Public sector: risk adverse? overly influenced by the press?

February 15, 2008

An interesting morning in Belfast presenting on leadership and strategy from a complex systems perspective. For those interested the slides are here. The audience was mostly government and the voluntary sector with all the issues associated with that sector. The format was a good one – presentation, questions, then summary spread over three hours which is a lot easier than the 40 minute keynote; OK for the conventional but not for the novel! I have picked a couple of the questions (with my responses) below. This is far from complete and I have not represented the richness of the conversations in what was an energetic and engaged audience, but they were the two questions I thought deserved a wider airing. For those who want more, the web site has a lot of material and you can always contact Anne McMurray who is a locally trained practitioner.

I’m looking forward to coming back, hopefully to run an accreditation programme. Belfast is a very different place from when I first spent time here in the 70s. Lots of change, lots of energy. Tonight I go to Ravenshill to watch Ulster play the Dragons. Now an interesting question, do I show welsh solidarity, or, as the Dragons are the historical enemies of Cardiff Blues do I support Ulster? I promise not to be influenced by the fact I will be surrounded by Ulster fans …

The notes below are more or less a continuation of the conversation in the master class so they may lack context for someone coming to the subject afresh. Happy to expand on the points, but this is all material we also cover in the accreditation programmes.

The public sector is very risk adverse. How do you introduce novel ideas using narrative, complexity theory and the like?

My observation would be that people who work in the public sector tend to get blamed for failure and see other people (generally politicians) take credit for success. Of course this behaviour is not unknown in the commercial and academic sectors, it is after all one of the roles of delegation to mitigate risk for leaders (yes I am being cynical). However it is often more pronounce in the public sector. Its also worth noting that the consequences of mistakes in the public sector are often higher than in Industry, and I don’t mean for the individuals (they may be more protected) but for the people they serve.

One major problem is that in an increasingly complex and inter-connected world it is becoming harder and harder not to make mistakes. One of the key switches required is the shift from fail-safe design to safe-fail experimentation. Establishing multiple small initiatives that are failure tolerant but high in learning can be adopted, and declared as a strategy. The cost is less, the potential beneficial outcome higher but it requires a different mind set. It’s partly there, most government initiatives start with some form of trial, the danger is that trials are scaled in terms of outcome. Something that works in town X will not necessarily work in town Y. It is not a major shift to run a series of small trials, paying particular attention to different sets of starting conditions, see which produce the most beneficial outcomes and then seek to replicate those starting conditions in future projects, modifying and adapting as needed. That way you get different but equally beneficial outcomes in other areas.

Now I did not say much of the above in the session, hence the writing. The main advice I gave is to find intractable problems, ones where traditional approaches have consistently failed and then sell a limited scope trial to attempt to resolve it. That could be a basic narrative capture programme, designed to capture anecdotal material from the population, up to a full strategic intervention using one of the complexity based strategy workshops we run over one to two days. They key is to find a space where the powers that be are prepared to take a contained risk. Showing some sample outputs (I used the landscapes) is one way to do this. We are also happy to help. I spent over an hour this afternoon after the event on a teleconference to the US, providing basic support for a newly trained practitioner to help them win over a client.

The influence of the media is very strong, always looking for failure and politicians respond accordingly

This is a problem in government and industry alike. The press pick up on weak signals and magnify them. Something they ignored last year, now has currency and will be picked up and magnified out of all proportion. I remember a project years ago where a water company has been charged to reduce pollution in a river and had been very successful. They announced the story the next day by citing the small number of parts of cadmium per million, something that to any scientist would have proved the point. The next day the story in the press was Cancer causing chemical found in local river. No amount of scientific argument would counter it, but then by luck someone caught a salmon in the river. To the press that proved the river was clean.

Now this is by no means atypical. The press will find material and magnify it, they like failure more than success (and we are the same so don’t complain it is a natural human tendency. Trying to argue that it shouldn’t be the case, or controlling information feed just makes the press more stroppy and motivates them to dig deeper. On the other hand if you start to take a narrative approach to problem solving then you are gathering large amounts of anecdotal material and you have quantitative data to direct queries. That sort of system, aside from the diagnostic capability it gives you also provides a means of creating transparency to the press, allowing them to discover material within the interpretative structure in which you can respond. It allows a degree of balance to be maintained, rather than an isolated story being picked up and magnified. More than that, if you are tagging press stories you can start to see early what sort of themes are being picked up within the press and you can target dampening and amplification strategies accordingly

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The Cynefin Company (formerly known as Cognitive Edge) was founded in 2005 by Dave Snowden. We believe in praxis and focus on building methods, tools and capability that apply the wisdom from Complex Adaptive Systems theory and other scientific disciplines in social systems. We are the world leader in developing management approaches (in society, government and industry) that empower organisations to absorb uncertainty, detect weak signals to enable sense-making in complex systems, act on the rich data, create resilience and, ultimately, thrive in a complex world.

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