Society Has Digital Transformed, But It Isn’t Evenly Distributed

We often blame innovations for the way they make our lives faster, busier, more intrusive, but in reality our core human behaviours and beliefs are slow to change.

Marchetti’s constant, named after Italian physicist Cesare Marchetti, is the principle that humans settled on a 30 minute commute time to work long ago, and no matter how much we innovate transport systems we rarely break it.

This nearly universal rule of human behaviour has been observed since Roman times. Whenever a new technology (the horse and cart, the tram, the train, the car, the plane) arrives that gets people to work at ever faster speeds, towns and cities typically grow outward in a donut formation, but not so far that commutes expand past one hour per day.

From Rome in AD 275 to Atlanta in 2010 our commute times have remained stable at 30 minutes, despite commutable distances growing substantially.

Therefore most workers have been tied to the city – until now.

In a brilliant and fateful piece written just before the pandemic Jonathan English writes that the greatest promise for matching technology to the modern worker has always been the idea of divorcing work from transportation entirely: telecommuting. 

The pandemic and our subsequent digital transformation has disrupted this pattern. As the folk at Quartz describe, post-Covid people who work in-person once or twice a week may be willing to tolerate a much longer commute. The 30-minute preference Marchetti observed likely has to do with time-budgeting rather than animal instincts, says English. But if you’re working from home most days of the week, that changes the math for the first time in history.

The fact it took a global health crisis to make us think about the cost of commuting is rather sad, and is picked apart in an excellent Twitter thread from James Plunkett.

I agree with him that this is”the best and most concrete example yet of a society-wide digital transformation playing out”. This is something we need to reflect upon, he notes, as when you do digital transformation in an organisation you use a whole set of tools and mechanisms to design a system and manage the change.

Society was afforded no such luxury. There were no Change Consultants or Project Managers – the transformation happened pretty much overnight. Over a third of us switched to working from home, shops converted to digital payments (in some cases switching off cash completely), a whole new demographic learned to order shopping online. The most basic establishments developed an app. Even QR codes made a comeback.

I rarely use cash but this week I was in Northern Ireland doing a talk on this very subject , and on arrival at the venue I paid the taxi driver with a £20 note. He looked at me quizzically and said “wow, we never use this anymore.” For one moment I thought they’d changed their currency.

Pay the wifi, heat the home or feed the kids?

The problem , and there is one, is this digital transformation has been anything but equal. In fact it has built on pre-existing inequalities, and even deepened some.

For instance, not all children had at-home internet access or WFH laptop parents able to homeschool them . Thousands of children (some suggest 130,000) in the UK never returned to education after the schools reopened. Worldwide the number could be 10 million although that figure seems wildly conservative given 5 million won’t return in Uganda alone.

There are similar inequalities at the other end of the age spectrum. Analysis from Age UK shows that the pandemic has not in fact produced a sea-change in over 75’s use of digital technology. In fact it has now turned into a kind of ‘digital deprivation’ as many services have shifted exclusively online.

Whilst over half of adults in the 25–34 age group say they would be willing to turn to digital means for all their spending, only 20% of over 65’s have a positive view of a cashless society. As ATMs become less used and disappear 50% of people report having problems accessing cash.

Also many of our organisations have still not shown ourselves to be digitally capable. Polling suggests a third of people are unconvinced about the long-term use of digital in the NHS amid a need for reassurance about data security.

So whilst we have undoubtedly digitally transformed our society , it is anything but evenly distributed. Many people were simply not ready to be transformed.

The pandemic has exposed and exacerbated digital inequality and the gaps that still exist in digital access and capability. Therefore we need to begin a dialogue about how can we achieve a more equitable digital transformation that takes in both age and income related inequalities.

We finally went digital, but for some people it doesn’t feel any better.


Photo by Jadon Kelly on Unsplash

Can We Really Trust People To Do The Right Thing?

TLDR: the answer is yes

Believing in the good of humanity is a revolutionary act – it means that we don’t need all those managers and CEOs, kings and generals. That we can trust people to govern themselves and make their own decisions.

Rutger Bregman

It looks like this pandemic is, for the UK at least, coming to end. In terms of a narrative arc the story of Covid-19 started with people stockpiling toilet roll, hand sanitiser and eggs and ended with confirmation of something we had guessed long ago – that those who create the rules for the little folk rarely stick to them.

People really are shit aren’t they? Left to our own devices social order breaks down and we reveal ourselves to be self-centred, selfish and uncaring.

Except there’s little evidence that’s the case.

Whilst the media has delivered us a daily stream of bad behaviour – with even community street parties being weaponised as deadly super spreader events – the real story of the pandemic has been one of mass cooperation.

It’s not just the traditional media who told us how bad we were. Facebook and Twitter were full of pictures of ‘covidiots’ – a term that came to be used by both anti-lockdowners and the proponents of Zero Covid.

How people truly behave is never revealed by looking at the extremes. True – there have been anti-vaxxers intimidating kids outside schools and disrupting test centres. And there have also been mask fetishists who wear face coverings outside when on their own, alone in cars, even in their social media profiles. These people though are outliers, to be used as totems of idiocy by both sides of the argument that Covid isn’t really a big deal/or is a potential destroyer of humanity.

The vast, the overwhelming, majority of people were in neither of these camps. Most of us took it seriously, cooperated and followed the rules as we wanted to look after each other. The jury is out on whether such severe lockdowns were needed as there is evidence that people were modifying their behaviour before many governments introduced restrictions. Sweden, both praised and vilified for its “light touch” stance during the pandemic adopted a mass cooperation rather than mass restriction approach and is , at best, no worse off because of it.

Also the mathematical models that led to the most drastic restrictions have now been revealed to be exclusively bad scenarios based on the worst of us, never assuming that people would self-regulate their behaviour without enforcement.

Many would argue that this approach was necessary in a pandemic, that we couldn’t take the risk – and there is some merit to point of view. However, this is not a sustainable or even ethical way to form future public or social policy.

How Humans Really Behave

According to Rutger Bregman we have a rather pessimistic view – not of ourselves, but of everyone else. Without rules and leadership we are days away from anarchy. It’s been named “veneer theory” – the idea that just below the surface, our bestial nature is waiting to break out.

His research on over 200,000 years of human history counters this and shows that in reality we are hardwired to be kind, cooperative and caring. He has talked about how during the pandemic we have seen an explosion of cooperation and altruism with people organising stuff from the bottom up.

In his book Humankind he recounts numerous examples from history that show disasters don’t cause us to descend a few rungs on the ladder of civilisation, but often bring out the best in us. The media stories of looting, stockpiling are usually true, but selective – highlighting the behaviour of the outliers.

He writes that during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina we didn’t see New Orleans descend into complete chaos. In fact in seven hundred field tests following disasters since 1963 it’s never every man for himself. Catastrophe brings out the best in people.

As an explainer he quotes from Rebecca Solnit “elite panic comes from powerful people who see all humanity in their own image” and notes that “dictators and despots all too often resort to brute force to prevent scenarios that exist only in their own heads, on the assumption that the average Joe is ruled by self interest, just like them”

Exactly that. The people making the rules assumed the worst of us because that’s how they would behave if they were left to their own devices. And behind closed doors left to their own devices that’s precisely what they did.

This isn’t a lesson just for the politicians – it’s relevant to any of us who work with the public. If your job involves you encouraging someone to take a vaccine, to eat more healthily , to exercise more, to look after their home, to pay their rent or mortgage – there are lots of lessons from the past two years.

People can do good things, and more often than not that’s what they do when things are explained to them. The more we impose top-down rules and directives the more we risk paternalism or even authoritarianism.

If all we did was view how people behave slightly less cynically, maybe we’d create a much more relaxed, healthy and happier world.

How Do We Emerge From a State of Fear?

Be afraid. Be very afraid.

That is how the media approached Covid. Be afraid of everything. Be afraid of being tall. Be afraid of being bald. Be afraid of going to the shops and accepting home deliveries.

The fearmongering is relentless. Be afraid of your pets. Be afraid for your pets. Just be afraid.

Laura Dodsworth

In August last year I went back to the office, the first time I’d been to a workplace since March. As I arrived I felt sick, even though I’d felt perfectly healthy just thirty minutes earlier. I recognised it for it was: anxiety, like the feeling of a first day at school. If I’m honest – I briefly considered cancelling. I wasn’t frightened of the virus, I was just frightened of people. I bit the bullet and walked inside..

As we emerge from a pandemic , in the UK at least, it’s necessary to reflect how changed we have become, and whether that change is permanent or temporary.

A study into Covid Anxiety Syndrome, characterised by fear of public places, compulsive hygiene habits, worrying about the virus and frequent symptom checking showed 46% of affected people feared returning to public transport, 44% feared touching things, while 35% were checking their family members and loved ones for signs of Covid on a regular basis.

Polling from Ipsos MORI suggests it may be more than 20% of the general population that’s suffering from a form of Covid Anxiety Syndrome. It shows that 28% of British adults aren’t looking forward to “Greeting people with handshake/hug/kiss”, 27% aren’t looking forward to “going to large public gatherings such as sport of music events” and 24% aren’t looking forward to “Going to parties (such as weddings or birthday parties)”. 1 in 4 fear meeting new people.

I know of a fully vaccinated family friend who wants a hug from her fully vaccinated son more than anything. He won’t give it to her. More than half of Britons say they have not yet hugged a relative or close friend since restrictions on personal contact were eased.

Fear is a natural, powerful, and primitive emotion. It involves a biochemical response as well as a high individual emotional response. Fear alerts us to the presence of danger or the threat of harm, whether that danger is physical or psychological.

Marketeers have understand the unique value of fear for decades – it’s no surprise that the media has used the pandemic to sell copies with scary headlines and filled advert space with health warnings.

However – sex sells and fear compels – and according to the new book by Laura Dodsworth, Covid has seen the Government use fear as a behavioural nudge on a mass scale.

Laura isn’t a Covid denier or even a lockdown sceptic, but has written about how tactics that sometimes wouldn’t pass the ethics board of a social experiment have become normalised.

In Options for Increasing Adherence To Social Distancing, the UK Government were advised on 22nd March 2020 that a substantial number of people “still do not feel sufficiently personally threatened by Covid; it could be that they are reassured by the low death rate in their demographic group” and in bold “The perceived level of personal threat needs to be increased among those who are complacent, using hard-hitting emotional messaging”.

Now, most of us would agree that in an emergency situation some degree of behavioural nudging , a science I’m actually a fan of, is necessary. The question that the book raises is the ethics of how long this should continue, the tactics for ramping up unnecessary fear and the long term effect on society if anyone in authority becomes addicted to fear as a nudge.

Britain has been a world leader in behavioural insights since David Cameron set up the “nudge unit”. But has nudge become a shove? The book argues we went too far and that messaging that was initially designed to help us stay safe by scaring us has been so effective that we quickly became the most frightened nation in Europe, with people significantly over-estimating the spread and fatality rate of the disease. The British public think 6-7% of people have died from coronavirus – around one hundred times the actual death rate based on official figures.

I don’t go as far as Laura in her critique of behavioural insights as paternalistic. I think nudge can have a valid place in health , housing , justice and the social sector in general.

Where I’d agree with her is the ethical question about the overuse of fear as a motivator. It will be at least a couple of years before we can tell whether the cards were overplayed and understand the longer term impact.

Epidemics will come and go – but our basic psychology is here to stay.

I countered my fear by getting back in the office, and by having weekends away when I could. I went back to the gym and back to the pub on the day they reopened.

The best way to emerge from a state of fear is by being social, looking after friends and neighbours and being part of a community. The very things we were told to be afraid of are , ironically, the route out of this particular crisis.


Image by Engin Akyurt from Pixabay

Innovating Against All Odds: The Endlessly Adaptable Future of Work

Received wisdom isn’t what it used to be. The future will be made up of shades of grey where few things are certain and the best you can do to prepare is to be endlessly adaptable.

Against the backdrop of a socio-environmental crisis of such complexity and scale that its not yet fuIly understood, let alone fully quantified – some businesses aren’t just surviving, but thriving. How, against such odds, do they do it?

Dr Melissa Sterry – Innovation Against All Odds

I first came across Melissa Sterry when I attended a talk she was giving in late 2019. She was challenging the received wisdom that we would all live a lot longer in the future. ‘Babies born today would live to be 100’. This was the received wisdom that much of the conference was founded upon.

“How can we say this?” she asked. “When everything around us is changing so rapidly?”

She went on to explain the complex global disruption caused by events such as climate change and proposed that there are few guarantees about anything anymore.

A full two months before most of us had heard of COVID-19, Melissa gave the example of new diseases emerging with strains capable of igniting pandemics. The message was clear: the world we think we know can alter rapidly or even disappear.

Melissa has now authored ‘Innovation Against All Odds’ – the inaugural report in the #OpenForesightSeries. An independent work, it discusses developments in science, technology, design and society at large that are shaping leading-edge innovation worldwide. 

I’d urge you to read the report as it begs the question of how to navigate not one, not two, but many possible futures, each of which is distinct and, by nature, messy in its expression. More specifically, how might our businesses both large and small, established and emerging, plot a path through such complexity?

Welcome To The Post-Usual

This morning I spoke at a breakfast seminar on the post-Covid workplace. My contention was the current hot favourite – hybrid working – won’t be as successful as many think in the long term. History shows us that the end state is rarely that which is adopted first. The predictions of deserted high streets completely robbed of office workers, or of 24/7 fully remote teams who meet up on off-sites in Bali are extreme positions, and neither are likely to to become true. As the report makes clear, recent studies have shown that those that go to extremes lack the ability to process complex scenarios, and thus mentally default to expectations that fail to accommodate the complexity of reality.

As I say in my introduction to the Evolution vs Extinction section, we are all going to have to learn to live through complexity – moving from single-point solutions to directional systems innovation. The organisations that think change is something to merely react to, or to manage or control, may struggle to survive.

As Melissa makes clear, working with change is a symbiotic process that involves businesses being constantly alert to signals of change both within and beyond their industries, regularly re-evaluating the relevance of their model, operations, positioning, and talent.

From my perspective this requires all our organisations to adopt new mindsets as well as skill sets.

  • A place where work has just enough friction. Far from all the talk of safe spaces the most effective teams will have regular, intense debates
  • A place that has permission to be different. Where it’s allowable, even encouraged, to push back. Everyone should be ok with questioning assumptions and direction
  • A place that harnesses the ability to think and act experimentally. Where happy accidents occur as much as planned foresight

In a post-usual environment there’s no right way to do things or hard and fast rules. Best practice can’t be true. What currently works will often stop working in complex and volatile times.

In the seminar this morning I pinned my hopes for the future on a more enjoyable, ethical, equitable and sustainable world of work. We need to focus on the principles of the outcomes we want to achieve as much as the outcomes themselves. Innovating Against All Odds makes this point in a different way. That businesses of old were, largely, consumed only with the odds that they and their industries faced, today, responsible businesses consider the odds that we, all humanity, face. The most innovative of those businesses seek to understand those odds to the greatest extent possible, and to do all in their power to help not hinder collective efforts. How you do this isn’t as important as the act of doing it. There’s not a print-it-out and stick-it-on-the-wall methodology to follow here.

Received wisdom isn’t what it used to be. The future will be made up of shades of grey where few things are certain and the best you can do to prepare is to be endlessly adaptable.

The companies who thrive will be the ones who are change seekers and change makers, not controllers, managers or inhibitors. 

The Return To The Office Has Begun. What Next?

39% would consider quitting if their employers weren’t flexible about remote work.

What happens next now more and more bosses are demanding a return to the office?

A six-minute meeting drove Portia Twidt to quit her job.

She’d taken the position as a research compliance specialist in February, enticed by promises of remote work. Then came the prodding to go into the office. Meeting invites piled up.

The final straw came a few weeks ago: the request for an in-person gathering, scheduled for all of 360 seconds. Twidt got dressed, dropped her two kids at daycare, drove to the office, had the brief chat and decided she was done.

Employees are quitting rather than giving up working from home

Gradually, glacially perhaps, we are returning to something like normal.

In the past couple of weeks, I’ve been on one management overnighter (In a hotel! With people! And flipcharts!) and had two weekends away. It felt odd at first, but reassuringly familiar. After so much disruption it’s quite remarkable how quickly we can return to old norms and habits.

At our away day we all remarked how disorientating it was on arrival – seeing colleagues we’d not seen face to face for 17 months, and meeting several colleagues for the very first time other than through a screen. But just a few hours later, over dinner and in the bar, how quickly we forgot about metre plus distancing and our year of fearing any other human contact.

At a theme park a couple of days later, thrill seekers all compliantly wore their masks on coasters despite the fact the sheer velocity removed them from our faces. Within about two hours no-one was wearing a mask. Even the most well designed behavioural nudges fail in the face of social norms that have been in place for decades. You scream on rollercoasters, you want the wind on your face, not half your face.

My point here is not to be cavalier about safety – I’ve followed the rules as much as anyone. But for all the talk of a new normal, it’s the old normal we’ve missed and the old normal to which we’ll shortly return.

Which brings us to the return of the office.

As I write Apple has announced it wants employees to return to offices by September. Workers must return to their desks for at least three days a week, chief executive Tim Cook wrote in a memo, saying “I know I’m not alone in missing the hum of activity, the energy, creativity and collaboration of our in-person meetings and the sense of community we’ve all built.” Apple aren’t alone, with Google also seemingly becoming much more cautious about a remote first working environment.

When even the CEO of Zoom says he’s got Zoom fatigue , and other executives say the perils of remote work make a return to the office an imperative – you know that change is in the air. It’s over.

The flavour of the month is hybrid working. The best of both. A few days in the office, a few days out. Everybody who is anybody is predicting the future of work is hybrid, seemingly without any actual evidence or experience.

In all likelihood, you’re going back to the office. As Daniel Davis has pointed out – existing as a hybrid is a hard act to pull off. As he says ‘the cultures of remote work and in-person work are so different that it takes a cultural transformation to bring them together. Unfortunately, this type of cultural finesse isn’t a strength for many companies’.

On the other hand a survey of 1,000 adults showed that 39% would consider quitting if their employers weren’t flexible about remote work. The generational difference is clear: among millennials and Gen Z, that figure is 49%, according to the poll on behalf of Bloomberg News.

The new drive to get people back into offices is clashing with some workers who’ve fully embraced remote work. As Anders Melin and Misyrlena Egkolfopoulou write ‘there’s a notion that some bosses, particularly those of a generation less familiar to remote work, are eager to regain tight control of their minions.’

Not that this is just about dinosaur bosses – seemingly some employees want to have their cake and eat it too. People have been enjoying unprecedented flexibility to work when and how they want – and yet the trade union Prospect is calling for the UK government to give employees a legally binding “right to disconnect”. This would ban bosses from “routinely emailing or calling” outside set working hours. What are ‘set working hours’ and how can this realistically sit alongside a hybrid, or remote work policy?

Let’s also spare a thought for the people who never left the old normal. The healthcare workers, the supermarket staff, the delivery drivers. The only thing that changed for them is that their bosses spent even more time in meetings.

The truth is, we don’t know what happens next – there are too many variables here. Variables we haven’t yet begun to consider.

There are people who can’t wait to get back out there, meet people, to socialise and to travel. There are many who are more cautious. And there are those who have been deeply scared and scarred by the Covid experience.

Up to one in five of us are believed to have developed a “compulsive and disproportionate” fear of Covid, which is likely to stay in place for some time. Warnings about the dangers of Covid have heightened the problem, and mixed messages about the level of danger have made it worse, says Marcantonio Spada, a Professor of Addictive Behaviours and Mental Health at London’s South Bank University, who co-authored a report on the recently identified condition Covid Anxiety Syndrome (CAS). CAS is characterised by a fear of public places, compulsive hygiene habits, worrying about the virus and frequent symptom checking.

Our Post Covid world of work has to integrate some very different personas into the workplace. Some of our colleagues will not be the same people they were in January 2020.

What we do know is this:

  • Some people are raring to get back, or to get others back, to the office.
  • There’s a new strain of highly ‘office resistant’ employees who would quit rather than return.
  • There’s a group of people who have a fear of re-entry back into society.
  • And there’s the people for whom nothing has changed , those who worked on the frontline during a global pandemic putting themselves at risk whilst the middle classes moaned about Zoom Fatigue.

What happens next? No-one knows. However managers now have to learn to deal not just with different personality types and skill sets – but completely different mindsets about what work is and where it should happen.

Nobody can predict the future — but everybody can choose their approach to it.

Three Reasons Why We Fail To Solve Problems

Why do some problems get solved whilst others stick around? Here are three examples of why we sometimes fail and what we could do differently.

At the beginning of April 2020 the World Health Organisation made a public declaration of collaboration that attempted to unify hundreds of scientific communities around one single goal: to speed the availability of a vaccine against COVID-19.

The pandemic is far from being ‘solved’, and may indeed remain unsolvable. However, one particular part of the problem was addressed just eight months later with people getting the very first vaccines, a process that normally takes years.

So how come we’ve not solved , or even made decent inroads, into problems that have beset us for decades like the housing or social care crisis?

How come you’ve likely got the same problems in your organisation that you’ve always had?

Or you thought you’d solved a problem but it just returned, in a mutated form?

The Importance of Constraints

One of the most recurring reasons for a problem not getting effectively solved is that it was never clearly defined in the first place. We’ve been doing some work at Bromford around effective team collaboration, and my colleague Carl Sautereau often talks of the ‘freedom of a tight brief’. In my language – he’s talking about the importance of a really well defined problem.

“Give me the freedom of a tight brief” was originally invoked by advertising legend David Ogilvy, as a requisite requirement for unleashing creative brilliance. Innovation thrives when we have constraints – as it shows us where to focus and, more importantly, where not to.

It reminds me of the work of Dr. Caneel Joyce, who says that “giving people too much choice limits creativity, just as giving them no choice at all does… just enough constraint incites us to explore solutions in new places and in new ways.”

She uses the analogy of a playground as a starting point for understanding the whole concept of constraints. Research found that when a fence is put up around a playground, children use the entire space to explore and play; the fence giving them a sense of safety and security. On the other hand, if that fence is removed from the playground’s border, the limits become unclear and the children stay toward the middle because that’s where they feel safe. Importantly, in team work within organisations Joyce found that the absence of clear constraints actually created conflict stemming from the unarticulated assumptions that people brought to the table.

One of the reasons for the rapid vaccine development is it had the tightest of tight briefs before it was deployed to multiple teams to solve.

Failure to Build Consensus

Another reason problems continue is where we fail to get sufficient support and don’t build a coalition around a solution. The housing sector , for example, has struggled for years to get traction behind what is a compelling argument for more affordable housing. In that case there are multiple actors involved in solving the problem , the same as vaccine development, but people have many different views on what the solution should be. Should it be more home ownership, shared ownership or rented? What’s the right mix? What does affordable even mean? Isn’t this just about too much immigration anyway? It’s a subject that can get very political very quickly, particularly in such a class conscious country as the UK.

You’ll have similar issues at organisational level, where barriers emerge at every step of the way. There are a number of ways to build consensus, but one I have found personally useful is the Japanese concept of nemawashi which means quietly laying the foundation for some proposed change or project.

A typical western approach would be to work up an idea or project, propose it to the boss or executive and if the idea is good enough, it will be chosen. Even assuming that approach is successful it then has numerous barriers ahead as you’ve got to negotiate the organisational antibodies designed to repel anything new or foreign.

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.  It takes patience and highly developed political nous but:

  • It reduces the risk of the idea by involving key people, and developing it, in the process of making it real.
  • Although there’s an upfront investment it time it reduces the time required overall, as it moves any potential conflict to the front end.
  • It increases people’s involvement in the idea, they are then personally invested in making it work as it is ‘theirs’
  • It increases the likelihood of success, because the idea has been refined by the many rather than the few

We’ve all resisted ideas because we weren’t asked or it landed outside our front door without us granting it permission. It’s a natural human reaction.

The Timing Isn’t Right

Timing is everything. A few years ago I remember doing Lab experiments on the use of QR codes for getting information to colleagues and customers. It failed.

At the time, QR readers were not built into most smartphones – it required the download of an app. Additionally, QR code use was so infrequent people were not in the behaviour of using the scanners. It had too much friction.

COVID changed all that. After a decade of mockery and dismissal, it took a period when nobody wants to touch anything apart from their phones to bring them into widespread use. I don’t know who invented the QR code , but they probably spent 10 years wondering why no-one was listening to their bright idea.

A tight brief that nails the problem and builds constraints around it , the building of consensus on a solution and the timing of the execution – all necessary components of solving problems.

Innovation isn’t about ideas. It’s about the right solution, for the right people, at the right time.


Photo by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash

Can The Pandemic Usher In An Era of Creative Disruption?

If we’d followed a conventional big transformation/ big consultancy approach to vaccine development and deployment we’d be getting our jabs sometime around the middle of 2033.

The question is, can your organisation draw on the lessons of the pandemic to forge a more effective partnership with your customers and stakeholders?

In the long dark days of another lockdown it’s easy to become pessimistic. There’s a danger that we fall victim to recency bias, giving all our attention to the mounting death toll, economic damage, and mental health impact rather than the historical evidence that people have managed to survive far greater crises than Covid-19 and gone on, not just to survive, but to thrive.

A trip out with my 77 year old mother isn’t normally the best way to stimulate any positivity, but this week I took her to get her vaccine. During the journey through the snow, and suffering constant moans about my driving skills, it got me thinking about how the pandemic could unleash a new wave of creative disruption. If we let it.

Bear with me whilst I connect some dots.

The publication of the genetic sequence of COVID-19 in early January 2020 triggered the mobilisation of an international response to find a vaccine. The fast tracking of clinical trials and regulatory processes have achieved in less than 12 months what conventionally takes more than ten years.

Anne White highlights some lessons we should take from this:

More collaboration. In nearly every case, meaningful progress against Covid-19 has been the result of multiple organisations working together with a unified mission.

Rethinking user research. Social distancing measures and the lockdowns could have been a barrier to clinical trials (participants couldn’t travel nor could you go to their home) , but the use of new technology and thinking differently about user engagement meant a wider, more geographically diverse, set of participants could be reached.

Better integration of digital technologies. Existing and readily available technology – video conferencing and chat apps for instance – were used to engage participants and share results. Data analytics were used to speed up vaccine development by enabling more efficient design of experiments and by creating rapid-scale production rollout processes.

Three things: collaboration, user research, digital tech as an accelerant of learning. This should be used as Innovation 101 for all our organisations going forward.


Great Wyrley, a village in South Staffordshire, England is where the tireless work of AstraZeneca, arguably the most innovative pharma company in the world, meets my mother.

It doesn’t start well. For some reason mum wants her vaccination done in Stafford “just like my friends have done”. I explain that she doesn’t have that option, it’s the same vaccine, and there’s an appointment closer to her anyway. We have to abort the journey to the first appointment because of the weather – or rather my mums hysterical reaction to my driving in the snow.

Not a problem, we’ll just phone up and rearrange.

Except – there’s no phone number listed online or any option to let anyone know you can’t attend.

However, rebooking is easy, and we get a slot the next day. Arriving on time we find that the Chemist shop where the the vaccination appointment is booked isn’t actually where it takes place. It’s just over the road at the community centre. Not a big deal you might think, but you’re not my mum, who huffs and puffs as she makes her way through the snow, nearly falling over in the process.

“Best injection I’ve ever had!” she says as she gets back in the car. I’ve had quite a few injections over the past couple of years, I think to myself, but I’d never imagined ranking them.

On the way back home, mum repeatedly goes over why the appointment notification said it was at the chemist rather than the community centre. This seemingly innocuous detail seems to have riled her. “It’s stupid…just a complete waste of the chemists time to keep having to tell people that they are in the wrong place and to go over the road”. I’d never thought of my mother as a budding service designer.

Later that day, she gets a call from her GP asking her whether she’s had her vaccine as they have some available. “Don’t they know I’ve already had it, surely they’d know that.” she says.

“It’s just that they are trying to do this quickly, it’s not perfect. You’ve had your vaccine, that’s all that matters” – I tell her.

At the time of writing 7.5 million people in the UK have had their first jab. That’s in just over a month from a standing start – a magnificent feat achieved through a network of pharma, health workers, local businesses, community centres and volunteers all working together.

When I had my jab a couple of days later at a local church the number of people involved was astonishing, but I was in and out in under 6 minutes.

What’s my point here?

If we’d followed a conventional big transformation/change/consultancy approach to vaccine development and deployment we’d be getting our jabs sometime around the middle of 2033.

The burning platform of COVID has brought multiple actors together with a range of diverse skills to solve problems that didn’t exist just over a year ago.

Surely you need to review the timescales of your latest change programme based upon that?

Yes, it isn’t perfect. The technology isn’t joined up, the tracing system doesn’t work brilliantly, the communication is abysmal at times.

And yes, my mum was told to go to the bloody chemist instead of the community centre.

But people will be forgiving of a bit of poor design – if they get the outcome they need.

A new era of creative disruption?

Yes – if we change our behaviour.

The question is, can your organisation draw on the lessons of the pandemic to forge a more effective partnership with your customers and stakeholders?

Can you deploy new thinking and research methods that develop in weeks rather than years?

Can you use this new found intelligence to improve business as usual and help your company mobilise quickly when faced with the next , inevitable, crisis?

Or will you go back to the comfortable world of five year business plans? Thinking we can somehow predict, or even control the future.

It’s our choice, for the moment.


Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Why We Bend The Rules And What To Do About It

How do you rate yourself for complying with Covid restrictions? Are you saint or sinner? Or are you, like most of us, somewhere in between?

Despite the blame game being played by politicians, most of us do comply with the rules, just not all of the time..

How do you rate yourself for complying with Covid restrictions? Are you saint or sinner? Or are you, like most of us I suspect, somewhere in between?

If you’ve noticed more traffic on the roads when you’ve been out walking or exercising, you could be forgiven for thinking that people aren’t taking this lockdown quite as seriously as the first one.

At first glance the statistics seem to bear that out. According to data provided by Citymapper, journeys during the first lockdown fell to less than 10% of pre-pandemic levels. This time round however, things are slightly different. As the graph below shows, movement has fallen since the latest lockdown was announced, but it isn’t down to the levels of March and April.

The Covid 19 Social Study show us that although we do follow the rules, we only follow them most – not all – of the time. The study, which has collected responses from more than 70,000 participants, found that the number of people reporting “majority compliance” – that is, following most or almost all of the rules – rose to 96% for the week ending 10 January 2021, which was the highest figure since last April.

However the number of people saying that they were in “complete compliance” with the rules is at just 56%.

So people know the rules and in general they want to follow them. On the other hand, large numbers of us have also become accustomed to bending them.

Hands up. I’ve bent them. I went to a cinema and to a restaurant in a Tier 2 area when I was in Tier 3. I’ve visited family members who live on their own but are outside a support bubble. I’ve also driven at 35mph in a 30mph zone and have on occasion cheated whilst doing e-learning tests at work.

95% of the time though – I think I’m a good citizen.

Only very few of us are completely compliant with all of the rules. Indeed, one of the strangest phenomenons of this pandemic has been the tendency for people to bemoan that the park or the shops are overcrowded and condemn this is as irresponsible behaviour, whilst they themselves also admit being there. ‘I was there, but it was clearly nothing to do with me’.

This shows that most of us don’t regard ourselves as rule breakers, we are just tweaking the rules to suit our personal circumstances. And we are much more accepting of our own breaches than we are of those of others.

This applies to all rules , not just COVID restrictions, and there are important lessons for any of us who design rules or procedures in the workplace, or are trying to encourage better social or health outcomes.

We often lament: “why do people take short cuts?”, “why do they eat stuff that’s bad for them?”, “why can’t they follow procedures?”, “why do they disable safety features?” The simple answer is because they are human, and they do whatever is easiest first.

The more complex reason involves the theory of risk compensation. Essentially everybody has their own level of acceptable or ‘target risk’. If they perceive that the risks of bending a rule are lower than their target risk then they will take additional risks (i.e shortcuts) in order to reap the benefits and rewards from doing so.

This is how desire pathways come into being. Nobody wants to be the first person to cut across the freshly laid grass just to save yourself a minute of walking. But once you see other people doing it, it becomes more and more acceptable. You join in.

So what can we do to get people to stop bending the rules?

First of all we need to stop demonising people for minor transgressions. As a piece by Stephen Reicher and John Drury in the British Medical Journal points out – the narrative of blame employed by the media and some politicians is both problematic and dangerous. Levels of adherence to Covid rules are astonishingly high – despite the hardships people are experiencing.

“The discrepancy between what people are doing and what we think people are doing is instructive and points to what is termed the availability effect. That is, we judge the incidence of events based on how easily they come to mind – and violations are both more memorable and more newsworthy than acts of adherence”.

The more we report – and exaggerate – the incidence of house parties, crowded shopping centres, and people not wearing masks, the more likely people are to “develop a biased perception of the level and type of violations, which runs the risk of becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. If we believe that the norm is to ignore the rules, it may lead us to ignore them too”.

Secondly, following the rules is easier when you have the right resources. I have a job which means I can work from home easily. I have the space. I don’t have kids to look after. I have the income to buy the right technology. Data from the first lockdown showed that the most deprived were six times more likely to leave home and three times less likely to self-isolate, but that they had the same motivation as the most affluent to do so. The more deprived you are the more risks you have to expose yourself to. The only risk to many of the middle class is the risk from Ocado and Amazon delivery drivers.

Finally – people tend not to break rules when they are emotionally invested in them or they have been created by the community themselves. Indeed – it has been one of the great missed opportunities of the pandemic not to encourage more locally led dialogue and devolved decision making.

What makes a rule stick?

A good rule is clear, sensible, and not punitive or controlling. We adopt them when we believe they have value and make a better society, for us and others.

Hearing positive stories about people making sacrifices and sharing a social contract makes us more likely to react positively. Nobody wants to be an outlier.

Conversely, the more we hear talk of ‘covidiots’, anti-vaxxers, and pandemic fatigue the more likely we are to bend rules.

Ultimately , the stories we tell each other create the society we get to live in.

Moving Beyond Command And Control

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

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

George Orwell

2020 on reflection, was a great year for hierarchy.

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

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

That seems a long time ago.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why do people break the rules?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which is it?

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


Image by sin won jang from Pixabay

The Problem With An Over-Reliance On Data

“Last Saturday evening fans of Little Mix who had tuned in to BBC1 to watch the latest episode of their talent show, The Search, were instead treated to a contender for the worlds shittest PowerPoint presentation.”

The problem with data and how we’ve conflated data with truth. This has dangerous implications for our ability to understand, explain, and improve the things we care about.

Data doesn’t say anything. Humans say things. We’ve conflated data with truth. And this has dangerous implications for our ability to understand, explain, and improve the things we care about.

Professor Andrea Jones-Rooy

Last Saturday evening fans of Little Mix who had tuned in to BBC1 to watch the latest episode of their talent show, The Search, were instead treated to a contender for the world’s shittest PowerPoint presentation.

The slides, introduced by the government’s chief scientific adviser Patrick Vallance and its chief medical officer Chris Whitty, have been variously described as unstructured, ugly and unclear on what they were trying to get across to the public.

Whether you are pro, anti or ambivalent towards the latest lockdown – you had to be a near genius to draw anything meaningful from what was a truly baffling slide deck.

16 data heavy slides in just 12 minutes, some not even fitting on the screen. A spaghetti junction of graphs and charts rather than simple take away headlines. Labels and colour codes indistinguible or missing entirely.

This was a masterclass in how not to use data in your organisation.

There was a certain dark humour on Twitter with people wondering whether Death by PowerPoint was as painful as Death by COVID.

Of course, this is genuinely no laughing matter. How can key public health messages be delivered from the highest office of the country in a way that would embarrass the most inexperienced comms newbie?

One of the answers is that the data has been allowed to take over from the story. In the first lockdown the story was very clear indeed and we all complied. Now, I’m not sure we know what the story even is.

What the Government want us to do is to change our behaviours, and you make change through stories, not statistics.

We’ve all sat through presentations like this at work. We’ve all heard a presenter say “You probably can’t see this diagram from where you’re sitting but what it’s showing is…”.They are often put together by someone deeply in love with their own subject matter or persons with a strange proclivity for Venn and Sankey diagrams.

Whilst a good presentation almost always includes credible data, data alone doesn’t guarantee a good presentation. Having access to a lot of data is good. Knowing how to use it is better.

The reliance on data as a way to seek truth has boomed in recent years. The more data you are armed with the better, or so it seems.

I regularly hear companies say they are incapable of making a decision about something as they don’t have enough data, the right data, or because the data they have is of poor quality.

This notion of data equalling a divine truth needs challenging. As Andrea Jones-Rooy writes in Quartz, data only exists in the first place because humans chose to collect it, and they collected it using human-made tools. Therefore data is as fallible as people.

As she says “Data is an imperfect approximation of some aspect of the world at a certain time and place. As long as data is considered cold, hard, infallible truth, we run the risk of generating and reinforcing a lot of inaccurate understandings of the world around us.”

That said – we still need to believe in data. Data is necessary for us to understand the problem and to begin asking questions about it. It is only through asking those questions that we find a pathway towards a solution.

And therein lies the problem with the way much data is presented. It lends itself to generating confusion rather than great questions.

Or worse – it leads to mistrust.

Ed Conway, the numbers guy from Sky, has done a superb Twitter thread on this – “Lockdowns, like em or not, won’t work if no-one trusts the process and doesn’t comply. But that trust is earned. And easily lost. How do you earn trust? Well part of the answer is transparency. If you’re clear and honest about why you’re doing something and the evidence behind it, you will bring people along with you.”

Ed concludes that we need transparency, and that means not using out of date, poorly labelled charts to justify decisions. Or hiding data that helps explain why we’re facing unprecedented restrictions.

It’s a theme that Gavin Freeguard picks up for the Institute for Government – pointing out that badly presented data will be confusing to people inside government too. If we as the general public are having difficulty understanding messages across (and within) datasets, it suggests those inside government are having similar struggles. Indeed, making sense of the data is made nearly impossible by the sheer number of sources in use. There’s the ONS, PHE, NHS as well as other sources in Wales and Scotland.

The Case For Better Data

We need good data to ask better questions. It is only through those questions we’ll solve better problems and have greater impact.

We need to bring better data insights to our colleagues. We need to get better at ‘data storytelling’ that gives anyone, regardless of level or skill set, the ability to understand and use data in their jobs every single day.

It’s the best way to give our people the story about what’s happening and what we need them to do.

Poorly presented though, it may also be the worst.


Header image by Tom Fishburne

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

COVID Accelerates Everything: Including Change Fatigue

How can our organisations cope with a coming tsunami of burnt out workers? The signs are all there that the transition to hybrid/remote working is not as painless as the Zoom and Teams enthusiasts are making out.

How can our organisations cope with a coming tsunami of burnt out workers? The signs are all there that the transition to hybrid/remote working is not as painless as the Zoom and Teams enthusiasts are making out.

Just under half of managers believe their employees may be at a higher risk of ‘burnout’ due to changing work patterns. ‘Burning the Candle: Strategies to Combat Workplace Burnout’ found that 47% of managers fear their employees may suffer from ‘burnout’ due to the challenges COVID-19 has brought.

Despite 35% saying they have been more productive whilst remote working, 87% have felt more pressure to keep productivity levels high to prove the case to their employers to allow remote working to continue.

Separately, in a survey by Perkbox, more than half (58%) of employees said changes to the furlough scheme and future uncertainty over the world of work had negatively affected their mental health, leaving them with rising levels of stress and anxiety. 46% said they had felt disconnected from their team and business over the past month.  Only 15% had experienced no negative effects on their wellbeing in the past month.

Ouch.

Admittedly these are the early days where we are still pushing through the pain barrier – but it does seem that we are seeing the rise of a kind of e-presenteeism with the assumption that remote work means always available. Why is it that employees feel the need to prove their worth to employers by going above and beyond working hours?

For me there are a few factors at play here:

Managing Through Uncertainty

COVID-19 is a complex problem in a complex system and we haven’t done the best job of training middle managers about complexity and uncertainty. A lot of people are unsure about their future right now and one of the ways people deal with stress and uncertainty is to make themselves busy. Busy is the new status quo. Ask anyone how work is during COVID and I pretty much guarantee the reply will be “really busy”.

The problem is that busyness isn’t productive. And it makes everyone else busier.

Instead of fuelling a culture of busyness we need to encourage leaders to make sense of our complex situation by acknowledging the complexity, admitting we don’t have all the answers, and reflecting collectively.

Being A Digital Leader Has Never Been More Urgent

Five years ago I posed a series of questions for prospective digital leaders.

  • Do you actively listen and respond to what internal and external communities are saying?
  • Do you use digital technologies to source new ideas for your organisation or team?
  • Do you put opinions out there rather than press releases? Are you known for provoking debate?
  • Do people you’ve never met come to you for advice on the strength of your online presence?
  • Do people tell you they value the resources and information you share?

Arguably we have failed to prepare our leaders – which is why people are mistaking two hour Zoom meetings for collaboration. COVID has accelerated them into a future they were wholly unprepared for.

As Matt Ballantine writes “We urgently need to do something about how we meet. I have a hunch that most meetings were rubbish before lockdown, but that the side conversations and sense of being with others that happened alongside the business of the meeting made them valuable. Zoom and Teams has stripped most of that side benefit away, so we are just left with the useless meeting. We’ve lifted and shifted office working practice into digital tools, and it’s left us wanting.”

I like Zoom and Teams – but they are not digital transformation. If you think you’ve mastered digital leadership by being able to change your Teams background you’re sadly mistaken.

Understanding that digital leadership is now just leadership is an urgent requirement.

THE ONSET OF Chronic Change Fatigue

Many people had change fatigue before COVID, but post-pandemic we need to review how many things we can conceivably handle at any one time.

No organisation, large or small, can manage more than five or six goals and priorities without becoming unfocused and ineffective.The best organisations don’t try and do everything. They focus on a few differentiating capabilities. Doing less, not more, requires a cultural shift. It involves finding your ‘irreducible core’ of services and then constantly refining and innovating against it.

There’s a window of opportunity here for organisations to pause and reflect before they go full steam ahead with their existing strategies. Otherwise we risk returning to the old normal which most people want to get away from.

And let’s remember that some change is manufactured just to give people things to do rather than being strictly necessary. In the post-normal preserving the things you truly value is more radical than constant tinkering.

Nobody resists necessary change. So the final word has to go to Peter Vander Auwera:


Cover photo by Christian Englmeier on Unsplash

How Can We Move Towards A Better Normal?

We are living through an era of intense turbulence and disillusionment. Even before COVID-19 we were faced with circumstances which the scholar and critic Ziauddin Sardar has described as uncertain, rapidly changing and chaotic.  

He describes this as a period where the old orthodoxies are dying, but new ones have yet to be born, and very few things seem to make sense. In a word, the postnormal.

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. And if there’s one thing we can be certain of at the moment – it’s that the last thing anyone truly wants or needs is business as usual.

We have seen some great examples of innovation and collaborative working across the social sector.  Just days after the virus was declared a pandemic many companies managed to get upwards of 90% of people working remotely. Jobs that we never imagined could be performed remotely— jobs which people were told couldn’t be performed remotely – suddenly and successfully were handled from home.

Let’s not pat ourselves on the back too hard though. The Bank of England has forecast that the coronavirus crisis will push the UK economy into its deepest recession in 300 years. You can add to that a rapidly ageing population, the increasing automation of jobs, a creaking welfare state and the challenges of achieving net zero. Even one of those trends would hit our communities hard, add them together and the picture can look decidedly apocalyptic. Perhaps hangovers are a daily part of the new normal. 

So, how many of our companies are looking at investing more in community driven innovation than they were pre-COVID? I’m betting: not many. 

There cannot be a board in the country who is not looking to cut costs right now. Offices stand empty, projects and programmes have been derailed and the medium term outlook is problematic at best.  Any investment deemed high risk and low return will be the first to be shelved as all efforts go into securing the bottom line. 

We have to accept that we will all have to contend with increasingly limited resources – but conducted in the right way innovation can thrive under such constraints. 

The challenges emerging from, or accelerated by, COVID-19 require innovation on a scale never seen before across the social sector. This demands that we overcome organisational and sector boundaries and join forces. 

The big challenge for the social sector will be putting aside any organisational ego and working in new partnerships. We need to be open to sharing each other’s resources, linking expertise in areas where one can compliment another. We need to be bold enough to admit that many of our organisations no longer need to exist.

In reality this requires a significant behaviour change – we need to move away from gathering personal career plaudits or seeking awards. The nature of the challenges we face – let’s use climate change by way of example – are not problems that can be solved by individual organisations. They require innovation at scale by hundreds of partners if we are even to make a dent in the problem. 

There’s a window of opportunity here that may last for as long as two years. COVID – 19 has temporarily removed many of the normal barriers to innovation, and sped up regulatory approval, access to funding, and internal decision-making.

So now is the time to accelerate much tighter collaborations between companies, communities, think tanks and start-ups.  Many of these startups are already bringing ideas and solutions to the table and are unhindered by legacy business models or thinking. 

Research has shown that strong innovators are more likely to embrace ideas from external sources and partnerships. Yet only a few companies have built a mature open-innovation competency. There are many reasons for this, ranging from a fear of sharing intellectual property, to perceived regulatory hurdles such as data privacy, to an outright disbelief that external collaboration is needed.

Orthodoxies are widely held and unchallenged assumptions that often start as truths at a certain point in time but aren’t revisited or challenged as realities change. COVID-19 has changed our reality and normal no longer applies.

What we’ve thought of as normal was never natural. Normal was the problem in the first place – and we now have an opportunity to fix it.


Photo by Roger Bradshaw on Unsplash

A version of this post was originally published in Inside Housing

Smaller, Flatter, Faster. Is The Two Pizza Team Finally Going Mainstream?

This weeks post looks at the two pizza team which was popularised by Jeff Bezos.

In the early days of Amazon he instituted a rule that every internal team should be small enough that it could be fed with two pizzas.
The goal was, like almost everything Amazon does, focused on two aims: efficiency and scalability.

Is it finally the time that our organisations will make the shift to smaller teams, not just because of financial savings, but because of their increased effectiveness and productivity?

Read the post by clicking the link. And if you like it I’d really appreciate a share on your social network of choice.

Have a great weekend!

Best wishes

Paul

The latest cartoon by Tom Fishburne seems to sum up what a lot of people are feeling right now. As he writes, “In a chaotic year, many brands and businesses are relying on adrenaline only. Organizations can only run on those fumes for so long. Adrenaline-based speed can lead to burnout.”

I’d argue that we are not seeing speed as much as lots of activity. Organisations are busy , sure , but it’s a reflexive response to an era in which they have no control over anything , even down to when and where people work. In organisational design terms – we are all still out there panic buying toilet rolls and hand sanitiser.

One of the issues here is that legacy organisations are not designed for speed, it’s just not what they do. Many people who have set up internal accelerators or innovation labs ultimately fail as they run up against hard wired bureaucracy and hierarchy purposefully designed to crush any ideas that threaten the status quo.

In their report , Reinventing the organisation for speed in the post COVID era , McKinsey note that CEOs recognize the need to shift from adrenaline-based speed during COVID-19 to speed by design for the long run.

It calls for work to speed up in three ways:

Sped up and delegated decision making.  This means fewer meetings and fewer decision makers in each meeting. They point out that some organisations are adopting a “nine on a videoconference” principle. (I’d suggest this is still a couple too many). Others are moving towards one to two-page documents rather than reports or lengthy PowerPoint decks.

Step up execution excellence. Just because the times are fraught does not mean that leaders need to tighten control and micromanage execution. Rather the opposite. Because conditions are so difficult, frontline employees need to take on more responsibility for execution, action, and collaboration.

Cultivate extraordinary partnerships. Working with partners is routine. But the speed of action only goes so far if other players in the ecosystem fail to move just as fast. The connected world is breaking down the traditional boundaries between buyers and suppliers, manufacturers and distributors, and employers and employees.

The building blocks at the base of all these things are , guess what, small empowered teams.

Is it finally the time that our organisations will make the shift to smaller teams, not just because of financial savings, but because of their increased effectiveness and productivity?

I’ve been an advocate of a the minimum viable team for a number of years. The concept of as few as people as possible – small enough to be fed on two pizzas, is attractive because it reduces social loafing and allows us to get off the hamster wheel of management and ‘work about work’. Once you’ve done it and moved away from managing lots of people it would take an almighty pay rise to tempt you back.

The Two Pizza Team was popularised by Jeff Bezos who in the early days of Amazon instituted a rule that every internal team should be small enough that it could be fed with two pizzas. The goal was, like almost everything Amazon does, focused on two aims: efficiency and scalability.

Its roots lie in the concept of the Minimum Viable Team which recognises that many companies spend an awfully long time thinking and planning to do something: longer than it takes to actually do the thing. It’s built on the premise of Parkinson’s Law – that work just expands to fill the time and resources available. The MVT idea is rather than layer on additional resources (that are ultimately wasteful) , you “starve” the team and make them pull only the necessary resources as and when they need them. 

Most organisations reserve this structure, if they use it at all, for either DevOps type environments or hipster design or innovation teams. However it has a sound evidence base – after devoting nearly 50 years to the study of team performance, the Harvard researcher J. Richard Hackman concluded that four to six is the optimal number of members for a project team and no work team should have more than 10 members.

How many project teams do you know that have four to six members?

Remote work exacerbates this problem. It’s hard enough to run productive in-person meetings with lots of people in the best of times, but trying to foster engaging discussions with lots of virtual participants is nearly impossible.

Despite the rhetoric of agile small teams – the shift won’t happen overnight as there’s a genuine question about what to do with all the people you might not need. I’d argue that post- COVID the immediate challenge is how we slow down to speed up.

We are in a new world with new challenges and we sometimes confuse operational speed (moving quickly) with strategic speed (reducing the time it takes to deliver value)—and the two concepts are very different. The more you can reduce organisational initiatives to a few key problems the more you can bridge the gap.

Do Fewer Things, Better. And Faster

No organisation, large or small, can manage more than five or six goals and priorities without becoming unfocused and ineffective, and it’s exactly the same for us as people.

The best organisations don’t try and do everything. They focus on a few differentiating capabilities — the things they do better than any other company.

This is not an either/or. IF we can reduce our priorities to a few key goals AND make small focussed teams the default way we operate , arguably we’d be a lot happier, healthier and more productive.


Photo by Erik Mclean on Unsplash

Nirvana or Business As Usual? Navigating The New Future Of Work

This isn’t a binary choice between the office and remote work. Instead we must consider what work used to be, what it is now and what it could be in the future.

With the easing of lockdown measures now in full swing we are coming to the end of the largest global work experiment we’ve ever seen.

As I’ve written previously it is vitally important to understand that this hasn’t been a true remote work experiment, rather it has been an enforced work from home experiment happening at the same time as the suspension of many of our civil liberties. Any evaluation has to take into account the stress and turmoil that many people have been living with and the subsequent impact on their productivity.

COVID-19 has shown us what we can accomplish when we don’t project plan something to death.

Just days after the virus was declared a pandemic many companies managed to get upwards of 90% of people working remotely. Jobs that we never imagined could be performed remotely— jobs which people were told couldn’t be performed remotely – suddenly and successfully were handled from home.

We’ve finally challenged the office orthodoxy, and it’s our choice where we go from here.

Stay remote?

Back to the office?

Or adopt a hybrid model.

For a fairly conservative view you could look at the new report from Xerox, The Future of Work in a Pandemic Era. Designed to uncover how IT decision makers are addressing these major considerations in a highly fluid environment 600 IT leaders were surveyed.

Depressingly, it estimates that 82 percent of the workforce in respondents’ organisations will have made a full return to the office in 12 to 18 months. For those of us who were asking whether offices would still exist that’s a healthy vote in favour of the status quo.

To be fair, the report also notes that the softening of employer attitudes toward remote working – with managers realising ‘hey, they actually do work without us bosses looking over their shoulder’. It’s this realisation – and the sight of scores of managers littering LinkedIn and Twitter with excitable Zoom and Teams selfies – that could usher in the hybrid workplace with employees working remotely all, some or none of the time depending on their role.

It’s always useful for us remote work laggards to listen to people who have been working in a distributed fashion long before the pandemic.

As Matt Mullenweg discusses in his conversation with Sam Harris, he has seen companies make the transition for small (10 people) to large (1500+) with an evolving set of work principles.

As Matt says – any company who can enable employees to work in a distributed environment now has a moral imperative to do so. Forcing a commute is worse for the planet and worse for personal wellbeing. It’s no longer the act of a responsible employer.

Matt has outlined five levels of distributed work that are useful to reflect upon:

  1. Level Zero autonomy is a job which cannot be done unless you’re physically there. Many companies assumed they had far more of these than they did.
  2. The first level is where most businesses were pre COVID, 98% reckons Matt. There’s no deliberate effort to make things remote-friendly. Work happens on company equipment, in company space, on company time. Level one companies, says Matt, were largely unprepared for this crisis.
  3. Level two is where most of us landed during lockdown. Doing what you did in the office , just remotely. Matt likens this level of maturity to the situation in the early 1920’s when radio drama started. Performers would literally recreate plays – but just on the radio. There was no taking advantage of the new technology or innovating the medium. Importantly Matt points out that this can be less productive than level one as we explore and get distracted. His advice – push on – nirvana lies aheads
  4. At the third level, you’re really starting to benefit from being remote-first, or distributed. People invest in better equipment. It’s where teams start to collaborate on shared documents or build business cases during the meeting.
  5. Level four is when things go truly asynchronous. You evaluate people’s work on what they produce, not how or when they produce it. Employee retention goes way up, and you invest more in training and coaching. Real-time meetings are respected and taken seriously, almost always have agendas and pre-work or post-work.
  6. And level five, Nirvana This is when you consistently perform better than any in-person organisation could. It’s when everyone in the company has time for wellness and mental health, when people bring their best selves and highest levels of creativity to work every day.

The most important lesson I take from Matt is that there will be a pain barrier to push through at Level 2.

As someone who took a extended break from work at the beginnings of COVID I returned to find people saying they were overwhelmed, in continual back to back meetings , and working 12 hours days. That this has become acceptable in such a short period of time is a form of madness , and is wholly unsustainable if we are to push forward and mature our approach to distributed work.

In fact the terminology of remote work is itself unhelpful almost framing the solution as either office or home based. As Stowe Boyd suggests perhaps we need to turn the thinking and terminology around and drop both the ‘hybrid’ and ‘remote’ terms. As he says, let’s call the model that leads to higher engagement and productivity ‘minimum office’, rather than zero office and allow each person to define what that minimum is for them and their team.

We do need to avoid simplistically calling for the death of the office (although let’s be clear – it’s dying). Equally we need to resist the corollary of “get back to the office”. What about the city centres? What about the shops and spaces that have supported us the past few months? It would be remiss of us to exclude our local communities from this conversation.

This isn’t a binary choice between the office and remote work. Instead we must consider what work used to be, what it is now and what it could be in the future.

That – and that alone – should form the basis of a discussion of where the work is actually done.

In A Post-COVID World The Manager Is The Weak Link

In an increasingly remote and distributed world of work the employees who will have the biggest impact on the most people will rarely be the official leaders at the top.

When only 3% of a workforce is remote, managers can get away with business as usual. When that number climbs to 30%, fundamental changes to the nature of work become necessary.

Cal Newport

We are being forced into a massive reset.

For all that’s been written and said about remote work – this is Year Zero. Nobody knows what happens next.

Which way will our companies go?

Already we’ve seen Jack Dorsey of Twitter announcing in an email that those whose jobs didn’t require a physical presence would be allowed to work from home indefinitely. His Head of HR went further – saying that the company would “never probably be the same,” adding, “I do think we won’t go back.”

On the other hand, the engineering firm Dyson told staff who were able to work from home to return to the office this week, then cancelled the plan after a mutiny from dismayed employees.

It’s possible that some of this is genuinely out of organisational hands – less than 10% of people want to return to ‘normal’ after lockdown. People are enjoying improved air quality, less congestion and are reconnecting with nature. Four in ten people are feeling a stronger sense of local community.

It would be a brave company that chooses to ignore signals like that.

Although in the current economic environment it’s highly unlikely people are looking to jump ship from a secure job – but with recovery will come a completely different emphasis on employee work/life integration. This will be less a war for talent and more a war for wellbeing.

However , as the opening quote from Cal Newport reveals, it’s not just a different workplace or employee deal we need – it’s a completely different attitude to leadership.

The first post I wrote this year was entitled ‘Ending Our Obsession With Leadership’. It argued that we should all become less fixated on the leader as superhero and more focused on leveraging the community at every level of our organisations.

I suggested the most radical thing you could do is rip up your plans for leadership development – and concentrate instead on how you can democratise innovation and collaboration for the 80% rather than the 20%.

Crises have a way of revealing and recalibrating what leadership really means. As we’ve already seen in our communities the most impressive acts of true leadership have not come from CEOs, or our elected officials, or the media and the rest of the loud and the powerful.

True leadership has been revealed at street level.

It’s that lesson we must learn from – and take back to our organisations.

That won’t be easy because as Cal writes – when the number of remote workers climbs to 30% fundamental changes to the nature of work become necessary. This increases exponentially as the remote work force tips to 50 or 70, 80 percent.

He explains that we are currently in the ‘electric dynamo’ stage (referring to the first, unsuccessful, phase of electrification in factories), having adopted remote working but applied it to our existing pattern of work coordination because that is what our organisations are geared up for.

So we are working remotely , but doing the same work, and serving the same hierarchy. This can’t, and won’t, work over the long term.

One of the reasons for this is the weak link in the remote work equation – the manager and the leader.

As Bertrand Duperrin writes in a hugely persuasive piece “management in “command & control” mode does not survive the test of distance. The manager who only practises management by presence “exists” for his teams only if he is useful to them. From a distance they no longer see him“.

Bertrand goes on to question whether any existing HR or people team evaluate a manager’s ability to play their role in a widespread remote work context. I’ve made the same point in the past about collaboration and digital leadership.

He ends by suggesting that the ability to remote work should never be presumed. “It must be measured and, if necessary, assisted. However, it must be borne in mind that the company’s weak point in remote work, its main risk, lies less in the employee than in the manager.”

You can’t blame managers for the way they have been brought up. Management grew out of an era of mass production – of vertical command and control overseen by chiefs and officers.

But those days are over, density and depersonalised service are no longer desirable by consumers, with industries rapidly revamping their value proposition to recognise this. Huge infrastructure and scale – the things which were a massive competitive advantage – are increasingly a liability.

If we are witnessing the collapse of a leadership model based on command and control and vertical hierarchy this is going to place incredible strain on our current generation of leaders who will necessarily have to give away some power.

The thing we used to call leadership is now about breaking down barriers, collaborating at scale and giving people the freedom to create previously unseen opportunities for customers.

The long-standing problems that have thwarted remote office work are not about technology or infrastructure. They are about leadership – and our apparent failure to move much beyond a model developed in the industrial revoloution.

In an increasingly remote and distributed world of work the employees who will have the biggest impact on the most people will rarely be the official leaders at the top.

That’s the uncomfortable truth that many of us must now wrestle with unless we want to return to the old normal rather than create the new.


Featured Image by thedarknut from Pixabay

Can We Really Trust Communities To Use Common Sense?

There have been a few positives amidst the devastation of the COVID pandemic.

One is that it has reminded us of the power of social connection. People have begun supporting and caring for one another locally, with community led groups popping up to address immediate needs in ways organisations simply can’t.

Common Sense Is Nothing More Than a Deposit of Prejudices Laid Down in the Mind Before Age Eighteen

Albert Einstein (or Lincoln Barnett)

There have been a few positives amidst the devastation of the COVID pandemic.

One is that it has reminded us of the power of social connection. People have begun supporting and caring for one another locally, with community led groups popping up to address immediate needs in ways many organisations cannot.

It’s also reminded us that social media – despite the many benefits – simply can’t fulfill this function. Your thousands of followers are worthless compared to the handful of people you really can rely upon.

As Michael Lee Stallard and Katharine P. Stallard have written – a lack of sufficient connection is dangerous because social connection is a primal human need. Connection is also a “superpower” that, as the neuroscientist Matthew Lieberman says, makes human beings smarter, happier and more productiveMeta-analysis research found a 50% greater likelihood of survival for the participants of studies who had stronger social relationships.

These powerful connections have meant that we’ve largely abided by the new social contract and disproved the Hollywood stereotype of how humankind would behave in a dystopian global emergency. Rather than mob rule, looting homes and hitting people over the head for a can of baked beans, we’ve queued politely outside supermarkets and applauded key workers from our doorsteps. Additionally, people appear to have begun to reevaluate their relationship with the largest social institution ,the NHS, accepting their own role in prevention through personal responsibility.

So far, so good.

Communities appear to have a hell of a lot going for them. In fact this could be the time to make the move away from focussing on what’s wrong, and seek instead to solve problems with communities not for communities. This might be the moment for organisations to finally address important issues about the redistribution of power including greater transparency, collaboration, participation and accountability.

And yet, there’s a counter narrative that has emerged during the second half of lockdown, that people and communities simply can’t be trusted.

The call from the prime minister to apply “good British common sense” has attracted both criticism (it’s vague and confusing) and praise (from others who argue that people will act responsibly given the chance).

So which is it? Because if our organisations wish to bestow more responsibility on communities, and recognise citizens themselves are closest to the problems that matter, surely we need to trust them to do the right thing?

Instead, the media has delighted in recent weeks at finding examples of communities wilfully breaking the social contract. Admittedly, right from the early days of the lockdown there were some limited examples of what Douglas Murray calls “outbreaks of the irrational mind” – such as stockpiling toilet rolls or attacking 5G masts.

Now though, as we slowly emerge from isolation, there has been an increase in stories designed to highlight the inherent stupidity of people. Photos shared online seem to show people standing much too close together in public and generally being irresponsible.

It’s always worth remembering when stories like these enter mass circulation that you are not always seeing an accurate version of the truth. For example, there have been cases of photographers using effects that compress images, unfairly representing the local community.

Additionally stories only go viral when they portray uncommon behaviour. The rules of viral media dictate that the content needs to be either funny, touching or profoundly stupid. I always try and remember before sharing or commenting on viral stories that what is on display is not an accurate representation of real life, rather it is an outlier.

You can argue that examples of deviant behaviour give us the opportunity to ‘course correct’ and remind us of the importance of following a social code. However the cynic in me feels that these examples become all too convenient tropes to be used by the hierarchical and status obsessed to justify why communities need more rules, less autonomy, and more state and social sector sanctioned services.

Deep down most people are reasonable and can use their common sense to do the right thing.

By way of example , yesterday I was talking to a neighbour comparing and contrasting two different approaches to distributing food boxes to older people. One is thriving and has delivered thousands of packages, one is floundering and has scores of undelivered donations.

The difference? The latter has become obsessed with minimising risk through finding the ‘right’ volunteer that has the right DBS check, has access to a suitable vehicle and can meet an exhaustive set of hygiene standards.

The other by comparison has kept it simple, tapping into existing community networks and giving people guidance but basically trusting them to be sensible.

The lesson here is to take a street level view of lockdown as described by Charlotte Kiri in this wonderful post. As she says:

What’s happening at street level is not based on a relationship that assumes that one party has a provision and one has a need, and because the acts taking place are small and frequent and over a small distance, daily and undramatic there is hope that these relationships will sustain and strengthen into whatever world we find ourselves in beyond this lockdown

You should never waste a good crisis, and it would a terrible shame if our new normal reverted to seeing people as passive and needy recipients of services.

The pandemic has shown that all the reports of the decline of trust are incorrect.

We’ve actually shown remarkable trust in our leaders, both at national and local government levels. We have calmly listened to the experts and followed their advice and changed our lives as a result.

So now is a time for the social sector to repay that trust, showing that we trust our communities to do the right thing , to act with fairness and empathy and to use our collective common sense for a common good.


Photo by United Nations COVID-19 Response

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That requires making a move from telling to listening.

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

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


 

 

Image by Queven from Pixabay 

What Coronavirus Tells Us About Risk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We are scared of making mistakes

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

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

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

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

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

No-one ever gets fired for exaggerating

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

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

WhatsApp Image 2020-02-28 at 12.47.25

It’s available now. 

Subscribe on Spotify 

Subscribe on Apple Podcasts

Featured Photo by Hello I’m Nik 🍌 on Unsplash

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