social networks consume so much of our time we have evolved into a mass version of groupthink. A herd mentality of a scale we’ve never previously encountered.

It’s time for us all to really consider the role of diversity in our social media content. The algorithm is deliberately feeding you more of what you want to hear.

This diversity can be advantageous: research suggests that employees with a diverse Twitter network—one that exposes them to people and ideas they don’t already know—tend to generate better ideas.

Screenshot 2019-10-18 at 06.39.28

 

This research differentiated between idea scouts and connectors.

An idea scout is someone who looks outside the organisation to bring in new ideas, using Twitter as a gateway to solution options.

An idea connector, meanwhile, is someone who can assimilate the external ideas and find opportunities within the organisation to implement these new concepts.

In the research,  Twitter users who performed the two roles at the same time were the most innovative.

That’s easier said than done, we often find that people who are great at making connections and opportunities aren’t the best ones at matching them to strategy and implementing.

A good innovation team plays this role – acting as a pressure chamber where external influences can enter the organisation, in a controlled and measured way.

Social media will help your people crowdsource opinion from others. I often find myself thinking out loud-  this blog is essentially a brain diary to see if what I’m thinking connects with others. Learning out loud in our networks helps to seek new opinions and share our own with a wider group. It allows us to take half-baked ideas and test them out in public, with low risk.

Just soaking up other people’s opinions doesn’t lead to innovation though. Rather – it’s the ability of employees to identify, assimilate and exploit new ideas to create new value.  This is where our organisations need to put more effort and support in for people – it’s hardly ever talked about, much less taught.

The smartest people will never work for you. We need to create a network of as many great contributors as we can–and transform it into a community.

So many of us , right around the world , are working on solving exactly the same problems. To address these complex problems our organisations must be reshaped for a community where ideas and information flow openly and transparently.

The real opportunities lie right at the heart of it.

a short post about death

Even during the most pivotal moments of our lives we are only a few minutes away from being digitally distracted.

Twelve to be precise.

We check our phones for new messages every 12 minutes

Four weeks ago today we were just arriving in Ubud, Bali on day six of a planned 3 week trip.

Within a minute of framing a perfect shot for Instagram I got a text from Karen’s sister asking me to call her immediately.

You know it will be bad news.

Her mum had passed away suddenly, only a few hours after we last spoke.

When you get news like that your immediate response is one of confusion.

You can’t become numb as you need to take control.

Your mind cycles through thoughts ranging from the profound to the prosaic – and even to the selfish.

“How do you tell someone their mum is dead and that they are never going to see them again?”

“We’re 8000 miles from home. What do I actually need to do?”

“This trip is really over, right?”

“On the positive side, thank god we haven’t unpacked yet.

In these intensely human moments of crisis you realise how much technology is ever present.

  • Insurance companies offer to organise a flight for you ‘if you can wait 24 hours’,  when you can organise one yourself in just minutes.
  • Websites continually push barely literate chatbots at you when you just need a bloody phone number.

And as always it’s the people who really make the difference. You can go digital by default all you like but you can’t digitise human kindness.

  • The Indonesian Airbnb host who stops eating his dinner to drive you immediately to the airport.
  • The flight attendant who bravely attempts to ‘override the system’ to try to get you a couple of seats next to one another.

8000 miles feels a very long time when you’re just trying to hold things together.


Death is in our faces almost everyday – we hear about it on the news, we watch TV shows and movies featuring loads of it. But when it comes to the ‘everydayness’ of death, the sheer normality of it, we’d rather not talk about it.

We are obsessed with prolonging life and looking good. Society is urging us to eat healthier, exercise harder, buy more things – anything to put off the inevitability of death or even thinking about it.

Western culture keeps death at a distance. It’s just not for everyday conversation.

12 months earlier I’d been in a very different community in Sulawesi, Indonesia. In Tana Toraja, death is life and part of a longer spiritual journey. Families keep the mummified remains of their deceased relatives in their homes for years – and traditionally invite them to lunch on a daily basis – before they are eventually buried in ceremonies that go on for days.

The funeral we were invited to in Sulawesi was a great celebration of life, much like a going-away party.

It was an occasion in which the entire family of the deceased, and all the members of the village take part. During their lives, they all work extremely hard to accumulate wealth. But unlike in the West, they don’t save their money to buy consumer goods.

They save for a good send-off in death.


The funeral of Karen’s mum, Anita, on Wednesday was very different from the one in Tana Toraja. They don’t tend to make animal sacrifices in Stoke-On-Trent. And the funerals last for mere hours.

It was a beautiful send off though. A wonderful celebration of life and family.

Unlike a Torajan funeral where you’re literally invited to take selfies with strangers, everybody politely kept their phones away. Protocol meant we had to resist that 12 minute temptation to check.

Technology does have an important part to play though in how we grieve in a digital age.

We share our memories on Facebook and swap stories and recollections of our loved ones. We even share recollections with the profiles of our loved ones. Researchers say before the end of the century there could be as many as 4.9 billion deceased users floating around the internet. Our virtual selves and their associated memories will become as numerous as our real bodies.

That said, I made a commitment this morning to spend a little less time on my phone. Karen nearly fell out of bed in shock. I’ll repeat that commitment here as a public statement of intent.

We have an endless gift for caring if we allow time for it.

Sometimes we really need to disconnect in order to reconnect with what matters.

Why Do We Hate Our Offices?

If you are working in an office today you will be interrupted – or you will interrupt yourself – every 3 minutes.

And what’s worse is it will take most of us up to 23 minutes to recover from that distraction.

If your boss lets you, go home. Walking out the office door is likely to be the single most productive decision you’ll make this year.

It’s not hard to see why we dislike our workspaces and what they bring us:

  1. About 11 million meetings are held on average every single day, with employees in the US attending about 62 meetings every month.
  2. British workers spend 492 days of their lives travelling to work, spending over £800 every year.
  3. A survey of British workers, published in June, found that those in a hot-desking office took an average of 18 minutes to find a seat.
  4. The average professional spends a third of each work day reading and answering email, according to a McKinsey analysis. And 62% of that email is not even important.

On top of this the actual design of our workspaces is mostly poor. Whilst the technology we use is unrecognisable from 15 years ago, the places we work from haven’t really developed.

How The Open Office Came To Rule The World

In 1958, an art professor named Robert Propst set out to design the office to rule them all. He had researched the habits of office workers, including what made them inefficient, what they liked and disliked, how often they moved from their desks.

He monitored every wasted second—in the hope that he might save us all, not by leadership, but by design.

Typically, he observed the the manager in a corner office and the majority of workers at open desks that were arranged in static lines, with very little consideration for any form of privacy, storage or intrusion.

The ‘action office’ he invented was intended to take us away from the distractions of open environments, and give us a semi private space we could decorate with photographs and other items. It was an ‘office’ for those of us who were not important enough to warrant a real office of our own.

It wasn’t the fault of Propst, but his original designs came to be dumbed down and the mutated into the cubicle, which came to visually represent the office silo, banks of workers not talking to one another.

We needed a solution, an open office that made us collaborate and communicate with our colleagues.

 

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The pursuit of increased workplace collaboration led managers to transform cubicle offices into ‘open’, transparency-enhancing spaces with fewer walls, doors and other spatial boundaries. However, research by the Royal Society shows that open plan offices do not build teams or increase collaboration.

The reason why we don’t collaborate is far more complex. If we don’t teach, measure, encourage or reward collaboration it doesn’t tend to happen. Office design is only a miniscule part of that.

Equally, office design has done little to improve our productivity. UK workers are putting in the longest hours in the EU, but this isn’t translating into improved productivity. In fact, the research shows employees in Denmark put in over four hours less than UK workers – whilst productivity in Denmark is 23.5 percent higher than the UK.

It doesn’t look like the innovators can save us either. The latest office disruptor – WeWork – appears to have stalled too. WeWork’s fundamental business idea — to cram people into cool looking spaces and give them snacks — puts lipstick on the problem, but wholly fails to address it.

The cost of all this is measurable, in employee disengagement scores and the costs of our locations. The average annual property cost for a British office worker is £4,800 ($6,000), according to Investment Property Databank.

Can the death of the office come soon enough?

The office is the biggest inefficiency tax that organisations layer over themselves.

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

Rising travel costs, advances in technology and the climate crisis are cohering to guarantee that working from home becomes relatively commonplace. And a new form of remote work has emerged: working from anywhere , in which employees can live and work where they choose.

After over a century of trying to solve the productivity problem with physical design we need to ditch the idea of the office as being the answer.

We don’t require new workspaces but new cultures.

There is no unique formula for productivity or creativity. It’s now the role of the leader to work with others to find out what their own unique formula is.

That might mean:

  • Giving teams true autonomy and flexibility, rather than trying to micromanage their  work
  • Providing funding for informal meet-ups to allow people to collaborate in ways that suit them
  • Giving people freedom over the technology they use, allowing them to make use of personal devices not company mandated relics.

Your next conversation with your team could be about how much sleep they are getting, when they feel they are most creative, and what the optimal conditions are to get their full concentration.

When and where we are productive is as individual as our genetic code. That’s why getting people to agree on what workspaces should look like results in them being the average of everyone.

Yes – we need a radical review of the purpose of offices and that means having to think very differently about what it means to “go to work”.

It also means getting to know teams, actually listening to people as individuals, and letting them become the designers of their own unique workday.


 

Featured Image by Pexels from Pixabay

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