Using agriculture and the ooda loop to help stakeholders understand Internet-era public services

Last week I was very privileged to deliver a keynote to the annual SOCITM President’s conference. The last time I did so was in 2013, I’m hopefully a bit wiser since then. Also I was delighted to see the conference’s attendance grow both in numbers and diversity since my last visit.

This blog isn’t the presentation I gave last week, nor a transcript of it. It’s the distillation and iteration of those ideas.

How can we bring stakeholders with us into the Internet era for public services?

People in an old office sitting at mechanical calculator machines
Computing in days gone past. The ‘computers’ were the people.

I’ve been a council leader, I’ve run a digital agency and I’ve been a senior council officer. In all cases I’ve seen the huge difficulties good people and important work can face when struggling with stakeholders who “just don’t get it”.

For those of us impatient for change, it’s something we have often wrestled with. In many ways it’s an age old issue that goes to the heart of organisational renewal. But, and I know this is (justifiable) exceptionalism, I do think the Internet era we are now in brings a new flavour to this challenge. The conversations we need to have aren’t “out with the old, in with the new” and it would be wrong if they were. What I think we often experience is a fundamental disconnect over what the Internet era means and why it changes things.

An important public service announcement:

We break for a reminder that this isn’t a breathless Wired article where “just add tech” techno-utopias will be entertained. Sadly I think that too often when there is fear or misunderstanding of the Internet era people can revert to simplistic “just be more like Amazon” talk, sprinkling tech as they go. That’s one of the reasons I try to avoid using the term digital without being sure I’m with people who all agree we mean something like Tom Loosemore’s definition of digital. Too often ‘digital’ becomes a hand waving phrase to avoid precision about what we are actually talking about.

Let’s also be clear that “not getting it” doesn’t mean people are bad, it means we’ve got work to do. Now some will be stubborn, lacking curiosity and hard to budge. But in my experience most aren’t. We don’t need 100% understanding from all stakeholders. We just need enough to swing the pendulum.

The end of the heroic leadership paradigm

Superheroes flying with a big red cross over them
No heroic leaders please (superhero movies are fine though)

I didn’t know what it was called until I saw Barbara Kellerman speak at Harvard, but now I can proudly declare that I’m a passionate student of collaborative leadership. That is to say that the heroic model of a super-CEO type leader is not one I subscribe to and I don’t think is sustainable in our modern world.

In public services I think that means breaking down the Victorian, militaristic hierarchies in our organisations. It also means helping our leaders to recognise that a mechanistic mental model of how to bring about change is deeply flawed. There may be some levers to pull on, but they aren’t connected to anything at the other end, so won’t achieve the desired outcomes. Quite simply, just because someone has a position high up a hierarchy, Prime Minister even, doesn’t mean the outcomes they desire will happen on their say-so.

Moustachioed man at old fashioned exercise machine with a big lever
“Minister, you may think this lever reforms public services, but it isn’t connected to anything”

Rather I think an agricultural model of thinking and leading is more appropriate. We can’t make a seed germinate. We can’t know what’s going on inside a seed without destroying it. But we know the conditions it needs to give it the best chance of successfully germinating and growing: Fertile soil, water, warmth, sunshine and so on. Creating the conditions for success, in the knowledge that we can’t control for everything is vital to the mind shift we need to achieve. This means nurturing teams, valuing staff happiness and engagement are all even more vital.

Gardener planing a new seedling

How does this help me with stakeholders?

It does. Because there are lots of excellent people, associations, companies and agencies supporting leaders on such journeys to collaboration and systems thinking without explicitly talking about technology. I think that can be an incredibly helpful trojan horse to shifting the thinking.

Secondly, this mindset really can be shifted by a small group of people. It needs resilience and some supporters at or near the top, but this journey  doesn’t require your whole organisation to agree or understand before the tide will start to turn with positive outcomes. The Margaret Mead quote hits the spot on this:

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world.
“Indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.” - Margaret Mead

So what?

I took the time to set out some of my underlying assumptions about styles of leadership and thinking because they’re important. Launching into why the Internet era is different without first being clear on the necessary common ground is, in my experience, risking a high chance of early failure.

We urgently need stakeholders to think about, decide on and support work in different ways. We need them to fund teams, not projects. We need patient supportive leaders to allow the hard work of discovery, user research and service design to actually bear fruit. We need to bin business cases: They give false comfort with lies about how much will be saved or earned in 4 years if we spend X now. As public servants we need to focus on the wicked problems which, by their very nature, can never offer certainty on costs nor returns in a fixed timescale.

Cover of the book "Boyd: The fighter pilot who changed the art of war" by Robert Coram

So I turn to US Air Force Colonel John Boyd, a fighter pilot in the Korean War and considered one of the top strategists in modern US military history, who still has academic conferences held in his honour. In the 1950s Boyd developed the concept of the OODA loop. This describes a loop beginning with Observe, then Orient, then Decide, then Act before returning to Observe and so on.

Diagram of the OODA loop: Observe, Orient, Decide, Act

He originated this thinking with reference to aerial dogfights. He suggested that the winner in a dogfight was the pilot who could get ‘inside’ the enemy’s OODA loop – in other words do each of the steps faster than their opponent. The simplicity of the idea, and it’s easy application to much in modern life, has given it a life well beyond aerial combat tactics.

Public sector bodies have their own OODA loops as expressed through their formal and informal decision-making. Too often they are top-down, deterministic and slow. How often have we heard the tragic “I know what the problem is, just find me solutions” guaranteeing that the speaker has no idea of what the problem really is.

In my view we desperately need to change the public sector to have rapid OODA loops which are driven by a focus on outcomes, using analytics and rapid iteration.

And this is exactly what the Internet-era enables. It makes the OODA loops much smaller. Thanks to the low costs and connectivity of modern tools we can build and iterate products and services more quickly than ever before. Whereas a trial service might once have taken 2 years to get the first meaningful feedback to know if it was worth pursuing, we can now achieve the same in weeks.

Diagram showing large OODA lop with four small OODA loops inside it.

Not only does this offer us more speed and flexibility, it also reduces our costs and risks. How so?

Usually business cases are built for multi-year programmes of work. The inflexibility of the governance and the resources means it’s only worth mobilising such decisions for big programmes. Yet too often it’s impossible to know if they will really work as intended, so the costs get baked in. So we end up with big price tags, or bigger than absolutely necessary, because of governance and lag. Little and often minimal viable services are a much cheaper and faster way of figuring out what works.

Graph with one line showing 5% a year gains on £100 for 5 years and the other showing a single 25% growth for the final year of 5.

With an agile, iterative approach which funds a team and not a project we can stop or course correct at any time. There’s no shame in it and so we can avoid years of spend if something isn’t working out, we just move onto something else. But if it is working, by going out with the minimal viable service we can gain benefits much earlier. I liken it to the compounding of interest. Would you rather get 5% a year for 5 years or 25% once at the end of 5 years? The right answer is 5% a year as not only is that spreading your risk – you get some return now regardless of what happens in the future – but also you get more overall as you earn interest on the interest.

Example: Monzo

Monzo promotional image showing app on an iPhone and their distinctive coral coloured debit card
The Monzo app and card

Interest rates are good link to an example I like to use at the moment: Monzo Bank. Other banks are available, but thanks to their culture of being really open about how they work, it’s easy to use Monzo as an example. As an online-only challenger bank lots of people think they’re a tech company, but they’re not. They say it repeatedly themselves: technology is an enabler – a means to an end – not their purpose.

They launched with a real minimum viable product, a pre-paid debit card issued by another financial institution which gave a current account-like experience with their beta app. It was a long way from a real bank account service. Still this helped them to build up a client base, and insight, which they used to start building a real current account and other features as they went on. They also genuinely co-produce their services through their community which should be the norm for public services. If a bank, a trendy new one I know, can do it then so can we.

Screenshot of the Monzo online community forum
The Monzo community, explore it in full at community.monzo.com

Making it real

Maybe the agricultural metaphor and the OODA loop are useful for working with your stakeholders? Please let me know.

I’ve considered and tried many, many ways to attempt explaining why things are different in the Internet era, and why public service leaders need to do things differently as a result. Based on years of working in this sector this is my latest, best effort. Your feedback is very welcome as I know there’s so much more room for improvement.

In my experience there are some key values and capabilities needed to go on this journey, and make it last in public services. They are worthy of several blog posts more of discussion, but I’m just going to put them out there for now. They shouldn’t be outrageous, I hope!

Culture and values:

  • Curiosity
  • Openness
  • Trust
  • Empowerment
  • Collaboration
  • ‘Safe uncertainty’ aka risk appetite

Capabilities:

  • Service Design
  • User Research
  • Technology
  • Data Science & Analytics
  • Citizen Engagement
  • Communications
  • Organisational Design

Finally it’s really worth remembering why we need to do this. It’s because we’re not making enough of a difference to the citizens who depend on us, those who have nowhere else to go. Yes there’s austerity, but we still have huge resources and our outcomes need to be much better. Just shunting transactions ‘online’ is a start, not the end goal. This is about resolving the wicked issues and making a difference for those who have nowhere else to turn.

Image credits

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