How To Make A Paradigm Shift

Last week I was in Amsterdam with the Disruptive Innovators Network (you can read my daily updates, here, here, and here) and it got me thinking about how we make the shift from current behaviours and ways of operating.

Travelling across the city you’d think Amsterdam had been designed in a lab rather than being a place that has evolved over 746 years. It’s great to walk around, there are no traffic jams, and there’s an easy and cheap to use train, metro and tram system. 

And then there’s the bikes. The Netherlands boasts 22,000 miles of cycle paths. More than a quarter of all trips are made by bicycle, compared with less than 2% in the UK – and this rises to over 38% in Amsterdam. 

Amsterdam wasn’t built that way – in fact less than 50 years ago the city was at risk of being overrun by cars.

So how did they change? The Dutch understood design thinking and that just because you build something people don’t automatically follow. It wasn’t enough to just provide cycle lanes, you had to make cyclists feel as safe as if they were in a car. And that meant rebalancing the power of the automobile. This has been done through wider cycle lanes protected from traffic and design principles. Many of the shared spaces – where cars do not rule – adhere to Hans Monderman’s theory that increasing traffic regulations reduces personal responsibility, the need for drivers and pedestrians to pay attention to what is happening around them.

The Dutch have successfully taken a problem and innovated around it, completely changing people’s behaviours NOT by penalising them, but through creating a more fulfilling and pleasant way to live.

Moving away from a culture of convenience

As humans we have become more and more impatient, demanding immediacy and instant gratification through increasingly digital and frictionless experiences. Convenience is now the driving factor when making purchases in our digital economy and it comes at a price.

In April 2020 Amsterdam became the first municipality in the world to publish a City Doughnut – a vision to emerge from COVID-19 as a city that ensures a good life for everyone. The vision is to transition Amsterdam into a circular city, adopting a smarter approach to managing scarce raw materials, production and consumption, and creating more jobs for everyone.

Why is it called a doughnut? It’s inspired by a 2012 Oxfam report by Kate Raworth. This was later developed in her book Doughnut Economics: seven ways to think like a 21st century economist.

For example, one of the venues was Circl restuarant which is shaped like a doughnut and is the centre of a movement to spread circular economy principles. Accordingly they start at the end – cooking with what’s leftover. Stale bread, leftover fruit and veg from supermarkets. Chefs adhere to circular principles and fight against food waste every day. They use sustainable cooking techniques such as preserving and fermenting in the kitchen.

The building itself is pretty impressive. Built around circularity principles, it reuses the fabric of company uniforms as heat and sound insulation; and you only get your coffee if you learn sign language to communicate with a deaf Ukrainian refugee. (I learned cappuccino – by far the easiest).

Additionally we heard about demolition crews being reframed as urban miners. Amsterdam (or any other town, city or estate) can be viewed as an urban mine with a wealth of metals such as aluminum, copper, gold and steel contained within its built environment. It is less costly to mine urban buildings and structures such as high-rise buildings for steel, cables for copper, window frames for aluminum and phones for gold. Nothing is ‘waste’.

What’s clear for me is the ambition here goes way beyond the minimum standard/box ticking approach to ‘sustainability’ we have in much of the UK. Paradigm shift is when a big chunk of a community swaps their old conceptions for new ones. That’s what is happening here.

One of the reasons that the wheels are starting to come off the Net Zero wagon is that it has quite a pessimistic message, asking people to give things up rather than live better lives. Now we’re all more literate about climate change we’re also more aware of greenwashing and virtue signalling activism. When tobacco companies outperform Tesla or a social non-profit on their environmental and social goals people stop believing in them.


We form a paradigm through the set of concepts we accept and the actions we take repeatedly. A paradigm shift occurs when the prevailing mental model has so many anomalies that it breaks and a new sense of the world is formed.

Today in the UK marks the 15th anniversary of the introduction of smokefree law, protecting people from secondhand smoke in restaurants, pubs, bars, shops, offices and workplaces. To anyone under 30 reading this it’s probably inconceivable for you to imagine a reality where you could sit smoking a cigarette in the cinema or even on an airplane. That reality existed: I know because I grew up in it.

It’s worth watching Elon Musk’s 2 minute explanation of First Principle thinking which allows you to make change in clear leaps, rather than building small improvements onto something that already exists. Musk gives an example of the first automobile. While everyone else was trying to improve horse-drawn carriages, someone looked at the fundamentals of transportation and the combustion engine in order to create a car.

Reality can shift quickly if enough people break the model of what is possible.

What are the mental models that your organisation holds onto today that could be vanquished tomorrow?

Cover Photo by Daria Nepriakhina 🇺🇦 on Unsplash

How To Resist Corporate Hoarding

Many companies are still using software built or purchased from a time when Blockbuster were fining us for late returned videos.

Most of the companies we admire for their innovation , your Amazons, your Netflixes or your Apples have no such legacy ways of working holding them back. They either cleared them out years ago or never had them in the first place.

It’s often difficult to have an ambitious organisational clear out – as standardisation and minimalism isn’t seen as very exciting, or innovative. It can be expensive too, just like renovating an old house, and you can understand why many put it off,  or choose not to bother.

Last week I was talking about this with David Anderton the Transformation and ICT Director at Bromford.

It was David who identified the requirement for the Bromford Design Principles as well as the need to have a clear out of what was a 50+ year old organisational infrastructure that was disconnected and messy.

The problems we were set up to solve were once relatively simple, but as organisations get larger there’s more technology, more people, more regulation. We put together processes, controls, reviews, and structures and these factors together create a great amount of complexity.

Unravelling this – at the same time as keeping business running as usual – is no easy task.

  • Some of us simply don’t like letting go of the working practices we have become used to.
  • Some of us don’t see the need for connectivity and interoperability beyond our own functional silo
  • Some of us become overly attached to the tools we use to do our jobs despite them being well past their sell by date (In the same way as I can’t get my Dad to move past a Nokia 3210 – “It still does the job, son”)

According to David there are five factors hindering effective transformation:

  • inertia
  • risk aversion
  • lack of investment in operating models
  • an overinflated sense of delivery excellence
  • too much celebration of mediocrity

Additionally many organisations have become afflicted by a kind of hoarding disorder. This disorder means the organisation acquires an excessive number of policies, systems and structures and stores them in a chaotic manner, resulting in unmanageable amounts of clutter. This clutter isn’t just an aesthetic problem. In an era reliant on the instant transfer of information and data it hoards knowledge and makes it inaccessible rather than opening it up.

This is why the replacement of legacy systems is the modernisation headache, because it’s not an IT issue, it’s all about organisational behaviour.

One of the reasons people can be resistant to change is because – from their perspective – it doesn’t add any value. The case for a simpler operating model is often hard to see from a siloed perspective.

However, standardised and simplified operating models are the bedrock of innovation – as you can’t make a leap forward when you’re disorganised and disconnected.

And that’s what we’ve been trying to do.

  • A new operating model based on services
  • Designed from ground upwards
  • Focused on services required for strategy
  • Then build out a transformation journey with enabling technology

The problem is you can’t achieve this simplicity without a lot of hard work and some resistance.

The innovative companies we all admire have done this hard , boring , work years ago. Which is why they can experiment with AI and VR – they’ve built future ready platforms to which tech innovations can be seamlessly integrated.

Our old model organisations thrive on complexity. Many of the problems we set to solve are indeed complex, but that complexity doesn’t need to be mirrored internally.

Simplicity means saying no to things and doing less. Many of an organization’s activities are misaligned from , or have poorly defined, strategic objectives. We often anchor around the wrong thing. That’s why some big institutions have no chance – they are hit by random plans and transformations rather than anchoring around purpose.

This takes discipline though as it means killing vanity projects and saying no when something doesn’t fit into the plan.

02 (1)Doing more stuff gets people noticed and promoted.

Doing less stuff – but the right stuff is what we should now recognise and reward.

Consistency of operating model, clean data and standardization aren’t sexy.  But every one of the innovative organisations we admire has been through the pain of achieving that.

A future ready operating model eliminates corporate hoarding and replaces it with an agile framework that companies can adapt and morph on an ongoing basis,

They match the speed of today’s change and run with it, rather than constantly trying to catch up.


You can get the full set of the Bromford Design Principles here 

Cover photo by Wonderlane on Unsplash

The Complex Problem With Big Change Programmes

Change-washing (noun): the process of introducing reforms that purport to bring about change but fail to result in any substantive shifts in systems, services or culture.  — Thea Snow and Abe Greenspoon

One of the unfortunate side-effects of writing a post that becomes popular such as  People Aren’t Sick Of Change. They’re Just Sick Of Change Programmes is that you simply don’t have the time to respond to all the comments on Linkedin and Twitter.

The overwhelming majority seemed to identify with the main points, particularly the need for more Trojan Mice.

However a few people interpreted it as an attack on change management in general – and an argument in favour of just letting people free to change things as they see fit.

So let me clarify.

My default position is that most top down change programmes will fail.  My experience has shown me that small, well focused changes, which are introduced on an ongoing basis in an inconspicuous way trump big change almost every time. These changes still need management though.

Your organisation is more like a living organism than a static structure. Increasingly we need to see our organisations as complex, ever-evolving, adaptive systems. That’s one of the reasons top down change programmes fail – they are too big, unwieldy and structured to cope with a living, breathing, growing, thing.

And yet… there is sometimes a need for big change programmes.

If you have a large infrastructure project , such as a digital transformation, there’s a need for unified vision and a lot of standardisation. A trojan mice approach could be disastrous – as it could reinforce silos.

Large scale transformation is about the transformation of organisations from silos, limited capability and unclear strategic goals, to being an organisation that understands the vision, that knows where it delivers the most value and how to focus on it. Doing this across a whole organisation is complicated, but is often needed if you are attempting to solve multiple problems.

When we began our transformation at Bromford we realised that we had 32 individual service areas – all of which needed better coordination.

We started by defining nine overall design principles, which leaders all signed up to before developing their own principles for each of their service areas. Doing it this way means we can better connect silos and optimise the organisation for the future. It’s a people driven approach – we hope – rather than a process driven one.

The problem for many big transformations occurs when the simple meets the complex.

Universal credit and smart motorways are two examples of big infrastructure programmes that have hit the similar problems.

Universal credit – a benefit for working-age people, replacing six benefits and merging them into one payment – was a simple vision and a correct one. The problems came about when the desired simplicity of the system also led to an oversimplified view of the life circumstances of many recipients. The early warnings from the oddly titled ‘Demonstration Pilots’ (implicit meaning – ‘we are going to do this anyway, whatever the results’ ) that this approach could hit the most vulnerable people very hard were pretty much ignored.

Smart Motorways – where drivers can use the hard shoulder – but the lane is shut down in the event of any accident or breakdown – is another simple idea that runs into trouble when it meets complexity.  A physically fit single driver can abandon their vehicle and get to safety pretty quickly but that’s not so easy for the driver with disabled or young passengers. “You spend an average of more than half an hour sitting there in a broken-down vehicle praying,” say the AA. Again, lessons learned from the pilots appear to have been ignored. In the original pilot, the emergency refuge areas were 500-600 metres apart, compared with 2,500 metres on other smart motorways.

Both of these examples have run into trouble when the intended transformation meets people.

Complex, messy people.

This thinking that if we take apart processes and tasks and put them into smaller units—we can improve those parts and thus the overall performance of our business is flawed.

There seems to be a belief that if we can ‘systems think’ or PRINCE2 it to death the people will comply. Sorry – it just isn’t true.

Just like our natural systems, our organisations are not machines. As Thea and Abe write – our organisations are systems — often very large ones — that are being run by humans. “As such, they are complex and they are adaptive. This means that the path for us to change them will be unpredictable and often counter-intuitive”.

The problem with big change programmes is also their opportunity. If we can recognise that organisations are people and people are complex then we can avoid simplistic solutions – and make real sustainable change.

Indeed – redesigning organisations for the future is also about learning to live with complexity.

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