This week I had the pleasure of working with the fabulous team at Here (Care Unbound) - based in Brighton and Hove but working all over.
We've been working together for a while now and if you are interested in public services - or in health and care services in particular - I can recommend reading their annual report (yes, really!) or reading about some of their mission driven work to improve lives and services. They’re an inspiring bunch.
Back to this week…
We were exploring the role of communication in organisations and I had decided to run an exercise that my daughter, Sophie, taught me a few days before.
Handing me a piece of graph paper and holding onto a card like this one…
…Sophie gave me grid co-ordinates for where to place my pen then instructed me what direction to draw in, trying to guide me towards creating a perfect copy of her card without ever showing it to me and without ever being able to see what I was doing.
Here is the result…
I’ve never imagined myself as much of an artist but even for me, this was bottom of the barrel stuff.
I couldn’t wait to get my turn at being the instructor. I had it all clear in my head. My instructions were going to be so good that Sophie couldn’t fail. I had noted all the ways in which she was - in my opinion - instructing me poorly. I was going to do it right and she would produce the perfect simulacra of the card I held. It would be AMAZING!
Except it wasn’t…
In fact, no matter how ‘expert’ our instructions to each other became, round after round of this game only served to infuriate us both. The pictures we continued to create rarely even approximated to what we intended.
To give you a sense of just how bad we were, here is what was (by far) our best attempt:
We laughed but mostly at each other’s incompetence, not because we were delighted by how useless we were.
So I thought this would be a neat little exercise for the team at Here, with some learning points about the limits of communication. With notable irony though…
I Fluffed The Instructions.
Dividing the Here team into instructors and artists, I asked the instructors to be careful not to show their cards to anyone, neglecting to tell the artists not to let the instructors see what they were doing.
Almost immediately the instructors were over the shoulders of the artists, coaching them into doing it right and fundamentally breaking the game. Instead of issuing blind instructions, as Sophie and I had done, they were instructing and reacting simultaneously.
Despite this, useful learning points emerged to save my blushes…
It showed how impactful moving decision making into the work can be.
Having those with authority - the instructors - directly connected to how their instructions were being understood and what that was achieving, live and in real time, utterly changed the outcomes and the nature of the interactions.
In the version of the game that Sophie and I had played, frustration with each other and what we were failing to achieve was the outcome but for the Here team, frustration was replaced with collaboration and it was palpable that people were actually having fun and drawing better pictures (achieving better outcomes) into the bargain.
It’s not hard to imagine parallels to our lives at work. How often, for example, is the ability to flex and adapt decision making in real time integrated fully with work? How often do those with authority get close to what is happening in the live environment and experience first hand what is - and is not - being achieved?
In many organisations, there is a tendency to understand what’s happening and what’s expected of us through abstractions - performance scorecards, reports, plans, procedures, policy and so on. These things often delay, muddy or even disable the efficacy of feedback loops, making getting better slower, harder and less precise.
Sophie’s game suggests a need to take the time to check back with reality regularly and unmediated; to walk the flow of work and to validate whether the outcome of all the abstract mechanisms we use to understand and control what happens in our organisations are actually creating a picture of performance that looks anything like the one we intend.
And we can go further still…
If we want perfect, why not just show people the cards?
Even for the team at Here, the pictures they created were never perfect. In fact, they were frequently not that close to perfect; they were just a lot better than I’d expected.
There was a tendency to simplify and to ignore the little complexities that made for the precise shape required. For example, instead of the fold on the envelope image coming down a bit, instructors settled for a simple cross through the centre of a rectangle…
In trying to coach multiple artists simultaneously, instructors were settling for ‘good enough’, knowing that ‘perfect’ was unlikely, using their current method.
We see similar happening in organisations too; a tendency to ignore the little differences between customer ‘shapes’ in favour of standard processes that are easier to describe, train and monitor. We often squash complexity into our existing methods of control, rather than changing those methods to better absorb and work with complexity.
The Here team have learned about the profound impact this has. In our work together, we have seen how putting their ‘customers’ (really better described as ‘citizens’ or just more plainly as ‘people’) through one-size-fits-all processes then trying to manage these with abstract (often remote) controls, only ever leads to poorer outcomes for everyone - the organisation included.
They’ve been brilliant at embracing a different way to approach their work - a way that is much truer to their mission and their values. They work hard at understanding each person they help on their own terms - their own unique ‘shape’. They do this at the front-line and they ensure that there is freedom of movement and support to do what’s required. Just read this.
This different way of working is the equivalent of directly showing the cards in Sophie’s game to the artists. It puts focus onto working out what’s required by listening and looking rather than instructing and it’s a means to much faster, much more accurate learning and improving; a shift from trying to communicate quality through instructions to coproducing it through constant, systematic collaboration…something I've talked about before.
Rising To The Challenge
There’s no doubt that this different way of working and improving has profound challenges, not least for the formal and informal leadership of organisations; however, there are profound benefits too. Better performance, faster adaptation, an uplift in innovation, morale and responsible practice. There is so much that can be achieved when, as an old colleague put it to me, we conduct the work of our organisations from front-to-back; perhaps implying that often organisations are getting things back-to-front?