Are we in the business of opening doors (and keeping them open)?
I’ve been doing a lot of thinking recently about the nature of work and some team dynamics. I’m going to try and outline that thinking here in the hopes that it might be useful for others, and also that it helps me to work through how we might address it.
Working in complex systems
When you work in a complex system (such as social care and local government) it can be really difficult to know what lever is going to be the most useful for making change in the system.
There can be any number of levers, and what works well in one place may not necessarily be replicable at a different point in the system. It requires huge amounts of information gathering, sensemaking and thoughtfulness to understand that and make the next tiny step to edge something closer to the change we want to see.
But that’s not all, time also plays a part, and what may work in one place at one point in time may not work in other areas at that same point. It might require putting ideas on ice, waiting for the opportunity, and playing the right card when the chance arises.
I’ve seen that, as we develop products, there are many constraints that mean that things can’t scale (could be budget, could be lack of buy-in, could be prioritisation, could be something else entirely outside of our control). Also the SF Digi and Data team, part of a not-profit organisation, are contracted to work on other’s problems. That means we don’t hold all the power. We have a belief in what we think a good future outcome looks like, a vision for what we want to achieve, we have some great evidence about what works, and we hold some good cards (products, research, capability), but it’s not always within our power to define the exact focus and direction of work.
To a certain extent we are reliant on creating the change we want to see by working through others, delivering to their agendas and needs, and trying to make positive change happen as we go through those motions, influencing and shifting the system as we do so in whatever ways we can.
We also hope that in doing this, and in proving ourselves once we are in the door, that we will have greater ability to influence later. Sometimes this works, sometimes it doesn’t — not because the work wasn’t good, not because the ideas or vision aren’t good — but because of the constraints previously mentioned.
Essentially, working in these complex systems means we don’t know what will work, when, or maybe sometimes even why. It feels inherently ambiguous. Ambiguous can be scary.
Wait, I thought we were talking about doors, not hedges? Don’t worry, we are still talking about doors.
The problem as I currently see it is that we have become great at opening, and keeping open, doors of opportunity. We seek out new opportunities and we keep good relationships.
Because we don’t always know what might work, or when the right time will arise for something to work, we keep opportunities alive so that when the time comes we are ready to act. I’d call this hedging, like spread-betting, an insurance against something not fully being realised in one place at one time, it might work better somewhere else at a later time, it might work differently in different places, it might unlock something else that will help us be more influential later.
This creates some challenges:
- We might be averse to saying no in case the next opportunity is the one with the key that unlocks wider, more impactful, change.
- We might keep alive, or continue to invest in products or ideas we believe in as we look for and wait for opportunities to ‘play that card’, the problem is (to continue this analogy) we keep picking up cards and our hand becomes increasingly unmanageable.
- We might become opportunistic and responsive, rather than strategic and targeted.
- We might take an array of smaller pieces of work through fear of putting too many eggs in one basket or taking the bigger bets.
- Not being in control of what opportunities will arise and when may put pressure on our teams and resources as we try to rearrange and reconfigure to achieve more.
- Delivering to others agendas and needs might mean that there is potential for demotivation through the disappointment of compromise as our vision misaligns with the objectives of a piece of work.
How do we dampen the impact of these challenges?
When I started writing this post I sort of wondered if I would come out at the end with the view that we should stop doing the above and sort of settle on a strategy and target and run towards that, and I think that maybe the more senior you get within an organisation the more the inclination is (and probably, actually, the responsibility) to think in this way. But there are also benefits:
- It’s very difficult to take a single approach in a complex area, and I do strongly believe that in order to get things to change you have to work across systems and in lots of different ways over a longer time horizon to make change happen.
- Taking a larger number of smaller pieces of work with lower risk might also empower our teams and individuals to be less afraid to bend and influence the work in ways which might make it more impactful.
- Working across a broader range means we have more opportunity to listen and really learn about the needs of the sector (and we do have a really great view on this within our team). It may also give us greater visibility of that complex system and help us to better identify leverage points.
- This broader range may also increase innovative ideas as we work in varying contexts and apply learnings across. As a team we have been called ‘small but mighty’ because we are able to have impact because we can use this knowledge.
How do we amplify the impact of these positives?
I think I believe that working in this way can be hugely beneficial, but can also cause some issues. So what can we do to try and reduce the impact of some of those challenges? I’m honestly not sure but I think it comes down to three things:
- Decision making. When it comes to opportunities we need to make sure we have a robust way of ensuring that the opportunity is worth any disruption it may cause. I think we do this quite well already but it could be codified slightly better, and made available for more of the team at different levels so that they can understand how and why we choose the work that we do. But how do we quantify opportunity? Not just selecting the things we know we can achieve because we’ve done them before, but choosing things that will compliment and add to the knowledge and expertise we already have, that will stretch both our team and our partners in their thinking.
- Objectives. I think this means defining two sets of objectives, project outcomes (what is defined by the partner) and our own objectives aligned to our vision and our decision for taking on the work. As a not profit we are not in the business of taking on anything that we can do, we need to make sure that this is something we also should do. Maybe our objective is to build value by bringing more partners into a project, or to influence leadership to think differently about data. Either way, we need to get clear about what these are so that we can make sure the team understand and can walk the line between project requirements and our objectives, and to help our whole team to understand if we’ve been successful.
- Consolidation. We need to be able to understand what we’ve learned through the projects we select and bring this together in meaningful ways that build up, so that they can be reused, so that they can inspire the team, but also so that we can see how our knowledge and expertise is growing and changing and inform, iterate and improve the two points outlined above.
Thank you for reading this as I try to work through these thoughts in a sensible and constructive way.
I’m interested to know — what did I miss? There was a lot more I could say here but I’ve tried to keep this to a sensible length. I’m really interested to know whether this resonates with other people. What else do you see happening around this where you work and how do you approach some of the challenges?