Who Really Wins From Digital Transformation?

The birth of the change management movement began in the 1960s and 70s – when big consultancy began to see a vast new market – convincing organisations of the benefits of ‘transformation’.

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

It aimed to take advantage of a sort of corporate narcissism – hoping that senior executives and boards would swoon at the chance to ‘made over’ by slick looking outsiders.

They certainly did swoon, in fact they fell head over heels. As Jacob Dutton writes in a challenging piece – helping companies ‘do transformation’ is now very big business.

“The total size of the global transformation market is expected to grow from $445.4bn in 2017 to $2,279.4bn by 2025. The consulting component of a transformation programme alone is worth $44bn. As a result, the likes of PwC, Deloitte, KPMG and EY have all reacted and developed their transformation capabilities.”

The size of this market , and the riches on offer, arguably drive three key behaviours:

  • A focus on agile solutions rather than contemplative problem definition.
  • A subsequent focus on low hanging fruit – the easier problem to solve is often through tech, rather than the more complex wicked problems 
  • A focus on benefits realisation rather than value production – which often puts the emphasis squarely on efficiency.  Humans are expensive right?

Which then leads to:  The rush towards technological transformation – as if cheap tech is the only solution.

But what are we losing from our organisations, from our community, when we approach transformation as purely a means to be quicker, slicker and more convenient?

NI Housing - Paul Taylor (2)

We could be seeing the digitsiation of the most important thing your organisation has – the relationship with your customer.

As Gerry McGovern has written, looking at technology as cost minimization results in the hollowing out of organizations into technological shells, in which staff spend far more time interacting with numbers, code, and content than they do with their customers.

These avoidance tactics presume the customer is a cost on your time rather than an opportunity. In our own work we have learned that our customers and communities have many skills, often untapped and completely underutilized by us and others like us.

This change evangelism and the hollowing out of relationships can make us embark on the worst kind of technological solutionism – that risks ignoring the skills, assets and sheer talent that exists in our communities.

Starting With a Clean Slate

At Bromford we’ve done a lot of work on the standardisation of our processes and service offerings. It’s not sexy, but some of the most innovative companies operate very standard operating models. It allows them move exponentially quicker.

Focusing purely on the relationship your customer wants, and the simpler processes that support it,  helps resist the need to transform.

Jacob Dutton proposes that big companies abandon the idea of transformation programmes altogether and suggests some tips for kicking the habit. I agree and would also add:

  • Let’s have more reflection and contemplation rather than lots of management activity.
  • Let’s devolve resources and influence to those closest to the problem rather than outsource them.
  • Let’s change little and often through small-scale experimentation.
  • Let’s not roll anything out until we have evidence that it actually works.

As Neil Tamplin has said perhaps our organisations need to be more amenable to gentle iterative change rather than lurching forward intermittently to catch up?

Being a human organisation means resisting someone else’s idea of best practice.

Who is really winning from transformation?

  • Is it the customer who now has a digital portal and a chatbot with a pre-determined series of options between them and the person they really need to deal with?
  • Is it the organisation who were promised a bright new future but find they have the same fundamental problems they always had?
  • Is it the employee who was told they shouldn’t resist change and that their job would be made easier, but found that their job would eliminated altogether?

The global transformation market will be worth $2,279.4bn by 2025.

Someone is winning and it’s not necessarily going to be you or your customer.

View at Medium.com

 

If We Don’t Develop Different Relationships, We’ll Lose Our Legitimacy

If we do not respond to people and communities’ desire for power, we will lose our legitimacy and waste the potential of the many ways they can have agency over what matters to them. If we do not continually, bravely work to build trust, we will lose the essential foundation for everything we do. – Civil Societies Futures

I’ve had a week of fascinating conversations, all linked by one theme, the apparent reluctance of many of our institutions to cede any sort of meaningful power and decision making to communities.

Part of the problem is the social sector is a field of business that profits from past societal failure. The entire premise relies on reaction.

When your business model is founded on profiting from being reactive – there is little incentive to change.

There’s also a very real question about skillsets and mindsets. During my conversation with Lizzie Spring it became apparent that at some point we shifted from entrepreneurial community based models (think: the birth of the social housing movement for example) to ones based on efficiency and the accumulation of wealth.

Necessarily this has forced organisations to be more ‘business like’ with career pathways for ‘professionals’.  It’s hardly surprising that communities feel organisations have become more distanced, remote and less accessible.

CHC Trust Presentation (1)

A couple of weeks ago a consortium of housing providers tweeted an animated GIF showing a lonely looking person peering out of a desolate block of flats. The tagline read something like ‘Housing Associations provide services to some of the most vulnerable and hard to reach people in the UK’.

What on earth are we trying to say? 

A number of tenants jumped on the tweet and pointed out – quite rightly – that it is the institutions themselves that are hard to reach not the people they serve. It was deleted by the following day.

It would be easy to write things like this off as the mistake of junior comms person but this attitude speaks of something far more fundamental: that organisations have become disconnected from their original purpose and are happy in their role as rescuers of people.

CHC Trust Presentation

In today’s world of rising demand and scarce resources the doing, not just the talking, needs to be new and different. You can’t change a relationship without actual changing your behaviour.

A new report from Adam Lent and Jessica Studdert sets out a compelling case for a deep shift in public services based on a completely new relationship between citizen and state. This relationship rejects the hierarchical and transactional mindsets of traditional service models which all too often bypass people’s assets and capabilities.

It highlights the risk of seeing citizens only as atomised consumers – something the digital transformation zealots are actively encouraging. This consumerism only leads one way – to a growing sense of alienation and frustration with public services and the state.

The report goes on to state this isn’t inevitable. There is a huge opportunity to change.

CHC Trust Presentation (2)Our communities want change – and they know what’s not working. This appetite for power and influence is a once in a generation opportunity to reconnect with people and establish entirely new relationships.

We mustn’t all focus on housing the homeless. We mustn’t all focus on filling prisons or A+E departments. 

We have to move to a more preemptive model that builds on what is already there rather than seeing our organisations as curators of the worlds problems.

The conversations I’ve had this week, and the grassroots innovation that some organisations are fostering (notably in Wales), fill me with a lot of positivity.

The modern social entrepreneurs aren’t waiting for permission from regulators or consensus from their industry body. They aren’t bothered about awards or being seen at industry events. They never look at benchmarking. Many of them aren’t even paid or employed in the social sector.

They know that the way we have become organised is dysfunctional – and they are forging ahead with relationships first and services last. They are working with communities as equals rather than as professionals.

They might not know what works yet but they are clear about one thing: not returning down a path to paternalism and disempowerment.

This incremental change can build and gather momentum – becoming massive change for the entire social sector.

No-one is stopping us.


 

This post has been inspired by conversations this week with Lizzie Spring, Shirley Ayres, Serena Jones, Chris Bolton, Ena Lloyd and Pritpal Tamber. Thanks guys

The full slide deck on rebuilding trust as featured at #CHCGOV19 is featured here 

Rebuilding Trust Requires Getting Comfortable With Being Uncomfortable

Difficult conversations, the ones which we all too often shy away from, are the very thing that help build trust in one another.

For instance, if you want to spot a couple who are on the verge of splitting up, look for the ones who have stopped talking and are sitting in silence. The ones having a public argument over lunch still have a dialogue. Couples who argue effectively are 10 times more likely to have a happy relationship than those who sweep difficult issues under the carpet.

For years, our organisations and institutions have swept difficult issues under the carpet rather than having adult to adult conversations. The results are there for all to see.

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The 2019 Edelman Trust Barometer reveals that trust has changed profoundly in the past year—people have shifted their trust to the relationships immediately within their control as we become more intolerant and disillusioned.

The world though is united on one front—all share an urgent desire for change. Only one in five feels that the system is working for them, with nearly half of the mass population believing that the system is failing them.

In conjunction with this pessimism and worry, there is a growing move toward engagement and action.

This is hugely positive, although disruptive. The trust-building opportunity then lies squarely in the area of integrity and engagement.

In the old days a trusting relationship between individuals and organisations has been the norm.

This has shaped the way we communicate – both internally and externally. It has resulted in the issuing of corporate annual reports, press releases , customer satisfaction scores and benchmarking results. All designed to tell a positive, on-message story.

Those days have gone.

As Gerry McGovern writes – the game has profoundly changed. “Many organisations are still deluding themselves into thinking that if they can just get their marketing and PR right, they can control the message, control the future.

My last couple of posts drew on the need to escape siloed bubbles and embark on different relationships.

The reaction to the latter, on Twitter in particular, highlighted the lack of trust in many of our organisations.  There is clearly a need for a different and potentially difficult conversation, and it won’t be easy.

On Saturday my Twitter feed was buzzing, and it wasn’t all positive. A few people were taking me to task for having double standards.

The problem I imagine, is I’m a ‘paid professional’ working within a flawed system. A flawed system I myself have perpetuated at times. How can I possibly help fix it if I’m rewarded by it?  I could be – as one person noted – the problem rather than the solution.

This view is not entirely without foundation. Social networks might appear to be more democratic , but in any conversation there’s often a power imbalance, and we’ve seen precious little evidence of any organisations giving up any power or resources.

A lot of people are disillusioned because they feel they could probably do a better job than those in power. Social media has revealed where the power is held, and how it behaves.  Why shouldn’t we as social organisations cede power in a situation where so many clearly crave it?

Perhaps it’s because trust works both ways, and our organisations don’t trust citizens, users or customers to wield power responsibly. How would they know how to make the right choices?

It’ll take more than a few tweet-chats or a transformation programme to restore trust that has been eroded over decades. Digital is not the saviour we thought it might be. There’s a need for genuine human connection as a resistance to today’s deadening, tech-obsessed world.

That doesn’t meant we shouldn’t try to improve our online conversations though, we need to develop broader shoulders if we are to break this down. I’ve heard too many stories of people being muted or even blocked by organisations whom they are customers of.

It also means reducing the gap between organisational rhetoric and the reality:

That means it’s time to do 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 people engaging in difficult conversations. 

We all have a role in diffusing some of the anger out there. That means getting better at discussing ideas and finding common ground.

Today, more than ever, we need to start talking more. Listening to voices we’d sometimes prefer not to hear.

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

You can’t change a relationship without actually changing your behaviour. 

There’s a reason some of our public services feel remote, unaccountable and uninterested.

Many of our organisations are products of failure. They only exist because things don’t work.

Fixing other people’s problems keeps you very busy. It creates vast organisational empires and complex group structures.

On the other hand actually believing in what people can do for themselves means being brave enough to admit that you won’t always be needed. It means stepping back.

There’s a familiar theme across the social sector: demand for services is rising rapidly and citizens want more of a say in what those services look and feel like.

Whilst there’s a lot of noise about the former, there’s generally little focus on the opportunity of people wanting more influence and even control of the services they receive.

Adam Lent writing about the NHS 10 Year Plan points out the fatal flaw in organisational thinking :

There’s a belief that we can solve our own problems through structural, process and technological fixes rather than realizing the starting point for change is the creation of a completely different relationship with the communities we serve.

This obsession with tinkering with structure, process and ‘digital transformation’ is fundamentally limiting – when instead we should be looking at a much more radical redesign of services.

Adam points out that’s no sense of the need for a different and potentially difficult conversation between services and citizens about communities taking on more responsibility.  Importantly “there’s no self-analysis of how a hierarchical, status-obsessed culture militates against relationships based on empowerment and collaboration”.

This theme is picked up by Tony Stacey in Inside Housing. “Why isn’t the sector squirming right now?” he asks. Faced with serious charges about remoteness and a lack of trust the professional response seems to be: we’ll publish a new charter and make some tweaks to our code of governance.

As Tony says – this on its own is not going to rebuild trust in the way we need.

We explored this in a recent Bromford Lab workshop where people spoke of a more fundamental shift being required:

  • Democratising organisational strategy; enabling communities to have their say on how money should be spent.
  • Starting to talk in terms of ‘collaboration’ rather than ‘engagement’.
  • Being openly competent and building trust through relationship building and positive action, not marketing and spin.
  • Visibly doing something with the feedback we get
  • Doing what we say we will do and being open and honest when we get it wrong.
  • Challenging how sectors work ‘as one’, and protect their own image.

Serious stuff. Which speaks more of a need of actually ceding power than it does of tinkering with policy.

Leading by Stepping Back 

If we approach public service purely as a one to one consumer transaction we view the world through the lens of efficiency, reduced contact, metrics and performance indicators.

In an economy moving towards sharing rather than just transacting we need to build a new set of behaviours based on trust and collaboration.

At Bromford we are trying to reshape our organisation around the latter.  A move away from managing to coaching and connecting.

Every individual and community has assets, talents, skills and abilities. Better to focus on helping to develop and release these, rather than treating people as a series of ‘problems’ that need to be solved.

circles of support

We recently agreed a set of principles that underpin this kind of relationship and I think they are useful in outlining the shift organisations may need to make.

It requires a change in beliefs:

  • A belief in an adult-adult relationships. We invite feedback and challenge. We are comfortable being uncomfortable.
  • A belief in the strengths and abilities of others.
  • Doing more listening than talking – asking the right questions and letting people think through their options rather than advising them.
  • We don’t judge other people’s choices.
  • We start with the individual and take an asset based approach to coaching which is personal to them
  • We don’t see people as needing to be fixed and we don’t collect problems.

Importantly this means we will always look to how existing strengths in the community can be built upon rather than providing services. We should never provide or support services that replace, control or overwhelm the skills within community.

When people opine that the ‘system is broken’, it’s a red flag that organisations have stepped too far forward. That they are becoming omnipresent in peoples lives.

Perhaps the answer lies in rebuilding organisations around communities, with a modern sense of trust and compassion.

You can’t change a relationship without actual changing your behaviour.

In today’s world of rising demand and scarce resources the doing, not just the talking, needs to be new and different.

Minority Dissent: Why Intelligent People Fail To Solve Problems

At the end of November 2018 my blog posts dried up.

I’ve not published one for over seven weeks – the longest gap for a couple of years. The problem wasn’t that I had nothing to write, rather I was afraid of the reaction to what I’d say.

I have five draft posts I’ve struggled to finish because of a fear of being misinterpreted – or a fear they might upset someone.

It’s hard to believe it was only five years ago when we had huge hopes for social media – that a genuine counter-culture was disrupting our established organisations. We finally had a decentralized communication platform for knowledge sharing and idea exchange.

With hindsight that was overly optimistic.

The two seismic events of 2016 – Brexit and the election of Donald Trump – were partly a reaction to that misplaced optimism. Plenty of people felt shut out and left behind from the party. The fallout has caused mayhem ever since.

  • Fake news – a term no-one really used until a couple of years ago is now seen as one of the biggest threats to democracy.
  • We seem to be getting a bit nastier to each other online –  where the lack of eye contact allows us to be particularly rude to people in ways we’d never consider in real life.
  • We’ve arguably got a bit too sensitive , with hurt feelings meaning you can be reported to the Police for upsetting someone.

Analysis of social media use shows that we tend to engage most with information that aligns to our existing beliefs and perceptions on the world.  With people spending up to two hours a day on social media that’s a significant amount of time spent in a bubble.

If you are mostly friends with people on social media who share your views,  naturally you are more likely to hear confirmation of your views than dissent.  You share your views on Brexit for example, and everyone agrees with you. This reinforces your world view rather than making you question it. When you do hear dissent it seems like an anomaly. You’re clearly on the side of the angels!

Last year I made a deliberate effort to spend more time engaging with people and content that offered completely opposing views to my own. I only drew the line at anything that was truly hateful.

I think I understand other people’s views and experiences better as a result, and I definitely acknowledge that I was more comfortable living in a bubble. It’s unsettling when you’re not so sure you are right.

Why Intelligent People Fail To Solve Problems

In 1972 a psychologist named Irving Janis published an essay explaining how a group of very clever people working together to solve a problem can sometimes arrive at the worst possible answer.

He paid particular attention to foreign policy, the US involvement in Vietnam and JFK’s disastrous intervention into Cuba.

The paper inspired the phrase ‘group-think’ – the psychological drive for consensus at any cost that suppresses disagreement and prevents the consideration of alternatives.

As facilitators and designers at Bromford Lab, we see this all the time. Well-intentioned people can make irrational decisions when they are spurred on by the urge to conform. This can simply be because we value harmony above rational thinking.

Minority Dissent and Innovation 

It may go against a happy-clappy harmonious view of the workplace, but discord has to be allowed to take its proper place if we are to solve the problems that matter.

Agreeableness is not always the best personality trait for innovation. Agreeable people like to work in places where everyone gets along, rather than places that are competitive, or where people are openly challenged. They prefer the status quo to rocking the boat with new or controversial ideas.

Ultimately we do need to create safe team climates, but ones in which dissenting opinions are used effectively to create radical change.

  • We need to regularly seek out views that are different to our own – and create conditions where people are comfortable expressing dissenter views.
  • We need to debate more and be a lot less sure we are right. There are very few absolutes in the world today.
  • Every organisation needs a truly safe space where beliefs can be challenged and assumptions put to the test.
  • Remember that dissenting for the sake of dissenting is not useful or clever. Don’t be a dick.
  • However, authentic and sincere dissent stimulates thought and improves the quality of ideas.

Diversity is important,  but we need to embrace a diversity of perspectives too.  It’s easy to say that but not so easy to do.

It means challenging yourself on where you spend your time, and who with. Listening to voices you’d probably prefer not to hear.

Do We Really Trust BrightHouse More Than We Do Housing Associations?

Ultimately the best way to build trust is to actually be trustworthy

Trust is the most valuable commodity in your organisation – although it’s probably not something you talk about often, much less attempt to measure.

A few months ago I took part in a steering group advising a group of people working in housing to tackle the ‘poverty premium’. That’s the additional price people can pay for being on a low income and who then become excluded from the best deals – by using pre-payment meters, not switching to the best fuel tariff or using higher cost credit.

The research team cited some interviews they conducted that stuck out for me: that some people had said they trusted Brighthouse, and other high cost lenders MORE than they did their own housing association?

That can’t be right can it?

Surely it’s impossible that someone would trust a rent to own store charging 99.9% interest over a social purpose organisation specifically set up to house and protect people?

Not so.

BrightHouse has an impressive four star ‘great’ rating on Trustpilot. A simple Google search will show you the housing associations featured get around one or two stars.  “All they want is the rent and nothing else” is a recurring comment.

Of course this is not evidence in and of itself that BrightHouse is more trustworthy, but it does show that how many organisations have adapted much better to the digital age – where the accepted rules of trust don’t always apply.

As an example it’s interesting to see how BrightHouse respond when they get a one star review. Firstly they’ve taken the time to respond , something almost none of the non-profit providers have, and secondly they offered a solution.

Trust is fairly straightforward. We need to feel that organisations are competent and have the ability to fulfil their commitments. We need to believe they have the right motives and act fairly and honestly. We need to see they are transparent, that they are always learning from mistakes and failure.

That’s why Amazon can be trusted by 100 million prime members, despite some of their business practices. They deliver time after time and always take the side of the customer in any dispute. They don’t just say sorry, they appear to learn from it.

This isn’t just a problem for housing associations, but also the wider social sector, NHS and charities.

As Gerry McGovern has said, customers trust those who give them control — who put them in control — of their lives. They distrust those who try to control them.

Many of our social sector organisations don’t seek to put customers in control, or even regard them as paying customers. They can actually disempower them.

The network effect of technology has created a way for people to share experiences more quickly, and to more people with more detailed information than ever before.

Responding to that means radical behaviour change on behalf of organisations.

  • That means reducing the gap between organisational rhetoric and the reality.
  • That means stopping saying how great your organisation is.
  • That means engaging rather than broadcasting.
  • That means defaulting to transparency.
  • That means doing what you say you will.

The social bond that connects us as people is based on trustability. Always-on interactivity and the proliferation of social media is making customers demand a new standard of trustworthiness from companies. Trust now lies in the hands of individuals, not in our organisations.

To be trustable, a business must act toward its customers and demonstrate humanity and empathy, the way one human being would act toward another. And to have empathy a business has to see things from the customer’s perspective, treating different customers differently, and demonstrating genuinely good intentions toward them.

BrightHouse and others like them – for all their faults – recognise that, and appear to solve real customer problems.

The way forward for the social sector isn’t to be more like them – it’s to abandon our professionalism and return to our roots.

We need to be rebuilt around people, with a modern sense of trust and compassion, not just focused on efficiencies, league tables and being ‘high performing’.  

We need to move away from one size fits all services that don’t account for individual needs. One size actually fits no-one.

The basic principle of trust is easy: do what you say you are going to do.

And ultimately the best way to build trust is to actually be trustworthy.

Is It Time To Get Rid Of The Job Title?

Last week Elon Musk dropped all job titles associated with Tesla referring to himself as CEO of nothing.

Although he soon discovered that some jobs are legally required – for now at least.

He said he deleted all his Tesla titles to ‘see what would happen’ , so it could be just another outlandish statement – but he may be right in general about the futility of job titles.

Titles exist to to signal to others what we do and our relative status within an organisation. Their main role is to provide clarity to others about the person they are dealing with.

However , in an era when many of us will work from our teens to our 70’s, and beyond, the idea that all our skills and experiences – that everything we have to offer the world of work- can be neatly summed up in a couple of words, is naive.

Additionally job title inflation – the increasing number and size of grandiose job titles in corporations and organisations – is everywhere.

Last year the BBC announced it would reduce over 5000 baffling titles to just 400. In the public sector there’s a surfeit of Officers, Directors and Heads of Everything, all designated to make people feel a lot more important than they actually are.

I once ran a team that abandoned job titles. It worked for a while. People actually had to define themselves by what they contributed rather than use a title as a signal of their identity, self-esteem and status.

After a few months though we bowed to pressure to bring them back – the wider corporate structure couldn’t cope without badges to label people with, and a couple of the more established members didn’t like the fact that there was no way of signalling their seniority. I gave in to the desire for hierarchy. That’s why most people hold on to titles: they want their fair share of recognition.

The inability of our organisations to think beyond job titles and job descriptions – of neat little boxes – is in part linked to our failure to shift from an industrialised model of work.

As Roger L. Martin has written – companies everywhere struggle with the management of knowledge workers. Many modern workers don’t manufacture products or perform basic services or tasks, rather they produce decisions, thoughts or ideas.

This results in an almost primitive form of design – the organisational structure chart – which places knowledge within neat directorates and then draws boxes around people.

The end result of this is there for all to see: an inability of organisations to tap into the skills of people across the wider organisation and a cyclical round of growth, redundancy, hiring and firing as the company recruits based on a job description only to realise it doesn’t need it a few years later.

There are companies who have made the successful shift away from job titles:

Gusto:  “The most immediate change was in our recruiting. Our hiring managers saw incredible people come through—people who never would’ve applied before because all the titles were preventing them from taking the leap. Eliminating job titles helps create a “no ego” culture”.

CloudFare: – “Titles definitely come with a cost. The best ideas are bottom-up, not top-down. But in most companies, the ideas come from the top, and hierarchy can mean artificial authority wins, not the best idea”

Valve:  We have no formal titles. The few employees who’ve put titles on business cards do so to satisfy outsiders apprehensive about working with people without labels. The same applies to Gabe Newell, one of Valve’s founders. “I think he’s technically the C.E.O., but it’s funny that I’m not even sure of that.”

We Are All Project Managers Now

Today’s workplace is complex and dynamic, needing a high degree of technological proficiency. There is a generational shift in the workplace, making it a new HR challenge to lead multi-generational and more diverse teams.  There is a need for people who can lead or execute projects from beginning to end.

Let’s get rid of “jobs,” argues Roger L. Martin, and instead give everyone “a portfolio of projects.”

If we used the project rather than the job or the job title as the organising principle, we’d be much more productive, efficient and happier.

This would avoid progression being seen from jumping from title to title, climbing a hierarchy and grabbing “director” accolades along the way. People will know that you’ve advanced because you’re tackling more advanced projects.

The Rise Of Quirky Titles

“We have our fun titles, and everyone has the opportunity to consider their title and come up with something that means something to them…”

Maybe if we are to have job titles we need ones that are more reflective of who we are personally. A study by the University of Pennsylvania and London Business School found that “self-reflective” job titles reduced workers’ emotional exhaustion, helped them cope with emotional challenges, and let them affirm their identity at work. The team tested their findings in hospitals, where they asked workers to give themselves new job titles. An infectious disease specialist became a “germ slayer,” and an X-ray technician was dubbed a “bone seeker”.

Tightly defined job titles and job descriptions can kill innovation at a time when we need to create more concept and value-driven teams.

They cause inertia because the moment employees are given specific responsibilities they expect them to stand still. They cause people to focus on “just doing the job”.  Huge resources lie untapped.

The networked organisation of the future will utilise the skills of people regardless of who they are, where they sit or what their title is.

Nine Ways To Unlock Creativity In Your Organisation

Inside Housing Deck

Some organisations are obsessive about finding the silver bullet—the one-shot wonder that solves everything. In an effort to strengthen performance, we’ll often make disproportionate investments in a single initiative to invoke change.

Others are fixed on generating ideas – jumping towards uncontrolled creativity as the solution.

However most of our organisations don’t suffer from a lack of ideas, they suffer from a lack of process that identifies the ideas worth having. 

As David Burkus has said – it’s not an idea problem; it’s a recognition problem. And it’s not always about creativity either.

Creativity is not innovation. Creativity is a prerequisite for sure. Innovation, however, is the practical application of creativity.

Perversely, the answer to unlocking creativity isn’t to go looking for ideas – but to go looking for really good problems.

Many of our organisations have a bias towards getting quick answers. We favour execution rather than contemplation. Great performance at work is usually defined as creating and implementing solutions rather than finding the best problems to tackle.

When you’ve nailed the right problems – that’s the time to go looking for ideas.

This on its own though – isn’t enough.

Many of our organisations , without realising it, act as inhibitors of innovation.

Rules and protocols are put in place — often for very good reasons — that preserve the status quo. Over time, organisations develop a set of social norms — ‘the way we do things around here’ designed to protect the business from failure.

The discipline of innovation, and it is a discipline, takes commitment, resources, and the right skills set to challenge these norms.

Inside Housing Deck (1)

Your innovation approach won’t last long unless senior leadership has a deep investment in it. Innovation dies from the top.

At Bromford we’ve tried to focus on problems — those incomprehensibly complex and messy issues that need to be understood and defined before they can be incorporated into organisational strategy.

Once we’ve done that we involve colleagues formed from a horizontal slice of people from around the business – and grouped around non-siloed themesThey are a way of seeding innovation throughout the organisation and beginning a wider cultural transformation.

We also link up with our Data and Insight colleagues to make sure every concept is supported by sound evidence. One of the big challenges of fostering an evidence-based culture is that it requires a shift in thinking. It’s not easy for people who are used to making instinctive gut decisions to transition to a world in which the smart decisions are data-driven.

How do you unlock creativity?

  1. You find space – mentally and physically to translate thinking into practical applications – and to ensure that any ideas that are pursued connect with the organisations overall strategy
  2. You bring people together to conceive, champion, and carefully develop new approaches that have not been tried before
  3. You nurture bright ideas and protect them from the established practices (and the people) they threaten
  4. You open up internal and external channels and become a conduit with organisations, individuals, and ideas outside
  5. You act as a pressure chamber that allows these external influences into your organisation in a safe and controlled way
  6. You use a mix of methodologies including design thinking and prototyping to help visualise solutions
  7. You don’t talk yourselves out of change where it appears too difficult or complex
  8. You build a culture around evidence and inquiry
  9. You constantly strive to ask better questions

Do that and you’ll always get better answers


This is an extract from a talk I’m doing on 29th October on Unlocking Creativity

Photos from Pexels by Jonas Svidras  David McEachan 

How Complexity Kills Trust

Customers trust those who give them control — who put them in control — of their lives.

They distrust those who try to control them. – Gerry McGovern

Why do you trust the companies, organisations, and institutions you deal with?

Chances are it isn’t because they have a customer charter, seek to involve you in their decision making,  or publish their performance in a league table.

There’s a curious train of thought entering discourse across the social sector that seems to say “If we involve our customers more, we’ll be more trusted and more accountable”.

I’m sorry – but this is nonsense. The lack of trust in our organisations is driven by overly complex business models that fail to put the customer in any position of power. The idea that this will be solved by inviting them to read the minutes of your last Board meeting is, frankly, ludicrous.

We are in an era of ‘trust deficit’ – where more people distrust institutions than believe in them. Organisations have consistently chosen to ignore the warnings about public expectations about transparency & accountability in the digital age.

Trust is driven by something more basic than being open and honest: simple customer experiences.

Most of our organisations have failed to keep pace with the requirements of the digital age and remain hugely complex for customers to navigate.

We have complexity baked into us, and most users don’t see us as their problem solvers.

As Gerry McGovern has written: “Old model organizations thrive on complexity. Thirty years ago, a typical customer looked at something complex and said: “I must be stupid.” Today, people look at complexity coming from organizations and say: “They must be stupid.” 

It’s often frustrating for the social sector that people trust companies like Amazon more than public services – but the reasons why they do are obvious.

One reason for the huge success of Amazon is the fact that they solve problems for us that we need to be solved.  They solve them very simply too, and they almost always take the customers side in any dispute. When you solve real problems every single day and you make things simpler and easier for your customers, you build trust.

Most of our organisations do solve problems – but we solve them very slowly, or in ways that frustrate the customer.

The key to trust is to solve problems that matter to the customer and to put them in a position of control.  Too many old model organisations are trying to offer customers ‘influence’ – but this is mere window dressing in an effort to avoid giving up any actual power.

The NHS is a great example of an old model organisation. Whenever I deal with the NHS I usually get what I want in the end – and the people who I deal with are often excellent. However – it’s made very clear to me throughout that I’m not in control. Within the NHS the balance of power doesn’t lie with the frontline staff who understand patients’ needs and concerns, and it certainly doesn’t lie with the patient or their families.

The power is hidden within an old model based on a complex web of commissioning architecture, centralised groups, and specialist networks. It’s kept well away from the patient and the front line – as to cede any power to them would threaten the system itself.

If you’re a user of a housing association, the justice system, or local authority you may recognise this feeling of powerlessness, that the system sometimes works against your problems.

In one sense it’s a simple problem to fix. If your customers believe you’re giving them value, rather than trying to get value out of them, and if you come across as sincere, they’ll be more likely to trust your motivations and intentions.

However, deconstructing systems that have withheld power and influence from customers is anything but easy. It’s a lot easier to make a simple thing complex than it is to make a complex thing simple.

  • We 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.
  • We need to see they give us control and allow us to navigate their services on our terms

Transparency is good. Unequivocally so. But league tables, charters and involving customers only go so far. They create a lot of jobs for people but they don’t actually change anything.

Most of all we need our organisations to solve our problems in simple ways – and that requires a fundamental rethink of who we are, who we serve and how we operate.

 


Photo courtesy of Yuri Catalano via Pexels

Why Do We Have Such A Problem With Poor People?

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

I was recently asked to write a piece on the stigma of social housing. (TLDR: I maintain that the ‘stigma’ is not really with social housing but rather attitudes to income. It’s driven by two factors – the ‘othering’ of the poor and an obsession with home ownership as a route to success.)

I doubt I’ll be thanked for saying it, but the social sector, by which I mean health, housing, social care, justice, and education, often reinforces prejudices against poor people. Just because your work involves social good doesn’t mean you aren’t part of the problem.

First of all, poor-bashing is nothing new. It exists in most capitalist societies worldwide. “You’re poor: you didn’t try hard enough.”

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

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In fact, research shows that this prejudice is often unconscious. Lasana Harris and Susan Fiske showed volunteers photographs of people belonging to different social groups – people in suits, people poorly dressed, people living on the street. When the volunteers looked at the pictures of homeless people, two-thirds were prepared to admit that their imme­diate reaction was one of disgust. But not only did the brain activity show feelings of disgust – it activated a part of the brain that distinguishes between people and inanimate objects. Basically – it was showing that many of us think of social outsiders as being less than human.

I’m sure many of you reading this are thinking – I don’t think like that – and that might be true. However, a lot of the people you work with, those framing social policy, those on your board, those writing your procedures, those preparing your next comms campaign – will think like that. “They just made bad choices.”

It’s the recognition of this, and of taking overt action to lessen our worst biases and prejudices – that will reduce the ‘othering’ of the poor.

Othering is a social process, rooted in relationships of power, through which ‘the poor’ are treated as different from and inferior to the rest of society.  Seeing people as fundamentally different from ourselves makes it easier to blame people for their own and society’s problems – so that they themselves become the problem.

This is often reflected in how people are treated by welfare institutions, including health and housing, where deficit-based thinking sucks the life out of communities.  When your entire worldview looks at people as a series of problems to be fixed you’re actually contributing to the stigma.

As well-intentioned professionals, we are often completely oblivious to how our words and actions signal difference.

  • I’ve heard people working and living in social housing being told – by other people working in housing – to get out and move on as ‘they can do better than that.’
  • A high profile social purpose institution recently turned a friend of mine down for a job role – on the basis of a minor conviction from their youth and their open admittance of mental health issues.
  • A colleague recently told me how a medical professionals demeanor immediately altered when they opened their mouth and sounded educated. The colleague had been working from home and was dressed casually rather than suited and booted.
  • A housing association resident told me how they’d been invited to be part of a garden makeover competition as “we want all the people with untidy gardens to be more like you.”

Let’s all stop pretending that those working in the social sector are saint-like left-leaning Guardian readers with unlimited reserves of compassion and empathy. 

The mainstream media absolutely is at fault – but so are we. 

There is no single silver bullet here.  We can’t fix the stigma until the UK stops hating poor people.

We can stop thinking of people as problems to be solved.

We can move away from focusing on what’s wrong and seeking to solve things for communities rather than with them.

We can move away from trying to engage people on our terms and instead sit down as genuine equals.

We can move away from talking about empowering people to actually ceding power.

Starting today we can all stop making assumptions and begin to promote a shared belief in the equal dignity of ALL people regardless of their income or tenure. 

 


 

 

Photographs courtesy of Matt Collamer and Corey Motta

Communities Need A Different Model – And That Might Not Include Us

Last week I was in Sulawesi, Indonesia, a place none of my family had ever heard of – until a devastating quake and tsunami hit Palu, at which point my phone sprang to life with loads of messages checking that I was still alive.

Actually, we were 300 miles away at that point, and in no danger whatsoever, but the trip had already made me reflect on life, death and the role of the social sector in building communities. A role I’m more convinced than ever that we are getting wrong. 

A few nights earlier we’d been staying at the home of our guide in a small village in Tana Toraja, a mountainous region of South Sulawesi. At about 9pm, after dinner, we were picked up and rode on the backs of motorbikes to seek out a big community event – a funeral.

Rather than going to a funeral, it had the feel of searching for an illegal rave in the early nineties. We rode through the countryside in darkness listening for sounds of the ‘party’.  Walking up the hillside definitely had the full festival vibe, you could hear music and singing in the distance and a few entrepreneurial types had set up a stall selling Bintang beer, palm wine, and snacks.

The Toraja people have some of the most complex funeral arrangements in the world.  For them, a funeral is a great celebration of life, much like a going-away party, and is an occasion in which the entire family of the deceased, and all the members of the village take part. During their lives, they work extremely hard to accumulate wealth. But unlike in the West, they don’t save their money to buy consumer goods, rather they save for a good send-off in death.

This was a funeral unlike one I’d ever attended. No-one was crying,  Tea and food were served by the family of the deceased. People danced and exchanged cigarettes. Teenagers huddled in groups and took selfies.

The next morning we were invited to the formal funeral ceremony. Rather than being mere spectators we were asked to join the funeral procession before being advised: “you’ll get better pictures from over here”.

This was the best-organised community event I’d ever been to – but there were no signs of any community organisers.

The community itself was self-managed and autonomous – and free of professionals. 

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The Problem With Professionals

The UK social sector is hooked on a deficit model. A model that believes that communities are best served by people in positions of authority administering services on their behalf.

It’s a transactional, rather than a relational model.  Services are rationed according to need, with those capable of ‘looking after themselves’ left to their own devices, as if it has been designed by accountants.

Paternalism exists — we are always hearing talk about ‘turning people’s lives around’ and protecting ‘the neediest and vulnerable’, a phrase that’s used endlessly.

We focus uniquely on what’s wrong rather than seeking out the skills and inventiveness of local communities.

Proponents of this system will tell you that this works, that this is efficient, it avoids over supplying to those who don’t need it. Digital self-service is the way forward, so don’t give anyone access to a human if you can avoid it.

I frequently attend conferences and hear senior executives opine that we should be more like Apple or Amazon. As if a new iPhone every year is the pinnacle of self-actualization.

This rationed model – mostly unchanged for nearly 100 years -is demonstrably failing.

We are seeing an increase in the number of people experiencing chronic and severe loneliness, there is a sense of alienation and mistrust across communities. The past model is unfit for the challenges of the future.

The answer lies not in more professionals, more experts to be listened to. This exclusive club, populated by those in the know, who are using their exclusive access to design services on behalf of others is part of the problem.

The way forward for the social sector isn’t to be more professional – it’s the exact opposite. We need to transform our organisations to reconnect with our roots and cede power to those closest to the problem. Social purpose organisations need to be rebuilt around the dignity of people, with a modern sense of trust, solidarity, and compassion, not just focused on efficiencies and being strong and stable. 

A Tana Toraja funeral can go on for days, involving hundreds, sometimes thousands, of members of the community.  If big consultancy firms got their hands on it and ran it through a lean processing review they could probably get it down to a few hours.

Cry, bury the dead and get back to work. 

You don’t strengthen communities with a business plan and you don’t build trust with spreadsheets.

Alternative networks and platforms are gathering pace and are challenging the traditional role of our institutions.

For the sake of our future community we should not try and halt this disruption – we should embrace it.


 

 

You can learn more about the Tana Toraja people in the Grayson Perry Rites of Passage series.

Even better – why not go yourself? I can recommend this as a truly amazing place to visit – here’s a link to the webpage of our local guide Daud Rapa who also offers accommodation options at his home. Thanks Daud! 

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How To Avoid Innovation Theatre

Consistent investment, dedicated teams, proper evidencing of decisions, alignment with strategy. A simple but critical recipe for innovation in future-ready organisations – Tom Cheesewright

One of the questions I get asked most frequently is“How do you define innovation?”

This week I’ve been asked it several times so here’s a short post to recap my thoughts.

Innovation is executing new ideas to create value. The mistake a lot of people are making at the moment, and hence the overuse of the word, is that they are forgetting two things:

  1. Creativity is not innovation.
  2. Continuous improvement is not innovation.

Creativity is a prerequisite for sure. Innovation, however, is the practical application of creativity.

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

That’s not innovation. That’s what Steve Blank termed innovation theatre. Just for show, with no real outcome.

Innovation theatre can be of value as it can excite people and show them the possibilities. It’s fun, and fun is important. Let’s not confuse it with innovation though.

pasted image 0Innovation consists of four things:

  • Having an idea that solves a problem
  • Doing something with that idea
  • Proving that it delivers new value for people
  • Translating it into reality and making it part of the everyday

Innovation Slide

To be innovative, we need to be good at both idea generation and idea execution.

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

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

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

Six ways to avoid innovation theatre

  • Have a consistent way to define and measure innovation, so that it’s unambiguous in your company
  • Look for good problems rather than great ideas
  • Periodically assess the areas of your business so that you know where each stands in terms of innovation capability and capacity
  • Get senior leaders to identify and sponsor specific initiatives designed to address the key problems
  • Assemble smalls teams to work on the challenges. Use disciplined protocols to help these teams succeed.
  • Document, and track progress and share progress internally and externally

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

Innovation mostly requires a little curiosity and a lot of persistence.


Thanks to Katie Fletcher for the cool graphic

Does Benchmarking Really Save Companies From Failure?

Even in the very best organisations, bad practice is waiting just around the corner.

In 2014 General Motors began the recall of the Chevrolet Cobalt which would ultimately affect nearly 30 million cars worldwide.

The problem was with the ignition switch which could shut off the car while it was being driven, disabling power steering, power brakes – and, crucially, the airbag.

The issue had been known to GM employees for a decade. A sixteen-year-old girl had died in a frontal crash in 2005, the first death attributed to the defective switches.

A redesign of the ignition switch went into vehicles a year later, but a simple mistake – the engineers failed to alter the serial number – made the change difficult to track later.

Ultimately the flaw would kill 124 people, and seriously injure 275 others.  Not recalling the vehicles sooner was deemed affordable in the pursuit of profit.

During this time, General Motors was leading its sector in customer satisfaction. At the same time as their cars were devastating families, they were picking up heaps of industry awards.

It’s common after the emergence of any scandal, be it VW, Oxfam, Mid Staffordshire, for us to call for tighter regulation, greater consumer controls, and transparency of performance.

But does any of this help prevent complex system failure?

The latest call is from the Social Housing Green Paper which has been published in response to the Grenfell tragedy and has been billed as a “fundamental rethink” of the system.

The government has suggested the introduction of new league tables, which would effectively name and shame landlords to highlight bad practice. The ‘power’ would shift more towards tenants and enable them to see how their landlord ranked compared with the average.

There’s also been talk of an industry wide Charter and an increasing focus on benchmarking.

Can You Benchmark Your Way Out Of A Crisis? 

Best practice and benchmarking are often just a race to be first at being average. The chances of someone else’s best practice working in a different environment is unlikely.

Not only is it unlikely but the very act of best practice and benchmarking can drive standards down. It encourages all organisations to think alike. At sector level it creates groupthink, and we all know groupthink is the avowed enemy of innovation.

Within organisations, a culture of following best practice can quickly become a culture that is frightened of doing new things. In times when we need radical solutions to big problems – trying to be more like each other is a criminal waste of time.

When Good Companies Go Bad

It’s tempting to think that tighter regulation and scrutiny prevents system failure but there’s little actual evidence it does.

There’s a problem with managing risk retrospectively: you’re always looking behind you, and often looking in the wrong places.

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This graphic from a HBR study shows auditors are rarely looking at things that could bring companies down.  Policies don’t destroy companies, toxic cultures do. But cultures are rarely audited as it’s pretty much impossible to do – it’s easier to tick boxes.

When things go wrong in organisations it’s often the result of a complex web of perverse incentives, simple mistakes and a culture of people looking the other way.

It’s almost never because there’s a singular Bond villain type saying “I’m going to do this on the cheap even though it’s bad for customers and will probably kill folk”.

Redefining Trust In A Digital Age

There’s rarely a simple solution to complex problems but I see a huge opportunity for companies to rebuild relationships around principles of trust and transparency – and this won’t be achieved by charters and following a herd like regression to the mean.

The network effect of technology has created a way for people to share experiences more quickly, and to more people with more detailed information than ever before.

Today, any customer can go behind an organisation’s flattering customer satisfaction scores with a simple Google search.

To rebuild trust organisations must adopt new behaviours to reduce the gap between organisational rhetoric and the reality.

At Bromford that means pushing ourselves ever more local and away from the corporate centre – building relationships based on openness, respect, and accountability.

  • It means abandoning paternalism and the ‘we know best’ culture that has dogged the social sector for generations.
  • It means creating a culture where people do the right thing for the customer and call out inconsistent behaviours regardless of hierarchy.
  • It means establishing trust building as the number one goal, rather than the relentless pursuit of efficiency and profit.

I’m pretty sure General Motors, VW, and Oxfam would have been near the top of any industry league table.

You can’t regulate relationships and you don’t build trust with a Charter.

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

Who wants to win the race to mediocrity anyway?

What Digital Transformation Is Not About

#WAODigital18
I’m hearing a lot about testing multiple small things and spreading what works – rather than investing in single Big Bang solutions. The world is moving too fast…

— Chris Bolton (@whatsthepont) June 14, 2018

“How ambitious can organisations be in using digital technology?” was the theme of two recent events I contributed to for the Wales Audit Office Good Practice Team. 

It served as both a reminder of the issues our organisations are grappling with – as well as unearthing some opportunities we are yet to exploit.

Here’s a round-up of my post-match thoughts:

Success in digital transformation depends on mindset, not technology

The problem is that digital change requires a completely different mindset, not just skill-set. The consumerisation of IT means we are forever playing catch-up.  Employees are using popular tech and devices at home and then introducing them in the workplace, whilst customers are using better tech than most of our organisations can hope to provide.

Redesigning our services around this is cultural rather than technological. It means we need to adopt very different organisational behaviours.

Stop talking, start experimenting

Organisations are still over-thinking digital and being cautious – waiting for the landscape to settle before they decide what they do. Arguably this ‘wait and see’ option is more ‘wait and die’.

When you don’t really know the way forward the best strategy is to spread your bets with small experiments. It’s these low-cost practical tests that show whether the fundamental assumptions are correct and what they mean for your business.

A focus on cost-cutting is a danger in transformation plans

Focusing everything on cost savings is outdated and will ultimately have longer-term implications for business in the digital era. There’s a huge opportunity for companies to broaden the lens and widen their ambition:

  • Rebuilding organisation’s as a platform – enabling people to select the suppliers and services they themselves want
  • Rewiring your organisation for the network era – stripping out hierarchy and management and making a transition to decentralised decision making
  • Automating everything that can be automated. But not before stripping out legacy protocols and systems.  Decommissioning old world services as you launch new ones, reserving your people for worthwhile jobs that add value to their lives and those of others.

In reality, many of us are delivering the same services as we did in 1970,  just with shiny websites and ‘customer portals’. That’s not transformation, that’s stagnation.

Technology cannot solve your organisation’s deep problems

If someone gives you the digital sales pitch as a golden bullet for systems that are fundamentally broken my advice is, don’t believe themShirley Ayres

The problem I have with digital cheerleading is two-fold:

  • The implication that all our problems are easily ‘solvable’ 
  • The subsequent rush towards technology – as if digital is the only solution.

The evidence that technology makes us more productive is weak at best. There’s an ever-increasing gap between technological sophistication and work actually being performed.

This is because we are simply taking existing ways of working and digitising them – effectively just transferring today’s problems to another platform.

‘Digital transformation’ is rarely about digital, or transformation.

It’s actually about the processes by which you change your business model or approach. Some of which will have digital elements.

We need to talk about leadership in a digital age

Digital illiteracy will get you fired long before a robot does. Digital is now not just part of the economy — it is the economy. Rather than it being the responsibility of an elite few surely anyone in a publicly funded role must be digitally literate?

Perhaps leadership in the digital age is less a set of skills and more a set of behaviours.

The challenge for current leaders and public sector organisations is the legacy thinking and a business model disconnected from citizens living digital lifestyles.

What is digital transformation anyway?

If your transformation doesn’t significantly change the customer experience of interacting with you, then it is not a transformation.

Indeed, the first rule of digital transformation is not to talk about digital transformation.

As Tony Colon writes – most employees wouldn’t be confident and nearly a third would be “extremely uncomfortable” in explaining what this concept actually is:

Let’s think about that for a second. The concept that businesses are betting on is something that the general population just doesn’t understand – even though they need to play a part in that transformation at work – and the entire premise of digital transformation relies on people.

Making the opportunities of digital real for people is becoming one of the most pressing priorities for our organisations.

Our biggest challenges are dealing with people’s belief systems, addiction to legacy processes and cognitive biases.

Digital transformation is not a ‘thing’.

It’s a race you can’t win with no end destination.

 


Photo by rawpixel.com from Pexels

 

 

The Rise Of Business Bullshit – And How We Can Fight It

“One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit. Everyone knows this, but we have no clear understanding of what bullshit is, why there is so much of it, or what functions it serves.” – Harry Frankfurt  On Bullshit

Many people in the social sector will have heard about the 80/20 rule –  that 80% of the demand comes from 20% of users.

It’s one of those things that seems to intuitively make sense. If we can solve the problem of the 20% of people who are sapping all our resources – then the world would be a much better place.

Except of course….it’s bullshit.

Recent work by our own Insight team found the belief that a small group of users were responsible for a disproportionate amount of contact with us simply had no foundation.

So why do these myths – dangerous in that they lend themselves to silver bullet solutions – swirl around the modern workplace?

John V. Petrocelli is the author of a new paper which looks at the Antecedents of Bullshitting and the conditions that need to exist to encourage people to bullshit. 

First of all, bullshitting is not the same as lying, which is a deliberate and premeditated attempt to conceal the facts.

By contrast, bullshitters may or may not know what the truth is. They are simply communicating with little or no regard for evidence, established knowledge, or truth.

Petrocelli ran two experiments that revealed major factors that might cause someone to bullshit:

  • Firstly, people bullshitted most when they felt pressure to provide an opinion and believed their audience didn’t know much about the subject. Even though they may not have the knowledge or experience to have an informed opinion, the social pressure to contribute something kicked in.
  • Secondly, if there is no accountability for bullshit, it’s more likely to happen.  People appear to be more likely to bullshit when it’s perceived as acceptable or relatively easy to do without challenge.

As Petrocelli says – it seems unlikely that people are generally ready to admit to bullshitting, so it’s even more important we understand the psychological processes that both enable people to communicate with little to no concern for evidence as well as the processes that explain why people accept so much bullshit without questioning its validity.

So how can we stem the flow of BS and encourage people to challenge its validity?

Four Tactics That May Reduce Bullshit

Get Better At Problem Definition

Many of our organisations have a bias towards getting quick answers. We favour execution rather than contemplation. Great performance at work is usually defined as creating and implementing solutions, not finding the best problems.

So we need to build a culture around asking:

  • Is that really true?
  • Do we honestly know that?
  • Where’s the evidence on that?

Simply calling each other out on potential BS has to become a leadership behaviour.

Hold Fewer Meetings

Bullshitting is hard work. It requires the capacity to continually come up with new, over-packed, ambiguous concepts -so said Andre Spicer

As Spicer points out managers and employees can spend large chunks of their day attending meetings or implementing programmes actually disconnected with the core processes that actually create value.

Pointless meetings are a breeding ground for bullshit – something that’s been known for a long time. In 1944, the CIA’s precursor, the Office of Strategic Services, created the Simple Sabotage Field Manual that was designed to advise Europeans about effective ways of frustrating and resisting Nazi rule.

It advises people to “talk as frequently as possible and at great length,” “bring up irrelevant issues,” and “hold conferences when there is more urgent work to do.”

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Meetings are often opinion, rather than evidenced based.

Stop Asking Everyone’s Opinion

The modern organisation is obsessive about collaboration and consultation – but encouraging everyone’s opinions on everything invites bullshit.

Social media should have taught us by now that more opinions aren’t necessarily better.  We’re inclined to believe what we see on social media because it comes from people we trust: our friends, our family, and people we have chosen to follow because we like or admire them. However, most of us know deep down that what our families and friends say is hardly ever evidence-based.

The same applies to work. More consultation = more bullshit.

Ban PowerPoint

Presentations at team meetings are the modus operandi of the skilled bullshitter – and used to propagate all sorts of half-baked propositions in a way that few would dare challenge.

Not for nothing does Jeff Bezos ban presentations at Amazon -insisting that Powerpoint-style presentations give permission to gloss over details, flatten out any sense of relative importance, and ignore the interconnectedness of ideas.


There’s one big tactic for battling bullshit that Petrocelli identifies:

Evidence.

Certainly, we’ve become much more focused on being an evidence-based organisation – as Carole Clarke writes – we increasingly need to become more rigorous in how we evaluate the impact of our services so that we can say with a lot more confidence that things work.

We need to bust myths. Slay Zombie Projects.  And wage war on jargon.

An indifference to evidence breeds an indifference to the truth.

Nudging our organisations towards a more evidence-based culture becomes the surest way to stem the flow of bullshit, if not kill it.

The Danger Of Listening To People Who Talk A Lot

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

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

However, we live in a world that places a higher value on talking and being busy than on thinking. On doing things rather than solving the right problems.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Dangers of Listening To People Who Talk a Lot

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

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

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

What Is An Expert Anyway? 

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

Iceberg2

 

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

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

Tapping Into The Inner World of Introverts 

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

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

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

  • Don’t thrive on endless meetings
  • Don’t want to solve a problem by talking about it for hours
  • Don’t enjoy brainstorming
  • Don’t want to attend away-days and conferences all the time.

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

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


 

Photo by Porapak Apichodilok from Pexels

The Problem With Professionals

Social progress is about the expansion of freedom, not the growth of services – Cormac Russell

Our digital networks, Twitter, in particular, are unparalleled listening tools.

I follow thousands of accounts, many organised into lists so I can get a sense of what’s going on in innovation, technology, health, housing – and the social sector generally.

Right now – I think there’s an interesting development happening that’s worthy of comment.

It’s this:
  • It appears organisations risk becoming more siloed. Whilst digital connects us in ways never before possible – whole sectors are still just talking to themselves.
  • This sense of disconnection is being made ever more visible – to the public, to patients, to tenants of social housing.

Social media isn’t the great leveller we thought it might be – but it’s certainly a great revealer.  It’s not shifting the balance of power — but it’s shining a torch on where power is held and how it behaves.

Dissonance

A couple of weeks ago I was on holiday flicking through Instagram. By complete chance, the algorithm had placed two photographs directly above each other.

  • Firstly was the imposing black husk of Grenfell Tower –  a monument to the dead and ignored.
  • Next to it was a picture from a sector awards ceremony, with a champagne bottle placed in front of some happy smiling ‘professionals’, celebrating how good we are at engaging communities.

I’m not naming the sector (you can probably guess) but it’s kind of irrelevant. We’ve all been there and done it, and celebrating success IS very important – but our digital behaviours are now being represented and recreated in contexts we are not even fully aware of.

The Problem With ‘Professionals’

What social media does very effectively is highlight where friction occurs. Nowhere is that friction more evident than when people in housing, health and social care cast themselves, often unintentionally, as professionals and experts to be listened to.

This behaviour can give off the impression of an exclusive club, populated by those in the know, who are using their exclusive access (and exclusive language) to solve problems and design services on behalf of citizens.

The professionalisation of the social sector – conducted in a such a public way -immediately places one group in a position of power and influence:

Empowering words, but disempowering actions.

The digital age is disrupting the accepted rules of discourse. No longer is a relationship solely between citizen and institution. What was once a fairly binary one to one relationship behind closed doors is now conducted within a much wider social and public context.

Engagement Versus Empowerment

Across the social sectors, practitioners and organisations play many different roles in the implementation and diffusion of the ideas and projects that they seek to promote. Some of these roles can serve to empower communities, while others can actively disempower them.

As Phil Murphy commented engagement isn’t a destination, it’s a route to empowerment. Services are sometimes a means to an end but rarely an end in themselves. There are few things that happen in communities that can’t be solved by communities themselves.

We can’t continue adopting a deficit mindset where the answer to everything is:

  • More Government intervention
  • More resources
  • More services
  • More ‘professionals’

We need to move away from focussing on what’s wrong, and seek to solve problems with communities not for communities.

If we continue to behave as a professionalised class – organising ourselves into deeper sector silos, talking to each other and forming policy on behalf of other people – we’ll bring about our own demise.

We’ll see a ‘Brexit-Effect’ – with the neglected and unheard looking for an opportunity to get back at those who had never listened to their grievances or invited them to the top-table.

People can clearly see where the power is held.

Sooner or later they’ll want to take some of it.

Why Small Teams Win

In the early days of Amazon, Jeff Bezos came up with a rule: every team should be small enough that it could be fed with two pizzas.

The ‘Two Pizza Rule’ signalled that Bezos didn’t want more talking, more line reports and more communication. He wanted a decentralised, even disorganised company where creativity and independence prevailed over groupthink and the bureaucracy of management.

A smaller team spends less time managing timetables and keeping people up to date, and more time doing what needs to be done.

These small teams promote autonomy but also a better approach to collaboration. Having lots of small teams means they all need to be able to work together and to be able to access the common resources of the company, in order to achieve their larger goals.

The thinking has precedence in things like Brooks’ Law – which states that “adding manpower to a late project makes it later.” Getting bigger often means your communication overheads grow and doesn’t necessarily yield faster results. As Brooks himself said: “Nine women can’t make a baby in one month.”

Thinking small also avoids ‘social loafing’  – which is where people take less accountability for individual and team performance when doing work as part of a group.

It’s human nature that some of us may take advantage of a situation in which it’s harder to pinpoint responsibility—a situation created by the fact that too many people have a role in the team’s performance.

When nobody’s noticing what you are or aren’t doing, the easier it is to keep doing nothing.

As a leader of a Two Pizza Team, I can firmly say that the high degree of “identifiability” means there is no room for anyone to hide – including me. Underperformance becomes apparent in days or even hours, not over weeks or months.

The Value of Small Teams in Change and Transformation

In many organisations, small teams are undervalued. Like introverts, they can often be overlooked.

Yesterday I facilitated a session for the regulator of social housing in the UK – and its theme was that in an age of big change (and arguably, big failure) – small distributed teams might be an answer to how we balance productivity and innovation.

Buurtzorg, the Dutch model of neighbourhood care started with an initial team of four. The system that evolved deploys teams of up to 12 nurses, who are responsible for about 60 people within a particular area. There are now around 900 teams in the Netherlands. This system balances small team thinking also whilst operating within a much larger framework.  The framework is what provides the scalability, the autonomous team provides the personalisation.

RSH Session (3)

Buurtzorg was very much an inspiration for our model of neighbourhood coaching – which again provides a framework for semi-autonomous small teams to bring solutions together around a community. It puts people at the centre – not housing ‘professionals’.

Visual

The Corporate Rebels have written about the Minimum Viable Team. Start small, get experience, grow bigger only when necessary.  I agree with this but also think there’s crossover with the points Chris Bolton makes in his post on Minimum Viable Transformation.

Most transformation programmes are about BIG ideas (and BIG language), where there is little room for failure.

Most approaches to organisational design are about BIG teams (and BIG resources) – despite no evidence linking these to productivity or innovation.

  • Maybe it’s time to think differently about how we solve complex problems rather than continue the endless annual cycle of calls for more resources and emergency injections of cash.
  • Maybe it’s time for smaller, more organised and better-connected teams to take centre stage.
  • Maybe it’s time to think about what minimum viable teams and minimum viable transformation look like and apply them in practical settings.

At the end of the day, radical innovation only comes from diverse networks, never from big teams.

Failure: We Need To Move From Slow And Stupid To Fast And Intelligent

twitterpeek

In the history of pointless technology, it takes a lot to beat the Twitter Peek.

Aimed at those interested in Twitter, but who didn’t own a smartphone,  it asked customers to spend $100 plus a monthly subscription.

With the benefit of hindsight, it was clearly designed to solve a problem that didn’t really exist.  If you were using Twitter in 2009 you could count yourself as an early adopter – the tech-savvy and digitally engaged folk who probably already owned a smartphone.


Last week we learned a new word from Samuel West, Founder and Curator of the Museum of Failure – Atychiphobia. We were presenting alongside Samuel to discuss why we find it so hard to talk about failure at work.

The Museum of Failure started as a collection of nearly 100 ‘innovative’ products that launched, but in one way or another ended up going horribly wrong.

Rather than condemning the failure – the museum is actually a celebration of creativity. Every item provides unique insight into the risky business of innovation.

It’s easy to laugh at likes of Twitter Peek, or Colgate Lasagne, but if we are honest our own careers will be full of bad ideas and false starts.

credit-dr-samuel-west

Nielsen research suggests that “two out of every three products are destined to fail.” However, this is rarely acknowledged or discussed.  

In the social sector, where projects take years rather than weeks,  and pilots become mainstream services without any evaluation – things are worse.

Nothing publicly fails.

Everything is a success.

Chris Bolton has suggested we need our own Museum – a Museum of Failed Products for the social sector – to share the learning from things that haven’t worked.

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Our Problem With Failing

The truth is that even though the wisdom of learning from failure is incontrovertible, in most organisations we simply think of failure in the wrong way.

Amy Edmonson has outlined the big difference between knowing that failure is a valuable learning experience and actually making it a core part of your ethos.

As she explains,  every child learns at some point that admitting failure sometimes means taking the blame. Failure then gets inextricably linked with fault – and we learn that it sometimes pays to cover up failure , or even blame it on someone else.

THE SPECTRUM OF FAILURE

There’s a world of difference between deliberately breaking the rules, thinking on your feet in a complex situation and purposeful exploration.

The organisation that implements lots of ideas will most likely have many failures. Innovation only thrives in a forgiving organisation. And if failure is the engine for innovation, our challenge is to make our organisations more forgiving.

Again we come back to culture – and the need for organisations to become places of psychological safety where learning from failure is openly discussed.

When we initially pitched Bromford Lab the number one objective was to create an environment where failure was not just accepted but encouraged. 75% of the things we worked on would fail.

This was not to create a culture that celebrated failure. It was to create a place where people felt it was safe to fail. They wouldn’t get punished for messing up.

Good Failure/Bad Failure

In exploration, Failure is just an alert, warning us about the way work is progressing.

You wouldn’t close down cancer research on the basis of failed trials, you take the learning and use it to continue the research and development process.

At Bromford we are closing down our Starting Well Engineer pilot, but the findings we have are invaluable and will inform the next stage of exploration.  Indeed our Neighbourhood Coaching model was the result of five years of tiny failures.

Where we need to get better is we just aren’t fast enough.  We take too long and we now need to focus on smart failure for a fast-changing world.

Quick, decisive failures:

  • Save you from throwing extra resources at a poor proposition
  • Make it easier to learn – as actions and outcomes are close together in time
  • Mean you can rule out a given course of action and move on and do something else
  • Lessen the pressure to continue with the project regardless because your investment in it is not large

In reality – failure is never one thing. It is sometimes bad, sometimes inevitable, and sometimes even good.

We need to shift our failure from being slow and stupid to fast and intelligent.

We Need To Be Boringly Reliable and Radically Disruptive – At The Same Time

Our organisations are generally bad at innovation. That’s because they are designed that way.

Just as your body is designed to fight a common cold, most of our cultures protect the organisational DNA from any foreign antibodies. Add something new and it can get rejected.

It’s not personal. It’s just an automatic survival mechanism.

Purposeful thinking – especially thinking differently – isn’t always rewarded.  Middle managers blocking innovative ‘ideas’ are simply doing their jobs and protecting operational performance. You don’t mess with success.

As Steve Blank has pointed out – there’s no point trying to act like a startup when you’re no longer a startup. 

Why Transformation Fails And How To Avoid It (3)

To truly transform organisations, we must live with two sets of values simultaneously.

We need to be boringly reliable and radically disruptive at the same time.

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

Why Transformation Fails And How To Avoid It (4)

At Bromford – we see the connection between these, but also the value in keeping them at arm’s length. We’ve just completed discovery sessions designed and facilitated to support radical ideas around the ‘how might we’ questions that make up our current exploration pipeline.

In many organisations, these promising ideas often fail because they can’t cross the barrier between innovation and production. What we need to do as organisations is to create the conditions for these to co-exist and establish a handover point from innovation to business as usual.

The system we designed is essentially that:

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

This means casting the net wide and sometimes pursuing dead ends.

Organisations design pipelines of exploration to get narrower and narrower. They want to dismiss ideas quickly that don’t fit the norm. Working in this way means your organisation is being slowly disabled and will become less skilled at handling different, more challenging thinking.

Why Transformation Fails And How To Avoid It (9)

Over the course of our Discovery Sessions, we welcomed over 45 colleagues into the Lab from very different service areas. All sessions were shared across social media and drew further contribution internally and externally.

This approach to working out loud is deliberate. The history of innovation reveals that great breakthroughs almost always emerge from the coming together of disparate insights.

Most of us have grown up at work with the belief that we shouldn’t share things.

  • Don’t share things as someone will steal your ideas.
  • What if we want to sell this?
  • That’s not been approved — it isn’t ready to share
  • Sharing things will just worry people unnecessarily
  • Don’t tell people — we don’t wash our dirty linen in public

The work you see outside Bromford – is exactly the same as you see inside Bromford.

The truth is most of our current challenges can’t be solved alone. The starting point is to build a network with people that can help us nurture ideas into reality.

Openly sharing work has an additional benefit. It mitigates the fear of change as you are working transparently. It gets colleague buy-in as you actively draw volunteers to take part in tests and further exploration.

It’s this that helps people understand the difference between innovation and business as usual.

In the exploration phase, failure isn’t just tolerated, it’s anticipated.

And if you’ve done your exploration in the right way, and effectively supported the transition into reality – things won’t fail when they matter.

Too often we see people put the emphasis on the creative phase.

You hold meetings in a brainstorming room, you sit on beanbags, you wear De Bono’s thinking hats. You have a lot of post-it notes.  

That’s not innovation.

That’s innovation theatre.

Innovation consists of four things:

  • Having an idea that solves a problem
  • Doing something with that idea (actually making it happen)
  • Proving that it delivers new value for people
  • Translating it into reality and making it part of the everyday

To achieve this we must learn to live simultaneously with the values of innovation and production, knowing when to bring them together, and when to keep them apart.

Why Transformation Fails And How To Avoid It (5)


Thanks to Katie Fletcher for the images

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