Have you ever noticed that the fruit and nuts in your breakfast muesli tend to stay at the top of the packet? So that when you are getting toward the end of the packet, you are usually left with mostly the boring bits? There is a simple explanation. When there are many large lumps (the fruit and nuts) together, they have large holes in between them, and smaller lumps (the oats) can fall through the holes. When many small lumps are together, they have small holes in between them, so large lumps can’t fall through. Consequently, with gentle shaking there is a tendency for the large and small lumps to separate, with the large lumps at the top. Interesting, but so what? Well, perhaps the same sort of thing happens with the order of work activities. The interesting, strategic lumps stay at the top and get done first. The boring – or difficult – bits may fall through the cracks, or at least get left to others or to later. The trouble is that to have a nutritionally balanced diet, we need the whole mixture, not just the exciting bits. Good delivery requires us to stick to doing things in the best order, even when that means tackling early some activities we would rather leave till later.
Planet K2 shared this great TED talk about how limitations can help creativity. But how is that relevant to management? As managers, we always have to work within many limitations: it is the nature of the world we work in. Contracts of all kinds; laws and regulations; stakeholder wishes; all constrain the freedom we have to act. If we see our job as managers being to make sure that we comply with all these requirements – some of which may well be conflicting, making that task ultimately impossible – there is a good chance we will start a downwards spiral of attempting ever-tighter control while only making things worse, as artist Phil Hansen found. We become more and more stressed, and less and less able to meet all those requirements. How much better to recognise that while the limitations rule out some options, those very limitations can help us to focus our imaginations on the many other options which we may not have considered, but which remain available (and which, as Hansen found, can still present an overwhelming range of possibilities). When you squeeze the balloon, it pops out somewhere else. That requires us to have the courage to be creative, to try new approaches which have some risk of failure – but that makes success all the more satisfying and rewarding, as well as helping to free us to continue down the route of creativity. Hansen found that what seemed to be the end of his dream of a creative life was in fact the door to whole new worlds of creativity. Rather than try too hard to work within our constraints, let’s use them to help us find the ways to better solutions, as he did.
Is your high-level strategy adequately joined up with the realisation of the vision on the ground? The people who are interested in the strategy are often not very interested in managing the details, and perhaps are frustrated by the questions they are asked by implementers. The people who are delegated the task of dealing with the detail frequently do not have the strategic ability, or lack the information, to understand fully the context for what they have been asked to do. The consequence is a gap between intent and delivery which is often filled with misunderstandings, confusion, misalignment and ultimately frustration.
A joined-up strategyOvercoming this requires a clear shared understanding of the big picture. It is not just about communications, although that is important. As they say, the devil is in the detail, so it requires working together to think through the implications of strategy – the roles cannot be separated. Both the big picture and the detail matter, but how you join them up is critical: the whole can be greater than the sum of the parts, but only if it really is a whole.
Yesterday I spent the morning at WBMS, in a fascinating workshop run by Quirk Solutions exploring the value of ‘Wargaming’ as a way of testing the resilience of a strategy and related plans before putting them into effect.
Wargaming, as you might imagine, is based on the process developed by the military to evaluate their plans, but that is where any direct connection to anything military ends. If you called the process something else, nothing about it would tell you its origins. And in practice, it is really a somewhat more formalised and disciplined extension of testing approaches which you may well already use to some extent. Where Chis Paton and his team at Quirk really add value is in their in-depth experience of what works, and highly-polished skills for facilitating the process to make it maximally effective. I took away a number of key ideas for running a good process which I thought it would be worth sharing.
WargamingThe process is based around two teams: the Blue (plan-owning) Team and the Red (plan-challenging) Team. Although that sounds similar to the common approach of ‘Red Team Review’ for proposal improvement, in this process it is made more effective by asking each Red Team player to represent the views of a major interested party or parties. This makes for a much more engaged and lively process, better bringing out emotive issues. It can also bring out the important potential conflicts between different interests which may otherwise be ‘averaged out’. At least some of the Red Team can be externals – where there are no commercial issues, they could even be the relevant interest groups themselves! – which is clearly likely to help avoid blind spots. Even in a brief exercise, it was clear that the role-playing approach could bring much greater richness to the output. The process is also iterative: the Blue Team present their outline plan (best not to develop too much detail early, as it is likely to change!); the Red Team make challenges back from their ‘interest’ perspectives; the Blue Team re-work the proposal to address as many of the issues as possible; further challenge, and so on. Clearly in a relatively brief review meeting, there will be very limited time for further analysis or data gathering between iterations, so the objective is not a finished plan, but the best possible framework to take away and work up, together with lists of actions and owners. That leads me to my final point: While a Red Team Review would normally be looking at a more-or-less finished proposal, the process we tested will add most value early in the process of development. No-one likes to make significant changes to a plan that they have put a lot of effort into, however important, and that may well lead to the smallest adaptation possible, rather than the best. Thanks WBMS and Quirk for organising a stimulating event!
I’ve been working in a public sector organisation recently, trying to introduce some practices that are normal in the private sector. Change in the public sector is not necessarily harder than in the private sector, but it has some distinct challenges - notably a lack of carrots, and few sticks! As well as a general lack of experience with project management discipline, I have experienced two particular (related) frustrations. The first is a lack of urgency. There is no sense that it much matters whether the changes are delivered at the time promised (or perhaps at all!). I think that stems partly from the observation that most other change projects people see or hear about either fail to complete on time, or fail to do so in a way that sticks. Why is that? An apparent absence of material consequences for failing to keep promises can’t help. With no sticks, only carrots are left, and carrots of any size are also hard to find in the public sector. The second lack – which I think stems partly from the first, and partly from wider public sector culture – is a lack of emotional engagement. Meaningful and significant carrots and sticks can create motivation, but so can a simple belief that “it” is the right thing to do. In a mission-led organisation, it is all too easy for staff to believe that any change is a threat to the mission, and so, far from being right, it must be the “wrong” thing to do: whatever passion there is is pulling in the wrong direction. There are no easy answers, but perseverance and patience are an essential start. I think that in such organisations, real change is almost inevitably slow. As always with change, a key is to look for “what’s in it for them”, and in the public sector fewer options are available so this requires more imagination. To start with, I try to look for subjects which arouse some passion in staff (things that get in the way of delivering their “mission” so that our objectives are aligned, or which cause them frustration and aggravation, for instance) – and build on those. If only it were quicker!
As a consultant, I have many discussions with people who might be future clients. I never quite know at the start of the conversation where it will go – I’m there to listen for the opportunity, to understand what the client needs (perhaps before they do), and to help them to decide whether I might be an effective part of the answer, whatever it might be. Until they explain their situation, I can’t tell where we may finish up. Even so, I was taken aback recently when I was told quite out of the blue at the start of a client meeting that I thought was going to be the usual consultant’s exploratory discussion, that it was effectively an interview for a senior role in their team (I’ll talk about miscommunications another time!). My immediate reaction was to express my surprise at this turn of events, while inwardly panicking slightly and trying to think very fast about what this role would involve, what experience I would therefore need to tell them about, and whether I even thought I could do it. Afterwards I realised that although I had gone into the meeting with my flexible ‘I’m a consultant, just tell me what the problem is’ hat on, the hat was not that flexible. It took me a few minutes to adjust to the new situation, and to feel comfortable again. We all put ourselves in boxes – even ones with somewhat flexible walls, or room to rattle about in – all the time. The walls of the boxes are safe and comforting. Outside the walls lies danger (at least that’s how it feels) – but also opportunity. How hard it is to allow ourselves to be born into that new world of wider opportunity – but like birth, how essential it is if we are to grow!