Noses for hire: a new kind of help?


This post is about how government organisations need to change, and how to get the right people to do the right things to make this change happen. In particular, I will talk about hired help. And about noses.

I'll start with Complexity (again). If you have read other posts on this blog, you will know that I think complexity is a big deal and that it's vital for us all to develop a shared understanding of how to cope with it. You will also know that I am fond of David Snowden’s Cynefin framework that helps explain it...

If you are not familiar with Cynefin then do take a look at the Wikipedia page about it or, probably better, this 4 minute video. The framework describes four main types of organisational situation: Simple, Complicated, Complex and Chaotic; and recommends how to make decisions and respond in each situation. Cutting things short, our approaches to doing things in government have largely been built to cope with Simple and Complicated situations, which can be dealt with by relying on existing Best/Good Practice (see the diagram); but now the centre of gravity of the challenges has moved to the Complex situation...


Whilst we will still have Complicated challenges (best dealt with in a traditional, linear way) the bulk of critically important ones are now Complex and will need a different approach, which Snowden calls Emergent. I particularly like the ideas of Donald Kettl who talks about the need to move away from, what he calls, 'Vending-machine government' towards a collaborative model. This collaborative approach will feel strange: emergent vs planned, egalitarian vs authoritarian, entrepreneurial vs directive, networked vs hierarchical, open vs closed and so on. There's a great summary of this in this blog post by John Kamensky.

Encouragingly there are plenty of smart and influential folks who get Mr Kettl's ideas and are doing something about them. Take a look at Tim O'Reilly talking about his vision of Government as a Platform. O'Reilly sees a need to develop of open infrastructures - particularly IT ones - to enable individuals, companies and social enterprises to participate much more in government and so provide the innovation, diversity and energy needed to deal with Complex situations. Of course this is not going to be a binary flip: governments will need to develop these collaborative ways and have them co-exist with the more traditional ones. Which will be a challenge. A bit like keeping matter and anti-matter in your trousers.

This is big stuff indeed. There is a need to spark a social revolution in our government organisations to enable, what feel to me like, mighty changes in culture and behaviour. This is itself a Complex problem; and critically - the nub of this post - won't get done through change programmes of the sort we are mostly used to. If you want to create something big and Complicated - like a new road system - then of course the right thing to do is to put yourself in the hands of engineers and other professionals who do this kind of thing for a living. If you want to do something big and Complex - like changing the way your organisation works - don't do the same thing. First, don't do Big because Big probably won't work: lots of Small, done fast, is better. And second, don't be tempted, even if IT is involved, to hand it over to someone else. Beware of strangers bearing slide-rules and To-be diagrams: change like this has to come from within. (And no Zen Master jokes please.)

If you want more on what needs to be done, take a look at my earlier post - Creating cultures that cope with complexity.

Encouraging new behaviours needs subtle, thoughtful action by emotionally competent folks with a genuine knack for handling emergent change. For example, Malcolm Gladwell's Law of the Few (from his book Tipping Point) resonates with me, he says: "The success of any kind of social epidemic is heavily dependent on the involvement of people with a particular and rare set of social gifts". Specifically he talks about: Connectors who have a special ability to bring people together; Mavens who are 'almost pathologically helpful' sharers of critical information; and Salesmen who have the magic of getting others to agree with them. This is not of course the whole story, but thinking like this is glaringly, glaringly absent from popular government change cookbooks - like Managing Successful Programmes.

So, if you have realised that you need emergent change in an organisation geared up for doing largely the opposite, what do you do? What is emergent and how do you know when to be it? Usually Complex things are mangled together with Complicated ones: how do you unpick them and treat each the right way? Where do you find Gladwell's Few and, having found them, what do you ask them to do?

The inescapable bottom line is that you need a nose for it: you need to develop an instinct for working this way. And this will come mostly from having a go: 'learning by doing'. The good news is that (as William Gibson said), "The future is already here - it's just not well distributed"; there are plenty of people doing this already and, because openness is fundamental to their way of working, they are sharing it like mad. The Web is soaking in their thinking. You just need to take the time to find their work and connect with them. They will help you, and the really valuable help will be free.

OK, you may feel the need for some more-focused, short-term help to get things going. So where to look for it?

Many government organisations have established relationships with large providers of consultancy, and that is the natural place to look. But, organisations optimised for analysing complicated stuff, designing intricate things, delivering big projects or who are otherwise steeped in the Complicated, are unlikely to have what it takes when it comes to the Complex: it's just so different. Put another way (and you will say I am being grossly naughty here) how many Olympic gold-medal-winning rowing crews have gone on to similar success in Synchro-swimming? Whilst these organisations may have individuals with the right skills, the context in which they work and the way they are managed makes it very hard for them to behave in, and support, the Emergent ways I have been talking about. The DNA of these organisations is just not right. Also, since there's not a whole lot of money to be made in this area, there would always be an urge to convert help for the Complex into much more valuable support for the Complicated; and this may not be the right thing.

If you are looking for this sort of help, you are most likely to find the noses you need in very small organisations that focus specifically on supporting emergent change. (Er... a bit like us, maybe.)

What's your view? Do these ideas ring bells or maybe you think I am subconsciously inventing ways to keep myself fed. If you are in a big consultancy, maybe you think I am dead wrong. Do please let me know what you think.