This episode is a conversation with Daniel Thornton about why big government things go wrong and how the ideas of complexity might help.
Daniel Thornton - Bio
Daniel studied PPE at Oxford and History at LSE. He’s had huge experience in central government. He worked in the Foreign Office, Parliament, the Treasury, DCLG and has been a Private Secretary to the Prime Minister. Since then he’s worked for Gavi a charity promoting vaccination low-income countries; he’s been a programme director at the leading think tank the Institute for Government and he’s currently the Director for External Relations at Ark an educational charity running dozens of schools.
- Jeff Bezos' book: The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon
- Richard Pascale's book: Surfing the Edge of Chaos
- Mark Foden's article comparing the Olympics and Unversal Credit Government doesn't get complexity
- Daniel Thornton's Ministers Reflect interview with Nick Clegg
Mark: Hello. I’m Mark Foden. Welcome to The Clock and The Cat, a podcast of conversations about clocks and cats, obviously, but crucially about complexity. The Clock and The Cat explores the emerging science of complexity ultimately to help you generate better ideas and make better decisions, whatever you’re involved with. This is episode two. It’s the very first Clock and The Cat conversation, and I’m really excited to have Daniel Thornton with me. But, if you haven’t listened to episode one, then please would you temporarily curb your eagerness, hit the pause button, and go back. Episode one is an introduction to the podcast. It explains the “The Clock and The Cat” thing and it’s only seven minutes long. Whilst you’re off doing that, Daniel and I will have a cup of tea and a chat amongst ourselves.
Welcome back. Before you listen to my discussion with Daniel, I should say he and I have talked about complexity a lot in the past. Reviewing the recording, it’s clear we’ve presumed quite a lot of understanding about the topic that perhaps not everyone listening will have. IE: some of it might not make sense. Hopefully, you’ll want to find out more for yourself, but just to help right now, I’ll explain a few things in advance. Recapping on the first episode, it’s really important to understand we use the term complexity in a very specific way. Complexity is a particular phenomenon in a system and not just something really complicated.
During our conversation, we talk about the ideas of Ron and Ralph, two people well-known in the complexity field. Ron is Ron Heifetz, he’s a Harvard professor known for his work on adaptive change and he makes a distinction between technical change and adaptive change. Technical change is the sort of approach needed to make change in predominantly predictable situations. It’s based on analysis, planning and methodical delivery. Adaptive change is needed for unpredictable situations where the approach is to support the emergence of a new order through social dialogue, collaborative learning, and iterative delivery of new capability. If you listened to the first episode, you’ll see this directly relates to The Clock and The Cat analogy. Technical change works for clocks, and adaptive change for cats.
Ralph is Ralph Stacey, he’s a professor at University of Hertfordshire and a specialist in the theory of organisations. He’s a pioneer of applying the ideas of complexity that were originally developed in the natural sciences to the field of human interaction. His work on organisational change is important because he advocates a new way of thinking about management as an alternative to what he calls the dominant discourse. This dominant discourse is the taken for granted management thinking that begins with the early ideas of industrial era scientific management, and includes even the systems thinking and learning organisation approach have been business school staples until really quite recently. These ideas are absolutely central to the clock and the cat.
If you did go back to episode one, welcome back. Let’s get on with it. As I said, I’m here with Daniel Thornton. Daniel studied PPE at Oxford and history at LSE. He’s had a huge experience in central government. He worked in the foreign office, parliament, the treasury, DCLG and has been a private secretary to the prime minister. Wow. Since then he’s worked for Gavi, a charity promoting vaccination in low-income countries, he’s been a program director at the leading think tank Institute for Government, and he’s currently the director for external relations at Ark, an educational charity that runs dozens of schools. I’ve known Daniel for a few years, now. We’ve talked a lot about complexity and particularly how it’s relevant to the public sector. I found my conversations with him hugely useful and I’m hoping that you’ll find this one the same.
Daniel: Thank you very much.
Mark: Let’s start by talking about where your first interest in complexity came from.
Daniel: I was working at Gavi, and Gavi is a network organisation. It sits at the centre of a big network or organisations and people who work across developing countries trying to get kids immunised around the world. I was introduced to somebody called Richard Pascale and his associate Martin Herman. We worked together for several months and through this, I came to get interested in complexity and to learn about it. I found the approaches that they suggested worked very well in dealing with what have been pretty intractable problems.
Mark: What kind of things were they talking about?
Daniel: They were talking about the way that traditional approach is to change, and organisations are about clever people sitting in a room analysing things and then rolling out solutions that they’ve developed. Particularly, ineffective in an organisation as large and diverse … or a network as large and diverse as Gavi. What they talked about complexity and how in networks like Gavi, you can make change happen. How by developing solutions with people you can develop solutions that are actually going to work rather than seeming like a good idea from head office.
Mark: The things you were talking about, complexity from the human communication interaction point of view, rather than analysing networks.
Daniel: Yes, that’s right.
Mark: You didn’t do any kind of complexity science type stuff?
Daniel: No, it was about people. One of the thinkers that we were interested in was Heifetz who talked about adaptive challenges and technical challenges.
Mark: I think we’re hearing more and more people talk about adaptive change and complexity, but I don’t think it’s reached critical mass yet.
Daniel: I think that’s right and it’s also the case that I think complexity is getting misused and is being turned into just another tool for controlling people and instrumentalising them.
Mark: The Ralph Stacey stuff about dominant discourse, about how, as a manager, you conceive of you being responsible for a system and you can manage it and change it at will. A lot of the management teaching for the last sort of 30, 40 years has been about doing that. Whereas, with the new era of discussion about complexity, it’s about taking a fundamentally different view as you being a person involved in the system and your behaviour and the way you go about things being critical.
Daniel: Yes, absolutely. It was about not expecting to have a grand plan that would solve all of the problems that we faced. Trying to make moves that led to small changes perhaps, and also learning about the way things worked and what people thought of them, rather than trying to fix everything at once.
Mark: This is a critical point for me, the not having a grand plan thing because particularly, having worked in the public sector, it’s all about promising something in the future, describing it, getting votes for it and then delivering it. Similarly, actually, in private sector organisations, people want to see a plan that they can … a convincing business case and put against. But if you’re not doing that, then it brings I think some fundamental problems. Did you have those problems in Gavi? What did the senior people in that organisation think about not having a grand plan?
Daniel: I think they were potentially attracted to what Richard Pascale was suggesting, but-
Mark: They were involved in the discussions?
Daniel: Yes, indeed. Yeah, absolutely. I work for the CEO and he brought Ralph into the organisation. He brought Richard Pascale into the organisation.
Mark: Oh, right. Okay.
Daniel: But, I think it’s hard for people to kind of give up on the idea of a grand plan because you keep having to justify yourself to people who give you money or are otherwise a charge. You keep having to say, and I think the CEO kept having to say and the board and I kept having to say to the board, this is our grand plan for fixing supply chains as it happened … vaccine supply chains was the issue. If you didn’t come up with a grand plan, people would say, “Well, what have you been doing with yourself? Are you really serious about this? Why haven’t you organised this in a traditional PowerPoint that allows everybody to see very clearly in nice graphs and charts, what it is you’re up to?”
Mark: You and the CEO are having to convince the board?
Daniel: I had to present to the board and get the proposal through the board. That did require … You have to go a certain way towards traditional … If you try to communicate with people, you’ve got to know where they’re at and talk in terms that they’re going to understand. If you arrive and say, “I’m just going to tell you something completely different than anything you’ve ever heard before. Don’t worry, it’ll be fine,” you may not get very far. I think regardless of your views and your experience of what works, it’s often the case that you have to kind of compromise and say, “This is my experience. Perhaps it’s just my disposition.” You have to compromise and you have to say, “Well, this is why I’m going to describe what I’m up to, but I’m going to make this as sensitive to how I think the world really works as I can.”
Mark: I think this is one of the key issues, isn’t it? It’s ultimately, you need to talk in terms of how you’re going to travel rather than the destination. People who are used to dealing with getting to destinations find it comfortable. A lot of them who are in charge won’t pay for that kind of stuff.
Daniel: Yeah. That’s right.
Mark: I think we see a lot of this in government?
Daniel: Yeah. I think ultimately because Parliament doesn’t necessarily trust government to just get on, there is a requirement to present plans to parliament, and parliament will try and nail down what government does in detail rather than giving government lots of latitude to do what it thinks best. You could understand why that dynamic exists, but it does lead to some perverse effects that people spend their time pretending that they know what’s going to happen in the future and coming up with these milestones and all this other stuff.
Mark: I did hear someone speaking at a meeting the other day, a senior person, who was saying, “Okay. There’s all this uncertainty.” But I have to talk to my people and they have to feel that they support the plan that they believe in something. How do I actually tell them? I can’t explain the full theory of complexity and why you need not to describe the destination, and you need to focus on the mode of travel. I absolutely got what he was saying. It’s always going to be a hard thing, someone we both know described it as being inconvenient.
Daniel: Yes, it is. But I think it is possible to say, “Here are the things we’re reasonably clear about, and here are the things that we have no idea about, and I’d really like your help in working out what we do on them.” People want to … on the one hand, they wanna have confidence in the people in charge if they’re in an organisation, and on the other hand, they also want to be heard, so you’ve got to get that balance right, I think. If you say it’s a complete free for all, let’s just let everybody decide everything, you may lose peoples’ confidence, so I think there’s a balance to be struck.
Mark: But isn’t it the way that you have the conversation? It’s important to be authentic, we’re in a really uncertain world, and actually, most of us can only guess at what the future looks like. People know when you’re pulling the wool. I mean, you might be able to persuade them sometimes that you’ve got some special knowledge that you know something, because you’re the leader and you’ve got the special privilege, but actually, mostly it sticks out like a sore thumb that you don’t know and you’ll make more progress by saying, “I really don’t know here, what do you think?” But that isn’t normally the way we carry on in-
Daniel: No, indeed. I think it may be a case of sometimes saying, “What do you think?” It may also be a case of saying, “Here are the things we’re going to start doing to learn about the environment that we’re going to be operating in and as we learn, we will adapt.” I think that’s a better message than, “I’ve got no idea.”
Mark: Yes, you might have some idea about some things you need to learn, and you’re going to go do some experiments, and presumably, that’s what you did in Gavi.
Daniel: Yes, exactly. We went and talked to people and engaged them on the issues they were facing on a daily basis. We had a very good cooperation in East Africa, when the East African community brought together vaccine supply chain managers from across East Africa. We brought them there, got them out of their daily routines and they talked about the issues that they faced, and we worked on what could be done about them, what it was that Gavi could do, what needed to be sold by UN organisations or could be helped by UN organisations, what was in the hands of governments and how they might address those problems.
Mark: Did that turn into hard projects that you could do or was it about changing your tone in the policy discussions? How did it actually crystallise?
Daniel: Yes, there were certainly some things that we could do at the level of Gavi. I think this is one of the things about complexity and networks, is it makes you sensitive to different levels … what affects what. I think there were things that we could address at the Gavi level to put us in better contact with the reality of vaccine stop levels in countries. Then there were things that needed to be addressed at the country level by the people who are managing the supply chains in country. I think getting clear about which category those things fell into, was part of the exercise.
Mark: So you’re involved in actually changing processes at country level to try and improve things?
Daniel: Well, that wasn’t my job. My responsibility was to work inside Gavi to get some things changed there, in the Gavi secretariat, and in terms of countries, it was a question of working with folks to identify the problems and then encouraging the organisations that were based in the country to work on those problems because you can’t solve 70 country’s’ problems from thousands of miles away.
Mark: Did you have representatives in the country?
Daniel: Well, there were representatives of the World Health organisation, for example, or NGOs that were based in the country, or the national governments themselves, very often people who are very motivated to address the issues.
Mark: So somebody on the ground working in … I don’t know where … typical place would be?
Daniel: Kenya, for example.
Mark: Okay, so somebody working in Kenya, for example. What would someone working there notice between the way that you’re working as a result of thinking about complexity? What will have changed?
Daniel: I hope the level of engagement that they felt in the problems and the honesty with which we spoke about what we were able to do and what other people were able to do. I don’t want to suggest that you need to study complexity to be a sympathetic individual and to engage properly with people, or that studying complexity means that you necessarily will be, but I do think taking an interest in complexity encourages you to be more engaged with people in a better way, and recognise the limits of what you can do from a long way away, or the top of an organisation that you can do by funding somebody or, you know, at a distance.
Mark: So it’s kind of about reprogramming yourself, maybe? Or changing the way you think and as a result of having that understanding of complexity, it means that you behave differently?
Daniel: Yes, although I think it’s also the case that perhaps you’re more likely to act into a new way of thinking than you are to think into a new way of acting, so the thing to do, is just to get on-
Mark: Do something.
Daniel: Do some stuff and talk to some people, face to face, ideally, find out what’s going on from their perspective, and take it from there.
Mark: That’s one of the challenges that I’ve faced in a lot of situations, my instinct says, “Let’s just try something, let’s do something, let’s not talk about it,” but oftentimes, the people I work with say, “Well, we need to analyse this, we need to collect some information, we need to understand the situation, and then we’ll be in a position of strength to act.” If you’re genuinely in a complex situation, that just simply doesn’t work, because in order to understand the complex system, you have to change it, you have to poke it to get some information back from it. You can’t just analyse it and I think there are a lot of people who are completely wired that way to any kind of problem, is that you analyse it, work out what to do, and act in a deliberate manner.
Daniel: Yeah, and I think one of the problems, is people like to imagine that they’re clock problems, or technical challenges in Heifetz’s terms, because it gives them a feeling of control and reduces anxiety and helps with all that inside organisations. But in fact, as you say, the problems are often cat or adaptive problems. If you pretend that they’re clock, when they’re not, you don’t get very far.
Mark: If you listened to episode one, we talked about the difference between the Olympic and Universal Credit. Whilst I wasn’t closely involved with Universal credit, my instinct was that we went through this analytical process of analysing the social problem. A lot of research was done by a lot of extremely good people, then that was brought down to the designing of a big piece of technology and that’s where the seeds of the problem where we didn’t … We tried to create a solution for the whole thing, and then start delivering it, rather than looking at the problems at a local level and solving them.
Daniel: If the Universal Credit had started with a manual test of what was needed in several job centres and they had learned what the processes were rather than trying to build any technology, I think that would have been helpful, but they tried to do everything in parallel, getting the legislation, the technology, it was just too big and complex.
Mark: I think particularly with government things, legislation is a problem because it takes a long time to do, and you think, “We’ve got to get that programmed to get it into parliament and it’s got to be done by next summer, or it won’t be done at all,” so you’ve got that pragmatic problem of getting some legislation in place. But, it might not be the right legislation because you do some experimenting, and you find, “Oh my gosh, now we need to do this completely differently, which means we need different law.” What prospect have we got for getting over that problem?
Daniel: It doesn’t seem like … in this current political environment, there’s a lot of trust between parliament and the executive.
Mark: We should say that we’re recording this on the second day of the parliamentary debate about Brexit, but we’re not going to talk about Brexit.
Daniel: And a couple days after the government has been declared in contempt of parliament.
Daniel: So, it doesn’t seem like the moment is right, for parliament to be handing over lots of authority to government, but I think the climate of discussion between climate and government could improve, and I have seen it improve in some areas, and I think part of it, you see in how people handle select committees. A wise person presenting to a select committee, says, “These are some of the problems that we’ve been grappling with, and here’s what we’ve been trying to do to address them,” whereas it usually starts with, “We’re going to batten down the hatches and just try and avoid any criticism or any hint that anything might have gone wrong,” and that just leads to lack of trust.
Mark: Do you know anything about what’s going on in Finland? Because I’ve got this hazy idea that they’ve got some legal mechanism in place in order to let them experiment with new legislation. Have you come across this?
Daniel: No, I haven’t come across that.
Mark: No? I must take a look and I’ll find out more about this and maybe we can get someone to come and talk about it in a later episode. Wouldn’t it be cool if you could actually create a bubble in which you could have a different set of laws in order to experiment with something?
Daniel: I think there is quite a lot of discretion for secretaries of state in departments. Secretary of state doesn’t have to announce that they’ve found the solution to a problem, they can announce that they recognise a problem and they’re going to investigate and find ways of addressing the problem. Or do the investigating first, then the announcing a bit later.
Mark: So you’re thinking that if we did want to operate in a complexity friendly way, for everyone to have a better expression, we probably could do it if people understood it and were willing to do it? There wouldn’t be any fundamental in the sort of legal machinery that would stop us from doing that kind of thing?
Daniel: Complexity encourages you to work in ways that build trust and that also depend on trust, so I think it’s quite hard to leap into a situation if there’s little trust in a political environment where you’re suddenly going to do lots of experiments and learn about things. The likelihood is that you’re going to carry on with this sort of grand gestures and sweeping generalisations because that’s what people imagine that people want. It seems to suggest that the minister concerned is powerful, and has the answers, and so on. Whereas I think if you speak to people properly and take them seriously, they respond to that.
Mark: So digital is a big thing in government, now. Potentially means doing a lot of things differently. Much of what’s happening right now has been about digitising the existing processes, but as things go on, then we’re going to be wanting to do things fundamentally differently, in a way that you couldn’t do with the old paper-based processes. I think that means that there’s going to be considerable need to change the way we think about things, which is going to bring this in complexity territory, if you like, and I’m just wondering how that’s going to play out.
I’ve been hearing some good things from inside DWP, the way they’re approaching the Universal Credit, doing it in an incremental way and learning, and I understand that really good things are happening at MOJ at the moment, but I sense it’s patchy.
Daniel: Yeah, something that’s right. I think the people are interested in digital technology and digital ways of working have been the shock troops of transformation or improvement in government and have spread out across different government departments and have had … really helps to change the way people work, but often, there are still pockets of activity and the big stuff still happens somewhere else and is done in traditional ways. I think there’s still a long way to go.
Mark: That’s really interesting, I got that sense, too, that the really big, important stuff is done at an extremely high altitude, then arrives on the ground and we’ve just got to cope with it. Why is that? What are the mechanisms at play there? Is that a political thing?
Daniel: Yeah, I think the political process doesn’t help, and if people are in a hurry and they feel they’ve got to get something done before parliament ends or some other deadline is reached, then there’s a tendency to rush to solutions before you know what works, and I think that’s a problem. And I think the way the funding works in government also causes problems, because you’re supposed to say, “Here are the things we’re going to do over the next three years,” or even longer, and you’re supposed to predict in the future how much it’s going to cost, and what the milestones are, and this sort of stuff, then you get some money from the treasury to do these things.
But really, these business cases that you have to submit, they’re often not worth the paper they’re written on because you can’t predict the future in relation to many of these projects. If you’re building infrastructure, perhaps you can predict more accurately.
Mark: Infrastructure being clock type things?
Daniel: Exactly, yeah. And actually, you have to plan quite a lot before you start pouring concrete and cutting steel, whereas if you’re developing software, it’s quite adaptable, and if you’re working with people, you’d better engage them and learn as you go because you don’t know what’s going to work from the outset.
Mark: There does seem to be the pervading, industrial era mindset of big programs, we’ve got something big and important to do, and you set us up as though you’re going to build a bridge. There are many smart people all over government, yet these sort of things do tend to happen.
Daniel: Because I think the systems that make them happen are pretty well established in government, in accounting officer rules and accountability to parliament, and the way the Treasury works with government departments, all of those things, the way legislation is done as we’ve discussed … all of those things point you towards coming up pretending you know what’s going to happen in the future and that you’ve got the answer. Whereas, I think there are lots of people in government who, on the digital side, but also on the project side in the infrastructure and projects authority who have been thinking about these things, there is guidance now, that says this is the way you should do what government describes as transformation, by which I think they’ve got onto the cat type problems, or adaptive problems, adaptive challenges. I think there are people who have thought about this, but it hasn’t been embedded across government.
Mark: Going back to Ralph Stacey’s dominant discourse about there being managers who operate on a system. I still think that is the dominant way of thinking. We haven’t gotten to the point where operating through interaction and communicating with people, accepting that we aren’t actually going to be able to manage this thing, we have got to get involved with it, we’ve got to create networks, and we’ve just got to feel our way and learn about stuff. I think that a lot of people understand that from an intellectual point of view, but actually making it happen in his culture, particularly the government culture, because government is a complex adaptive system. There’s nobody in charge of it. There’s no one that can say, “I want it to transform from A to B,” because complex adaptive systems don’t work that way. I think a lot of people can say, “We just need to sort this out. It’s ridiculous the way these people are behaving, and so on,” we’ve heard a lot of that, but actually, they can’t.
Daniel: Yeah, that’s right. There are five million public sector employees in the UK, and there are 400,000 civil servants, it’s very large organisations. The Prime Minister theoretically in charge, but they can’t instruct 400,000 people in detail, still less five million. So we pass legislation through parliament, if they’ve got a decent majority, they can get something through, but that’s not going to … It has some influence, but it may not have the result that they like. There’s often perverse effects.
Let me tell you a story about perverse effects of rules-
Mark: Oh, yes please.
Daniel: … The French culture ministry requires that to get money for school trips, French school children have to go to at least two national museums on any visit. The result of this is that lots of French school children go to Greenwich because there are lots of national museums in close proximity. So, the French culture minister is subsidising French school children to go and learn about Trafalgar.
Mark: Just because they have two visits.
Daniel: They have to do their visits, otherwise it’s not an official school trip.
Mark: That’s extraordinary. So, Daniel, I know that when you’re at the Institute for Government, you’re charged with looking outside of government for other ways of doing things, and you talked to the folks at Amazon?
Daniel: Yes, I tried to learn about Amazon because it looked like an organisation that was very large, but still quite entrepreneurial, and it’s interesting that Amazon is one of the few organisations where I think there are values that seem to be applied across the organisation. Jeff Bezos seems to have sufficient command of the organisation, the values that he’s established actually are applied to most of the organisation, whereas most organisations have a bunch of values that sit on some plastic next to the photocopier and get ignored by everybody.
One of the things that Amazon says is you should never have a team that can’t be fed by two pizzas. If it gets bigger than a two pizza team, then you’ve got a problem and you should shrink the team. The idea is, if you keep teams small, then they stay entrepreneurial. They stay focused on what they’re trying to do and don’t get ever more complex and harder to manage. It means that, I think Amazon seems to be quite a challenging organisation to work in, but it’s very entrepreneurial and people get on and do things. It’s not an organisation where you have to go a long way up the hierarchy to get things done. It’s much more entrepreneurial than most organisations that size. It doesn’t mean Amazon gets everything right, there are some problems that some organisations need to have a coordinated position on.
I think Amazon ended up paying quite a large tax fine in the EU, because the headquarters that they had in Luxembourg wasn’t quite behaving in the way that the EU thought headquarters should behave, whereas other organisations take a bit more care about that. It strikes me that Amazon is an organisation that is very entrepreneurial, but perhaps not all that well coordinated, whereas other organisations are better coordinated, but not very entrepreneurial.
Mark: I guess it’s getting big, it’s having those same big organisation issues. But the thing about Amazon is that Jeff Bezos is also very definitely in charge.
Mark: A lot of his success was based on the platform idea that he had. So, we’re building a shop, but the shop software should be separate to our shop, and the technology that the shop software runs on, we need to make it in such a way that other shop software can run on it so you’ve got this layered model. Which is kind of what the government … is the platform thing was aiming at, but has become quite problematic and it’s taking a long time because there’s no one … certainly GDS weren’t in the position to be able to say, “Let’s do it this way,” in the way that Jeff Bezos did, and things have been hard as a result. It’s a different situation, I guess, is what I’m saying.
Daniel: Yes, but I think the platform idea is relevant, and platform is about creating a bazaar, not a cathedral, isn’t it? It’s a way of grappling with complexity, I think.
Mark: Bazaary isn’t a very governmenty sort of way of going about things, though, is it? It’s much more cathedral, it’s much more … the analogy is the same. The cathedral operates like the clock, and the bazaar is the cat. It’s the same thing. Where did that come from? The cathedral and the cat, it was something-
Daniel: Cathedral and bazaar.
Mark: Oh, right, yeah. I’ve got clocks and cats on my brain.
Daniel: I can’t remember the name-
Mark: It was something to do with software development … it was the Linux folks and talking about the difference between Microsoft … what it was like to develop in the Microsoft environment and what it’s like to operate in the Linux environment. In order for Linux to work, you had to have this open connected community of people who actually got on personally to make it work, and the reason it did work, was because those conditions were created by Linus Torvalds and this movement was able to condense out of thin air and actually be enormous. What prospect for making the same kind of thing happen in government, or indeed, across the world?
Daniel: I think the NHS is an interesting case. The NHS, I think, has gone through some pretty horrible technology experiments and wasted a lot of money in attempts to build cathedrals that involve getting GPs who are quite independent from government to adopt particular systems and so on. Whereas I think they are moving towards an approach, Matt Hancock, I think to his credit gets this, that where it’s about standards, and it’s about open systems, not about the NHS building a cathedral.
Mark: I’m just wondering how this is going to pan out because I’ve worked in the NHS, it’s a different organisation to get change to happen in. It’s standard to make IT work interoperability and standards are really important. You’ve got to get people working together and trusting each other to make this happen and when it comes down to it, I just wonder what will happen in the NHS.
What we’ve got now is something very different to the National Program for IT, but are we genuinely embracing complexity principles, if you like? Will we be trying to build some community of people who will be experimenting, or are we going to be installing some Big IT?
Daniel: The NHS structurally, is a massive flow of money from the top of the department to out … like an upside down tree down the branches to hospitals and GPs, and that’s not something that encourages a lot of innovation and risk-taking. Another organisation that’s interesting and has gone in the opposite direction on technology, I think is Timpsons…
Mark: So you looked at them when you were at the Institute for Government?
Daniel: Yeah, well I’ve read about them and I think what I understand, is that … I may not have had it … experience of Timpsons as a customer as well, and it’s generally a pretty good experience-
Mark: Yeah, it is a good exp … Yeah, me too they’re a great firm.
Daniel: … And when they fix your shoes or the screen of your phone-
Mark: Phone, or your watch, or whatever.
Daniel: Whatever it is. I think they also have a good social mission, they employ a lot of people who’ve been in the criminal justice system, and so on. They operate in a very, very decentralised way, and there are two rules. One is look after your customers, and the other is put the money in the till, but there aren’t lots of electronic systems to check what you’re putting in the till. In fact, several years ago, they pulled out the electronic cash registers that allowed some teenage spreadsheet scribbler to check from head office, what people were up to, and they trust people to manage the shops and to decide whether it’s stocking umbrellas or fixing peoples’ phones, what the balance of stock they hold, and so on.
Because they trust people, people are much more motivated and they go out of their way to help customers, and so on. It’s been said that computers are a telescope for complexity, and they help you understand complexity, and that’s certainly the case that you can gather a lot of data, and there’s all sorts of interesting things being done, but I also think technology can be the enemy of really decentralised approach, because it creates the possibility of control from the centre, or the illusion of control.
Mark: Yeah, be quite restricting. I mean, certainly, my experience with Timpsons has been fabulous. The guys who are in Newbury, where I live, are just so good, they’re such nice people. You go in there, absolutely trust them, you’re quite right. I haven’t noticed before, but they don’t have any special till. They’ve got a card machine, but that’s about it and I trust them completely. Timpsons have someone who’s very definitely in charge, though?
Daniel: Yes, they do. Yeah, that’s true. Again, perhaps a bit like Amazon, they’ve been able to establish these relatively simple rules, then let people get on with it. But you have got to establish the rules in a way you … you were describing Linux, there was somebody there who had credibility with the network and establish the sort of, “This is how we’re going to do things here.”
Mark: I’m sure there are lessons in these organisations for government and for large organisations, but with a lot of complex system things, the starting conditions make a massive difference, and actually, we’re starting with … and certainly in government case, with a great big thing that’s doing what it has to do. It’s a lorry going down the motorway, it’s only doing 65 and we’d rather it was doing 70, but taking the engine out and replacing it with a better one whilst you’re doing that, is really, really hard. If you haven’t got someone from the centre with real control like Bezos has, what prospect is there for things to change? I guess that can only come from bottom up things growing and turning into bigger things.
Daniel: Yes, or happening in particular areas of the country, or in areas where there are ministers or other people who are interested in doing things in a different way. As I said, government is incredibly large, and there’s always something interesting going on somewhere.
Mark: In the NHS, there’s this chap, Roy Lilly, who is a … Do you know Roy Lilly?
Mark: He was a chief executive and he’s become the NHS’s biggest critical friend, and he organises quite a lot of events. He’s got this website called Fabulous NHS Stuff, where what he’s actually trying to do is shout about the things that are going really well and how successful are we at actually transplanting stuff? Just because something works well in one place, doesn’t mean it will work well in another because of complexity theory. Theory says that if the starting conditions are not the same, then you might not be able to do that because you haven’t got the right kind of … The geography might be different, the political climate might be different. Only a slightly different bunch of people, it just actually can’t work.
Earlier on, Daniel and I were talking about the various schools of thought about managing change in organisations and we had a discussion about the work of Ralph Stacey, who’s a professor of complexity at Hertfordshire. Ralph Stacey talks about the importance of human interaction and how everything generates from that. I’m sure he absolutely believes that the stuff that came before — the Kotter, the Senge — all that stuff, is not so relevant. He’s asking us to give up something that a lot of management has rested on the last 20 years. What’s your take on that?
Daniel: I’ve really enjoyed reading Ralph’s work and talking to him-
Mark: So you’ve met Ralph?
Daniel: Yes, indeed, and found him very interesting and compelling. We’ve also had a few disagreements.
Mark: That’s interesting.
Daniel: I think Ralph is absolutely right where he talks about the way people create the environment they’re operating in, and I encourage people to read his work and that of his colleagues’ at Hertfordshire. Where we disagree, I suppose is on the analysis of the way the world is, not the way we want the world to be. For example, I think wherever you go in the world and whichever organisation you talk about, there is always to some degree, a hierarchy, and it may be that to make the organisation more effective, you’ve got to weaken the hierarchy or disrupt the hierarchy, or get the hierarchy working a different way, but it’s always there. I think if you don’t think about the hierarchy and the interplay of complexity with the hierarchy, you’re not going to get very far.
So, I think, then, there are other things like the hierarchy that are like legacies from previous generations … laws and modes of operating and so on, that intrude quite heavily in the organisations and the way we work and if you ignore them, it seems to me a belief that everything is about the interaction between people right now, then I think you lose quite a lot of what’s going on inside organisations.
Mark: It’s important to have some kind of connection with the organisation about how it worked, and the people that are there in order to be able to operate on it. I worked for a long time in a particular organisation, got involved in lots of different change type things. Reflecting, I was able to get involved because I had been involved and I knew people and as something new would come up as I would have the conversation. In about 2012-ish, I came out of that organisation and started working elsewhere, I suddenly realised that I didn’t have those connections, didn’t have the understanding of how these organisations were, and actually, it was really quite hard to operate. I hadn’t really appreciated how important my network was to my way of operating. Maybe I had been bound up by my complexity mindset, and it was therefore hard to do. You can’t just operate and start getting involved in changing things unless you’ve got some connection with it.
Daniel: Yeah, I think that’s right, particularly if you’re operating as a consultant. If you come into an organisation, somewhere in the hierarchy, you’ve got a certain range of authority and so on. Whereas if you’re not in that position, you get things done by people respecting you, by your relationships, or whatever, so I think it does depend where you’re starting from in an organisation, but it’s certainly harder to get things done … Even if you’re the boss, if you don’t know anybody, you don’t know how the organisation works.
Mark: Yeah, if you’re in a clock type environment, you can look at the clock, you can understand how it works, you can start operating with it quite quickly, but if you’ve been put into a cat, it’s a difficult thing. Does that mean we need people in government to stay longer in their organisations, rather than moving around?
Daniel: That’s probably right. I think longer in their posts, as well, I think we have a culture of amateurs that the idea that you can throw somebody into any role and they’ll pick it up if they’re clever enough-
Mark: Interchangeable parts.
Daniel: Yeah, exactly. So I think that is an important issue. I think, generally, when you’re doing change in an organisation, there’s an under-appreciation of how long it takes to build networks and to develop relationships. This is one of the problems the NHS has had, is the constant reorganisation has disrupted all of the institutions. They abolished the regional layers and create these local bodies that have to try and redesign the health services locally. They take a long time to bed down.
Mark: So it’s sort of organic matter, isn’t it? In that you’ve got a tree planted somewhere, “Okay, we’re going to move the trees,” and you’ve got to dig the things up. If you can preserve the main roots and a few of the smaller ones, but all those fibrous roots, the connections that are actually important for getting water into the tree, you’ve got to put a spade through them. Because I do think we have a mechanical metaphor for organisations, we don’t think about these kinds of things.
Daniel: I think what you’ll find in the organisations, is people use mechanical words. They use leverage, and they use milestones, and they use all kinds of very tangible words to try and give the impression that they’re going to be doing something measurable and understandable and under control. Whereas actually, it ain’t like that.
Mark: It’s funny, occasionally, I get asked, “Okay, tell me one thing that I can do practically that will help me cope with complex situations.” I know it’s a little bit trite, but I say, “Try using organic words rather than mechanical words. Challenge yourselves in your group to not say, let’s build a team.” My particular favourite that I really hate, is, “How are we going to scale this?” If you said, “How are we going to propagate this?” You might … it’s an important metaphor because scaling implies you’re actually going to get hands-on and you’re going to stretch it or whatever, whereas propagate means that you’ve got to … How are you going to transfer it? How are you going to encourage the same thing to grow somewhere else? And you do different things as a result.
Actually, I say this, and some people nod, and I’m absolutely sure that a lot of people think I’m just completely barking...
Daniel: They want to send you off to your garden.
Mark: Well, so, ultimately, so I make my money from helping people to change things and if I’ve got a bunch of lunatic ideas, it’s hard to get hired. It’s not like being in a big consultancy.
Daniel: Yes, I think it’s not only the organic language that helps. The other problem you see is people talking in ways that suggest that they’ve got absolutely control and certainty, so a particular I bear in mind is best practice. People who say, “We’ve identified the one true solution, and all we need to do is get everybody to adopt this.” I don’t think it’s usually true in very technical subjects, but it’s certainly not true in less technical subjects, adaptive situations. There are always many, many ways of doing things.
Mark: I’m not sure if you’re talking about the same things, but this is one of the things that David Snowden talks about in his Cynefin model, it’s got the obvious complicated complex and chaotic and he talks about the kind of approach you take in each of the boxes, or each of the domains. So, best practice is the practice that’s appropriate to the obvious box. In the complicated box, he talks about good practice, and in the complex box, he talks about novel practice, and he means … there’s a whole lot of meaning attached to each of those words.
I suppose what you’re saying is, “Okay, we’ve got a really complex situation, how do we turn it into something obvious?” You can categorise the problem, apply the best practice to that, and then get on and do it, and that’s the big problem that we have.
Daniel: Yeah, because most things aren’t in that situation. The example that Heifetz uses of the difference between an adaptive and a technical challenge, is he describes a heart operation on a patient as a technical challenge, relatively predictable, what the outcome’s going to be, relatively clear what it is you need to do. Perhaps you could even talk about best practice in relation to heart surgery, whereas trying to get a patient to change their lifestyle, stop smoking and drinking so much, do a bit of exercise, that sort of thing, that’s an adaptive challenge. You don’t know who the most important person in the process might be. You don’t know what the path’s going to be, there might be some breakdowns in relationships before people agree that they may be should change their lifestyle.
If you think about the history of heart operations, I imagine the first person who did open heart surgery, that was very much an adaptive problem because they didn’t know what they were doing.
Mark: Absolutely, but that’s separate to the behavioural issues. They had essentially, a technical problem of how do we change a heart, but because they didn’t understand the whole system, you had to treat it as a complex system and you had to do some experiments to make that work. But the thing about this heart surgery thing is that ironically, that if you got the adaptive change thing working, you wouldn’t actually need to change the heart in a lot of cases because the behaviour of the people, the exercise … we know all about that. There’s sort of a deep irony to it.
Daniel: There is. But I also think that no problem is purely technical and no problem is purely adaptive, there are always features of each in any situation. In heart surgery, we know that the way the team is working, and the relationships between the team that’s doing the heart surgery has a big impact on the chances of success on the operation. You can have a checklist that says this is what you’ve got to do. You’ve got to snip here or whatever, I’m clearly not a heart surgeon, but the relationships in the room between the people helping with the operation are incredibly important. Even the thing that Heifetz describes as being a technical problem is really … there is an adaptive element to it.
Mark: An American surgeon called Atul Gawande, the first thing I heard from him was this checklists thing and that all made sense to me. You’re in a complicated situation, and lots of people have done this thing before, so it makes absolute sense to work with a checklist and all those vestiges of complicated things. Then I heard him talking on probably a Podcast a few weeks ago about the issues that they’re having about actually making improvements in surgical teams and actually, a lot of it is about them getting together and being honest with each other.
He absolutely gets the complexity thing and he was talking about the importance of building the relationships and the trust so that you can have those conversations. You can’t have the conversations about something that’s going wrong if you don’t trust the other person. He was talking about the same problem from two different perspectives. There’s the clock type challenge of making this thing work, but there’s the cat challenge of creating the team that will challenge itself. That’s why the artwork for the Podcast has got a picture of a clock with a cat behind it, because they’re almost always there.
Daniel: Which is why best practice is a bit of a misnomer for me. There are always other things going on in any circumstance.
Mark: And the human relationship side. It’s really hard for all of us, isn’t it? Human beings are fundamentally awkward and irrational and all those things. How do you create teams that can interact in that kind of way? Sometimes you’re lucky, I guess. You end up with a bunch of folks who come together and for whatever reason, gel, and then they just take off. But actually, the challenge in all those other teams that had he helped make progress in teams that aren’t fantastic.
Daniel: Yeah, I think saying you need to develop trust between all of you doesn’t necessarily help. I think there is something to be done-
Mark: No, exactly. I think it’s a really hard thing to do. You can say it and you can have as many workshops about improving trust and all the rest of it, but unless it’s really there and people can genuinely trust at a visceral level, then it just isn’t going to work.
Daniel: I think one of the things I found interviewing politicians, is part of the Ministers Reflect series interesting was-
Mark: Sorry, the Ministers Reflect was …?
Daniel: A series of interviews with ministers to ask them how to be a good minister. As part of this, I interviewed Nick Clegg. I found one of the interesting things he said was that he, as deputy prime minister, found it quite easy to challenge David Cameron, David Cameron found it quite easy to challenge Nick Clegg, but it was very hard to challenge people inside your own party. That was the problem Nick Clegg had, and that was the problem that he saw David Cameron having, and David Cameron found it very hard to challenge Theresa May. As home secretary, he gave too much leeway to the health secretary with is reforms of the health service, and Nick Clegg found it hard to challenge his own colleagues inside his party,
I think it’s where you’ve got an ambiguous power relationship with people that isn’t spoken about. So, when somebody is older than you, but you’re more senior than them, or where you got the job that they thought they should get. It’s those kinds of relationships in the office that are most difficult to deal with, where there’s some kind of competition going on that isn’t acknowledged. Whereas I think if somebody is clearly on the other team, you could just say, “You’re on this team, and I’m on that team, and we’re going to work out how we can work together,” and it’s pretty clear where the lines are. So, I think it’s where you’ve got those ambiguous power relationships that things can get quite difficult.
Mark: That’s a really interesting observation. Daniel, you were talking a little bit earlier about acting your way into a new way of thinking. I’ve heard that phrase before, what do you think that means?
Daniel: Well, when I’ve been talking to ministers or senior officials in departments or other senior people around, there’s often this idea that what you need to do is come up with a good plan and get everybody else to implement it, and that’s the way to do change. Whereas, it’s often the case that the most important signal that senior people can send is for them to behave differently. And people watch leaders and people in senior positions, and they see the way they behave, and then they mimic them, and that’s a pretty powerful instinct.
Mark: The senior people who are leading across government in your big organisations, they’ve all done the courses, a lot of them have done MBAs and all that kind of stuff. They would have heard all of this stuff about their own behaviour, yet I absolutely agree with you. I see it a lot where it’s about the senior person thinking about how to change the other people, but how is it that they don’t realise? Am I generalising too much? Maybe I am, I don’t know, but how is it they don’t realise the behaviour change starts with them?
Daniel: I think people believe things that suit them and it’s easiest to project change onto other people and not think about how you can possibly change yourself. Change is uncertain and different, so why would you … changing yourself is hard. If you think about you’ve got some unhelpful habit, trying to stop yourself doing it … pretty challenging.
Mark: Yeah, you’re quite right. We are actually … if my wife was here, she’s day, “Well, look Foden, you do this all of the time. I’ve told you about it two dozen times, yet you still keep doing that,” and I say, “well, yeah, you know” and actually, I just edit it out. It’s not high enough up my list of priorities to do something about. That feels to me, like one of the big challenges is the leadership behaviours.
Daniel: Yeah, I think behaviour is what its’ all about and if you’re more senior in an organisation, then your behaviour will be watched by lots of people and potentially has wide ramifications, so the behaviour of more senior people is very important. I think it’s a process of starting to small things differently and seeing what happens and taking it from there, rather than expecting a revolution overnight, because people don’t stick to that sort of stuff.
Mark: Yeah, we’ve got to be out of the European Union by the 29th of March. When you’ve got things like that going on, it’s hard to be emergent.
Daniel: Yeah, although some things are going to emerge.
Mark: Yeah, so that’s unintended consequences of … If you pull a big lever, it’s going to have effects through the whole system, and a lot of them, you’re not going to be able to predict them in advance and we’re already seeing this happening.
Daniel: I thought you said we weren’t going to talk about Brexit?
Mark: I just couldn’t help myself, but we should definitely stop. Daniel, look, thank you very much indeed, for taking the time. I really enjoyed the conversation.
Daniel: Thank you, Mark.
Mark: Right, that’s it. Before we finish, if you found what you heard useful, please do press that subscribe button and I’ve got more interesting folks like up for next year. And can I also give you the important job of spreading the word because it may help someone else. Right now, before you forget, please message, email, tweet, slack, or otherwise let your mates know about The Clock and the Cat. Thank you. Hope you listen again. Bye.