The Problem With Finding Answers

Don’t Look for a Great Idea. Look for a Good Problem – Greg Satell

Yesterday I spent five and half hours in a room with my colleagues Carole and Simon trying to get to the root of a problem.

Three colleagues – over 16 hours of valuable time, just thinking.

It was worth every minute. We’d missed at least two crucial questions in our service design and were perilously close to jumping straight to answers.

If you jump straight to answers two things happen:

  • You spend too little time on idea generation, experimenting, and thinking.
  • You can miss the root cause entirely and embark on silver bullet solutions to the wrong problem.

Many of our organisations have a bias towards getting quick answers. We favour execution rather than contemplation. Great performance at work is usually defined as creating and implementing solutions rather than finding the best problems to tackle.

16 hours of thinking time – with no measurable outcome – is likely to be questioned as an indulgence.

At the same time many of us will spend a lot of this week in meetings, most of which will be about creating activity rather than deliberation.

John Wade is surely on to something when he talks about a different kind of meeting where people rarely speak…and if they do they never try to assert their ideas or opinions over others. Maybe we just need more listening?

More Agile, More Problems

One of the issues I have with agile working (which never feels very agile funnily enough) is the presumption that teams using agile methods get things done faster. And fast is always good.

Fetishising speed results in just hurrying up. And once going fast is on the table, things quickly start falling off.

In the social sector addressing wicked problems is never going to be fast. It’s not just about a launching a new app, or customer ‘portal’ (cough).

We need to question some fundamental assumptions about how our businesses interact with citizens. And that may require unearthing some entirely new problems.

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The Problem with Solutions

If we don’t nail the problem, and fully explore idea generation, we put all our efforts into actions.

This looks good in a project plan because it appears to reduce uncertainty.

Right now people are getting a little nervy as Insight and Innovation at Bromford are expanding the range of options to consider. Our list of questions, our multiple lines of enquiry – grow daily.

But if, as Tim Kastelle says, you’re disciplined enough to be able to live with that ambiguity for a while, you usually end up with a better answer to your problem.

Show Me The Data!

Here’s the thing: most of what we know is bullshit.

We presume that the way our organisations’ operate is because of some profound truth or deeply understood purpose – when often we have just built upon past behaviours and (sometimes false) assumptions.

Amazon talk of a truth-seeking culture. Of a belief that there’s an answer to every question and the job is to get the best answer possible. No PowerPoint is allowed at meetings. Six page word documents are read in silence at the start and never distributed in advance. This is to encourage focus, attention and establishing the facts.

In our session yesterday we stopped many times and asked:

  • Is that really true?
  • Do we honestly know that?
  • Where’s the evidence on that?

Building a culture around evidence and enquiry might not sound as sexy as innovation and ideation – but in truth they go hand in hand.

Ask a better question, get a better answer.

How To Become A Disobedient Organisation

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Imagine being given $250,000 for deliberately breaking the rules. No strings attached.

That’s exactly what MIT are doing.

Recognising that societies and institutions lean toward order and away from chaos they have launched an award and cash prize that will go to a person or group engaged in an extraordinary example of disobedience for the benefit of society.

MIT want to see if they can identify creative and principled disobedience.

Perhaps 2017 is a time for not doing what you’re told.

70% of us are not engaged in the work we do with over a third saying our jobs are meaningless.

This lack of engagement with work comes at a time when we need more world changing ideas than ever before.

Maybe the answer lies in a move away from complex and bureaucratic systems.

As Joost Minnaar and Pim de Morree write – organisational complexity has gone up 6 fold since 1955.  The number of procedures & rules to fight the same complexity have seen a 35-fold increase.

In the most complicated organisations managers spend more than 40% of their time writing reports, and between 30 – 60% of their time on meetings.

There could be a very simple reason for the growth of organisational complexity:

We are employing more managers than ever before.  And management is the least efficient activity in your organisation.

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As Gary Hamel has pointed out, the U.S managerial workforce has grown by 90%. In the UK the employment share of managers and supervisors increased to 16% in 2015.

Removing managers is never going to be a popular choice  – not least with managers –  so a better focus might be to encourage people to overtly identify complex or perverse rules.

  • Hootsuite has appointed a  Czar of Bad Systems – with the authority to challenge the rules and fix the things that never get fixed –anywhere in the company.
  • Adrian Cho at Shopify is Director of Getting Shit Done , a role aimed at breaking tradition and accelerating decision-making.
  • Philippa Jones at Bromford encourages colleagues to “Do the right thing, not the rule thing” –  building positive rule breaking into everyday service.

On the latter – it’s interesting to note that some people have interpreted this as a potential route to chaos. It’s perfectly possible to get rid of rules without unleashing anarchy.

Generally getting rid of rules doesn’t bother anyone except managers.  The average colleague sees needless complexity every day.

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Whilst most executives have a very good understanding of collective complexity at a strategic level, relatively few consider the forms of individual complexity that the vast majority of employees face.

I’m deep in the midst of some service redesign work at the moment – helping colleagues detoxify the organisation of needless complexity. I had a long conversation with John Wade yesterday and it reminded me that it’s important not to think of complexity as a bad thing in itself – it can be very good for business too.

Older organisations are often bad at change and innovation for a reason – they are designed that way. They are built to execute on delivery — not to spend time thinking about things or engaging in discovery. That execution is what made them successful in the first place.

However – if we want to be world changing rather than system sustaining we need very different behaviours. That means leaning towards chaos and rewarding positive deviance.

Whilst organisations need to get better at encouraging rule breaking, but they also need to get better at understanding why the rules needed to be broken in the first place.

The answer really lies in replacing rules with values and by leaders encouraging behaviours that challenge the status quo.

It’s a time for disobedience, not acquiescence.

How Organisations May Stifle Community Creativity

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One of the many challenges for the public sector is that it must start believing in people and communities again.

We know that many organisations are out of sync with technology , but there’s an argument that they are increasingly distant from an economy where sharing and collaboration trump paternalism and top down protocols.

One of the most interesting comments on my post How To Kill Creativity was from John Wade. In it he wondered whether the organisations that limit the creativity of their employees also inadvertently stifle citizen and community strengths.

I think the answer is almost certainly yes.

It’s well established that meetings, emails and design by committee suck the creativity out of a business , so surely this would trickle down to the end user?

If you have a risk averse culture surely you also contribute to risk aversion in communities?

One of the more damaging ways we can stifle creativity is just by not listening. Of leaving the thinking to the ‘experts’.  If it was an idea worth having, the experts would already have thought about it. They have all kinds of qualifications and can write reports and they tend to use very long words. When there’s a problem they really can’t solve they will often bring in a consultant or make an appointment to their board.

We can also – without meaning to – make communities defer to authority. Everyone is a manager or an officer. This indicates that someone is in charge and is important. The people in charge must know what they are doing, or they wouldn’t hold the positions that they do. They don’t need any ideas on how the service could be run differently.

These behaviours are out of kilter with networked communities and the way we share information and resources.

If we approach public service purely as a one to one consumer transaction we’ll view the world through the lens of efficiency, reduced contact, metrics and performance indicators.

In an economy moving towards sharing rather than just transacting we need to build a new set of behaviours based on trust, fondness, habit and traditions.

Huge parts of the public sector have designed services around what people can’t do for themselves rather than nurturing what they can.

At Bromford we are in the process of reshaping our organisation around the latter.  A move away from managing to coaching and connecting.

Every individual and community has assets, talents, skills and abilities. Better to focus on helping to develop and release these, rather than treating people as a series of ‘problems’ that need to be solved.

If we think of our organisations as platforms to enable people – rather than just as service providers – it fundamentally changes how we seek out ideas.

Yesterday we hosted a discussion in Bromford Lab kicking off a 12 week period looking at the problem , or opportunity, of loneliness.

What struck me more than anything was how the conversations we have are completely changed. Very quickly the contributors stopped talking about loneliness and starting talking about community connection. About amazing examples they had seen of people doing things together. Of Bromford leading by stepping back. Of the organisation no longer feeling it has to be omnipresent.

Believing in what people can do means being brave enough to admit that we won’t always be needed.

Many of our public services are actually products of failure. They only exist because things don’t work.

Planning for obsolescence may sound suicidal, but it’s actually the most enlightened creative state your organisation can be in.  

 

It’s Time for Us to Unleash the Hidden Power in Communities

“It’s so tempting for those of us who provide services….support workers, housing providers, social workers, community workers, health visitors, GPs…to see ourselves as the ones with the gifts. The ones with the solutions. The superheroes ready to fly in and save people.

 Maybe there is already a superhero living on their street”  – John Wade 

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The typical story arc of the superhero is fairly predictable.

The journey to greatness begins with a background rooted in tragedy or potentially limiting life events:

  • The sudden death of family members (For example, Batman or Spiderman).
  • Being cast out alone into an unknown world where you are markedly different from everyone else (Superman or Thor). 
  • Troubled or abusive families triggering low self-esteem or even mental illness (Wonder Woman or Bruce Banner/The Hulk).

Having got us firmly rooting for the underdog the story unfolds, telling of the discovery of a hidden power or talent , and the difficulties of coming to terms with it.

This will be followed by a challenge to those newly found skills and a struggle against a society that wants to put the budding hero back in their place. This is usually represented through the introduction of a nemesis or villain. 

And finally the story will tell of the mastery of their talents – and an acknowledgement that with power comes a responsibility to help others fulfil their own potential.

I don’t think Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster were thinking about asset based community development when they created Superman in the 1930’s. However the stories they wrote and inspired always trod a familiar path: the most unlikely people developing skills that others thought them unworthy or incapable of.

The potential for people to do amazing things.

This belief in people is evident all too rarely in the public sector. Indeed – it seems we are almost hard wired to think of people as problems.

If you don’t believe me – take a look around.

Clearly too much of our time is focussed on seeing the flaws and shortcomings, zeroing in on gaps and insufficiencies in every person, relationship or situation.

This deficit based mindset has profound implications, not least economically. Our organisational cultures will become trained to perceive people as problems – which will further distance them from communities they serve.

Adopting an asset based approach would help us tackle these ‘problems’ very differently:

  • Older people have wonderful skills and wisdom that we can now tap into for longer than ever before.
  • Young people have remarkable talents and capabilities – different ones than we did at that age.
  • Social housing tenants are not a breed apart but have often had their aspirations crushed by a system that celebrates need and dependency.
  • The NHS is an institution that people would fight for – and there’s an army of community connectors available to help it operate more effectively.

Judging by the conversations I see going on – things are changing.

I see a growing movement of asset based thinking and the rise of a community of connected care.

I see the role of social technology in helping us have more open and transparent conversations with communities about local decision making.

I see a move away from where ‘professionals’ cast themselves as the superhero capable of solving society’s problems.

As John says , there could be a hero living on your street – right now. It’s time for public services to reach out and begin their journey.

“Too many possibilities currently closed off to us would open up if we’re prepared to fail at being superheroes” – Cormac Russell

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