Louise Downe

Transformation is only as strong as its weakest link

*

It's been a while since I wrote anything here. Mostly because I've been fixing stuff, and writing here.

But there's something I want to talk about - what transformation means, how we do it and how to stop getting tired when things get hard.

Firstly a definition -

Big problems often mean big changes, and those big changes in turn often get talked about as a ‘transformation’. This is because the thing we want in the future is radically different from what we have now.

That different future generally involves some kind of massive retrospective modernisation. Keeping up with progress – often technological progress – after it's already happened.

The annoying thing about progress though is that it never stops, and as Kate Tarling said “transformation will never end, and our work will never be done.”

The problem in the past is that we seem to have thought transformation could be ‘done’ or finished at some point. We’d do the modernisation and then think that the world would just stop changing somehow in respect of the fact that we put a lot of effort into being ahead.

This perspective might have made sense when we had to wait more than 100 years between the invention of the telephone and the first home computer connected to the Internet, but makes literally no sense now. The world is changing every day, and that change is getting faster.

So, problems that are never finished need a different kind of solving.

In the catalog for the 2010 AA symposium on Entropy, Marco Vanicci talked about design in complex situations that take time to fix as “problem caring, rather than problem solving”.

That doesn't mean not making things better, it means working together, over time, on small incremental changes in response to change and what's needed.

The bigger the problem, the more of us are involved. It's not one person’s to fix. Incremental change needs teamwork over time. True, constructive teamwork.

So why is that so hard?

This is where we get into weak-link theory. This is an economic theory popularly applied to sports by David Sally and Chris Anderson in their book The Numbers Game. It explains why football teams are only as good as their weakest players, and why basketball teams are as good as their strongest.

It comes down to how much teamwork is involved in the game, and how much the players rely on each other to reach a common goal - so to speak. In football the chances of scoring are slim, so you need lots of chances made with everyone working together to make them. In basketball the chances of scoring are high, so you make space for the strongest player to do their thing.

In a dream world transformation would be like basketball - easy slam dunk after slam dunk by some kind of superhuman dream team. But it's not like that.

Large service-providing organisations (government included) are like football. Providing services to users is a team sport - with parts of our service shared and distributed across the network.

Those services are only as good as their weakest part. Which means we are only as good as the person who understands user needs the least, or is the most unequipped or unable to act on them.

This is why transformation is a weak link sport - we need to enable everyone to work towards that goal from the front line, to the top.

Large organisations can transform but it's not going to happen overnight, and even if it did, we’d need to get up and do it all again tomorrow - together.

It's long, it's hard, but important things are rarely easy.

*Russell Davies talking at The Civic Book launch. Sorry about the angle Russell. You’re making people think as always ;)