Avoid learning too many lessons from these ‘unprecedented times’

Matt Jukes – Digital by Default

When things get back to normal (whatever that might mean), will everything have changed, or not very much at all?

This post makes the simple and powerful point that it is rash to assume that changes made under pressure in the particular circumstances of a crisis will survive once those immediate pressures have lessened. The much-touted “new normal” may well turn out to be surprising like the old one. So it’s a good idea to read this against the accidentally parallel piece by Matt Ballantine.

Is there any way of reconciling these points of view, beyond the trite observation that opinions differ?None that is certain, of course, it is genuinely too early to tell. But that doesn’t mean that it’s too early to think about what the answer might be. And in reflecting on that, it’s worth starting with Charlie Stross’s adage for thinking about the future:

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.

Are all offices, are some offices, is your office in the 90%, the 9% – or the 1%?

The world turned upside down?

Matt Ballantine

When things get back to normal (whatever that might mean), will everything have changed, or not very much at all?

This post argues that the office ion its current form can’t and won’t survive an era of social distancing. As long as physical distancing is required, no part of modern office design can work effectively, reversing its social value as well as its physical utility;

The “corner office”, blocked off in an open-plan space for senior bod, no longer has social capital when the main reason people work in an office is because they haven’t got the space at home to work remotely.

The post stresses how little physical change there has been to offices in the last half century, though in doing so perhaps understates the degree of social change which those physical structures have absorbed. But the more immediate question is whether the current hiatus in office life will be a driver for more radical change and the argument here is that it will be, both by choice and by inexorability.

All that makes it interesting to read alongside Matt Juke’s post which argues to an opposite conclusion.

Did A Virus Just Bring About The End Of The Office?

Paul Taylor

For many of us, the most obvious and immediate forced experiment we are taking part in is doing office work without an office. At some point the constraints which forced that to happen will start to relax and at that point we will have a choice. We can do our best to re-establish the old familiar patterns of work which seemed to work well enough, but which in any case needed to change. Or we can attempt a better synthesis of tools and places, of concentration and dispersion, of work and home – and of how we add value collectively to what we do individually.

Who says ‘normal’ was the right way to do things? We have an ideal opportunity to reset, rethink and rewire ourselves to create a more productive, more connected, happier and healthier new ‘normal’.

As an experiment, it has severe limitations: every other aspect of the crisis means that for many this is a forced coping strategy rather than a bold experiment to uncover a better future, but that doesn’t mean that there is no value in it, it simply means that we need to be careful in interpreting what it is telling us. But there should be no mistaking the strength of the message or the scale of the opportunity.

This post does not prescribe what we should do with that opportunity, but it is a characteristically powerful call to arms to take it and to make something of it.

For all the pain people are living though right now there is huge opportunity here. We may never go back to living and working in exactly the same ways we did before. In fact it would be a collective failure if we were to do so.

We’ll now need a genuinely radical review of the purpose of offices and that means having to think very differently about what it means to “go to work”.

Digital Cubicles

Simon Terry

Sometimes things are worth reading because they pose good questions, rather than because of the answers which are offered. This may be one of those. It starts with a tweet:

At one level, that’s a simple – but important – restatement of the classic analysis of technology adoption from 1989, The Dynamo and the Computer, which showed that the transition from steam to electric power in factories a century and more ago had parallels with the adoption of technology-supported working practices today: the benefit comes not from the technological breakthrough, but from the subsequent – sometimes long subsequent – transformation it supports in the way work gets done.

The suggestions made in the post for adding back transformation are sensible, but not especially radical or distinctive. But it comes into its own again at the peroration:

None of this digital transformation has anything to do with how many video images your videoconferencing platform shows on screen in meetings. What matter is how organisations and individuals work, learn and adapt. The real value is not to work on digital tools. The value creation occurs when we work, learn and adapt in new ways.

COVID and forced experiments

Benedict Evans

Many organisations, and many people who work in those organisations, have just discovered that their work is less bound to physical space and to being in the physical presence of other people than they used to think. For the moment, there is no alternative to working in a new way, however imperfect that new way might be or be thought to be. But at some point this long moment will be over. What then?

This post explores that question and others like it, where the intersection of technology, need and perceived possibility has changed. There are at least two levels to the answer. The first is relatively straightforward technology adoption: lots of people are suddenly doing things differently – the surge in video conferencing in both work and family lives is the most obvious, but far from the only one. The level of use will no doubt fall back in a post-COVID world, but it would be surprising if it were to fall back to the levels of a few weeks ago.

The second question is more interesting and much more difficult to answer: how do the existence and acceptance of different tools lead to different ways of interacting and different ways of getting things done? Moving a conversation from a meeting room to video conference is more than just a channel switch – moving one from a coffee shop even more so:

Every time we get a new kind of tool, we start by making the new thing fit the existing ways that we work, but then, over time, we change the work to fit the new tool. […] We’re going through a vast, forced public experiment to find out which bits of human psychology will align with which kinds of tool, just as we did with SMS, email or indeed phone calls in previous generations

We have been forced to do things differently. We will have choices about how – and whether – to use that experience to do things better.

The Double Diamond, 15 years on…

Cat Drew – Design Council

The double diamond is simple, elegant and intuitive – so much so that is has the feel of something which must always have existed, of being so well designed that it doesn’t feel designed at all. But of course the double diamond is as it is precisely because it is the result of design processes as well as a tool in many, many more.

It comes as a slight shock to be discover that it took form only 15 years ago, not least because if I were asked when I first became aware of it, I would have guessed longer ago than that, perhaps because I came to it from established ideas around divergent and convergent thinking. But it’s a good moment to step back and reflect on those 15 years and the value and variety the double diamond has offered.

Even better, it’s an invitation to look forward, to recognise that the double diamond has constantly evolved and mutated and that it will and should continue to do so – so if you have a double diamond story to tell or a double diamond prediction to make, this is the place to share it.

 

Don’t ask forgiveness, radiate intent

Elizabeth Ayer – Medium

Strategy is a subversive activity. Both in development and application it is likely to have uncomfortable consequences. Some people will see the value of the consequences; others will focus more on the discomfort. But in either case, doing things as they are always done round here is unlikely to be the best way of making progress. And thus the widespread mantra, ‘ask forgiveness, not permission’.

It sounds like a licence for liberation, but as this post brings out, it is in fact anything but: it depends on a level of confidence and sense of inclusion which is far from universal. But the post is less about criticising it and more about making the positive case for ‘radiating intent’ as an alternative: not directly asking permission, but clearly signalling intentions in way which allows them to be supported – or challenged – ahead of time.

The power of that is not just in avoiding the need for forgiveness while not being caught up with permission, it is that important things can’t be done either in isolation or in secret. Radiating intent is a critical superpower for strategic subversives as well as a useful approach to getting things done in staid organisations.

The tech we use for remote working

Ben Proctor – The Satori Lab

This is an apparently mundane post about basic tools needed to support effective team working, regardless of location. At first sight, that’s not strategic at all. Actually though, it’s highly strategic, in both a direct and a metaphorical sense.

Doing a thing well requires the right tools and infrastructure for the job. It’s not good enough to have lofty ambitions for remote collaboration without being willing put in place the foundations that will allow it to succeed. That’s both a specific lesson and a more general metaphor for organisational change: you can’t get away with wishing for the end without committing to the means, and putting the means in place is serious work, without which strategic aspirations go nowhere.

How to write a blog post

Jenny Vass

There are bloggers who are human beings. There are bloggers who are civil servants. It seems to come as a surprise to some people that there are bloggers who are both. Jenny Vass is simultaneously a shining example of how to operate at that intersection and a clear-sighted guide to others who might want to do the same. These are her top ten tips for government bloggers, which add up to a good starting point for anybody. I would only add an eleventh, taken from George Orwell, one of the great bloggers avant la lettre:

Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

It’s also good to see the post opening with an attempt to sustain the heavily threatened distinction between blog and blog post, on which Meg Pickard’s advice remains essential.

This is one of four posts related by content and timing – the others are by Janet Hughes. Lauren Currie. and Steph Gray. All four are well worth reading, with value to experienced bloggers as well as those new to blogging.

Where to start if you want to start blogging

Janet Hughes

Where to start? Well, here is no bad place, with pointers both to advice on blogging and to a wide range of individual and organisational public sector blogs. The heyday of the blogroll as a means by which one blog could signal the value of others is long past but this is a really useful freestanding equivalent It’s a perennial struggle to know where the good stuff is as blogs and their bloggers appear and fade, so having a well-informed overview of the landscape is especially helpful.

This is one of four posts related by content and timing – the others are by Jenny Vass , Lauren Currie and Steph Gray. All three are well worth reading, with value to experienced bloggers as well as those new to blogging.

How to start writing online

Lauren Currie – Redjotter

This is a post about blogging from a different perspective. Lauren Currie has long been a leader in giving voice to others, this post gives four ways of making the transition to a more public voice an easier one

This is one of four posts related by content and timing – the others are by Jenny Vass, Janet Hughes and Steph Gray. All four are well worth reading, with value to experienced bloggers as well as those new to blogging.

Blogging as thinking

Steph Gray – Postbureaucrat

There is much good advice to be had about how to blog, with excellent examples in the companion posts to this one. The related question of why blog tends to get less attention – or at least, the attention it gets tends to emphasise one set of reasons at the expense of another. Working in the open and being generous in sharing ideas and experience are all excellent things to do, but they are not the only value or necessarily the primary motivation.

This post sets out a different approach, to blogging as thinking, where the value is to the writer, with value to an audience a welcome bonus rather than a driving motivation. The delightful paradox is that very often that approach turns out to be the most powerful and resonant, with the greatest value to readers of all.

This is one of four posts related by content and timing – the others are by Jenny Vass, Janet Hughes and Lauren Currie. All four are well worth reading, with value to experienced bloggers as well as those new to blogging.

Diversity and Inclusion in the Civil Service – You’re Welcome

Cat Macaulay – Swimming in Stormy Weather

The questions you didn't know existed are the ones you most need to answerStrategy 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.

Designing better organisations: Why internal user experience matters to delivering better services

Ben Holliday – FutureGov

The quality of internal user experience is a good indicator of an organisation’s underlying attitude to user experience and thus of the service the organisation delivers. And of course the more distracting and time consuming internal services are, the less time and energy are available for the organisation’s real purpose.

That’s the core argument of this post and it is one which will resonate with many on the receiving end of such services. The conclusion it draws, that in seeking to transform an organisation, transforming its internal processes is a good place to start, may be less obvious, but is certainly worth thinking about.