First, you establish enough shared context to move on – so you all know what is happening around you.
Then, you establish enough shared purpose or intent to move on.
Remember, you all need to be able to move to the next step together – any problems, back down you go!
Then, identify the critical ‘what if’ (risk) and ‘how to’ (outcome) questions which, if answered, will allow us to define the work to achieve the intent.
Generate ideas to answer those critical questions, select the best, and check benefits and concerns of the actions they suggest – do a mini ‘seven steps’ on each piece of work if necessary
Then assign tasks and get on with work… and learn what you’ve done wrong.
The golden rule is:
any time you get a surprise, e.g. you learn that we didn’t understand the context, that our purpose might be counterproductive, that we didn’t really understand the context, that we’re answering a question wrong… …you have to all go back down as many steps as needed to correct that problem.
It takes practice. And it works.
Where does your team go wrong on decision-making in complex times? Where do you get it right?
This was a client, but it might as well have been me! With things changing so fast, unpredictably, and it being hard to know what you can rely on, how can we make any kind of business decisions for 2021?
Sure, we’ve learned!
How much we don’t know – the degree of uncertainty we were actually always operating in
How much we can cope with. If the pandemic, lockdown, economic impacts etc have shown us, it’s that we can keep on keeping on
In businesses I work with, decision-making has survived and improved in these main ways:
realising how important the ‘thick data’ is – the actual stories of peoples’ lives, to go alongside the cold hard analytics
increasing the effort to get the right information to really make decisions to the right levels of management – compared to how waffly and, ultimately, meaningless those meetings were before
realising how many decisions need to be, and are, taken at the frontline – freeing people up to get on and do that, with only big strategic decisions out of their hands
What’s your big learning about decision-making from 2020? How are you feeling about big business decisions in 2021?
Culture is the scoreboard, not the game. If you try to specify the score you want, you’re far more likely to do things that are counter-productive than you are to work on the things that will change how the game is going.
As soon as you publish values and behaviours, you get three things: 1- indignation from those who aren’t experiencing that, who judge you more harshly 2- fear from those who know they aren’t living it, and determination to avoid being found out 3- a double bind – ‘we say we’re an honest culture. But I’m not able to say what I think. But I can’t say I can’t say what I think – because we say we’re an open culture’
Instead, work humbly to change the score by changing how people experience the organisation, and what that changes.
It can work to publish values when you have a small team who can both set and police them (it might not last long).
In a bigger group, it can work when there’s enough momentum and frustration, and energy from knowing someone at the top really will enforce the changes. That person is likely exempt from the values they espouse – because who’s going to challenge them?
What’s the thing you’ve seen at work that most defines a culture?
‘Commissioning’ is misunderstood, denigrated, reduced to something else, and important. Often seen as just procurement, outsourcing, or a commercial activity, in fact it is about really achieving our goals as a society.
There are three versions of commissioning
1.0 started as a way to try to buy things effectively, thinking about the real needs, and learning from results. Commissioners were the centre of the universe, their budget what made everything happen
Imagine buying street cleaning services. Complicated, tough – but you sign the contract and things happen
Now think about how you achieve the goal of clean streets – it’s a much bigger picture
2.0 got us thinking about the outcomes we need, and how to get to them – immediately making the commissioner a humbler part of a much bigger, complex system
3.0 means thinking about what people are already doing and achieving for themselves – how can we help our community and businesses to have clean streets?
In each step, the commissioner gives up their centrality. And gains more power
Where could you play on a bigger stage – and step up from clever buying to outcomes focus to a strengths focus?
Shape and manage demand: effect behavioural change, reduce failure demand
Create economies of flow: match capacity, capability, contact points to demand
Reduce waste: re-engineer processes or develop a lean whole system
Optimise the use of resources: buildings, IT, vehicles, other assets, people (scheduling, downtime, contracts and management), income generation
Effective organisation: appropriate grouping and sharing of activities and services, organisational structures, role and task clarity
Optimise procurement: procure volume, shape the market, reduce or standardise specification or achieve multiplying effects, share services, social value
Change policy: stop, ration, reduce eligibility, delay, charge, develop policy to better meet organisational purpose, demand and underlying need, outsource, mutualise, use the third and social enterprise sectors
Do you agree? (We do, now, have an eighth way to save and improve – what do you think it is?) Which do you think is the biggest opportunity in your organisation?
Naturally and instantly, like a reflex, human groups connect — and part of their connection is to see themselves as different from some other group. As soon as the concept of Otherness is introduced — and one group has superior access to resources, rule-setting, and opportunity — the dynamic sets in.
The Dominants see the Others as not quite right. The Others feel themselves to be off-base, slightly insecure in this world shaped by the Dominants. And we get a locked-in, stable (but destructive) cycle of each side preserving and protecting what they consider to be ‘special’ about their group, and even allowing and adapting to the (slightly ‘wrong’) attributes of the other. This stability feeds the Dark Side of each group — and undermines the capability of the Whole they are both a part of to cope, adapt, survive in a complex and challenging world.
How do you see this Dominant/Other cycle playing out? In your life? In society? In your organisation?
Human responses in organisation tend to produce patterns of separation and resentment which destroy partnership. It’s natural, instant. And it builds more… more separation, more resentment. Less and less partnership.
As we begin to work in partnership, with good intentions, something turns up. One party takes on the burden, the other is grateful. As the burdened party takes on more burden, power, responsibility… the other is alienated, ‘done to’, disempowered. Or, increasingly entitled and demanding.
Worse – we put a third person in the middle, their job: to meet the needs the empowered and disempowered have of each other – to be in the middle.
These dynamics are real – but we don’t see our instinctive, reflex response making it worse.
The Force is at work, the easy path to Burdened Tops, Oppressed Bottoms, Stretched and Torn Middles, and Righteously Screwed Customers.
The Jedi resists this pull, creates the independence of mind to act not reflexively, but in service of the system.
Do you recognise some of these patterns in your organisation? Uneven distribution of burden, responsibility? What would it mean to act in service of the system?
Originally published on Medium: Feb 28 · 5 min read
Over more than twenty years of public service transformation, 15 as a consultant, and ten years of running RedQuadrant as a network consultancy, I have developed a rich multi-methodology approach which is highly applicable cross-sector for anyone who wants to transform organisations and their results.
I’m offering small group cohorts the opportunity to join together and share in multiple learning mechanisms, over a period of time, to become more effective at what they do by having access to a larger and more integrated tool shed and peer and coaching support. This is for change-makers, consultants, facilitators, ‘systems changers’ all over the world.
The offer, for £395/month, includes:
Small facilitated co-coaching cohorts / circles of four to six people, mixed internationally, by sector, and by propensity, with Managing partner Benjamin Taylor by Zoom, twice a month — 90 minutes each
Access to the ‘tool shed’ on Google Drive and Trello — the large unruly list of diagrams/slides of all the current models, multimethodology but integrated (see below) — a goal is to develop your sensemaking around all the approaches/methods/tools/perspectives, with support
Access to the RedQuadrant Leading Transformation programme (two modules a month — see below)
Direct mentoring and support ‘on pull’ — ‘shadow consulting’ to support consultancy engagements and approaches
Contribute your own methods, case studies, learning (as we develop this idea)
Community of practice support with cohort and coach (mailing lists, discussion fora, WhatsApp etc depending on group preferences)
The requirement to participate is the two 90-minute zoom calls a month and to look into two of the Leading Transformation modules as much as you would like to each month. We aim for everyone to look through two modules each month. Each module contains a roughly one-hour slide lecture, also downloadable as audio, pdf, transcripts, plus there are additional documents and materials and links to follow up further if interested.
The motto of the tool shed is no exams, no homework! — you study at your own pace, the purpose is to apply the learning in your context, and pull on support from me and your cohort.
Why ‘tool shed’?
The RedQuadrant way is a mix of curated content, things inspired by other ideas, and original work. We call it a tool shed because, though generally the concept of ‘tools’ is not an attractive one (bringing to mind the famous hammer-owner who sees the world as primarily nail-based), the point is to be able to select the right approach, method, model or practice to advance the work in the context at any given time. I’ll help you to get into a dialogue with your tool-shed! The idea is not to have a bunch of independent tools or a formula for application, but to have requisite variety in your practice to meet the near-infinite variety of client needs, with a focus on what can cut through to real transformation
This is, therefore, explicitly a meta-contextual approach: a better response to neat-and-complete, conceptually closed consulting models, and one that explicitly sees the multiple dimensions of variation in the client/consultant situation — different locuses of work, different motivators of change. At a basic level, one example of this is that there are lots of amazing leadership consultants — and lots of amazing operational consultants. But few who can bridge and work across the huge divide between what is seen as ‘leadership’ and what is seen as ‘operations’. There are many other examples of where we seek to bridge divides, connect different concepts and ‘worlds’, and use multiple frames, approaches, and perspectives. The RedQuadrant ‘five worlds’ model, which encourages thinking about the different ‘worlds’ of customer / citizen, service, management / leadership, and the world of learning and change — and the communications and connections between them — is one example.
Key influences and sources to be found in the tool shed
The Viable Systems Model
Barry Oshry’s Organic Systems Framework
Systems leadership theory (along the lines of Jacques and Macdonald et al)
Systems, cybernetics, and complexity in general
OD, interpersonal, team methods, self-as-instrument, and personal and adult development
Iterative service design (agile with mostly a small ‘a’)
‘Flawful consulting’ and strengths-based and community-led approaches (after Peter Block)
Who am I to lead this work?
That’s a question I’m busy asking myself. I don’t claim to be special (see my ‘quadrants of thinking threats’ at https://www.dropbox.com/s/1ritpobdoexr5qy/four%20quadrants%20of%20thinking%20threats.pdf?dl=0 for the attempt to steer between simplification and exclusivity, ‘power to’ and ‘power over’). What I do have is a real passion for both consultancy and the thinking approaches behind it, massive enthusiasm for sharing, and many years’ of experience of trying to make this really, really hard thing work. And I’m keen to share — to develop a way this can be communicated and branded effectively across the world, to create a sustainable income source based on doing what I’m passionate about, and a learning community which adds value to all participants and to the world.
Or… I didn’t need flying cars, but is a coherent and consistent data schema really too much to expect? my frustrated tweet
Well. I have literally not got words strong enough to explain my sincere and deep dissatisfaction at the state of local government data. It’s, not to put too fine a point on it, a fucking disgrace. Of course, it’s nobody’s fault, but that’s rather the problem, isn’t it?
A colleague got in touch wanting guidance on getting comparative fees and charges data for an authority we are working with — should they organise an FOI campaign, of the sort they have been so used to responding to within local authorities.
So, my instinct was to say no — definitely not FOI — waste of officer time, and because it’s public data, they’ll only direct you to their publications schema anyway. And anyway, if the data’s to be gathered by FOI, it will all be out there anyway. And anyway, it’s bound to be available centrally — even if you have to pay a CIPFA benchmarking fee…
This is exactly the sort of thing we have open data for, it’s exactly the sort of thing we have data schemas for, it’s exactly the sort of thing we have benchmarking clubs and comparative data for, it’s something every single local authority has to do every year, it’s something that has to be public information, it’s something in the public interest to know and be shared, it’s exactly the sort of thing where we need to #fix the plumbing.
And not to hark back to that misguided but ultimately well-intentioned pickle situation, this is exactly the kind of thing that would be valuable to ‘armchair auditors’ and concerned citizens as genuinely comparable data across local authorities.
So, that’s easy, I thought… this is the sort of thing local government got a grip on in the first few years of the century…
– can’t find anything about the CIPFA benchmarking club (benchmarking info gone and search on the cipfa website doesn’t work)
– nothing sensible on the LGA (shocked)
– nothing on gov.uk (not even ironically shocked)
To be fair, there are some actually useful bits on element of charging *policy* from the LGA:
Building control and development control are there, as is ‘total income’ from, umm.. archives, heritage, foreshore (that one is going in the RedQuadrant Christmas quiz), and all kinds of other areas (including Public Conveniences) — but it doesn’t specify what the fees and charges are for, or how much…
Still, I suppose they are a sort of benchmark — but it’s just a single fee for all English authorities…
I sent the folks at Porge a message on their webchat… I’m sure they’re as frustrated as me.
But I do see that in 2016, Nesta ran a research programme — ‘identifying opportunities to help local authorities use data better’, (their final report, ‘Wise Council: Insights from the cutting edge of data-driven local government’ sheds no light on my problem) and ‘Between 2014 and 2016, the LGA facilitated some £2.64 million in grant funding for local government through the “Open Data Breakthrough” programme and the “Open Data Incentive Scheme”.’
I found e-learning, video and written case studies, lots of positive friendly stuff…
And whatdotheyknow doesn’t have the goods from publicly searchable FOIs either:
Results page 2
Printed from …
…but I suppose even when it is asked, they’re just referred to the publication schema… which is different for each council
Because I’m truly a massive nerd, I then tried Room 151 (www.room151.co.uk) , the only place to go for local government Treasury, Technical, and Strategic Finance in-talk… nothing.
Even the legal guidance is as disparate as the services local government provides — a case in point of how local government starts from the point of trying to make coherent what is essentially incoherent.
So, yeah. Long story short, it doesn’t seem to be anywhere it should be. Nor is there any consistent guidance or information (outside individual small technical niches)…
The good news is, every LA has to publish this, both in its budget/committee papers, and accessibly online. But, of course, there’s no longer any coherent website structure or reliable schema, there’s no way to consistently find them. The bad news is, it’s buried in appendix xii in the papers, and for public access it’s in a random mix of pdfs and html, sometimes with a whole list, something by category (and you’ll have seen on twitter, there’s a mysterious pdf from Lincoln called ‘social inclusion fees and charges’ which turns out to be a badly-formatted automatically-ouput table for annual landlord charges for housing benefit enquiries…).
And sometimes you get directed to the FOI fees and charges page, just for fun…
So it’s a very boring, slow, methodical putting together of the data, requiring someone who can interpret it well enough… but if that was done, it would be a major public boon to make it public!
So, do I really have to have someone download about 650 pdf documents, and go through them and type into some home-made database? Or am I missing something here?
Well, I’ve tweeted CIPFA — there might still be a benchmarking club, which would be a good deal. I’ve asked a friendly S151 officer if she knows more — and I’m getting a lot of confirmation on twitter that it’s nutso…
There must be some better data somehow. But I’m pretty good at web search and local government and nerdy stuff.
Really, really, something needs to be fixed here. It is such a mess…
“You never understand a system until you start to try to change it.”
“It is easier to act yourself into a new way of thinking than it is to think yourself into a new way of acting.”
— *(See Footnote)
These two quotes rounded off the interview I got to do on The Human-Current Podcast and they are RedQuadrant favourites, tracing back to my former business partner, Dennis Vergne, doing the excellent coaching and consulting for change course at Oxford Saïd/HEC Paris business schools. More importantly, they chime so well with my experience, and some of the bigger lessons I have learned in my career.
I started off studying philosophy, as we discussed on the podcast – however I also studied politics, and was involved in politics from a very early age, doing leafleting with my mum from the time I could carry a bundle of leaflets, and joining a political party at the ripe old age of 16. Back then, I believe that policy was the main driver of change, and even though I edged more towards social movements and ideas at university, I’m glad that I had two experiences which started to knock that idea out of me. First, straight out of uni, I had two very operational jobs – admin for a youth development charity, and co-ordinator for an advice centre. So I saw something very different – the critical importance of ‘operations’ to make a difference in the world – the primacy of the quality of service and the experience of the organisation, both for the customer (or citizen) and for the employee.
Still, when I got a fancy job as Adviser to Leader of the Council (or Adviser to Mayor – the title changed a bit, but the bloke I worked for stayed the same!), I was still convinced that politics made a difference. And it did – but I also saw the compromises, and more importantly the many, many times when not acting was the only way to reduce risk and maintain power and influence for the future. I was a non-political council officer, but working directly for political leaders with a thin majority, both in the electorate and within the ruling group. It was paralyzing.
Still, when I moved on to a fancy consultancy (PricewaterhouseCoopers, as it was then called – PWC), I still thought that the power of my intellect and insight could change the world. Working with a sublimely talented, competitive, and capable team of colleagues in an organisational structure I ultimately wasn’t comfortable with, we produced brilliant reports. Clients were (sometimes) duly impressed. However, it slowly began to dawn on me that… nothing was actually changing. Either we were hired to perform some organisational ‘pantomime’ – a great display of effort for change, without the actual pain of change – or the intentions of our sponsors just weren’t enough to mobilise change. We did some great work, don’t get me wrong. But more often, we produce high-quality shelfware.
The rest of my career has largely been a downhill spiral – the reports got shorter and shorter, the action plans rose to prominence, rapid improvement events were the focus, then the action plans faded a bit too and we started to primarily just focus on real action – have a look, make a hypothesis (predict something that will improve things!), make a change, regroup and learn, and do it all over again. And keep doing it. Some dismiss this as tinkering – not theory-led or vision-led or big-bang enough. But I’ve never learned more about the actual organisational systems, and never got bigger change done, than now. We still sometimes write reports – sometimes nice ones – and I get to talk about big ideas. But the real work is making change that matters…
So when I was asked what action, what next step, I would recommend, I jotted down: ‘Learn! Explore! Think! Have a laugh…’ The final step is doubly important – a huge risk in all of this is coming to take yourself too seriously, and coming to lose your joy in the work.
And you couldn’t learn more, and make a bigger change for the better, than making an experiment on your culture: in your organisation, try to find the stories that encapsulate the gut reactions people have had to organisational systems, symbolism, and leadership behaviours. Try to predict what change in the latter would change the former positively. And predict what the response will be – and how you’ll respond. If it’s in your power, do it, and see what happens.
*this quote is attributed to so many people I’ve given up looking, though a Facebook friend kindly traced it on Google Scholar to Albert Mehrabian (he who didn’t prove that non-verbal communication makes up 93% of the meaning), in his 1970 Tactics of Social Influence. He’s a cool dude so I’m happy to leave it there unless anyone has an earlier citation!