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What does the future hold?

Posted by on 1:45 pm in Blog | 0 comments

This is an important question for governments, businesses, organisations and individuals. Because when we make decisions today, we are often making bets on an unknown future e.g. about retirement or energy needs and provision. Some are sceptical, rightly so, about the limitations of prediction in a complex and uncertain world. [See new blog posts from Ralph Stacey and Chris Rogers]. Yet we often need to act amid uncertainty: be that in planning large infrastructure projects; developing health and social care policies; or making choices about our own retirement provision. So, how can we address the question: what does the future hold?   Mystics, statistics and learning There are statistical models and mystical models. Although polar opposites in their reliance on data, both statistical and mystical models assume that they can make predictions about the future with some significant degree of certainty. Learning models, on the other hand, offer ways of working with uncertainty. Statistical models assume the world is predictable, the future knowable, that ‘tomorrow’ will be largely like ‘today’ in all important aspects. They assume regularity and ignore uncertainty. They downplay the likelihood of unknowns and extreme events, although extreme events are more common in nature than you might expect (see long tails and power laws). They also downplay free-will, assuming that people will largely respond in ways that are similar to how they’ve responded in the past. And they assume that small differences in those responses won’t add up to anything much, even though there’s increasing understanding of butterfly effects (remember Gerald Ratner’s ill-advised comment?), ‘viral’ change and social movements. If data is king, then Big Data is emperor. Why do we like statistical models in business? Because they give the illusion of certainty and can reduce the anxiety of leadership and decision-making in an inherently uncertain world. Mystical models assume the world is preordained, that the future can be intuitively seen now, by a select few with special gifts or skills e.g. successful business leaders, tech entrepreneurs, or fortune tellers. In assuming an unfolding future, mystical models downplay human agency and free-will; the ability of human beings to act and react in ways that are imaginative, rebellious, constructive and destructive. Hindsight about successful predictions or interventions becomes the measure of those who have the gift. Data is used selectively, in hindsight, if at all. I’m sceptical. Learning models. So, how can we consider what the future holds in an uncertain world? If we cannot know the future in advance, by using mystics or statistics, then the alternative is to learn more quickly about the future that is emerging in the present. Learning models consider patterns and how they are changing. They help us choose our responses, rather than responding more automatically, and to discover how the interplay of all our responses is playing out. The Dynamic Patterning Framework is a learning model which uses a systematic, data-driven and people-focused process to help formal leaders and decision-makers discover how their organisation[1] is changing. It assumes that the seeds of the future are in the present, but accepts that no-one can predict how they will play out as people interact in the course of their day-to-day work. Instead it actively and systemically explores multiple, diverse perspectives about what is changing. It brings together small, human-scale data about what’s...

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When systems go mad

Posted by on 2:59 pm in Blog | 0 comments

Although this blog post was borne out of frustration with a major telecoms ‘supplier’ who has consistently failed to supply – don’t get me started – there are important insights about the unintended consequences which can arise from complexity.     So here’s the scenario: We recently contacted a major telecoms company. Can we have broadband please, we asked. ‘You can’t have broadband without a phone line’, we were told. So we said, well OK, we’ll have a phone line and broadband then. And we arranged a start date. This is a very simple scenario – something that must happen every day. So you’d imagine that this very large telecoms company would be able to manage that.   Here’s what happened: We received an acknowledgement confirming everything was in order. This was followed by another message saying sorry they couldn’t supply and would explain why. We waited, no one called. So we called again to confirm our order (this takes some while). Yes, yes, yes, they said, everything is in order. We received a message to confirm our order was being despatched… followed by another which said sorry, they’d contact us to explain why we wouldn’t receive it. No one did. We called again. Someone would call us between 8am and 8pm the following day (yes, really) to explain why it wasn’t going to happen, we were told. No one did. We received our order – hooray! Followed by a message to say we had to return it. So we called yet again and said; you’ve sent us what we wanted, can we keep it? ‘No, you have to return it’. But it’s what we asked for. ‘And you have to send it back to us’. You get the picture: YES, you can have it. NO, you can’t have it. Or, the short version… YES – NO – YES – NO – YES – NO — Arrgh!!!!!!!   Unless there have been some saboteurs at work, no one designed this hugely dysfunctional socio-technical system. The company’s repeated inability to supply a very simple, straightforward order is an unintended consequence. But, almost unbelievably, it turns out that it’s not an isolated example – far from it. [Form an orderly queue, if you too want to rant about ‘you know who’!] As well as being hugely frustrating for would-be customers like me, these unintended consequences are damaging and expensive for the company – there’s the cost of all those unnecessary processes, of call centre staff going round in circles rather than doing productive work, and then there’s the real potential for knock-on reputational damage in their lucrative business-to-business market… So, if no one designed this dysfunctional system, and there were no saboteurs, then: How did it arise? Who’s at fault? And, if you’re a leader or manager, how can you make sure that your organisation doesn’t fall into the same traps? How did it arise? The answer is that dysfunctional systems (of people, processes, technology) are created by an accumulation of many choices that many people have made over a period of time. For example, decisions about prioritising resources e.g. in favour of larger business customers; about limits of authority and staff training; and all the many choices which make up the culture whereby it’s OK that customers are at the...

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Weak signals in change

Posted by on 6:52 pm in Blog | 0 comments

A recent article in McKinsey Quarterly highlighted the strength of ‘weak signals’. If you haven’t read it, the authors explain how snippets of information, often hidden in social-media streams, offer companies a valuable tool for staying ahead. Their focus is external scanning for potential opportunities by capitalising on weak signals hidden within a torrent of digital information. They argue that weak signals can be strategically important, and therefore worthy of top management time and attention. However, weak signals within organisations are also extremely valuable for leaders and decision-makers to understand. They can provide early warning signs of potential problems and opportunities which are being created as an organisation is changing and developing. Understanding these weak signals can help leaders act sooner – to take responsive action in live change to help seize opportunities and head off problems, while they are still small. For want of a nail the shoe was lost. For want of a shoe the horse was lost. For want of a horse the rider was lost. For want of a rider the battle was lost. For want of a battle the Kingdom was lost. And all for the want of a horseshoe nail. A well-known proverb describes events escalating until a Kingdom was lost, all for the want of a horseshoe nail. Here, the implications of responding later, rather than sooner, are clearly spelt out. We can also see this on a practical level in organisations. For example, one senior manager made it his business to tune into the ‘rumour index’, as he called it, to gauge people’s concerns during a particularly volatile period. This gave him clues about the unintended effects of managerial actions and also gave him the opportunity to target his communications to nip some of the more outlandish rumours in the bud. However another manager wrote off murmurs of resentment about new initiatives as an inevitable resistance to change, which is normally short-lived. So he failed to realise that they forewarned a serious deterioration of trust in senior management – to his cost. As these examples clearly show, weak signals within organisations are not just hidden in social media. We can find them in everyday actions and words. But they are also easy to miss, unless you actively look for them. Leaders and decision-makers who want to discover weak signals about emerging opportunities and problems can help themselves by: listening and observing interacting with different people encouraging diverse perspectives. This means going beyond the usual suspects to find and engage with people who have a different view. For example, people branded ‘resistors’ in change can be really interesting to speak to. It means paying attention to small clues, such as a throwaway comment, a ripple of excitement in a room, or a growing disconnect between two teams, and asking yourself, and others, what’s going on here? Sometimes, it can be helpful to scan for weak signals more formally. For example in larger organisations, during times of major change, or when you have multiple projects running in different areas of the business. By gathering data about typical patterns in your organisation, you can then monitor slight changes and ask questions about what’s going on. This gives leaders and decision-makers insight into the dynamic patterning of change in their organisation, so they can take...

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Coffee, communities and innovation

Posted by on 12:01 pm in Blog | 0 comments

Not all that long ago, there were 3 places you could go for coffee in my town: a popular independent coffee shop, with somewhat variable service, near the town centre supermarket a chain coffee shop, normally full to gills with mums and toddlers and a café bar (over 21s only) with wifi. In the past year or so, there’s been an explosion of new coffee shops. Alongside the familiar coffee chains and supermarket coffee shops that have moved in, there are a whole host of new independents. We’ve got coffee/delis, coffee ‘and something to go with it’ cafés, and a pop-up coffee shop, which has now popped along to the pub up the road. So, what’s going on here? Is this sudden surge of coffee shops catering for a hopelessly caffeine-addicted local population? Possibly. But, if so, it’s not unique. My (un)scientific research on this topic – chatting to people I know – has revealed that many other small towns are also experiencing a flood of new coffee shops. Changing communities Perhaps what we’re seeing here is an indicator of socio-economic system change. Towns like mine are changing from retail hubs into social hubs, so people go there to meet/eat/drink. Hence there are more food and drink outlets. And, since coffee is a high-margin, high-consumption product with a decent shelf life – we shouldn’t be surprised at the proliferation of coffee shops in that mix. Coffee shops offer us a chance to connect with people. But, that normally means connecting with people you already know. So, while connecting over coffee may energise existing connections, it may not do as much as we’d like to create new communities. Creating new communities Network theory gives us some language to explain what’s going on in a coffee shop and how we might create new, thriving communities. [ALERT: If ‘theory’ isn’t for you, and you want to go straight to the practical bit, then just scroll down – and find out how Randomised Coffee Trials are helping create communities in big organisations] In a coffee shop, we see lots of small groups (2, 3, 4 people) chatting to friends around a table. But we rarely see much interaction between people on different tables. In network theory, what we are seeing are ‘cliques’. In this context, a clique refers to a group of nodes in network, in this case people, who are well connected to one another (i.e. to people around the same table), but are not connected to other nodes in the network (i.e. people at other tables). In network terms, what helps us create new communities are ‘weak ties’. Weak ties in our coffee shop example would be someone at one table who sees someone they know at another table and introduces the two groups. Having met once, and with a friend in common, those people might use that weak tie to reconnect in the future. Weak ties can create larger communities, because we can accommodate many more weak ties than we can ‘strong ties’ (i.e. people we know really well). That’s what’s going on in online social networking – with large numbers of Facebook friends, LinkedIn connections, Twitter followers and so on. And that’s the ‘strength’ of weak ties [1]. Creating innovative communities – connecting minds and Randomised Coffee Trials Communities...

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Women on boards – the complexity science case

Posted by on 6:51 pm in Blog | 0 comments

Recently I’ve found myself reflecting on gender diversity in business. What kicked it off was a report by Cranfield School of Management entitled Women on Boards. The headline shouted: ‘Cranfield report reveals 25% target is in sight’. A few days ago, the FT announced: ‘Proportion of women on FTSE 100 boards tops 20%’. Shortly after, we heard that the London Stock Exchange (one of the last remaining FTSE 100 companies with only male directors) had just appointed two women as non-executive directors, that the Business Secretary, Vince Cable, had claimed that Britain is ‘on the home stretch’ towards improving boardroom diversity. The gist of these stories is that progress is being made towards the target set by Lord Davies in 2011; that is to increase female board membership of FTSE 100 companies to 25% by 2015. It’s good news right? Oh, but so uninspiring… I’ve never had particularly strong views on gender diversity. Perhaps because I always thought we were aiming for a rough 50:50 split of men and women at the top of organisations, weren’t we? WEREN’T WE?? Is the best we can imagine really just a minority of women on boards? (This is not a quota, remember, 25% of women on boards is a target – something to aim for). And are we happy with that? C’mon, it’s 2014. And I’m uninspired. I sense a similar lack of enthusiasm from Lynda Gratton, who comments in her Future of Work blog: “Despite all our hopes to see more women at the top of leading organisations, the speed of change has been glacial”. And on Twitter today @duncanbhr and @MorgenWitzel seem similarly underwhelmed with progress towards gender parity in the business world. But, if we’re making progress (there were only 12.5% of women on FTSE 100 boards in 2011, and now there’s 20%), then what’s the problem? For me, there are two problems with targets that accept a lack of gender parity on Boards. The first problem relates to the societal case for diversity. Simply put, the societal problem is that ‘for society to thrive, women must thrive’. Yet, targets that accept a minority of women on boards (albeit a growing one) mean that we probably don’t have to challenge or change the wider social system that much. We don’t have to create the conditions for women to thrive at the top of business organisations, because, if we’re only looking for a minority, then we can probably find enough women to adapt to existing conditions. And nothing really changes…. Societal case: “Diversity matters for business because it matters for society and human flourishing” That brings me to the second problem. What’s the point of having people who look different in our top teams, if they think the same? Or, even if they think differently, perhaps the environment in the business boardroom means that they (both men and women) feel constrained to say the same kinds of things or to act in the same kinds of ways as the majority. For me, that’s the bigger danger of these targets, that they may engender a tacit acceptance of a minority of women on boards. An acceptance that we don’t, as a McKinsey report suggests, need to move mindsets, and therefore nothing really needs to change. That brings me to the complexity science case...

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Re-organising? 3 things we often neglect and shouldn’t

Posted by on 6:50 pm in Blog | 0 comments

Whether you’re thinking about a re-organisation or you’re in the middle of one, it’s important to remember that it’s about much more than tinkering with the org charts. Here are 3 vital things to keep in mind… Pay attention to informal connections between people. An organisation is so much more than just what’s on the formal structure chart. Informal social networks (not just the online ones) play a vital role in how people get their work done. Do you know who the key influencers are in your organisation? These are the ‘go to’ people for inside knowledge on particular subjects, the ‘go to’ people for making things happen, or for influencing others. Who are the key connectors in your organisation? These are the people who know people and who can connect people from across different groups. TIP: The best connectors are not always the best connected. Sometimes they’re people who know people from different groups who don’t normally connect with one another. Pay attention to transition.  Structures can be changed overnight, but people take time to transition. People need time to let go of the old, the familiar, and to find their way with what is new and unfamiliar. Those of us involved in restructuring need to pay as much attention to supporting that transition as we do to making the change to a new structure, or new ways of working. Change often doesn’t start on day 1; it only starts when the people involved have successfully made their transition. Pay attention to dynamic patterns in change. Changing formal structures or ways of working can have unintended consequences that simply cannot be predicted ahead of time – no matter, how well you’ve planned for the change. TIP: People often think that the risk with organisational change is the organisation not changing. But at least we know where we are then. There’s far more risk involved when change DOES happen – because that’s when small things can have unexpectedly large consequences. (This is known as the ‘butterfly effect’). During change we might find unexpected tensions developing between teams, or within them. We might find people interpreting new ways of working very differently from one another, and heading off in different directions. We might find that some individuals and groups make a very fast transition, yet others don’t. We might find key people taking their eye off customers or competitors because they’re absorbed in the internal changes within the organisation. These are all examples of patterns which might emerge during change. And we need to know about them, the sooner the better, so we can take informed, responsive actions to build on potential opportunities or mitigate potential problems. Paying attention to the Dynamic Patterning in change can help us find about these emerging patterns of change sooner, so we can act sooner. This blog post draws from an article I wrote Restructuring in a complex world for the Institute for Employment Studies. Just click on title if you’d like a copy of the full article. Or, you can download the complete IES Report ‘From restructuring to rebuilding’ for free. The report includes articles on using social movement to enable large-scale change and   Once again, a big thank you to Delta7 for their fantastic picture....

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Contradictions in change

Posted by on 5:09 pm in Blog | 0 comments

Just do it? Get it right? Be radical? Plan strategically?   Over the past couple of days I’ve read four posts about innovation and change. The trouble is that, while each makes sense by itself, they offer conflicting advice to change leaders. This thought piece gets to the heart of those contradictions and suggests that we’re being offered a false choice between ‘more planned’ and ‘more exploratory’ approaches. Instead, it proposes that we plan to learn from change as we explore what our plans mean in practice. Just do it Rosabeth Moss Kanter gives us ‘Four Reasons Any Action Is Better than None’. Forget perfection, she says in her Harvard Business Review blog post. ‘Just do it. So what if you’re wrong? You can always try again. In an uncertain world of rapid change, business strategy includes room for improvisation’. Get it right Not so, says Andrew Hill in the FT. ‘Mending a dud product’ he tells us, ‘is no substitute for getting it right first time’. While tiny, incremental, post-live improvements might be OK for app developers, it’s not the same for car manufacturers and others, ‘where customers expect durable, fully functioning products that do not fail fast’. Be radical Andrew Corner, commenting on sustainability in the Guardian, agrees with his namesake. He suggests that ‘’Every little helps’ is a dangerous mantra for climate change’ because nudging and tweaking behaviours will never address more fundamental, systemic issues. Radical responses are required, he tells us. Plan strategically Returning to HBR, Grant McCracken bemoans ‘All hail the agile! All hail the nimble!’ and highlights the downside of strategic agility i.e. a lack of strategic planning. He describes how executives repeatedly failed to pick up on a key long-term trend because they were so preoccupied with just-in-time responsiveness. It seems to me that what we are being offered here is a two-dimensional choice. We’re being invited to choose between more exploratory and more planned approaches to innovation and change. The more exploratory approaches are portrayed as action-led, experimental, improvisational, agile, nimble, just-in-time and responsive. In contrast, the more planned approaches are painted as radical, strategic, forward-looking, focused on quality and concerned with getting it right first time. But this apparent choice is a false choice. In the ‘doing’ of innovation and change (as opposed to writing about it), more exploratory and more planned aspects of change are entangled. Trying to choose between them would be a bit like trying to unscramble eggs: ‘Just doing it’ entails choosing what to do and noticing the responses, so you can choose your next move. Pace doesn’t mean that behaviour is unplanned. Getting things right first time often involves intensive experimentation and testing. Success is unlikely without learning from failure. Radical solutions to systemic issues are always exploratory in practice and will involve tweaking and nudging. If they were already well-tried and tested, they wouldn’t be radical. In the doing, strategic plans become experiments in live change. While you might be able to plan some of your moves, you cannot plan ahead for how everybody will respond. So, if we cannot choose between planned and exploratory approaches; what can we do? Our work on dynamic patterning suggests that we need to plan to learn from change as we explore what our plans mean in practice....

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The balloon under the stairs

Posted by on 2:47 pm in Blog | 0 comments

The party balloon in the cupboard under my stairs was blown up on Super Saturday during the London Olympics. It’s now 489 days old, and counting… We threw a party on super Saturday – well it was just Saturday 4th August 2012 until all the GB golds started rolling in. A friend brought round some red, white and blue balloons left over from a Jubilee celebration, so we blew them up. The day after the party, there was one red, one white and one blue balloon left. In celebratory mood, I left them there to brighten up the room. They’ll go down in a few days, I thought. They didn’t. A couple of weeks later, I thought I’d get them out of the way by putting them in the cupboard under the stairs. (No, I’m not sure why either!) They’ll go down in a few days, I thought. They didn’t. Several months later, I found the blue balloon looking deflated where the hoover had been leaning against it. The others will go down soon, I thought. They didn’t. Both the red one and the white still look, well, they still look like party balloons, some 489 days later. Most of the balloons bit the dust during the party. One was popped by a surprised toddler, who promptly burst into tears, and then plucked up the courage to pop another. Many of them took a battering as we punched them in the air on Mo Farah’s 5000m victory. But, surprisingly, three survived for many months, and, even more surprisingly, two of those are still going 489 days later…. What does this tell us? It tells us about long tails and power laws. You might not have heard of these terms, but power law distributions with long tails are common in nature. Basically they tell us that some events are common (e.g. a lot of party balloons have a very short life span – they pop at a party) and some happen more rarely (e.g. a couple of party balloons are still looking like balloons over 15 months later). Most importantly, they show us that unexpected things (‘extreme events’) DO happen. And they’re not as rare or unexpected as you might think.     So, what does a story about a balloon in the cupboard under the stairs and long tails means for leaders at all levels in organisations?  NOTICE – let’s notice the surprising and unexpected You could never have predicted that I’d still have two party balloons in the cupboard under my stairs 489 days after the party. But if you notice the odd, surprising and unexpected, then you can ask questions about it. If you just think – well that’s unlikely to happen again – you’ll miss that opportunity. This is particularly important during organisational change (and, let’s face it, that’s most of the time for many of us these days). The reason it’s particularly important during change is because the odd, surprising, or unexpected event or behaviour – even if it seems very small – may offer a weak signal about new organisational patterns that are beginning to emerge.  EXPLORE – let’s explore the enabling conditions Why are these balloons still here after 489 days? Is it something about the balloons? Is it something about the conditions in...

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Organisational storytelling – a game of whispers?

Posted by on 9:30 pm in Blog | 0 comments

  My 8 year old niece loves a game of whispers when the family is gathered together.  You know the one – someone whispers something into the next person’s ear and they pass it on, until the final person says it out loud. Then you find out all the different versions of the message that people heard. When we play, the more outlandish the end result, the more my niece squeals with laughter. Now, we all know this. So, while some mishearing is accidental, I suspect that other ‘mishearing’ happens just to increase the level of fun! This made me think about what goes on in organisations.  As stories are passed around, they often undergo subtle changes.  Maybe people mishear, maybe they misremember, maybe they choose to misinform. Certainly they (mis)interpret what they hear in terms of their own experience and using their own interpretive frameworks.  So, what we often have are multiple stories about particular events co-existing. Understanding these stories about events can be really helpful to anyone who’s trying to discover the patterns emerging during change. The subtle reformulations and changes in message can be easy to miss, but may provide vital clues about how people are responding. One organisation needed to discourage car use (to comply with environmental directives) in order to get planning permission to add more buildings on its land. But, in some parts of the organisation, the proposal to introduce car parking charges became a story about how management didn’t care about staff or value them. Then other stories started circulating about the terrible things that management were doing. And, of course, those stories were hidden from management. So, especially in times of change, it can be valuable to learn about these multiple, co-existing stories, in order to learn from them. If we can discover more about the stories people tell, then maybe we can choose how we respond and start to change those stories....

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Don’t forget small data!

Posted by on 1:39 pm in Blog | 0 comments

 A Harvard Business Review (HBR) blog entitled The Embarrassment of Complexity concludes that we need to: “Draw on the faculty of human judgment to focus on the smaller picture in order to comprehend the larger one” But why, at a time that Big Data grabs so many headlines, should we focus on small data? Well, for several reasons, small turns out to be really interesting: As people interact over time, small differences between them can create novel patterns across organisations, industries and communities. And these can never be predicted in advance. In a similar vein, who’d have thought that flocking starlings could resemble a whale chasing a dolphin across the sky? Small events can have large consequences, known as the Butterfly Effect. Anyone remember the throwaway comment which led to the demise of Gerald Ratner’s business empire? Outliers – small numbers of odd, unexpected, unusual things, cannot safely be ignored. They deserve our attention. We can ask ‘why are they there?’ and ‘what do they mean?’, just as Malcolm Gladwell, or Sir Alex Ferguson have done. Small things can serve as weak signals – giving us early warning signs of emerging problems and opportunities. In 2008/9 we found it hard to believe that more questions hadn’t been asked about bankers’ bonuses. So big data is big, but it’s the computer analytics that help us to see patterns in that data, which are clever. The danger here is that we’re always using our old ways of thinking to make sense. So we may well miss small data and weak signals which are potentially frame changing – heralding completely new patterns that we may never have seen before. The clever thing about small data is how it can signal new opportunities and emerging problems. If we notice and interpret that data, then we can choose how we respond much sooner – helping us to capitalise on emerging opportunities and head off emerging problems It’s here, in noticing and interpreting small data, that we need to cast off our reliance on data crunching machines and start using and honing our very human skills of perception and judgement. So that’s why I agree with HBR that using human judgement to focus on the smaller picture in order to comprehend the larger one, is such a crucial skill.  ...

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