What Coronavirus Tells Us About Risk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We are scared of making mistakes

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

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

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

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

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

No-one ever gets fired for exaggerating

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

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

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It’s available now. 

Subscribe on Spotify 

Subscribe on Apple Podcasts

Featured Photo by Hello I’m Nik 🍌 on Unsplash

Moving From The Reactive To The Pre-Emptive

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

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

The entire premise relies on reaction. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pre-Emptive Change: Fix It Before It Breaks

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

Simplistically it could be broken down into four stages.

FutGenX - Paul Taylor Prevention Workshop

Shifting Perspectives

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

Reframing Problems as Opportunities

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

Exploring Opportunities

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

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

Preventative Interventions 

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

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

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

Let’s stop pretending there is.


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

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How Technology Can Increase Collaboration And Build Trust

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


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

a) how to collaborate effectively

and

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How can our organisations become more collaborative? 

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

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

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

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

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

How technology can increase collaboration and build trust

What are the challenges?

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

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

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

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

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

What are the opportunities? 

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

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

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

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

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

What If We Replaced All Our Managers With Robots? 

Most of what we call management consists of making it difficult for people to get their work done

Peter Drucker

Management is the greatest inefficiency in any organisation.

Many of you will be familiar with the work of Gary Hamel , but his explanation of how management ‘spreads’ is always helpful.

Typically a small organisation might start off simply – one manager and 10 employees. 

But as it grows it will often keep this ratio and sometimes reduce it. So an organisation with 100,000 employees will have at least 11,111 managers. Because an additional 1,111 managers will be needed to manage the managers.

And that’s before you go near management related functions whose entire function is , well , management.

Most of our organisations are focused on growth rather than remaining small and simple. More people inevitably means your coordination and communication problems magnify, the management hierarchy multiplies, and things get more complex.

Research shows that every time the size of a city doubles, innovation or productivity increases. However, exactly the opposite happens with organisations. When companies get bigger, innovation or productivity per employee generally goes down.

This is why companies which grow quickly get into trouble. A fast-growing company can go from 20 to 400 people without changing anything about how they work. What works in an organisation of 200 people simply doesn’t in an organisation of 2000.

Globally, our employees crave more autonomy and less bureaucracy. However, there is currently a gap between wanting autonomy and flexibility, and getting workplace autonomy and flexibility.

And the reason it’s difficult is this: it’s impossible to dismantle bureaucracy without redistributing authority. Hierarchical and status-obsessed cultures necessarily militate against relationships based on equality, empowerment and collaboration.

Most of our organisations don’t redistribute authority, they accumulate it.

So what if we replaced all the managers with robots? 

As Simon Penny writes for Bromford Lab, at the moment we’re either 100% human led or just starting to explore the possibilities of having machines support decision making.

Simon points out that humans are particularly bad at making decisions. Our decisions are largely emotional and often illogical, which can lead to inequity, data bias and bad outcomes. Having a machine help us make decisions more efficiently actually makes a lot of sense. Who says they wouldn’t be better than managers?.

The Mystery of Miserable Employees

In an article for the New York Times, Neil Irwin explains how a team at Microsoft used data rather than managers to figure out why a business unit had such poor work life balance. The issue was that their managers were clogging their schedules with overcrowded meetings, reducing available hours for tasks that rewarded more focused concentration. Rather than leaving it to managers to solve the problem the team deployed a Microsoft Office feature called MyAnalytics which allows users to receive nudges when their actions don’t line up with their stated goals. A bot notifies you about how much focused time you had, or how many hours you were on email.

Just like wellbeing trackers like Fitbit, rather than doctors, are nudging people to improve the quality of their sleep, we’ll see algorithms, rather than managers, nudging us to be more productive at work.

To keep teams productive and happy, managers need to master the basics: don’t overwork or expect others to; hold frequent 1:1s; make cross-functional connections; and of course, keep meetings on time and inclusive. All tasks perfectly suited to a robot.

We Are All Managers Now

Like it or not we are headed in a direction of either performing human focused work (social, health workers, coaches) or performing deep non-routine knowledge work. All other tasks will be automated at some time in the near future.

It will happen slowly:

  • Things like Robotic Process Automation will begin to undertake the systematic and behind-the scenes jobs
  • AI will complement this software to add thought, judgement and intelligence
  • You’ll be told by a bot what the optimally productive length of the workday is for you.  You’ll be advised whether it makes sense to focus on deep contact with a few customers or much looser relationships with a wider community
  • Monitoring tasks (hours worked, productivity) will be democratised and we’ll be self managing using nudges and prompts – developing the interpretive skills to understand what data is telling us.

The automation of these routine tasks will allow people to focus on ideas, innovation and higher-value work.

Management has been responsible for a lot of disengagement with the workplace. This multi-tiered management model piles inefficiency upon inefficiency. Decision making slows. People become less empowered.

Robots will replace most managers before they replace front-line workers. But it won’t happen overnight and won’t even feel uncomfortable.

If we design it sensibly and ethically, the organisation where you are your own boss could be less cumbersome and costly – leading to a much happier and productive world of work.


 

 

Image by Jin Kim from Pixabay 

 

Why We Are So Bad At Defining Problems

If I had an hour to solve a problem I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and five minutes thinking about solutions. – Albert Einstein

I don’t know whether Einstein ever used those words. It may be just like the Henry Ford “Faster Horses” quote – something perfectly phrased and also perfectly true that no-one actually ever said.

Whether he said it or not, Einstein believed the quality of the solution you generate is in direct proportion to your ability to identify the problem you hope to solve.

And of course he was right, you can’t really solve a problem you don’t fully understand. “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough”. Another quote he (probably) didn’t say.

Either way, 60 years after his death, many of our organisations have still failed to learn his most valuable lesson. So what is so difficult about problem definition?

Many of our organisations have set the climate for solution focused rather than problem defining behaviours.

A solution focused culture is exacerbated by the following conditions:

  • Leadership putting pressure on finding quick fixes and the realisation of short term goals – rather than long term impact
  • Discussing problems, or considering that organisation itself may be part of the problem, is seen as taboo or a sign of weakness
  • Management falls in love with a solution too easily even if it’s not solving the problem at hand
  • An implicit assumption that leaders have all the answers. “Let managers manage and get on with it”
  • A lack of evidence based enquiry – which allows bullshit organisational ‘facts’ to circulate and obfuscate true problem definition

In my work over the past five years, since I’ve given up having any operational responsibilities, I’ve seen how easily we can all lapse into solution focused work.

Unlike Einstein, when given an hour we often spend – at best – 5 minutes on the problem and the remaining 55 minutes solutionizing.

Our+Approach+To+Design++-+Simon+Penny+(7)

As Simon Penny writes in a great piece for Bromford Lab “when we talk about design we are using it as shorthand for 4 key elements of problem solving activity – discovery, definition, development and delivery. That means that at least half of what we do is based on truly understanding and defining the problem we are trying to solve and the other half is based on developing, testing and iterating ideas into a scalable solution. In short, we think about design as a whole end-to-end process”.

So rather than seeing problem definition as a one off activity, it’s now what we do all the time, objectively helping the organisation to solve the right problems and resist its inbuilt solutionist behaviours.

The five step approach to problem definition

1 – Establish the need for a solution

This sounds completely obvious but just because you’ve seen or thought of a solution doesn’t necessarily mean one is actually needed.  Starting with a high level question of “What problem are we trying to solve here?” and being very clear about it is a good starting point. You’ll usually come up with a lot of further questions – so don’t even bother trying to fully define the problem at this point. There may not even be one.

2 – Match the problem to organisational strategy

Even if you’ve established the need for a solution – it may not be one your organisation is best placed to provide. No organisation, large or small, can manage more than five or six goals and priorities without becoming unfocused and ineffective. The best organisations don’t try and do everything. They focus on trying to solve fewer problems, in better ways.

That involves finding your ‘irreducible core’ of services and then constantly refining and innovating against it.

It also means saying no to trying to solve everyone else’s problems.

3 – Explore the context to the problem

Often your problem will be one that the organisation has tried to resolve before. We rarely stop to reflect on why our previous efforts failed and what we should avoid this time.

If the problem is industry wide, it’s crucial to understand why the market has failed to address it, and whether it is even feasible.

4 – Writing the problem statement

Now you’re ready to write something down. A problem statement should describe the undesirable gap between the current-state and future-state. It should avoid any mention of a solution and be no longer than a tweet.

5 – Initial prototype solution

As Simon Penny also wrote here , prototyping can also be used to test an idea; not by creating a smaller working version of a service or product, but by testing the many different component parts or even thinking abstractedly in order to start to uncover what it might feel like to use the service or product. This can be tested – with people – to help you further refine the problem. Thinking of prototyping as part of the problem definition helps you avoid falling in love with your first idea.

All of this takes time , and this is why our organisations are bad at it.

Falling in love with the problem , rather than the solution means:

  • Accepting your first idea could be the worst idea – and might be wrong
  • Being brave enough to pull the plug when you realise you’re not the ones to solve it
  • Becoming comfortable with failure – as the only way you’ll ever explore a problem worth solving is through a ‘try, fail, learn and try again’ model.

When you truly fall in love with problems, not solutions, you not only stand a better chance of solving them. You also start unlocking a path to a better, less complicated organisation.


Footnote:

By the way – it is possible to argue you can solve problems without first defining them.

I’m currently travelling and it’s inconceivable that we once had to carry suitcases. The first wheeled luggage was invented by Bernard Sadow because he had a bad experience in customs returning from Aruba. Struggling to carry his heavy luggage, he observed an airport worker effortlessly rolling a heavy machine on a wheeled skid. The rolling suitcase was born.

That’s not how our organisations work though. If the eureka moment was so common place we’d have solved most of our most intractable problems by now!

How To Kill Ideas

We were asked a really good question last week with the visit to Bromford of the Disruptive Innovators Network.

How long should you spend on an idea?

In the early days of Bromford Lab we had a 12 WEEKS MAX rule. If we couldn’t get an idea up and running within that time – it should be killed.

We soon realised the error of our ways. Some ideas need to be timed exactly right. Now we don’t so much kill ideas as leave them languishing in the pits of our Exploration Pipeline – waiting for the stars to align.

The Premature Death of Ideas

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

Our colleagues generate ideas every single day about how their job could be done more efficiently or how customers could be better served. These ideas – hundreds of thousands over the course of a year – mostly disappear , never to be harvested.

Organisations have developed numerous tools to kill off ideas.

1: Have A Meeting About It

The best way to assassinate an idea.

Meetings can crush ideas. People want to look like they are adding something in meetings and being hypercritical is highly valued. Putting your freshly hatched idea in that scenario is asking for trouble.

It’s only a matter of time before someone says “That sounds good in theory, but what’s the business benefit?” or even…“We’ve already tried that.”

Meetings are the best place to shoot down an unsuspecting victim who is trying to generate new ideas.

2: Take It To Your Manager

The middle layers of organisations are trapped between management (keeping wheels turning and not rocking the boat) and leadership (inspiring and taking risk).

People here are often scared to take risks because they’re responsible for so much. The bright spark on the team is often seeing as someone who is trying to mess with success.

There is evidence too that managers can undermine employee creativity through interference – changing goals and getting over involved when they should just steer clear.

3: Suggest The Idea Is “Escalated”

Most hierarchical structures are uniquely designed to ensure that any decent idea never goes near the top table.

Any idea that emerges closest to the customer has to work its way up through a series of managers, any one of whom is likely to veto it. As David Burkus points out, research suggests that there is often a cognitive bias against new, innovative ideas – a “hierarchy of no”.

The higher an idea moves up the chain of command, the more likely it is to be rejected, as the people furthest from the idea’s source will have a lesser understanding of its potential value.

4: Ask For A Report On It

Once you’ve written a report about an idea – it’s no longer an idea. It’s a project.

That will attract all sorts of project management attention, far too early. As soon as the Gaant chart appears it’s time to pack up and go home.

5: Ask To See The Data On It

“Data fixation” is an innovation killer. The trend towards having an evidence base for absolutely everything removes the gut instinct from your idea.  Measuring things too early means you constrain experimentation. And experimentation includes the possibility, the high probability even, of failure.

It’s not necessary, or even possible, to completely remove these idea killers. But knowing your enemy , and developing strategies to avoid these pitfalls, will boost your capability for innovation.

The Four Stages of Ideation

Often we think of ideas as being single events when instead they should happen in stages:

Idea Generation

Having the idea is the easy part. What separates successful innovation approaches over ‘innovation theatre’ is the latter promotes generation over action. The successful ones know know that an idea without execution remains simply that—an idea, a paper exercise, no more impactful than a passing thought.

Idea Selection

Most of our organisations don’t suffer from a lack of ideas, they suffer from a lack of process that identifies the ideas worth having.  It’s not an idea problem; it’s a recognition problem.

Perversely, the answer to unlocking creativity isn’t to go looking for ideas – but to go looking for really good problems. That’s the way to select the ideas that matter.

Idea Deployment

We need to move from reporting about things we are going to do and shift it to things we have done.

Spend less time talking about ‘What would happen?’ and start demonstrating ‘What happened’.  That means we need to make available resources for prototyping and space where we can turn ideas into reality.

Idea Extermination

Your ideas might be wrong, even when your instincts are right. Knowing when to let go is vital.

Innovation is all about discipline in the creation and implementation of new ideas that create value. If ideas are allowed to live too long they can become zombie projects.

To support innovation , we need to create a climate that protects early stage ideas and become comfortable existing with ambiguity.

Rather than just being highly efficient killers our organisations need to become better at idea generation, selection, deployment AND extermination.

And if you’re really struggling to get traction for your idea why don’t you follow this advice from Helen Reynolds? Don’t tell anyone about and just do it anyway.

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Photo by Jason Abdilla on Unsplash