I spend a lot of time talking and reading about organisations and systems; why they don’t work and how they could work better. Something has dawned on me which is both rather obvious and potentially powerful.
Why don’t local public sector organisations collaborate effectively? Why isn’t a large corporation able to inspire its employees to be more proactive? Why are large political parties such unattractive and unpopular institutions?
These problems require changes in the way organisations are led and structured. But if we start with the question of change at the top we are likely to end up advocating reforms based on what hierarchies can accept rather than what might be truly transformational to people’s experience.
Here are a couple of examples, both broadly applying the adaptation of cultural theory laid out in my 2013 annual lecture. The Electoral Reform Society has published an interesting short pamphlet entitled ‘Open up – the future of the political party’. Whist I agree with much of its analysis, I think it is guilty of viewing the problem of large parties through a structural/policy lens rather than thinking more deeply about people and what motivates them. An alternative starting point might ask why, apart from career ambition, someone would engage in party political activity. The answer might be threefold; people join political parties to contribute to making the world a better place, to learn and develop as a person and to have fun.
From this starting point it is pretty obvious why party membership and local activism have declined while background levels of volunteering and community activism have remained constant or risen. Going to a local constituency meeting of the Conservative or Labour party is generally not much fun, offers few opportunities for personal development (unless you want to get fit by pounding streets on a leaflet delivery run) and provides only a very attenuated sense of making the world better (although this feels a little more real at election time).
Contrast this with ‘Good for Nothing’, a rapidly growing initiative based on people self-organising into groups which hold ‘gigs’ to develop innovative ideas to improve their local communities. This video is all about fun, personal development and immediate impact.
So rather than the ERS’s broad injunction to parties to ‘be more open’ it might be more productive to ask; ‘how can political parties become organisations that offer local members fun, personal growth and social impact?’. The answer, of course, is that they would have to change out of all recognition.
A private corporation I recently addressed were also thinking in broad terms about how to become more creative and entrepreneurial. But the only method they seemed to employ was top down exhortation. A key question was; ‘how can we persuade our consultants to use their relationships not only to focus on their areas of expertise but to open up a wider offer to their clients?’ I suggested a focus on core human motivations could be a fruitful starting point.
There are three reason the consultants might go the extra mile; because they understand and appreciate this is part of the organisation’s strategy (hierarchical motivation), because they believe in their company and colleagues and the value they can bring to clients (solidaristic motivation) and because there is recognition and reward for those who take initiative (individualist motivation).
Whilst companies might conventionally order people to change or offer financial incentives, the trick is to tap into all three human motivation systems while not letting one crowd out the others. If incentives are too individualistic people may end up gaming or exploiting the system, if the encouragement is too hierarchical personal buy-in and creativity may erode, if the motivation is only solidaristic people may do what they think is right or good for their team but not necessarily in a way compatible with the needs of the whole organisation.
If we start our exploration of organisational change with a balanced and evidence-based model of motivation (albeit one that becomes more complex the closer we look at it) we can develop a richer, and often much more radical, account of how the organisation has to change to foster the behaviours it wants. Jos de Blok created the amazing Buurtzorg organisation in part because he could see a narrow focus on hierarchical and individualistic motivation had made care giving and care receiving joyless.
Similarly, as I have argued in other recent posts, we need to dismantle the high barriers to public sector collaboration by thinking in human terms first and structural terms second.
I realise that much of this may seem blindingly obvious, but behind it lies a simple principle derived from the RSA’s Power to Create way of thinking. Let’s start all our conversations about organisational change with the question; how can we enable people to most fully express their creative potential?
Of the many unflattering comments I received on school reports one of the most memorable was: ‘O Levels are for the mediocre and accordingly he passed’. An echoing phrase came to mind when listening to the coverage of yesterday’s by-election: ‘politics is for those seeking to recreate the past, accordingly UKIP won’.
As regular readers will know, the RSA has a new worldview (if you like pictures here’s the animated version). We call it the Power to Create and it is necessary for my argument to recap its main points.
…..Today we have unprecedented opportunity to fulfil the ideal of every citizen living a creative life. This is possible because citizens are becoming better educated and more cosmopolitan and because they increasingly aspire to greater autonomy and self- expression. It is possible also because public, private and civic organisations are beginning to understand that their survival and success depends on tapping into the creativity of citizens, clients and customers. Both of these processes are hugely facilitated by technology, particularly the social web; the greatest accelerator of mass human creativity in world history.
But there are barriers too: Inequality and elitism which deny people the tools of autonomy, meaning and creativity – basic financial assets, data and intellectual property, social networks; the logic of educational institutions and hierarchical organisations which too often treat creativity as the exclusive domain of the few; and a politico-technocratic model which sees citizens as the objects not the subjects of social change.
I try to talk about the Power to Create in any speech I give. While I find it goes down pretty well with young people and the open minded, progressive folk who make up the RSA Fellowship I observe another response when I am speaking to politicians or those who work for them in local or national government.
Whether or not they agree they don’t see the RSA’s analysis as relevant. This may be partly because the critique of hierarchical organisations and traditional policy making is too radical, but there is a stronger source of resistance: Our political class and those who serve them have largely given up talking about the future.
As a former Labour representative and official I find this particularly depressing. Whenever Labour wins power – 1945, 1964, 1997 – it is in part because it has articulated a story of the possibilities ahead. It has described an exciting future and has successfully argued that social democratic values and methods are best placed to seize the opportunities (and address the threats) of that future. Yet today’s Labour Party seems remarkably incurious and unenthusiastic about the 21st century and the deep trends in technology and in human capability and aspiration that could define that century. Tellingly, the most developed critique of Miliband’s direction comes not from future gazers but in the nostalgic nostrums of ‘blue Labour’. (The craven abandonment of progressivism by mainstream and reforming Conservatives is powerfully condemned by Philip Collins in today’s Times).
This is not an argument for blind optimism. From Vladimir Putin to antibiotic resistance, from climate change to the polarising tendencies of financial capitalism, there are many things to worry about, many things we need strong leadership to help us tackle. But you don’t inspire a team only by talking about the fear of defeat. It is through painting a vivid picture of possibility that we gird people’s loins for the hard choices necessary to make that future possible.
As any strategist worth her salt knows, the most important skill in politics is defining the battleground. Most people are uninterested and unaware of policy – except when it goes badly wrong. What matters much more is who defines the problem and thus steals a march in claiming to have the solution. But if the problem is defined as the modern world the winners are those who seem most determined to abandon it.
While politicians are often rather vague about technology and out of touch with the young, I have never known a political class so uninterested in the medium term future as the current crop. Sure, politicians occasionally visit silicon roundabout and genuflect to the billionaire internet whizz kids, but this is tourism not proper exploration or analysis.
And so politics, rather than a fight for that future, is fought on a different terrain – a battle to recreate the past, a past moreover that never really existed.
Who knows how successful UKIP will be in the next election, but if politics continues to descend into a nostalgia competition all bets, indeed, are off.
It’s a funny old world. It’s already been a long week and I wasn’t really looking forward to chairing a round-table discussion on ‘Ensuring an entitlement to a cultural education for all in London’ at Whole Education’s annual conference.
But an interesting argument is all that is needed to revive a jaded intellectual palate. We got that with a presentation from the always clear thinking Holly Donagh, Partnerships Director at the cultural think tank and catalyst A New Direction. Holly described research on the deficit gap in participation between disadvantaged and other young people, and also between teenage boys and girls.
She went on to identify three arguments that might be marshalled for greater school (particularly secondary school) investment in arts and culture: The contribution to attainment; the contribution to the broader development of young people’s character; and growing the ‘cultural capital’ of young people, especially the disadvantaged.
But Holly also freely accepted the problems with each of these arguments. The first lacks conclusive evidence showing that arts participation boosts results. In relation to character, what seems to matter is engagement in any kind of sustained, disciplined activity so arts is no better than sports (more popular with boys), scouts, volunteering or, come to that, stamp collecting. And, as for cultural capital, there is little or no evidence that cultural engagement in schools carries over into a predisposition among disadvantaged groups for cultural participation in later life.
The evidence, such that it is, will not move us from where we are. If school leaders believe in the intrinsic and knock-on effects of cultural engagement they will take it seriously and do great stuff. But those who are sceptical will remain unconvinced. Meanwhile the message from policy makers is that it is STEM alone that ensures a good career, while arts subjects (apart from English) are ever more marginalised in the curriculum.
For those of us who simply believe that participation in arts and culture can play a powerful role in education and social justice the answer lies not in evidence but in an effective combination of pressure, support and incentives. In this way more schools which are open to the idea that arts and culture can help engage and develop pupils and close the attainment can be convinced to do something.
Thus my idea:
10PP would be an initiative combining pressure on schools and cultural providers with a clever, easy, flexible mechanism to build the relationship between the two. This is how it would work:
A cultural institution (let’s say A New Direction for the sake of the argument) would calculate/publish the pupil premium for every secondary school in London. It would advocate for the case (which could be powerful albeit not conclusive) that schools should spend a minimum of 10% of their Pupil Premium on arts and culture.
At the same time it would approach arts and cultural institutions (particularly publicly subsided ones) and encourage them to offer something of proven worth equivalent to that 10% figure. The schools that didn’t meet the 10% target and the arts institutions that were unable to make a worthwhile offer at that level would at least have to explain why they had decided not to be part of the 10PP programme. The impressive campaigning organisation What’s Next might apply some subtle grassroots pressure.
The offer could, of course, be flexible. Schools might choose to spend their 10PP on a number of offers. As some schools would want to spend more than 10PP and have something for all pupils the arts offer might be made in terms of ‘10PP from your school would be enough to buy two thirds of x’. Or to encourage greater ambition and collaboration, an arts institution might say it could do something for a cost equivalent to two or three schools combining their 10PP.
The organisations advocating 10PP and creating the virtual market place could also develop a kind of cultural Trip Advisor so that participating schools share their experiences and talk about what worked and was good value (and what didn’t and wasn’t).
My idea won’t melt the hearts of those who think arts and culture is of marginal value to young people’s attainment and development but it might just nudge a whole lot of schools who are receptive but not active to make the leap.
The idea might have some obvious flaw but in case it doesn’t my offer is that if any organisations in London think it’s got legs, I will host a meeting here at the RSA to discuss its viability and even chair it myself (I am normally very, very expensive …).
Earlier this year I wrote a post complimenting the global education company Pearson on its efficacy framework. The corporation had committed to the principle that it should only develop or sell products or services which have ‘a measurable impact on improving people’s lives through learning’.
I was impressed by the seriousness of the initiative (being led by my former Downing Street colleague Sir Michael Barber), the way it takes social responsibility to the heart of Pearson’s business model, and also the openness with which Pearson executives talk about the challenges involved in developing and implementing the framework across a huge, complex global organisation working in ever more competitive markets.
The post elicited a good reaction and we subsequently developed a short seminar series exploring the efficacy framework, the first of which – focussing on youth unemployment – was yesterday morning.
Although Pearson’s work was the jumping off point, our discussions were relevant to the wider debate about impact and evaluation. A number of interesting points were raised, but for me certain themes stood out.
Reviewing the history of social democracy the historian Peter Clarke made the distinction between ‘mechanical’ (technocratic, centralising, rule-based) and ‘moral’ (inspirational, decentralised, value-based) models of change. At first sight, efficacy seems to be a weapon in the mechanic’s armoury. Indeed the efficacy framework looks like a typical technocratic toolkit enabling senior managers to model and regulate decisions further down the hierarchy, albeit with the best of intentions.
Interestingly though, Pearson’s Kate Edwards, who has been using the framework in seeking to reform under-performing vocational colleges in South Africa, emphasised the role of efficacy in changing hearts and minds. A willingness to focus on impact, to look for evidence of success or failure and ultimately to be accountable for results is the starting point for a meaningful commitment to change, she argued.
Echoing this, another theme connects policy and organisation to notions of personal efficacy. Julian Alexander, of the personal development consultancy Emergence, described the successful use of positive psychology to enable young unemployed people to boost their sense of agency and hope. Attributes like persistence, responsibility and an ability to combine ambition with realism are important to the success of an organisation’s students or clients. A well applied efficacy framework will see those attributes powerfully mirrored in the working methods and culture of the organisation.
These ideas extend the ambition of efficacy beyond the rather technocratic framework of assessment initially developed by Pearson. But the seminar also identified major barriers to making efficacy the ‘true north’ of policy or organisational practice. Greatest among these is complexity. Competing goals, competing organisational responsibilities (intra and inter) and competing incentives all confound and distract from a focus on the outcomes that most matter (assuming we can agree what those are).
The challenges can be read vertically or horizontally. The champions of efficacy in Pearson have to convince their marketing department not to sell unproven products, while the salesmen in their turn have to persuade the customers who undertake procurement (whose priority may be to spend their budget in a given financial year) not to buy products that may not work while they then have to persuade teachers (who may have only a limited understanding of robust educational research) to change their working practices to make better use of better products.
For those trying to pursue efficacy in youth employment practice in England, the number of agencies, initiatives and levels from which, often conflicting, policy emerges makes it all but impossible to find the clear space needed robustly to test and refine ideas.
The constraints of complexity, hierarchy and regulation – openly recognised by Pearson – put me in mind of a conversation we held here at the RSA last year. The leader of a innovative and growing social enterprise working with at risk young people shared the platform with the heads respectively of a large children’s charity and a large private sector children’s services provider.
The social entrepreneur explained how every week everyone in her organisation got together to discuss what they had learnt in the previous week and to agree how they would adapt and experiment in the week ahead. She wanted to know from the national CEOs whether it would be possible to learn and adapt in real time in a large organisation: to which the reply, in essence, was ‘no’.
It is worth reflecting on what is lost in terms of immediate assessment, learning, collaboration and experimentation the moment this ability for a cross cutting team to work as a single autonomous unit is lost. Of course, such an enterprise – and this is often the problem with these innovative programmes – would not have the scale or resources to undertake the kind of data driven, scientific evaluations involved in a robust efficacy framework. But, as the seminar highlighted, the purity of efficacy is almost inevitably sacrificed in the fractured world of complex organisations and systems.
All of which leads to a conclusion which is simple to state but, no doubt, tough to act upon. To be powerful, efficacy (indeed any framework for assessing impact) and the clever technology platforms that stand behind it should be uncoupled from top down control systems, should be based on simple powerful principles around which different organisations, or parts of organisations, can collaborate and cohere and – most crucially – should enable the work of people at the front line (including service users) to be more rewarding and creative, not less.
In other words the ultimate test of efficacy – possibly more important than its pinpoint accuracy – is that it is not a tool to empower the hierarchy but a tool to increase the autonomy of those who it is hoped will use the framework in their day to day practice. Or to put it even more simply, does measuring efficacy help people be more efficacious?
Since we started talking at the RSA about the Power to Create, I have been asked to apply the idea to a variety of subjects. The most recent is the energy sector….
Generally I enjoy giving talks to outside audiences (although to protect the interests of the RSA I, as do other colleagues, have to charge for my time). Preparing gives me an opportunity for a quick dive into a sector or organisation, I often meet people on my outings who subsequently become partners or Fellows of the RSA and, like any performer, I enjoy feeling I have engaged an audience. But some gigs are tougher than others.
Yesterday I was in Amsterdam speaking at European Utility Week’s massive annual conference. I was billed as offering an outsider’s view of the sector. The organisers were kind to me and the conference programme was broad and interesting but, judging by the silence on the conference Twitter thread after I had spoken, I fear the largely besuited corporate folk in the audience found me about as relevant as the small brass band that played delegates into the main hall.
Still, waste not, want not, I thought my readers might find my analysis of greater interest.
In a transparent attempt to curry favour I started by saying that energy is arguably the single most important sector of the economy; important to national and regional security, to global sustainability, to economic growth, to quality of life and household finances. It is often said that energy policy faces a trilemma, or even ‘quadlemma’ in which it can meet some of its objectives (say affordability and medium term security of supply) but only at the cost of the others (say sustainability and long term national interest). So, I suggested, instead of choosing one objective over the others, could a focus on being a creative sector help to improve the trade-off points between them?
There are five ways in which the energy sector could become a creative force.
It could build on innovations like NEST and British Gas’ Hive to enable energy users to be much more active in managing their energy use. Notwithstanding the failure of the Green Deal, these forms of customer empowerment should extend to ways of making investing energy efficiency pay off quickly.
Also, the sector should be a champion, facilitator and financial backer of community based schemes to generate and save energy. Despite the great enthusiasm of the community energy sector and a genuinely supportive (albeit modestly-funded) Government strategy, we still lag way behind Germany and Scandinavia in the overall contribution that community based schemes make to energy supply.
Moving from customers to organisations, energy companies, especially the big utilities, should seek to exemplify the best practice of creative organisations including being mission driven, devolved in structure and encouraging innovation at all levels. It is noteworthy that one the firms featured in Frederick Laloux’s Reinventing Organisations was a major American energy company AES (although, sadly, the company eventually retreated from the radically devolved form it had adopted).
Combining these points, energy firms need to be open to the possibility of transforming their whole business model if it is the only way of aligning organisational and public interest. Even if Jeremy Rifkin is only half right there will come a time when the marginal cost of energy will have dropped dramatically. At that point it will be the firms that have moved from being commodity providers to platforms for a plethora of other providers (families, communities, co-operatives, municipal companies) that will survive and prosper. The experience of who has won and who has lost from free on-line content is instructive here.
Finally, the sector needs to make a creative contribution to public debate. In any energy gathering there is much justified complaint about the vagaries of public policy particularly in relation to the business case for investment in renewables (to know more read Alan Whitehead’s excellent blog) but to my inexpert eye the key dilemma is whether industry or government (which means you and me) carry risk. In a highly regulated sector, industry needs price predictability to make long term investment decisions but, if the government does provide price guarantees, it can end up shelling out billions in rent seeking profits when market conditions change. The best solution to this is greater transparency, consistency and trust among and between the key players.
As many commentators have argued, while trust doesn’t remove trade-offs or conflicts of interests it can make them much less expensive and dangerous. But if the industry is to contribute to a higher trust (thus more creative) environment for debate and policy making it has to behave in an open, authentic and responsible way. If anyone thinks those words apply already to the sector’s big players they should read the relevant sections of James Meek’s book ‘Private island’.
Sensing that I was failing fully to convince my audience I ended with a final suggestion.
While the Amsterdam delegates were clearly expert in their fields I wondered whether there was enough passion in the gathering. I have on various occasions spoken to energy innovators, whether entrepreneurs trying to develop new energy saving devices or community activists trying to get a local energy scheme off the ground. Many of them are RSA Fellows (we have even given some small financial backing to some of their ideas) and they tend to be hugely enthusiastic. Perhaps at next year’s conference the organisers should give out some free tickets to these pioneers; they certainly wouldn’t have any doubt that energy can and must be a creative sector.