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.

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.

CDO Chat – Kit Collingwood

Kit Collingwood and Dave Briggs

This video conversation is modestly billed as a CDO chat, but is actually a master class in strategy development and application. The approach is deceptively simple. Two people who bring both depth of experience and thoughtful reflection range over everything from rapid mobilisation in the face of a pandemic, through the vital importance of using data effectively, the challenges of dealing with dominant vendors, creating a team with the right balance of expertise and humility, and giving that team the support to design and build services which meet the needs of people outside and inside the organisation,

But what makes all that good strategic watching is the place of the strategy itself in bringing coherence and setting direction. Kit makes a powerful case for the place of simplicity and humility in strategy. This is strategy not as grand vision or teetering on the cutting edge of technological innovation, but as a clear exposition of things which need to work well and the steps to be taken to make that happen. Beyond that, it is a mechanism to bring focus to accountability, which is perhaps the greatest strength of this approach.

Kit claims in passing to possess but not to have read Rumelt’s Good Strategy/Bad Strategy. Similar ways of framing and addressing strategic questions are though apparent in her approach, which perfectly embodies his three characteristics of a good strategy.

To take the next step on digital, we dropped the word ‘digital’

James Plunkett – We are Citizens Advice

“Digital” is a powerful word, and that very power makes it vulnerable to mission creep. Slapping digital on the front of more or less anything makes it better – until we get to the point where that impedes understanding rather than adding to it. In some ways the digitalness of digital is the least interesting thing about it.

Citizens Advice is a place where smart thinking, leading to smart doing, has been going on for quite a while now. This post records the inflection point they have reached, recognising that the entanglement of digital and online risks getting in the way of what actually matters, which is delivering the services people need, in the way they are best able to receive them.

Joined-Up Thinking Requires Joined-Up Practice

Paula Downey

It’s not hard to recognise that the world and its problems and opportunities are a complex system and that linear thinking and mechanical metaphors are not good ways of understanding and responding to that complexity. It’s also not hard to ignore that recognition and carry on as if connections were simple and systems comprehensible (though as the previous post argued, storytelling is a powerful tool to help us through that).

This post powerfully argues that joined-up thinking can never be enough, unless it leads to and is informed by joined-up doing:

If we want to change whole systems we’ve got to think and work as whole systems. Nobody can think non-linearly. None of us is that clever. The only way to think in a systemic way is together. Joined-up-thinking requires joined-up-practice. This is the meta-shift of our time, one that requires a new mind set and skill set: learning to think like a system by working as a system.

That of course poses an enormous challenge to the people, structures and processes of public policy making. This is not how problems are framed, still less is it how they are normally addressed. Changing the system of system changing without having already done it is not going to be easy.

How words shape our future

Adanna Shallowe – RSA

Language is the most powerful thing humans have ever invented, a tool of almost infinite power and flexibility. And in organisations, we tend to discard large parts of that power, falling into the trap of thinking that making communication arid and impersonal is somehow to demonstrate objectivity. It’s probably not a coincidence that as more mechanical models of organisations and change give way to more fluid and organic ones, recognition of the power of story telling is making a parallel resurgence. Telling each other stories is how humans share our understanding of the world, our thoughts, and our aspirations for a better future.

This short post is a celebration of the power of narrative, building towards the powerful claim that

Storytelling and the power of narrative is actually the most advanced technology we have.

Even overs: The prioritization tool that brings your strategy to life

Jurriaan Kamer – The Ready

It is a truism that if everything is a priority,nothing is a priority. It’s obvious when a ‘prioritisation’ meeting ends up with a longer list of things which it is essential to do than it started with, or when nobody is willing to make the decision to stop the activities which everybody has agreed are less urgent or less important.

But there is a more insidious failure to prioritise, which tends to sit a level below that. It’s less about which projects take priority over which other projects, much more about which characteristics we want to nurture and champion. This post applies a deceptively simple, but very powerful too test: would we want to do one thing even over another good thing – where it really matters that the second thing is genuinely desired and desirable, not just the first.

There are always trade off choices to be made. Forcing them to be explicit can be a real source of strategic power.