The King's New Palace - A play


Once upon a time in a land not that far away...

QUEEN: King, I'm getting properly narked here. This palace is rubbish: the rain is pouring in, the west wall is in ruins, the servants hate it and it costs an effing fortune to run. Can you please get your finger out and sort it?

KING: I know, I know my dear. I'll ring the palace vendors now.

The next day...

KING: Look here my man I need a new palace.

PALACE VENDOR: Excellent Your Majesty, may I say what splendid raiments Your Majesty is wearing today? [King looks impatient] Presumably Your Majesty will be seeking a fine, gold-encrusted palace with multiple turrets and the latest drawbridge?

KING: Look, Mate. I'm skint. I just need a palace.

PALACE VENDOR: Of course Sir, we will design you an excellent palace that will meet all of your needs and, of course, your budget.

Six months later...

PALACE VENDOR: The design for your new palace Your Majesty...

KING: Thank God. Looks great. When can you build it?

PALACE VENDOR: Excellent Sir; I'll have our planning team on the case immediately.

KING: Incidentally, how much did this design cost me?

PALACE VENDOR: Ah Sir, you will be very pleased to know, only slightly more than the very modest proportion of your dwindling fortune that we estimated 6 months ago Sir. [King sighs]

PALACE VENDOR: [Through the gap in the closing drawbridge] By the way Sir, would you like your palace building with our Royal Cumulus™ foundations?

KING: I really don't care; I just want a bloody palace. Now hoppit!

PALACE VENDOR: Of course Sir. [Resigned look creeps across King's face as the dilapidated drawbridge bangs shut]

Three months later...

PALACE VENDOR: We have looked at the design Your Majesty and, because of the innovative nature of some of the cutting-edge money-saving features, we recommend that - whilst we get on with the foundations of the new palace - we run a pilot project: a gatehouse of a similar design to ensure that these new features are fully honed to meet your needs. Should have it done in a trice.

KING: Have you ever built a palace like this before?

PALACE VENDOR: As you know Sir, we are well established builders of palaces, you can trust us to do an excellent job. [King sighs]

Six months later...

KING: I see the gatehouse is not finished.

PALACE VENDOR: Many of the critical features of the gatehouse are now almost complete Your Majesty. Just some tweaking here and there.

KING: You have got to be 'aving a giraffe: it doesn't even have a bleedin' roof!

PALACE VENDOR: One or two minor delays Sir, but you'll be pleased to know that we are not wasting time: construction of your new palace on the hill is well under way.

KING: But surely the point of building the gatehouse was... [King tails off realising that he is committed and has no way out without considerable loss of royal face]


A year later, still in the old palace

KING: Morning Dear [Tentatively - Queen looks thunderous]

QUEEN: Look here mush, we are still in this manking old dump. And, because legal action against the palace vendors is stuck with our equally useless lawyers, we are utterly potless. The rain is still pouring in, the west wall is still in ruins and the east wall is now not looking much better, the servants have mostly buggered off and it costs even more of an effing fortune to run. Fix it or you're flying solo from now on. Capiche?

KING: I know, I know my dear. I'll ring the other palace vendor now.

QUEEN: What?! [incandescent by this stage] Don't you dare touch that dial! For god's sake, man up will you! Do something different! [The King thinks for a while, steels himself and issues a command]

A week later every engineer, builder, architect, tradesman, labourer in the land gather at the palace

KING: Right you lot, I need a new palace.

An animated discussion ensues amongst the assembly, after some time a lowly serf steps forward...

SERF: King?

KING: What is it?

SERF: Er... I was thinking... do you actually need a palace Sir?

KING: Look here pal, get wise or your swede will be on the palace railings before you can say axe.

SERF: I am being serious Sir. What do you really want... in the long term I mean?

KING: [King takes off crown and scratches head] Well, I suppose that I need somewhere comfortable to live for me and my family, a bit royal but not too expensive.

SERF: And what is the big problem right now?

KING: If I am honest, I'd just like the rain to stop coming into the royal bed chamber.

More animated discussion and some of the tradesmen begin to look at the palace

The next day...

QUEEN: Blimey that tarpaulin bloke was nippy.

KING: Indeed, and a nice touch to put up one with the royal crest on. Temporary, but it looks quite swanky in a funny kind of way and it only cost us two groats and a bag of wheat.

[Knock on door]

SERF: We've had an idea Your Majesty. Whilst Terry was putting up the tarpaulin he found that actually your walls aren't in bad nick at all. Mick the Mason reckons that we could salvage some of the stones from the west wall and fix you up with a pretty decent Royal Apartment.

KING: Here we bloody go. How much? How long?

SERF: Well, I've had a chat with the boys and we will do what we can in a month for 400 groats. Reckon we should have two rooms ready by then.

KING: OK that's quick but just two rooms?

SERF: We don't know exactly what's going to happen, but doing something quickly should give you somewhere comfortable to live and allow us to learn what's what. Also, if things go wrong, it won't be too much of a disaster.

KING: Alright, give it a go. But remember what I said about your head and the palace railings

A month later...

QUEEN: Whoohoo Kingy! Those chaps have done what they said. Two rooms done. They've put in some of that insulation the peasants have been using: I've not the faintest what it is but the place is as cosy as you like. And they've installed some of that stuff they call plumbing. Must have cost a fortune.

KING: Er... no. Exactly what they said: 400 groats. Actually, I bunged them an extra 50 for their trouble and asked them to get on and build the other rooms.

Three months later...

QUEEN: Darling, I'm well chuffed: Royal Apartment done. Tarpaulin replaced with a proper roof. Even had some dosh left over to get some of those soft furnishings. Doesn't much look like a palace but, like you asked, we have somewhere comfortable to live, it's looking quite kingly and surprisingly the privy purse is left with more than just a few bits of fluff and an old bus ticket in it.

KING: Not only that my dear: now all these builder chappies have been working here for a while they understand what we need better and are getting familiar with the place. They seem to be getting on well together and are coming up with all sorts of sensible ideas.

And so things carried on. The builders developed the buildings adding more features. After a year or so the place was even beginning to look quite splendid. A new kind of palace. Although it wasn't what the King and Queen would have imagined building, it was just what they wanted: comfortable, royal in a contemporary sort of way and cheap to run; even the servants enjoyed working there.

And, cutting a long fairy story short, they all lived happily ever after. (Apart, that is, from the palace vendors).

Written for a lark over my Sunday morning coffee. It's about the current situation with government IT. It contains some wild simplifications and dreadfully unfair lampooning; but over to you to decide how wild and how unfair.

Mark Foden is speaking at the Defence Academy 'Agile' symposium

This post was originally an announcement on - Changes in Foden Grealy explains why it is here. ---

I will be speaking at a symposium - An Agile Approach: The key to success? - at the Defence Academy at Shrivenham on 12 September 2012.

After some head-scratching I decided to call my talk "Complexity and the incremental change revolution"; the conference blurb says...

This talk is about complexity in organisations and the need for a revolution in how we think about and manage change. It will explain why it is critically important for government to develop a capacity for incremental change and the deep shifts in mindset that will be needed to enable it. Drawing on real examples, it will describe the profound cultural barriers to adopting incremental approaches and practical things that can be done to get over them. It will look at ‘Agile’ and the challenges for IT people in particular.

There are more details on LinkedIn. It's £50 (or £15 if you are a Cranfield/Shrivenham alumnus). Nice day in the country. Bang up lunch. Come along to cheer/heckle.

Panel discussion on SMEs in the public sector

I was on the telly last week (well, sort of) in a live panel discussion on the role of SMEs in public sector IT...

ITU Live - SMEs, Agile and the Public Sector in this Age of Austerity

It's an hour long and there is no singing but there's some useful natter covering what the Government is doing to embrace smaller companies; and what 'agile' is and what it might do for the public sector.

Creating cultures in government that cope with complexity

Following on from thinking in a few recent posts about the emerging nature of change in government (and after inspiration and help from Noah Raford... Governments are facing new, game-changing complexity. They are dealing with increasingly pressing and diverse problems: from improving public services, to ensuring national security, to dealing with the global financial crisis. Each problem has its own specific set of issues; but now, in a world of mounting complexity, these issues interact and it is near-impossible to manage them separately. A focus on applying the right technical solution for each problem in isolation is unlikely to work. The real challenge is to develop cultures that will enable people in government to make sense of, and deal with, complex situations in appropriate, holistic ways.

The new challenges

The new challenges of government can be considered in three areas: Complexity, Culture and Community…


The challenges of government are not just getting more complicated; they are getting Complex. Complexity is different. In Complicated situations, cause-and-effect can be predicted: in Complex ones, because these situations are too new, too dynamic or too uncertain, it can’t.

Complicated problems can be solved through clever analysis and the use of existing practice. Whilst we will still have Complicated challenges (best dealt with in traditional ways) the bulk of critically important ones now facing Government are Complex and need different treatment.


Crucially, applying Complicated solutions to Complex challenges is likely to be unfruitful and possibly counter-productive. A different approach is needed if government is to thrive in the 21st Century.


In the past when things were just Complicated, we were able to hire experts to think our way to a solution. This doesn’t work when things are complex. Why?

Look at a stark example from the UK National Health Service. The UK Department of Health spent billions on an IT project to manage patient health records, which has now been abandoned…

"The Department of Health is not going to achieve its original aim of a fully integrated care records system across the NHS. Trying to create a one-size-fits-all system in the NHS was a massive risk and has proven to be unworkable.” Chair of UK Government Public Accounts Committee

Complexity was at the heart of the failure. The programme was too ambitious, requirements were too diverse, suppliers were too hard to manage, stakeholders were too unsupportive (and so on). The approach was essentially a top-down, analytic one: hire some smart people to work out the answer and then build a system to implement it. But Complex problems don’t need more expertise or better answers; they need a culture of dealing with complexity. When things are Complex, Government has to be flexible. It must be able to design and build systems whilst, at the same time, trying to understand and change them: perhaps like learning a musical instrument whist trying to make a living from playing it.

Culture is important. Government organisations need to be more responsive to their operating environments; they need to be more agile. Sub-units, that were previously separated for efficiency reasons, must interact spontaneously and not because they have been told to. Individuals at all levels must take more responsibility and their managers must enable (rather than control) them as they do that. Organisations must think and operate more as networks and less as hierarchies. All this means a significant change in behaviour: a change that will feel as uncomfortable as writing with the wrong hand. This new approach will not be brought about by altering structure or processes or technology.

These ideas mostly run against the grain of the way governments are structured and managed: behaviours, beliefs and ways of doing things would feel very different. On top of this, whilst Complexity is turning things upside down, the Complicated stuff hasn’t gone away either. Everything needs to be juggled at the same time: Government needs to grow new ways around old ones and everyone involved must understand why different situations need different approaches.

A new culture is needed.


The make-up and functioning of government communities also presents a significant challenge. To create a culture of dealing with complexity it is necessary to nurture a community of staff that appreciates how to deal with complexity. It is often difficult for government cultures that have grown up with strict rules and complicated procedures to make this shift. In IT, for example, working in a complex way can bring significant, unexpected change. This can create headaches for security teams, support services, policy people and administrators. These problems cannot be designed away, since they are required by the nature of the complex situation themselves. So it is crucial to involve those likely to be affected right from the beginning. The distinction is that when it’s Complicated you need to build teams to solve problems: when it’s Complex you need to grow communities to improve situations.

What to do?

Encouragingly there are plenty of smart and influential people involved with Government who understand these issues and are pioneering new solutions. Take a look at Tim O’Reilly talking about his vision of Government as a Platform. O’Reilly sees a need to develop 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.

This approach has perhaps three components: Experimentation, Collaboration and Openness …


To create something big and Complicated - like a new road system – then of course the right thing to do is turn to engineers and other professionals who do this kind of thing for a living. To do something big and Complex - like changing the way an organisation works - don’t do the same thing. There is too much uncertainty, too much dynamism and too much complexity. Instead, focus on the Small - lots and lots of fast, iterative Small. The more experiments, the better, as long as open and non-punitive feedback is encouraged as well.


The point is to succeed or fail fast, and often, and do it in small ways that don’t have consequences should things go wrong. This way we can learn and progress quickly. If we don’t, we are prone to missing opportunities and making big, expensive mistakes.


In Complex situations traditional means of coordination, through organisational hierarchies, are not responsive enough. Organisations need to be more spontaneous; when faced with a problem or an opportunity, people need to be able to respond themselves rather than wait for managers. This means people must have the facility both to identify the others they need to work with and then to coordinate that work effectively. Tools like Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and WordPress are transforming interaction and cooperation in our private lives: there is a huge opportunity to use similar tools within organisations to transform our work lives.

Incorporating social capabilities into work tools and creating the culture to use them effectively will take time but is critical to future success: see the recent McKinsey report The rise of the networked enterprise or the Forbes article Social Power – The coming corporate revolution. There is currently huge emphasis on creating tools to store and distribute information but, in dealing with Complexity, it is more important to connect People with People than it is to connect People with Information.


Complexity creates enormous and pressing demand for new capabilities. It will not be possible for government departments to provide everything everyone wants. It is therefore essential that they reach out to both their “customers” and their partners to help understand and deliver novel ways of doing things. To do this effectively there is a need for both new infrastructure and a new culture of outward looking, collaborative staff.

The iPhone is an example of this kind of thing. Apple provide a robust technology infrastructure and facilities for anyone with the skills to create applications for it – there are now nearly 500,000 iPhone apps that Apple could never have created themselves. The same approach could be taken in government to empower partner organisations, internal teams or even gifted amateurs amongst the staff to bring innovative ideas to life.

This thinking is developing in the UK. For example, some local councils are partnering with a social enterprise called Fix My Street - a service that allows citizens to report on problems like holes in the road, graffiti and illegal dumping of waste using a website and associated mobile applications. The initiative is reducing clean-up times and increasing satisfaction of local residents.

Such initiatives have three important features: open technical infrastructure made available to all; open services that enable others to use that infrastructure; and, crucially, open behaviours that create a cohesive, helpful community around the infrastructure that will ensure it is used. And this openness starts with friendly, can-do, inclusive behaviours from everyone involved (and not really the technology): the culture thing again.

The right people

 There’s no doubt that developing these new ways of doing things will be a challenge. Altering organisational behaviours takes subtle, thoughtful action by emotionally competent folks with a genuine knack for handling emergent change. Governments will need to look hard and think laterally to find them.

From the inside

People, both workers and managers, who have done well in typically procedural government environments, may not be ideally suited to guiding a transition to more emergent ways of working. New thinking will be needed.

There are people with the right mind-set already in government organisations. Some may not be visible because of the jobs they are in or because they are comparatively junior: they will need to be found, encouraged and perhaps offered different work. Some may be noticeably frustrated: with support and in a changed environment, perhaps their energies can be directed for the good. Those with the best potential may be mavericks or otherwise unusual: don’t ignore them.

It may also be necessary to find a few new people from the outside. The right ones may come from quite different backgrounds and have little experience of the work at hand. They will probably not be easily found through traditional recruitment methods.

From the outside

Many government organisations have established relationships with large providers of consultancy, and that is the natural place to look for help; but consultancies optimised for analysing complicated stuff, designing intricate things, delivering big projects or who are otherwise steeped in Complicated ways of working are likely to find it hard to adapt their approach to handling the Complex. It’s a little like expecting Olympic gold-medal-winning rowing crews to retrain and repeat their success in Synchronised-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 hard for them to behave in, and support, the emergent ways of working needed to cope with complexity.

Since handling complexity is about organic changes rooted within the organisation there is much less scope for big set-piece technology implementations or organisational restructurings. There is much less money to be made. With big providers, there would always be an urge to convert help for the Complex into more profitable support for the Complicated; and this may not be the right thing. The DNA of these organisations is just not right: smaller organisations that focus specifically on supporting emergent change may be a better choice.


Complexity changes the game of government. To be successful in the future, governments must foster the emergence of a quite different working culture that simultaneously copes with the new complexity and continues to deliver existing services reliably and well. This new culture must combine: an experimental, iterative, holistic approach to tackling big challenges; intensive collaboration with colleagues, partners and citizens; and openness of infrastructure, technology and behaviours. Finding the right people to lead the development of these new ways of thinking and working will be absolutely critical.

In times of change the learners will inherit the earth while the knowers will find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists. Eric Hoffer

Agile Tea and the Four Ex Model

Today I spoke at Agile Tea, a networking session run by the Innovation and Delivery team of the Government Digital Service. As the event was in the cafe of House of Fraser in Victoria Street (very nice: you should try it), there were no whiteboards to write stuff on. So we used the floor. Here is a digital version of what I said: hang on to your seat...

Huge thanks to Abby Peel and Mark O'Neill for inviting me; to Steve Lamb and Paul Norris for photos; to Jon the very understanding manager of the cafe and to Vince for coming an awful long way to stick 6 bits of tape to the floor.

How to think about IT

Most of my work in the past few years has been in helping Government organisations be more effective and agile (had to get the word in) in delivering IT. This post explains a model that I have been using to help our clients understand and manage the life-cycle of IT delivery from a business perspective. I am wary of overdoing the consulting-model thing but many folks have found this one useful and some have been nudging me to write it up for some time. So here it is. See what you think. The presentation is in the form of a Prezi. If there is a blue arrow: click it and the Prezi should load. The main control buttons are in the bottom right of the presentation window below; waggle your mouse there and they should appear. There's a Full Screen button and Back and Forward arrows: click and hold the Back arrow for an option to skip to the beginning of the presentation. Unless you are endowed with Clark Kent eyeballs go for the Full Screen option.

Hang on to your seat...

Do leave a comment: is there stuff that could do with explaining better;  do you know of other,  more instructive models; or perhaps you think we have gone bonkers and are miles off beam? Please let us know. Also, since this is the first time we have used Prezi, let us know what you think of that too.