This is a session pitch for an event which has not yet happened, so it’s a tantalising paragraph rather than a developed argument. But it’s getting a mention because of the power of the thought experiment which lies behind it. Maybe the day will come when the design of public services for Mars will be an immediate and necessary question demanding answers. But we don’t need to wait for that day to ask what it would be like to design public services if we were not constrained by everything which has gone before – which ends up being very similar to Ben Hammersley’s provocation. Down here on old Earth we can’t wish away the installed base, which makes things harder (though we do have a breathable atmosphere, which balances things out a bit), but we don’t have to let our goals be constrained by it.
Strategy can easily be seen as a grand and abstract thing, considering people as components of a system if it considers them at all. Strategic change, on that view, involves doing big things, which typically take a long time.
That’s not the only way of thinking about strategy, of course. Human-level strategy can result in many small things being done – but which may eventually result in a degree and depth of change greater than any big change can produce (though it may well still take a long time).
That reflection is prompted by this post, which is both a very personal story and a description of the modern civil service. Nobody would pretend that the civil service is a paragon of every organisational virtue, but it is striking how far it has changed in composition, attitudes and priorities. That all matters a lot. It matters obviously because it shows an organisation at least striving to respect the diversity of the people who make it up. It matters less obviously – but very importantly – because strategic questions understood in the traditional grand way are answered by people who unavoidably bring the experience of their lives to doing so. Diversity is not a soft-edged slogan. It is not even just about respect for individuals. It is a dimension of strategic competence.
This article will inform and irritate, with the balance between the two being a matter of individual taste. It’s good of its kind, but its kind is putting organisations to right through the perspective of high consultancy, and nobody does it higher than McKinsey. It is taken as a self-evident truth that
Few of us get around without the help of ridesharing and navigation apps such as Lyft and Waze. On vacation, novel marine-transport apps enable us to hitch a ride from local boat owners to reach an island.
The few of us who survive without novel marine-transport apps may find that veering on self-parody – or perhaps being unintentionally precise about who is intended to be encompassed by ‘us’ – but it is worth persisting. The five pitfalls which the article describes do cover some useful ground and there is recognition that different circumstances demand different responses.
But as we have seen in other contexts, there is a sense of breathlessness about the word ‘digital’ itself. Their definition isn’t a bad one, ‘the nearly instant, free, and flawless ability to connect people, devices, and physical objects anywhere,’ but the more the article goes one, the less adequate it seems in relation to the scope of what is being asserted for it. In the end, ‘digital’ becomes irrelevant – this is about strategy in the broadest and deepest organisational sense.
One telling point is the use of Tesla as an example of the power of first mover advantage. While it’s clear that they do have real advantages in electric power, it’s also increasingly clear that they have failed to establish such an advantage in autonomous driving and failed even to reach incumbent standards of vehicle mass manufacturing. Where that leaves its overall strategic position has still to play out, but it is far from clear that it is less vulnerable to incumbents than they are to it. In a very concrete sense, there is more to strategy than digital.
If it is hard to think and act systemically about the long term, it’s also worth reflecting on patterns of behaviour which get in the way even of the attempt. The rhetoric of innovation, of openness, of fearless honesty runs into a reality which seems designed to punish and constrain precisely those behaviours. And of course ‘design’ is precisely the wrong word here: these characteristics are emergent rather than intended (which does not, of course, mean that it would be impossible to design them to be different). There are many reasons why that is an unfortunate state of affairs, one which is rightly given some emphasis is that it risks crowding out the strategic and the systemic:
The real dilemma is that we’re so busy honing the efficiency of the pieces that we’ve failed to work out how to put the puzzle together or work out what the puzzle is or should be.
This is a characteristically excellent post, examining in some detail both what it takes for change to succeed and, perhaps even more importantly, how to scale it.
The short answer is that if you want to change the system, you have to change the system. And to do that on the fifty plus year scale which is the level of ambition behind this post, requires rigour and discipline. Five questions are set out, including the two which are the most critical: what future do you want? And what are you going to do today?
Scaling from an idea of the future to systematic government and national level change can’t be done by exhortation – and simple observation suggests can only with the greatest difficulty be done at all. The recommendations here are an intriguing mixture of the very slow burn (supporting long term varied career development, to reduce aversion to new thinking) to the much more immediate (mandating the use of user research in funding bids).
All that still leaves the question of how best to start this whole process, but this is a manifesto of what should be done, or rather how it should be done; it doesn’t purport to be a set of instructions for making it happen.
If we want to create a good strategy, there is some value in understanding what makeas a bad one. This paper sets out to do exactly that and ends even more helpfully by reversing that into three key characteristics of a good strategy – understanding the problem; describing a guiding approach to addressing it; and setting out a coherent set of actions to deliver the approach. This is a classic article – which is a way of saying both that it’s a few years old, while also being pretty timeless. It derives from a book, but as is not uncommon, the book is very much longer without adding value in proportion.
Apparently we still are. Whether we should be is another matter. There is certainly a strong case against ‘digital’, my version of which was made in a blog post a couple of years ago, which stated firmly
Digital transformation is important. But it’s important because digital is a means of doing transformation, not because transformation enables digital.
That leaves us with ‘transformation’. Is that a word with enough problems of its own that we should avoid it as well? The case against is clear, and is well articulated in this post: transformation carries implications of one massive co-ordinated effort, of starting with stability, applying the intended change, and then returning to a new and better stability – and none of that happens in the real world. Instead, it’s better to see change from a more agile perspective, neatly summarised in a line quoted in the post
Approaching change in a more evolutionary way may be the best way of making effective progress. Small steps towards a bigger picture, with wiggle room to alter the path.
Sometimes, though, that bigger picture is big enough to deserve being called transformational. Sometimes the first step is possible only when there is some sense of direction and of scale of ambition. Sometimes radical change is what’s needed – it’s not hard to look around and see systems and organisations crying our for transformation. We should be cautious about discarding the ambition just because, too often, the means deployed to achieve it have fallen short.
Indeed, perhaps the real problem with ‘transformation’ as word is that it has been applied to far too casually to things which haven’t been nearly transformational enough in their ambition. If digital transformation is to mean anything, it has to be more than technology supported process improvement.
Strategic thinking is best done by thinking out loud, on your blog, over a long period of time.
As someone clocking in with over a thousand blog posts of various shapes and sizes since 2005, that feels like a box well and truly ticked. Whether that makes up something which might be called strategic thinking is a rather different question – but that may be because all those blog posts have not yet generated a single sticker.
There’s an important point being made here. Even in a more traditional approach to strategy development, the final document is never the thing which carries the real value: it’s the process of development, and the engagement and debate that that entails which makes the difference. The test of a good strategy is that it helps solve problems, so as the problems change, so should the strategy. Whether that makes blog posts and stickers a sufficient approach to strategy development is a slightly different question. There might be a blog post in that.
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?
This post is fighting talk to a blog with the title and background of this one. Having a strategy – or at least having a document called a strategy – is an indication of institutional failure: once you get to the stage of having to pay people to describe the organisation to itself and to work out how the pieces fit together, something is already going badly wrong.
At its worst, strategy becomes about attempts to engineer reality to fit a top down narrative through the medium of graphs. … So don’t write strategies. At best they give institutions the time they need to mobilise against the change you want to create
Instead, strategists should go and do something more useful, more concrete, with a much better chance of making real improvements happen.
And yet. The answer to the co-ordination problem can’t in the short term (and the short term is likely to be pretty long) be to fragment organisations to the point where co-ordination is not needed. Even if that were practically and politically feasible, it might just redraw the boundaries of Coasian space leaving the underlying co-ordination problem unchanged, at the cost of sustained distraction from the real purpose. It’s not obvious how small an organisation has to be (or even whether smallness is the key factor) to avoid needing something you might want to call a strategy.
So perhaps the distinction is not that organisations shouldn’t need a strategy, it is that that need shouldn’t degenerate into the endless production of strategies as a self-perpetuating industry. That takes me back to Sophie Dennis’s approach, and in particular to her definition of strategy:
Strategy is a coherent plan to achieve a goal that will lead to significant positive change
That’s something which should have real value – without there needing to be a graph in sight. I’d be pretty confident that Simon has got one of those.
It’s a sound generalisation that people do the best they can within the limits of the systems they find themselves in. That best may include pushing at those limits, but even if it does, that doesn’t make them any less real. Two things follow from that. The first is that it is pointless blaming individuals for operating within the constraints of the system. The second is that if you want to change the system, you have to change the system.
That’s not to say that people are powerless or that we can all resign personal and moral accountability. On the contrary, the systems are themselves human constructs and can only be challenged and changed by the humans who are actors within them. That’s where this post comes in, which is in effect a prospectus for a not yet written book. What different systems do changes in social, economic and technological contexts demand, where are the contradictions which need to be resolved? The book, when it comes, promises to be fascinating; the post is well worth reading in its own right in the meantime.
One ever present risk in thinking strategically is to be too strategic. Or rather, to be too abstract, losing sight of the messiness of today in the excitement of the far tomorrows. Convincing strategies address recognisable problems (even if making the problems recognisable is part of the strategic process) and, perhaps most importantly, convincing strategies get to the future by starting in the present. There is no value in the most glorious of futures if you can’t get there from here.
This post is a brilliant example of why that is. How, it asks, with clearsighted perspective of very personal experience, can we hope to deliver a future strategy without understanding and addressing the gap between where we are and where we want to be?
There are increasing numbers of government services which are digital. But that doesn’t make for a digital government. This post is a challenge to set a greater ambition, to make government itself digitally transformed. As a manifesto or a call to arms, there’s a lot here: a government with the characteristics envisaged here would be a better government. But in general, the problem with transforming government has not been with describing how government might work better, but with navigating the route to get there – and that makes the question in the title critically important. Ultimately though, the digital bit may be a critical catalyst but is not the goal – and we need to be clear both about the nature of that goal and about the fact that digital is a means of transforming; not that transforming is a means to be digital. This post describes powerful tools for realising an ambition for better government – but they will have effect only if both ambition and opportunity are there to use them. On that, it’s well worth reading this alongside Matthew’s own post earlier this year commenting on the government’s digital strategy.
This is a video of Ben Hammersley talking about the future for 20 minutes, contrasting the rate of growth of digital technologies with the much slower growth in effectiveness of all previous technologies – and the implications that has for social and economic change. It’s easy to do techno gee-whizzery, but Ben goes well beyond that in reflecting about the wider implications of technology change, and how that links to thinking about organisational strategies. He is clear that predicting the future for more than the very short term is impossible, suggesting a useful outer limit of two years. But even being in the present is pretty challenging for most organisations, prompting the question, when you go to work, what year are you living in?
His recipe for then getting to and staying in the future is disarmingly simple. For every task and activity, ask what problem you are solving, and then ask yourself this question. If I were to solve this problem today, for the first time, using today’s modern technologies, how would I do it? And that question scales: how can new technologies make entire organisations, sectors and countries work better?
It’s worth hanging on for the ten minutes of conversation which follows the talk, in which Ben makes the arresting assertion that the problem is not that organisations which can change have to make an effort to change, it is that organisations which can’t or won’t change must be making a concerted effort to prevent the change.
It’s also well worth watching Ben Evan’s different approach to thinking about some very similar questions – the two are interestingly different and complementary.
There are some who argue that the only test of progress is delivery and that the only thing which can be iterated is a live service. That is a horribly misguided approach. There is no point in producing a good answer to a bad question, and lots to be gained from investing time and energy in understanding the question before attempting to answer it. Even for pretty simple problems, badly formed initial questions can generate an endless – and expensive – chain of solutions which would never have needed to exist if that first question had been a better one. Characteristically, Paul Taylor asks some better questions about asking better questions.
This wide ranging and fast moving report hits the Strategic Reading jackpot. It provides a bravura tour of more of the topics covered here than is plausible in a single document, ticking almost every category box along the way. It moves at considerable speed, but without sacrificing coherence or clarity. That sets the context for a set of radical recommendations to government, based on the premise established at the outset that incremental change is a route to mediocrity, that ‘status quo plus’ is a grave mistake.
Not many people could pull that off with such aplomb. The pace and fluency sweep the reader along through the recommendations, which range from the almost obvious to the distinctly unexpected. There is a debate to be had about whether they are the best (or the right) ways forward, but it’s a debate well worth having, for which this is an excellent provocation.
“Transformation” is a dangerous word. It is bold in ambition, but often very uncertain in precision. Instead of attempting yet another definition, as part of yet another attempt to tie the concept down, this post sets out eight powerful design principles which, if applied, would result in something which pretty unarguably would have delivered transformation. Perhaps transformation isn’t what you do, it’s how you tell what you’ve done.
But whatever the level of ambition, there is a lot in these apparently simple principles – well worth keeping close to hand.
It’s a rare treat for a site with an audience disproportionately made up of practising bureaucrats to point to a post which begins by describing bureaucracy as one of humanity’s best inventions. But there is, not surprisingly, a sting in the tail: the very qualities which are the strength of bureaucracy are the downfall of creativity and innovation. The answer suggested here is ‘Parallel Learning Structures’. From the description in the post, the recent flurry of policy labs, innovation spaces and agility in governments has strong if unwitting resonance, with that approach – but the question, as ever, is how to move these approaches from the margin to the core.
Not everything governments do is for and to people. Governments also do things with and by people. Sorting the roles of government by preposition is arrestingly simple and unexpectedly powerful. Government involves for, with, to and by; good government uses them appropriately and gets the balance right between them.
This elegant short post is also a powerful – if indirect and possibly unintended – challenge to the naive view that government is reducible to service design.
There is lots of attention and activity around the question of how government should be made to work better, and in particular how it should be made to work better with modern technology. There is much less attention given to the question of why doing that is a good thing. This piece is an attempt to fill that gap from somebody who has been thinking about these issues pretty much from the beginning. It’s an extremely good first answer, but it is, of course, not the only one possible. It will be interesting to see if others rise to the challenge Tom poses.