The hard work of change, hype cycles and why LLMs aren’t a quick fix

There has been a tsunami of hype recently about Large Language Models (LLMs) such as ChatGPT, Bard and so on. To me it has felt quite similar to previous hype cycles, such as with blockchain – “the end of banks” vs “the end for programmers”. For a long time I would get frustrated with people leaping into the latest ‘hot’ technology because I felt they weren’t understanding the hype cycle nor the complexities of how technology really works. However, now I think something more fundamental is going on: In essence, people are consciously or subconsciously, trying to find ways around the long slow hard work of delivering fundamental change (and for me this is specific to work in public services).

Just chucking in some extra technology doesn’t deliver genuine change. Through decades of hard-won experience we know that technology-led change just does not work. It’s only through multidisciplinary teams working in a user-centred way iterating on user feedback that genuine, lasting improvement happens — it is culture change working in step with technology. This is the way set out in the UK service standard, through which we have been able to fundamentally reimagine (some) services and make a positive difference.

I very much know there’s still such a long way to go on the change journey. It is hard yards and we are at the very beginning. It can’t be led by technology, it’s about people and making a difference. When there is so much legacy tech, with poor data models around, I do really understand the wishful thinking that something new could skip the pain of sorting it all out. I know, I feel the pain. But actually doing the hard yards of building the right culture, the right data structures and the right services is what needs to come first.

The tools, technologies and the connectivity of the Internet (a la Loosemore) have allowed us to do public services in fundamentally different ways with a very different cost model, but that alone is not enough. So adding the newest hype technology will never leapfrog lasting change of our culture, behaviours, and imaginations. Indeed, I think the most important shift technological change has delivered is how it has opened our minds to genuinely re-imagining public services for the better. And that is the work. Let’s go.

For further reading on how LLMs work, and how to think about them, I recommend ChatGPT is a Blurry JPEG of the Web and the lengthy What is ChatGPT Doing … and Why Does It Work? followed by this UK government guidance.


Booklog: The Little Drummer Girl, Silverview & The Whitehall Effect

John Le Carré was an author of widely acknowledged talent and impact. Personally I far prefer his writings to the screen adaptations, though perhaps ‘The Constant Gardener’ was the most faithful adaptation in my (very) amateur opinion.

Most authors I can enjoy reading (or not) but with Le Carré I enjoy, admire and feel a deep frustration at how incredibly good he is at writing. Almost to the point of wanting to never write a word again. There is total mastery in the way he captures moral ambiguity in the little moments which uncover deeper truths whilst highlighting the deceit so fundamental to statecraft.

So I am on a completist drive to read everything he has written, but not read everything about him as a swathe of new memoirs on him and his love life have begun to emerge. To that end, my thoughts on two of his works I had yet to encounter until Kent Libraries came good:

The Little Drummer Girl – John Le Carré

A remarkably finely balanced piece which somehow manages to expose the hypocrisies and moral relativism of the British, Palestinians and Israelis in the Middle East. It also is a deep look into the psychology of recruiting and training ‘civilians’ to espionage, with his female lead providing, to my mind at least, a compelling narrative of her divided loyalties and motivations.

There are dream-like qualities to elements of the book as it flits between the female protagonist’s perspective and those of the agents working for each side. It delivers a satisfying ending yet one closes the book not sure who ‘won’ and if anyone really deserved to win.

Utterly astonishing and global in scope, though of course with good dollops of Germany and England as we come to expect.

Silverview – John Le Carré

At the time of writing, this was his last book, published posthumously from an essentially complete manuscript. In an afterword his son suggests that the manuscript had stayed in a drawer for some time not due to concerns over its quality, but because Le Carré feared it was ‘too close to the bone’ in its critique of his former colleagues in the British intelligence services. Personally I didn’t think it took a major detour from his usual critiques.

The usual quality is there, and many common themes are used from his previous works – the English seaside town, retired spies, the sense of British decline. Still, this is undoubtedly a new story, one told with care and grace as he delivers a final rebuke for the failings of international diplomacy as well as of ‘the Service’.

The scale is smaller than other of his tales, but this does not in any way diminish the emotional impact of its conclusion. He was just an amazing talent.

The Whitehall Effect – John Seddon

In many ways what John Seddon wrote in 2014 is well trodden ground for those of us steeped in the ways of system leadership and agile working. But he brings interesting examples and a helpful perspective to the question of why so many government programmes fail to deliver on their promises.

His argument is that the programmes are often poorly defined and led by people without the right skills who aren’t focussing on the right things. Harsh but often fair! He then shows examples of teams doing ‘study’ as he calls it, or discoveries in my world, which then roots teams into the lived experience of service users and staff before iterative work begins. To many that may seem obvious, yet others still aren’t sold so another strong book making the case can’t hurt!

notes from JK

Booklog: Three Women, Daniel, To Kill a Mockingbird & The Cat Who Liked Rain

As with many friends and acquaintances I found reading hard at the start of lockdown. After a couple of months I seemed to regain my appetite so here’s what I’ve got through. I’m missing libraries now…

Three Women – Lisa Taddeo

Powerful, brave, searing, brutal. This really is a masterpiece. Written with such beauty and clarity. Some of the sentences took my breath away. 

Nobody is normal. Nothing is ordinary. These are easily said but by delving into three women’s lives in crystalline detail we learn something essential about the American woman’s experience in the 2010s. About desire, about expectation, how men and women treat each other. About the guilt and doubt imposed through one’s own thoughts of what being a good parent or partner or friend should be. 

Some may balk at the very explicit details shared from each woman’s sexual experience in this book. But as a frank expose of love and desire it only works with that level of detail. 

Truly a masterful piece of work. 

Daniel – Henning Mankell

Beautiful, heart breaking. Perspective on how we are so easily drawn into exceptionalism for our culture, language, race and way of life. And how good intentions can cause harm if we don’t respect the agency of individuals. 

To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee

It’s a classic, and rightfully so. I had never read it. Now I have, and I’m glad. Powerful and beautiful. Still so relevant.

The Cat Who Liked Rain – Henning Mankell

In my obsession with Henning Mankell I’m now even reading this story he wrote for children. It’s a beautiful piece on childhood and loss – about a treasured cat going missing. I really loved it. It’s beautiful, sensitive and comforting in how it’s set in a very normal family.


Listenlog: Satanic Panic, WeCrashed, The Clock and the Cat, Hunting Warhead, Unexpected Fluids

Uncover: Satanic Panic

In the early 1990s a small town in Saskatchewan, Canada is rocked by allegations from swathes of children that they are being horribly abused by a satanic cult. Teachers, police officers and others are accused and charged. The trials and appeals grind on for years. Eventually, with the exception of two lesser charges, all the accused are freed or have their charges dropped. Was there ever a satanic cult out there or did the judicial system mess up?

Another superb podcast from CBC which explains how mass hysteria and lots of well intentioned individuals unintentionally created a nightmarish scenario where innocent people nearly lost everything in the face of panic fed by intense media coverage. Utterly fascinating.

Hunting Warhead

Also on the topic of child abuse is this joint series by CBC and Norway’s VG. It starts with how a two man investigative unit at a Norwegian paper who had been successfully uncovering child abusers stumbled on a complex international Police sting operation. The heart of this operation had been the arrest of ‘Warhead’ who ran a string of major dark web sites for trading child pornography.

The series explains what the Police operation did: How they managed to infiltrate the dark web but also explores in a genuinely informative and careful way the story from the perspective of the victims and the abusers. Treating child abusers as ‘evil’ doesn’t stop the crime happening, and hearing the challenges involved in even discussion of treatment or prevention strategies is well handled and thought provoking. An excellent listen.


WeWork is the biggest corporate crash since Enron. But instead of fraudulent accounting (as far we know) this story is more about ‘excessive exuberance’ where a charismatic CEO along with international venture capital desperately chasing returns willingly entered into a mutual hallucination that a property rental business could be valued just like a tech unicorn.

On the basis that we can learn more from failures, this short series of 6 episodes is definitely worth a listen, even if just for the anecdotes of the wild ways money was being spent.

The Clock and the Cat

I don’t think I’ve ever met Mark Foden, but I’ve been enjoying his blogs and tweets for a long time. He’s now got a podcast exploring his favoured topic of complexity. Hence the title with clocks being complicated and cats being complex. If you’re interested in systems thinking, complexity, public service and organisational change then I think you’ll like this. Depending on your existing level of knowledge you may want to skip some of the episode but you’ll definitely find something of value in there with a fascinating array of guests coming on.

Unexpected Fluids

I suspect this one might be a bit marmite for my readers. It’s a BBC Radio 1 produced NSFW podcast built around listeners submitting their funny stories of sex going wrong. Many of the tales of sexual woe are snort-out-loud-on-the-train funny. Which is what hooked me in – a dose of bawdy comedy. But it’s much more than that as the presenters Alix and Riyadh deftly interview guests who have expanded my thinking on the wide range of human sexuality, how we discuss gender identity, consent and so much more. A fab series – well done to the BBC for using the podcast format for exploring more explicit and risky programming than they could on their radio stations.

notes from JK

Booklog: The World According to Star Wars & When I Die

The World According to Star Wars – Cass Sunstein

A book on what Star Wars can teach us about constitutional law, democracy and family relationships? Yes, yes and yes. Even better, it’s brilliant fun. Renowned scholar Cass Sunstein absolutely sparkles in this book where he swoops through what George Lucas’ creative process teaches us about life, how the Force relates to religion and why parents should watch Star Wars with their kids. I absolutely adored this book, it’s a real quirky gem. But I do have one bone to pick – Sunstein claims that no knowledge nor affinity for Star Wars is needed to enjoy the book. I disagree, it will make little sense if you haven’t watched all the films at least once. Indeed on reading the book I found great pleasure in re-watching them all again with new insight. Just a wonderful, unusual book from a brilliant mind.

When I Die – Phillip Gould

A short, searing book told mostly from the personal perspective of political strategist Phillip Gould as he is diagnosed with and ultimately dies from cancer. It’s emotional, wrenching at points but deeply worthwhile. This is clearly a man who loved his family, but also had a huge appetite for his work and politics. Once can sense the battles within him as he suspects his work ethic may have contributed to his illness, and threatens to distract him from precious, now definitely finite, time with his family. He mostly stays true to what he identifies as the purpose for his illness: To share the experience in a direct and moving way, to help others and change how we talk about death and dying. And of course to have the conversations and time he needs to have with those closest to him. The book closes with messages from his family and close friends. He achieved his purpose and something more. A wonderful book.

In fiction:

Women – Charles Bukowski
Brutal, unrelenting, salacious and disturbing and points. It feels incredibly real, even if it is a life one would never want to live, one feels privileged that somebody was able to capture a slice of LA lowlife as eloquently and with grit as Bukowski did.  

Agent Running in the Field – John Le Carré
There are few authors so consistently good as Le Carré. I feel completely inadequate in the presence of his writing, how can he be so good? As with the great Henning Mankell, Le Carré has a talent that borders on magic: Writing gripping tales that also expose the great issues of our time in new and powerful ways. This is what great fiction writing should do – help us grow, learn and feel in ways we could never otherwise do. It’s another masterpiece. 

notes from JK

The obvious trap

We’ve probably all been there at work: A project, product or system is blindingly, painfully wrong – the better way is obvious. For a former business partner of mine, who’d trained in hospitality, it was the dire way in which the restaurant we were eating in was running their service, presenting their food, decorating the rooms and so on. Not always the most appetising topic of conversation!

I’m certainly guilty of this too. I’ve often felt it was self-evident that prioritising sustainable modes of transport was the right thing to do for the environment, air quality and citizens’ overall benefit. Or on seeing a carbuncle horror of a legacy IT system I would be struck with how terrible it was, and how obviously better the alternative could be.

But of course what is ‘obvious’ to you or I, isn’t really that obviously better or right to everyone else. If it was, we wouldn’t still be talking about what to do with internal combustion engine cars and we wouldn’t still be discussing why that expensive enterprise software can’t recognise part time working patterns (or replace with your own favourite example).

When I reflect on my own failings in this area, I think it comes down to a failure of empathy: I make a series of incorrect assumptions which become blockers: Firstly, I assume that everyone knows about the ‘obvious’ better way and why it should be better. Secondly, in feeling ‘righteous’ about the better way I’m bringing to the conversation, I fail to listen well enough to understand why things ended up the way they are.

In my experience gross incompetence, or intentional malicious behaviour is rarely the cause. If this is genuinely the cause, tough as it can be, there are usually at least clear procedures to follow to resolve matters and hold people accountable.

Most times, however, the reality is it’s usually complicated. Most people want to do a good job when they come to work. But perhaps they work in a culture and system which doesn’t give them permission to think. Or there is a quasi-religious faith in a particular methodology which is utterly unsuited to the task in hand. In many cases, if one can put the ‘obvious’ thoughts to the back of your mind, deep listening will reveal a multitude of dynamics such as: An obsession with multi-year business cases which kills agile working dead; a failure to invest in staff development leaving teams ignorant of what works versus what sells or simply too many masters to please leading to a book-length list of requirements for a supplier.

Then the even harder task comes of challenging ourselves to let go of what we think is ‘obviously better’. In truth, for complex work, one person’s ideas will never be enough. Service users, the community and more all need to be included in the thinking, creating and discovering.

I’m not arguing against having high expectations of ourselves and our colleagues. Absolutely not, expecting the best and more from each other is great. I’m also not suggesting we should let obviously rude or abusive behaviour pass, no that needs to be challenged straight up. What I’m proposing is we might do better work if we let go of our perceived notions of ‘obvious’ so that we can hear and do better.

PS The wonderful Pen Thompson taught me to ‘never assume’. This blog shows that’s still a work in progress for me. It’s a very good rule to work from, ‘never assume’.

notes from JK

On trust at work

I’ve been thinking about trust at work. What it means, what it feels like and what role I might have in improving levels of trust. As Rachel Botsman points out on the excellent Your Undivided Attention podcast, the language we commonly use when discussing trust misleads us. We can’t really ‘earn trust’ but we do slowly build or repair trust through our repeated actions, if they are consistent with the promises we’ve made. Trust is intangible, and yet viscerally felt. Its presence, or absence, can leave an indelible aroma in a workplace that affects everything we do.

Personally I find it very hard, until it’s too late, to discern between someone who is merely playing the part of a high-trust leader and those who actually are high-trust leaders. For example if someone champions learning from honest failure as being important to how they lead, how will I know if this is spin or reality until failure happens? Does it become a disaster (gulp) or a gift to learn from (yay!)

I call those who are falsely spinning themselves as high-trust leaders ‘game-players’. These are the ones who find ways to avoid being held accountable for their failings, those who duck and weave to ensure someone else takes the blame or the extra workload. It can be hard to spot the game-players when first landing in an organisation, but they will be working hard to figure out who you are: Honest broker, another player of games or an easy target.

I find one of the most difficult choices I have to make in organisational life is deciding how to respond to the game-players. If already endemic, it can feel inevitable that we should join in the game-playing too. Or do we at least give the appearance of going along with them, to avoid becoming the target of their ire? Personally, and note I claim no particular insight nor wisdom other than 20+ years experience, I feel joining the games or even giving the appearance of doing so makes us complicit in a low-trust environment.

In making the choice to not become complicit we do become vulnerable, especially if those more senior than us are either wilfully blind to the games being played or unwilling to challenge the behaviours. By choosing openness, and a commitment to being truthful, we can build loyal teams who respect the path of integrity – which inherently builds trust in the work force – but we have painted a target on our own backs: We now represent an overt threat to those who have succeeded through their game-playing, which can only continue in the absence of openness and a lack of shared information.

I don’t have answers to this conundrum other than encouraging awareness of the risks, and urging reflection on our own values and experiences when trust and integrity feel scarce at work. How did we feel in low-trust environments? Do we want to persist that?

The answers to those self-reflections should help guide us on the right path, though perhaps not the easiest nor most profitable one. I believe openness, honesty and building common understanding are what lead to happy, healthy and productive teams.

notes from JK

Booklog: Reasons to Stay Alive and Exposure

Reasons to Stay Alive — Matt Haig

A searingly honest book. While by no means the first book exposing the private devastation poor mental health can bring; to me, this book marks a real breakthrough in how we talk about mental health. Why? Perhaps because Matt Haig isn’t a super-handsome, mega-successful star/artist/celeb opening up about their challenges once they’ve achieved legendary status (sorry Matt). He’s a pretty ordinary bloke*, a writer by trade, which obviously helps. So here we have this sensitive bloke with a calm, open and caring way about him sharing his experiences with depression and anxiety. That in itself is all too rare still – men opening up about how they feel, sharing their anxieties and sensitivities. It’s testament to Haig’s skill that this is a good read, quick and light despite the subject matter. If everyone read this book the world would be a kinder, calmer more understanding place with far less stigma over mental health. That’s quite an achievement for a book.

* Perhaps more accurately, he was a pretty ordinary bloke at the time of his breakdown, because since then he’s written some bestselling books some of which have become plays and one is soon to be a film!

Exposure — Michael Woodford

This is the true story of how Woodford, shortly after becoming Olympus’ first non-Japanese president becomes aware of what turns out to be a huge accounting scandal. Over many years the company’s senior leaders had surreptitiously gambled funds and hidden the subsequent losses through a series of shady transactions. Woodford’s attempts to resolve matters through appropriate channels led to huge resistance from his mentor and board. The result: the board ousted him and he is left wondering if his life is at risk from criminal elements potentially connected with some of the underhand deals. 

It’s a brilliant read and fascinating for me as someone interested both in business and Japan.  Some of it is a critique of Japan’s business culture, which feels especially relevant in light of the Carlos Ghosn saga. I’ve had this on my list for a long time because whistleblowing is something I think we need to do far more to protect and support. Woodford’s account is very well written, feels fairly open to recognising his own failings whilst point a bright light on corporate behaviours which sadly still persist in too many boardrooms.

In Fiction: I read ‘The Children of Men’ by P.D. James and it was astonishingly good. Eery reading it when main action is set in 2021. So close!

notes from JK

Email newsletters I like

Email newsletters are enjoying something of a renaissance, which I think is wonderful. Here some of my favourites which I recommend:

James Clear’s 3-2-1 Newsletter (weekly)
Every Thursday James sends this short dose of wisdom, inspiration, quotes from others usually finished with a link to something funny. James wrote the excellent Atomic Habits (my review is here) and this newsletter is motivating and a bit of an insight into his continued thinking. Love it.

Dense Discovery by Kai Brach (weekly)
I wish I could remember who recommended Dense Discovery to me, so that I could thank them profusely. Every week brings a thoughtful combination of links and images on the topics of technology, design, ethics and sustainability. It’s beautiful, and so good.

Benedicts’ Newsletter by Benedict Evans (weekly)
For a savvy, hype-free view on the tech industry you can’t get better than this weekly dose of insight from Ben Evans: A British analyst who just recently finished 6 years in Silicon Valley working for top venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz.

Jukesie’s Public Service Internet Jobs (weekly)
On a Sunday this drops into my inbox. A labour of love by the wonderful Matt Jukes, this is mainly his curated list of interesting ‘digital’ jobs being advertised, with the occasional bonus thought or comment. Why do I like this? Because it’s one of the best ways to see what’s going on in the sector and where thinking on ‘digital’ has got to.

The Quartz Daily Brief (daily Monday to Saturday)
I’ve been a fan of Quartz’s different take on news reporting since they were first spun up by Atlantic Media. I’ve tried quite a few of the news summary emails out there but I keep coming back to this one as the best for me. I find their daily news summary the best combination of what I want to see with a sufficiently global perspective.

The Book of Life by The School of Life (roughly weekly)
The School of Life is a superb organisation co-founded by the philosopher Alain de Botton. It aims to bring a calm, compassionate understanding to life’s challenges and helps people find saner ways through life. The Book of Life is their ever evolving collection of essays on the challenges of living. This lovely email gives you snippets and insights from their work. I think it’s wonderful.

notes from JK

Booklog: Bumper 2019 roundup

To Sell is Human – Daniel Pink

In a wonderful, gentle way Pink shows that there’s nothing wrong with selling and that we all do it, probably more than ever. 

Ultimately he concludes that by being humble, humane and seeking to find mutual benefit in any ‘sale’ we are all able to be a better version of ourselves. One could argue the book is simply a digestion of many well known studies and truisms. But that’s to undervalue the power of the work Pink has done in organising these ideas into a clear and helpful narrative structure which certainly gave me the opportunity to rethink how I approach some interactions. 

Black Box Thinking – Matthew Syed

Much of it feels familiar – perhaps because the examples are now well trodden business lore, which they probably weren’t when this first came out. But it still feels powerful and relevant. Syed’s essential argument is how we treat and react to failure is fundamental to whether we can learn and improve. Contrasting aviation and medical professions is compelling. It’s very easy to agree with the book’s core prescription, very much harder to follow-through, especially in complex organisations. 

The Secret Barrister

Learn about English legal system and huge strain it is under. How successive reforms which seemed sensible to outsiders actually harmed a system we hope we’ll never need, but assume will be sound should we need it. This isn’t just about austerity, it’s a broad and deep critique on how we have failed to care for the justice s system. This book does a superb job of accessibly exposing the issues.

Don’t Hold My Head Down – Lucy-Anne Holmes

Wow, what a frank, open and funny tale of a woman exploring her sexuality. When that woman happens to have been the founder of the ‘No More Page 3’ campaign you realise this is going to be very special, and it is.

The People vs Tech – Jamie Bartlett

Excellent, highly readable defence of politics and democracy over Silicon Valley tech utopia.  Really effectively and concisely brings together many of the key concerns around how big tech can put the wester democratic ideal at risk. Lots of good policy suggestions too… Other than the oxymoron of “secure online voting” !

Bad Pharma – Ben Goldacre

I’ve long followed Ben’s work, he has a brilliantly personal writing style. But I felt remiss in not reading any of his books, so here we go. I should disclose our orbits have slightly touched through work we’ve both done with the Open Knowledge Foundation and Open Rights Group. In fact, the word ‘open’ is the lodestone.

Bad Pharma is a great piece of activism, mandate for change and a searing analysis of how so many people in industry, medicine, professional bodies, regulators, publishers and more allow appalling behaviour to persist which result in death and harm to patients. It’s as simple as that. People knowingly let vast swathes of medical trial data be hidden, abused and mis-reported. Regulations are regularly skipped, skirted around or ignored with little or no consequence. Nearly every doctor in the world gets their ongoing professional education sponsored and curated by the pharma industry, with huge negative consequences on the cost and efficacy of prescribing. And most of this could be avoided with sunlight – openness and rigour at every step of the drug development and approval cycle.

At moments the book is utterly depressing but it comes through with a positive message and clear actions we can all take to challenge this situation. And Ben is working hard on brilliant work to improve things to, such as and more…

One more thing…

I don’t tend to mention my fiction reading here, but two epics I recently hugely enjoyed were Haruki Murakami’s Killing Commendatore and Henning Mankell’s A Treacherous Paradise.