The path from crisis

Matthew Taylor – RSA

A matrix to help distinguish between one-off crisis actions and interventions that have longer-term potential, and between innovations resulting from new activities and those enabled by putting a hold on business and bureaucracy as usual.It is easy, but not in the end very productive, to worry about how we got into a crisis and to pin the blame as we choose. It is harder, and very much more productive, to look at what the crisis has forced us to do and to ask how we can discard that which was of only short term utility while keeping and developing that which shows promise of longer term value.

This post provides a really useful framework not just for thinking about the difference between what we have needed to do in the crisis and what we may be able to do beyond it – neatly summarised in the matrix. But it goes beyond that to reflect on what is capable of making potentially radical change more robustly sustainable. The answers to that come not just in institutional change and adaptation, important though those opportunities are, but also from an approach to public engagement and participation which has the potential to provide the foundations necessary for better decision making more generally.

Could the crisis be a turning point, rekindling our belief in progress? It has reminded us that it is not hope that leads to action as much as action that leads to hope. It has underlined our common humanity while encouraging us to empathise with our less protected and advantaged fellow citizens. It has, I sense, made us intolerant of the unreason and cynicism that underlies so much populist rhetoric. […]

The crisis is forcing us to think differently and to act differently. Perhaps the most profound shift would be if we were ready for a different kind of leadership.

How should government manage big risks – pandemics to financial shocks?

Geoff Mulgan

Another Geoff Mulgan post, but a very different one from his reflections on the imaginary crisis, which spanned continents, philosophies and centuries. This one is a rigorously pragmatic account of how governments should manage risk effectively, using the UK as a case study and drawing on Geoff’s own experience of working in government.

There is much to reflect on in the post, but one of the points which comes through very clearly is the need to accept apparent short-term inefficiency, in the form of many kinds of excess capacity, in order to maximise overall long-term efficiency and effectiveness. There is of course an important debate to be had about how much of what kinds of capacity is worth paying for, but if that debate takes place in a political environment in which short-term cost efficiency is valued above all else, it is not likely to end in the optimal place.

Governments can’t avoid being the insurer of last resort for high impact risks. It matter to all of us that the premiums are kept paid up.

Preparing for risks is costly. It takes people and resources away from immediate priorities. But ultimately protecting people from risk is the heart of what government is for, and good bureaucracy manages risk systematically. Indeed, times like this remind us why boring, competent, reliable and forward-looking bureaucracy is so vital to helping us live our lives freely.  They worry so that we don’t have to.

A Failure, But Not Of Prediction

Scott Alexander – Slate Star Codex

At one level, this is about why we didn’t see COVID-19 coming. At another, it is using that as a case study of a whole class of decisions which depend on making judgements about uncertain futures – which is to say most of the ones that matter. The problem is not a shortfall in prediction skills, which is just as well because prediction is a tricky game. It is instead presented as a shortfall in probabilistic reasoning skills, which in turn relates to the classic risk management scales of likelihood and impact. Low likelihood, high impact events matter a great deal – which is why the insurance industry exists. If there is a 10% chance of an imminent global pandemic, it is well worth investing in mitigation, even if it turns out that the pandemic fizzles out – which is why it made sense to stockpile large quantities of flu vaccine in 2009 which turned out not to be needed.

But, slightly less explicitly in the article, there is another step which is essential before any of this becomes useful, as opposed to merely interesting. Probabilistic reasoning can be a good pointer to action, but it has succeeded only if appropriate action is in fact taken. So perhaps those showing greatest wisdom back in January and February were not either those who dismissed what was happening in Wuhan as far away and unimportant, or those who jumped immediately to proclaiming imminent global catastrophe – but those who saw from an apparently moderate risk, an immediate need to take precautionary actions.

There is, of course, a political dimension to this as well. Back in 2009, the then French Health Minister was heavily criticised for the money spent – money apparently wasted – on one of those vaccine stockpiles. She is quite rightly unapologetic, but it’s another reason why understanding the concept of risk and its mitigation is important. As Alexander observes,

Uncertainty about the world doesn’t imply uncertainty about the best course of action!

The Imaginary Crisis (and how we might quicken social and public imagination)

Geoff Mulgan – Demos Helsinki

If we cannot imagine a better future, we cannot hope to be able to create one. And that’s a problem if

few in politics can articulate in any detail a world in the not-too-distant future where society would be better. There are policies; soundbites; vague aspirations: but nothing remotely at the level of ambition of the past.

This post and the much more detailed paper which sits behind it tackle the problem – or the crisis – of insufficient social imagination. Social imagination – variously abstract, practical, theoretical and tangible – has been a dimension of human thought and activity throughout history. But somehow our collective ability to sustain and such feats of of imagination fall short or what they once were and now need to be.

As many of the examples cited in the paper clearly show, it can take a very long time for ideas to permeate from imagination to reality and many never make it. We do not read More’s Utopia as either a description of the society he lived in or as a prescient account of the times which were to follow. Hari Seldon has no place in this story (though the world-building techniques of science fiction writers may do). The recognition that ideas which subsequently become central and powerful start on the periphery certainly shouldn’t surprise us and probably shouldn’t worry us either. There may be a need for greater concern that the mechanisms by which those ideas get closer to power and are adopted and incorporated have somehow become attenuating as a by-product of wider political and institutional changes.

But the positive message here is a really important one. Imagination is at once a powerful tool and part of the essence of what it means to be human. We should cherish it, nourish it and respect it.

MoJ digital and technology strategy

Tom Read – MOJ Digital & Technology

The Ministry of Justice digital team has long exemplified many of the best characteristics of digital in government, getting on with doing good things without making a song and dance about it.

So it’s no surprise that their approach to creating a strategy embodies those same characteristics. In about a thousand words, this post makes clear what is to be done, why it matters, and how they will make it happen. Your strategy is probably longer, but it’s worth asking whether it’s better.

In which I am a bit over this digital transformation business.

Catherine Howe

It’s a pretty safe rule of thumb that whatever Catherine Howe is thinking about now, the rest of us will stumble onto at some point in the indefinite future. So if she is over the digital transformation business, we need to wonder where the zeitgeist will manifest next.

One of the more provocative definitions of technology is ‘everything which doesn’t work yet’. Similarly, we will know that mapping as a technique and transformation as a goal have become normal when we hardly need to talk about them, any more than we talk about the mature technology which is around us and so hardly needs to be spoken about. But that, as this post starts to explore, merely clears the ground for deeper and harder questions. The search is on for a theory of change to shape the search for answers.

Universal Laws of the World

Morgan Housel – Collaborative Fund

Rules of thumb are useful things; partly because they avoid the need for original thought on every occasion and partly because they can help avoid the risk of being over persuaded by one’s own arguments. This modestly titled post is a slightly random collection of laws, some more rigorous than others, some more widely familiar. No 5 is new to me but seems to encapsulate something important, which could be expressed even more pithily as ‘all change is irreversible. And No 11 is one which people with tendencies to strategic abstraction should chant ritually whenever they come together.

(found through Ian Leslie’s gloriously eclectic newsletter, which is always packed with gems)

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.

Russell Davies’s strategy advice

Anna Shipman – JFDI

A simple list of a dozen points about how to do better strategy making, from somebody with real insight and experience. They won’t all be right in every context, but they are all worth thinking about – to be treated more as provocations than as prescriptions. There’s also a plug for Good Strategy, Bad Strategy, which is an excellene book, though its ideas are even better expressed in the shorter, sharper article version

A brief introduction to digital government

Eddie Copeland

Digital government is both something and nothing. It is something because there’s no denying that people use the phrase and think they mean something by it. Digital technologies are a distinctive driver of change in modern societies and economies and they make things possible that would be otherwise harder or not feasible at all. Filing cabinet government. carbon paper government and even mainframe government are all very clearly different from digital government. And yet digital government is nothing. Precisely because digital is everything, calling something digital doesn’t add much to understanding, but draws attention to the technology, which is simultaneously vitally important and not the thing which really matters.

But given that the phrase is not going to go away, some clear-headed thinking about what we should understand by it and how we should apply is highly desirable. And that is precisely what this paper offers. It’s a draft open to public comment, so very much still evolving, but it’s already a useful overview. It neatly and successfully avoids the traps of equating digital with technology and digital uniquely with service design, but is slightly less successful in avoiding the suggestion that digital is done by digital teams.

Jumbo

BBC

pilots looking and pointing at a 747Fifty year old documentaries are not the staple of Strategic Reading, but this one is an intriguing insight into thinking about the future – a future which has of course become our past and present. It was made just a few months before the Boeing 747 went into service: the physical plane was very real, the implications for wider service design were very uncertain.

There’s an intriguing clip early on where the head of the Royal Aircraft Establishment observes that over the then half century of passenger flight, planes had doubled in size every ten years. The 747 fits that trend perfectly. Extrapolating to the next century, muses the Director, that would imply planes carrying 10,000 people. And you can hear in his voice both confidence in the trend and doubt about its implications, battling for dominance.

Half a century on, we know that it was right to doubt – the 747 was in some important ways on the inflection point of the growth curve. Planes haven’t got faster or higher or more comfortable since then, and they haven’t, with the brief and apparently aberrant exception of the Airbus 380, got any bigger.

That brings Herb Steins’ great line to mind, ‘If something cannot go on for ever, then it won’t’, and that in turn is an important reminder that in thinking about the future, it is unwise to assume that exponential change is unconstrained and indefinite.

Meanwhile, stay with the documentary to stumble across the world’s only vertical take off passenger plane, developed at the same time as the 747, but never quite attaining the same dominance of the skies.

Strategy: it’s a tricky business

Catherine Howe – Curious?

This short post is more of an aside than a developed argument, but from this source it’s not surprising that even an aside contains a couple of memorable and provocative thoughts.

The first is an expansion of the title, which nicely echoes Emily Tulloh’s recent post:

Strategy is a tricky business. Too much and you end up endlessly thinking and not doing. Too little and you end up just reacting.

The second part of the post turns to the temptations and risks of being a leader in a hierachy:

It’s very seductive to be in a leadership position as the whole system is biased towards enabling you to be right

Two sides of service design

Emily Tulloh – Futuregov

This is a post about what’s involved in doing service design and, taken at face value, it’s a pretty good one. But it also works as an extended metaphor for other kinds of change development, and for strategy in particular. Figuring it out and making it real are presented here as the fundamental stages of service design – but pretty much everything said about them works in terms of strategy too.

One version of that parallel is drawn within the post itself, with figuring it out equated to strategy and making it real equated to delivery. But it also works – and arguably works better – to see strategy as the parallel to the whole service design process: a strategy which does not take account of its own approach to delivery is one with a pretty important gap.1216ethn

Why do so many digital transformations fail?

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.

Clearing the fog: Using outcomes to focus organisations

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.

Why Futurism Has a Cultural Blindspot

Tom Vanderbilt – Nautilus

This post is more a string of examples than a fully constructed argument but is none the worse for that. The thread which holds the examples together is an important one: predicting the future goes wrong because we misunderstand behaviour, not because we misunderstand technology.

A couple of points stand out. One is the mismatch between social change and technology change: the shift of technology into the workplace turned out to be much easier to predict than the movement of women into the workplace. That’s a specific instance of the more general point that we both under- and over-predict the future. A second is that we over-weight the innovative in thinking about the future (and about the past and present); as Charlie Stross describes it, the near-future is comprised of three parts: 90% of it is just like the present, 9% is new but foreseeable developments and innovations, and 1% is utterly bizarre and unexpected.

None of that is a reason for abandoning attempts to think about the future. But the post is a strong – and necessary – reminder of the need to keep in mind the biases and distortions which all too easily skew the attempt.

The Ultimate Guide to Making Smart Decisions

Shane Parrish – Farnam Street

Who could not want not just any guide to making smart decisions, but the ultimate guide? That’s a big promise, but there is some substance to what is delivered. The post itself briskly covers categories of bad decisions before moving on to extensive sets of links to material on thinking in general and decision making in particular. I can’t imagined anyone wanting to work through all of that systematically, but if you need a way of homing in on an aspect of or approach to the subject, this could be a very good place to start.

The four types of strategy work you need for the digital revolution

Josef Oehmen – LSE Business Review

The world is probably not crying out for another 2×2 typology of strategy, but nevertheless still they come. This one is interesting less for it cells than for its axes. Degree of uncertainty is fairly standard, but degree of people impact is slightly more surprising. The people in question are those within the organisation being strategised about – is the relevant change marginal to business as usual, are jobs and careers at risk, how much emotional stress can be expected. All those are good questions, of course, and the approach is certainly a good counter to the tendency to see people as machine components in change, and then to be surprised when they turn out not to be. But it risks muddling up two rather different aspects of the people impact of strategy – those who conceive of the strategy and execute its projects on one hand, and those who are affected by it on the other – and raises the bigger question of whether an internal people focus is the best way of understanding strategy in the first place. And the answer to that feels more likely to be situational than universal.

Perhaps though it is the matrix itself which gets slightly in the way of understanding. This is not an argument that organisations choose or discover which cell to be in or by what route to move between them. Instead:

Our impression was that the most successful companies had learned to execute activities in all four quadrants, all the time, and had robust processes for managing the transition of an activity from one quadrant to the other.

How to be Strategic

Julie Zhuo – Medium

This is a post which earns itself a place here just by its title, though that’s not all that can be said in its favour. It doesn’t start very promisingly, setting up the shakiest of straw men in order to knock them down – does anybody really think that ‘writing long documents’ is a good test of being strategic? – but it improves after the first third, to focus much more usefully on doing three things which actually make for good strategy. As the post acknowledges, the suggestions are very much in the spirit of Richard Rumelt’s good and bad strategy approach. So you can read the book, read Rumelt’s HBR article which is an excellent summary of the book, or read this post. Rumelt’s article is probably the best of the three, but this shorter and simpler post isn’t a bad alternative starting point.

Too Many Projects

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.