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09 July 2017

I'm meeting my business partner, Dave, on Monday. It's partly a chance to plan ahead but also an opportunity to reflect back and to celebrate the great run we've had since launching Easier Inc.

Thinking about that has left me wondering at how on earth I ended up here. If someone had told my 20 year old self that I'd be doing what I'm doing now, I don't think I'd have believed them. I was hell bent on being a political journalist back then.

And if you'd told that same 20 year old that, within 6 months he'd have abandoned political journalism and would be running a hotel, he'd have said you had the wrong guy. But that's what happened.

Then my son was born and life changed again. The hours I was working stopped making sense and I wanted to take what I'd learned and set off in a new direction.

I took on a role across local government and the NHS, integrating services for children and families. This later morphed into exciting work in the local NHS Trust, focused on strategy and organisational development.

And on my story goes, like people's stories do. In our lives, we all flex and adapt to our situation all of the time. We go forward with our eyes open to opportunities and find ways to meet our needs and the needs of those around us. What we end up doing - whether at work or in life more broadly - often surprises our expectations and leads us to places that didn't feature in our imaginations and in our plans.

This doesn't mean that we shouldn't have plans or that our plans are irrelevant. It's just that, in our lives away from work, we tend to recognise that planning is important but that plans themselves are of little consequence. We tend to treat our plans as being a sketch for the future, where the next few steps are immediate and concrete but where the rest is open to change in light of what the future unfolds.

There's a lesson here for organisations too. In the work I do now, I often come across businesses that treat their plans as definite and immutable. They create project and programme governance around them that seeks reassurance that everything is on track with the plan.

But here's the thing... when we know in life that all plans need to change on first contact with reality, staying on track with the plan only means going off track with reality.

Monitoring progress against plans is a recipe that leaves organisations missing out on opportunities and delivering what they thought they needed when they only knew enough to plan - which, as it turns out, is rarely what they ever needed at all.

It's also a recipe for conflict. Viewed through the lens of project governance, whether plans are being delivered tends to get those running things animated. Meanwhile, the lived experience of those who will end up using what plans deliver, gives a wholly different perspective. As one group celebrates a successful delivery another group marvels at the fiction of it all.

It's enough to create a post-truth world, where it can seem that what matters is not perhaps what should matter, where history is only a story told by the victor and where being seen to deliver on time and on budget is more important than actually delivering something useful.

Compelling narratives and visions for the future become the stock and trade in place of learning and empiricism. We end up with policy based evidence, not evidence based policy and as it goes on, our trust in each other and in our institutions falters.

Everyone loses out. Instead of feeling the joy of purposeful work and instead of feeling the community of genuine collaboration towards shared goals, we often feel the gnaw of something faintly hollow - a hard to escape sense that we're not really on the same page or on the same team and that our work together is trading our interests off against each other rather than optimising them together.

This gut-feel that all is not as it should be creates some predictable behaviours too.

There is a tendency to find birds of a feather - to seek out others who support our views, creating community and purpose for ourselves by insulating our immediate environment against others, whose perspectives we find uncomfortable. The walls of our self-imposed silos thicken and the doors through them stay shut.

We tend to manoeuvre carefully, to play the organisational politics and to broker alliances with those of power and influence. We perhaps tell people what we think they want to hear, shielding them (and our reputations) from information that could unsettle. We're not lying, just managing the message... or so we tell ourselves.

But if I'm giving the impression that this makes us all terrible people and our organisations terrible institutions then let me halt that thought there. That is not my view at all.

Without fail, everyday I meet people who want to do good work, who often feel a sense of real vocation and who, in particular, want to do good work together.

This is the norm, not the exception. It is as true in the boardroom as it is on the shop floor and it's an asset - a potential - that is widespread in every organisation that I work with.

Tapping into this potential is really not so difficult, just different. It starts by acknowledging that no-one has sole access to the truth; that the world isn't made up of those who are right and those who are wrong.

Building better, more collaborative and adaptive ways of working, relies on recognising the value of different perspectives while constantly working to find shared ones.

If that sounds slightly contradictory it may only be because we are so used to conceiving of change in our organisations as being progress towards some perfect end point, where the stars, our perspectives and our priorities are all somehow aligned.

The world, of course, isn't like that. It is endlessly complex and unrelentingly uncertain. The false certainty that plans and budgets and standards and so on attempt to offer does nothing to change this. In fact, these things do much to distort it and our ability to work well together within it.

So we need to learn to move on from these practices, which promote false certainty and the illusion of control, to find new and better ways to understand and manage performance, also new ways to govern, that allow us to feel our way forward into our environment as it changes.

In short, we need to find new ways to design and manage our organisations so that they get more of the behaviours they need and less of the behaviours they tend to get.

For those who are up for this challenge there's no need to start from scratch. All over the world, institutions large and small are finding ways to work differently and better. Even a cursory glance at Twitter or Linked-In can reveal some amazing work and some great people to collaborate with.

At Easier Inc. too, we work hard to share our knowledge and experience so that others can benefit.

For example, recently we've been helping one of our clients in the south of England share and spread our Action Canvas approach into partner organisations so that they can make working better together, easier. You can find out a little more about The Action Canvas, which offers an alternative to conventional project management, in our video below.

Alternatively, if you would prefer to have a chat about what might work best for you in your situation then you can contact us anytime using the contact form here. We won't give you the hard sell or pester you with follow up junk-mail; we'll just give you a good listening to and some friendly advice.


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