How Technology Can Increase Collaboration And Build Trust

This post is an shortened version of a plenary talk delivered in Cardiff for the Wales Audit Office 


Depending on your age it’s likely that the two things you were not taught in school were:

a) how to collaborate effectively

and

b) how to use technology to connect and share with others

And yet these – the essential skills of the digital economy – are hardly ever talked about, much less taught and promoted, in our places of work.

Our 21st century economy demands workers excel at collaborating through technology, but as employers we struggle to work out how to equip our people with these vital skills.

There’s a reason for this of course, most of our organisations are still obsessed with organising ourselves into neat little directorates with clear accountabilities and reporting lines. This creates a very efficient looking functional silo system – encouraging employees to stay in their lane and get things done.

However in a digital economy we can no longer afford to think in conventional terms of efficiency. The more interdependent the world becomes, the less it needs lone problem solvers and the more it needs great collaborators and orchestrators. How to collaborate productively is a skill we all need to learn as it’s essential to our having greater impact in the digital world.

Problem-solving, creative thinking, digital skills and collaboration are in greater need every year yet are not the focus of our learning and development.

We still spend most of our time and resources on leaders. This incessant focus on ‘leading’ ‘and ‘leadership’ is actually a throwback to an industrial model and unwittingly acts against collaboration. When we continually promote the importance of leaders we imply that they are ones to take charge of situations.  They are the the ones to sort our problems out.

However, this concept of the heroic leader is fundamentally anti-collaborative as it compels those being ‘led’ to be submissive and unquestioning.

How can our organisations become more collaborative? 

Ultimately , we’ll only build collaborative organisations if we design them that way.

At its best, collaboration in the workplace can help people think more deeply and creatively about a subject and develop more empathy for others’ perspectives. It can boost productivity and innovation and create better workplace engagement.

But, it takes time and requires space and patience. And – it’s incompatible with cultures built on ego and fiefdoms.

As I’ve written previously, if we don’t teach, measure, encourage or reward collaboration it doesn’t tend to happen.

At Bromford we’ve begun the process of democratising innovation and design by training all our colleagues in collaborative problem solving and cross-team working. It won’t happen overnight, but it’s supported by an organisational DNA that has a design thinking – and hence a collaborative – mindset at its core.

How technology can increase collaboration and build trust

What are the challenges?

The technology is there to enable cross-team, cross-sector, and cross-country collaboration. Much of it is free to use.

Legacy thinking is more of a barrier to this than legacy IT.

We still have a tiny percentage of leaders who are really living a digital lifestyle. There are still relatively few having open debates , showing transparency in public discourse , answering questions online and sharing progress.

Too many of us are hiding behind unfounded concerns about data privacy and fear of working in the open.

We need to teach and support people how to make the best use of social technologies to connect and collaborate at scale.

What are the opportunities? 

For the first time in history, we now have the ability to ‘go beyond’ our organisational boundaries, connecting and sharing with the public and each other.

The basic unit of innovation is not a creative individual, nor even a team, but a creative community.

Millions of people connected without hierarchy and working together to solve some of our biggest challenges. This provides the opportunity for a 10x improvement in our communities. 

For organisations and systems that are used to ‘providing services’ rather than ‘connecting people’ that’s clearly a challenge  – but it is one we can and must step up to.

We can’t change the world on our own. We need to build movements.

Does Regulation Really Stifle Innovation?

Last week I did a presentation to a group of managers when the issue of governance and regulation ‘getting in the way’ of innovation came up.

People often think regulations stifle innovation, new business and services. They assume that regulators are there to control and curtail what they want to do.

“We are so heavily regulated, we can’t change what we do” is a familiar cry from those in the public sector.

Is it true that regulators are blockers of innovation, or is it false perception?

Even worse – is this simply a convenient excuse used to resist change?

It’s true that if you looked at the websites and reports of most regulators you’d likely get a view that they are a pretty conservative bunch. There’s plenty of talk of consistency, best practice and benchmarking. And we all know that best practice and benchmarking are often just a race to be first at being average.

In reality though, when you meet face to face, I’ve never met a regulator who doesn’t want to see more innovation in their industry.

Last year I did two pieces of work, one for Ofwat, the economic regulator of the water sector in England and Wales, and the other for the Regulator of Social Housing. Both organisations were looking for ways to innovate within their own organisations and to spur on a greater drive for experimentation within their wider sectors.

It’s not in the interests of a regulator to be anti-innovation. A report last year  found that respondents were looking to regulators to support innovation, and to an extent most organisations are seeing this take place. 1 in 4 though see regulators as innovation blockers.

2018-10-04-080736299-How-do-you-see-regulators-impacting-innovation-in-your-sector

Part of the problem here is the definition of innovation, a disruptive pioneer (Uber for example) to one person is the unregulated aggressive exploiter of people to another.

Unregulated disruption is sometimes necessary. Had ride-sharing firms been prevented from entering the traditional taxi cab market, we would not be enjoying a better customer experience today. Arguably, the incumbents would never have improved their services left to their own devices.

In today’s world of speed and digital innovation though, regulators need adaptive regulations -and a more responsive, iterative approach.

That said – innovation gone bad requires regulation. Arguably “financial innovations” such as easy credit, subprime lending, mortgage-backed securities caused the financial crisis. It was a perfect storm to have uncontrolled innovation at the same time as encouraging light touch regulation.

Innovation as risk management

The fear of innovation within any organisation is far more likely to come from heavy handed approaches to governance and risk than it comes from external regulation.

At the event earlier this week, Ian Wright, Managing Director of the Disruptive Innovators Network asked a very good question: what is your risk patience? 

Most of our organisations and institutions lean toward control and order and away from chaos and risk.

How does your organisation actively seek out risk? Only 20% of strategy officers describe their organisation as risk seeking. We need to transform risk management from being about “stopping doing things” to being about “starting doing different things” within a well managed framework.

Traditionally we have not being good at focussing risk management on the right areas. Significant amounts of time are spent auditing areas that are highly unlikely to ever cause major reputational damage. This can be a huge inhibitor of potential innovation.

Whenever you innovate you’re taking a risk. What I’m anxious to get across to the public sector is that you DO need to take those risks – the Auditor General for Wales.

The work of the Wales Audit Office and in particular their Good Practice Exchange is a great example of an audit and assurance approach that encourages well managed risks

Innovation done badly IS a risk, but innovation done well is good risk management.

Having a framework that protects the host organisation from early stage experiments until they have proven value is actually good governance.

Orbit Innovation Event

The best approaches to innovation always have a way of framing and strategising, allocating and diversifying risk – whilst buffering the rest of the organisation from it. Organisations equipped with this will be less risk averse and conduct more risk-taking behaviour.

Ultimately, your organisation has plenty of excuses not to take risks, to stick to the tried and tested, to follow the same path as everyone else.

But fear of the regulator isn’t one of them.

What Digital Transformation Is Not About

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

— Chris Bolton (@whatsthepont) June 14, 2018

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

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

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

Success in digital transformation depends on mindset, not technology

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

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

Stop talking, start experimenting

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

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

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

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

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

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

Technology cannot solve your organisation’s deep problems

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We need to talk about leadership in a digital age

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

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

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

What is digital transformation anyway?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Digital transformation is not a ‘thing’.

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

 


Photo by rawpixel.com from Pexels

 

 

Making a Deal: Unlocking Potential In Communities

 There is no power greater than a community discovering what it cares about.

 Ask “What’s possible?” not “What’s wrong?”

 Be brave enough to start a conversation that matters.

Margaret J Wheatley

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

If you take the Social Housing sector as an example you’ll see it has spent a long time making life as easy as possible for people.

Free telephone calls , a 24 hours repairs service and if you’re on benefits you don’t even have to worry about the rent getting paid – we’ll sort it for you. Neighbour’s dog barking? Leave it with us. 

I exaggerate of course – but only slightly. Huge parts of the public sector have designed services around what people can’t do for themselves rather than nurturing what they can.

Now we have to reverse it.  Not because there’s a lack of money but because it fundamentally disempowers people. It was a lovely, thoughtful thing to do but it leaves people ill-equipped for life in the 21st Century.

And , worst of all, it massively under values the skills and passions that people have.

Last week I spent time with a great group of people from all sectors looking at adopting preventative approaches rather than being reactive.  It’s an initiative of the Wales Audit Office and their partner organisations.

What most impressed me? Here were people actually making change happen , rather than just talking about it.

This is by no means easy. Radically changing your service usually means you’ll encounter disappointment and failure at some point. It’s easier to stick to what you know.

I was asked along to talk about the Deal – which is the most significant and far reaching innovation I’ve worked on at Bromford. And like any innovation – it has its critics.

The Deal starts from the position of believing that people want to move forward in life. And Bromford have begun to reshape their entire service around that belief.

  • Residents complete an online assessment where they get to talk about their skills and hopes for the future. Many have said that it’s the first time they have ever been asked about aspirations.
  • Goals are being set around what they want to achieve , in their words. They are coached that they can do it , not expected to fail.
  • And the Bromford service is being gradually reshaped as something that propels people forward and builds on what they can do. Rather than keeping them locked in a moment in time.

And it’s not easy. Changing a service that’s been delivered the same way for years is really hard work.

The top messages I wanted to impart were:

Think Big. Start Small. The reason most public sector innovation stalls is people spend so much time thinking , talking and writing reports it becomes too big and scary to tackle. Start doing small stuff as quickly as you can. At the early stages of the Deal we were only offering it to 15 or 20 people a week – genuinely co-creating,  learning and adapting together.

You Will Fail At Some Point. So Fail Fast. Don’t start a really expensive IT project to replace your legacy systems when you haven’t even tested if the service works. Prototype. Test. Break. Rebuild. We developed a micro IT system for about £20,000 to kickstart the Deal. Losing £20,000 is bad. Losing £200,000 is bloody awful.

Take People With You. Involve them in the design. Let them try out new roles and play in a different position. Don’t go through restructures before you know what you’re doing. It kills momentum and by the time you’ve done it you probably need to do it again. But remember that not everyone will go with you. Radical change means some people will want to get off the bus at some point.

Keep The KPI Simple Stupid. Measuring what’s working is really important – but don’t obsess about performance management before you’ve started doing anything. Does if feel like the right thing to do for the customer? Is it hurting your business? If it’s not you’re probably safe to proceed.

The message I took away was the need for us all to be braver. To be unafraid of being laughed at.

Most of us work in sectors that are frighteningly risk averse – that fear the new and the different. That’s why many of us have the same structures, the same policies, the same job titles and even the same IT suppliers. And we go to the same conferences as there’s safety in numbers.

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

This is about us all being brave enough to start a conversation that really matters.