How to change the future

This is worth a serious listening to... How to change the future

...it is a recording of a talk about resolving important, complex social problems given at the RSA last Tuesday (2 Oct 12) by Adam Kahane.  The introduction to the talk says...

People who are attempting to tackle these huge global problems often find themselves frustratingly stuck. They can’t solve their problems in their current context, which is too unstable or unfair or unsustainable. They can’t transform this context on their own — it’s too complex to be grasped or shifted by any one person or organization or sector. And the people whose cooperation they need don’t understand or agree with or trust them or each other.

Kahane explains his approach - called Transformative Scenario Planning - which is a way of tackling Complex (or Wicked problems).  I am probably going to butcher things horribly here but the essence is... get a bunch of folks together who represent the entire problem in question (for a long time - days); and then, with sensitive facilitation, help them to work collaboratively and thoughtfully to develop stories of possible futures (the scenarios) and go on to describe ways these might be brought about. With the right people, at the right time, working in the right way, building the right relationships, some magic happens and stuff begins to change. This makes a lot of sense to me and I am impressed by Kahane's track record; he was, for example, involved with the transition to the end of apartheid.

I thought about how these ideas might be applied in the context of the big problems of Government IT (with which my work is mostly concerned). My sense is that, at heart, these are essentially social issues and not at all dissimilar to those Kahane talks about. I wonder if anything like his approach has been tried?  I am suspecting not: there has been a wind of change in Government  IT lately but, on the face of it, the approach has been rather more analytic than collaborative.  Perhaps it is time to give ideas like these a shot?

What do you think?

In praise of the Post-it

This very nearly caused a serious tea-spill this morning...

Analyst: Government’s digital leaders’ network shouldn’t be using post-it notes

It's a story about an analyst who, having read a post on the Government Digital Service blog - First Digital Leaders’ meeting, said this...

“Why did they have a physical meeting? This could have been done far more effectively using digital tools – communication and collaboration tools that would have taken ideas and automatically captured them, rather than the joys of Post It notes and pens,”

Earlier in the day, having read the same post, I had tweeted this...

  So how was it that we came to such different views?

Here's what I think happens when we get involved with a Post-it exercise at a meeting...

  • We get engaged, immediately, in the task.
  • We get to focus on the things we personally care about, which lets us get things off our chest and makes us feel involved.
  • We get to stand up to stick the Post-its on the wall (or wherever), which is always better than sitting motionless on our bottoms.
  • We bump into other people, randomly, which starts conversations that will perhaps develop into useful relationships.
  • We experience hugely valuable, non-verbal communication.
  • We get to connect, first hand in a very personal way, with people and their ideas.
  • We can move Post-its around readily, which means themes can be identified quickly.
  • We take away with us a colourful, unique and memorable image that represents the contribution of everyone.
  • We become part of a shared experience.
  • And probably a load of other stuff too.

Some of this is possible using digital tools, but not all and certainly not in the 20 minutes or so that Post-it exercises take. Doing this kind of thing, particularly in the early stages of forming a new group, is enormously valuable. Of course the conversation will continue online afterwards but it will be a very different one because of the experience of the physical meeting.

I am a HUGE FAN of digital tools but the suggestion of using them in lieu of the useful meeting these folks clearly had is, to me, unutterably daft.

Never underestimate the power of the Post-it.

Sitting people on chairs in rows at meetings is a criminal waste

Bee trapped in bonnet. Write... Quite often I go to big meetings to do with changing things. Almost invariably these meetings have lots of people sitting on chairs in rows - sometimes for hours. The people at the front talk; and the people in the rows (mostly) listen.

I struggle to think of a worse way of promoting change.

Change in organisations is about encouraging people to work with other people to do things differently. If we sit them down - doing little but (if we are lucky) listening and pretty much isolated (because rows are like that) - we just can't expect them, immediately afterwards, to leap up and start dancing a new dance.

Of course change programmes are made of more than just big meetings; but it really doesn't help if the set pieces send exactly the wrong message.

We only change our behaviour when we feel something - inspiration, commitment, connection, fear. We don't change just because we know something new or even because someone else is excited. Big meetings can be big opportunities to share understanding, to initiate connection and... to stir feeling.

We should use them differently. We should make them the change we want to see.

(Here are some ideas.)

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

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.