Monday, 29 March 2010

Whole systems? No time!

Occasionally when I raise the idea of using whole systems to broker strategic action plans or ways forward (especially in local government), I get a 'teeth sucking' the response "well, not sure if the chief executive / directors / council members could commit the time to be there - certainly not for all the 2 hours / half day / whole day". The implication being that their time is better spent elsewhere - probably in meetings with other chief executives / directors / council members. Underlying this is also the idea (although it may not be expressed quite so openly) that important decisions have to be taken behind closed doors where politics (both party and organisational) must be allowed to rule.

Allow me to challenge these views of the world with a few ideas & questions: 
  • What better place is there to show political or organisational leadership than in the company of a wide range of diverse stakeholders?
  • Whole system processes are not in conflict with usual ways of making decisions - such events inform and complement such decision making.
  • If simply having a paper strategy is all that is required - then a whole system process is a waste of time. However, if what is required is a strategy that achieves lasting change and results (see stractegies below) - what could more important than being engaged such a process?
  • How important is it for chief executives / directors / council members to be seen by local citizens, partner agencies and frontline staff to be actively engaging in debates & discussions about the future? 
  • Machiavelli (one of the first public service advisers on leadership) says that excellent leaders must actively seek out and listen to the truth (see below here and here) - whole system processes are driven by the power of truth.
What other reasons or questions would you suggest?

Other posts on whole systems working:

Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Process mapping saps creativity

On another space, a person posted an enquiry about how best to carry out process mapping. I thought I would reprint my reply there - here too:

Forgive me but...... don't do it!

In my view - mapping processes is a huge waste of time that saps the creative energy of all those involved. By all means get an overview of what happens down to a few stages, maybe even unpack some of these stages to the next level down (what are the 4 to 7 stages within each of these) but GO NO FURTHER!

To take a radical standpoint - process mapping was invented by a bunch of business analysts consultants to keep themselves busy. The police service went for it big time a few years back and look how lean, unbureaucratic and elegant their processes are now....! This may not be want you want to hear - and I accept I am adopting an extreme point of view... but I would ask you to think very carefully about the activities you are embarking on. If I were to take a guess - you have hired some consultants to come and help you with this...? That or else you have an ex consultant working internally with you.

My concern centres on innovation. If you map a process to the n'th degree - I believe that not only are people exhausted by the activity - they also get so attached to the current way of doing things that they then cannot 'see the wood for the trees'.

Allow me to suggest an alternative approach:
  1. Map the process lightly
  2. Record this on some big pieces of flip chart paper that you can put on the wall
  3. Find a good cross section of people who have an interest in the success of the process - anyone who knows, cares or can do something about the process. This should include some real citizens, a handful of members, lots of frontline officers, some managers and senior manager or two - the more the merrier really. Don't worry about keeping the numbers small - you can get a 100 people working on this
  4. Agree a time and place to have an all day meeting with the aim to redesign and rethink the process in question all on that day! Have lots of space, and flip charts, and probably some helium filled balloons too (it helps people find each other)
  5. Put the process map on the wall somewhere
  6. Put up questions (see below) around the room to get people thinking about doing things differently - these are all solutions looking for problems (so called inductive problem solving rather than the usual deductive - and often reductive - problem solving)
  7. Let people loose and encourage people to talk about what they want to talk about to improve the process. (I would advocate using Open Space but there are other large group / whole system methods that could be used too)
  8. Bring everyone back together at various points to take stock. People will naturally begin to synthesise a new way of running the process.
  9. Empower a small team to take all the outputs from the day to pull together a summary with clear recommendations for change.
These are the questions to post around the room:
  • Have we agreed the stakeholder requirements?
  • Are the providers involved adequately trained?
  • Are there too many ‘handovers’
  • Is the process being done in the right order?
  • Could it be made simpler with a ‘triage’ stage?
  • Could we make better use of technology?
  • Where are the sources of rework?
  • Why does performance vary – and by how much?
  • Could some parts of the process be done at the same time?
  • Are there too many checks and controls?
  • Could we get the users / clients / etc. to do more?
  • Could we get our partners or suppliers to take action?
  • Could we create an expert system to make it work better?
  • Is there a ‘standard’ way of carrying out the process?
  • Where are the delays in the process?
  • Could different people or agencies be providing the service (or part of it)?
  • Have we made any cultural or professional assumptions that are getting in the way?
  • Are the performance measures helping?
  • Could we stop doing the process altogether?
  • Are decision making protocols getting in the way?
  • Does the process contribute to outcome goals

The advantages of such an approach is that it is

a) quick
b) efficient
c) liberating
d) creative
e) cuts through parochialism
f) builds a community rather than atomising it with process analysis
g) works with the whole system rather than drawing on Taylorist time and motion methods


Perhaps we need Process Exploring.... as opposed to mapping?

Friday, 12 March 2010

Conferences: bah humbug!

While we are on the subject of conferences (see below), please allow me a small plea for doing them in a different way.

The conference I went to yesterday followed the usual groove – a few (and some were good) plenary inputs early on followed by some ‘master classes’ (which if I am being honest were the presentational equivalents of ‘advertorials’) and then some more plenary presentations towards the end of the day. Meanwhile drinks and food were served and then you had the chance to network

I put network in italics since such networking is a totally random affair. You happen to stand next to someone while reaching for a biscuit and strike up a conversation. I learnt one or two interesting things from these conversations yesterday (did you know part of Plymouth maternity hospital is officially designated part of Cornwall so that if a Cornish mum has to go there for specialist care her baby can still be born in Cornwall…?) but I would have liked to talk about the issues that mattered to me (see the blog post below for example) with others who shared that interest.

It seems to me that these conferences could be far more valuable if they had a parallel space for people to network in and talk about what they wanted to discuss. Borrowing on Open Space – I envisage a largish room where one wall people can post the issues they would like to discuss, a portion of the floor where they are going to be at what time, and then wait to see who turns up. It is not pure open space of course, but it would allow people to find each other as it were. All the other programmed seminars, talks, workshops can carry on too – but this parallel space would allow for something a little different.

On this basis the usual agenda can be published and used to justify people attending – but there would be an added extra – at minimal cost and maximal value. It would mean that people could not leave the event saying that they wish they had talked about ‘X’ since they would have had that chance…

I am going to suggest this to a few conference providers to see if they would like to install this into their events. Watch this space…

So if the next time you go to a standard ‘glossy’ event in London (like the one yesterday was) and you get the freeform opportunity to suggest a subject for discussion in a largish room with bits of paper stuck to the wall – remember you heard it here first! 

Perhaps we should call these Conference 2.0 ??

Shared services: a good or bad idea?

I went to conference yesterday (info here) all about Shared Services. Whilst there were some compelling & candid stories about the value of such arrangements, I remain unconvinced that this approach is relevant to some or even many parts of the public sector or, for that matter, even beyond into the commercial world. It seems to me shared services rest upon two key and dubious ideas:

Firstly that demand is not infinitely variable such that responses can be boiled down to just a few which are then ‘programmed’ into the software and people that make a shared service thrive. Whilst I would tend to go along with the 80/20 rule and that there are patterns to observe, I also think that people are infinitely variable. Certainly for myself, whenever I get caught up in a shared service vortex where I have to ‘press one’ to find out my balance, ‘two’ to make a payment, ‘three’ to etc. – I almost always find myself waiting for the option (usually number nine – by which time I getting very fed up) to speak to an actual person. Perhaps I am cynical, but I do wonder whether such services are actually designed to put people off.

The second idea I would challenge is that you can fragment a customer (or citizen / client / user) driven process into component parts without losing something from the ‘whole’. For me, the greater number of people who are involved in delivering a service to a client – the more likely something will go wrong which will have to be fixed.

But the conference left me with a few good ideas and points to ponder on… (So thank you for the invitation from Public Service Events.)

But what do you think of shared services – is your experience (either as provider or receiver of such a service) good or bad? Are the economies of scale significant to just smoke & mirrors hiding an underlying inefficiency? How would you improve efficiency and effectiveness?

I am open to persuasive ideas…

Wednesday, 3 March 2010

Getting the whole system in the room - Future Search video

A short video which says a great deal in only a few minutes about Future Search and getting the whole system in the room.

Watch it here

More information about Future Search - see my other blog entry - which has further links on it too. Click here

Whole system working is:
  • Easily done
  • Efficient and VFM - 2 facilitators can handle a group of 60, 100, 300 and more
  • Effective in building resilient, connected & strategic communities or practitioners and clients / taxpayers / citizens
  • Able to produce 'stractegies' (centred on action & results) rather than 'strutegies' (that look pretty on the glossy page - but that is all)
  • Able to cut out endless carousels of linear consultation...
  • Enlivening and empowering

Just get everyone together in a room for 1/2 day or more to:
  • Review a service / project
  • Plan a way forward
  • Redesign or rethink a process or a service
  • Write a new manual
  • Sort our the requirements on a new system
  • Tackle a wicked problem
  • Etc
In effect it is about working with a 'mesh' of stakeholders rather than treating them as the ends of the spokes where the change / project team is the hub. Hub & spoke working consumes vast quantities of time, money, coffee and emails. Instead - get a 'mesh' of people together to appreciate the big picture from many different angles.