Category: Organisational change
Things I believe about change
This post presents seven propositions on organisational change, based on the simple but powerful perspective of having successfully changed organisations. It is a theory of change which denounces theories of change in passing along the way, or perhaps to be fair it is a pragmatic distillation of insights (the difference between the two can be left to explore on another occasion). Of the seven, the one which simultaneously resonates most strongly and is the most subversive, is the fourth, ‘most people are motivated to do good work.’
Intrinsic motivation certainly makes organisational change easier, which is the point being made in the post. But it does something even more important than that as well: it changes the nature of the change which is needed and the change which can be delivered. That’s because most organisations are designed – overtly or otherwise – on the opposite proposition, that most people will work effectively only if closely supervised. Changing that changes a great deal.
That then links very directly to the fifth proposition, ‘everyone knows what’s wrong.’ They may well do, but they will keep their insights to themselves if they do not perceive that their motivation is recognised and respected.
Every meeting will now be an online meeting
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.
Why the return to the office isn’t working
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.
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.
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.
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.
The big idea: should we abolish the Treasury?
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.
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
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.
What’s the “Uber” of the Civil Service?
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.
Civil service reform – noise without substance
This is a splendid – and splendidly acerbic – twenty tweet twitter thread on UK civil service reform in 2020, or rather on the absence of any effective change compared with other, generally more low key efforts over the past forty years.
(the title has been added, as twitter threads don’t have them)
A Manifesto for Better Government
Adrian Brown – Centre for Public Impact
This in some ways a follow up to Adrian Brown’s previous post, but it stands firmly on its own merits doing exactly what the title suggests. It starts with three beliefs, derives seven values from them, and from that combination asserts six principles for action. There’s room for debate about whether these are precisely the right three, seven or six – and that would be a very good debate to have, while at the same time rather missing the point.
Dominant metaphors change over time – often quite a long time. For a century or more, the machine, and more recently the computer, have been the dominant metaphor for systems and organisations, and even for people. That metaphor has not been unchallenged of course – the agile manifesto, of which this is a no doubt conscious echo – can be seen as an attempt to do exactly that. This manifesto is based much more on networks and relationships and, crucially, a view of knowledge which places rich understanding at the periphery of the organisation, closest to its external signals, rather than at its heart. A system operating on those lines would be both more resilient and more responsive and there is much which is highly attractive in the manifesto.
It does not address the perennial hard question of political organisational change. It is easy – relatively – to have a vision of a better future. It is much harder to work out how to get there from here. But that should be taken not as a criticism, but as an important challenge to everybody interested in better government.
Enabling collaboration across the public sector
Pia Andrews has long been a powerful voice and a practical exponent of doing government better, not least doing government better in ways which confront and address the difficulties caused by the structures of governments themselves.
This article is a great summary of some of that thinking. Much of its power comes from the recognition that government is fundamentally about people and their relationships with each other, and that that is true as much of people within government as it is of the people that governments serve. Vertical organisational structures can easily be and often are barriers to collaboration and dampeners of motivation, reinforced by a concept of leadership derived from functional management. But none of those is immutable, and a combination of fresh approaches to teams and leadership internally with a readiness to look at the needs of the people governments serve more holistically has real power and potential (greater than either one considered in isolation).
Transformation is not a programme
Emma Stace – DfE Digital and Transformation
Transformation is one of those words which sounds good, without actually tying you down to meaning anything in particular. It sounds more daring than innovation, more glamorous than project management – and it’s got more syllables than change.
This useful post presents a view of transformation through six principles which together make it clear that it is fundamentally cultural in nature, and is only what is left once other kinds of change have been accounted for. And there is an interesting parallel between these ideas and Paul Taylor’s similar sense that transformation is too vague and self-serving a term to be useful, which he then addresses through a series of design principles.
Culture is our strategy
Emma Stace – DfE Digital and Transformation
Delivery is hard. Delivering consistently and with high quality is harder. Sustaining that over time without damage to individuals, teams and the wider organisation is very hard indeed.
In the short run it is often possible to over deliver, but there is a price to be paid. Getting that right is not, of course, about organisational structures or project plans, it is about people and the shared culture of their working environment – or about ‘trying hard to strike a balance between delivery now, and delivery tomorrow’.
This post approaches that question from the perspective of recognising and nurturing culture. But there is also a strong parallel with the concept of organisational debt (itself derived from technical debt), the recognition that failing to keep the organisation’s structures and processes in line both with its changing internal needs and with its external environment stores up problems which might be avoidable for a time, but cannot be avoided indefinitely. Or to put it differently again, culture as strategy is one of the ways in which teams and organisations can better manage strategic drift.
A working definition of Government as a Platform
Government as a Platform is a phrase coined by Tim O’Reilly in 2011 and defined and redefined by all sorts of people, organisations and governments ever since. This post offers a whistle stop tour of about 20 definitions and descriptions before condensing them all into one:
Reorganizing the work of government around a network of shared APIs and components, open-standards and canonical datasets, so that civil servants, businesses and others can deliver radically better services to the public, more safely, efficiently and accountably.
There’s a lot of concise power in that and if the intention is to focus primarily on the platform, it works pretty well. But if the intention is to focus more on the government, it has two pretty serious drawbacks. One is that it makes the surprisingly common assumption that government is about service delivery, overlooking all the things which governments do which are not that and underplaying the place of government in a wider political system. The other is that ‘accountably’ is having to carry a very heavy weight: it is presented as ‘the equal’ of safety and efficiency, but only in relation to the provision of better services. That really matters, of course, but it is a long way from being the only thing that matters for the governments of 21st century democracies. But all that also illustrates, of course, the strength of this approach – by setting out assumptions and approaches so clearly, it becomes possible to have the debate in the right place.
The (im)possibility of speaking truth to power
Speaking truth to power is often talked about as though it is a heroic endeavour, a point of challenge and catharsis, a showdown when either the message is heard or the messenger is shot. And of course if the norm is that power does not hear truth, none of that is surprising. But perhaps the more interesting approach is to ask why that is assumed to be the norm, and what might change it.
This post doesn’t – and couldn’t – answer that question, but it does shed some interesting light on it. If what is actually at issue is as much or more competing belief systems rather than competing realities, then solutions can’t be about piling up more facts, but might have to do with building relationships in a different way. The difficult bit in that, of course, is not the speaking of truth to power. That just takes bravery. The difficult bit is creating the conditions for power to listen, and that takes a much broader set of skills and approaches.
But as the post hints at, it would be better still to reverse the question. The real challenge is for leaders to show more clearly that they want to listen, not for courtiers to have to balance honesty and self-preservation.
Where system change meets agile practice; the multidisciplinary primordial soup
It’s been clear for a good while that the boundary zone between an agile project and a less than agile host organisation is often rife with friction, incomprehension and frustration. The value of reducing the friction is obvious; the nature of the best lubricant rather less so.
There are various more or less mechanical ways of approaching this – treating it essentially as the alignment of two models of governance. This post comes at it at a rather different angle, with a strong emphasis on finding approaches which deliver psychological safety for those involved and which recognise the different (and ideally complementary) value of different perspectives. Agile projects should carry on being agile, but the right way of thinking about systems is systems thinking. That sounds ludicrously trite, but is both less obvious and much harder than it sounds. As ever, Catherine Howe provides thoughtful guidance through the complexity.