The Complex Task of Simplicity

If you want to make things truly simple to use by your customers, you will nearly always have to make your organization take on more complexity – Gerry McGovern

Yesterday, I delivered a talk at a conference that was aimed at getting organisations ‘back to basics’.

The problem, I proposed, was that we live in a complex world and many of us just can’t help trying to help tackle every issue.

  • Climate Change
  • Wellbeing
  • Income inequality
  • Health

That’s often in addition to the core reason we were set up in the first place. The problems we were set up to solve were once quite 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.

There’s a paradox here. Although we appreciate the benefits of simple customer experiences and great design in our everyday lives, we often forget all about it when we walk through the door at work.

My contention is we have stopped seeing it. We don’t even recognise how complex we’ve become.

There’s some science to explain how we may have become ‘complexity blind’.

Our brains cope with complexity by identifying key features and filtering out unnecessary detail. On seeing that the space you enter has walls, a floor and a ceiling, you know you have entered a room and can usually ignore the details. You can find where to sit quite easily without getting all distracted by the view out the window or the pictures on walls. This is an example of what the French psychologist Jean Piaget termed a “schema”. Schemas can be useful because they allow us to take shortcuts in interpreting the vast amount of information that is available in our environment.

When your working day is crammed full of meetings and emails it’s easier to just screen out the bullshit and the complexity and just , well,  try to cope.

And sometimes we don’t just take mental shortcuts – we take physical shortcuts too.

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Desire paths were beautifully described by Robert McFarlane as “paths & tracks made over time by the wishes & feet of walkers, especially those paths that run contrary to design or planning”, They spring up when humans vote against design – with their feet.

But desire paths exist within our organizations too, when colleagues make illicit shortcuts through bad policy and procedure to make their working lives a little easier.

Sometimes there are very visible signs of complexity , such as long lists of KPIs or structure charts that look like a company is preparing for an invasion of Europe rather than serving customers.

Last year Sky admitted that they had identified over 2,000 KPIs within their business. They took radical action and reduced it to just 30. Interestingly , they did this by cutting the people involved by 84%. They admitted the KPIs fulfilled no purpose whatsoever and  were just in the business because “someone liked them”.

How can we simplify complex organisations? 

As Steve Jobs said, simple can be harder than complex. Most of our organisations default to the difficult for a reason – it’s easier.

Being simpler means spending more time in problem definition, and more time observing what users need and how they behave. Einstein believed that the quality of the solutions we come up with will be in direct proportion to the quality of the description of the problem we’re trying to solve. Not only will solutions be more abundant and of higher quality, but they’ll be achieved much more simply.

Simplicity also 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 and iteration.

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

It also means taking a different view of design – and removing activities rather than adding them in.

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The Dutch traffic engineer Hans Monderman challenged this thinking with his idea of “Shared Space”. His concept was simple. Remove all traffic lights, signs, and road markings. The results were the opposite of what most people expected. The traffic moved slower, people paid more attention, and accidents ultimately declined.

Monderman’s theory was that increasing traffic regulations reduces personal responsibility, the need for drivers and pedestrians to pay attention to what is happening around them.

“The trouble with traffic engineers is that when there’s a problem with a road, they always try to add something,” Monderman says. “To my mind, it’s much better to remove things.”

What would our organisations look like if , when faced with a problem, we focused on removing things rather than adding them in?

What if every time we added a new activity we abandoned an old one?

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The second of the Bromford Design Principles is abandon activities that don’t add value. I’m going to put my neck on the block and suggest it has been the least successful of the nine principles we introduced. Yesterday certainly reminded me that should be my personal focus in 2020.

Ultimately simplification means making it easier for your people to get things done and for your customers and other partners to work with you.

As the world becomes more complex, simplifying strategy, leadership, decision-making and all of our communication becomes more important than ever. It should be our number one focus – but it certainly isn’t.

Being simple – it’s complex.

 

The No.1 Problem With The Digital Workplace

“Collaboration is an essential skill of the digital economy. And yet how to collaborate productively is hardly ever taught either in universities or in the workplace.” – Gerry McGovern

It’s only a couple of months since I posted Why We Don’t Collaborate, but a few things I’ve been reading and observing make it a subject worthy of returning to.

The people selling us the digital dream (agile working, always on connectivity, work from anywhere) too often skip important questions. Are we really more productive? And do we really collaborate better that we used to? 

As Gerry points out in his post , collaboration isn’t taught. You’re just expected to know. “Productive collaboration is really hard. It requires a whole range of communication, organizational and social skills.”

I’m old enough to remember when my pre-digital inbox (a filing tray) was actually audited by my team leader. In my first real job my performance related pay actually depended on my ability to effectively organise my day, my work and how I communicated and collaborated with others.

Today, I could have thousands of emails in my inbox and nobody would know. I could be presenting an image of an organised and well functioning colleague when I’m actually drowning.

The abundance of technology and the myriad new ways to interrupt someone’s day isn’t necessarily evidence of progress.

A new report on the potential impacts of digital technologies on co-production and co-creation finds that there is a lack of hard evidence of actual impact. Indeed, “conceptual fuzziness and tech-optimism stand in the way of collecting such evidence”.

This tech optimism is worth dwelling on. The report notes we tend to stress the enormous benefits digital technologies could have, but tend to ignore the profound uncertainties and risks that come with technological innovation. Digital transformation in a nutshell!

The report ends with an important question – who controls the shape of digital technologies in public service delivery and, by implication, the opportunities for co-production and co-creation?

In a more optimistic piece for Harvard Business Review, Raj Choudhury , Barbara Z. Larson and Cirrus Foroughi write that an increasingly mobile workforce can present problems for traditional team leaders.  Their research indicates that the real productivity boost doesn’t come from digital tools per se, but rather from the increased flexible working options that digital can facilitate.

Their study compared how productive, loyal, and cost-effective employees at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office were when they were allowed to work flexibly. They chose that employer because it had recently implemented a wide-scale pilot program allowing people to work from where and when they wanted, while still requiring others to remain in the office.

The results were 4.4% higher productivity among those in the pilot program, from people doing the exact same work as those who were required to come into the office.

However, they note that work-from-anywhere policies could increase costs in work environments that require brainstorming and project-based interaction, adding that more research is needed to fully understand the implications of remote work in more collaborative settings.

So again, the jury is out on whether the digital workplace helps or hinders collaboration.

I’m an eternal optimist so my gut feeling is that mobile working done well, leads to a better connected, more productive workplace.

On Tuesday this week my team hosted a hackathon in the Cotswolds. We came together physically with a range of partners and then retreated to synthesise the outputs remotely. The draft report and basic prototypes were distributed less that 36 hours later. There’s no way we could do that without digital tools AND having work from anywhere flexibility.

However, we are an innovation and design team who have the luxury to experiment with digital collaboration tools and we can invest a lot of time in our personal learning. We frequently go ‘off grid’ and use non work sanctioned tools if we can find a better way of doing it.

That probably doesn’t apply to 99% of workers – and it’s these people we need to focus on if we really are to get the benefits of our investment in technology.

Leveraging technology to connect and collaborate with people at scale is the No.1 requirement of the 21st-century leader.

It won’t happen on its own. So if you have a digital workplace strategy, you need a collaboration strategy too. Because if we don’t teach, measure, encourage and reward collaboration it doesn’t tend to happen.

Without that support the magical collaborative workplace of the future may be further off than you think.

 


Photo by Georgie Cobbs on Unsplash

Why Story Will Always Beat Statistics

Data is not fact and fact is often just a hypothesis anyway.

We humans design how data is created and we humans are the ones who interpret data and draw conclusions from it.

Therefore, data will always be inherently fallible – Gerry McGovern

Many of our organisations attempt to illustrate the achievement of their purpose through data and the production of statistics.

We sell this many products, or save that many lives or house this many people.

Then we wonder why the public doesn’t understand what we do, or why the people who work for us have become disengaged from our purpose.

Despite living in a time where entire industries are being disrupted through stories , we still put our faith in statistics.

Because it’s better to convey our message with simple facts right?

The problem is, data isn’t simple or neutral or even factual.  The best data needs explanatory stories.  The human mind is a story processor, and to understand something is to know a good story about it.

The astrophysicist and author Neil deGrasse Tyson was reminded of this lesson last week after tweeting that more people die in everyday circumstances like medical errors than in mass shootings.

As he noted in his Facebook apology , his intention to point out that more common, but milder causes of death trigger less response from us than events like mass shootings wasn’t welcome when there was another, more compelling story trending.

Telling the story through data alone, factually correct or not, doesn’t always win us fans.

I’ve been reading The Science of Storytelling by Will Storr. In it he shows how novelists answer the challenge of “grabbing and keeping the attention of other people’s brains”.

I was struck by his point that most successful stories begin with a moment of change. In fact, all stories are change. These changeful moments. or the threat of change, are so important that they always appear in the first few sentences. His examples show that authors as diverse as J.K Rowling, Albert Camus and Karl Marx all use the same technique.

It’s because they know that we find change interesting – it forces us to listen, and it forces us to act.

Do our organisational stories begin with change?

As a simple test I checked out 10 websites of social purpose organisations and none of their recent press releases or blogs started out that way. It was all about how much investment had been attained,  or the £££ difference that was being made by their actions. Data, data everywhere but no decent stories.  No threat of change, no questions, no meaning.

Today’s organisations simply won’t be heard unless they’re telling good stories. Those of us who can create and share good stories have a powerful advantage over others.

One of the reasons I try to blog regularly is to get better at telling stories. The simple act of writing a short 600 word piece still forces you into a format of:

  • Beginning with a change or provocation
  • Asking a dramatic or interesting question
  • Crafting an ending that attempts to create some meaning

Fortunately this isn’t a skill only attainable by a few of us – all of us are good storytellers.

Storytelling is something we all do naturally, starting at a very young age. As human beings, we know that stories are what life is made of, but when we get up in the morning and go to work,  we seem to forget this.

In modern organisations storytelling should not only reside on the organisational level, it should permeate the whole system. It’s no longer the preserve of comms teams. In fact I’d suggest that if it’s your comms team who is telling the story , you have a problem.

If everybody feeds the story then the story feeds the people. Perhaps every employee should be encouraged to write one blog or post one video every month, encouraging us all to share stories?

This isn’t time wasted. Stories help us persuade people to take action.

We can all become better storytellers , and through that help our organisations become better and achieve our purpose.

Show me the data? Actually, don’t.

The story is the change.

The power is in the story first, the statistic second.


 

 

If you don’t have time to read the book from Will Storr you can listen to his TEDx talk here

Who Really Wins From Digital Transformation?

The birth of the change management movement began in the 1960s and 70s – when big consultancy began to see a vast new market – convincing organisations of the benefits of ‘transformation’.

Alongside this came the development of a distinctive, pseudo-scientific language of change which the consultants needed to pitch themselves to new clients.

It aimed to take advantage of a sort of corporate narcissism – hoping that senior executives and boards would swoon at the chance to ‘made over’ by slick looking outsiders.

They certainly did swoon, in fact they fell head over heels. As Jacob Dutton writes in a challenging piece – helping companies ‘do transformation’ is now very big business.

“The total size of the global transformation market is expected to grow from $445.4bn in 2017 to $2,279.4bn by 2025. The consulting component of a transformation programme alone is worth $44bn. As a result, the likes of PwC, Deloitte, KPMG and EY have all reacted and developed their transformation capabilities.”

The size of this market , and the riches on offer, arguably drive three key behaviours:

  • A focus on agile solutions rather than contemplative problem definition.
  • A subsequent focus on low hanging fruit – the easier problem to solve is often through tech, rather than the more complex wicked problems 
  • A focus on benefits realisation rather than value production – which often puts the emphasis squarely on efficiency.  Humans are expensive right?

Which then leads to:  The rush towards technological transformation – as if cheap tech is the only solution.

But what are we losing from our organisations, from our community, when we approach transformation as purely a means to be quicker, slicker and more convenient?

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We could be seeing the digitsiation of the most important thing your organisation has – the relationship with your customer.

As Gerry McGovern has written, looking at technology as cost minimization results in the hollowing out of organizations into technological shells, in which staff spend far more time interacting with numbers, code, and content than they do with their customers.

These avoidance tactics presume the customer is a cost on your time rather than an opportunity. In our own work we have learned that our customers and communities have many skills, often untapped and completely underutilized by us and others like us.

This change evangelism and the hollowing out of relationships can make us embark on the worst kind of technological solutionism – that risks ignoring the skills, assets and sheer talent that exists in our communities.

Starting With a Clean Slate

At Bromford we’ve done a lot of work on the standardisation of our processes and service offerings. It’s not sexy, but some of the most innovative companies operate very standard operating models. It allows them move exponentially quicker.

Focusing purely on the relationship your customer wants, and the simpler processes that support it,  helps resist the need to transform.

Jacob Dutton proposes that big companies abandon the idea of transformation programmes altogether and suggests some tips for kicking the habit. I agree and would also add:

  • Let’s have more reflection and contemplation rather than lots of management activity.
  • Let’s devolve resources and influence to those closest to the problem rather than outsource them.
  • Let’s change little and often through small-scale experimentation.
  • Let’s not roll anything out until we have evidence that it actually works.

As Neil Tamplin has said perhaps our organisations need to be more amenable to gentle iterative change rather than lurching forward intermittently to catch up?

Being a human organisation means resisting someone else’s idea of best practice.

Who is really winning from transformation?

  • Is it the customer who now has a digital portal and a chatbot with a pre-determined series of options between them and the person they really need to deal with?
  • Is it the organisation who were promised a bright new future but find they have the same fundamental problems they always had?
  • Is it the employee who was told they shouldn’t resist change and that their job would be made easier, but found that their job would eliminated altogether?

The global transformation market will be worth $2,279.4bn by 2025.

Someone is winning and it’s not necessarily going to be you or your customer.

View at Medium.com

 

Rebuilding Trust Requires Getting Comfortable With Being Uncomfortable

Difficult conversations, the ones which we all too often shy away from, are the very thing that help build trust in one another.

For instance, if you want to spot a couple who are on the verge of splitting up, look for the ones who have stopped talking and are sitting in silence. The ones having a public argument over lunch still have a dialogue. Couples who argue effectively are 10 times more likely to have a happy relationship than those who sweep difficult issues under the carpet.

For years, our organisations and institutions have swept difficult issues under the carpet rather than having adult to adult conversations. The results are there for all to see.

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The 2019 Edelman Trust Barometer reveals that trust has changed profoundly in the past year—people have shifted their trust to the relationships immediately within their control as we become more intolerant and disillusioned.

The world though is united on one front—all share an urgent desire for change. Only one in five feels that the system is working for them, with nearly half of the mass population believing that the system is failing them.

In conjunction with this pessimism and worry, there is a growing move toward engagement and action.

This is hugely positive, although disruptive. The trust-building opportunity then lies squarely in the area of integrity and engagement.

In the old days a trusting relationship between individuals and organisations has been the norm.

This has shaped the way we communicate – both internally and externally. It has resulted in the issuing of corporate annual reports, press releases , customer satisfaction scores and benchmarking results. All designed to tell a positive, on-message story.

Those days have gone.

As Gerry McGovern writes – the game has profoundly changed. “Many organisations are still deluding themselves into thinking that if they can just get their marketing and PR right, they can control the message, control the future.

My last couple of posts drew on the need to escape siloed bubbles and embark on different relationships.

The reaction to the latter, on Twitter in particular, highlighted the lack of trust in many of our organisations.  There is clearly a need for a different and potentially difficult conversation, and it won’t be easy.

On Saturday my Twitter feed was buzzing, and it wasn’t all positive. A few people were taking me to task for having double standards.

The problem I imagine, is I’m a ‘paid professional’ working within a flawed system. A flawed system I myself have perpetuated at times. How can I possibly help fix it if I’m rewarded by it?  I could be – as one person noted – the problem rather than the solution.

This view is not entirely without foundation. Social networks might appear to be more democratic , but in any conversation there’s often a power imbalance, and we’ve seen precious little evidence of any organisations giving up any power or resources.

A lot of people are disillusioned because they feel they could probably do a better job than those in power. Social media has revealed where the power is held, and how it behaves.  Why shouldn’t we as social organisations cede power in a situation where so many clearly crave it?

Perhaps it’s because trust works both ways, and our organisations don’t trust citizens, users or customers to wield power responsibly. How would they know how to make the right choices?

It’ll take more than a few tweet-chats or a transformation programme to restore trust that has been eroded over decades. Digital is not the saviour we thought it might be. There’s a need for genuine human connection as a resistance to today’s deadening, tech-obsessed world.

That doesn’t meant we shouldn’t try to improve our online conversations though, we need to develop broader shoulders if we are to break this down. I’ve heard too many stories of people being muted or even blocked by organisations whom they are customers of.

It also means reducing the gap between organisational rhetoric and the reality:

That means it’s time to do less talking and more listening. 

It means stopping saying how great your organisation is.

It means engaging rather than broadcasting.

It means defaulting to transparency.

It means people engaging in difficult conversations. 

We all have a role in diffusing some of the anger out there. That means getting better at discussing ideas and finding common ground.

Today, more than ever, we need to start talking more. Listening to voices we’d sometimes prefer not to hear.

How Complexity Kills Trust

Customers trust those who give them control — who put them in control — of their lives.

They distrust those who try to control them. – Gerry McGovern

Why do you trust the companies, organisations, and institutions you deal with?

Chances are it isn’t because they have a customer charter, seek to involve you in their decision making,  or publish their performance in a league table.

There’s a curious train of thought entering discourse across the social sector that seems to say “If we involve our customers more, we’ll be more trusted and more accountable”.

I’m sorry – but this is nonsense. The lack of trust in our organisations is driven by overly complex business models that fail to put the customer in any position of power. The idea that this will be solved by inviting them to read the minutes of your last Board meeting is, frankly, ludicrous.

We are in an era of ‘trust deficit’ – where more people distrust institutions than believe in them. Organisations have consistently chosen to ignore the warnings about public expectations about transparency & accountability in the digital age.

Trust is driven by something more basic than being open and honest: simple customer experiences.

Most of our organisations have failed to keep pace with the requirements of the digital age and remain hugely complex for customers to navigate.

We have complexity baked into us, and most users don’t see us as their problem solvers.

As Gerry McGovern has written: “Old model organizations thrive on complexity. Thirty years ago, a typical customer looked at something complex and said: “I must be stupid.” Today, people look at complexity coming from organizations and say: “They must be stupid.” 

It’s often frustrating for the social sector that people trust companies like Amazon more than public services – but the reasons why they do are obvious.

One reason for the huge success of Amazon is the fact that they solve problems for us that we need to be solved.  They solve them very simply too, and they almost always take the customers side in any dispute. When you solve real problems every single day and you make things simpler and easier for your customers, you build trust.

Most of our organisations do solve problems – but we solve them very slowly, or in ways that frustrate the customer.

The key to trust is to solve problems that matter to the customer and to put them in a position of control.  Too many old model organisations are trying to offer customers ‘influence’ – but this is mere window dressing in an effort to avoid giving up any actual power.

The NHS is a great example of an old model organisation. Whenever I deal with the NHS I usually get what I want in the end – and the people who I deal with are often excellent. However – it’s made very clear to me throughout that I’m not in control. Within the NHS the balance of power doesn’t lie with the frontline staff who understand patients’ needs and concerns, and it certainly doesn’t lie with the patient or their families.

The power is hidden within an old model based on a complex web of commissioning architecture, centralised groups, and specialist networks. It’s kept well away from the patient and the front line – as to cede any power to them would threaten the system itself.

If you’re a user of a housing association, the justice system, or local authority you may recognise this feeling of powerlessness, that the system sometimes works against your problems.

In one sense it’s a simple problem to fix. If your customers believe you’re giving them value, rather than trying to get value out of them, and if you come across as sincere, they’ll be more likely to trust your motivations and intentions.

However, deconstructing systems that have withheld power and influence from customers is anything but easy. It’s a lot easier to make a simple thing complex than it is to make a complex thing simple.

  • We need to feel that organisations are competent and have the ability to fulfill their commitments.
  • We need to believe they have the right motives, are benevolent, act fairly and honestly.
  • We need to see they are transparent, that they are learning from mistakes and failure.
  • We need to see they give us control and allow us to navigate their services on our terms

Transparency is good. Unequivocally so. But league tables, charters and involving customers only go so far. They create a lot of jobs for people but they don’t actually change anything.

Most of all we need our organisations to solve our problems in simple ways – and that requires a fundamental rethink of who we are, who we serve and how we operate.

 


Photo courtesy of Yuri Catalano via Pexels