Change, wickedness, being connected and thinking different

Transcript of talk at Leaders of Change, Canberra, 31 October 2012.

I’m working with a group of students – undergrads and postgrads – at the University of Canberra, helping them imagine the future of a connected world. What are the social, political, cultural and work implications of a changing globe where being connected is becoming a part of who we are? It’s no easy task; as their educational, social and business experience has taught them to think in a very structured way.

I’m trying to encourage them to explore new possibilities and complex issues that need demystifying and description. I want them to be t-shapers – people with a depth of skill and the capacity to collaborate across disciplines. I want them to be synthesizers, with the ability to distil information and articulate it in a way that creates action and consensus. I want design thinkers who can generate new ideas from complex, disparate sources and remain focussed on the humans at the centre. I want them to develop pattern recognition so they can see the order in the chaos.

In the words of the old Apple ads, I want them to “Think different”.

I want different thinkers in your organisations too. And, if they’re already there, I want you to recognise them. Who are your t-shapers, synthesizers, design thinkers and pattern recognisers. And what are you doing with them?

I believe you need these kinds of people.

There’s no denying that for both the private and public sectors, the pace of change we have to deal with continues to grow; often it’s so fast that we don’t see those changes coming before they hit us.

We face the kinds of problems that seem to get more ambiguous and complex the more we look at them; that seem to have no definable, fixed answer – climate change; real success in placing our nation in the context of The Asian Century; improving socioeconomic conditions for our disadvantaged; the public health conundrum that is obesity; the real reasons behind asylum seeker arrivals; the best combination of people for an organisation and how to find them now and for the future; our hyperconnected society and what that means for business, government, and for us as humans.

Wicked problems.

You can let change roll over you, overwhelming you, your organisation and people, and your capacity to participate effectively. You can hope an incremental approach gets you there eventually. Or you can choose to play an active, positive part, moving with purpose. Life is too short for anything but.

There’s usually a pretty substantial gap between where leaders and organisations feel comfortable and where they could be doing great things if only they allowed themselves to do them.

Not for a moment will I try to suggest that I know the one true way to deal with wicked problems. But what I do know from years of working in and with organisations dealing with change, with design of programs, policy and products, with communication, with engagement and with hyperconnectedness, is most organisations just aren’t tooled up to manage complexity and design for change in any meaningful way.

In spite of the best efforts of the people involved, in spite of the right words being said at the top about readiness for major shifts, most organisations are culturally, structurally, and in the skills and personalities of the people involved, capable of no more than incremental shifts. At best.

Most organisations are tooled up to produce and maintain reliability – reproducible, structured work that will generate the same product, or the same kind of predictable results over and over. They’re a bit like factories. But that’s okay; it allows accountability.

Organisations that work like this have built success on producing work based on an established a way of doing things; demystifying the activities they do and making work manageable. It’s a perfectly legitimate approach.

But working this way suppresses the capacity for change and risks process slavery rather than adaptability.

Where we want to do business as usual, that’s just fine. But it doesn’t encourage innovation or support work that deals with complexity because in the vast majority of cases, we try to shoehorn change into the standard way of doing business.

We create a project. We appoint a project manager and an analyst. Maybe a communicator. And an organisational change manager. It’s the stuff of square peg, round hole nightmares. Change, especially complex change, simply doesn’t fit the mold. So why would we try to treat it like it does?

As just one puzzle among many, the growing proportion of society connected to each other online, even in the developing world, is a prime example of exactly this problem. Management literature, written for the rational, business thinker, is veritably awash with advice on integration of business and the online world; on any given day hundreds of articles are published – some opinion, some backed by solid research.

Even the World Economic Forum has hyperconnectedness and the use of personal data identified as issues. Davos is exactly the wrong kind of organisation to be trying to solve this issue; it’s tooled for reliability and its community represents far fewer than the top one per cent.

10-odd years down the track of the mainstream’s move online, organisations – both public and private – are getting there too. Some are asking the public to help. Sometimes the public is helping itself and governments to open up and put accountability in the public sphere. The massive economic engine that is open data is enough of a puzzle itself without the additional complexities that accompany open government.

Very few are well along the path, and for most of them, being online is a marketing exercise at best.

Some remain solidly behind the 8-ball; our foreign service is notable for its apparent reluctance to meet the 21st Century head-on and engage in ediplomacy, in spite of its equivalents elsewhere leading the way in this regard and the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade recommending just this week that a dedicated ediplomacy effort be rolled out.

In the absence of different thinkers, they remain a long way from the possible. We could be conducting active program and policy R&D with an engaged public, employing a dispersed global workforce made up of the best people working from wherever and whenever they might be needed, and using the tools and workstyle of the online world to undertake truly effective collaboration and public engagement.

When the ground is shifting, when complexities such as hyperconnected society come into play, something else needs to happen, and we need a different kind of person in our business and active leadership support for them.

That person is someone I’ve seen described many ways, most of which make leaders, and particularly managers, pretty uncomfortable – maverick, catalyst, rebel, geek. But those people are completely necessary if we’re to deal with complex change.

These people can struggle to fit into regular organisations. They’re full of ideas. They read meaning and see patterns. They enjoy spending long hours building understanding. They push back against business-as-usual, looking for a better way.

It’s exactly these kinds of people that can help organisations dealing with complex problems. They’re exactly the kind of people I’m trying to develop in my class. They’re exactly the kind of people I hope you go looking for today.

Their particular skills allow them to see the possible, several steps ahead of where the people in most organisations operate. They’ll explore and exploit the possibilities. They’ll envisage shifts in the way you do business in the physical and virtual world, and imagine the what could be and how to get there.

Exploring and exploiting new opportunities. Translating the complex into the doable. Taking what looks risky and difficult and moving it towards the everyday. These people will be the ones that make real change possible – the type of change that can look too large without this kind of thinking.

It’s these kinds of people that should be designing how to implement the Gonski Review, blending those ideas with those of people like Salman Khan, Sir Ken Robinson and other innovative educators.

It’s these kinds of people that need to breathe life into the ideas posited just last weekend in the Australia in the Asian Century white paper. Why not take some of those ideas, grab them by the scruff of the neck, and vastly exceed expectations in the next two to five years? If not, we risk taking another 20 years to implement the shifts proposed, many of which were initially raised during the Hawke Prime Ministership, or earlier.

Even in complex change, we often settle for small steps forward; a game of inches, applying analysis and rationality to safely declare the way we do things in certainties and truths. That’s all very well if we’re only doing business as usual, but change is about business as un-usual.

We need to make it easier to move ideas tackling complexities into just what we do around here. Not in finance, where regularity and order prevail. Not in HR where the rules have to apply. But definitely in the work where complexity exists.

Go out and find different thinkers – the t-shapers, synthesizers, design thinkers and pattern recognisers. Encourage them. If you don’t have any, find some and bring them in. Get them involved solving your difficult problems, in designing for your complex change.

The last time I had my students do an exercise in design thinking, I had them look for themes in their major project – a response to a DEEWR requirement for a new system for high-needs job seekers. The range of discoveries they made, across human, service and system needs surprised them. The common threads, the interconnections and the outlier phenomena all indicated the need for significant shifts in the existing approach.

Universally, my students – undergrad and postgrad both – said to me that they had never approached a problem this way before. More surprising is that most people I work with on solving problems this way, have never used these techniques.

In your organisations, no matter what the problem, no matter how complex, you could discover new ideas this way. You could be fostering this kind of thinking.

I don’t want any more students that say “I’ve never done anything like that”, when I throw problem solving exercises at them.

What I do want is people working with you that can tackle change head-on with creative, different thinking.