Every year to accompany the Silicon Beach event, those speaking are asked to contribute to a book that is distributed to all attendees. Here’s my contribution…
A good friend of mine and I enjoy a heated debate. She’s an accountant with opinions. I’m a gob-shite. We both like a glass or two of red with dinner (and possibly one or two after dessert too).
A few years ago she told me a tale of an experience that had left her angry. An elderly neighbour had locked herself out of her house, and in a state of distress had gone to the supermarket at the end of their road. It was one of the increasing numbers of small convenience stores of which the massive chains seem so fond. The neighbour had asked to use the store’s telephone. The request was flatly refused.
My friend couldn’t understand how the supermarket staff could be so cruel and callous. My thoughts, having worked many years ago for a supermarket, was that that was utterly expected in any organisation that used draconian process-centric styles of management.
“Oh, but we need processes.” said my friend…
Processes in organisations have become like the men in white coats from the infamous Stanley Milgram experiments into authority and control. They are blindly followed, even when the things that people will do in their name become increasingly cruel and callous. In Milgram’s subjects it was to administer painful electric shocks to other people. In the modern convenience shop it’s to deny access to a telephone to an elderly lady in distress.
Yet the very organisations that espouse management efficiency through religiously-followed process and procedure today also claim that they want to be innovative, creative even disruptive players in their markets and in the broader economy. Are those two aims possible within the same culture? I’m increasingly coming to the conclusion that they are not.
In the past few months I’ve been running a little experiment of my own. Rather than electrodes or white coats, it involves small boxes of the phenomenally popular construction toy Lego and some brown envelopes containing instructions. I’ve not run the experiment enough as yet to claim anything with statistical validity, but there again I’ve always valued qualitative over quantitative observation (and I don’t really believe that there is any such thing as a social science).
The set up for the game is to tell a group of people that I wish them to innovate. In turn I will be giving them a set of tools with which to innovate (a plastic sandwich box containing around 100 random pieces of Lego) and an envelope containing further instructions. Depending on the size of the group, I then either issue small teams or individuals with a box and an envelope.
There are different instructions within each envelope. One contains the original booklet that shipped with the Lego kit from which the pieces are culled (for you Lego spotters out there, the LEGO Classic Large Creative Brick Box 10698 – 790 pieces of Danish play joy for a bargain £35). One contains a set of Artefact cards with a handful of Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies written on them. A couple contain wanky big picture blue sky shit like “Create the future of advertising” or “Build the communications device of the future”. One of the envelopes contains, with a nod of the head in Mark Earles’ direction, the simple instruction “Copy what somebody else is doing”. The final one has a set of instructions to construct one of IKEA’s most popular and famous lines – the Billy Bookcase.
Remember, the over-riding instruction has been to innovate. Without fail, the team or person to receive the IKEA instructions so far has built a little Lego bookcase, and has felt very smart about it too. There is nothing innovative in producing a set of miniature plastic shelves. The way in which we default to following simple and clearly laid out instructions is as fascinating as it is appears to be deeply rooted.
The inclusion of the IKEA booklet was initially something of an in joke with myself. In the work I have been doing since 2016 to investigate the need for an ability to play to be successful individually and organisationally in our volatile and uncertain world, I have anchored around a metaphor derived from observing the ways in which my two sons interact with their Lego.
I have been able to discern three distinct modes in which Oscar and Milo play with the bricks.
The first I have called Battle Combat Mode; they are boys, they are seven and six, and so inevitably they end up throwing the stuff and one another. Sometimes it will be in pure handfuls of bricks, although as they mature they will craft weapons with which to launch assaults. We are the sort of liberal parents who forbid playing with let alone the purchasing of toy guns. A six- or seven-year-old boy has a remarkable creative ability to generate weaponry from any source material, including but not limited to sticks, their own limbs, pasta (dried) and Danish construction toys.
The second is labelled IKEA Mode, and hench the self-referential in joke. In IKEA mode the boys will select a manual from their library from one of the increasing number of kits that they own, and then methodically follow the instructions in a jigsaw-cum-flatpack furniture construction exercise that will keep them entertained for hours. It’s nomenclature comes from my not entirely tongue-in-cheek conspiracy theory that Lego is merely a pan-Nordic conspiracy to prime us for flatpack and meatball purchasing sessions in later life.
The final play mode is Tinker Mode; when playing in this way, the boys go off in creative flights of fantasy where bricks are combined and subtracted as part of an exercise in constructive storytelling. Tinker mode is my own ideal model of what I always thought Lego was all about. It’s only now as a parent that I realise that what Lego is mostly about is generating first-party child-centric multiple media Intellectual Properties that can be exploited across a range of channels. Silly me.
The reason for drawing out these observations is that I can see strong parallels in the creative and adaptive capabilities and approaches that organisations and individuals need to take to succeed (or at very least, survive), and imbalances in how most operate.
There’s is a plethora of Battle Combat Mode activity going on, often to produce gizmos and gadgets that allow, particularly at an organisational level, the creator to create evidence of an innovative brand. In the past week alone I have been confronted by experiential marketing activities involving augmented reality and facial recognition technologies to try to flog me the promise of, respectively, a cat food and a mobile telephone operator.
Battle Combat Mode activity is all about flinging stuff out to show how much of it you have got. It’s not innovation for anything other than innovation’s sake, and it’s important in a world where brand presence is such a manufactured thing. I’d even go so far as to say that much of the R&D activity that goes on in big technology companies is mostly Battle Combat Mode; very little R&D actually ever sees the light of day from the big firms’ labs because the things that they take to market tend to come from acquisition.
IKEA Mode is the natural state in which the industrialised organisation operates. Scale in big organisations comes from the ability to create and reliably repeat the same processes again and again and again. Following instructions is the route to big. Following instructions is the way in which you deliver margin. Following instructions is what we are systematically taught to do throughout the whole of growing up. Following instructions is to be an adult.
And it’s great to follow instructions, to follow a process, to complete the step-by-step illustrated manual as long as you know what it is you want to do, someone has done it before, you have the right instructions and you have all the right parts. If you have been asked to innovate, the instructions to build a Billy bookcase, but only a box of Lego, IKEA Mode is worse than useless. The comfort of the instructions will divert you from what you are actually supposed to be doing.
Which brings us to Tinker Mode. If any of the conditions in which IKEA Mode won’t help you aren’t met, you need to start tinkering. And in the past decade an amazing and magic approach to tinkering has captured the hearts and minds of organisations big and small. Agile will allow any organisation to tinker, to drive successful innovation, to build wonderful products, to turn sow’s ears into veritable silk purses. All you need to do is follow the Agile Process, isn’t it?
I recently had some lawyers playing my innovation game. The boxes and envelopes were handed out. The chap who got the bona fide Lego booklet read through the whole thing with an increasingly dispirited look on his face as he realised that without all of the necessary parts in his sandwich box what had initially looked to be a Royal Flush had turned out to be a pair of twos. He didn’t have a face for playing poker.
But as the game evolved, the other end of the table became much more interesting. One lady received the Oblique Strategies, and next to her sat someone who had been asked to merely copy someone else. Oblique Strategies created an abstract shape, and Copy copied. At the end of the build time the two of them had very similar structures.
Oblique Strategies started to explain her model. She stepped through the cards and was able to clearly articulate exactly why she had placed every single block on her effort in the places they were sat. It all made perfect sense, and was actually quite beautiful in a funny way. Copy looked on. Her model looked very similar, but had absolutely no backstory whatsoever. “I just copied what she did.” was all Copy could tell us.
Of course she didn’t. She didn’t once look at the cards that had inspired Oblique Strategies’ work.
In work with clients in recent years I’ve seen this sort of pattern time and time again when it comes to the way in which established and traditional organisations try to adopt agile approaches. Put simply, they copy the rituals. They try to put the block in similar places that they have been told should work (usually quoting something out of Eric Ries’s Lean Startup). They then wonder why it doesn’t alchemically turn their leaden ideas into untold gold.
Ultimately I think it comes down to process over trust. Organisations at scale have scaled through the rigorous application of process, and in doing so have implicitly (and sometimes even explicitly) told people working for them that they cannot be trusted. The forebears of the Agile movement understood this; indeed the very first line of their 2001 Agile Manifesto states
“We are uncovering better ways of developing software by doing it and helping others do it. Through this work we have come to value Individuals and interactions over processes and tools”
But many of the ways of working that have evolved around Agile practice look a lot like processes. And if something looks like an applicable process, like the Billy instructions in the envelope, the process-centric mindset of big industrial organisations will assimilate them as processes. And, moreover, will miss the point that it is as much about the journey, the joint collaboration and learning, than it is about any output that is most important. The Daily Standup or the Kanban Board have become the units of measurable success, not the activities that should be being done to produce them.
With that totemic adoption of non-processes as processes the chances that an organisation is going to become any more successful at doing what it does is probably mostly down to the people involved. To be frank, the right people will create great things despite the process. But if you want to get teams to be able to tinker, to spot and create new, novel ideas, then the prerequisite isn’t the right process – it’s trust.
Which brings us back to the the old lady in the supermarket. The processes that big organisations generally require to scale are a mitigation for trust at scale. People (whether employees, suppliers or customers) aren’t trusted. But in that untrusting environment, change becomes terrifically difficult, and innovation near impossible. Organisations have trust issues, and for as long as they are blind to that they will find doing new things very, very hard.