Are organisations political systems? Yes, of course they are. Persuasion, negotiation, and coalition building are intrinsic to their operation; they are a cockpit for exit, voice and loyalty.
That’s using politics in the sense of the means by which collective choices get made rather than in the sense of the thing that politicians do. At one level that’s obvious, but at another it’s worth emphasising, because it’s all too easy to elide politics, bureaucracy and the public sector – they have much to do with each other, but they are very different.
Bureaucracy is fundamentally about being rules based. Rules are indeed constraining – that is their point – but they are also liberating (which is why estimates of the cost of bureaucracy can be more than a little tendentious). A society or polity without rules is hardly one at all and the more arbitrary and capricious the rules are, the worse the outcomes tend to be. So the question becomes whether it is useful to organisations to be rules based, or whether the associated costs of rigidity and hierarchy outweigh the benefits. That’s a pragmatic question, as is the consequential one of how best to minimise the costs and maximise the benefits of whatever level of bureucracy is appropriate for a given organisation and a given situation. That balance will be struck differently in different contexts, but it wouldn’t be surprising if public accountability and size were two relevant factors. That’s not to say that all organisations have the optimal level of bureaucracy (in a faint echo of Stafford Beer) – far from it – rather that it is not self-evident that the optimal level is zero.
All of that is prompted by this post on the politics of organisation design (the latest in a regular weekly series which is well worth following), which in turn draws heavily on a recent excoriation of organisational bureaucracy by Gary Hamel. That brings us full circle: organisations are political and assertions about their nature are intrinsically political too.
Prioritisation is hard. One reason why it’s hard is that starting new things is always more attractive than stopping old ones. There are all sorts of reasons for that – many nicely set out in this post – which include the ease with which we overlook the opportunity cost: if we start this new thing, what do we no longer have the capacity or attention span to do? That of course is a problem for the organisation as a whole, not for the proponents of the new shiny thing, so it all too easily becomes one which is brushed aside, because there isn’t anybody whose job is to address it.
There is a closely related problem, pithily described, it appears, by Kurt Vonnegut:
Another flaw in the human character is that everybody wants to build and nobody wants to do maintenance.
That can have consequences from the irritatingly inefficient to the utterly terrifying, but all contributing to the wider problem, that the more change there is going on, the more likely it is that the changes will collide with each other unproductively, and the more it becomes important to understand and manage the dependencies and interactions between projects, as much as to understand and manage each of the contributing initiatives.
Michael Graber – Innovation Excellence
This short post asks a question which falls to be answered all too often. The answer it gives is that failure comes from the misperception that the most important thing about digital transformation is that it is digital:
Digital transformations are actually transformations of mindset, business model, culture, and operations. These are people problems, in the main, not technology issues.
Tom Loosemore – Public Digital
This is a deceptively simple list which describes ways of working in internet-era organisations. The GDS design principles are clearly among its antecedents, but this is a broader and deeper approach, setting out how to make things work – and work well – in organisations. It’s hard to argue with the thrust of the advice given here, and in any case it ends with an admonition to do sensible things in the right way rather than stick rigidly to the rules.
That doesn’t make the approach beyond criticism, both in detail and in approach, though it does have the happy consequence that challenge and consequent improvement are themselves part of the model being advocated. With that starting point, there are a couple of places where a further iteration could improve things further.
One is the instruction to treat data as infrastructure. The thought behind that is a good one: data matters, and it matters that it is managed well. Well ordered data is part of infrastructure at every level from the national (and international) downwards. But data is also part of the superstructure. Managing, processing, and creating value out of data are fundamental to the purpose and activities of organisations. Both aspects need to be understood and integrated.
A more subtle issue is that while it might be clear what counts as good internet-era ways of working, much of that work happens in organisations which are barely of the internet era at all. Precisely because it does challenge established approaches, established power structures and established infrastructure of every kind, the path to adoption is far from straightforward. Looked at in that light, this list is oddly impersonal: it is couched in the imperative, but without being clear who the orders are addressed to. There is a dimension of behavioural and organisational change which never quite makes it to the centre of the narrative, but which for organisations which are not native to the internet era is critically important.
None of that is a reason for not following the advice given here. But some of it might be part of the explanation of why it needs to be given in the first place.
Kate Tarling and Matti Keltanen – Medium
This post is a deep and thoughtful essay on why large organisations struggle to find a clear direction and to sustain high quality delivery. At one level the solution is disarmingly simple: define what success looks like, work out how well the organisation is configured to deliver that success, and change the configuration if necessary – but in the meantime, since reconfiguration is slow and hard, be systematic and practical at developing and working through change.
If it were that easy, of course, everybody would have done it by now and all large organisations would be operating in a state of near perfection. Simple observation tells us that that is not the case, and simple experience tells us that it is not at all easy to fix. This post avoids the common trap of suggesting a simple – often simplistic – single answer, but instead acknowledges the need to find ways of moving forward despite the aspects of the organisational environment which hold things back. Even more usefully, it sets out an approach for doing that in practice based on real (and no doubt painful) experience.
If there were a weakness in this approach, it would be in appearing to underestimate some of the behavioural challenges, partly because the post notes, but doesn’t really address, the different powers and perspectives which come from different positions. The options – and frustrations – of a chief executive or board member are very different from those elsewhere in the organisation who may feel some of the problems more viscerally but find it harder to identify points of leverage to change things. The argument that in the absence of structures aligned to outcomes and goals we should fall back to alignment around purpose is a strong one, but the challenge of even achieving the fallback shouldn’t be underestimated.
It’s a pretty safe bet though that anybody struggling to find ways of helping large organisations to become fully effective will find ideas and insights here which are well worth reflecting on.
Rainer Kattel and Ines Mergel – UCL Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose
The story of how Estonia became the most e of e-governments is often told, but often pretty superficially and often with an implied – or even explicit – challenge to everybody else to measure themselves and their governments against the standard set by Estonia and despair. This post provides exactly the context which is missing from such accounts: Estonia is certainly the result of visionary leadership, which at least in principle could be found anywhere, but it is also the result of some very particular circumstances which can’t simply be copied or assumed to be universal. There is also a hint of the question behind Solow’s paradox: the real test is not the implementation of technology, but the delivery of better outcomes.
None of that is to knock Estonia’s very real achievements, but yet again to make clear that the test of the effectiveness of technology is not a technological one.
Rose Hollister and Michael Watkins – Harvard Business Review
The hardest bit of strategy is not thinking up the goal and direction in the first place. It’s not even identifying the set of activities which will move things in the desired direction. The hardest bit is stopping all the things which aren’t heading in that direction or are a distraction of attention or energy from the most valuable activities. Stopping things is hard. Stopping things which aren’t necessarily failing to do the thing they were set up to do, but are nevertheless not the most important things to be doing, is harder. In principle, it’s easier to stop things before they have started than to rein them in once they have got going, but even that is pretty hard.
In all of that, ‘hard’ doesn’t mean hard in principle: the need, and often the intention, is clear enough. It means instead that observation of organisations, and particularly larger and older organisation, provides strong reason to think that it’s hard in practice. Finding ways of doing it better is important for many organisations.
This article clearly and systematically sets out what underlies the problem, what doesn’t work in trying to solve it – and offers some very practical suggestions for what does. Practical does not, of course, mean easy. But if we don’t start somewhere, project sclerosis will only get worse.
Catherine Howe – Curious?
The eight tribes of digital (which were once seven) have become nine.
The real value of the tribes – other than that they are the distillation of four years of observation, reflection and synthesis – is not so much in whether they are definitively right (which pretty self-evidently they aren’t, and can’t be) but as a prompt for understanding why individuals and groups might behave as they do. And of course, the very fact that there can be nine kinds of digital is another way of saying that there is no such thing as digital
Billy Street – Transforming Together
This post provides a good introduction to The 7 Lenses of Transformation recently published by the UK government. Its power is in a form of modesty: there is no spurious promise that religiously following a methodology takes the risk and challenge out of transformational change, but instead provides a sensible framing of seven areas which need to be thought about and acted on to increase the chances of success. It is strewn with useful prompts, reminders and challenges. But it also prompts a couple of broader questions.
The first is what counts as transformation, as opposed to mere change. The definition in the guidance isn’t altogether satisfactory, as ‘reducing the costs of delivering services and improving our internal processes’ is sufficient to count. That’s not just a niggle about wording: if there is something distinctive about transformation, there needs to be some clarity about what it is. It’s tempting to fall back to simple scale – but some large scale changes aren’t particularly transformational, while some much smaller changes can have a really radical impact on the relationship between inputs, outputs and, most importantly, outcomes.
The second is an inherent problem with numbered lists, which is that they present themselves as self-contained. It’s worth reflecting on what an eighth item might be. One possible answer is that there is more – quite a lot more – to be said in expansion of the seventh lens, on people. The recognition that people need to be involved and enthused is a good start, but a communication campaign isn’t a sufficient means of achieving that: if change is transformational, it is almost certain that it expects – and depends on – people’s behaviour changing, and it is dangerous to assume that behavioural change is an automatic by-product of change programmes. And of course there will often be many more people affected than those in the programme team itself – a point the ‘red flags’ section seems to overlook.
And there is a small but subtly important issue in the title: the lens metaphor is an odd one, which doesn’t stand up to very much thought. That’s not to say that there is a single self-evidently better one, but moving away from language which implies inspection and distortion to language which hints more at engagement and multiple perspectives might be a stronger foundation for delivering real transformation.
This is a short, perhaps even slightly cryptic, note on the purpose of organisations. Having had the unfair advantage of being part of the conversation which prompted it, my sense is that it captures two related, but distinct, issues.
The first is that not everything has a purpose at all, in any terribly useful or meaningful sense. We can observe and describe what elements of a system do, but that does not mean that each such element has a purpose, still less that any purpose it might have relates to the behaviour of the wider system of which it is part. Not being careful here can lead to spectacular errors of reverse causation – the purpose of noses is not, as Pangloss argued, to support the wearing of spectacles.
The second is that it is easy to look at human-made systems and assume that they have a purpose, and that that purpose can be both discerned and – should we wish it – amended. That’s an understandable hope, but not necessarily a realistic one. Organisations of any size are both complex systems in their own right and components of larger and yet more complex systems. What they do and how they do it cannot be reduced to a single simple proposition. That’s not, I take it, a nihilistic argument against trying to understand or influence; it is a recognition that we need to recognise and respect complexity, not wish it away.
Shane Snow – Quartz
The two by two matrix is perhaps the most overused tool in the history of management thinking and has come to symbolise slick and superficial consultancy advice. So it takes a certain amount of bravery – or perhaps foolhardiness – to attempt to explain leadership through eight of them.
It’s not a completely successful attempt – some of the axes feel a bit forced – but it packs a lot into a small space. And who, after all, would not want to be an angelic troublemaker?
David Eaves and Ben McGuire – digital HKS
This interesting post steps back from the detail of digital teams in governments around the world to ask in a more general way where to go next. Once the team has been established, once the early battles won, once the first examples of what better looks like have been produced, once at least some form of stable existence has been achieved – what then?
The post is partly a reflection on ways of embedding change in government – by exerting control, or by building consensus – and partly a recognition that some of these teams, including the GDS in the UK, are facing both the easiest and the hardest stage of their existence. Easiest because a degree of maturity has been established, delivery has been demonstrated, and the voices suggesting that the whole thing is a waste of time are quieter and fewer. But hardest because those early deliveries have a tendency to be superficial (which is not at all to say simple or easy): they sit on top of structures and functions of government which remain fundamentally unchanged. That’s been apparent from early on – this post, for example, argued six years ago that the superstructure cannot determine the base. That mattered less in the early days, because there were other things to do, but is critical to the future of government.
And that’s more or less where Eaves and McGuire end up too:
Behind us is the hard part of starting up. Today is about building capital and capacity. What’s next in the mid term…? A long slow battle over what the structure and shape of government will look like. And making progress on that I fear will be infinitely more difficult and painful than improving services on a project by project basis.
Eddie Copeland – NESTA
This simple and powerful set of slides does an extraordinarily good job of summarising the key issues in digital transformation, not least in being really clear about the extent to which all of this is a technology issue (not as much as it looks) as opposed to an everything else issue (much more than it first appears). The section on ‘deciding how you want to work’ gets twice as many slides as ‘thinking about your technology needs’, which is a pretty strong indicator of the approach being taken.
It’s certainly possible to challenge some of the details. The arresting assertion that ‘we can broadly take for granted that technology can do whatever we want it to do’ perhaps has more power than precision – though the slightly lesser claim the technology needed to support government processes already exists is indeed a useful reminder that appeals for technological exceptionalism are very likely to be misguided. The insistence that agile projects can’t succeed in organisations which retain traditional approaches to funding and governance is both wrong and unhelpful: wrong because there are plenty of example of where it has succeeded, and unhelpful because every organisation has to start somewhere, and if agile can’t work at all unless everything is agile, there is effectively no way of making that start.
Overall, though, the strengths far outweigh the weaknesses – and this is a beautiful example of doing the hard work to make things simple. As a further bonus, the slides are open for comments, and have already sprouted a rich set of observations from Matthew Cain.
Hana Schank – Co.Design
Innovation is perhaps second only to transformation as a word to convey excitement and derring do to the messy business of getting things done in organisations – a view promoted not least by people whose derring may be rather stronger than their do.
The assumption that disruption and iconoclasm are the best – or even only – way of making significant and sustained change happen is a curiously pervasive one. The problem with it is not that it’s always wrong, but that there is good reason to think that it’s not always right. As this post argues, sometimes deep experience can be just as powerful, in part because intractable problems often respond better to sustained incremental efforts than to a single transformational solution.
This article suffers a little from a rather patronising view of government, and some of the examples used tend to the trivial. But the underlying point remains a good one: people who understand and care about the problem may be the people best placed to solve it – if they are given the licence to do so.
Sometimes a simple tweet says all there is to say. Though in this case it’s well worth reading the replies as well.
Martin Stewart-Weeks – Public Purpose
This is a wide-ranging and thought-provoking survey of the public policy landscape, examining trends setting the context for public sector reform ranging from reversing decline of trust, through rethinking the scope and nature of digital transformation, to blending policy, design and delivery. All of that is bound together by a recognition that these are all systems problems – or, arguably, all facets of a single systems problem – and the test of change in that wider system will be whether authority, money and power flow differently from the way they do today.
Richard McLean – Medium
While we are on the subject, this is a really useful compendium of reading on governance. Some of it is general, but much of it, one or another, is about how fast moving projects meet slow moving organisations, and how to dissipate the heat from the friction which results.
Richard McLean – Medium
If headlines are designed to excite the readers and entice them into the words which follow, this one would win no prizes. It is not fashionable to be excited about governance and indeed it often becomes one of those irregular verbs – I do agile; you do project management; they do governance. And who wants to be like them?
This post is a healthy challenge to that point of view, refreshingly written in human speak, which is something not always found in writing on this subject. It sets out some of the value governance provides in terms of setting direction, committing resources and assuring progress more form the perspective of the user of governance than of its imposer. That’s not of course to say that the current way of doing those things provides the optimal balance – and there is a tantalising promise of a second post on the biggest single thing we can do to improve governance. Presumably that one is still going through the approvals process.
Gavin Starks – NESTA
This is an interesting report which asks almost the right question. Government is at little risk of losing its mind, or its short term memory. The two better questions – which in practice are the ones this report starts to address – are whether government can stop losing its longer term memory, and how the power of the government’s mind can be enhanced by better ways of connecting and amplifying its component parts.
Those are important questions. It’s already all too easy to forget how long we have been worrying about the ease of forgetting things. Aspects of the problem have been recognised, and solutions attempted, since the earliest days of what we no longer call electronic government. None has been more than partially successful.
The two questions are also closely related. People are reluctant to incur even the smallest overhead in storing things for the benefit of posterity, so the benefit needs to come from improving the effectiveness of current work. Conversely, tools which facilitate collaboration, sharing and serendipity will often (though with some very important exceptions) also be tools which facilitate the storage and discovery of what has been created. That was one of the key themes of a series of blog posts I wrote a couple of years ago, which covered some (though by no means all) of the same ground – including the observation, echoed in this report, that the web was invented to be an intranet and knowledge management tool; the world wide bit came rather later.
Where this report adds to the debate is in its more explicit recognition not just that we need to be thinking about texts rather than documents, but that a lot of what we need to be thinking about isn’t conventional text in the first place, making the paginated document an even less useful starting point for thinking about all this.
And there is a delicious irony that this blog – and my blogging generally – exists in large part to serve as my outboard memory, now with well over a decade of material created in part as protection against the weaknesses of institutional knowledge preservation.
Chris Dillow – Stumbling and Mumbling
And along comes another one, on similar lines to the previous post on strategies, this time decrying managerialism. Management is good, managerialism tends to unjustified and unbounded faith in management as a generic skill, to imposing direction and targets from above – and to abstract concepts of strategy and vision. As ever, Chris Dillow hits his targets with gusto.
Another way of putting that is that there is good management and bad management, and that there is not enough of the former and too much of the latter. That sounds trivial, but it’s actually rather important: is there a Gresham’s law of management where bad displaces good, and if there is, what would it take to break it?