Friday, 29 May 2009

Improving whole systems with creativity, commitment and complexity

Marvin Weisbord's book 'Productive Workplaces' had a huge impact upon me - not least because of his model which culminates in "everybody improves whole systems" ( This chimed with my deeply held view that the best people to improve a system are those who are part of it. The people who care, know or can do something about the system - should by rights, logic and passion - be the best people to improve things.

Out of Marvin's work came the process of 'Future Search' ( and see for a practical application). It seems to be obvious that unless you generate the conditions whereby complexity can be 'held', creativity & innovation can be fostered and commitment can be nurtured - the chances of generating a sustainable way forward into the future are severely limited. This is why I am highly suspicious of big consultancies who come and 'do' (systems) improvement 'to' an organisation / network / partnership / team.

My view is that the practice of systems improvement needs to be kept "as simple as possible but no simpler" (quote Einstein - although maybe not word for word!). If systems thinking is made to be esoteric, inaccessible and bamboozling - nobody gains and everyone loses I would contend. I believe it is therefore all of our responsibility to help design processes for improvement that are intrinsically creativity supportive, commitment generative and complexity handleable (sorry for the clunky grammar there!). These processes will then deliver stractegies not strutegies ( below) - which will blossom into sustainable positive change.

For the record, I am not wild about detailed 'as is' flow charts since I think they all to easily sap energy and creativity. I am also not wild about small project teams coming up with solutions - the whole system (including outside people such as citizens and partner agencies) needs to come up with the progressive solutions.

And I am wholly fed up with consultancies who have one fixed & rigid way of doing systems improvement 'to' their customers. If systems thinking teaches us anything - it should be that the world is complex interconnected & messy place where off the shelf solutions are never appropriate. (To reference a Myers Briggs connection - I think there is often far too much ISTJ in systems improvement and not enough ENFP! OK - small rant over!

Some questions to help

Here are some questions I have developed over the years - which I often use to help people take a different perspective on their system / process. I present them as 'solutions looking for problems' - so some of them will fit - and others will not. You will only know if you ask the question...

  • Have we agreed the stakeholder requirements?
  • Are the providers involved adequately trained?
  • Are there too many ‘handovers’
  • Is the process being done in the right order?
  • Could it be made simpler with a ‘triage’ stage?
  • Could we make better use of technology?
  • Where are the sources of rework?
  • Why does performance vary – and by how much?
  • Could some parts of the process be done at the same time?
  • Are there too many checks and controls?
  • Could we get the users / clients / etc. to do more?
  • Could we get our partners or suppliers to take action?
  • Could we create an expert system to make it work better?
  • Is there a ‘standard’ way of carrying out the process?
  • Where are the delays in the process?
  • Could different people or agencies be providing the service (or part of it)?
  • Have we made any cultural or professional assumptions that are getting in the way?
  • Are the performance measures helping?
  • Could we stop doing the process altogether?
  • Are decision making protocols getting in the way?
  • Does the process contribute to outcome goals?

My vision is that each of these questions is a lens to hold up to the process / system and see if it brings something useful into sharper view. Do let me know if you use them and find them useful. I have said in the past that these questions come with a guarantee - I promise you will find at least one if not several ways to improve your process / system if you ask them. No one has claimed a warranty yet... but who knows!

Thursday, 28 May 2009

Empowered Citizenship

Some years ago, I had an idea that a street party would be a good way to build community in the road where I used to live. So I put a short note through everyone’s door and fairly quickly a small group of us began to meet and organise the event. The party was held a few months later, everyone had a good time and the street felt a friendlier and safer place to be. Although I have now moved away – the road continues to have regular street parties and picnics.

On that basis, I now advocate street parties as good things to do – to help build communities. But am I right? Are street parties the best option in every case – are there some places where some other activity would be better. How would I find out?

The short answer is, I believe, that nobody knows. Governments and public services blithely talk about the need for active citizenship and engaging with the public, but where is the research and reflection on what works best? Do we need citizens actively doing anything and everything – or are some actions better than others at (say) increasing community safety, improving community & personal health or developing the local economy? I would contend that we need ‘evidence based citizenship’ (or ‘empowered citizenship’ as a slightly less cumbersome term).

At a conference some years ago, Sir Kenneth Calman, when he was Chief Medical Adviser to the Government, drew a circle on flip chart saying it was the entirety of clinical practice in the NHS – all the actions that doctors, nurses, physios, OTs (etc.) did to cure illness and promote health. He then drew a vertical line dividing the circle in half and put a question mark in the left half. He said that half of what goes on in the name of healthcare had no evidential base – there was no research to prove its clinical effectiveness. In the other half of circle – he drew a horizontal line creating two quarter segments. In one of these he put a cross and in the other a tick. He went on say that a quarter of clinical practice had been shown to be ineffective but was still practised (hence the cross) and only one quarter was evidence based (and ticked). His challenge to the conference participants was to change those proportions. Steadily, over the years, practice in the NHS has been changing and within the frameworks of clinical governance, the ticked segment of the graph is now much larger.

This principle has now been applied to many other parts of the public services and the phrase evidence based practice is in wide use in social services and the National Offender Management Service, for example. Although we have yet to see much ‘evidence based policy development’ from Whitehall or much talk of ‘evidence based policing’ (although the National Policing Improvement Agency is resolutely beginning to change that), for example, the idea is here to stay.

In my mind, I draw a circle representing citizen action and I wonder what proportions of that circle would be ticked, crossed or queried. How much of what we, as citizens, do, when we are moved to make a difference to our neighbourhoods or the world at large, is evidence based?

For me this is a critical next frontier for the public services. Yesterday, David Cameron, talked about ‘power to the people’ and over the years the Government has talked much about community empowerment and active citizenship. If we want citizens to be actively doing the right and effective things, then the public services have a duty to help them make the right choices.

This is not an argument for controlling active citizenship through introducing risk analysis and fixed bureaucratic protocols, for example – that could well dampen the energy of citizens wanting to make a difference. I am not advocating there should be such a thing as ‘professional citizenship’. But I am proposing that much more could be done by the public services to assist citizens to make good choices. In my vision of ‘empowered citizens’, people with energy and commitment will be helped, informed and assisted to choose activities that will make more of a difference.

The public services need to find more and better ways of working with the public so that citizens are empowered to take effective action, rather than being treated as passive agents to be merely consulted.

Perhaps one of the critical features of being British is our volunteering spirit, many thousands, if not millions of people use some of their flexible time to help neighbours and others. Perhaps even more could be achieved if the public services researched, reviewed and learnt about what works best. This knowledge could then be made available to citizens so that the power of actions taken by the public can be multiplied. 

© Jon Harvey 2009

Tuesday, 26 May 2009

13 ways to ensure that Procurement Executives get best value from purchasing leadership and organisational development consultancy

  1. Make sure that the PQQ is at least 65 pages long with 367 separate items of information to gather. It is well known that the best consultants in this arena thoroughly enjoy and indeed have bucketfuls of time to answer numerous questions about their own policies on health & safety, quality, complaints handling, business continuity and hand washing protocols (even though many of them work in small or single person firms).
  2. Be sure to embed the description of the requirement somewhere towards the middle of the specification document as this helps ensure the consultant will read all 188 items about the terms and conditions of the contract. Whatever you do, label the requirement in some way that means it is not easily found. You want people to dig for what you want them to do for you.
  3. Take care to include at least two, if not three different deadline dates as this helps the consultant keep alert. A single clear deadline date has been shown to produce only poor quality tender documents.
  4. Learn to use the ‘cut and paste’ function of your word processor. It is an invaluable tool when compiling PQQs since it then becomes remarkably easy to produce document paragraph numbering arrangements that only the very best consultants can hope to fathom.
  5. Be sure to ask several ‘wild card’ questions that will sort the men/women from the boys/girls. For example asking the question “what percentage of your core capability would be represented by this opportunity?” is so deliciously full of loosely defined words that this will provide an excellent filter and criterion for assembling the final list of candidates.
  6. Do know that the worst Leadership and OD consultants around have far too much flair, verve, enthusiasm and creativity to want to engage with the detailed procurement processes that you design. A crucial way to ensure your organisation ends up hiring the best is to make your procedures disproportionately complex in relation to the requirement being tackled. A good rule of thumb is ask 15 PQQ questions for every day of the consultant’s time that she/he might end of spending on the project.
  7. Even though this kind of consultancy is essentially an activity involving lots of words, some reports and perhaps training / facilitation materials, be sure to ask several questions about the ‘materials handling’, RIDDOR  and transportation during the course of the project roll out. The best consultants in this arena will have gained the highest levels of environmental impact assessments and accreditation to international sustainability standards.
  8. Policies on matters relating to diversity, staff development, complaints handling, and quality assurance are essential measures of how well consultants practice in these areas. It is well known for example, that the organisations with the best performances in these areas have enumerable and voluminous policies on all these and related areas. In other words – when in doubt ask for a written policy, in triplicate.
  9. Treat these consultants at arm’s length. Many of them are known to be not much better than ‘snake oil’ salespeople with whom you cannot trust yourself. They have ‘Svengali’ like powers of verbal persuasion so whatever you do, do not talk with them. Ensure that they can only communicate with you via email or even better the e-procurement website.
  10. When answering questions put on the e-procurement website ensure that your answers restate what you have already put in the documentation. Their attempts to get you to ‘explain’ what you really meant by (for example) “detail what experience you have of working within the parameters of Government procedures and protocols” must be met with equally impenetrable explanations. They are only trying to catch you out!
  11. Another good stock phrase to use in response to enquiries is “that information is not available at this stage of the procurement process”. This will handle most of the questions put and indeed will inspire creativity from the consultants asking the questions. Their attempts to ‘make something up’ in the absence of a clear specification are remarkably effective at helping you choose the best value supplier.
  12. Even though you are sourcing professional expertise here and a good number of your questions will relate to this, do not be put off from putting in place procedures that essentially treat these suppliers like commodities. Many of the questions you use when sourcing (for example) office products, utility supplies and other bulk purchasing can be used with these consultants too.
  13. Always have in reserve the tried and tested procurement methodology of “numbers in a hat”. Occasionally, despite your best efforts to make the PQQ process as tortuous as possible, you may well still get far more responses back than you have the resources to analyse adequately. At this point you can bring in this method. Allocate a number to each one and ask a colleague to pick a few numbers at random. By the universal laws of probability, fate and serendipity, you will automatically and miraculously pull out the best candidates to go onto the next stage of your procurement process!

I hope these guidelines help. None of the examples are made up (well, perhaps the hand-washing example was – although watch this space in this age of increasing infections) and have been drawn from my experience in bidding against many invitations to tender and pre qualification questionnaires. Like any management tool, procurement used well, can be a real boon to organisations in sourcing the best possible suppliers. 

As a long term advocate and practitioner in the field of continuous improvement, I am a robust supporter of good procurement practice. I also consider it my responsibility to challenge poor practice when I see or experience it. This may be to my cost of course and means, perhaps, I do not gain access to some business that I might if I were more compliant and adaptable. But, just as there is ‘humbug’, ‘blarney’ and ‘baloney’ in consultancy (and politics and religion while I am on the point!) – there are also increasing amounts in procurement too, I feel. 

If good procurement practice is about securing the best possible supplier (a supplier who meets or indeed even exceeds all the specified requirements at the cheapest cost), how do we know? Not only must procurement deliver best value, it must itself be best value as well. 

One of my concerns is that procurement processes are self-reinforcing. The supplier is chosen and the right choice must have been made because the supplier ticked all the right boxes. But is it possible that a better supplier was excluded by dint of the procurement process itself having inbuilt (and perhaps untested) assumptions & criteria? How are procurement processes evaluated? 

© Jon Harvey 2009

Thursday, 21 May 2009

Matrix planning – agreeing the few things that need to be done

(click on the images to enlarge them)

For many years, I have been using this planning model with organisations, partnerships, projects, teams and networks to help them sort through what should be their priorities for the forthcoming period. The model (the idea for which came from an improvement tool called ‘Quality Function Deployment’) has existed mostly in my head supported by a few slides. As a number of people have been asking me for the model – I sat down today to present it in a form that I hope will mean that readers can use the model for themselves. (Whilst this piece is my copyright, the model is yours to use if you wish although I would be grateful of an acknowledgement, of course. I would, indeed, be even more grateful that if you decide you wish to have some facilitation support – you would consider asking me!) 

The Principles 

Underpinning the model are some key ideas that I think it worth explaining:

  1. You cannot have 347 targets / priorities / must do’s – that is not possible. A few aims are all that you need. These may be nested together so that what is one person’s broad aim can turn into a series of ‘sub-aims’ for the team that person looks after or represents. The trick is knowing what few aims to tackle. As Michael Porter said “the essence of strategy is choosing what not to do”.
  2. Knowing ‘what’ you have to achieve provides focus – but it does not provide you with the method to get you there. To achieve something requires clarity about the ‘how’s’
  3. Everything should start with whom you are serving – their needs, their wishes, their hopes... their demands are what is critical. Assessing what you do and what you are achieving should start from this angle.
  4. Everything is a system – which has various subsystems and which is part of a bigger system. In other words everything connects. The trick in improving what you are achieving is understanding the system more and more so that you can intervene in it effectively.
  5. Variation is what matters – knowing what causes of variation are under your control and what causes of variation are not is the lodestone of continuous improvement. Improving how you are working does not come from exhorting people to just try harder. Improvement comes from understanding systemic variation, performance comes from application of that understanding.

The Aim 

The matrix planning model begins with knowing your aim – just what impact do you hope to have on the world – what are you (and your team / partnership / network / project) here to achieve? This aim maybe long term or it may be relatively short term (an aim can be just for a year). Planning activity and improvement comes from knowing where you wish to go. 

Critical Success Factors 

In this model – CSFs are defined as the ‘few key things you must achieve in order to be sure that you are making substantive progress towards achieving your overall aim’. Please note ‘few’ and ‘must’. By few I mean no more than 8, perhaps 9 at a squeeze – but emphatically no more. In short, CSFs are the few key things you must get right. Usually I get groups to generate their list of CSFs after a brainstorm on all the things that might get in the way of them achieving their overall aim. Then it is a question of reviewing the brainstorm – in the light of other strategic assessments and user/citizen/customer feedback – to synthesis eight distinct ‘what’s’ which need to be realised. These CSF’s may be a mix of short, medium and long term objectives. Whilst the achievement of these CSFs cannot be directly managed, they can and should be measured (a point I will return to below). The final test is to be sure that each one of the CSFs is necessary and together they are sufficient to achieve the overall aim. 

Work Processes 

Work processes are the ‘how’ of making the CSFs happen. In any organisation, partnership or team there are streams of activities which can be reasonably easily lumped together to be called distinct processes. A process can be defined as a logically connected set of activities which deliver an output, outcome or service of some kind. Most organisations would have a ‘recruitment process’ for example. Most partnerships will have a ‘public engagement process’ and so forth. These processes have to be constructed from a brainstorm and clustering of ‘what are all the things we do?’ Each process should be discrete and not overlap with another process. Processes are usually labelled in the form of a doing sentence such as ‘recruiting people’, ‘writing blogs’ etc. Usually a partnership or organisation (or department / team / project) will end up with about 18 to 24 processes – but there are no definitive rules here. Like CSFs, processes are measurable. Indeed it is critical to measure processes to check on their performance. Processes have a beginning, middle and end – and create something. Processes are what people do. Having established the list of processes, it should then be possible to place anything that somebody does (in the organisation / partnership / team / project etc.) into one of the processes. 

Connecting the CSFs with the Processes

This is stage when the model really begins to take shape. You now need to create a two dimensional matrix with the CSFs at the top and the processes down the side. Taking each CSF at a time (and it is important to work by CSF not by process) decide which of the processes need to be done especially well in order for the CSF to be achieved. Note the ‘especially’ – as if it was just ‘well’, then probably all the boxes would be ticked. It should then be possible to test the ‘necessary and sufficient’ rule to the processes for a CSF. Of the processes ticked – are they all necessary to achieve the CSF and together sufficient to do so? If yes move on to the next CSF column. (If no, then you may have to create a new process or two – which sometimes happens.) The end point of this stage will be a matrix where some boxes are ticked and not others (see example below). 


The next stage is to decide which process to focus your energies on improving. One indicator (not ‘measure’ as this would give it a spurious accuracy) is how many ticks a process row has. The more ticks means you have judged that process to be critically impacting on a bigger number of CSFs. On that basis, it is probably more important to ensure a process with 7 ticks is functioning well than one with just a couple. But that is not the only factor. You also need to take a view on how well the process is currently functioning. Again using data from external users/citizens/customers as well as the combined judgement of the team doing the planning, you will need to come to a view as to how effective/efficient/flexible/sustainable each process is. Usually I put this on a five point scale where A means ‘brilliant process, works like a dream, always delivers its outputs right first time’ to E which means ‘very poor process, indeed what process, do we even have this process??’. You then have a means to select the processes which require the most attention and nurturing. The task is to decide which processes are so important (number of ticks) and work so badly (scoring 4 or 5 on the scale) that urgent effort is required to improve them. This prioritisation is at the heart of this model. 

Improving processes 

It would take another piece to describe what can be done to improve and redesign processes but one key start is to appoint a ‘process caretaker’. This is the person whose job it will be to develop the process so that it works more elegantly. Often this person has more of an investment in making the process work well. But they are not the process manager – since processes are by their nature cross cutting (across departments, units, agencies etc.) it makes better sense in my view to call them a caretaker. (Indeed can any process be ‘managed’?) Moving beyond assigning the role of caretaker, the process then becomes one of asking some fundamental questions about the process such as what requirements / demands is it there to fulfil, do we have to do the process this way, could we drop some of the stages and so forth. (I would caution you against endless n’th level process mapping since I find that saps the creative spirit and makes the ‘as is’ process far too easy to hold onto – but that is probably another debate.) 

On one page (nearly!) 

Having done this – it then becomes possible to place all of your plans about improving your partnership / unit / organisation / project onto one page. The matrix could well end up looking something like the embedded pictures 

In this example – the links between the 8 CSFs (on slide one) are linked to the processes on slide two. 

Measurement and ‘Balanced Scorecard’ 

As mentioned above, it is helpful to have some measures on the CSFs as well as the processes. Although the CSFs are not (by definition) manageable – assessing how well they are being achieved can be very helpful as a mechanism to check overall progress. Usually I advise teams to find one, two or three (maximum) performance indicators (not targets) that can be attached to each of the CSFs. In this way, they end up with a ‘dashboard’ (or balanced scorecard) of indicators to keep an eye on. What is then useful also is that if a CSF begins to show a negative trend in its indicators, it is then possible to use the matrix to diagnose where the problems might be. In other words if, in example above, the indicators around CSF 2 began to show some worrying trends, then the chances are that looking at what is happening with the processes ticked for that CSF (processes 1, 2 and 6) might yield a solution to the problem. 


I hope this piece gives you enough of an outline as to how to use this model. In a piece of this length, I have taken some short cuts on the explanation, so if you wish, please email me and I will do my best to respond with any help that I can. (

© Jon Harvey 2009

Tuesday, 12 May 2009

Per ardua ad astra

When I was 14, stars were my thing

I could point to Orion blindfold

I dreamed I would work for NASA one day

But exams got in the way, although the dream is still there


Work is OK

Time goes fast most of the time, we have a laugh.

And the jobs get done.

These days they have to!


We’d been talking about the eclipse for quite a while.

I’d known about it for a year or more

We wondered how dark it would get.

Would the birds stop singing?


I wondered if we might see some stars – Venus maybe


On the day we all piled out to have a look

It didn’t get that dark

But it was magic

Pure magic


And then we heard, well, we saw

A hurriedly typed memo on the notice board

We were all to lose 15 minutes pay


The magic went and so did the smiles

Time went really slow in the afternoon


I couldn’t wait to get home.

And email NASA

‘Got any jobs... any jobs at all?’


Just get me out of this one!

© Jon Harvey 1999

Friday, 8 May 2009

Have a ‘stractegy’ rather than a ‘strutegy’.

When creating plans for the future – it is vital to have a ‘stractegy’ rather than a ‘strutegy’, in my view. 

A ‘strutegy’ tends to live only on the (often glossy) printed page and usually ends up at the back of a filing cabinet somewhere. A ‘stractegy’ on the other hand lives in activity, being fully supported by all those who have an investment in shaping the future. There are various ways to create ‘stractegies’ but in my opinion, events which bring together all the key stakeholders (known as getting the ‘whole system’ in the room) can be remarkably effective. With shrewd preparation and careful design of the process the optimal mix of commitment (from all those who care, can and know about shaping the future), complexity (so that all the issues that need to be addressed are) and creativity (so that fresh and vibrant ways are innovated to address the challenges being faced). 

Whole system events (or 'big meetings') work extremely well when you are seeking to create plans that you want people to implement robustly (are there any other kind of plans?). To ensure that the right approach for the big meeting is selected (there are various frameworks that can be used as a starting point for the design), the four ‘P’s’ need to be addressed: 

  • Purpose – including clarifying the impact and outcomes you wish for from the event – what do you want it to achieve and produce?
  • Process – including defining the schedule and the way in which the event is run – for example deciding the objectives, length and number of the time slots for various workshops
  • People – including resolving what information to give people in advance so that they come as best prepared as possible to make use of the event
  • Place – including sorting out all the logistics around access, managing the working space, use of technology, recording the outputs and so forth. 

Events such as these are hugely effective as building a ‘strategic community’ of people all engaged with making the future happen. Moreover everyone involved benefits by building new networks, creating trust and breaking down old barriers, developing existing relationships and gaining new insights into the challenges ahead. The plans do not need to be issued or communicated – as everyone was involved & engaged at their creation.

Wednesday, 6 May 2009

Life (so far) review

I have just created a presentation of a series of questions to pose yourself - if you are at the point where you wish to take stock of your life and/or career so far. If you would like a copy - please email me: 

And here is a link to see all the slides:

The questions include ones such as:

  • What events in your professional life have shaped the professional that you are?
  • What is the public identity you currently have? 
  • How is it different from your private identity?
  • Of all the things that you have done or achieved in your personal life – of what are you most proud?

Tuesday, 5 May 2009

The harm caused by witnessing rudeness

Great piece of research reported on the British Psychological Website:

" Seeing one person be rude to another can stunt a person's creativity, impair their mental performance and make them less likely to be civil themselves. Christine Porath and Amir Erez, who made this finding, say it has profound implications for the workplace, where rudeness has been described by some as a modern epidemic...."

Good book to read as well:

"The managers book of decencies - how small gestures build great companies" by Steve Harrison. (

UPDATE: just read Stephen Fry's blog post today - very much worth a look at - as a supreme example of how to be courteous and decent (the opposite of rude):
I was moved to comment on his blog:

Prompted by your blog posting, I was reflecting on ‘courtesy’ as I did one of my 30 minutes of thrice weekly aerobic punishment. Saying sorry is a deep act of courtesy. I believe that we are, when all is said and done, highly cooperative animals and the courteousness of saying sorry evidences our true nature. As a consequence saying sorry is profoundly influential – because it reverberates & resonates with our being.

I would suggest (without scientific foundation though) that seeing someone else’s decent & courteous actions makes us feel good.

This is why it is great to see what you say, do and write, Stephen. Simultaneously you affirm our cooperative nature and help us all resist plummeting into the 9 levels of rude and crass Hell. Please keep it up! Thanks.

Are you a control freak...?

Great article - here is an excerpt:

"The legal scholar James Boyle describes this as the division between those who are culturally agoraphobic and those who are not. In a couple of recent lectures (available online at  and he has suggested two intriguing thought experiments to illustrate the gap. 

Imagine, he says, you're back in the early 1990s. The potential of electronic networking is dawning on the world, and there are two possible paths of development. The first is a version of the French Minitel system - government-provided terminals in every home on which appear information and services from a small number of approved providers (the BBC and Guardian for news, the Met Office for weather information, Reuters for stockmarket information, and so on). Everything is controlled and reliable. The other option is a publishing system in which anybody can publish anything - including lies, propaganda and pornography - with no prior approval. 

Question: which system would you have chosen?"

Control freaks don't get it: the web works best in a free-for-all by John Naughton