How To Kill Ideas (Part 53)

Many organisations act as inhibitors of innovation.

Rules and protocols are put in place, often for very good reasons, that preserve the status quo.  Over time, organisations develop a set of social norms – ‘the way we do things around here’ – that can quell any creativity or dissent.

Organisations can quickly develop an autonomic immune response that kills ideas – without any conscious effort. This immune system builds up easily and quickly spreads, but is far harder to dismantle.

One of the ways you can begin to repel these idea antibodies is , as Chris Bolton has outlined, to deploy a sort of ‘immunosuppressant agent’. This may simply be strong leadership saying ‘all new ideas are welcome’.

In my last post I shared how Bromford are attempting to democratise innovation by asking the 50 most senior leaders in the organisation to develop their skills by daring to disagree with each other and becoming more receptive and open to challenge.  

Working with my LD50 colleagues we established a Developing Ideas Group where we encourage colleague to submit ideas that save us money or improve customer or colleague experience. We are trying to distinguish between simple ‘ideas’ that lend themselves to a ‘crack on and try it approach’ with a complete acceptance of failure, and the more complex/higher risk problems.

The more complex problems are presented through a colleague pitch.

Asking colleagues to pitch ideas is a high risk venture. There is a glorification of the pitch in business today. Startup events and innovation challenges are popping up everywhere. Hacks are common, with 24 hour business creation marathons where strangers connect and form solutions together. Every such event revolves around the pitch and the skills and strategies required for an effective pitch.

Asking people to pitch ideas can fail as it forces people to rush to solutions. Which hastily assembled pitch should we bet on? The answer should often be: none of the above.

Pitching ideas is often just innovation theatre. Too many Executives fancy themselves as budding Dragon’s Den investors – waiting to show their business acumen by outwitting the person pitching. Many years ago I took part in a innovation challenge that followed the Den format so closely you could almost guess which Dragon the Executives were pretending to be. It was a dispiriting experience, with colleagues emerging either crushed or with a lot more work to do – often with no more resources.

At Bromford we are trying to do something slightly different – asking colleagues to pitch really great problems rather than firm proposals.

We’ve been coaching some of the Leadership team using nemawashi principles – so the rule of the pitch is that you can’t shoot any idea down – or even criticise it – you can only ask questions.

As I have previously written Nemawashi is a Japanese phrase translating into ”an informal process of quietly laying the foundation for some proposed change or project, by talking to the people concerned, gathering support and feedback, and so forth.” In Nemawashi the potential solution is prepared in very draft form but this time we check in with any colleague with a significant organisational position, not just bosses, to build consensus.

As David O’Gorman has written the nemawashiringi process is grounded in the need to maintain harmony within the organisation while at the same time make sound decisions.  An advantage of the nemawashiringi process is that once a proposal is approved it can be rapidly implemented because all the relevant parties are on board. This is in contrast to Western processes, which can encounter obstacles during implementation, even from parts of their own organisation.

Ideas are easy to kill – problems aren’t

Simply unleashing ideas just isn’t enough. They are too vulnerable, too easy to kill off. If we anchor ideas in truly great problems you’ll find that colleagues build on the initial idea rather than attempt to destroy it.

A problem shared really IS a problem halved. Most problems do not fit neatly into one team or function and require input from a variety of perspectives. That’s why attempting to solve them in operational meetings with the usual suspects is a waste of time.  By harnessing the creativity, expertise, and ingenuity of the wider organisation as willing volunteers, we can solve problems in a more inclusive, efficient, and effective way.

And here’s the point: people don’t resist an idea they have helped define.

So don’t criticise ideas. Just learn to ask better questions.

Why The Employee Idea Scheme Doesn’t Work

The concept of asking employees to share their ideas to drive innovation is always a good one. Unfortunately, the traditional suggestion scheme is, in my opinion, not the way to go about it.

Staff suggestion schemes are where innovation goes to die

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The origin of the staff suggestion box is somewhat hazy – but is believed to be at least 300 years old.

Yoshimune Tokugawa was a shōgun warrior who ruled the Tokugawa shogunate in Japan during the 18th century. He is often credited as the first person to introduce a suggestion scheme. A meyasubako (complaints box) was placed outside Edo Castle which encouraged locals to place ideas about how the province could rid itself of debt. Only Yoshimune himself had the key to the box.

The concept of asking employees to share their ideas to drive innovation is always a good one. Unfortunately, the traditional suggestion scheme is, in my opinion, not the way to go about it.

You’re asking people to literally put their ideas into a box. You’re shutting their ideas away in the dark, and storing them indefinitely. Suggestion schemes have become a joke, the perfect illustration of hands-off, out of touch management tipping the nod at innovation without wanting to put in any hard work.

So why are Bromford Lab in the process of re-introducing one?

Well, as Simon Penny wrote – for innovation and design activity to be sustainable at Bromford, we believe that we must democratise it; supporting colleagues and teams with a super light to medium touch in order to undertake their own innovation activity, freeing up our limited resources to concentrate on higher risk, higher yield, transformative and radically different activity.

To do this we believe we need to hand over the management of new ideas to our fifty most senior leaders -what we call Leadership50. Through developing a much wider group of colleagues we can diversify our innovation approach. Innovation thrives on diversity – it’s a team game. It comes from having a culture where everybody can openly challenge and question one another.  

People like to think that innovation happens because of a genius working alone – but that’s almost never the case. For instance, Steve Jobs insisted he would never allow Apple to make a phone. After his team finally persuaded him to reconsider, he banned outside apps and it took another year to get him to reverse that stance. Much of Apple’s success came from his teams pushing him to rethink his positions. If he hadn’t surrounded himself with people who knew how to change his mind, he might not have changed the world. 

One of the first subjects we tackled as part of Leadership50 was about being bold and daring to disagree with each other. How could we, as leaders, become more receptive and open to challenge, welcoming new ideas from our teams and from across the business? 

Well, working with my LD50 colleagues we made a pitch for what we are calling an Ideas Hub, a central place we can all raise bright ideas that save us money or improve customer or colleague experience. It’s high risk.

As Chris Bolton has written – post COVID the suggestion scheme has had something of a renaissance. All of them have a high chance of failure, indeed several reports have attempted to outline the reasons why many schemes fail . The literature, while extolling the many virtues of suggestion programs, makes it clear that achieving the expected results from these programmes is quite challenging. Suggestion schemes will not yield results without the active involvement of everyone in the organisation together with the required
resources and support from top management. It is also evident that sustaining a suggestion scheme is not easy, it’s hard work.

As Chris says over on his blog , it may be beneficial to take a ‘meta view’ of all the small bright ideas schemes which could identify opportunities that don’t work for the individual schemes, but could work elsewhere. And I agree that having lots of ideas is like spreading your bets at a horse race. The more ideas you have increase the chances of winning.

The problem is 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.

Having the idea itself is the easy part. Suggestion schemes on their own won’t tackle a culture of no. Even where organisations purposely attempt to generate creative ideas, such as through brainstorming events, hacks or idea boxes they often kill ideas off too early. Sometimes they even kill ideas during the idea-generation activities.

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”.

What do managers do? Typically, managerial work. Not creative work. Not radical, reshaping work. Involving management in the cultivation and protection of early stage ideas changes how managers do what they do.

And that’s why I think our latest approach could work. If it’s the leaders themselves that are publicly taxed with the development of bright ideas then they live or die by that particular sword.

More ideas certainly. Better problems, definitely. However – if we are to shift our innovation efforts across the whole enterprise, we need more management experiments.

Why Do We Believe In Silver Bullet Solutions?

In folklore, a bullet cast from silver is often one of the few weapons that are effective against a werewolf or witch. In business, the “silver bullet” is a simple, but sure-fire solution to a complex and/or chronic problem. Once you use it, the problem goes away completely.

Why do we believe in silver bullets?

In folklore, a bullet cast from silver is often one of the few weapons that are effective against a werewolf.

In business, the “silver bullet” is a simple, but sure-fire solution to a complex and/or chronic problem. Once you use it, the problem goes away completely.

On Wednesday evening I was invited to do a talk to a group of leaders assembled by Greenacre Consult. One of the best questions I was asked was ‘why, given it’s seemingly so obvious that exploring problems and starting small makes sense, are we so enamoured by silver bullet solutions?’. I gave a rather long and rambling answer – ironically searching for a silver bullet response – so thought I’d put some thoughts down here.

Silver bullet syndrome is the belief that the next big change in tools, resources or procedures will miraculously or magically solve all of an organisation’s or persons problems. Once you recognise Silver Bullet Syndrome you will see it everywhere. In management reports, in public policy, in recruitment campaigns, in advertisements.

If only we had a person like this our problems would be solved. If only you followed this particular diet your weight concerns would go away. If only the public did this instead of that, this damned virus would disappear.

I believe there’s a strong link between how our businesses are organised and their propensity for silver bullets. In 1909, Frederick Taylor published “The Principles of Scientific Management.” In this, he proposed that by optimising and simplifying jobs productivity would increase. Taylor’s philosophy focused on the belief that making people work as hard as they could was not as efficient as optimising the way work was done. This optimisation focus arguably led to the creation of narrow specialised teams and what Phil. S. Ensor later termed the functional silo system. The contention from Ensor was that these siloed teams were indeed efficient at repetitive tasks but imposed a very damaging learning disability on the organisation.

There are many advantages to silos but they can mean we become focused on narrow organisational fixes rather than exploring the underlying symptoms. Chasms emerge resulting in people not seeing any problem in context and cross organisational problem solving can break down. Through the silo system, as every function focuses on its own objectives and KPIs the ground is laid for the emergence of silver bullet solutions.

In an era of management fads and leadership worship it’s also bizarrely easy to sell these one-shot solutions. It’s soothing for us to believe that organisational tourists can arrive to save your business by doing a perfectly pitched PowerPoint with a clearly articulated way of getting from A to B, without any actual evidence.

Pitching up and saying that an organisation most likely can’t solve this problem on their own, that you need everyone’s creativity and input, that the first solutions you come up with will almost definitely fail – isn’t so attractive.

The idea of a silver bullet is appealing. That new Exec hire, that restructure, that new change tool, will solve it. We are all optimists really, and we want to believe that the world is simple.

We all want the fastest and easiest solution to any problem, but as Chris Bolton and Matt Wyatt have observed, silver bullets should actually be called silver boomerangs – because they just keep coming back.

Complex problems are hardly ever solved with shiny exciting bullets. As Matt Ridley writes – breakthroughs emerge when we have a “willingness to put in the hours, to experiment and play, to try new things, to take risks— characteristics that for some reason are found in young, newly prosperous societies and no longer in old, tired ones.”

This applies to our organisations, not just societies.

The way to solve our greatest and most persistent problems isn’t glamorous at all – it’s actually quite mundane. Success is best achieved through a multitude of individually unimpressive small shots rather than a single bullet.


Photo by Itay Mor on Unsplash

How To Make Decisions In A World Of Uncertainty When Not Knowing Or Being Sure Of Anything Is The Only Answer We Have (TLDR: Get comfortable with failure..)

In a high stakes environment , where people will die whatever you do next, nobody wants to talk about failure. For companies large and small, to make progress in complex situations means re-evaluating our relationship with the F Word.

Since the pandemic started, we have all spent a greater share of our time confronting difficult questions. Most of those questions are not immediately answerable. It hasn’t even been a year since the virus was confirmed so being able to predict its long term effects on our mental health, our relationships, our behaviours , even our future, is nigh on impossible.

How do we know if a trend is caused by coronavirus, or if it would have happened anyway? 

The typical approach of many companies will be far too slow to keep up. Postponing decisions to wait for more information might make sense during more normal times, but postnormal , surrounded by imperfect and conflicting information, waiting to decide is a decision in itself.

The only way to really make decisions and to forge ahead in periods of radical uncertainty – where environments may change dynamically and independently of the problem solvers’ actions – is to make headway iteratively.

Unfortunately that is the not message we are getting from many of our leaders, nationally and internationally. Strategies are being deployed at short notice against a background of emerging evidence, with advice to the public confusing and changeable seemingly on a daily basis.

In a high stakes environment , where people will die whatever you do next, nobody wants to talk about failure. For companies large and small, to make progress in complex situations means re-evaluating our relationship with the F Word.

Notwithstanding the oft heard corporate mantra about “risk-taking organisations,” few people or organisations are comfortable being associated with a failure. It usually appears as a ‘tell us about a time’ question at job interviews , but the savvy candidate will avoid providing any example of a genuine **** up, and offer a ‘valuable lesson learned’ story instead.

As Phil Murphy recently said “We all fail regularly though don’t we, in various small ways? Is there an unhealthy obsession by organisations seeking to portray faultlessness?”

In an increasingly complex world, where experimentation is called for, not us can remain faultless. There is very little informed debate or discussion about this. Failure is a lot more common in highly uncertain environments than it is in better-understood situations, so why do we not publicly accept this?

The benefits of learning from failure is incontrovertible but we know that organisations that do it well are rare.  Part of this is due to culture and our refusal to let go of the heroic leadership model. Failure is seen as bad, and it sometimes is bad. Very bad. But it is sometimes inevitable, and sometimes even good. 

Building our capacity for intelligent failure

IBM’s Thomas Watson, Sr. said, “the fastest way to succeed is to double your failure rate.” So how can organisations safeguard their existing values and still create a safe failure environment?

The answer is: practice getting better at it.

Rather than something that eludes all but the most creative, intelligent failure is a learned skill that everyone can practice and strengthen.

Change the definition:

People see failure as a bad thing as it has been drummed into us through childhood and the corporate machinery. It has come to mean letting people down. We need to redefine failure as a part of a journey of discovery – in which you’ll learn the possibilities for you and your organisation.

To maintain a psychologically safe environment that celebrates intelligent failure, those who come forward should be rewarded, not punished.

See it as an investment:

This seems counter intuitive but there is a strong economic argument for failing more often.  As an example let’s say it takes 6 months and £250,000 to take a product or service from idea to launch. At best you’ll get two cycles in a year.

However, if you can do a complete cycle of learning in a week for £2000,  you can get 52 cycles in a year at about half the cost. Many of those cycles of learning will fail but will have less risk and negative impact than your latest big initiative. In the words of Andrew Stanton – “be wrong as fast as you can.”

Have a scientific approach:

Embracing failure does not mean having a lax approach or work environment. Failure can co-exist with high performance standards. Have a hypothesis and test it. Involve your data geeks and people who have no vested interests in seeing the idea succeed. If people start getting excited you have a discovery. If not – people will still feel it was worthwhile learning – but quickly move on to the next idea.

Capture the learning:

Failure is only bad if we are doomed to repeat it. Breaking our organisations out of cyclical failure is a huge challenge. Chris Bolton has asked if there’s a need for a Museum of Failed Products within public services. He’s undoubtedly right – the ‘corporate memory’ is often unreliable.

Don’t confuse this though with “We tried that before and it didn’t work.”  Just because things don’t work doesn’t mean you shouldn’t dust them down and give them another run out on a rainy day. Sometimes the timing just isn’t right.

Our organisations are heavily and successfully defended against failure

The high consequences of failure (and perceived consequences) lead over time to the construction of multiple layers of defence against failure. These include a variety policies and procedures, risk assessments, work rules, and team training all designed to tell us that failure is bad. These series of shields need to be balanced if you have any hope of legitimising failure.

  • Our future is best explored through a series of experiments rather than a one shot strategy.
  • These experiments should be carefully planned, so that when things go wrong we know why
  • They are by nature uncertain, so the outcome cannot be known ahead of time
  • They are modest in scale, so that a company catastrophe does not result
  • What is learned should be stored in the organisations memory and shared freely and widely

Ultimately intelligent failure is a learned skill that everyone can practice and strengthen.

If we can approach uncertain decisions as experiments and adopt the idea of intelligently failing, so much more can be learned.

A world where we can all admit we don’t have the answers but are committed to exploring them together, by trying things out rather than through politics or ideology, sounds an infinitely nicer place.


Feeling like a failure? Not interested in playing local lockdown lottery? Then make a lunch date with me and Ian Wright for our contribution to Digileaders week next Tuesday 13th October at 12pm where we explore real life failure experiences and why so many innovation initiatives don’t go to plan.

You can book your place here.

What Face Masks Teach Us About Behaviour Change

Ultimately the innovation and change process begins and ends with one basic premise – listen first

How do new ideas and practices take hold? And why do some practices that require behaviour change get adopted more quickly than others?

COVID-19 has meant we have all had to embark on some very significant changes to our lives:

  • Queuing to get into supermarkets.
  • More regular handwashing.
  • Not hugging or shaking hands with people we know or love.
  • Wearing masks in public.

Some of these have been adopted easily whilst others are more problematic and have faced resistance. Understanding how and why some get adopted without question and others don’t is crucial if you’re involved in innovation or change management.

Many of the very best innovations in history took a long time to catch on. The train, the personal computer, the mobile phone – things that have truly changed the world but were not accepted immediately, and faced huge resistance from doubters.

Some of the behaviour change required by COVID-19 has been adopted more easily than others because they build upon clear pre-existing norms.

Queuing to get into a supermarket was easily adopted in the UK – because the British are particularly good at queuing. Even to the extent of being obsessive about other countries not being good at it. Queuing seems to have become an established social norm in the early 19th Century, a product of more urbanised, industrial societies which brought masses of people together. But it wasn’t until World War II and rationing that Britain’s reputation as civilised queuers was established.

Handwashing as you enter a shop or bar builds upon an established norm common in medical environments.

Like most norms though – handwashing in hospitals wasn’t adopted quickly. Although washing with soap and water has been considered a measure of personal hygiene for centuries the link between handwashing and the spread of disease was established only a couple of hundred years ago. The physician Ignaz Semmelweis advanced the idea of “hand hygiene” in medical settings by observing that when students and doctors washed their hands with an antiseptic solution before examining women during childbirth, infection and maternal death fell by 90%.

A discovery like that would spread like wildfire surely?

Not so – Semmelweis attempted to spread these hand hygiene practices, even confirming his findings in a different hospital. But he was largely ignored, even derided, and died at the age of 47 in an asylum.

Whatever your transformation roadmap says some of the best and most sustainable change takes decades, not months, to achieve.

Some health workers have struggled to adopt consistent approaches to hand washing even up to the last few years. One of the most effective ways adoption was boosted was simply by making hand dispensers much more prevalent and available. People will change their behaviour if the effort involved is minimal. Taking this from medical settings and applying it in pubs and restaurants is a significant leap forward but one that is understandable to the public at large.

As Chris Bolton has written, COVID-19 will have all sorts of long term effects on behaviour change, and some unintended consequences. Will ritualistic hand washing as we enter shops and other establishments continue long after the virus has gone? We won’t know for a long time.

With any change our resistance is usually not overt, just passive. With passive innovation resistance we don’t resist a product but rather the change that the innovation requires us to make. By making the right thing to do much easier we can boost adoption and spread the change.

Which brings us to face masking.

Why is facemasking so controversial that people will organise rallies against wearing them or feel so passionately about them that they will change their Twitter profile picture to include one? One of the reasons masking is divisive is that it doesn’t build on any established norm. In the West at least, it flies in the face of them.

Masked up in Phnom Penh 2015

Back in 2015 I was travelling in a Tuk Tuk across a traffic clogged city in Cambodia. The driver pulled over , ran into a roadside shop and promptly presented us with two masks, saying we’d have a better journey wearing one. It was a simple act of kindness, of great customer service , rather than an enforced change. Little did we know that five years later we’d be wearing them in Sainsbury’s.

In parts of the East, face masking builds upon a long standing tradition. For instance, in Japan the custom of facemask-wearing began in the early 20th century, during the Spanish Flu epidemic. A few years later, the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, triggered an inferno that filled the air with smoke and ash for weeks, and air quality suffered for months afterward. A second global flu epidemic in 1934 cemented Japan’s love affair with the facemask, which then began to be worn with regularity during the winter months to prevent coughs and colds. Today masks are even worn by some young people as a fashion statement.

However as Jeff Yang writes, the predilection for face masks in public in Asia builds upon a tradition that goes much further back in time, into Taoism and the health precepts of Traditional Chinese Medicine, in which breath and breathing are seen as a central element in good health. The 2002 SARS outbreak and the 2006 bird flu panic, have seen face masking increase exponentially and without controversy, because it builds upon deep cultural beliefs.

In the West, no such cultural beliefs exist. Covering parts of your face is viewed as a suspicious act and has links with anti social behaviour and criminality. Additionally the adoption of face masking has been further complicated by the lack of something all change needs to succeed: a good story behind it.

The story of masking is inconsistent: first we were told they were of no use, then we were told they were good. The application of the story is also confusing: in England they are mandatory in shops, but at the weekend I popped over the border into Wales where they are not and people are free to do as they wish.

Queuing to get into shops is a simple leap for us to make.

You can argue about actual evidence all day long but inconsistent application and poor storytelling are hugely damaging to the adoption of new practice.

Washing hands as you enter a building is asking a bit more from us – but we kind of get it.

Wearing masks is a completely alien concept and therefore resistance is guaranteed.

And that’s the lesson to take back into our organisations and communities when we want to make change:

  • Try to build on existing cultural norms where possible.
  • Make it something that the community can adapt to without much effort.
  • Be consistent with your story telling about why change is needed in the first place.

Change only sticks when we understand the modern information ecosystem and have trusted communications with colleagues and communities.

Ultimately the innovation and change process begins and ends with one basic premise – listen first.


Image by Uki Eiri from Pixabay

Innovating In An Age Of Uncertainty

Faced with uncertainty, those holding the purse strings will be tempted to stop the clock, peddle simplistic solutions and retreat to the past

We are living through an era of intense turbulence, disillusionment and accelerating change.

In any period of uncertainty, never mind a public health crisis and economic downturn of this scale, a company’s inclination can be to buckle down and focus solely on maintaining business as usual.

Innovation programmes deemed high risk and low return are often the first to be shelved as all efforts go into securing the bottom line. But they shouldn’t be, as innovation becomes more crucial when your business plan has just been thrown out the window.

In fact, creativity is in abundance during crises and when people are forced to accept new constraints. People who are behaving differently are also thinking differently – why wouldn’t an organisation want to capture that?

It often takes the reality of a genuine crisis to shake an organisation out of complacency. It can boost organisational courage and give it the impetus to take actions that would be unthinkable in times of calm.

However a crisis also brings with it an information overload, supplying us with overwhelming amounts of new data and choices. Faced with half facts, facts, figures and conflicting views of the future can lead many of us into a state of analysis paralysis.

In their article ‘When More Information Leads to More Uncertainty’, Geeta Menon and Ellie J. Kyung write that as humans, we innately find uncertainty to be an aversive state and are motivated to reduce it, even at a cost. Research has shown that people are calmer and less agitated when they know they are going to receive an electric shock than when they know there is a 50% chance they might receive an electric shock. Similarly, the threat of perceived job insecurity has more detrimental health effects than actually losing a job.

In many ways the crisis is just compressing and accelerating trends (remote work, job automation, the climate agenda, the possibility of a universal basic income) that would have taken decades to play out.

This uncertainty is affecting all colleagues in all our companies right now – and we underestimate it at our peril.

Some people cope with uncertain situations better than others, but I take issue with the idea that some are innately more resilient. Those that appear to thrive whilst others around them crumble under the pressure often face hidden wellbeing costs that emerge over the longer term. Resilience isn’t something that a person is blessed with, or not. It can be nurtured.

In the latest Bromford Lab Podcast , Ian Wright of the Disruptive Innovators Network talks about the challenges of innovating during a crisis and the number of employers who are now recognising the role that wellbeing plays not only in increased productivity, but also creativity. Refreshingly he says the organisations he is working with see the challenges presented by COVID-19 as an opportunity rather than a reason to scale back.

How do we prepare ourselves to make the best from a ‘crisis’? I’ll try and boil it down into three points that I think may help us on our way:

Eliminate triviality

COVID-19 should be a good time to get rid of organisational vanity projects or the trivial. I was reminded of this last week by Chris Bolton. In a post still fresh after nearly 10 years he outlines the Law of Triviality

Way back in 1957, Cyril Parkinson came up with the theory that organisations give disproportionate weight to trivial issues.

Image courtesy of Chris Bolton (@whatsthepont)

He used the example of a committee spending very little time to approve the construction of a nuclear power station. The committee then went on to spend much longer debating the construction and colour of a bike shed for the staff on the site. This came to be known as ‘bikeshedding’.

You and I know that all our organisations engage in bikeshedding – on a daily basis. Just check out the minutes of any meeting – that’s assuming any are even kept.

To create headspace for colleagues in the next normal we need to be more ruthless with the trivial then we ever have before – and apply our thinking time to the essential innovation challenges of our time.

Review Your Approach To Risk

In a crisis there’s no risk of rocking the boat, the storm has already hit.

In the podcast Ian talks about moving away from risk management and towards resilience management

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

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

It was to detoxify risk.

To promote learning from failure.

If we are to tackle the big problems rather than the trivial ones we WILL mess up, we WILL fail and we WILL learn. Embedding this approach in your risk management framework is necessary if we are to build resilience in colleagues. (You can learn more about the Bromford approach to risk management here)

Harness The Power Of Distributed Teams

There’s been two immediate trends we need to take advantage of:

  • The sudden shift to remote work as the default
  • Colleagues switching teams/being redeployed to support crisis management

So we’ve got a couple of things going on here than can lead to a spike in creativity.

Online tools and apps make it easier to assign, monitor, and communicate about the many tasks involved in building a collaborative team – outside of functional silos. This brings the opportunity to bring new people into mix – especially introverts who often don’t thrive in physical brainstorms. Introverts are ideally placed to absorb complex information about a problem and combine it into an elegant solution.

Secondly you’ve got the redeployment of colleagues into new teams who will bring a fresh pair of eyes to previously acknowledged and previously unseen problems.

This, managed well, will put some organisations in the driving seat of opportunity creation rather than mere crisis management.


It’s inevitable that faced with uncertainty, the knee jerk reaction of some of those holding the purse strings will be to stop the clock, peddle simplistic solutions and retreat to the past.

However it’s precisely because of these uncertain times that they must continue to invest in innovation. With the fast pace of change, and the pressures on our organisations and wider society, we need to find new ways to work and live.

Quickly.


Image courtesy of Free-Photos from Pixabay

The latest Bromford Lab Podcast is available now. Listen and subscribe on Spotify or Apple Podcasts or your favourite podcast app.

The Way We Work Isn’t Working

The office, after management, is arguably the biggest inefficiency tax that organisations layer over themselves.

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

Offices promote lengthy commuting which has consequences for both the environment and our own mental health. A recent study found that just a 20-minute increase in commute time is equivalent to getting a 19% pay cut for job satisfaction.

Most importantly – our workspaces have a productivity problem.

Despite technology which previous generations could only dream of we’ve never felt so unproductive at work.

What’s the problem here?

A recent report from Asana finds that employees spend nearly two-thirds of their day on “work about work”. Constant emails, message notifications, and unexpected meetings consume the best part of most days.

Over 10,000 people were interviewed globally and there’s some significant findings:

  • The majority of respondents’ time (60%) is spent on work coordination, leaving just 27% for the skill-based job they were recruited to do.
  • Responding to a constant barrage of emails and notifications is the primary reason that nearly one-third of employees regularly log extra hours, followed by unexpected meetings and chasing people for input or approval.
  • Respondents surveyed believe that nearly two-thirds of meetings are unnecessary.
  • Over 10 percent of an employee’s day – 4 hours and 38 minutes per week – is spent on tasks that have already been completed. This amounts to more than 200 hours of duplicated effort and wasted efficiency annually.
  • Less than half (46%) of respondents surveyed clearly understand how their output contributes to the achievement of their organization’s objectives and mission.

Screenshot 2020-03-08 at 10.32.27

It’s astonishing to me that this isn’t bigger news within organisations – the cost of unproductive downtime plus the wellbeing impact is mind boggling.

Parkinson’s Law. Work expands to fit the time available for its completion

In a post that is more relevant than ever Chris Bolton asks why do we waste so much time on trivial things in work? One of the reasons is our tendency to hoard unnecessary resources – to fill work with work.

“The basic theory is that an individual within a large administrative organisation will reach a point in their career where things start to get a bit ‘too much’ for them. Rather than leave the job or share it with anyone else, they make the case for acquiring subordinates. Subordinates will lead to more subordinates and eventually there is a department to manage. However, the quantity of real work hasn’t actually increased very much (if at all).”

Brooks’s law – Adding manpower to a late project makes it later

The ways most organisations respond to a new circumstance is simple: hire more resources. Even though everyone knows that throwing more resources at things is the very worst thing you could do.

The growth of ‘work about work’ seems unstoppable.

As Gary Hamel has explained – 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.

The constant interruptions to our work day means very few of us spend time in a state of flow. Flow, a state of consciousness where we feel our best and perform our best, is the most desirable work state on earth, but it’s also the most elusive.  According to Steven Kotler , the average person spends less than 5% of their day in flow. If you could increase that to 15%, overall workplace productivity would double.

What’s the solution here?

Arguably we are into wicked problem territory – with a complex web of technology, management and bureaucracy.

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In the report Asana naturally put a lot of emphasis on the role technology could play – and they are right – it is ridiculous that in 2020 colleagues are duplicating effort on the same tasks. The tools are here to design that out today.

I’d go further and suggest that every manager should attend productivity training on an annual basis – and be assessed at their competence at using collaborative tools.

We also need to challenge our culture of busyness which worships at The Altar Of Having Too Much To Do.

We haven’t got too much to do – we’ve got too much ‘work about work’.  And the onus is on each and everyone of us to fight it.


 

 

The Asana Anatomy of Work Report can be downloaded here 

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

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

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

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

Failing your change readiness assessment could be seriously career threatening. 

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

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

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

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

The Big Problem With Change Programmes

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

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

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

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

We Need Trojan Mice, Not Trojan Horses

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Image courtesy of @whatsthepont

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

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

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

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

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

Towards A Community For Change

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

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

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

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

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

People hate change?

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

Enabling A New World Of Public Service Delivery

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

The results are in: Nobody trusts anyone anymore.

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

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

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

However , there is hope.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How To Kill Doomed Projects

The challenge for managers in the “can-do” culture of business is to distinguish between belief as a key driver of success—and belief as something that can blind managers to a project’s ultimate failure – Isabelle Royer 

It’s always easier to start something new than it is to stop doing something.

Many of our organisations are prone to a form of corporate initiativitis – where people are rewarded for the creation of new activities rather than the scrutiny and hunting down of unnecessary zombie projects. Zombies are projects that, for any number of reasons, fail to fulfill their promise and yet still they keep going, with people unwilling or unable to put them out of their misery. 

These activities often make sense on paper – the benefits they bring and the development timeline sounds achievable. But somewhere along the way, something changes.

Why can’t companies kill projects that are clearly doomed?

Contrary to just poor management or bureaucratic inertia, the research of Isabelle Royer showed that many failures result, ironically, from a fervent and widespread belief among managers in the inevitability of their projects’ ultimate success. As she writes – “this sentiment typically originates with a project’s champion; it then spreads throughout the organization, often to the highest levels, reinforcing itself each step of the way. The result is what I call collective belief, and it can lead an otherwise rational organization into some very irrational behavior.”

The modern obsession with change champions – equipping armies of people to go out into organisations like evangelical missionaries proselytizing change – can reinforce this behaviour.

We can restore some rationality through transparency and effective scrutiny. Some of the most successful companies have cultures with just enough friction: with teams having regular, intense debates. Discord, rather than agreement, has to be allowed to take its proper place if we are to solve the problems that matter.

As Chris Bolton has written, not speaking truth to power contributes to very many project failures. It’s a complex problem that is cultural rather than merely the fault of managers. Organisational systems and culture often prevent people speaking truth to power, even if the ultimate boss is willing to listen.

Lessons Learned from the ‘RMS Titanic of IT disasters’

In 2011, U.K. government officials finally scrapped a massive 9-year, $16 billion project to create a unified electronic health records system for British citizens. 

The project – described as ‘doomed from the beginning’ – was criticised for being too large, too ambitious, too monolithic, and for having too many changing requirements. 

The warning signs were there from the start. The government chose the top-down,  approach. The solution was initially designed, not with actual users, but by a large central team, and intended as a complete “big-bang” replacement for the many and varied existing systems. 

A research paper summed up the main lessons learned:

  • Efforts should ideally begin with the user, before moving on to more general organizational and national requirements.
  • The initial focus should have been on making the software usable. This should be informed by users. 
  • A balance between customised approaches and standardisation is vital. 
  • An incremental roll out – with a more iterative approach, would have minimised risk

It’s not rocket science is it?

In fact the determinants of success seem to be weighted on just four factors: avoiding top down design, effective user involvement, speaking truth to power and avoiding silver bullets.

Project Flow Chart (2)

Zombie projects occur when all these factors converge and confirmation bias sets in. Even though everyone knows this isn’t really working, we carry on regardless.

As part of the work we’ve been doing at Bromford we recognise that slaying zombies is just part of good governance. Innovation is all about discipline in the creation and implementation of new ideas that create value. However it’s about stopping doing things too. As a general rule each new service or activity should lead to the decommissioning of an existing one.

It’s often harder to stop doing things that used to be valuable than start new things.  It’s that fear of stopping activity that holds real innovation back. 

Stopping a project isn’t failure. But failing to stop a project that is going bad –  that is failure.

Ultimately this is about keeping ego, ownership and politics out of the equation. We only need to be really good at a few things to have more successful outcomes:

  • Effective problem definition
  • Avoiding top down initiatives
  • Involving users in the actual design
  • Promoting local customisation and avoiding silver bullets
  • Iteration rather than mass deployment
  • Speaking truth to power and critically questioning the direction of travel

If we can get better at those – and make them foundational principles of new activities – we won’t need to kill doomed projects.

We’ll have no zombies left to slay.

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 

What Digital Transformation Is Not About

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

— Chris Bolton (@whatsthepont) June 14, 2018

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

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

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

Success in digital transformation depends on mindset, not technology

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

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

Stop talking, start experimenting

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

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

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

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

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

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

Technology cannot solve your organisation’s deep problems

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We need to talk about leadership in a digital age

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

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

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

What is digital transformation anyway?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Digital transformation is not a ‘thing’.

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

 


Photo by rawpixel.com from Pexels

 

 

Why Small Teams Win

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Value of Small Teams in Change and Transformation

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

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

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

RSH Session (3)

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

Visual

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

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

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

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

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

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

twitterpeek

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Nothing publicly fails.

Everything is a success.

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

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Our Problem With Failing

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

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

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

THE SPECTRUM OF FAILURE

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

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

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

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

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

Good Failure/Bad Failure

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

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

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

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

Quick, decisive failures:

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

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

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

Avoiding The Yo-Yo Effect of ‘Corporate Change Convulsions’

Speeches you never hear at a corporate conference: “….. Our Transformation Programme is going to be small and imperfect. We are going to do many small things that probably won’t work straight away.’ – Chris Bolton

In the early 1960s, a New York housewife named Jean Nidetch began a weekly meeting with friends at her home to talk about their issues with dieting. She was a ‘cookie addict’ who had struggled for years to lose weight through a succession of fad diets.

Her weekly meetings helped her lose nearly 10kg in a year. So successful was her personal transformation that she turned the gatherings into a programme and ultimately a company – called Weight Watchers.

This began the commercialisation of dieting, creating a worldwide industry expected to be worth 245 billion dollars by 2022

The idea behind most of those diets is straightforward and obvious: eat fewer calories and you will lose weight.

But that’s not what actually happened: instead the diet trend coincided with mass weight gain and the beginnings of the obesity epidemic.

According to research, most dieters will regain almost all of what they lose – which is why the typical dieter tries a new bright and shiny personal transformation plan four times a year.

Change fails, try a new approach, spend more money.

A few weeks ago I wrote The Big Problem With Change Programmes – my most popular post for a year. It drew a lot of responses and messages. Here’s a selection:

“There’s a sense of complete deja vu – we’ve been here before and because the last one didn’t work it’s hard for even the most positive of us to be excited.”

“Change programmes are an industrialized construct and, as such, they are rarely culturally insightful because they often fail to get under the skin of the deep issues around how a group of people adapts and changes.”

” Our organisation are doing ‘change theatre’ – spending a lot of money on consultants helping us address things that will change the organisation as little as possible. The big complex issues are being ignored.”

The common theme – hired help brought in every few years to sort things out – is well illustrated by Ian Watt who describes regular ‘corporate convulsions’ that fail to transform anything – as predictably as a January diet.

Does Big Consultancy Really Work?

One of the reasons it’s hard to evaluate the relative success of change programmes is very few organisations share what actually happened, how much they spent, and almost none share which ones failed.

Similarly, the use of big consultancy is shrouded in mystery.

According to the main industry body in the UK, the Management Consultancies Association (MCA), for every £1 spent on consulting fees, you can expect £6 in return.

However, a new study by Ian KirkpatrickAndrew Sturdy and Gianluca Veronesi challenges that view.

What if consultancy is actually making you more inefficient?

The study – across 120 NHS trusts – showed that management consulting didn’t make the organisations more efficient – it had precisely the opposite effect.

NHS yearly expenditure on management consultants almost doubled from £313 million in 2010 to £640 million in 2014.

The study shows that in some cases spending on management consultants did improve efficiency, but overall consulting use generated inefficiency, thus making the financial situation of clients worse.

Although the inefficiencies were relatively small it doesn’t take into account the amount of money paid to consultants and – perhaps more importantly – the huge amounts of time and resource involved.

It notes that NHS organisations have been either unable or unwilling to engage in the formal evaluation of management consulting, resulting in an absence of ‘rigorous, peer reviewable, transparent data’.

The study also highlights the active role of management consultants in pushing services when there is no need for them. Change for the sake of change.

Perhaps – as Chris Bolton has written – we should instead be seeking minimum viable transformation, and change should be small and imperfect:

“Most Transformation Programmes are about BIG ideas (and BIG language), where there is little room for failure.”

These corporate convulsions are little more than crash diets, where the weight is almost certainly going to pile back on.

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At Bromford as part of our programmeOne approach, we’ve taken time to look at the case for change, redesigning all 31 service areas and mixing larger-scale transformation with small-scale experimentation.

Part of that included a lot of time spent looking at why previous attempts hadn’t worked and getting deeper into problem definition. As David Anderton has said that means convincing your organisation that you’re not that special, and not creating bespoke solutions for problems that don’t exist. We only need change where it makes a tangible difference to customers.

Amazon, so we are told, have never had a change programme.

Just as a permanent lifestyle change is a flexible, ongoing process that involves body, mind and spirit — so changing an organisation is a journey without end and not a fixed point ‘transformation’.

Why Transformation Fails – And How To Avoid It

The concept that 70% of change and transformation programmes fail emerged in the mid 1990’s. There’s actually little evidence that this is true.

The 70% figure seems to have emerged because of a lack of clarity about what success looks like – and that most people have a bad experience of them.

My contention is that programmes fail for three reasons:

Why Transformation Fails And How To Avoid It

When was the last time you heard an organisation openly talking about what didn’t work? The problem we face is that large scale transformations become too big to fail – resulting in a ‘wall of silence’ when objectives don’t get met.

The irony is that this silence is the root cause of failure – as we become eternally doomed to repeat the same mistakes.

Why Transformation Fails And How To Avoid It (2)

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

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

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

Accordingly we end up with optimisation not transformation.  Or, as Emma McGowan has said, we end up digitising the status quo.

Why Transformation Fails And How To Avoid It (3)

Too often we focus on transforming parts of organisations rather than looking at whole system change. This results in the creation of more efficient silos rather than anything fundamentally different.

There are cultural reasons for this. We have a western bias towards individualism rather than looking at the whole picture. Rice farmers in South-East Asia tend to be more collaborative and cooperative as a successful crop requires a holistic approach to nature and irrigation systems rather than just a focus on the self.

Most change programmes do not look at interconnected systems – they narrowly focus on efficiency.

Accordingly , as Andy Reeve said, transformation gets a bad reputation as it often becomes equated with fewer jobs rather than creating a different world.

The End of Change Management

Perhaps we’d achieve more if we gave up on big change. People lose heart, are daunted by the scale and the programmes lose momentum.

We need to get back to basics;

  • We need a clear vision of why we need to change and what benefit it will bring. If you step behind the rhetoric of transformation you’ll see it is usually about reinforcing existing business models rather than truly challenging them.
  • We need influence devolved to people closest to the change. Change is best served when we devolve power, and institutions and hierarchy get out of the way.
  • We need change through small experimentation. We shouldn’t initiate change without a clear problem statement and some evidence that any proposed solution would result in a net positive outcome.

And we need a new honesty about what’s not worked well. Chris Bolton has suggested a Museum of Failed Products for public services.

Perhaps we need a Museum of Failed Change Programmes too?

Surely the best way we can avoid repeating our mistakes is to put our previous ‘failed attempts’ on show for everyone to see.


This is an edited version of a talk that was originally given at #HQNFlight on 11th October 2017

Don’t Let Busyness Kill Your Creativity


Last week I was getting a drink when a colleague asked me “So, you busy as usual?”

I took a second to avoid my kneejerk affirmative response and went for it:

“No – we’ve decided to slow down. Give ourselves some time to really think about things”.

They looked at me like I’d lost my mind.

In the world of work, more and more of us have bought about the prominence of an unusual status symbol: seeming busy.

But we are busier than we used to be, right?

No – we are not. In fact we are working less than we did 20 years ago – whatever it might feel like to you or I.

We are undoubtedly working in a new reality, one where we now have the distractions of machines to add to those of people. Being busy as a status symbol though is a modern phenomenon.

Thorstein Veblen suggested in 1899 that living a leisurely life and not working (the “conspicuous abstention from labour”) was the most powerful way to signal your status.

However a study earlier this year challenges whether that represents our modern reality. It explored cultural differences, finding that busyness at work is associated with high status among Americans, with the effect being reversed for Italians, who still view a leisurely life as representative of high status.

I recommend listening to the Oliver Burkeman shows that explore the way we fetishise being busy. You’ll recognise the stories of people complaining about the size of their inbox and all the meetings they have to go to.

It’s easy to say you’re too busy. Even when you’re the one to blame for it.

As example I’ve kept up a pretty good blogging schedule this year — usually every week or so. I’ve had a gap for the past two weeks —  and I could blame being been too busy.

But just like eating the right food, reading more books and exercising – busyness is often just an excuse for lack of discipline. 

I like not being busy and I’m proud of it.

I resist being busy at every opportunity.

Busyness for me — and telling people I’m busy — is a sign I’m being undisciplined and unproductive.

Worse still — busyness makes you lose self-awareness. Telling other people how busy and important you are means you start to believe it yourself.

Here’s what makes me busy:

Trying to multi-task (there’s no evidence that our brains work well with too many tabs open)

Attending standing meetings (they just create actions rather than focus on being reductive)

Letting people schedule back to back appointments (which kills any time for you to breathe and think)

Sending lots of emails (you just get more mails back)

Letting people “pick your brain for 5 minutes” (It’s never ever five minutes)

Although we don’t like to admit it – we have a lot of control over our own busyness and the busyness of others.

Someone recently told me that they checked their colleagues diaries to “see how busy they were”.

The implication was clear — busyness was being directly equated with productivity.

The colleagues whose diaries were full , a sign that they say yes to everything, were lauded.

Those engaged in purposeful contemplation or those just getting stuff done were not.

In the space of 50 years the workplace has become overwhelmed with management theories on how to run a better organisation.  It can’t be a coincidence that the growth of busyness has come at a time during which there has been a growth in management.

Not for nothing does the world’s most valuable brand eschew management fads and concentrate on getting the basics right. All staff at Google have to learn how to run meetings, have conversations, and set goals.

Great companies only obsess over productivity – never busyness.

Complex Problems Require Rapid Experiments

“Multiple iterations almost always beat a single-minded commitment to building your first idea”Peter Skillman

Most of you will have taken part in the Marshmallow Challenge or a variant of it. It’s the team exercise where you get a load of spaghetti, some tape, a marshmallow, a piece of string, and 18 minutes to build the tallest freestanding structure.

Peter Skillman, who devised it, found something fascinating when he tested it on multiple participants.

Children out performed most groups – including business school students and CEOs.

When Vicky Green repeated this experiment in Bromford Lab a couple of years ago – the team that did worst were…..our Project Managers.

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How is it that a bunch of kids can beat trained professionals at a fairly basic task?

First of all they are unconstrained by assumptions. In one of the tests they did something that no other group did – they asked for more spaghetti.

Instead of wasting time figuring out team roles and who should do what they jumped straight in and started creating. They experimented endlessly, and just built the tallest tower they could.

Essentially – they didn’t waste time with status games, they were willing to experiment and they weren’t afraid to look stupid and fail.

Messy problems require creative exploration, not management toolkits.

Lessons in Change and Transformation

As part of a work project I’m involved in we’ve been kicking around a problem for the past few months: how do you turn around one of our most demand led services from reactive to pre-emptive?

I’ve come to a realisation over the past couple of weeks that despite all the knowledge and expertise in the organisation – none of us really have a clue. The only way out of it is to start experimenting.

The art of management is an endless search for silver bullet solutions.  For certainty where there is often none.

Chris Bolton has written a great couple of posts recently on management fads and silver bullet syndrome.  This is the belief that the next big change in tools, resources or procedures will miraculously or magically solve all of an organisation’s problems.

Once you recognise Silver Bullet Syndrome you will see it everywhere. In management reports, in public policy, and in the final week of UK election campaigning – on every single news bulletin.

It’s actually very easy to sell Silver Bullets. To stand in front of people and do a PowerPoint presentation with a perfectly articulated way of getting from A to B, without any actual evidence.

It takes real bottle though to say you haven’t a clue how to resolve this.

That you can’t solve this on your own.

That you need everyone’s creativity and input.

That you know the first solutions you come up with will almost definitely fail.

It used to be cool to pretend you had all the answers but today’s complex problems require rapid experimentation not silver bullets.

If a problem has existed in your organisation for a long time it’s almost guaranteed not to be solved at your first attempt.

I’m looking at a test plan from Tom Hartland and thinking how to sell it. It essentially says “I’m sorry I haven’t a clue – I’ll tell you after the first 20 tests”. He’s right.

The best way to combat uncertainty is to spread your bets with small experiments.

None of us can afford to wait for the opportunity that’s perfectly safe.

Three Simple Ideas To Stop Change Failing

“The essence of transformation isn’t incremental. Transformation means ‘radical change’. And few companies truly countenance that because it’s, well…too radical.” – Anne McCrossan

Maybe we are being too ambitious.

Perhaps the hype of business change is becoming all consuming, leading us to aim for things our leadership can’t possibly deliver.

In my last couple of posts I explored the current failings of digital transformation and the rise of complexity – two things that are to my mind inextricably linked. The former was my most popular post for over a year and brought with it some great comments and follow up conversations.

What we really need to address is summed up by Anne McCrossan in her comment.

We have a skills deficit.

Transformation means acquiring new skills, new capabilities around data management, processes that support rapid, iterative design and collaborating more openly.

That’s just not happening.

The Myth Of The Complete Leader

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As Chris Bolton said –  it’s tempting to link the rise of overly complicated systems and processes to the creation of the MBA and a proliferation of Management Consultants. The inexplicable rise of leadership fads correlates with a sharp decline in productivity and a general disengagement with work.

Perhaps the actual practice of change is being complicated by a profusion of tools and ideas about strategy and management. 

What if we’ve got it wrong?  What if the management practices we hold onto – the leadership development courses we exalt – the behaviours we seek at recruitment – are not fit for purpose?

What if there’s another way?

Three Not-So-Radical Ideas

1 – Let the People Closest to the Problem Lead Change

Perhaps change would be better served if leaders and consultants stepped out of the way. After all – when you hire a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.

As Stowe Boyd writes – change is often about transfusion rather than true transformation. A small set of not-particularly-revolutionary ideas transfused into the existing system, based on the implicit strategy of changing the business as little as possible.

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The people least invested in change (but with the most to gain by it) also have the biggest impact upon it. McKinsey report only a 3% success rate of transformations that fail to engage line managers or frontline employees.

If their role is that mission critical maybe they should have a commanding , rather than supporting, role in the design and implementation of change itself. Perhaps they would be braver.

Designing a form of governance to devolve responsibility to ensure executives and managers are unable to engage directly in these initiatives sounds radical. However – it is in effect no different to the strengths based thinking emerging in community practice.

Basically – change is best served when we devolve power, and the institutions and hierarchy get out of the way.

2 – Sweat The Small Stuff

Perhaps we’d achieve more if we gave up on big change and moved towards marginal gains. According to Steve Sewell  – most change programmes concentrate on modelling, planning or design work that takes months if not years.  People lose heart, are daunted by the scale and the programmes lose momentum.

Staying below the executive radar and letting the small changes flourish through iterative design and testing sounds like rebellious behaviour but there’s much sense here.

The evaluation of the Northern Ireland Innovation Lab recognises this importance of looking for cheap and small ways to test ideas and concepts, breaking larger change down into small chunks.

3 – Rethink the Love Affair with Change

Perhaps it’s time to escape the idea of organisational transformation once and for all.

Zachary First points out the tremendous, if largely invisible, cost to chasing management fads. Instead of the constant call to keep pace in times of rapid change we might be better placed thinking how we can avoid the need for customers or colleagues to face yet another choice.

Our change programmes rarely answer the question “Why are we changing?” in a truly coherent way.

This – combined with our cultural bias for execution over problem definition – is why change often fails. We may solve a problem – just not the right one.

Really – none of this is that radical at all.

  • Recognising that a digital age requires new mindsets alongside skill-sets.
  • Reflection and contemplation rather than lots of management activity.
  • Devolving resources and influence to those closest to the problem.
  • Changing slowly through small-scale experimentation.
  • Not rolling out anything until you have evidence that it works.

That sounds incredibly simple.

And maybe it is.

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