Moving Beyond Command And Control

The natural reaction of the rule maker when people start breaking the rules is not to redesign them, or seek to understand why, but to issue yet more rules.

Political language. . .is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind

George Orwell

2020 on reflection, was a great year for hierarchy.

In the early stages of the pandemic the ability shown by organisations to mobilise emergency health care, communicate messages, shift people to remote work, was a testament to the power of decisive command systems.

Following that we saw a new era of community innovation begin, reminding us of the power of social connection. People began supporting and caring for one another locally, with community led groups popping up to address immediate needs in ways many organisations simply couldn’t. ‘Let communities adopt a common sense approach’ was the defining narrative.

That seems a long time ago.

How have we have moved so quickly from celebrating the power and ingenuity of communities to blaming those same communities for recklessness and not following rules?

Some of the very same people (I’m talking social entrepreneurs and activists) who rightly attack the disempowering effects of command and control in organisations have begun to support, and even applaud, the politicians and the media in what has essentially become a behaviour of victim blaming.

An element of hierarchical control is necessary in an emergency. It’s what gets things done and keeps us safe. There are people who are naturally good at creating systems, protocols and rules rather than building relationships based on trust. These people are necessary for a functioning society, as without them we wouldn’t enjoy the health, safety, food, construction and consumer standards that we have.

However, what we have begun to see is people , not just politicians, who like rule making a little bit too much.

And the natural reaction of the rule maker when people start breaking the rules is not to redesign them, or seek to understand why, but to issue yet more rules.

We know from the basics of design thinking that if the rules don’t match up with people’s experience and desires they create another way. Humans are endlessly resourceful and can always find a loophole.

Why do people break the rules?

Firstly, there are those who do not know what the rules are or who haven’t paid attention. These are the kind of people who get caught doing 35mph in a 30 zone. Importantly, when guidance changes over time and in different areas they are likely to get more confused and break the rules without even knowing.

Then there are those that don’t think the rules are important. This group are unlikely to experience a negative impact for breaking the rules. They aren’t necessarily selfish, it’s just if you don’t have personal experience of something, you minimise its importance. If I was 20 and still thought I’d live forever, I’d probably have been partying in Ibiza over the summer too.

The third group, and I’d suggest these are a tiny minority, are the active rule breakers. The kind of people who won’t wear a mask to a make a demonstrable social point. Have a tiny bit of sympathy though, they are merely trying to exert some personal control in a world where they feel they have none.

The vast majority of us are in the first camp. We might have broken the occasional rule but it’s because we are confused, we forgot or we’ve interpreted them to suit our personal circumstances.

Design thinking is all about understanding how people actually behave rather than how they say they do. It’s this that all the Government(s) in the UK seem to have been completely blindsided by.

And this is the weak point of command and control systems – they can never be user focussed and understand life at street level. At no point since March has there been any input from the public. At no point has there been a democratic conversation about what COVID means for our communities and what a proportionate local response should be.

I think one of the big challenges of 2021/22 will be renewing faith in grassroots innovation after a prolonged period of control and risk management. Some of us will resist loosening our grip.

As Simon Penny said on Twitter the necessary task for 2021 is to take forward the belief in the power of communities to look out for each other and get stuff done. Only by delegating resources and decision making to them will we kickstart the economy again and solve problems at a local level.

We need to thank the people who put the rules in place that kept us safe and healthy. But as soon as the pandemic is over we need them to step back. Rules tend to stick around for a long time after they have ceased being useful. Control systems are never easy to dismantle and their proponents never give up power easily.

Thwarting other people’s control is bad for us and society – as ultimately, it limits our own control.

  • Communities are decisive, creative, aware, caring and trusting. They’ll make mistakes but they’ll get along OK in the end.
  • Communities are self motivated, often reckless and need a high degree of control. Left to their own devices they can become a danger to themselves.

Which is it?

In 2021 we all need to get off the fence and state which one we truly believe in, and make that world a reality.


Image by sin won jang from Pixabay

How Can We Move From Demand Led Service In The ‘New Normal’?

In the early hours of Good Friday I found myself undergoing emergency surgery after a complication during an earlier test. Even in the midst of some pretty intense pain I was unwilling to go to hospital – a mixture of fear of contracting a certain virus and some overly optimistic thinking about my super human ability to recover without any professional intervention. It was probably Karen wilfully ignoring my instructions not to call an ambulance that saved my life.

Eleven days later I was discharged from hospital after major surgery and two COVID-19 tests. Family and friends were unable to visit so I had a lot of time for self reflection, and to observe from the inside how systems operate during periods of genuine crisis.

The term crisis is overused.  Every day the news is filled with stories about war, terrorism, crime, pollution, inequality, and oppression. There’s a health crisis, a housing crisis, a climate crisis , and a social care crisis. So many “crises” they have to jockey for position in order of seriousness.

What the COVID-19 crisis has done very effectively is to say “hold my beer” to the others – becoming the defining crisis of the moment.

One of the most interesting things about my experience of hospital was the apparent disconnect between the media reporting of what was happening on many wards, and my own actual experience.

Family expressed concern for the health workers without PPE at the same time as staff told me there wasn’t a problem. People told me the system was in meltdown when my observation was of staff continually adapting to new working practices based upon the evidence and experience of the previous day.  Even if the system was in ‘crisis’, at a local ward level people were pulling together and solving problems in new ways. Freed of some of the usual ‘rules’ people were succeeding despite the system rather than because of it.

The NHS is brilliant at coping with an emergency , both at scale and at the individual human level. I simply couldn’t fault my experience, from the operation to the recovery to the after care. The people ARE heroes. It’s not the time to pick fault with the system , but where it often falls down is in some of the basics. These are often things that are less urgent to professionals , but more important to us as citizens , such as communication and keeping us informed of progress.

This is not limited to the NHS , far from it. It’s a symptom of systems that are designed to be reactive rather than pre-emptive. They tend to be designed from a ‘service’ point of view – managing demand – rather than through person centred design, the principles of which are the opposite of service led design.

During my stay, staff noted how demand had dropped. People simply weren’t coming to Accident and Emergency anymore. The country had either stopped having heart attacks and strokes or were delaying reporting them.  This drop in demand isn’t limited to the NHS. Other social providers are seeing similar trends. The phenomenon has also occurred across the US and in parts of Asia.

So why has the system been able to manage demand, something that’s been a problem for decades, in just a matter of weeks?

Obviously , fear is playing a part. In a lockdown scenario people’s priorities have a major shift. Things that would once be major causes of anxiety get reordered in the face of a common enemy.

That said , there is something to learn from how the latent and underused power of community has been leveraged to protect our most precious resources.

People have begun supporting and caring for one another to an unprecedented extent, with community led groups popping up to address immediate needs in ways our organisations simply can’t. It is neighbours that have shown themselves to be the most useful support network in a physically distanced world.

YouGov have reported that only 9% of Britons want to return to life as normal after the end of the lockdown. 40% of people say they feel a stronger sense of community since the virus shut down normal life, while 39% said they had been more in touch with friends and family.

What this seems to indicate is that far from communities resenting a shift away from a passive provider-consumer relationship – they actually desire it. They want a greater say, they want more power to influence local decisions.

There’s a danger here of being overly optimistic as Simon Parker has warned. “Simply willing a better world is not enough. You have to dive into the complexity, dance with the system in its full, messy intractability”.

System change never comes easy. It means thinking beyond individual sectors and requires the whole system to work together, through health, housing, employment and social care. There’s opportunity here if we are brave enough. 

That said , a lesson so far from COVID-19 is that the best currency for change is local. People are discovering their neighbours for the first time, spending less time travelling to soulless business parks , and spending time and money where they live.

Powerful forces will resist any attempt to make this a new normal. It’s not how capitalism works.

However my recent experience has led me to believe that the organisations that emerge stronger from this crisis will be ones who have abandoned doing things to people, and moved to seeing themselves as equal partners with communities.

That requires making a move from telling to listening.

A move from obsessively managing demand to leveraging the skills in the community.

A move from filling the gaps with more services to closing the gaps through social connections.


 

 

Image by Queven from Pixabay 

Moving From The Reactive To The Pre-Emptive

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

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

The entire premise relies on reaction. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pre-Emptive Change: Fix It Before It Breaks

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

Simplistically it could be broken down into four stages.

FutGenX - Paul Taylor Prevention Workshop

Shifting Perspectives

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

Reframing Problems as Opportunities

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

Exploring Opportunities

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

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

Preventative Interventions 

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

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

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

Let’s stop pretending there is.


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

Screenshot 2020-01-10 at 07.26.44

The Problem With Seeing People As Vulnerable

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There’s a positive here – people want change.

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

The Problem With A Deficit Mindset

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

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

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

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

They can’t cope.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Challenge And The Opportunity

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

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

Deficit based thinking sucks the life out of communities.

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

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

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

Something different.

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

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

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

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

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

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

My brain is a little fried. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What would it take to make such a radical shift?

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

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

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

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

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


 

Image via Straighten The Maze

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 

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.’

corey-motta-559483-unsplash

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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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.

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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.

Reshaping Organisations Around What’s Strong – Not What’s Wrong

“ECONOMICS ARE THE METHOD: THE OBJECT IS TO CHANGE THE SOUL”

This (pretty chilling) quote comes from Margaret Thatcher in 1981 – and ushered in an era that promoted the belief that social progress is achieved through the accumulation of wealth or status.

Earn more, consume more, and you’ll be happy. 

The legacy of this is still with us today, with our value to society often seen in purely economic terms.

In the social sector, many of our organisations have been unwittingly shaped by this philosophy.

The less you own the more likely you are to be a problem. The lower your educational attainment, your income, the more insecure your background, the more likely you are to be a drain on services.

This is called deficit-based thinking, and it is rife.  Our organisations support it without even knowing.

  • We talk of the ‘ageing crisis’ – which is only really a crisis if you believe that people have outlived their economic usefulness.
  • The talk of a ‘housing crisis’ invariably means people being unable to get ‘on the housing ladder’. If you don’t own – you aren’t on it. You’re not progressing.

Increasingly though there’s evidence of a disparity with wealth, achievement and happiness. The UK is one of the richest countries in the world – but also one of the loneliest.

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Finland is now top of the world for happiness, according to the World Happiness Report 2018. Nordic countries take four out of the five top spots – and some of the world’s richest nations appear much further down the list.

Finland has a high GDP but also high taxes which fund social programmes. There’s less competition at work and better support for those without a job. There’s a strong culture of strengths-based thinking , and of encouraging communities to identify and mobilise existing but often unrecognised assets. The services that do exist are organised around the user.

As Andrew Humphreys has written – public services in the UK are often compartmentalised along lines that bear no relation to the needs they are supposed to meet or the value they are meant to deliver. If public services aren’t designed backwards from the value that people need from them, then they will have been designed forwards from the aims and objectives of those in charge of them.

It’s nearly seven years since Bromford began its journey from a pretty paternalistic top-down service to focus on strengths and what’s working in our communities.

When we began, one of the most common challenges we had from colleagues was “Why are we expecting our customers to contribute to communities? I don’t do anything in mine.”

Our language wasn’t very nuanced- as people saw organised ‘volunteering’ as the only way someone contributes.

Obviously, this is nonsense. If you live in any community that depends on the interaction with other human beings (that’s all of us – right?), you by definition must contribute to that community in some way.

That contribution cannot be viewed solely through categories of age, health, or wealth.

A few years ago I met an older guy in the Philippines who told me he was the most sought-after person in his village – even though he hadn’t ‘worked’ for over 20 years and lived a very frugal existence.

His strengths were his age, his experiences and his connections which could be brought together to help people. The Fili culture has a word for this mindset – “Bayanihan”. The word came from the tradition where neighbours would help a relocating family by literally carrying their house and contents to a safer location.

More generally the word has come to mean a communal spirit that makes seemingly impossible feats possible through the power of unity and cooperation.

The term bayanihan has evolved over time – being incorporated in many projects that depict the spirit of a cooperative effort involving a community of members.

At Bromford we are focussing on the ‘irreducible core’ of service that our communities must receive from us.

The services we currently have that replace, control or overwhelm unity and co-operation will become obsolete. One of our organisational design principles is that we should think community first, services last.

There’s a lot of talk of strengths-based thinking but I see comparatively few organisations who are having these difficult conversations and beginning to cede more power to communities.

There are things individuals need and that communities can do that are irreplaceable – that can never be done by organisations or Government.

Building our organisations around communities, around what they truly need rather than what we want them to need, is truly disruptive.

It means moving away from focussing on what’s wrong, taking a very different view of our purpose and being a lot less essential than we think we are.

 


Image via Pen Mendonca

How To Design For Better Outcomes

Our job is to the mind the gap between the bureaucracy of our systems and the opportunities in our communities – Cormac Russell

Sometimes it’s preferable to pull the plug on a service before you see it collapse in front of your eyes.

A recent report says we are trapped in a reactive spending cycle on public services – with hospitals, schools, adult social care, and prisons all being propped up with cash bailouts ‘just to keep troubled services going’.

We instinctively know that the demand issues that are hitting the social sector are a result of complex problems. We know that billions of pounds may give some short-term relief but won’t tackle the root cause.

Are we destined to be forever reactive, or is there another way?

There’s a reason many of our organisations are waiting for the next crisis: they are designed that way.

  • Health services are designed to be reactive: only around 3% of national health sector budgets are currently spent on prevention.
  • Prisons are becoming overpopulated because the system is designed to accommodate overcrowding.
  • Housing and social care are designed to be difficult to access – with multiple providers of similar services.

Seemingly we get the outcomes we were designed to achieve. How can we design better ones?

As with so many things – the answer lies in going back to the start.

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At Bromford we’ve gone back to problem definition across every aspect of our organisation, dividing it into 31 unique service areas.

We started with a very simple task for each leader: define your service offer in just 150 words.

Not to describe what a service does, but to question why it even needs to exist in the first place.

 

Asking why a service needs to exist means you can pose all sorts of playful questions with the intention of shaping a better outcome.

What we found was many of our services have an imbalance between solving problems for the customer and solving problems for the business.

A good example is a reactive home repairs service, good for the customer (get stuff fixed relatively quickly), bad for the business (costly and a logistical nightmare).

That then leads you to explore new lines of inquiry – how could we coach customers to repair things themselves? How could we better balance reactive and planned services?

Across the social sector, reactive services aren’t just bad for business, they fundamentally disempower citizens.

Many well-intentioned services can replace, control or overwhelm the power of community to do things for themselves.

The social sector is a field of business that profits from past societal failure – providing episodic interventions when things go wrong rather than pre-emptive problem-solving.

Our role then to is to move beyond designing reactive outcomes and into designing for progress.

That means thinking about customer needs right at the start of the process – something that sounds obvious but just isn’t applied in practice. This lack of design thinking is exactly why people aren’t getting the sort of social outcomes they expect.

As citizens, we aren’t interested whether you’ve hit your targets or your service level standards. We don’t care about your transformation plans and your five year forward views.

We don’t care about your outcomes – only the progress your outcomes represent.

How Not To Solve The Health, Housing and Care Crisis

Crisis (noun)

‘a time of intense difficulty, trouble, or danger’.

‘a time when a difficult or important decision must be made.’

The housing crisis can no longer be ignored.

Neither it appears can the crisis in health.

And nor can the social care, or ageing crisis.

Our repeated use of the word crisis is telling and perhaps applied a little too liberally.

In the past couple of weeks we’ve had two major health and housing conferences both crying out for, not unreasonably, immediate injections of cash.

How can it be that some of the biggest players in the social sector face a crisis at exactly the same time. Is it rising demand? Lack or resources? Or the impact of years of austerity?

Or is it something more fundamental. A deeper design flaw – thinking of people as problems to be fixed – that’s been there for decades, largely hidden beneath the surface, only now becoming visible.

On the face of it – resources shouldn’t be an issue.

The NHS and Social Care sectors employ 3 million people in the UK,  the social housing sector about 150,000.

In a population of 65 million that means every person employed in health, housing and social care only needs to look after 20 people. 

It’s a simplistic way of looking at things – but it’s done to consider two points:

  • How much of our impact across the social sector is diluted by our lack of connectedness? To paraphrase Simon Penny – why don’t we have seamless health, care and housing that isn’t compartmentalised, siloed and rationed across disparate organisations?
  • How much of our collective resource is tied up in back office ‘management’ rather than pushing ourselves ever closer to the community? The sheer number of employees and players involved suggest it’s not completely fanciful to imagine a health, housing and care connector on every street corner.

In her book ‘No Is Not Enough” Naomi Klein argues that , far from being aberrations, or even reactions, events like Brexit and Trump are simply a logical conclusion of the path we’ve been on.

An era of hyper-consumerism, of seeing houses not as homes but as ‘assets’, of seeing billionaires like Bill Gates and Richard Branson as the ones to solve wicked social problems.

An era in which organisations and brands come first and communities last. Where resources that are meant to trickle down rarely do.

Even if you disagree with Klein, it’s hard not to see the parallel with the social sector which has become increasingly corporate, paternalistic, brand obsessed and ‘on message’ over the past 15 years.

Brands threaten local community and social movements.  Whilst brands compete with one another for market share or ‘social space’, movements work with whoever wants to reach the same goal.

At at a time when we really should be working together to solve problems in the most effective way we often make decisions based on protecting our brand.

We Need A Plan, Not A Brand

Integrating housing, health and social care systems is complex. Each sector has completely different governance, funding and regulatory regimes. It’s not impossible but it’s highly unlikely to happen.

Perhaps the future will be re-imagined through grassroots movements , both at community and organisational level.

Perhaps it will be explored through people like Bromford and Wigan Council who have resisted the crisis mentality – and invested in services aimed at moving from reactive to preemptive. People like Redbridge Council who see the future of local government as people centred, experimental and collaborative.

As I outline in this podcast – people are up for change like never before – we just need to provide a compelling alternative to services perpetually in crisis.

  •  If we are in a crisis then everyone knows the worst thing you can do is panic.
  • The second worst thing you can do is to throw money at the problem.

The demand issues that are hitting the social sector are a result of complex problems , including our way of life, environmental change, and even a lack of personal responsibility.

Injecting billions of pounds may give some short term relief but won’t tackle the root cause or return us to a golden age.

The past leads to the present. The road we went down got us here.

The future of health, housing and social care means treading a path we’ve never gone before.

It means imagining something that doesn’t even exist yet.

How Much Good Does Your Organisation Really Achieve?

We don’t usually think of achievements in terms of what would have happened otherwise, but we should. What matters is not who does good but whether good is done.” ― William MacAskill, Doing Good Better

We all love an uplifting story of a simple innovation that solves a tricky social problem.

Anyone who’s been to a poor country will probably have seen women pumping water for their families in searing heat from a communal well.

That was the problem the PlayPump set out to fix. By getting children to play on a merry-go-round to pump water it hoped to transform back breaking manual labour into a leisure activity.

The more a child spins the more life saving water gets pumped – with playground equipment something they had never seen before in their lives. Kids are happy, Mum’s happy.

Ingenious , right?

Wrong.

Despite numerous innovation awards, millions of dollars spent and endorsements from the likes of Bill Clinton and Jay Z , no one had really considered the practicalities of the PlayPump.

  • In order to pump water, PlayPumps needed constant force, and the kids playing on them would quickly get exhausted or even injured.
  • The women whose lives were supposed to be made easier ended up pushing the merry-go-round themselves, which they found more tiring and time consuming than using a hand-pump.
  • And unlike the hand-pump, which locals could repair themselves using their own skills , the PlayPump required expensive outside assistance.

Critically – the Merry-Go-Round required continuous use for 27 hours to generate the same amount of water as the hand-pump did in a day.

PlayPumps are a critical lesson in learning from failure.

The book by William MacAskill has a stark warning for the social sector:

When it comes to helping others being unreflective often means being ineffective.

Today we need less talk of innovation and more evidence of impact. All of us need to demonstrate how we solve problems for people, how we realise savings, and how we make the world a better place.

That means answering difficult questions.

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MacAskill adds another question that is a recurring motif throughout his book:

What would have happened anyway?

It’s a question we hardly ever consider.

Suppose we did nothing.

Is it possible that similar social outcomes could be achieved without us getting involved? In the case of the PlayPump it seems so.

The social sector – in the UK alone – is worth billions so it’s only right that we get better at scrutinising the effectiveness of all the players.

If your role is to deliver social outcomes then you have a responsibility to articulate how those outcomes have been achieved. And those outcomes should demonstrate what you uniquely brought to the party – rather than what would have happened anyway.

To use a couple of examples using this thinking let’s look at the world of housing associations, the main providers of affordable housing in the UK.

  • Housing Associations will often claim social impact as they build a certain number of new homes every year. For example let’s say they claim to have built 200 annually. However had they done nothing it’s almost certain that those homes would have been built anyway – by one of the other 900+ housing non-profits that exist. The same overall number of homes would be supplied. To the people moving in it’s largely irrelevant which housing association manage them. Arguably the average landlord confers no more social benefits or quality of life to the tenant compared to anyone else.
  • Another common claim is the number of people an organisation has helped into employment. Again – what would happen if, say, you didn’t give any help to 100 unemployed people? The jobs would almost certainly still get filled regardless. The people may have gained jobs without your help. It’s even plausible that they might have gained better paying or more rewarding jobs if they’d never laid sight on you.

Just because you’re involved with a social activity does not mean you can claim causation. Just because you do good does not mean you are good at achieving social outcomes.

You can certainly see why organisations make claims of social impact without evidence or even exaggerate their role in it – it’s great for marketing.

The Fairtrade movement has altered the buying habits of thousands of us. But despite a $7billion a year industry in ‘fairer’ coffee, clothing and other goods there’s limited evidence of the impact on the actual workers involved.

In an era where there is a trust deficit – where belief in charities and non-profits is no longer implicit – it’s the responsibility of all us to go beyond traditional marketing and provide a persuasive evidence base for the impact of our work.

As MacAllister points out – how much good you achieve is the difference between what happens as a result of your actions and what would have happened anyway.

Arguably if the organisation you work for cannot demonstrate equal or better social outcomes than your peers – there’s simply no reason for it to exist.

How Do We Know Our Organisations Are Really Succeeding?

Every day, organisations promise to make the world a better place.

How do we know they are really succeeding?

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

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

We have a ‘world class legal system’,  but at the end of last year 77 of the 117 prisons in England and Wales were overcrowded.  By contrast the Netherlands has a shortage of prisoners , and is turning prisons into boutique hotels and temporary homes for refugees.

Perhaps it’s time to move away from soundbites and spend a little more time at the source of the problem.

 

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Health is an interesting one – there’s a big difference between quality and availability of healthcare and actual outcomes. The UK ranks only 23rd on the Bloomberg Healthiest Countries list.  Another report by the Nuffield Trust indicates that, compared with other countries, the UK’s healthcare system is no more than ‘better than average’.

Italy , with plenty of doctors in the country and a diet full of fresh vegetables. fish and lean meats, is the place to be. Maybe it’s easier to solve problems with pasta and olive oil?

The issue of course is that problems like health, housing and offending fall into the category of what Professor Horst Rittel termed ‘wicked problems’.

Wicked problems are difficult to define. Many possible explanations may exist. Individuals perceive the issue differently. Depending on which explanation you choose, the solution takes on a different form.

Tame problems, by contrast,  can be clearly written down. The problem can be stated as a gap between what is and what ought to be. There’s usually pretty easy agreement about the problem definition.

Tame problems might still need a high degree of creativity to approach – but they are ultimately solvable – often by one organisation acting alone.

Wicked problems on the other hand aren’t amenable to a single organisation with its top down instinct to define, analyse, dissect and process.

And that’s why more money for the NHS won’t make us any healthier, and more prisons won’t stop reoffending. And if you want to solve homelessness the worst thing you could do is create more housing associations.

Simon Penny (who I’m delighted to say is soon to join Bromford Lab) writes that many of our trickiest social issues can be thought of as wicked problems because of their complex nature – and this means that finding solutions to them often isn’t easy. Especially in a world where organisations and even internal departments act in isolation.

The chance of solving wicked problems whilst acting alone is virtually zero.

The issue we face is that many of our organisations are driven by top down metrics that attempt to solve things through quite a narrow lens. Because we don’t employ a rigorous process for understanding the dimensions of the problem, we miss opportunities to address the underlying strategic issues.

This gives our organisations the illusion of solving problems – but we rarely do. In fact we often create more problems for others.

Wicked problems are forever interconnected. You can’t solve them at organisation or even sector level.  The challenge is connecting the various players and closing the gaps.

Perhaps if we stopped thinking of people as problems to be solved we’d turn our organisations upside down.

There are problems in communities but there are even more opportunities.  Even if people do need ‘help’ they are just as likely to find what they need from a friend or a neighbour as they are from a ‘professional’.

Oh, and before you pack your bags and leave for Italy, consider that it too has failed to join up problems. Youth unemployment – at a staggering 40.3% – is twice the European average. It’s saddled with one of the world’s highest debt loads and most of those doctors that have kept the country so healthy are nearing, or even past, retirement age. The country is sitting on a time bomb.

The problem you are tackling today doesn’t start with your organisation,  and neither – so it seems – does the answer.


 

Photo Credit: Anton Nikolov

Is Your Organisation Making The Impossible Possible?

2016 was the year the social media bubble burst. The year we woke up to the fact that – despite what Twitter and Facebook tell us – a lot of people think exactly the opposite to what we do. It was us, not them, who were in a bubble.

I spent New Year travelling – so only read a few of the “2016 sucked” type posts that swamped my feeds. My view is that 2016 wasn’t the end of days – but rather the necessary conclusion of a cycle that’s been playing out for years.  The new cycle is beginning and is open for us to shape.

I began writing this post on the early morning ferry from Tagbilaran to Lamu Lamu City in the Philippines – after a conversation with some Filipino commuters.

The Filipinos are blessed with breathtaking landscapes , astonishing waterworlds and true Asian megacities.  It’s also situated smack in the middle of the typhoon belt and the Pacific Ring of Fire. Storms and earthquakes are part of everyday life.

It’s one of the most beautiful countries I’ve been too – and it’s in an almost constant cycle of peril.

People have to continually rebuild, reuse and readapt.

There’s no time for navel gazing about change management programmes and cultural readiness for transformation. It’s transform or die. 

The Fili culture has a word for this mindset – “Bayanihan”.

The word came from the tradition where neighbours would help a relocating family by literally carrying their house and contents to a safer location.

More generally the word has come to mean a communal spirit that makes seemingly impossible feats possible through the power of unity and cooperation.

The term bayanihan has evolved over time – being incorporated in many projects that depict the spirit of cooperative effort involving a community of members.

In 2017 many of us have to rebuild our organisations to face challenges that may seem impossible. And we can’t do it alone.

Saving the NHS from implosion seems impossible, but 1.5 million people work for the health service. If that were a country it would the 150th most populous in the world – ahead of Estonia, Cyprus and Iceland. That’s a huge amount of skills and knowledge that if harnessed correctly could surely transform any system.

If you stop thinking of the NHS as an end in itself and start adding in the wider social sector you’ll have more than 5 million people – and that’s before you start untapping the skills and resources in communities.

The reality is that the health and social sector isn’t an untouchable thing of beauty.  It’s a clunky system built for another age. It’s been patched so many times that it’s astonishing it still works at all.

Whilst short term emergency funding may be necessary – it is in no way the answer.

We need to to invest in scaling up promising community based initiatives at the same time as scaling down paternalistic systems and bureaucracies that stifle innovation.

This , as Alex Fox has written, is the scaling challenge of the digital age.  Scaling down bureaucracies to be human and family sized again.

I’m lucky to be working with organisations who are actively exploring these concepts, some of which looked fanciful in 2012.

  • In 2014 they started to take shape and gather momentum. More people took interest and got involved.
  • In 2016 post-Brexit, post-Trump, post-truth it looked increasingly persuasive.
  • In 2017 amid a global implosion of trust  – moving our organisations from the reactive to the preemptive and challenging the whole system as we have known it – is now the day job.

In the Philippines it’s interesting that the spirit of bayanihan – of communities themselves doing impossible tasks – has not spread upstream into Government.

The cooperation that works so well at community or baranggay level has been stunted when it meets the inflexible institutions that supposedly serve it.

This is the big challenge for us.

Can we reshape our organisations to be more like people – or are our institutions the very things that are standing in the way of unity and cooperation?

Are we letting communities make the impossible possible – or are we the ones stopping it dead in its tracks?

 

Here’s to a challenging and productive year!

Moving Away From The Reactive Organisation

Our job is to the mind the gap between the bureaucracy of our systems and the opportunities in our communities – Cormac Russell

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The first step is realisation. Accepting that most of us in the social sector are employed because of failure.

As Matthew Manos has written – it’s a field of business that profits from past societal failure – rather than the contemplation of the signals of failures that have yet to exist.

The entire premise relies on reaction.

The challenge – as we discussed this week at the Festival of Strengths – is how to switch your organisation to be pre-emptive. And that requires a whole system change.

A move from telling to listening.

A move from managing to coaching.

A move from filling the gaps with services to closing the gaps through connections.

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It also means taking a position. Believing in what people can do rather than what they can’t. That’s a philosophy that doesn’t sit easily on a business plan. Predicting what your services look like when the ultimate aim could be less service is difficult.

However running a business where you admit you don’t have the answers boosts your capacity for innovation. It immediately places  you in a collaborative state. Willing to seek advice from others , open to new partnerships.

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The bureaucracy of our systems would be solved if we stepped back and only did what we can do best. At Bromford we are focussing on the ‘irreducible core’ of service that our communities must receive from us.

The services we currently have that replace, control or overwhelm the power of community will become obsolete. The second of our organisational design principles is that we should think community first, services last.

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It’s not easy to change people’s mindsets from doing to connecting. It’s not easy to remove the scripts, policies and rules we have built around our institutions that suffocate creativity.

As Philippa Jones writes here, Bromford have been exploring this way of working for nearly five years. The launch of our new localities approach will see Neighbourhood Coaches with patches of around 175 households replacing traditional Housing Managers who each look after 500 households. Last year we invested £1.1m in testing it, and following successful pilots we’re rolling it out at a cost of £3.5m.

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At the Festival of Strengths I was lucky enough to share a platform with the people from Wigan Council. Their work shows that Adult Social Care doesn’t need to be in a permanent state of crisis.

There is an approach that both Wigan and Bromford share:

  • They refused the urge to panic when their environment changed – instead investing in people and giving them the space to think differently.
  • They gave people permission to challenge preconceived practices and ‘rules’.
  • They refused the rush to technology as a solution, recognising the vital role of people as a differentiator of service.
  • They took a different attitude to risk and learning from failure

And both are at the early stages of seeing the rewards from their investment.

Seemingly – what’s good for communities is also good for business.


The full slide deck from the talk is available here

How Organisations May Stifle Community Creativity

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One of the many challenges for the public sector is that it must start believing in people and communities again.

We know that many organisations are out of sync with technology , but there’s an argument that they are increasingly distant from an economy where sharing and collaboration trump paternalism and top down protocols.

One of the most interesting comments on my post How To Kill Creativity was from John Wade. In it he wondered whether the organisations that limit the creativity of their employees also inadvertently stifle citizen and community strengths.

I think the answer is almost certainly yes.

It’s well established that meetings, emails and design by committee suck the creativity out of a business , so surely this would trickle down to the end user?

If you have a risk averse culture surely you also contribute to risk aversion in communities?

One of the more damaging ways we can stifle creativity is just by not listening. Of leaving the thinking to the ‘experts’.  If it was an idea worth having, the experts would already have thought about it. They have all kinds of qualifications and can write reports and they tend to use very long words. When there’s a problem they really can’t solve they will often bring in a consultant or make an appointment to their board.

We can also – without meaning to – make communities defer to authority. Everyone is a manager or an officer. This indicates that someone is in charge and is important. The people in charge must know what they are doing, or they wouldn’t hold the positions that they do. They don’t need any ideas on how the service could be run differently.

These behaviours are out of kilter with networked communities and the way we share information and resources.

If we approach public service purely as a one to one consumer transaction we’ll 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, fondness, habit and traditions.

Huge parts of the public sector have designed services around what people can’t do for themselves rather than nurturing what they can.

At Bromford we are in the process of reshaping 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.

If we think of our organisations as platforms to enable people – rather than just as service providers – it fundamentally changes how we seek out ideas.

Yesterday we hosted a discussion in Bromford Lab kicking off a 12 week period looking at the problem , or opportunity, of loneliness.

What struck me more than anything was how the conversations we have are completely changed. Very quickly the contributors stopped talking about loneliness and starting talking about community connection. About amazing examples they had seen of people doing things together. Of Bromford leading by stepping back. Of the organisation no longer feeling it has to be omnipresent.

Believing in what people can do means being brave enough to admit that we won’t always be needed.

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

Planning for obsolescence may sound suicidal, but it’s actually the most enlightened creative state your organisation can be in.  

 

How Connected Citizens Are Mobilising Social Movements

This post is long overdue and has been sitting in my “must edit” file for a couple of months. The prompt to finish it has come from events in the past few days where online campaigns and watershed moments in the media (traditional and social) have again found our politicians wanting. 

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In June I was on holiday in Greece, my first time back there in about seven years. The country was on the edge of a precipice – calling a referendum on the bailout deal proposed by its creditors, and recommending its rejection.

You wouldn’t know it of course – unless you read the news. Yes – tourism was down slightly as people panicked at the idea of cashpoints running dry (they didn’t) – but the locals were as hospitable and hardworking as ever.

In a tiny harbour in the picturesque town of Molyvos there was a new concern  – a steady trickle (not yet a swarm, horde or influx) – of Syrian and Afghan refugees arriving on shore in rubber dinghies or being rescued by the coastguard as they sank.

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Contrary to the images that I’d seen in the mainstream media – there was no begging, no ‘harassment’ of tourists, no sitting around in doorways looking forlorn. They were simply looking for a bit of respite before the next leg of their journey.

I never photographed them – as it felt too intrusive. I now regret that as the past few days has shown the power of imagery to change public opinion.

Most mornings I said “Hi” as I walked around the harbour snapping stuff. It was my phone that initiated most conversations as most of them hadn’t seen an iPhone 6 Plus before. Some of the young people had rigged a temporary charging station for phones onto the side of a street lamp which , though probably illegal, I found pretty cool. I gave them a couple of safer power adaptors for their onward journey!

Smartphones are a lifeline for the refugee. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has given out 33,000 SIM cards to Syrian refugees and 85,000 solar lanterns for charging.

Far from being a luxury these keep friends and family back home up to date. WhatsApp is used to allow easy and instant communication. GPS helps people cross dangerous territory. Facebook groups help facilitate border crossings and keeps people in touch through a vital information exchange. And never has the power of citizen journalism been more powerful than as demonstrated by people such as Maziad Aloush, a former school teacher fleeing the Syrian war, who led his band of refugees through five countries using his Instagram to document the journey.

In Molyvos – as the EU abjectly failed to deal with situation, social media was being used on the other side – by the local Greek community to provide emergency assistance. A Facebook group and crowdfunder was in place to help facilitate support.

One resident had turned a bit of land behind her restaurant into a temporary campsite. Every day her kitchen team at The Captain’s Table went to work preparing food for the refugees, using supplies donated by tourists and locals.

In our civic life we are beginning to see a new kind of bottom up social movement. Connected citizens are using digital media to mobilise people into action in a way Government and authority simply cannot fathom.

It seems future solutions are less likely to come from national policies and more from communities finding their own way to solve issues through local innovation.

The devolution of public spending to the third sectors and private sectors seems inevitable, and it’s vital we enable community connectors and influencers to ultimately decide what that this looks like.

Examples like these local Facebook crowdfunders are in themselves grassroots alternatives to welfare – and we’ll see more emerging. The rise of food banks arguably demonstrates this trend towards self-organisation. 

At the moment these local social entrepreneurs are largely disconnected from the political establishment – which is fuelling the disillusionment with mainstream politics. (By the way if you’ve never done it , try explaining to a 15 year old why you can’t vote by SMS and why you can’t switch that vote at will if they don’t keep their promises.)

On our last night in Molyvos there was a huge thunderstorm. The owner of The Captain’s Table did something very special. She asked us if we minded moving our table and bunching together so that the refugees could seek shelter with us.

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The one photo I did take: refugees shelter from storm at The Captain’s Table

The locals sang them Greek songs of good fortune and they reciprocated with a song of their own. As the (crowdfunded) bus arrived to take them to the capital and their ownward journey to Athens and beyond, they drew a round of applause to wish them luck.

I don’t know where their journey ended or even if it has.

But I hope they and others like them continue to share their stories , connect with like-minded communities, and help us build a very different type of democracy.

Our Next Innovation Challenge: Stop Talking To Ourselves

“Wicked problems”—ranging from malaria to dwindling water supplies—are being reframed as “wicked opportunities” and tackled by networks of non-governmental organisations, social entrepreneurs, governments, and big businesses.

The challenge is connecting the players and closing the gaps.

William Eggars Global Public Sector Research Director at Deloitte, speaking at Lab Works 2015

I had one huge takeaway from Lab Works – an annual event that brings together the growing international network of innovation labs, units, offices and teams working inside and alongside Government on society’s biggest challenges.

It’s this:

So many of us , right around the world , are working on solving exactly the same problems.

From Singapore to Malaysia to Denmark to Mexico to India to the UK- we are all working on the same things.

That’s huge amounts of global talent seeking to address climate change, income and health inequality, lack of affordable housing, unemployment, ageing, digital exclusion and loneliness. All uncoordinated and fragmented.

In Great Britain – the third most populous island in the world after Java and Honshu – it fragments even further. Health, Housing, Social Care, Education and the rest go about their business largely in isolation. They congregate on an annual basis at conferences (separately), they lobby politicians (separately), they communicate their ‘message’ (separately). Even on borderless platforms like Twitter they self-organise using their own hashtags.

Undoubtedly digital can connect us in ways never before possible – yet whole sectors are still just talking to themselves.

So – who is doing the joining up? Who’s making it their job to prevent duplication on a massive scale – to co-ordinate the research, the tests, the pilots and the learning from failure?

William Eggars made the answer to this very clear:

No-one. No-one is doing this.

So who’s job is it?

And it could be yours?

I reckon this sector silo thinking, this lack of knowledge sharing at national and international level,  is one of the most wicked problems we face. So how can we reframe it as a wicked opportunity?

Let’s take this right down to a practical, organisational level. Here’s four suggestions for how we could at least get started:

Identify the problem

First of all we need to identify our wicked problems. A lot of organisational strategies actually aren’t focused on wicked problems. They are often solutionist (e.g we’ll achieve this by 2020 or we’ll implement these things in the next three years). Wicked problems are different, they can be difficult to get to grips with. Often they won’t have a stopping rule,  the search for solutions never stops. Ageing is a good example, you’ll never “solve” it. It requires a different way of looking at it.

Reframe them as opportunities

Seeing them as opportunities automatically shifts your mindset into a far more expansive and creative state. An organisation that sees problems as opportunities will develop a much more positive relationship with our world of volatile change. We need colleagues as innovators and entrepreneurs rather than adopting deficit based behaviours. A good example is the UK social housing sector – which generally adopts an attitude of “no-one likes us, no-one will fund us”. Rather than being a problem that’s a wonderful opportunity. No-one in that sector has a brand value of an Apple or Amazon. Any one of 1500 players could step forward to claim it. 

Engage your people 

Once we’ve identified our opportunities – let’s open up our organisations and work out loud.  Silos emerged out of efforts to make our organisations more efficient. In 20th Century command and control management it made sense to operate an industrial mentality of division by function and department. But wicked problems are , by their nature, extremely complex . We need to embrace this complexity and form people around them with range of skills. Your organisational structure chart won’t help you here. We need a much more fluid and collaborative model that allows people (employees and citizens) to swarm around the opportunities they are most engaged with.

Embrace the network

People are working on the same things as us across the globe. We won’t solve things on our own. We are desperately inward looking. Our sectors , our organisations , even our teams. There will always be more talented people outside your organisation than within it – so lets seek them out. Collaboration is a central theme to innovation because of speed , connections , energy and the ability to fast track implementation.  Most of us have hundreds , thousands or tens of thousands of connections. Worldwide. Let’s put them to work.

Turning this problem into an opportunity won’t be easy. We face a hugely competitive funding environment and an incredibly crowded social space. Everyone is fighting for attention.

Removing the huge duplication might mean we don’t all need our own website, back office teams, or even chief executive. We might not all need to exist – someone might be better placed than you or I to grasp the opportunity.

But if we are serious about attacking real problems there’s no room for vested interests. To address wicked problems our organisations must be reshaped in the shadow of the network. The wicked opportunities lie at the heart of it.

It’s Time for Us to Unleash the Hidden Power in Communities

“It’s so tempting for those of us who provide services….support workers, housing providers, social workers, community workers, health visitors, GPs…to see ourselves as the ones with the gifts. The ones with the solutions. The superheroes ready to fly in and save people.

 Maybe there is already a superhero living on their street”  – John Wade 

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The typical story arc of the superhero is fairly predictable.

The journey to greatness begins with a background rooted in tragedy or potentially limiting life events:

  • The sudden death of family members (For example, Batman or Spiderman).
  • Being cast out alone into an unknown world where you are markedly different from everyone else (Superman or Thor). 
  • Troubled or abusive families triggering low self-esteem or even mental illness (Wonder Woman or Bruce Banner/The Hulk).

Having got us firmly rooting for the underdog the story unfolds, telling of the discovery of a hidden power or talent , and the difficulties of coming to terms with it.

This will be followed by a challenge to those newly found skills and a struggle against a society that wants to put the budding hero back in their place. This is usually represented through the introduction of a nemesis or villain. 

And finally the story will tell of the mastery of their talents – and an acknowledgement that with power comes a responsibility to help others fulfil their own potential.

I don’t think Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster were thinking about asset based community development when they created Superman in the 1930’s. However the stories they wrote and inspired always trod a familiar path: the most unlikely people developing skills that others thought them unworthy or incapable of.

The potential for people to do amazing things.

This belief in people is evident all too rarely in the public sector. Indeed – it seems we are almost hard wired to think of people as problems.

If you don’t believe me – take a look around.

Clearly too much of our time is focussed on seeing the flaws and shortcomings, zeroing in on gaps and insufficiencies in every person, relationship or situation.

This deficit based mindset has profound implications, not least economically. Our organisational cultures will become trained to perceive people as problems – which will further distance them from communities they serve.

Adopting an asset based approach would help us tackle these ‘problems’ very differently:

  • Older people have wonderful skills and wisdom that we can now tap into for longer than ever before.
  • Young people have remarkable talents and capabilities – different ones than we did at that age.
  • Social housing tenants are not a breed apart but have often had their aspirations crushed by a system that celebrates need and dependency.
  • The NHS is an institution that people would fight for – and there’s an army of community connectors available to help it operate more effectively.

Judging by the conversations I see going on – things are changing.

I see a growing movement of asset based thinking and the rise of a community of connected care.

I see the role of social technology in helping us have more open and transparent conversations with communities about local decision making.

I see a move away from where ‘professionals’ cast themselves as the superhero capable of solving society’s problems.

As John says , there could be a hero living on your street – right now. It’s time for public services to reach out and begin their journey.

“Too many possibilities currently closed off to us would open up if we’re prepared to fail at being superheroes” – Cormac Russell

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