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. 

Posted in all wrong, command and control, public sector, systems thinking, tools | Tagged , , , | 20 Comments

Reality has a liberal bias


This is a  quote from an American comedian, taking the mickey out of imaginary Republicans complaining that reality itself is as biased as the liberal-elite media against Republican beliefs and actions. It is a joke about how people convinced they are right will react when presented with evidence that they are (literally) in fact wrong.

Both liberals, Republicans and every shade in between and beyond exhibit strong tribal loyalty to beliefs, rejecting evidence if it shows they are wrong, and seeking out evidence that they are (literally) in fact right. This is not just political trait but a human one called the Confirmation Bias. But like Paul Krugman says here, it is more apparent in Republicans than liberals.

“liberals don’t engage in the kind of mass rejections of evidence that conservatives do.

Yes, you can find examples where *some* liberals got off on a hobbyhorse of one kind or another, or where the liberal conventional wisdom turned out wrong. But you don’t see the kind of lockstep rejection of evidence that we see over and over again on the right.

Where is the liberal equivalent of the near-uniform conservative rejection of climate science, or the refusal to admit that Obamacare is in fact reaching a lot of previously uninsured Americans?” [Link]

Now I’m no expert on American politics, no really I’m not, and this blog isn’t about any of that, but I’ve noticed the same sort of thing in managing in the public sector, a lock-step rejection of evidence cos it doesn’t agree with what they think.

Reality is biased against normal ordinary command and control management. 

This diagram above shows pretty much how people think. All people, even me and you. Course we’re not perfectly accurate in our thinking and mental models of the world. 

The problem arises when we’re confronted with this. There’s Confirmation Bias that biases people towards looking for evidence that confirms their beliefs and rejects evidence that shows it ain’t necessarily so. 

Now this is fine and usual and normal until this evolutionary quirk of the human brain meets modern management thinking…

The thing that gets a leader noticed is THEIR IMPORTANT THING. Could be anything. A new model the business should follow, a big expensive new IT system, a whole new reorganisation of everything. Doesn’t matter if it’s at the national level, like the Troubled Families initiative or locally, in your very own office reorganisation. The thing that matters is the actual thing being proposed. Not the effect that the thing itself is supposed to bring about. No, not that. Nobody can see that yet, not whilst it’s being done.

The IMPORTANT THING inevitably appears with a bang or a whimper and had some kind of an effect. A terrible effect or a brilliant effect, a tiny effect, or a big effect. Either way, out it goes.

Once it’s out there, if it’s some kind of national initiative, there’ll no doubt be performancey measurey people crawling all over it, monitoring it getting numbers from it to look at the effect it is creating. 

Thing is, this isn’t REALLY what decision makers care about. Managers, leaders etc are recruited to do a thing, and they choose their IMPORTANT THING and do it. The important thing is the thing itself, it’s an article of faith. 

The language shows this, in Big Speeches they often use the phrase “I am clear that…” or “let me be clear” which uses a rhetorical sleight of hand to suggest that anybody not agreeing with their IMPORTANT THING can’t see the clarity of it and therefore the problem is with them, not it.

For example in the speech that David Cameron used in announcing his Troubled Families programme, he used the phrase repeatedly, being extra clear for us Muggles.

Sadly, reality is biased. It is biased against things that aren’t reality. Heavily biased. No matter how clear things are to people, it doesn’t give a flying one.

So poor Dave and his Troubled Families, he spent £400m of everybody’s money on a payment by results Local Government ran scheme, that had “no significant impact” according to a big review of it. For half a billion pounds! 

The report, which was published last night, found that families who were on the programme were no more likely to find jobs, stop claiming benefits or improve the school attendance of their children.

Reality really doesn’t give a stuff does it?

And the annoying thing is this will go on and on, because decision making in normal ordinary command and control environments is all about managers and leaders coming up with THE IMPORTANT THING, and poor old reality trailing along in its wake. No wonder reality is biased against managers and leaders, it feels neglected. It should be wined and dined, treated right.

How could you treat reality like it should?

Well I reckon this would be a start

Don’t split up mental models of decision makers, their brave Nobel schemes split from the nerdy monitoring of reality. That Troubled Families programme, it relies on payment by results. If a Local Authority does”turnaround” a family, from being “troubled” to presumably “not-troubled” then they get money. Payment by results ALWAYS screws motives and methods.

Local Authorities were told the estimated number of troubled families within their area, according to some formula, and that they’d receive £4,000 per family turned around.

Not one local authority has needed to work with more than their indicative number in order to ‘turn around’ all of their families. In fact, many local authorities can demonstrate a 100% success rate not just in identifying and working with ‘troubled families’ but in turning them around. Manchester, for example have identified, worked with and turned around a staggering 2385 ‘troubled families’. Not one has ‘slipped through the net’ or refused to engage with the programme. Leeds and Liverpool have a perfect success rate in each ‘turning around’ over 2000 ‘troubled families. By my reckoning, over 50 other local authorities across the country have been similarly ‘perfect’ in their TF work. Not one single case amongst those 50 odd councils where more ‘troubled families’ were identified or where a ‘troubled family’ has failed to have been turned around. [Link]

This isn’t a surprise if you know what happens if you give someone a financial incentive to meet a target. They will meet that target, regardless of how silly. This is reality being biased against targets and misapplied financial incentives. 

Strange behaviour by individuals as a result of system rules is common, but cos reality is biased against decision makers, it isn’t the rules themselves that are to blame. The cause lies with faulty individuals.

Take Chuck Finley. Chuck is a VORACIOUS reader. He read 2,361 books in a 9 month period. 

Sadly he doesn’t exist. He was invented by East Lake County library to take books out of the library that hadn’t been checked out in a while, to stop them being removed from the shelves and destroyed according to the rules of the system. This destruction of books meant that if someone, a real reader, wanted a book that had sadly been removed and destroyed, the library would have to repurchase a copy. Again.

So some enterprising librarians decided to save money by keeping unpopular books on a rotation through the imaginary Chuck Finley’s bookshelves. When this came to light, what happened? Were the rules of the system that created this odd behaviour changed, to avoid the wasteful creation of pretend readers and the hard work of keeping track of unpopular books and checking them out and back in again? 

No, the librarians were sacked.

It appears that not only is reality biased against decision makers, but also decision makers are biased against reality.

Posted in command and control, public sector, statistics, systems thinking, targets | Tagged , , , | 22 Comments

Why killing Sweat Angels is the most valuable work I do all day

Most readers of this blog probably sit behind a desk all day, like me. Sipping tea in nice surroundings with nice people. They don’t have to push a mop around the floor cleaning up after others.

Dreaming about the dignity of labour and the simple honest toil of the working class is patronising rubbish, and you’ll look a bit of a dick to someone who already does this work for half your salary.

But I’m going do this cos I’ll do anything for the right metaphor.

At 7:30am this morning I was mopping up a stranger’s sweat off the floor.
It was the most fulfilling work I’d do all day.

I go to a gym that has black rubber flooring.

This is cushioning for barbells that are dropped from shoulder height, and cos it’s quite tiring, when you’re finished you yourself drop to the floor as well, covered in sweat.

So after a gym class there’s lots of “sweat angels” left on the rubber floor, black human silhouettes left in sweat.

Part of the tidy up routine is everybody helps put away everybody else’s equipment, doesn’t matter who’s, and some people go around the room spraying the sweat angels with floor spray and mopping it all up again.

It’s just what you do, tidying up so it’s good for the next lot of people. This isn’t what you’d do in a “normal gym” but it’s part of the social contract in this type of gym. You don’t just put YOUR stuff away, it’s not about your own obligation, it’s about restoring the gym for the next set of people to come in. It’s a communal obligation that you fulfill as a group for another set of people.

Cleaning up is a part of the whole session. It is expected and as fundamental as attending and listening to the coach.

So why is this task not onerous, but actually satisfying to me?

When I am working with others, mopping up a stranger’s sweat I am solving a problem (manky floor) and helping people (a clean floor for people in the next class to flop on themselves when they’re all tired and sweaty). This makes me “happy” for want of a better word.

When I am making a scorecard of measures with targets and up and down arrows I am not solving problems or helping people. This makes me “sad”, for want of another more useful word.

What I get from mopping a floor is what I want from a job. I want to work with others to solve problems and help people.

There is a large and flourishing literature on “what makes a good job”. I’m not thorough enough to do any of it justice, but the thing that best explains the difference in satisfaction caused by mopping the floor and creating scorecards is this fellow here…


Herzberg is famous for this very systemsy quote. He established the factors in work that predictably make a BAD job.

Things like:

  • work conditions
  • supervision
  • salary
  • relationship with peers and management

But if these are the causes of dissatisfaction, and make a BAD job, it is not enough to take away from a job theses things that make it annoying, miserable and hard to do.

The opposite of dissatisfaction is not satisfaction.
The opposite of dissatisfaction is NO dissatisfaction

These are so called “hygiene factors“. They’ve got to be right, fixing them removes things that make a job bad, but they don’t make a job good. They are necessary but not sufficient.

To make a good job you’ve got to put into it things that are not currently there. These are called “motivators
Things like:

  • challenging work
  • responsibility
  • opportunity to do something meaningful

These are factors intrinsic to the work itself. Not factors applied to the person doing the work, like salary or praise.  They provide internal motivation, as Dan Pink’s Autonomy, Mastery & Purpose video neatly shows….


So when I’m solving problems and helping people, I’m doing work that provides me with internal motivation. Note that I didn’t say what I wanted to earn, or what the job title would be. These are factors of external motivation that just get you through the front door of the office every morning, they don’t help you do a good job when you get there.

I have found that the most fun work, the work that provides the most satisfaction, you might not even recognise as work. A few months ago I was on Reddit and saw a post where someone was asking plaintively…

“I have to predict how many customer calls we are likely to get next year over the holiday period. I’ve got 3 years of data, but no idea how to do this properly. Could somebody help?”

So I did. He put the data on a shared spreadsheet on Google Sheets, I did some rudimentary stuff with a chart, explained what it meant and how confident you could and couldn’t be with the analysis. I solved a problem and helped someone. I did work for free and didn’t even notice that it was work at all.

Ironically the thing I did for free and was fun is the very actual thing that a performance person should do but rarely if ever does when at work.
This is one of the main reasons why I’m fan of systems thinking/ deming/ Sneddon/ Whatever you want to call it. These approaches to changing work make work work. Not just in a process improvement type of way, not just a clever clogs striding around with post-it notes composing a “to-be” map, but in a real fundamental way. Snit gets real. Finally you get to solve the right problems and help people.

Most jobs in normal ordinary command and control organisations are not like this though.

This is why mopping up a stranger’s sweat is the most valuable work I do all day.

Posted in clarity of purpose, command and control, purpose, systems thinking, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | 10 Comments

Cloud cuckoo-land

“What matters to me as a customer is getting everything for free. I’d appreciate it if all organisations could just go ahead and arrange that please. No, I didn’t think so.”

This comment left on a recent post shows the typical command and control response to the idea that organisations should find out what matters to customers.
There’s a fear that the customer will turn out to be a unreasonable diva demanding the moon on a stick.

What the customer doesn’t want

This is total balls.

It is a fear caused by ignorance, ignorance of what actually matters to customers and a knee jerk response to a loss of control, that customers should get what they’re given.

Instead of giving in to this fear, find out what matters to customers by studying them. Get data. Don’t just ASSUME what they like and need.

Find out by observing what matters to them. Ask them even. It’ll not be unsurprising if they say in large enough numbers that price matters to them. They might not though, I’m guessing that a patient in the NHS wouldn’t even imagine that price would be a factor. Just as much as a customer in the market for a burger and fries to eat quickly on the go, that they wouldn’t expect Macdonald’s to give’em away for free.

I’m guessing this, YOU however should go study, get data, find out empirically.

But what you don’t do is guess. Like this character leaving the comment above guessing that of course everybody wants stuff for free. I do! I’d LOVE stuff for free! But it’s not what matters to me. What matters depends. I want free air,I don’t want pay for it. But I’m fine with paying a reasonable amount for a burger.

But if I’m looking for a burger what matters is different from what matters when I’m booking a holiday, or buying a car. Cost, price, free things, all depend on the context.

If you find that customers predictably do want everything for free, then you are in a tough business. Perhaps you’re selling sand to Arabs or snow to Eskimo? There’s plenty other customers out there, perhaps try selling sand to Eskimo and snow to Arabs instead?

I once had a manager who had the same attitude as the commenter, that asking customers what they wanted is silly. He worked in Local Government and said if we asked residents what they wanted, actual words, “they’d all want swimming pools“.

Now I’m guessing this not the case. But don’t guess, go study. Find out. That old manager never did, they thought just as the commenter did, that customers are free-loaders who will take you for a mug if you let them.

Now I think THAT is living in cloud Cuckoo land.

Posted in clarity of purpose, command and control, customer, Demand, systems thinking, vanguard method | Tagged , , , | 9 Comments

Dear Santa, All I want for Christmas is a pony

You’ll not like this, but you’re not getting a pony for Christmas.
You’re also not going to persuade your organisation to go systemsy. 

You’re not going to get managers to ditch targets.

You’ll not be introducing control charts throughout the organisation, there’ll not be a mass burning of dashboards. 

Just not going to happen. 

Doubt me? Well did it happen last year? 

The thing with going systemsy is it seems so obvious, that SURELY EVERYBODY will join in when they hear about it? 

This is an example of the Focussing Illusion. When something appears REALLY IMPORTANT because you’re thinking about it.

Thing is, nobody else is thinking about it.

“The Focus Illusion can be summed up in a single sentence: Nothing in life is as important as you think it is when you are thinking about it.” —Nobel Prize-winning psychologist and economist Daniel Kahneman

In systemsy thinking, there’s loads of stuff on how to get people curious, on intervention theory, on how people learn and change etc. 

What there isn’t, is anything about how to drum your fingers, bite your lip and bide your time whilst nothing changes. 

You could say that’s not really within the remit of systemsy thinking, which is about change. It’s more within the remit of psychology or philosophy. How to put up with stuff is the foundation of Buddhism, Stoicism etc and I reckon any introduction to systems thinking should touch on it to some degree, cos whilst you’re all excited about getting a pony, Santa ain’t getting you a pony. 

So on that characteristically bleak but truthful point, have a Merry Christmas and a pony-free New Year from us all at ThinkPurpose!

Posted in change, systems thinking | Tagged | 4 Comments

One weird trick to design your organisation, in one easy step! (Management consultants will HATE you!)

Don’t design your organisation

  • for efficiency

  • for managing demand

  • for digital by default

  • to achieve strategic priorities

  • by copying best practice

So what do you do then?


  • Design against customer purpose

That’s it.

The predictable value demands presented by the customer, whatever matters to them in helping them solve their problem. That’s the purpose your system should meet.

Here’s what happens when you do….

“Through focusing ruthlessly on what matters to citizens, public-sector organisations in Wales have:

  • More than halved the percentage of referrals leading to statutory funded packages of care, from 24.1% to 10.9%

  • Reduced residential and nursing care placements by 28%

  • Cut average domiciliary care packages from 12 hours to 9.7 hours a week

  • Reduced contacts into social services by 48%

  • Underspent community care budget for three consecutive years

  • Reduced the number of assessments by 30%, and rereferrals” [link]


 By ruthlessly  focusing. Not “doing a bit of purpose on the side”, and not doing it as part of a half hearted customer satisfaction or a spot of continuous improvement.

But taking customer purpose and what matters as their central aim and number one only priority.

Focusing on purpose reduced costs. On the other hand reducing costs would have distracted from and made worse their ability to meet customer purpose. Increasing costs.

Focusing on purpose reduced failure demand. Managing demand would have distracted from meeting value demand, increasing failure demand.

Nobody wants to make an organisation worse, but this is what happens when you focus on things other than customer purpose. It makes people do silly things they otherwise wouldn’t.

If you want to design your organisation to be the best it can be, focus ruthlessly on customer purpose and what matters to them.

Posted in clarity of purpose, command and control, customer, purpose, systems thinking, vanguard method | Tagged , | 6 Comments

The Varieties of Human Work

There’s 4 types of work, only one of which actually exists.
We mainly talk about the other three that don’t.
Here’s a blog post of Steven Shorrocks, explaining all 4 so that the NEXT time YOU talk about work, you know which type youre taking about.

Humanistic Systems

Understanding and improving human work is relevant to most people in the world, and a number of professions are dedicated to improving human work (e.g. human factors/ergonomics, quality management, industrial/work/organizational psychology; management science). The trouble with many of these professions is that the language and methods mystify rather than demystify. Work becomes something incomprehensible and hard to think about and improve by those who actually design and do the work.  Recently, some notions that help to demystify work have gained popular acceptance. One of these is the simple observation that how people think that work is done and how work is actually done are two different things. This observation is very old, decades old in human factors and ergonomics, where it dates back to the 1950s in French ergonomics (le travail prescrit et le travail réalisé; Ombredanne & Faverge, 1955) and arguably the 1940s in analysis of aircraft…

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