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.

All first drafts are bad drafts (and that’s what makes them good)

Giles Turnbull

The myth of the perfect draft permeates bureaucracies. The elegantly phrased analysis, the perfect bon mot are badges of honour. But the final detailed expression of an idea or an argument is, in some ways, the least important thing about it – it is the idea and the argument which matter. A rich ecosystem of ideas is more powerful than an arid landscape of perfected prose.

This post is an elegantly drafted polemic against elegant drafting. It makes a powerful case that the process of editing and iterating – and of deleting and discarding – creates far more value both for the individual piece of writing and for supporting an environment in which good writing emerges than does the misguided attempt to jump directly to the finished product.

It’s an excellent and salutary post, but there is one important dimension which it skims over. Editing is a power relationship, in which HIPPOs often roam free. Authors can be offered suggestions but hear them (often rightly) as orders. The boundary between comment and instruction may be neither clear nor symmetrical.

All of which reinforces the conclusion in the post: creating a culture of drafting can unlock energy and value. The very necessary purpose of an editorial process is to improve on first drafts, not to crush them.

Maps vs Lists

Matt Ballantine – mmitII

The tension between the appetite for clarity and certainty and the messy impact of the vicissitudes of life runs through every project, every programme and every strategy there has ever been. Some try to manage that through detailed precision, creating something very strong but potentially very brittle. Others embrace uncertainty, prioritising flexibility and responsiveness and eschewing the temptation to specify everything in advance.

This post expresses that tension by contrasting a map-based view of the world with a list-based view. It’s a simple but powerful way of illustrating something important, not least that many people have a clear preference for one or other of those ways of capturing their understanding of the world and the progress they want to make through it. As someone who, like Matt, has a strong liking for maps, it rang true for me, but the post might also help lovers of lists appreciate why not everybody shares their enthusiasm – and the core argument is that mappists and listists need to make sure that they have found ways of conveying information to each other.

And there’s a lovely point of detail about ‘roadmaps’, which are not maps of roads and are usually not maps at all.

Applying digital to everything

Janet Hughes

The internet is a rich complex system. One of the side effects of that is that good things bubble to the surface of the information soup with apparent randomness, to be seized on before they sink back down again.

This video presentation from 2019 is just such a good thing. It is a bravura exposition of the power of user-centred design in a policy-dominated culture and environment. Its strength is not so much in the individual thoughts, powerful though those are, as in their weaving together into something which is both a rich picture and a powerful manifesto for change.

The original audience were clearly digital people who needed to understand that policy people were not weird, incompetent or malevolent, but this is perhaps even more powerful in explaining to policy people  why user-centred design should be seen as a powerful and empowering way of doing things, rather than as an incomprehensible threat from uncomprehending digital people.

The whole thing is 30 minutes and well worth watching, but there are two gems which are worth pulling out. One is the best one liner from a presentation which isn’t short of them:

The medium of choice for communicating between policy people and delivery people is the hand grenade.

A triangle labelled on its corners and sides: 'rules' on the side from 'now' to 'everywhere', 'discussions' on the side from 'everywhere' to 'by agreement' and 'experiments' on the side from 'by agreement' to 'now'The other is a triangle, originally by Chris Yapp, about the implementation of change. We would all like change to happen now, everywhere and by agreement – but that’s not possible. Choices have to be made about which of those to prioritise, and those choices constrain (and are constrained by) choices about the means to use. It’s a lovely example of a very simple picture being a distillation of a very rich thought.

Hosni Mubarak – My Part In His Downfall

Richard Allen – regulate.tech

Social media gives voice to aggressive extremists, provides powerful tools for like-minded people to find each other and reinforce the thinking of the group, and allows lies and disinformation to be propagated at speed. Social media companies come under pressure to do something about all that and aren’t widely regarded as being sufficiently focused on their intent or sufficiently successful in their achievement.

This is an insider’s view of why that is harder than it looks and especially hard to scale, setting out clearly and logically how this can work and why it can’t. It’s very much worth reading for the clarity with which it does that. But it also aims to demonstrate support for the assertion that those working on this within the social media platforms are “good people making hard decisions as best they can.” The question for the rest of us is whether their doing the best they can is good enough – and the reassurance that Facebook knows best is perhaps not quite as reassuring as its supporters might hope.

What’s the “Uber” of the Civil Service?

Terence Eden

This intriguing post starts from – and riffs off – the provocative observation (now, amazingly, more than five years old) that

Uber, the world’s largest taxi company, owns no vehicles. Facebook, the world’s most popular media owner, creates no content. Alibaba, the most valuable retailer, has no inventory. And Airbnb, the world’s largest accommodation provider, owns no real estate. Something interesting is happening.

What then is the equivalent core asset of a government department that it might not need any more? Does a policy department need expertise in the policies for which it is responsible, or does it only need to create a market and attract the information and insights it needs from a pool of gig workers? It’s an entertaining idea. But it’s worth noting that there are other things the organisations we started with don’t do – adding to the original, one might say that:

Uber doesn’t care where you want to go. Facebook doesn’t care what you want to share. Alibaba doesn’t care what you want to buy. Airbnb doesn’t care where you want to spend the night.

So before turning a government department into a bundle of StackOverflow questions, perhaps we would need to understand what it was that that department didn’t care about. And whether, once we had taken that thing away, the thing which remained was a government department in any meaningful sense at all.

The pandemic has broken the promise of universal healthcare

Charlotte Augst – Health Service Journal

There are three reasons for reading this article. The first is that it describes a health service stressed to its limits, which is very naturally a matter of wide concern. The second is that it is beautifully and perceptively written, as is everything which Charlotte Augst writes. And the third – which is what brings into the scope of strategic reading – is that it is a fascinating description of a failing system and thus of how systems fail. Failure of a machine or of a business is often obvious and binary. The engine starts, or it doesn’t; the shop is open, or it has closed. An organisation – or rather and entity – such as the NHS degrades to failure in a very different way. Understanding that difference, and recognising when it is happening is a necessary precondition to influencing its trajectory. Not all Cheshire cats end with a smile.

We’ve published our first digital strategy at the Royal Borough of Greenwich

Kit Collingwood

There is nothing special about the digital strategy for a London borough, which makes this one very special indeed. It is very easy for such strategies to be focused on technology and to see the world from the perspective of service providers – and as a result to be rather impenetrable to the reader who might just want to know how their life or their environment might be made better. This one pulls off the trick not just of approaching the problem the right way round, and of expressing the strategy intended to respond to it clearly and succinctly.

This post describes how that strategy came about, distilled and abstracted from the crucible of pandemic response, and more deeply human as a result. That too should not be very special – but of course it is.

The Inspector’s Dilemma

Martin Stanley

Public bodies do many things, not all of them necessarily at the front of mind when we think about what governments do and how those things might be done better. One of those things is, broadly, inspection – checking to see that requirement which should be met are being met (and sometimes to see whether failures reflect inadequate requirements or poor compliance). The existence of regulation and inspection raise an important question about the attribution of responsibility: does the very existence of a regulatory system shift responsibility inappropriately, does it in effect create a form of moral hazard? And if the answer turns out in practice to be to fudge the issue, the consequences may turn out to be very bad.

What Dominic Cummings got right

Aris Roussinos

Most of what appears in Strategic Reading is chosen because it makes an interesting argument well.  Just occasionally something makes it in because while the argument may be interesting, it is not persuasively made. Perhaps the publisher of this piece had some doubts too – the original title, preserved in the URL, was ‘Cummings was right about our government’s failings’, softened to its current version a few hours later.

Dominic Cummings’ contempt for the machinery of UK government is well known. That that machinery has serious weaknesses is unarguable, but whether either his diagnosis or his prescription serve to address those weaknesses is quite another matter. This account of his thinking boldly asserts that “Notwithstanding what he failed to get done while in government, his analysis of it should be taken seriously.” But his failure to get anything much done in government unavoidably brings into question whether his analysis should be taken at all seriously.

The core argument, borrowed from Cummings himself, but repeated and amplified here is based on a sleight of hand. The diagnosis is at a grand scale – it is the state capacity of liberal democracies, their systems of governance and their political institutions which are not up to the challenge of addressing crises, tested against the slightly unlikely standard set by the Chinese Communist Party. But the solution is a much narrower one: “drastic reform of the state bureaucracy, perhaps on a decentralised model that severs the dead hand of Whitehall.” The problem with that is not that the civil services has already reached a state of perfection – it is very far from that. It is that the civil service, big and complex as it is, is only part of a much wider system, which Cummings and his apologists seem determined to ignore.

There is indeed a crisis of governance in the UK. If we address that crisis, we may end up with a better civil service. But if we try to fix the civil service, there is no chance that that will solve the crisis of governance.

We need new operating systems. Whose job is that?

Alastair Parvin

This is not a post about operating systems, in the obvious sense. It might be better described as a post reflecting on Marx’s early view that the base determines the superstructure, so that to achieve deep change your intervention needs to bite deep into the system. Many of our component systems are deeply rooted in the circumstances of their creation and evolution, they are solutions to the problems of their time which may not be our problems. But they are neither easy to change nor perhaps even easy to recognise for what they are. This post describes a clear problem, a future post offers the promise of an approach to answering it.

Strategically writing

Strategic Reading has been quiet for the last eight months. There was no particular reason why it stopped, and there is now no particular reason why it is starting again – but starting again it is, continuing much as it did when it left off. The one difference is that a very large backlog has built up of things flagged for inclusion during the hiatus, so for a while there may be a slightly more retrospective feel as some of the pieces which still seem fresh and pertinent get added to the mix of largely more current things.

What Covid-19 tells us about service

Joel Bailey

Behind this bland title, there is a radical and compelling essay on the nature and intrinsic value of service. It helps to makes sense of some of what we are seeing in the responses – and in responses to those responses – to the present crisis, but its power goes much further and deeper than that.

It restores a link to a deeper sense of the meaning of service than is commonly implied by phrases such as service industry and customer service agent:

Service is noble. Those who serve, in whatever function, are working to progress others. This nobility of service is what we’re seeing globally right now. This is the form of selfless service that is closer to what our evolved selves instinctively need than the usual, narrow view of service.

Suddenly that meaning is laid bare as it becomes apparent just how fundamental the idea of service is to much of what we really value – and yet how misaligned that value is to the way we reward, recognise and celebrate the activity of those who serve. That insight goes far beyond the service of personal care which is now much celebrated as an expression of the social response to an epidemic: it is also about how, between individuals and within and between organisations, service is an enormous positive force which we fail to recognise because we systematically overlook the good which comes from it, for those who serve as well those who are served.

This essay is not how you will have been accustomed to thinking about service. That is the measure of its importance – and of the service it provides to those who read it.