How NOT to do demand


Just like Batman, demand management is an insane attempt to solve a problem. In this case demand  management is an attempt to solve the problem of less money in the public sector, but in a totally insane way.
We here at thinkpurpose have been lucky enough to do work helping core services get better at serving their customers.

If you want to know how to understand demand coming into your workplace, giving you have authentic knowledge to act upon, then read about the time I was lucky enough to be a part of doing it right.
That’s here and here.

However if you want to balls it up, try demand management instead…

If you’re in the public sector then you’ll have noticed demand management sneaking in over the last few years before POUNCING after they took all the money away to pay for the bankers bonuses.



Demand Management is command and control’s attempt at dealing with having less money by telling customers to clear off by designing them out of their service.

The assumption being made by managers sitting in the middle of the service is that by fending off customers at the borders it’ll be cheaper than allowing them in.

Think big barbed wire fences made of self service websites, apps and signposted do-it-yourself guides. The “free” web services and DIY apps will keep out the great unwashed and their demand, by helping them at the staff-free border manage their own problems.


All those apps keeping out the demand will mean those let inside can be serviced by the 2 members of staff left behind [lower left]

 This means less demand coming inside the fence and therefore less money spent on the expensive staff to help them. This is the thinking.

Part of Demand Management is notionally understanding demand. ie knowing where to put the fences up and what apps to build to keep customers on the right side of it.

However Demand Management is part of command and control. It came from it, so it is it.
Don’t be fooled by the word “demand”, it doesnt mean what you think it to mean. In the context of systemsy stuff it is the expression of the customers problem that they need help with. In Command & Control land it is a cost to be avoided.
The thing about demand is, it’s your purpose. It’s NOT a bad thing. However in the world of Command & Control thinking, purpose is what is paid attention to. If activity and cost centres are paid attention to, and they very much are, then anything that adds to it is to be avoided.

Listening to demand is really important. Don’t waste demand by MANAGING IT!
Use it to learn from so you can do something good and become better faster cheaper
Here are 4 ways you can do demand ALL WRONG. Don’t do ’em!

1. Download it from a database 

What is it?  Rather than do the hard work of going to the actual physical location where customers interact with the organisation, listening and writing it down, we’d rather assume we already have it and go to the already existing databases and download what we already have.

Why wont it work? If you want to capture demand in customer terms so you can understand what they want then you want to know the problem they are really trying to solve, without slotting them into predetermined management categories. This requires unmediated listening. It’s been proven repeatedly in all sorts of diverse services. Downloading from a database will  produce incorrect data, and no learning will have be done by people who will make decisions based on incorrect but neat database reports.

What should you do instead? Do the hard, laborious and valuable work of collecting demand data properly by listening and writing it down.

2. Prioritise numbers of demand not types.

What is it?  Concentrate on how many contacts there are, rather than understanding WHY people are contacting. Use this as the basis of working out what to do next, such as  making popular (ie expensive) areas self service at a website without understanding really why the customer is contacting you and what matters to them.

Why wont it work? Say that you get 1,000 requests for a service that you think could be provided on a website instead of through a costly member of staff. But you don’t know that there are only 200 customers, trying to contact you 5 times before they get what they need because it didn’t work the first time. You now don’t know that your service only gets 200 value demands, and creates 800 failure demands because it doesn’t do something right for the customer. So what is the chance that NOT knowing the types of value and failure demand  will help you design a cheaper and better service? A virtual zero chance of success based on ignorance.

What should you do instead? Understand why customers contact you, by actually listening to why customers contact you. Don’t stick with numbers of contacts, ask for some words as well to tell you why they are contacting. Knowing the types and frequencies of demand on your service gives you a huge chance of success compared with ignorance.

3. Set targets for demand 

What is it?  “We want to reduce demand on our expensive resources so we will set a challenging though realistic target to reduce demand”

Why wont it work? We all know targets don’t work. But there is a special kind of foolishness in applying targets to restrict access to services. Restricting access is a common feature already of the design of the majority of Command and Control services from banks and insurance call-centres to social care and benefits provision. The idea is to put the expensive experts at the back of the process away from the customer, and put de-skilled script driven monkeys at the front.
In the public sector it is often done by putting “gateways” into services with the clients having to reach certain thresholds of need before they are then allowed in. This won’t work because the de facto purpose becomes about restricting expensive resources and the question is “is this for us?” with the default setting being “no, it’s not” until a customer can no longer be refused access to the service. This is the opposite of meeting customer purpose. It is about the customer having to meet the organisations purpose of not getting access until ill/poor/old enough to qualify.

Hilary Cottam here talks about this model…

[They] are all about institutions with finite resources, anonymously managing access.
In my work at the front line, I’ve seen again and again how up to 80% of resource is spent keeping people out.
So professionals have to administer these increasingly complex forms of administration that are basically about stopping people accessing the service or managing the queue.

As we all know, meeting customer purpose is actually the cheapest thing you can do. The further away from meeting customer purpose a service gets, the more expense it creates. Setting a target for demand is setting a target for increased cost.

What should you do instead? Use data on demand to understand your purpose and how well your service is currently meeting it, then use it to re-think, re-design and re-manage. No targets can achieve that.

4. Use demand to reduce costs

What is it?  Restricting access to services because servicing demand costs money so the less demand there is, the cheaper the service.

Why wont it work? This is the thinking that lies behind number 3 above, setting targets to reduce demand. It is the assumption that since money is spent on a service, demand on a service is the cause of that cost. So if you reduce the demand, the cost reduces. This is, technically speaking, arse about face.  The cost of a service is due to the design and management of that service, not the demand placed upon it.

“…cost is a really slippery concept. Because when the government says that a family like Ella’s costs a quarter of a million pounds a year to manage, what it really means is that this system costs a quarter of a million pounds a year.
Because not one penny of this money actually touches Ella’s family in a way that makes a difference.
Instead, the system is just like this costly gyroscope that spins around the families, keeping them stuck at its heart, exactly where they are.” [link]

What should you do instead? Manage delivery of value to the customer. Ie. do what is needed to help the customer with their problem. Don’t design a system to reduce cost, design a system to achieve purpose. It’s better and cheaper for everyone.

This entry was posted in all wrong, clarity of purpose, command and control, Demand, purpose, systems thinking, targets, vanguard method and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to How NOT to do demand

  1. antlerboy says:

    yeah but…
    you’re just making a paper tiger of demand management, and that’s below you!

    One version is a sort of 1970s centralised control directive management nonsense. I haven’t seen a lot of that being explicitly practiced and called demand management, to be honest. I have seen a lot of digital or channel shift programmes which do eight things, seven of which will increase costs (1 digitisation, 2 close other contact channels 3 redesign web forms 4 ask people what they want 5 implement new CRM 6 implement customer data management 7 implement new contact management and redesign website), and one which might reduce costs: 8 redesign services
    (1-7 are great – maybe – if they are in the service of 8, informed by actual understanding. I’m with you on all this).

    But a sensible approach to demand management will look at an outside-in perspective on the service (and possibly wayyyy outside-in – understanding that presenting demand is only an expression of need, and an expression which is totally shaped by the system. And need is only an expression of purpose, and expression which is shaped by the system). It will also, by the way, look at the configuration of resources to meet presenting demand, and redesign of contact layers, just like your very solid but slightly old-fashioned approach 😉

    In an ideal world, it will introduce command-and-control* management to create the enabling conditions for front line staff to have maximum control of how they respond to customer demand at the point of contact, since they know it best!

    This bunch of marketing guff and garbled management speak explains what I’m saying in longer and more policy-officer accessible prose:

    Click to access RedQuadrant%20demand%20management%20model%20v1.4.pdf

    Look, starting with studying demand isn’t a /bad/ place to start – in fact, it might be the best and single most powerful point. It’s just that however misguided most managers still are, they really are looking for things that work, and they really can still misunderstand the best-intentioned approaches. Demand management is no more a bad thing than the Vanguard method, with it’s reported 5% success rate.

    *yeah, I know. Baaad command and control. Nasty paper tiger. This is what *I* mean:


    • ThinkPurpose says:

      we here at thinkpurpose operate a “come-as-you-are” policy on comments, so as long as it’s on topic, or educational or if not is at least entertaining, it goes in.
      Your comment is all 3, so it’s in.
      I’ve been thinking for a while of changing the top tagline on the blog to the catchphrase from the UK TV show Catchprase, which was “say what you see”.
      For those who havent seen it, it was a show where a picture showing a famous phrase was gradually revealed ona big screen, like “look before you leap” might show someone with a pair of binoculars on a pogo stick. That sort of thing. The contestants would be shown the picture gradually, and theyd try and piece together what they were looking at, which was often a rather literal version of the catchphase they were trying to work out. The catchphrase “say what you see” was repeated at length throughout the show, exhorting the contestants to stop trying to think very hard about what the puzzle they were looking at might possibly mean and instead LITERALLY say what they saw.
      A version of this was on the classic kids tv saturday show SM:TV, the game was in this case was Wonky Donkey. Again, all the contestant had to do was “say what they saw” which was always an object that had a name that rhymes with what it was. It might be a donkey with one leg missing, the titular Wonkey Donkey. For three weeks kids ringing up couldnt get “twee bee”.
      Contestenats often COULDNT DO IT. They had to say what they saw. And they couldnt. They saw what they were THINKING they saw.
      The point is, i look around and say what I see. Not what SHOULDD be there. So demand management “if only they did it right” isn’t something I can see. Only what IS done. So i say what i see.
      You werent writing that comment drunk were you?
      I blog drunk sometimes, and it’s often all the better for it. This here, i woke up with no memory of writing it, and simply loads of people liked it.


  2. Bob Ainsworth says:

    //In an ideal world, it will introduce command-and-control* management// – no, no, no. In an ideal world it doesn’t and shouldn’t introduce a command and control management system. ALthough to be fair, it most likely is there anyway.

    //Look, starting with studying demand isn’t a /bad/ place to start – in fact, it might be the best and single most powerful point// – how can you study demand right at the start if you don’t know what that demand is in the first place? Or did I misread? I think I misread a lot of what you were saying to be fair and I’m not even drunk.


    • antlerboy says:

      Bob, my point in the first quote is that command-and-control doesn’t mean what you think it means. You are using it to mean ‘centralised decision-making, controlling, directive, limiting, management that is based on an assumption that the higher up the hierarchy you are, the better placed you are to make ALL decisions’. Actually, as it originated, command-and-control management is a rigorous and well-managed structure that creates a validated hierarchy based on devolving the maximum discretion within clear limits to those closest to the front line. Maximum freedom to act, as close to the work as possible. With clear boundaries, and good information flows going up the hierarchy to allow real overview of the work in the organisation, good information flows going down to allow well-informed decision-making, and good information flows being shared laterally to allow well-informed decision-making. And the hierarchy is justified by the value it adds to the level below it (or above it, we could visual it both ways up).

      And in the second point, studying demand is what you do to learn what the demand is in the first case, to learn what you need to do to meet the demand. Or, if you have a sensible approach to demand management, you prefer to help people to help themselves (achieve their purposes in life, meet their needs) before their needs generate a demand on public services. It’s probably the best place to start understanding the work to improve – dare I say transform – the organisation. Assuming that you know what the demand is will almost always be a big risk. However, you might, for example, want to start with:
      – checking that the hierarchy really is adding value and maximising well-informed freedom to act within boundaries at the front line
      – checking that the organisation knows what *it’s* purposes are, and that these are shared throughout the organisation
      – checking what the organisation is measuring and seeing whether this is furthering either organisational or citizen purpose.


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