#DearestEngland, some signals so far

Screenshot 2016-06-26 23.23.34

For the last three days I’ve been running an experiment – a minimal, digital-only intervention, just to test the waters and see if it’s worth investing further time and effort.

It was planned whichever way the Referendum went, but the fact that the call for contributions went live around the time England awoke to the results has given Dearest England extra poignancy.

Having seen an underwhelming response to last year’s appeal for Dearest England letters, I wanted to test some hypotheses:

  1. That this time around, people would be ready to talk about the future of England
  2. That, as it has in Scotland, this open, independent initiative could provide a valuable space for personal reflections and collaborative creations.

It’s early days, but these are my reflections so far…

We have plenty to say.

Regardless of the #DearestEngland hashtag, my Twitter feed would have been full of conversation and reaction to the Referendum result. Richard Pope’s exceptional “Dear England” post stands out as the kind of call to action I hope to see more of:

a shared patriotic, progressive mission building something new, to redesign how we run our democracy for the 21st century.

To build a better nation, we’ll need more than 140 characters.

Twitter today is stuffed full of screenshots – images of Facebook posts, blog comment threads, newspaper articles, phone screens. Accessibility nightmare they may be, but they speak of a need to say more than can fit in a single tweet. Usually I love the character limit, the Orwellian clarity and brevity it enforces. But clarity and brevity are built on shared norms and frames of reference, both of which suddenly seem to be in shorter supply than we thought just a few days ago. The format of the letter seems apt: long enough to say what you mean, short enough to be digestible at scale.

We need to talk about the future – but maybe we’re not ready for that just yet.

People are still digesting what just happened, adjusting to the realisation of a deeply divided country. Dearest England needs to be there for the next phase, when more of us are ready to write explicitly to the future. That phase needs to come soon. We don’t have much time to shape what happens next.

We need to talk about England – but that won’t be easy either.

Dearest Scotland and Dearest India both proudly go by the tagline “Nation | Vision | Voice”. That didn’t feel right for an entity as elusive as England. It is surely telling that, mid-Euro 2016, “Dearest England” could be so easily construed as addressing a football team. But it feels to me that England is a conversation we have to have, and that having it will not in any way diminish other, overlapping identities.

 We need to talk about our place in the World.

There’s a strong feeling that conversations about England’s future should not be insular. Physical geography may make Great Britain an island, but the social construct of England exists only in relation to others peoples and states. We have to draw in the voices of the many other individuals and nations with whom we interact. Indeed it is those with a dual identity, one foot in England, another in Europe and the World, who feel that present threat most keenly.

We can start the conversation online – but it has to spread beyond the cyber bubble.

Much of the soul-searching in my Twitter feed related to how few opposing voices we heard on social media channels. How could it be that our Facebook and Twitter friends were so unanimous when the country as a whole was so split-down-the-middle? There is something here about algorithms and filter bubbles. We need to make more transparent the relationship between divergent opinions, spam control and monetisation strategies in the social networks we use. That won’t be straightforward.

But maybe digital is one big bubble? This weekend, out of urgency and convenience, I’ve made Dearest England an online only affair. But Dearest Scotland and Dearest India have been much more tangible than that. A truly open and inclusive conversation needs to take place in physical spaces as well as cyber ones. Let there be workshops, pens and paper, physical prototypes, acting-it-out! Partly that’s because not everyone is online. But, more than that, even for those of us who seem glued to our devices, not everything we are is online.

The experiment continues. I would love to see your letters.

  • Start your letter “Dearest England,”
  • Take a photo of it
  • Post it with hashtag
  • There are no other rules

What will you write to the future of England?

dearest england on the day.png

In 2014 the lovely people at Snook issued a simple, open invitation to the people of Scotland: write to the country’s future. In the words of the Dearest Scotland About page:

Regardless of which way the referendum result went, we’ve been encouraging visions that focus down the line. What might Scotland look like in the future? What do we actually think about our nation?  What might our landscape, education system and high streets look like in five, ten, twenty years’ time.

The idea caught fire. Hundreds of people wrote letters – many of them proper letters, on bits of paper with pens and everything. There was a Kickstarter campaign, a visit to the Scottish Parliament, a book that you can buy. Oh and they inspired Dearest India too.

A bit over a year ago, Lauren and Chris tried something similar for Dearest England. Maybe it was the timing, but let’s say the response was less than impressive. Which I think is a shame, England, because we have a lot to write about.

Like this…



And basically everything on this hashtag.

I asked Lauren if we could give Dearest England another push – some kind of minimal, digital-only intervention, just to test the waters and see if it’s worth investing further time and effort. Kindly, she said yes.

So today’s the day. This Friday, or if you can’t manage that, over the weekend, write a letter to the future of England.

  • Start your letter “Dearest England,”
  • Take a photo of it
  • Post it online with the hashtag #DearestEngland

That’s all there is to it. There are no other rules.

Please share! Please write! If we get lots of letters we’ll be looking for volunteers to take it further. If not, I’ll know it was not to be.

And just like that, against my better judgement, I have another side-project to fill a GGovJam-shaped hole.

10 things I learned on the Global GovJam HQ team

My colleague Kathryn Grace and I were surprised and honoured when Natasche, Adam and Markus asked us to be part of their HQ team for the Global GovJam 2016. 100 days later, I’m looking back on a wonderful experience. The jamming movement across the public sector has massive potential, and I have learned loads about making something happen on a shoestring at a global scale. Here are few things while they are still fresh in my mind…

1. Be dispensable

The first thing we needed to be sure of before agreeing to be part of the HQ team was that Leeds GovJam would still happen as well. We had such a great time at the 2014 and 2015 jams and we didn’t want to see that disappear because we were tied up supporting other cities. Looking back, we needn’t have worried. Sharon, Liz and Lisa did a fantastic job hosting the Leeds event this time around, and it was great to see what they added to the established formula. Lisa has written a great blog post about her experience.

Leeds GovJam 2016 team Sharon, Liz and Lisa

2. Jam hosts are amazing people

We tried to make it as easy as possible to host a jam. It could be a polished event for hundreds of people or a simple meeting of a few folks around a kitchen table. And there’s no need to be an expert: many hosts are already familiar with service design and design thinking, but that’s not essential. Nevertheless, hosts around the World continue to amaze with their dedication and creativity. Even more encouraging from a GGovJam point of view is the fact that many of the hosts are already working within the public sector. Maybe your organisation employs a jam host? Be nice to that person. Reward them. Ask them how they can use those skills for your organisation the rest of the year round.

3. There are a lot of amazing people in the World

In the end, 32 cities on 5 continents took part in the Global GovJam 2016. I understand that’s a record for GGovJam, even if it is still dwarfed by the 100+ events that take place simultaneously during the annual Global Service Jam. What you can’t see on that list are the 20 or so other cities where someone at some point volunteered to host a jam but didn’t quite make it. Those people are heroes too, and though it didn’t work out this time around, I hope they come back and try again in 2017.

4. A little structure goes a long way

Adam, Markus and Natasche in the GovJam HQ space at ODI-Leeds

The genius of the format that Adam, Markus and Natasche have created and nurtured for the jams is the “tight-loose” structure – tight control where it matters, loose where people need autonomy. There are very few things you have to do to host a jam – be open, use the same Secret Theme, stick to the deadlines – but each of them is there for a reason. We tried to capture the most important things in a one-page guide for hosts. It ended up being a page of A3, but even so, that’s all there is to it!

5. Availability is a function of motivation

Nobody makes a profit from the jams, and everyone, including the HQ team, is giving their time for free. At first, this made it tricky to ask for help. How much was reasonable to expect of a volunteer? When would two busy people with very different schedules both be available to work on something? But as the jam approached, the reality sank in: people would Skype chat at midnight, and pass up paid work to be involved in something as amazing as the Global GovJam… but only if they were motivated and empowered to do so. I reckon there’s a missing manual about the human factors in working with a massive volunteer team. If you know of such a thing, please tell me in the comments below!

6. Cookie licking

I learned that it’s all too easy to inadvertently disempower a volunteer by prematurely taking something over, or by becoming a bottleneck to direct communication between two other parties. With the best of intentions, someone would jump in to try to move a task forward, only to find that the others were now waiting for them to make the next move. At Microsoft, apparently, this behavioural anti-pattern was known as cookie licking, and often deployed deliberately for internal political reasons. Resist the temptation! No one wants to eat a cookie that someone else has licked.

7. Warnock’s Dilemma

Working across multiple timezones with busy jam hosts and other members of the HQ team made me acutely aware of the niceties of digital collaboration. In particular, when things went silent, I came to appreciate the dilemma first documented by Bryan Warnock in 2000:

The problem with no response is that there are five possible interpretations:

  1. The post is correct, well-written information that needs no follow-up commentary. There’s nothing more to say except “Yeah, what he said.”
  2. The post is complete and utter nonsense, and no one wants to waste the energy or bandwidth to even point this out.
  3. No one read the post, for whatever reason.
  4. No one understood the post, but won’t ask for clarification, for whatever reason.
  5. No one cares about the post, for whatever reason.

By the end of the jam, generous quantities of Basecamp “applause” had more or less eliminated interpretation number 1 among the HQ team. For the others, I’m still at a loss, and determined to find a solution.

8. Basecamp 3 is actually quite good

Screenshot 2016-06-11 16.30.05
Host Community Basecamp GGovJam 2016

I know from my work with teams in central government that getting the right tools is pretty much a precondition for successful distributed working. Before the jam, I sounded out some fellow hosts and we all agreed that Basecamp sucked as a collaboration platform. But it was too late to change and we had to make the best of a bad job. Actually it turns out that Basecamp 3 is a massive improvement on the previous releases. The Company Formerly Known As 37Signals seems to have raided the best bits of my usual tools of choice, Trello and Slack, to make what could be a powerful, controllable platform. In retrospect, I’m sure we could have used it better.

9. autoCrat Add-on for Google Forms

Need to make nice things out of spreadsheet data? This little gem of a Google Apps add-on made quick work of a personalised timetable for every city, and the Kanban cards we used to track their status during the jam. Thank you, CloudLab!

10. This time next year!

I know it’s the quality of GGovJam that matters, not just the quantity. And yet:

  • cities in the world with >100,000 people living in them: 4,037
  • cities  on the GovJam 2016 map: 32
  • cities with no GovJam: 4,005!

How might we… ???

Pascal surveys the Globe

See also: GGovJam 2016 Thank you post on Facebook

We made a Global GovJam!


All the action, the Jams and the projects are on govjam.org.

By now you’re probably thinking, like, what is this, Storify or something?

More follows.

Annual Report Number Four: theory, practice + Jaffa cakes

I’m on a train

It’s the second-to-last day of April in the year 02016 and I’m just getting round to writing this annual report to myself on a fourth year of independent consulting. For the story so far, see:

This one has taken a little longer than usual. Here’s what I’ve been up to…

Government services: not done yet

In matters of public administration I am a Brackenist. Like many, I came to the Government Digital Service inspired by the unstinting focus on “Trust, Users, Delivery” and stayed for the breadth and depth of talented people assembled at Aviation House. So when many of the pioneers moved on last summer, there was a moment of hesitation.

But what I had seen at first hand through my work with service managers was that the government digital revolution already stretched well beyond the bunting at 125 Kingsway. All over the country, hundreds of civil servants are reimagining public services, with people at the centre. Just scroll through the #ofthegovernment tweets to see some of these heroes in action.

So I’m still coaching user-centred design, agile and digital stuff in the DWP Digital Academy. Their commitment to industrial scale skills transfer is a massive vote of confidence in the department’s workforce, rightly recognised with a Civil Service Award.

Meanwhile, Sharon Dale has pretty much single-handedly and unflappably delivered successive cohorts of the GDS Service Manager Programme. And we’ve both carried on delivering the one-day Digital Foundation Day through Civil Service Learning.

True to our agile values, we aim to learn and improve with every delivery. Here’s one comment I received after running a Foundation Day for a group of civil servants in Preston…

IMG_0001 (1)
Over use of the word iterate !

As Louise Downe put it, we’re not done yet.

Winning here

The opportunity to transform Britain’s public sector goes even further than the 24 ministerial departments and their national offshoots. My home city of Leeds has been at the forefront of local democracy and public health since the 1830s. And even when Whitehall makes the policies, it frequently depends on locally managed institutions for delivery.

I’m proud to have been a minor player in two areas where Leeds has special expertise: digital health with mHabitat and open data with ODI Leeds (I reckon Tom Forth is right -it’s time to back this winner).

Let’s jam!

ODI Leeds has been the perfect setting for a couple more service jams this year. The biggest so far was Leeds GovJam 2015, brilliantly documented in this video by our sponsors DWP. Kathryn Grace, Matt Lund and I told our combined jamming story at Service Design in Government 2016 where we received my favourite ever piece of workshop feedback…

Good balance of theory, practice + Jaffa cakes.

In a few weeks’ time we have the honour of hosting the Global GovJam HQ team in Leeds for #GGovJam 2016. No one makes a profit from the jams, but I feel I have benefited immensely from being a part of this global movement.

And, and, and…

Some other interesting things I’ve done in the past 12 months…

At Impact Hub Birmingham

As I enter year 5, I’m also starting to work with the amazing new digital team being brought together at the Co-operative Group in Manchester.

The local maximum

The good news – it feels like I’ve found a model that meets my initial criteria:

  • Is there a service design challenge here?
  • Does it involve digital innovation?
  • Will I be helping to develop capability?
  • Can I do this work mainly in Leeds?

The frustrating bit – there’s only so much of me to go round. Working like this I’m reaching a local maximum – either I keep on optimising little by little, or I strike out and try something new. So in the past year I’ve started passing more work to associates and working with them on engagements I could never have taken on alone.

Here’s what that looks like in numbers

This data comes from the management accounts for Changeful Ltd, my consulting practice. Unaudited accounts, rounded to nearest £1000, usual cautions apply…

Year 1 was about finding my feet, working out what clients needed, what I could do for them, and all the gubbins of running a micro-business. (To anyone daunted by that stuff, get a good accountant who can work with cloud-based accounting software. Mine has become an enthusiastic convert to Xero, which is ace.)

In years 2 and 3, I worked at pretty much my full capacity as a freelancer. I’m fairly sure I could make more by doing fewer, longer, full-time contracts, but I enjoy the flexibility of working on two or three things in parallel. My clients want me to bring new ways of looking at things, not go native as just another team member.

In year 4, I continued working at full capacity – and then some – by relying on some fantastic associates to carry on and collaborate on stuff with me. So while the sales line on my Profit & Loss account jumped by close to 50%, most of that went back out to other people (the negative “Consulting” series on my chart). That’s as it should be: they’re brilliant, and they did the work.

Travel and other expenses – co-working space, insurance, sticky notes and felt tip pens etc. – have remained remarkably consistent across the four years. I believe the service design sector has benefited greatly from the global over-supply of 80’s Glam Fine Point Sharpies.

The black line on the chart shows what’s left after my company has paid my associates and expenses. From this come my salary, pension contributions, national insurance, personal tax and corporation tax (fun fact – in 2014 my micro-business paid three times more of this than Facebook in the UK). What’s left can be dividends or reserves to reinvest in the business. My total reward package in full time employment at Orange was higher than this, but as a family we continue to live about as comfortably as we did then.

That local maximum again: these are the rough metrics of that dread term “lifestyle business”. I prefer Paul Hawken’s anti-startup, “a keep-going”. Your Mileage May Vary.

One more thing

That’s not the end of the story because year 4 for me as a consultant was also year 1 for Stick People.

291215 014
Thanks to Lisa Jeffery for the lovely photo of Stick People

Kathryn, Sharon and I have worked together on projects for a few years now. We’re starting up a consultancy to help make organisations more capable in service design and digital. So far we’ve done two things together formally …

  • workshops and coaching for Leeds City Council’s community hubs initiative
  • discovery and development of Leeds’ Digital Practitioner Programme with mHabitat.

We hope these are only the beginning.

Want to be part of Year 5? I’m at mattedgar.com and stickpeoplehq.co.uk.

What does good learning look like?

As practitioners of people-centred service design and agile delivery, my Stick People partners and I have been privileged to design and deliver specialised learning programmes for public and private sector organisations.

Recently we’ve been thinking about the things that make learning at work truly effective. To paraphrase the Agile Manifesto, we are uncovering better ways of learning, by doing it and helping others do it. Through this work we have come to value:

Shared purpose over organisational targets

Learning by doing over teaching to the test

Social construction over content transmission

Designing for diversity over delivering standard courses

That is, while there is value in the items on the right, we value the items on the left more.

This post sets out the thinking behind each of those value statements and ends with some principles. It’s an early draft on which I’d welcome any input. Thanks to Edmund EdgarRob Banathy and Victoria Betton who have already given feedback on the earlier Google Docs version.

Shared purpose over organisational targets

In this RSA Animates video, Dan Pink illustrates how knowledge workers are motivated by a shared sense of purpose; autonomy in the way they work; and the opportunity to master new skills. He’s echoing the descriptions of self-directed and autonomous learners found in Malcolm Knowles’ Principles of Adult Learning, and other findings such as those of Marijke Thamm Kehrhahn, in a customer service context, that: “motivation to transfer was the only independent variable that predicted transfer of training”.

All this evidence impels us towards a particular sequence in the initiation of any new learning activity. First establish the shared purpose between the organisation and its people. Next set people free to select the learning they need to realise that purpose. Then support them to follow their own curiosities and master the required skills and knowledge.

Of course organisations benefit when their workers grow more capable, but no matter how much we invest in teaching, people won’t learn if they don’t see the relevance, if they feel patronised or out of their depth. On occasions we’ve found ourselves working with teams where purpose or autonomy are missing. It quickly becomes clear that those are problems which training alone cannot fix.

We start each intervention by gaining an understanding of what learners know, what they can do already, and what they’re hoping to get out of the learning. Sometimes this can happen ahead of time through an online survey.  Before a multi-day face-to-face course, we believe a short one-to-one phone call with every participant is well worth the time. In the absence of advance contact, understanding personal learning objectives is the first activity we do in a learning session.

As agile practitioners, we’ve found the user story format a powerful way of capturing people’s individual learning goals: “As a… I want… so that…” This focuses participants from the start on the relevance of the learning to their own role and work objectives. The format also often highlights the contextual interdependence of knowledge and skills – for example, “I need to know something so that I can apply new skills”.

Asking participants to write their own learning stories reinforces relevance in their own minds and helps the facilitator to tailor the learning for each cohort.

Not only do adult learners need to know why they need to learn something, they should also be empowered to direct the course of their learning as individuals and as a group. It is important to establish from the start that the facilitator will take participants’ feedback seriously, and if necessary adapt the learning “in flight” to meet their specific needs.

We make learning objectives visible throughout any intervention, discussing at the start and, if necessary, adapting them as we go.

Learning by doing over teaching to the test

Learning comes to life when we try to apply it for real. So we deliberately disrupt the traditional “tell, show, do” technique by letting participants try to solve a problem before being taught a solution. Calibrating these “desirable difficulties” is a key part of the facilitator’s skillset.

There is good evidence for spacing out practice and interleaving different but related topics in learning. A quantitative study of verbal recall tests found that: “Distributing learning across different days (instead of grouping learning episodes within a single day) greatly improves the amount of material retained for sizable periods of time”. Similar effects have been found in learning for surgery, maths and motor-memory. Widely spaced learning with remembering on the job significantly reduces forgetting.

We often advocate spreading out learning so participants get a chance to apply their new skills and knowledge at work, then come back and share what they learned by doing it. (For this reason, there’s also little point showing people a digital tool if their employer’s IT or policies prevent them from using it right away!)

Where project work is used in the classroom, we aim to get participants working in self-organising, multi-disciplinary teams around tasks as close as possible to those they will encounter for real. Participants have told us they much prefer these kind of activities to ones that feel made-up or false.

We’ve noticed a concern in the learning and development community about how to “transfer” learning to the workplace, as if knowledge and skills can be created fully formed in the classroom then simply applied back at the office. This is looking at things back-to-front. If we believe learning can only be fully realised by putting it into practice then the question becomes bigger and more urgent than mere transfer. It’s “how might we make every workplace a place of learning as well as a place of work?”

Business thinkers outside the learning and development space are also coming to understand that, in the words of Peter Senge, “work must become more ‘learningful’”. The idea that all work includes learning is central to Eric Ries’ Lean Startup movement, through the principles of “validated learning” and “innovation accounting”. The Service-Dominant Logic of marketing posits a transition from “profit maximization” to “financial feedback and learning”.

Learning in the workplace means we never have to worry about how it can be transferred to the workplace. We love delivering learning to teams in their own workspaces, ensuring that we leave something behind for them to put into practice immediately. Some of our engagements blend training directly with project work, helping teams to make progress on their work objectives and grow their capability and confidence at the same time.

The agile practices of regular “stand-ups” and retrospectives have a triple purpose in learning situations. They: empower each group to collectively direct and improve the learning journey; stimulate individual participants to recall and reinforce the material covered; and model habits of continuous inspection and adaptation that can be continued after the formal learning.

There is a space for standards and assessments of progress but as a means, not the end of learning. In the words of Peter Brown’s ‘Make it Stick’ from where many of the references in this section are drawn, we should “stop thinking of testing as a dipstick to measure learning” but rather “as practicing retrieval of learning from memory”. So we encourage participants to test themselves a little and often. We check and iterate with low-stakes quizzing and self-testing.

However we avoid testing techniques that lead to risk aversion or fear of making mistakes. As this “festival of errors” for French schoolchildren illustrates, making mistakes in a safe environment is a constructive part of learning.

Social construction over content transmission

Schools of thought about learning exist on a spectrum between social construction and content transmission. Transmissionists frame teaching as a process of pouring a teacher’s wisdom into the empty heads of their pupils. We reject this account.

Our practices of service design and agile delivery are inherently constructivist: in service design, value is co-created with users; in agile, it is collaboratively and incrementally realised. So when it comes to learning, we side with the large body of educationists who see learning as primarily socially constructed.

Knowledge and skills cannot be stored on a web server ready for transmission to receptive students. They have to be created anew in each individual and team through interactions with fellow learners, experts and coaches. Taking this position means we value the social processes in learning. We seek to communicate with participants to establish shared understanding and rapport before the formal learning starts.

When we get into the classroom we create a scaffold for learners to construct their own knowledge, as individuals and as a group. We focus on pacing and facilitating discussion among participants. We give cues but leave questions unanswered and encourage people to connect new information with the things they already know. Well managed, these discussions can be very powerful, especially when a cohort of learners is well matched for diversity, common concerns and complementary skills.

We set up the learning space to model the best user-centred, agile environment and behaviours and encourage the group to take collective responsibility for learning objectives – only they can decide when a topic is done. We support each group in distilling the underlying principles as they go and sharing their conclusions in show and tells.

Dot voting and done stamps, like these in the DWP Digital Academy, make visible the cohort’s own assessment of its progress across a map of learning objectives.

After the formal learning we encourage follow-up interactions and pursuit of shared interests by participants. Group exercises help participants see where they share similar experiences, as well as points where their differences means they can help one another. Often learners tell us the confidence and networks they gain through learning are as important as the skills and knowledge.

The same applies to the way we use digital resources. Short videos, online resources and discussion forums allow people to research independently and learn at their own pace. We like Youtube videos and TED talks, but these transmissive tools are not enough on their own. Social media and group discussion forums are essential to cement online learning. [Added 24 March 2016: Donald Clark has written a great blog post on the evidence for social media as a method of learning.]

We’re inspired by practitioners of “flipped learning” who get their students to research topics as upfront homework to maximise precious face-to-face time for discussion and practice. They have also found that video of a teacher who the learner knows in person has a more powerful effect than one of a remote expert with no social connection. Participants can even make their own videos to cement and share their learning as they go.

Designing for diversity over delivering standard courses

From the values above, it follows that we must facilitate the right learning for each person, not just corral the right people into the learning we already happen to offer. As agile practitioners we respond to change over following a plan, and we see this echoed in the one question a flipped classroom teacher asks themselves every day: “what is the best use of my face-to-face class time?”

So how can we allow learners to pull what they need, when they need it? And can we really do this at scale? We believe that with effort applied in the right way, face-to-face, blended, and purely online learning can be much more responsive than traditional L&D processes have allowed. For example, the contractual and organisational separation of L&D “design” from “delivery” is an unnecessary obstruction to rapid, iterative learning about fast-moving topics such as digital practice. It’s hard to facilitate constructivist learning under contracts laced with transmissionist assumptions!

Individuals can pull in the learning they need, when they need it. This may mean booking onto courses, but also learning informally from other people.

A kanban board can be used to schedule learning according to demand and match participants into balanced cohorts with diverse experiences.

In any cohort, each learner will have unique experiences to share with their peers. We encourage them to make the most of all these experiences. We can also connect them with people who have been through the same journey before them. These other people don’t have to be experts, just far enough ahead to help today’s learners see over the next hill. We love welcoming back past participants from our programmes to share their experiences with current cohorts. Communities of practice help to facilitate such interactions.

One way to be responsive at scale is to address the needs of teams, not just individuals. We love working with teams where participants already know each other and share a sense of purpose. For them, we can tailor learning to suit exactly where they are in their service lifecycle and capability journey.

While it is tempting to imagine that face-to-face can be reserved for more advanced levels, we suspect the opposite may be the case. Learners need in person support the most at the start of their journey. This helps them to understand what they need and where to look, and to connect as peers who can help each other, so that they become progressively more independent and capable of pulling timely and specialised support when they need it.

But this doesn’t mean that everything has to be done face-to-face. Just as digital services offer help to users who need it through “assisted digital”, so we can use “facilitated digital” – digital learning backed by coaching and facilitation – to grow the skills and confidence that will allow people and teams to progressively take control of their own learning.

In summary, some principles…

Shared purpose

  • Motivation springs from shared purpose plus personal autonomy.
  • Start with needs* (* learners’ needs, not employers’ needs).
  • The who and the why are as important as the what.

Learning by doing

  • Every great place of work is also a place of learning.
  • Model the best experiences, environments and behaviours.
  • Space out the learning around chances to apply it for real.

Social construction

  • Fresh and relevant learning emerges from social interaction.
  • Provide scaffolds for learners to construct their own knowledge.
  • Value confidence and networks as highly as skills and knowledge.

Design for diversity

  • Close the loop between design and delivery of learning.
  • Let teams and individuals learn what they need, when they need it.
  • Support everyone to become an independent learner.

[Principles re-ordered and tweaked 24 March 2016]

What have you learned about learning?

We’d love to hear your tips and stories. Please add your comments, suggestions and question below.

Thank you!

Put down all behaviour hurtful to informality!


Among my favourite times working at Orange – and there were many – was the chance to lead the UK organisation’s design and usability team, doing user-centred design across the mobile and broadband business units.

At the start of the assignment I talked with heads of all the teams whose services we worked on, to understand what was going well and what, not so well. Two divergent patterns emerged.

Managers whose services were performing highly praised our responsiveness. They liked how designers could blend into their teams without the bureaucracy that bedevilled some other parts of the organisation. These were also the services where Design and Usability made the biggest difference. We were involved early, consulted often, and tuned in to their priorities.

The not-so-happy on the other hand, expected our work to be more transactional. They would involve design late, with precise requirements and arbitrary timelines. Their instinctive reaction when things were going wrong was to impose an even tighter rein.

And therein lay the problem: far from making things better, all the added controls would drag us even further away from the conditions that correlated most highly with success.

What high-performing teams had found – and struggling ones were missing – was a magical quality I’ve come to understand as “productive informality” – spontaneous, personal, and collaborating as equals.

I wrote about this a while ago in my post about digital transformation. In productive informality we see less forward planning, more ambient awareness, and the levelling effect of information abundance.

This post is an attempt to unpack that quality, to explain to myself as much as to you, dear reader, why those two words belong together. But first I need to define what I have in mind by productivity, and how we can think about it in a service-dominant world.


When we talk about “productivity” in a general economic sense we mean the rate of output per unit of input. Dictionary example: “workers have boosted productivity by 30 per cent.”

You probably picture productivity as identical widgets rolling smoothly off some some sort of production line, so dominant is the manufacturing metaphor in our economy. But most of what we do at work isn’t like that at all: it’s service.

Productivity in service is infinitely variable. This means that optimising for repeatable, well-known processes with narrow tolerance is actually the fastest way to leave value lying on the table.

Instead we have to tune in to the needs of customers, no two of whom are alike. Only through continuous, informal communication can we discern and meet the full, diverse, messy, constantly shifting range of customer needs. Great service demands tolerance and curiosity.

Listen to the words of Jos de Blok, of home care organisation Buurtzorg Nederland, a poster child for people-centred health and care:

“I believe in client-centered care, with nursing that is independent and collaborative. The community-based nurse should have a central role – after all they know best how they can support specific circumstances for the client.”

Recently, applying for a place on a government framework contract, we were asked to affirm that we “ensure consistent delivery of quality to our customers”. So now Stick People has a quality policy. It goes like this:

We’re a service business. We understand quality as a moving target, defined and re-defined by our customers’ changing expectations, perceptions and experiences. To succeed we’ll have to consistently question and improve the way we work:

  • focusing and framing a better understanding of customers’ capabilities and needs
  • translating that understanding into clear agreements to work with them
  • keeping our promises and earning their trust
  • making work visible and inspecting progress
  • adopting and inventing better ways of working
  • closing every engagement to our own and our customers’ satisfaction.

As someone once said, the strategy is delivery. Only when we start to deliver, do we earn the trust that enables us to deliver more.


Like the butterfly at the top of this post, informality is impossible to pin down without fatal consequences. But this much we know: informality grows from trust.

Informality has, of course, always greased the wheels of business – and more so at the highest levels – the camaraderie of the boardroom, of the golf course, of Tony Blair’s “sofa government”.

Neither is it a novel insight that great groups operate informally. Take Warren Bennis and Patricia Ward Biederman in ‘Organising Genius‘:

Great Groups tend to be less bureaucratic than ordinary ones. Terribly talented people often have little tolerance for less talented middle managers. Great Groups tend to be structured, not according to title, but according to role. The person who is best able to do some essential task does it.

No matter how much we benefit from it inside an organisation, sometimes it’s scary to allow informality into the open. Exhibit this Alphagov Github commit:

Removed para about using cuddly toys and fruit as props in meetings.
Removed this para as it deviates from the authoritative tone. Some users may not find this puts GDS in a suitable light: 

To stop your meetings from becoming repetitive, have an object that you (gently) throw to someone to signify they should speak next. Pick people at random - it keeps people on their toes and lets the person speaking to choose the person they wish to hear from next. At GDS we use cuddly toys or a piece of fruit. It’s a bit of fun. You don’t have to this - it’s just something to experiment with.

The pattern

I believe productive informality is more than nice to have: it forms a virtuous circle that we can turn to our advantage:

  • Service productivity builds trust
  • Trust engenders informality
  • Informality is the route to richer, faster learning
  • Continual learning is essential for any service to be productive

New Mockup 1.png

In this, we can see echoes of the Manifesto for Agile Software Development.  These are more than just cultural preferences, they are pre-conditions for productivity:

Screenshot 2016-02-04 14.41.23.png

Boldness and humanity

The longer this katamari of a blog post has sat in my drafts folder, the more it has accumulated examples and tangents and one-more-things:

Janet Hughes on boldness:

I’ve always been drawn to boldness. I find boldness in others inspiring, infectious, empowering, creative and meaningful. I want to spend time around bold, honest, open people. I want to be inspired and empowered to boldness myself. I know I am at my best when I can feel the weird whoosh of terror and relief that comes from real, heartfelt boldness. And I don’t think you can lead a great team, or transform organisations or services without a healthy amount of boldness.

Leanne Buchan’s new approach to a new Leeds Culture Strategy:

One thing that is already different is that what you are reading, hopefully, doesn’t feel like a council document for consultation. It is written in the voice of a person not an organisation and not just the foreword. This voice is the voice of Leanne Buchan: Council worker; Human with ideas and opinions; Sometimes gets it right, sometimes gets it wrong.

You’ll hear bold, human voices like these wherever good work is going on. People working at pace, making good progress, don’t need to dress up their words with technical jargon or commercial buzzwords. They have no fear of a burning platform. The way they talk about their work in their own natural voice is a sign of intrinsic pleasure from doing good work.

The anti-pattern

I reckon we should always stand our ground on cuddly toys and fruit lest the virtuous circle turns into a vicious one:

  • Increased formality dulls and slows our ability to understand customer needs
  • As a result we end up further away from doing good work
  • Poor performance leads to demands for tighter formal control. And so on…

New Mockup 1 copy.png

Start down this road and before we know it the good principles of the Agile Manifesto will be smothered in the cakewreck of so-called “best practice” (the very presumption of claiming that this is as good as it gets!) …


Call to arms

Productive informality might just be a critical dividing line for our time.

There’s a growing impatience and disillusionment with the old ways of working. We are fed up with convoluted contracts. We reject processes structured around organisations not users. We are less enamoured of the arcane ways of parliament and political parties.

Many of the issues that anger people today seem to me to come down to unfair distribution of access to informality. Uber is criticised when it treats drivers with a harshness inconsistent with its brand for riders. Small businesses demand that HMRC cut them the same slack that it appears to offer to Google, Vodafone and Starbucks.

We are at a crossroads where digital technology can be used to enhance or extinguish informal ways of working – to promote spontaneity or enforce process conformance. As makers with that technology, whose side are we on?

In the industrial England of the 1810s, the Luddites destroyed machines that threatened their way of work and life. Contrary to popular belief, they were not against all machines. Their complaints were more nuanced, understanding all too well the relationship between technology and social change. In the words of their fictional figurehead Ned Ludd:

“We will never lay down our Arms… [until] the House of Commons passes an Act to put down all Machinery hurtful to Commonality,”

And so 200 years later, this is our demand: put down all behaviour hurtful to informality!