Future of work Organisational change

Every meeting will now be an online meeting

Chris Tubb – LinkedIn

This is another take (from about a year ago) on remote working and the purpose of offices – this one based on a reductio ad absurdum arithmetic of meeting  arrangements. The bigger the meeting, the smaller the probability, all else being equal, that everybody is in the same place. So in practice almost any form of hybrid working has the result that the title asserts – every meeting ends up being online.

That has implications both for the management of meetings and the management of offices. Most office are designed to support individuals working at desks and groups meeting in meeting rooms. Neither of those is ideal for participation in online meetings, even before facing up to the prospect of commuting to an office only to spend most of the time talking to people who aren’t there. It is pretty clear that the set of individual optimisations does not sum to optimisation for the group.

That creates a need to manage the working environment – in its broadest sense – in very different ways. And as Tubb points out, the combination of issues involved somehow doesn’t quite belong anywhere:

There is no business owner for meetings. IT owns Microsoft Teams and the M365 stack. Corporate Real Estate and Facilities own meeting rooms. No one is the owner of better meeting behaviours it is left to the assumed soft skills of the individual, the line manager or project manager. 

Not for the first time, there are parallels with historic examples of how workplaces have adapted to technological and other changes; not for the first time sociology is at least as important as technology in understanding and influencing what it going on. And of course this particular instance of how technology enables social changes long predates the pandemic – a post I wrote almost ten years ago seems just as as relevant now.

The hard bit, particularly for established organisations, is culture, and particularly trust. If being present is no longer a job requirement, being present can no longer be a virtue. People have to be managed not on whether they turn up and look keen and energetic, but on what they achieve. How, when and where they do that becomes much more a choice for individual workers (and teams) and much less a matter of management standardisation. […] The message that comes across time and time again is that remote working has to be based on trust. Again though, remote working does not create the need for trust, it makes the need explicit and shows where it is missing. 

Social and economic change Work and tools

The Dynamo and the Computer: An Historical Perspective On the Modern Productivity Paradox

Paul David – American Economic Review

This paper, published in 1990 and focused on events almost a hundred years earlier is probably the oldest entry in Strategic Reading. But it remains fresh in providing a powerful analogy for changes we have seen and continue to see in the workplaces of the 21st century.

The central point of the paper from that perspective is that workplace adaptation follows only with what can be a long lag from technology adoption. The example given is the introduction of electricity to factories which had previously relied on steam engines to power their activities. Steam engines are typically large and their power is distributed mechanically – and that was a strong determinant of the design of factories. When electric motors were first introduced, the model of a single central source of power survived for a surprisingly long time before a small number of very large motors started to be replaced by a large number of very much smaller ones. And that transition both prompted and was enabled by new approaches to designing factories – in a sense the pace of real innovation was driven by the rate of change of factory design, rather than the rate of change of power source.

That insight has long been valuable in understand the impact of more recent technological changes on work and workplaces (and more generally in understanding that the lag between cause and effect often needs to be measured in years, if not decades). It has taken on a fresh relevance in the shock to working arrangements (particularly in what was traditionally office-based work) caused by Covid and its aftermath. We have a fresh set of tools and a fresh set of opportunities those tools enable. But the organisation of work is still responding to that very unevenly. Perhaps we will all know how well it has gone a decade or a century from now.

Future of work Organisational change

Why the return to the office isn’t working

Rani Molla – Vox

We used to know what offices were for. There is now a consensus that that isn’t what they are for any more, but there isn’t much of a consensus about anythng else. As so often, when the answers look confusing, that’s in part because the question was confused. The issue isn’t whether people do or do not like offices or whether offices have advantages for some kinds of activities more than others. Still less, for people who do what used to be called office work, is it about finding some ideal universal optimum of days in one place and days in another.

This article is US-focused in its examples, but comes into its own when it moves away from individuals to focus on broader issues. The costs and benefits of office (and home) working fall on different people in different ways. Recognising that and responding to it is the first step towards finding effective models for productive and attractive working environments. Sharon O’Dea summarises the article and the argument neatly in a single tweet:

This piece is a great summary. People don’t necessarily hate the office. What they hate is not having a good reason to be there. The office needs to give people something of value – connection, tools, opportunities – else all people get is the hassle of a commute.

Government and politics Organisational change Systems

Carousel

Mark O’Neill

This is another perspective on the (unconfirmed) news of another attempt at civil service reform, unpicking why simplistic approaches are doomed to failure. As is so often the case, treating an aim defined in one way (“the civil service will be 20% smaller”) as if it were the same as a quite different aim (“the civil service should become more efficient”) leads to hopeless confusion. Or as Mark puts it:

Efficiency may lead to the need for fewer staff but fewer staff does not lead to greater efficiency.

This post also underlines in a different way why it is so important to look at all this from a systems perspective. Government can – and does – operate at different levels and different configurations, and there is no reason to think that, in a world where permanent secretaries worry about fixing school boilers, the current balance is anywhere close to optimal. Focusing on a single layer can, at the very best, result in optimising that layer; it cannot result in optimising the system.

Government and politics Organisational change Systems

Civil Service Reform – Lord Maude Tries Again

Martin Stanley – UK Civil Servant

‘Civil service reform’ is an unintentionally revealing phrase. Its use is a strong indicator of somebody who hasn’t thought through what problem they might be trying to solve, still less what actions might lead to solving it. That’s not because civil service reform is not necessary or not desirable – on the contrary, it is very necessary and very desirable. It is because the civil service (itself a huge collective noun, concealing variety at least as much as describing a singular entity) is part of a wider system. Honest reformers recognise the need to address that wider system; rhetorical reformers do not always feel the need to do so.

Prompted by press coverage suggesting that Francis Maude might be about to be invited to have a third attempt at civil service reform – and with the primary success criterion clearly being the extent to which the civil service ends up smaller as a result – Martin Stanley patiently explains why Maude’s first two attempts failed and why any third attempt is unlikely to do any better. He lists nine problems consistently identified in past reviews of the civil service, all of them depressingly recognisable. But what is perhaps most striking about the list is how much of it is rooted in what ministers and Parliament do (or don’t do) and how little of it is limited to what the civil service does in isolation from that wider system.

Again, that’s not an argument that all is well in the civil service or that nothing there needs to change. Almost exactly ten years ago, I wrote a blog post on this issue, prompted by the civil service reform plan published in Maude’s name. It is not reassuring that the last paragraphs of that post seem just as apposite today:

The civil service is big and complicated and there are important ways in which it could change for the better. But big and complicated as it is, it is also just a component of the wider system of government. The more radical the ambition for the civil service, the bigger the implications for that wider system will be.

If you want to change the system, you have to be ready to change the system.

Delivery Systems

The Wetware Crisis: the Thermocline of Truth

Bruce F. Webster

This is an old post, but a good one. I had occasion to look it out again this week, so posting it here both as a service to others and to make it easier to find the inevitable next time I want to show it to somebody.

How is it that projects seem to be steadily on track for successful delivery until just before the target date for implementation – at which point they suddenly aren’t? It seems implausible that the phenomenon should be helpfully explained by reference to temperature gradients in oceans, but that is exactly what this post does. For all sorts of reasons – some covered in the post – reporting systems give false assurance to senior decision makers for far too long, until the tipping point is reached at which the actual state of readiness can no longer be concealed, when suddenly the project dashboard goes from benign to catastrophic in an instant. Crossrail provided a particularly spectacular and very public example when it failed to open in 2018 having been presented as being on track to do so only a few months earlier – despite what we now know to be a need for more than three years further work before the line could open.

But this is not a phenomenon limited to big infrastructure projects. I can readily think of examples at more or less every scale, and I suspect anybody with any familiarity with project delivery will have their own. From that experience, I see another critical factor encouraging the development of thermoclines of truth: the setting of delivery deadlines. The further ahead the deadline is set (and the more arbitrary it necessarily is as a result) and the more visible that deadline is, the more certain it is not just that the deadline will not be met, but that the fact that it will not be met will only be recognised at a very late stage. There are some pretty obvious reasons why this adds to the risks Webster identifies in his post – the stronger the commitment, the more visible the failure, and the greater the reluctance to face up to the problem, still more so to be the messenger of bad news.

Delivery happenes when the work is complete. Completion of the work does not happen because delivery is due.

Organisational change Policy and analysis

Fixing Whitehall’s broken policy machine

Jonathan Slater – The Policy Institute

There is a recursiveness to Whitehall’s examinations of its own shortcomings. The construction and analysis of arguments, the slight distancing from the subject matter at hand, the elegant and occasionally self-deprecating prose, the focus on the quantity of delivery rather than the quality of service can all be deployed in looking at how government operates as well as at what it does and should do. And those are powerful tools, deployed by smart and thoughtful people, so real insight can be expected to come from them.

Jonathan Slater’s paper is very much of this genre. It is clear about the problems and about how those problems have persisted despite attempts to solve them. It is clear about examples of where better ways of doing things at the very least point to some hope of improvement. But at the same time it is oddly disengaged. Slater draws heavily on hs experience, on which he is thoughtful and illuminating, he has clear ideas about how things could be improved, and can point to clear evidence of using his leadership of the Department for Education to test and develop some of those ideas. But he is now an observer, not a player. It is hard for the reader not to wonder what stopped apparently good ideas from getting the traction they deserved, but while the point is acknowledged, it is not much developed:

The good news is that civil servants responded with genuine enthusiasm to my call to put “the user” at the heart of their work, however hard it might appear, although we only made limited progress.

To some extent that may be because DfE is not a good example of the kind of department Slater wants to see, as its policy and operational responsibilities do not sit comfortably together. I remember hearing Slater talk frustratedly about having to spend his – and minsters’ time – on decisions about the replacement of individual schools’ boilers – decisions which it is quite absurd to be taking in that way and at that level. But the much bigger and much more general question remains. And interestingly I can best express it in the same words I used to sum up King and Crewe’s The Blunders of our Governments. (published in 2013, but still essential reading):

We know what goes wrong. We know many of the factors which result in things going wrong. But we don’t why, knowing those things, it has proved so hard to break the cycle.

But this is still a paper well worth reading by someone whose record of doing this for real deserves great respect. The Policy Institute has also recorded a discussion of the paper, with Gus O’Donnell, Justine Greening and Bobby Duffy, as well as Jonathan Slater himself. Andrew Greenway has a good twitter thread reflecting on the paper from a slightly different angle.

 

 

Government and politics Organisational change

The big idea: should we abolish the Treasury?

Stian Westlake – The Guardian

Stian Westlake asks an important question, gives the clearly correct answer, but curiously shys away from facing up to the reasons why the Treasury should indeed be done away with.

He lists a whole set of reasons why the Treasury is detrimental to good government, but rounds off his account of the systematic damage it does by asserting that:

The first step to addressing these problems is to recognise that they are not the result of a failing institution or of lazy or incompetent officials

They are certainly not the result of laziness or of incompetence in a narrow sense. But they are precisely the result of Treasury being a failing institution. That’s clearly not true in the delivery of its daily activities: the work gets done, decisions are made, budgets are delivered, smart people are employed. But in a more important sense – the sense that Stian is quite rightly concerned about – it is.

There is huge talent and energy in the Treasury. But it operates in a culture which results in its doing at least as much harm as good. Of course the functions it performs need to be done in any government, but as Stian demonstrates, they certainly don’t need to be done in their current organisational configuration. And it is precisely because they do need to be done that we can see that it is the organisational configuration which is the problem.

Indeed, Stian goes on to make that very point:

The root cause is the structure of the organisation, and the incentives and culture that it fosters.

That sounds to me pretty much the definition of a failing organisation. But I labour the point not to split hairs, but because I think it strengthens the argument in the article. The reforms suggested would arguably be disproportionate as a solution to mild problems in a benign organisation. But if the problems are severe, creating a threat to the effectiveness of any government, the solutions must be proportionately radical to have any chance of success.

Strategy

A measure of value for digital public service delivery

Richard Pope

The quest for a measure of value of digital public services has been running pretty much as long as the quest for valuable public services. Many attempts have been made to pin down the measure, but often with rather lop-sided results. With characteristic elegance, Richard Pope has distilled it all to three factors – and critically makes the point that they need to be balanced against each other. My one quibble with the three he has chosen would be to suggest that ‘capabilty to operate’ needs to be understood more broadly than his brief definition implies. It is the service – in all its aspects which needs to operated, not just the digital team constructing the technical components. But with that broader interpretation of the third axis, this is a useful tool for framing – and addressing – a perenially important question.

Systems

Beyond the Web

Doc Searls

Metaphors have power, they frame how we think about things, sometimes rather insidiously. We talk blithely about ‘the web’ as if it were a thing and as if that thing were well described as a web. But just as the cloud is somebody else’s computer, so the web is everybody else’s computers, and the connections between them are much less a web than a tangle or, as Searls puts it, a haystack.

Searls is one of the original cluetrainers, and so has been thinking about this for a long time. His metaphor is, of course, no more an accurate description of anything tangible than the conventional one we are all familiar with. But changing the metaphor changes some of the questions in some challenging and important ways, and eleven rather good ones are listed in his post.

The web we all currently experience is a set of points – points which may be linked together, but still points. It is driven by a client-server architecture which takes our data and scatters it around in ways were cannot control, but which is structurally incapable of delivering integrated experiences in return. That’s so normal that we barely recognise it – but it’s not the only possible way for systems to be connected and for data to flow.

So yes, the Web is wonderful, but not boundlessly so. It has limits. Thanks to the client-server architecture that prevails there, full personal agency is not a grace of life on the Web. For the thirty-plus years of the Web’s existence, and for its foreseeable future, we will never have more agency than its servers allow clients and users.

It’s time to think and build outside the haystack.

Service design

How Government Learned to Waste Your Time

Annie Lowrey – The Atlantic

Time is rarely the central measure of bureaucracy, and where it is considered at all the focus tend to be on total elapsed time rather than the time cost of complying with the process.

But time (which is also a proxy for complexity and cognitive load) is a massive, and sometimes deliberate, barrier to accessing services. That matters for the obvious reason that an impenetrable service is not a good service, and this article is a reminder that even now, as Lowrey puts it, ‘little attention is being paid to making things work, rather than making them exist.’

But there is also a more insidious effect, a dark pattern of dark patterns:

The time tax undercuts public confidence in government, turning people away from civic life. People think that government cannot work, because government does not work. So what reasonable person would trust government to work?

This article draws on US examples, but many of the points made are more general. As Vicky Teinaki has pointed out, in the UK the service standard at least has the intention of taking some account of the first problem, ensuring that things work as well as exist. But that doesn’t really address the underlying complexity of individual services, still less the fact that the interaction, or lack of one, between different services can be the greatest time sink of all.

Time always has a cost. But it is too often treated as an externality.

Government and politics

10 Things I Learnt in Government … not without pain

Anthony Finkelstein

This is a beguilingly simple list of ten things necessary to understand in order to get things done in government. It’s the best list of its kind I have ever seen, with a great deal of insight captured in remarkably few words.

It is, more particularly, a way into understanding how the policy and ministerial end of government works, with insights which are not only valuable for people coming into that world, but also, I suspect, are useful reminders for those familiar with it.

Unintentionally, it also provides an answer to common cries of despair from people whose work brings them close to but not quite into that world. Recognising these ten points will not be (and perhaps should not be) a cure for that frustration, but has the potential to navigate more effectively within the world they describe.

Futures Strategy

Performing a Project Premortem

Gary Klein – Harvard Business Review

Projects of every kind go horribly wrong in a bewildering variety of ways. Despite that, the instinct to assume that the act of planning is sufficient to ensure that assumptions are borne out and that delivery follows a smooth path can be overwhelming. But there is great power in assuming the opposite: if we examine early on some of the ways in which the project might have gone horribly wrong, in time to think about how the risk might be mitigated, the chances of successful delivery are enhanced.

That’s the idea behind a premortem – not waiting until the project is dead before performing the autopsy. At root it’s a simple risk management technique, its power is in making it easier for people to liberate themselves from optimism bias.

This is not a new article, it is the definitive account of the method, and having tracked it down to share with a colleague, thought it worth sharing here too. I was first introduced to it by Naomi Stanford, who has an interesting blog post contrasting premortems with devil’s advocacy – the former is a distinctly (if curiously) more positive approach.

Future of work Work and tools

The Filing Cabinet

Craig Robertson – Places

This is a wonderful essay, celebrating the filing cabinet in a way which will warm the heart of any paper-shuffling bureaucrat. Better still, the essay derives from a book which promises still greater riches.

The filing cabinet is the embodiment of two revolutionary improvements in bureaucratic practice. It stores paper more efficiently and it stores information more effectively. Those two revolutions are the subject of the essay, as are the counter revolutions which brought the century long dominance of the filing cabinet to an end.

But there is a third revolution, about which this essay has less to say, but which is arguably the most important at all, and the hidden driver behind much of the current debate about the organisation and location of work. The filing cabinet becomes one of the fundamental constraints on the organisation of work:

Paper documents live in files. The key to finding the document is to find the file. And if you might need the file, you need a filing cabinet reasonably close to hand where it can be safely stored with lots of other files, almost certainly on related subjects. That of course has enormous consequences for the organisation and physical structure of work: if the unit of work is a paper file and that file is a unique (and therefore precious) assembly of information, the location of work is driven by the organisation of information.

All three of those revolutions have played out of course – computerisation has done for them all. But two of the three have left traces that still influence how we work and how we think about working. The efficient storage of paper stops being a major concern when there is almost no paper to be stored, efficiently or otherwise. But the effectiveness of information storage still matters a lot. Filing cabinets are inherently inflexible – a piece of paper can only be in one place, and the set of places it is in can be sorted only in one direction. Digital storage sweeps those constraints away. But the impact – still – in many organisations is not that everything is to hand, but that nothing can be found. Removing filing cabinets removed the structure of information, and all too often nothing has replaced it.

And it was the filing cabinet which was one of the main reasons why office work needed to happen in offices. If the unit of work is the file, efficient access to the file is everything. The assumption that offices were good places for working remained solid long after that dependence on filed paper had gone away, reinforced by new reasons constructed in part to recognise other kinds of needs, but in part to fill the  vacuum of justification left by the removal of the filing cabinets. That shaky edifice remained – until one day, millions of office workers left their offices and discovered that there was no real need to return.

Social and economic change

Any ideas Walker? I thought not. Keep up the good work!

Graham Walker

A lovely reflection on a civil service career, from someone who saw and helped shape the dawn of e-government (as it was once known).

In those early days, Graham was unusual in looking beyond the boundaries of government, recognising that people online had an importance independent of government online, at a time when internet access was a minority pursuit and smartphones far into an unforeseen future.

Being of a similar digital generation, and having shared some of those early years with him, I recognise his elegiac self-description – and see myself in it as well as him.

I’m now a digital dinosaur — a soon to be extinct breed of amateurs who saw change coming and tried to make it work for the government and the people that we serve.

But the digital dinosaurs did get some important things right, and there may be plenty of life in them yet – it’s an arresting thought that a Tyrannosaurus is chronologically closer to modern digital government than it is to a Stegosaurus.

Government and politics Innovation Strategy

Government Digital Service: Our strategy for 2021-2024

Tom Read

Strategies always intend to say something about the future. They rarely intend to say much about the past, but almost invariably say more than they first appear to.

There are of course debates to be had about whether this is the right strategy for GDS to have for the next three years and about whether GDS is well positioned to deliver that strategy even if the strategy itself is the right one. But here it is worth reflecting on a slightly different question.

We now have a quarter of a century of experience of digital government. This strategy builds on foundations which are deep, if not always entirely solid. Or perhaps it is better to think of its being built on archaeological strata, history which shapes and informs the present, even if much of that history has been lost and forgotten.

From that perspective, one of the things which is most striking is how stable the strategy has been over decades. The five missions GDS has set itself for the next three years would have been recognised – and enthusiastically endorsed – by their predecessors of twenty years ago. That holds true to quite a surprising level of detail. Joined up ‘whole services’, such as having a baby or preparing to retire, are an aspiration for the future – just as having a baby and pensions and retirement were two one of the first ‘life episodes’ built for UK Online at the turn of the millennium.

That prompts two thoughts. One is to repeat some words I wrote as gov.uk was first being turned on. Another decade later, they still ring true:

The innovation of gov.uk does not lie in the concepts it embodies. What is striking is not how new those are, but how little different from the ambitions of a decade ago.

The second is to ask whether that tells us anything interesting. The point here is not to wallow in nostalgia or suggest that the past was a better place. It wasn’t – not in this respect, at least. Instead, it’s an opportunity to think over a longer timescale than we usually do, a kind of long now of digital government. And from that perspective, being agile suddenly looks fractal. That whole twenty year view can be seen as a single set of iterations, a minimum viable product becoming less minimal and more viable each time round – as ever, it’s not iterative if you only do it once.

That recognition should, perhaps, makes us both more ambitious and more humble. If it it is going to have taken us the best part of 25 years to create an effective, joined-up having a baby service, that is surely many years too long. Ten years from now, five years from now, there should be a more distinctive strategy because the current (and long standing) ambition should have been achieved. But since it has taken so long, it becomes the more important to be highly aware of the systemic constraints and enablers of change. There have been times in its past when GDS’s self-belief has outstripped its ability to operate in a complex and conservative system. It has to understand its environment if it is to maximise its effectiveness in changing it.

It is a pleasing curiosity that we got the strategy right a long time ago, but it matters more that the conditions of success for its implementation were far weaker then than they are now. The strategy is not delivery, but delivery is the test of strategy that matters. The strategic challenge for GDS is to make its strategy redundant.

Data and AI Ethics Futures

Provocation: Redesigning Artificial Intelligence – From Australia Out

Ellen Broad

Ellen not only always has interesting things to say, she is also unusually effective in finding interesting ways of saying them. This latest piece defies categorisation. It is an essay about AI. It is a reflection on extreme utilitarianism. It is a call to action on the hidden costs of social harmony. It is about edge cases where the edges are sharp and cause harm to those whose lives place them there. It is a call to bring the messiness of cybernetics and systems to the delusional clarity of dehumanised AI. It is a discussion of issues not discussed. It is a challenge to do better.

We are more aware of the threads that bind us together. We have had a glimpse of the fragility of the foundations on which our lives of easy comfort are built. When the exchange for that comfort is the discomfort of others. And so in this space is room to imagine some place else.

And as well as all those things, it is an audio-visual experience, with a soundscape which drifts beyond music and imagery which is not quite illustration. The tone is neither soothing nor haranguing. But in its matter of factness there is great power.

One Team Government Organisational change

Learning from the places where informal and formal change activity meet — Part Three

Clare Moran, David Buck and Nour Sidawi

This is the third of a trilogy of posts from a trio of authors, prompting three points in response (following some more general comments when the first in the series appeared).

This post (and the entire series) is the result of deep reflection and contains powerful insights. It challenges its readers to reflect and respond, and where the post offers answers, they are hard ones, not easy. This note makes no attempt to address that full breadth, but instead explores one part of the argument.

The starting point is the idea of cathedral thinking, the recognition that some forms of building can take generations to complete and that the original visionaries are anticipating a future they may not be part of. There is real power in challenging both the priority of short term delivery and more subtly, but perhaps still more importantly, the pressure to exclude approaches which take a longer term focus from being seen, let alone adopted.

But there is also a tension. Our cathedral thinking is for the long term, for the benefit of those who come after us. But what of the cathedral thinking of our predecessors, how should their ideas inform and constrain our present and our future? If we should build bridges to the future, should we not also respect the bridges built from the past? This doesn’t work if everybody is an architect and nobody is a mason, so there is some difficulty in immediately going on to assert that:

Old or existing ways of thinking cannot address complex problems in a real world that is organic and adaptive

There are two ways of responding to that apparent conflict. One is by recognising its reality. Past decisions do necessarily and unavoidably constrain what we can do and how we can do it, in ways which are obvious for engineering (and perhaps cathedrals), but are no less real for cultures, systems and organisations. Most design is not of cathedrals, which stand alone, dominant and largely unchangeable, but is of streetscapes and landscapes, where the new is unavoidably in a relationship with the old.

The other is to accept, as the authors of the post very clearly do, that machine metaphors can be less helpful than ecosystem metaphors. Both past generations’ half-built cathedrals and our own laying of foundations for cathedrals of the future are perhaps unhelpful ways of thinking, if what we are doing instead is nurturing a landscape. As they say, ‘the process of change in existing systems of government is slow, messy, and social work’.

It is always tempting to start designing the future with a blank sheet of paper. But there never is a blank sheet of paper. Nothing in government (or anywhere else much) starts from nowhere, there is always history. That history is not deterministic, but we have no hope of getting to where we might want to go without understanding where we are starting from.

That leads us on to the second point, prompted by this important insight:

In the Civil Service, we think of roles as fixed and people as movable. Civil Servants, in our myth, are cogs in a policy and delivery machine, roles to be fulfilled by interchangeable skilled professionals. Yet, in the centre of government almost the opposite dynamic can be seen: despite best efforts, reforms and change initiatives are rarely fully institutionalised. They tend to live and die on the power and presence of their champions, and when either reduces, the system moves quickly to cannibalise the remnants and adopt the next idea.

They are right about myth and reality. Indeed more than that, this is an issue not just about champions, but about system states. The champion themselves may be an agent of the system state, rather than the untrammelled change agent they are perceived to be – and often perceive themselves to be. They flourish for a period when a critical mass of system characteristics align and lose their way when entropy reasserts itself. So there is a critical but all too rarely asked question, how is the benign period best used to maximise the chances of positive change continuing when less benign circumstances inevitably follow on?

And so to the third and final point. The exploratory thinking captured in these three posts may be the beginning of an approach to answering that question. But if it is, that answer is not a comfortable one. The argument that personal and systematic change are inseparable is powerfully made – and if it is right, it must follow that systems’ ability to nurture change agents is as important as change agents’ ability to nurture systems.

Amended 1 June 2021 to add back a paragraph lost in editing

Strategy Systems

The (il)logic of legibility: why governments should stop simplifying complex systems

Thea Snow – Centre for Public Impact

The ability to abstract, to stand back, to see the large pattern obscured by the detail is an important and powerful one for any strategist. It is also a very dangerous one.

It is too easy to impose a pattern or to assert structure which is not really there. If we abstract from messy reality, we may be able to get rid of the messiness, but in doing so we are all too likely to lose contact with the reality as well.

To acknowledge that, to recognise complexity and accept the uncertainty which it brings, is not a sign of weakness or intellectual inadequacy. On the contrary, strength and resilience – in reality and in the understanding of reality – come from accepting and embracing messiness and the strengths it brings.

This post celebrates complexity and the constraints on knowledge it imposes, and a world in which ‘I don’t know’ can be the most powerful thing we can say.

One Team Government Organisational change

Learning from the places where informal and formal change activity meet — Part One

Clare Moran, David Buck and Nour Sidawi

Organisations have structures. It is possible to operate within those structures. It is possible to operate between and around those structures.

Authority to operate within the structures comes from the structure itself. It is granted and it can be withheld, it can be used to do good, but what counts as good is not unconstrained. There are strengths in this approach as well as weaknesses.

Authority to act between and around the structures comes from nowhere. It is generated by behaving as if it were already there. Since it has not been granted, it cannot be withheld – which is very different from saying that it cannot be crushed or undermined. It can be used to do good, and what counts as good is itself part of what is contested. There are weaknesses in this approach, as well as strengths.

The authors of this post operate, as to an extent we all do, in both those worlds. Unlike most of us they are sensitive to the potential of the second world and bring some of the power of the first world to it. Position in the first world can be a form of currency in the second, though the exchange rate is uncertain and unstable. But the greater potential flows in the opposite direction: the second world can revolutionise the first and is perhaps the only thing that can, although that is a very long way from saying that it will or that the attempt will be in any way easy.

So how can a degree of safety be created, how can conditions be set in ways which maximise the chances of the informal catalysing the formal, of the formal embracing the informal? “Much of our work isn’t well understood and happens in places where we are uninvited,” they tell us. This post is, perhaps, an invitation from the uninvited to join them in those imprecise places, found between and around the structures of organisations.