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.
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
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:
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.
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…
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!