As services improvement specialists the ability to explore, understand and adapt to the different situations that we find is critical. And sometimes the pieces of work that we take-on are ‘make it happen’ tasks in traditional project and programme environments. Intended outcomes have been specified and work has been broken-down and packaged-up as part of a large program, with challenging timescales in what are often stressful and predictably ambiguous change environments. Here is one real world (anonymised) example from practice.
Over the past twenty years I have been involved in a number of office closure programs in the private and public sector. This particular assignment was to design an approach to transfer product knowledge and information from offices that were to close across the country into a new knowledge management system. Delivery was demanded within months, leaving me with weeks to study, design and oversee transfer for an organisation and sector I was unfamiliar with. Understandably the people working in the closing offices were angry and upset.
Clarification and consolidation
As with all assignments in traditionally designed organisations, my first task was to clarify my understanding and to sketch-out who was involved across the broader system of knowledge and information production and management. They haven’t asked you to redesign, they have asked you to get something specific delivered. This loose picture led to a series of rapid conversations (with product managers, senior leaders and heads of closing offices). And from these conversations I was able to sketch-out the perceived picture of the overall system where information and knowledge was generated and stored and then put to use in calls with customers (the point of demand). To my mind this seemed like the best place to start studying.
Now I had to understand which offices to visit first. Rather than just choose the closest office, I wanted to understand this group of office leaders as a social network. After a bit of negotiation the first leaders were identified and I arranged a date and time for a visit.
Office 1 – The database
Arriving on a Monday I met the leader of office 1. Discussions with this leader highlighted that they were confident that much of the information would be easy to collect and transfer. I asked how they could be so confident and I was shown their database introduced to help those in customer services answer questions when talking to customers. In my mind, information provided to customers is of a different order from the knowledge generated when in contact with customers (the work-arounds, compromises etc). As I began to spent time in the work studying and learning with the teams who answered calls from customers, watching where they retrieved or stored information a very different picture emerged. After a few days it was clear that the frontline teams didn’t use the database provided because it wasn’t word-searchable (not of use when talking to customers on the phone). Instead people had created alternative ways to store, retrieve and share information and indeed create new knowledge as they went about the messy business of trying to solve problems for customers: in email inboxes, desktops, and shared-drive folders. No simple lift-and-shift.
Office 2 – Self-organisation
At the second office the leader also gave me the tour and introduced the managers and the teams. Instead of a database this office left people to self-organise. As with office 1 they had used inboxes, shared folders and desktops. This left me with a problem though (for both offices), how was I to understand what information and knowledge was current (to use the milk analogy – still fresh) and correct? The leader and a senior manager (a ‘subject matter’ expert) agreed to help, although they too were confident that this would be straightforwards. I set-up an experiment.
Designing an experiment
In this office the leader and a subject matter expert cleared their diaries for a day. I printed-off (onto A3) all of the pieces of information and knowledge discovered when working with frontline teams and being used when in contact with customers. Well over a thousand items in a pile on the floor. Each item was checked for accuracy and sorted into piles. One pile was for accurate and up-to-date, the second partially accurate and up-to-date and the third pile inaccurate.
As they started to examine these items they found that the vast majority were out-of-date or wrong. The categorised piles of paper on the floor told the story. And what was correct was not necessarily recorded on the information database. The office leader and subject matter expert were shocked, and quickly called round to colleagues in the other locations to share what had been learned. The leader immediately helped me with access to the other closing offices.
Once we agreed a format for transfer, and I had designed a new process for maintaining and updating the information (a project objective) with the product managers, the process of transfer went rapidly. Within just a few months all knowledge and information had been transferred from the closing offices. And for this I won a bonus, and made friends along the way. Now this is a pared-down description and the work involved was much broader than this short article outlines.
Key points – study and learn by working in the work with the workers
All change should start with getting knowledge. This is as true in co-creative environments as it is in traditional project and program environments. As designers who take on work in project environments, the entire focus is to deliver the outcome specified. There is little interest or capacity for anything outside of this in traditional environments with challenging timescales and busy people. As project designers and managers, we should not rely on what people tell us (unless there is no other choice) as they are often relating their understanding and perspective of a broader system and systems. Go study and learn in the work, providing normative experiences only where they will contribute to delivery.
Key points – People are good and not their behaviours
In this particular project I was told that there was general hostility in closing branches to those arriving from head office. I have known for some time that connecting with people at the personal level, in an empathetic and human way elicits a human response in return. Even in stressful situations where people are losing their jobs. I always try to remember is that people are not their behaviours and that people are fundamentally good. The managers and workers have often had no hand in the design of the system which they work within. And I always find that they want to do the right thing for their customers. By helping them to identify an ‘issue’, workers will gather around and help you to tackle it.
Key points – be open, approach the situation with humility
Every situation is different. Spending time to learn and understand the situation, including the perspectives of those involved (including your own perspectives and views) is worthwhile. Even if you have almost no time, understanding and learning is never wasted time.
To complete this assignment I used aspects of The Vanguard method and Russell Ackoff’s interactive planning and design.
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