The Law Of The Instrument

I can’t stand digital by default.

-How about analogue by default instead?

I can’t stand digital evangelists.

-How about analogue evangelists instead?

I can’t stand Head of Digital.

-How about Head of Analogue instead?

I can’t stand digital offering.

-How about analogue offering instead?

I can’t stand going digital.

-How about going analogue instead?

If any of the above analogue variations sound stupid to you, the original digital version sounds equally stupid to me.

Theres a concept called The Law Of The Instrument summed up best in the phrase…

“If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail”

In the public sector I’m seeing exactly this in the Digital By Default Disaster.

The thinking seems to be…


Which ultimately is operationalised as…


This is why I think digital evangelists are dangerous and wrong. They skip the part where having investigated the problem situation, got data, understood what’s happening and why, and redesigned the system using experimenting to find what works, AT THAT POINT  then pulling in technology when needed.

I’m being overly kind here. They don’t do the bit before the capital letters much either.

I’m 100% sure that any digital evangelists reading my blog will consider this a gross caricature and entirely unlike anything they’ve been involved in. 

I’m 100% sure they’re wrong. I see it around me all the time, people with magic goggles on, convinced that IT is the answer to cheaper and better services, and it’s just a matter of changing the question so that it IS the answer.

A way to spot them is they tend to be called “business analysts”, a name I had to Google and it’s got its own Wikipedia entry, helpfully. Teams of business analysts now occupy the public sector under the guise of improvement, whilst actually doing digitising instead.

I remain cruelly aloof to their charms. Often they’re lean-alikes, waving AS-IS and TO-BE process maps in their wake as they dash busily from workshop to workshop. I’ve noticed that when these jobs are  advertised as vacancies, skills listed in the desirable column are often a bundle of LEAN (always capitalised), Agile and systems thinking, sometimes only seperated by a forward slash eg LEAN/Agile/Systems Thinking, as if “hey, you know it’d be cool if you had one or more of these, cos these sound just swell.” Like these are in any way similar or even just NOT CONTRADICTORY!

This is fact a helpful signal to the prospective job seeker that the employer doesn’t really know what they want. But more importantly whatever special magic used to improve things, it’s mainly just a ruse to cover up the shabby old cheap trick of shoving IT in front of people and expecting magic. Ta-bleeding-Daaa.

I started this post with a cheap trick of swapping the word digital for analogue. It’s not a trick though. It’s a point. Thehe point being if there are people wandering around your organisation with default thinking, whether it’s digital by default or anything-at-all by default, you’ve got quite stupid people wandering around your organisation.

Default thinking is actually about circumventing thinking, which is why I say these are stupid people. They might be intelligent in other areas of their life, but default anything is dangerous and stupid.

I’m immune to your charms, Digitalistas. I think you’re wrong and dangerous, and quite bizarrely old fashioned and quaint in your shiny -eyed belief in technology “solving things“. Sadly you’re quite fashionable at the moment so we’ll all be stuck with you for a long while yet. Till then I’ll just quietly resent you and seethe at the dreadful things being done in the public sector, wasting millions on technology whilst social workers and the like are losing their jobs to pay for it and you. 

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20 Responses to The Law Of The Instrument

  1. bazhsw says:

    Absolutely spot on. Absolutely. Digital by Default is quite simply one of the most dangerous things in the Public Sector right now.

    For one, any ‘buzz phrase’ like Digital by Default, Culture Change, Transformation, Continuos Improvement etc. substitutes thinking about a problem for applying a slogan to something and applying a tool or assumption (on a related point I’m suspicious of methodology in general, if change could really be embedded in a Rapid Improvement Event wouldn’t we all be doing it because it would be EASY?).

    Secondly, as you rightly pointed out digital by default assumes IT will solve all problems (conveniently ignoring decades of large scale IT failure – see the NHS patient database, Universal Credit etc.). ‘Anything’ by default assumes the answer is known. That is dangerous. But if we are going to have ‘anything’ by default it should be ‘service user’ by default (if I need to access benefits, the NHS, a school place, social care, report a pot hole I am not a ‘customer’).

    I read a lot of local government news items, many praising digitisation and there is something in common, they all mention the customer wants to access public services online. There is just one thing though, the press releases about the latest software is usually written by the software provider! The guys selling to the chumps get to makes up the evidence and business case! It’s lazy and puts off the hard work of finding out in favour of an assumed solution.

    Case in point, if I want a school place I want to do it online in the comfort of my home BUT if my needs are especial I want to pick up a phone and talk it through.

    I want to report a pot hole, great let me do that online but a social care referral for my elderly grandmother? I want to talk to the Social Worker who can help, not jump through stages of triage through an online form.

    And that’s the nub for me, I want the way in that SUITS ME according to MY needs. Local government wants to funnel me in a manner that SUITS them and tell me they’re doing it for me.

    And then we end in the ‘system’. Except the solution we’ve bought doesn’t quite fit ‘how we do things here’ so we crowbar our processes in, ditch stuff we want to keep and pay software providers even more to bespoke solutions at great expense months and years later.

    It isn’t about the customer. Ever. It’s about reducing the transaction costs of dealing with ‘having to do work’.

    I am one of the aforementioned ‘Business Analysts’ waving around ‘as-is’ and ‘to-be’ process maps. Many seem to think my job is helping get systems in place (‘we need a BA on this to gather requirements / document the ‘as-is” is a common statement when the solution has ALREADY been procured!). It’s bloody disheartening speaking to supposedly intelligent and well paid people spouting ‘digital by default’ and ‘they need to sort their processes out’ (to fit the thing we’ve bought and imposed on them!)

    Sometimes it feels like being King of the Workaround because of the constraints of a new thing bought in.

    At the heart of this is the drive to save money and reduce the FTE footprint. The people who access our services rarely enter into the equation.

    Liked by 2 people

    • ThinkPurpose says:

      This is very interesting, hearing from a business analyst from the inside. As I’m typing this, on the telly on that Take That singing talent show, someone is introduced as…A BLEEDING BUSINESS ANALYST!!! THEY’RE EVERYWHERE! Cripes, why aren’t we living the dream then? Perfect services, dirt cheap, for all! Something up eh? I’m SLIGHTLY jealous that they get to do something just a tiny bit closer to what I’d want to do.
      Course then there’s ones like yourself who clearly, like me in my hand-maiden role, see clearly how it’s all crooked. Just out of interest, how many of the BAs that you meet Mr Baz, how many have similarly thought through concerns about the worth of it all?


      • bazhsw says:

        Well I don’t know THAT many, and I know some wonderful people (one in particular has been a huge influence in my career). That said, I can’t claim this is universal, a big part of this is that BA’s tend to work in IT, come from IT and are ‘bridging the gap between IT and ‘the business’ (a term I hate)’. It must be hard to divorce from IT when you are ‘it’.

        Genuinely, I’m not sure as I suspect many BA’s think ‘I’m not a real BA….’

        I don’t do technobabble very well….


      • Info says:

        A-bloody-men. I thought I was the only one who felt this way. I’ve found myself working in the middle of a lot of these folk trying to suggest a better way to approach the challenge of improving UK public sector services. Where do I begin.. The command and control mindset that drives deference, conformity and complete lack of critical thinking. But you know what – whilst the skinny jean brigade have been fighting a pretty good power struggle with their mantra of ‘digital-led transformation’ and have subsequently ended up with first dibs on the cheque book resulting in yet more IT heaped on the problem, it’s their colleagues in ‘the business’ who really make me despair. Not a foggiest idea of what’s wrong or where or how to start looking. Those of them who are open minded to trialling new ideas find themselves trapped in the no-mans land between pressures to hit short term targets and convincing those Digital seniors who prattle on about ‘test and learn’ that failure, in experiments is actually a good thing. Culture, leadership and performance regime all stacked against anyone trying to do anything ‘radical’ (compared to the current command and control lunacy).
        As ever its the top of the shop who are accountable and in my humble experience are great at career self preservation but utterly closed-minded to anything that threatens the cosy status quo or this years (dreamed up) efficiency, read headcount, reduction targets.

        Liked by 1 person

        • ThinkPurpose says:

          The skinny jean brigade! 😄
          Worth the price of admission alone, that one. I’m personally enjoying a splendid view of a transformation effort involving building a “delivery model” around three numbers chosen entirely because when the thing is drawn as a shape… IT’S A BIT LIKE A TRIANGLE.
          Robust, oh yeah. We got that covered don’t you worry.


  2. antlerboy says:

    I can’t say I disagree with you (for once… somehow I always agree-but-disagree, right?) – but having just come from #ukgovcampx, I think the point is that there are literally hundreds of bright, nice, committed people who believe in public services and come at it from a ‘computerisation is way cool’ point of view. I don’t completely know why it is a different world (nor why so many wear glasses, why there’s a disproportionate number of elfin young men and women, balanced out by a few generous beer bellies, and a few slightly embarrassed old farts like me), but I do know that they want to

    Yes, I’ve seen ‘customer programmes’ with eight elements – seven of which increase ‘digital’ and increase cost, only one of which (possibly with the help of the seven) would decrease costs.

    Yes, I’ve created a sophisticated conceptual model, based on real analysis of demand and how the work works that shows how the eight main types of customer delivery across a London borough could be improved by moving to four main ways of working… and been asked if I could just make that two, please, because four is a bit too complicated.

    Yes, I’ve met folks ‘at the heart of’ digital and achieved shocked looks when I said that ‘digital’ was certainly one of the top ten concerns of my customers. (Like a sort of spit-take, the question was ‘what… what are the other nine?’)

    Yes, I’ve grown excited and nearly been reduced to sobbing tears each time the ‘Government Service Design manual’ or other such promising items turns out to really be ‘the Government **Website** Design manual’.

    Yes, I’ve fought to encourage and help people to understand what is actually happening in their service provision, on reduced and reducing budgets while observing ‘digital delivery’ waste thousands on ‘digital’ (my favourite was cycles of agile sprints lasting 50 days… and therefore recreating ‘waterfall’… while costing £1m every 50 days).

    Yes, I’ve railed (relatively unsuccessfully) in an attempt to explain to enthusiastic people who love sharpies and gather together for mutual protection and to moan about why people won’t accept the power of their simplified form of process analysis to change the world, why the world is a lot more complex than that and has rebuffed previous attempts at revolution.

    and yes, I’ve fought for years to educumate people that providing a transactional service when people have a complex, personal, meaningful need is just as wasteful as providing complex, personal, meaningful help to someone who would rather not have to be there at all doing a transactional thing.

    and yes, I’ve learned the hard way not to go to digital ‘camps’ and try to run ‘unsessions’ about things like ‘doing agile change in real services, not just the IT’, because everyone shuffles their feet and, when the session starts, it turns out to just be me and Jonathan Flowers, who is a nice thoughtful chap.

    But, here’s the thing. Just like those who go and see a John Seddon mini-me and experience the nirvana that now they have been enlightened about how to transform public services, everyone else will be too… these are are people. Mine, and yours, and all the people who read this blog. These are the people who get up on a Saturday morning and go to spend a day partly exploring the tribalism and the sense of belonging (‘loyal to the network’, they day), and partly thinking really seriously and practically about how public services can be better, can be appropriate, can survive. How they can live as public and civil servants when the government or council (or the big ugly company they work for) does stupid stuff they disagree with. How they can avoid, navigate, work around, improve the stupidities of procurement, governance, politics.

    They’re people who care, and people who learn. They are people who (like Vanguard converts) have seen first-hand how a thing can really *work* and want that to happen *everywhere, now*. And they’re the ones who are thinking and working through the implications.

    When you get right down to it, the real problem here is believing that there’s a ‘command and control mindset that drives deference, conformity and complete lack of critical thinking’. Really? I’ve been frustrated to hell and back but the only thing I’ve ever encountered is people either wanting to do the best or scared for their positions and their futures, all shaped by the forces of the system. If we’re really going to do something here, we should throw away all lazy generalisations about managers, mindsets, tribes, and start using real data on real situations and sharing what we learn. God, that was an anticlimactic end to a rant, wasn’t it?


    • antlerboy says:

      The people in and around my organisation who I encourage and support to criticise me say I should use less words (which someone else then corrected to ‘fewer’).

      So, TL:DR
      Criticising Digital is just as risky as criticising Vanguard or criticising managers.
      Yes, a lot of nonsense gets talked and done, and a lot of money gets spent.
      But you see those intelligent people who voluntarily give up their free time to get to know each other and think deeply about transforming public services? They’re the ones you want to be spending time with and you need to talk real examples with real data until they learn or you learn… or maybe we all learn…


    • ThinkPurpose says:

      Haha, I love a comment that’s longer than the actual BLOG POST!
      VG, always a pleasure, never a chore.
      Thing I’ve found is with the digital, it all FITS IN NICELY. Goes down a treat. Cos it’s the same. Making decisions on what processes are going to be like, through being clever and WEARING SKINNY JEANS, calling computers TECH, that’s ALWAYS gone down a treat. Not straight away, but after a bit. It’s never a PROBLEM. Organisations are ALWAYS saying they need to catch up with IT. That’s boring, cos they never do but it’s safe to say that.
      Honestly find all these CAMPS just naff. Never having been to one of course, im still confident in that. And oh God, HACKATHONS producing apps that read OPEN DATA to tell you where the nearest public lavatory is, except it’ll be closed due to the cuts.
      I’m not interested in digital. I’m interested in the way the work is now, the customers/clients/residents, and what matters to them, and how people (rarely) change their mind about doing work.


  3. dambot says:

    Mr Porpoise, how is being a business analyst – wasting taxpayers money in the course of doing a meaningless/wasteful job – in any way different in what you’ve told us (many times) about you and your job?
    Do you honestly believe there’s a horde of highly educated people out there who are incapable of thinking very deeply about stuff like what you do?
    You can choose to see them as either the baddies or you can choose to see them as the unwitting or unwilling victims of a shitty system – have you looked in the mirror recently?

    (BTW – when I say ‘choose’ I obvs don’t mean choose. Everyone knows that free will is an illusion. Well at least the clever people know that free will is an illusion – don’t they?)

    Trying to find a bit of a silver lining – maybe the desire to use IT is society’s first real attempt to deal with issues systemically. Unfortunately, there’s still a bit of an issue in distinguishing between A system (we need IT) and THE system (we need to think). I blame the dregs of a religious cultural model which promoted deference to authority, accepting your ‘lot’ and fear of individualism. That and the baby boomers of course.


    • ThinkPurpose says:

      There’s two questions I think, of whether the JOB is different, and whether the PEOPLE are different. My job, I use the term loosely, had zero effect broadly. It would be WORSE if it did. This doesn’t mean it’s “better”, it’s just zero impact. I wouldn’t want to put it in a scale and weigh it against a typical BA or digital change post, cos that’s a bit silly, but that’s what I’m doing so hey-ho.
      Course there’s PERFORMANCE people all around the public sector who believe very differently. But so what. You can think what you like, it doesn’t effect the ground you walk on.
      Are BA different types of PEOPLE? I’m different people on my team and so are they from others too. Perhaps it’s more useful to ask “what do they think?” , And to be brutally honest I haven’t a clue. Never asked one. Other than on here in these comments. How about if we remove the individual from it, John and Jane Smith, cos as you correctly point out everybody is in the system. Everybody is capable of great work, just give someone a good job to do etc
      So instead look at the SYSTEMIC EFFECT of having posts called BA, and, well, I just see command and control in full effect. Cleverclogs parachuted in to do change projects spraying IT at a problem, with inevitable results. And I look down with lofty disdain at the (crackingly named above) skinny-jean brigade of Digitalistas cos I’m bloody sick of shiny eyed touchingly naive beliefs in “tech”.
      Cos I disagree furiously.

      [Edited for tone]


      • bazhsw says:

        Just to weigh in on this, ‘perfect’ would be an organisation without BA’s as the services would be trusted, empowered and enabled to act on their work and improve it as they know best, pulling expertise from IT where required.

        For what it is worth, it always comes down to purpose. I don’t think anyone comes to work deliberately to do a bad job but the purpose of some BA roles may not align with the best interest of the people who do the work and the people they help.

        In the public sector I see more examples of It outsourced or partnerships with big IT players (IT didn’t seem THAT broken before outsourcing but although the providers may change it’ll never be managed by the same people who manage the work again. A great shame.)

        The purpose of IT providers us to make money. They may do this by delivering things we want or don’t want! The easiest way to do this in outsourced public sector is delivery by results, SLA’s and delivery to specification.

        So, at a high level the public sector think, or are told they have a problem and get their ‘own’ private provider to design and procure a solution. It will always be more IT (to replace failing IT!).

        Business Analysts (from the outsourced provider or bought in as expertise from ‘outside’ as a contractor) are delivering against what has already been decided. ‘We have bought this, let’s make it work!’.

        The blame doesn’t lie with individual BA’s but the client / supplier relationship they inevitably have with the organisation.

        How can it be any different that BA’s are swooping in with solutions? This may seem an extreme example but an external contractor can be brought in for a specific project for a public sector organisation. This person is paid by the outsourced IT company to deliver project X. They’ll do a great job at delivering Project X for the IT company. The IT company and public sector organisation will have project teams and project working groups to help deliver Project X. The service area may be nominally represented on the project but they won’t be living and breathing Project X because they are getting on with the day job (it’s a tragedy really that innovation, new systems etc. is seen as something to be ‘done for them’, ‘done to them’. It isn’t all an IT problem – the public sector organisation often seems passive to the change).

        Reporting is via senior leadership (because this costs a lot of money and is important) and the good BA’s can’t get in because they are cutting through the hierarchies and politics to get to the front line. My example may be extreme but it does show just how far removed a BA may be from the people who do the work.

        Most BA’s I have met are dedicated competent, intelligent professionals. That doesn’t mean they have the same purpose as the people who do the work. But then again, the same could be said for senior leadership in said organisations.

        Liked by 1 person

      • dambot says:

        I want to argue constructively, but all you’re doing is raging, so what’s the point? Just forget it.


        • ThinkPurpose says:

          The comments are always open for comments, but you got to realise they’re also open for my comments too. Please continue, cos I’m dead pleased with the 50-50 split here. It’s interesting.


          • dambot says:

            I never suggested that you shouldn’t respond to my comment, however I did suggest that if you were going to scream at me then I have no interest in continuing the conversation
            Am I a business analyst? No
            Is all IT in organisations bad? No
            Is all IT in organisations good? No
            Is digital by design a good idea? No
            Why not? Because it presupposes a solution and so cuts out a huge range of approaches
            Are business analysts different from other people? No
            Is taking the piss out of a group’s appearance/speech/attitude in order to denigrate them ok? Only if you think Donald is a good bloke
            Is performance management stuff zero impact? Nope
            Is business analysis by definition command and control? No
            Is it a good idea to support front line workers in making the work better? Don’t see why not – Mr Deming certainly thought so
            Is it a good idea to dictate to front line workers how the work could be better? No
            Would you (Mr Porpoise) enjoy being a business analyst, if you could do it without management pressure? I think yes, very much so. Look at the Wikipedia page for business analysis, not just the one for business analyst


            • ThinkPurpose says:

              I’ve had a look, no screaming. Perhaps the capitalised words could be construed, I’m now thini. Cos I use them as a signifier of italics in my emails and texts. I don’t have an iPhone and sadly Gmail on my Nexus phone doesn’t allow for italics or bold, so I’ve got into the habit, understood amongst my friends and colleagues, of capitalised words meaning ITALICISED words. Is it that re screaming?


  4. giantknave says:

    Some thoughts:

    On digital: I also don’t like the use of the ‘digital’ word and am regularly perplexed by what is actually meant. If I look up the meaning, I mostly get 0s and 1s…but I know that this isn’t what is being referred to. However, if I ask someone that constantly uses the ‘digital’ word (perhaps has it in their job title) then I get vague, contradictory or “Brexit means Brexit” type responses.

    I had a wonderful conversation with a colleague a while back about the ‘digital’ word and he said to me ‘Jabberwocky’. He explained that there was a rather good ‘Better Off TED’ comedy episode that fitted well: – a good laugh and a most excellent analogy that fits much more than just the ‘digital’ example.

    I’m sure that there are oodles of ‘better’ explanations that people would give…but I think of ‘digital’ as a re-branding of things like ‘e-business’, online, self-service….etc. which had (in the eyes of the technology industry) become a bit dated.

    I usually see ‘digital’ to be about A solution, rather than understanding a specific customer’s need.

    I’m sure that ‘digital’ (whatever that means) can be of use to some customers in some situations (including me)…but that it isn’t THE solution.

    I am regularly concerned that those ‘in digital’ (again, whatever that means) ignore…well, actually, don’t understand…customer variety.

    On Business Analysis: An interesting topic. I should begin by disclosing that I wrote and lectured an undergraduate-level course on Business Analysis some years back.

    I’ve also managed a team of 14 Business Analysts* in the past. All of them were most excellent (capable and well meaning) people. My personal experience is that they ‘get’ the likes of systems thinking and intervention theory very quickly!

    They are, however, part of the system in which they are employed. They, like you and I, feel the system around them and usually don’t like it.

    If you asked me what an (internal) Business Analyst’s job description is then I’d say “it depends”. It can be hugely varied, and differs between organisations. They are often asked to be ‘Superman’ (or woman) and are dumped on by ‘management’ to ‘solve’ something that isn’t sensible or even feasible. The Business Analyst quickly work this out and then tread a hugely difficult line of trying to get the madness across to management and delicately educating them to a better way of thinking (i.e. away from a solution mentality) whilst protecting the front line workers (who they care about) as best they can…which can be a thankless task.

    I’d also note that, in a command and control silo’d organisation, (internal) Business Analysts can become almost the glue that is holding the whole sorry thing together 😦

    I (currently) have a view that the ‘Business Analyst’ role mainly shouldn’t exist (but not always**)…but this is not a dig at those performing this role – they are very often most excellent people who could be engaged to facilitate at/with the front line if ‘management’ realised a) their worth and b) the power within this line of thinking.

    * The team were ‘internal’ i.e. worked for the business. I ‘get’ that contractors are a different story – but that isn’t about the Business Analyst role, it is about the idea of bringing in people (with a different purpose) to do it ‘to you’.

    ** Example: If you have a regulatory change being dictated to you (such as a change in the method of charging sales tax) then it can be very useful to ask someone to lead a methodical investigation into the effects of this change across an often highly complicated/ complex organisation (and its spaghetti IT applications). This isn’t cutting out ‘the workers’, just providing them with the necessary support, and expertise to cope with what is going to happen to them.

    Sorry for the long comment – hope it is of some use. 🙂


  5. Nebby Nebula says:

    As a Business Analyst I see myself as an ally of the user first and foremost, and I don’t look for a way to digitise unless it makes sense to. I guess that’s why I’m trying to get into UX instead.

    I’ve certainly seen idiotic management forcing certain solutions because they’ve invested in some “magic” tech platform that they don’t actually understand.

    In practice I facilitate communication between the technical team and the users. Some tech people don’t need that, but I’ve seen plenty who do. When that communication breaks down, an unbelievable amount of money gets wasted and potentially years of frustration ensue.

    tl;dr: A BA can mitigate “digital by default” as much as they can drive it. As long as they focus on the users first, can understand the users, and aren’t forced by management to shoehorn in bad tech. I imagine that’s rare.


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