I recently sat down with Ian Wright, Managing Director of Disruptive Innovators Network, to explore human-centred design and what that can mean for rebuilding our organisations post-COVID.

This is a write up of that conversation, which you can also watch.

Dominic Campbell (DC): My background and passion has always been about places, cities and urbanism. I found myself in local government in the beginning of my career and was lucky enough to go through the ranks relatively quickly and end up leading transformation in Barnet in North London.

After five years, I got into a reasonably senior position but found that probably, the best use of my mindset was to try and find a different place in the government system. I thought about how I could create something that would allow me to influence a wider selection of government bodies.

I left local government having moved from policy into technology-led transformation. During that journey I saw the good and bad of large-scale IT implementations; the benefits they can bring but also the change methodologies that were often dehumanising. There had to be a different way of bringing a much more intuitive and human-centred approach to government change. That’s where the roots of FutureGov began 12 years ago.

Ian Wright (IW): Having set up your business at a relatively young age, you’re clearly passionate about solving problems. Working in public services, what did you feel were the main problems that you wanted to help them solve?

DC: The power of government is like a nerdy commitment to recognising the power in technology, particularly digital technology and the convening power of social on the internet. That’s what initially triggered my imagination beyond large IT systems to think more about what is the power in bringing people together on mass through the internet to actually create social mobilisation for change and working in partnership with government to change the world ultimately.

Creating FutureGov was both a passion for policy issues that are close to me such as disability rights, supporting people in older care and a whole range of child protection, which has continued to be a theme through a lot of our work from the very beginning. But also thinking directly about how do we actually make sure that we go beyond basic website approaches to digital in government to really thinking about it in a much more powerful way to solve some of these big social problems.

IW: How would FutureGov approach solving a problem and how you would deploy human-centred design in deriving a solution for a problem?

DC: We have this program at FutureGov called FGX, which is the FutureGov Experience. Over time we’ve realised that who you are and how you do things is as much the change as the things that you do.

That means taking an approach that uses strong user research, ethnography, data and analytics to really help people define the problems in front of them very cleanly. Try and live with those problems a little bit longer than you would normally.

Speaking as a former policy person, I used to think I was very clever if I sat in a cupboard and wrote a paper and solved a problem all on my own. But it’s clear that in the complexity of modern life these social issues are not simple problems. Unless we actually live the lives of the people that we’re looking to support and really understand the problem we’re trying to solve, we’ll just jump to simple solutions which we’ve done for decades.

So once we’ve done that valuable research, we rapidly prototype and test some of those solutions at very low cost to see where the desired lines take you. Where the opportunities. Then rapidly understand the potential impacts to scale those that are working and get behind them.

This sits in stark contrast to what government has done in the past which is a best guess, ask for a lot of money in a very long budget cycle, only to find out three years later when the project fails that the guess was wrong and you probably should have tried two or three things to work out what was right before jumping at a simple solution.

IW: You speak about solving complex problems — do you think complex problems are just a recent thing or do you think we’ve always had complex problems and we’re just now looking at them in a different way with more data and more methods for analyzing those problems?

DC: It’s definitely both sides of that equation. Complex problems have always been there and now we’ve got a better way of understanding those problems.

One way of looking at Twitter is realising you have a live feed into people’s brains. You can understand their lives and their thinking in a way that we never could before. Problem-solving is now much about people’s own aspirations, what they need and what they want. That process of definition of their own problems and working to solve them is part of the cure in some respects.

There’s a level of ownership, autonomy and belief in the solution that’s been brought forward.

It’s a cultural shift as much as it is a methodological shift. For example, disability used to be seen as only a medical problem. Whereas now, we recognise the social disability problem, which is that the world disables people. So how do we understand the lives and aspirations of people with disabilities so we can adjust the world? Which is a sort of manifestation of that shift in mindset over time.

IW: What do you think leaders need to rethink or look at if they want to succeed and change in this increasingly disrupted and complex world we live in?

DC: For leaders, it’s as much about letting go as anything. I think it’s about understanding what new tools and techniques exist in the world. It’s an education through experience; taking a short period of time and a small budget to test something just to bring it home to you. We can all read books but when it goes into that bit of your brain it’s not the same as when it goes into your heart. You need to feel it as much as understand it.

There’s also a part where leaders need to not look to control in the same way we have. To not believe in the Gantt Chart and tick box business case narrative that we’ve produced for years that half a million quid spent tomorrow will derive over a million quids worth of savings, benefits and change by a specified end date. We have to recognise that the world just doesn’t work in that way. It never did and it never will.

It’s about having the confidence to lead uncertainty and hold the space for people with different skills in multidisciplinary space. From the front line to the back office, design to accountancy. It’s time to think about these challenges we face and solving them together in a much more agile and iterative way.

As a leader, you have to hold your nerve. To have to ask open questions rather than seek to determine outcomes. That’s quite a cultural shift because we’ve all been incentivised to be clever. If you’re at the top and you’re meant to be the cleverest and have all the answers. But instead, holding that realm for others who are closest to the problems to help us solve those challenges is probably the best place for a leader to find themselves.

IW: Do you think the structure — the governance arrangements, the regulation and scrutiny there is on public services these days — has people managing risk in a way that’s counterintuitive to improving services?

DC: Exactly. It manifests itself in the procurement culture that looks for one brand so if the programme succeeds then great, if not then I have someone to blame. It’s something you hear people talk about in a sort of risk management/blame culture sort of way.

It’s as simple as the very new public management model of business case templates and spreadsheets themselves as a sort of physical manifestation of a risk management and governance mindset from the 20th century that we haven’t taken the opportunity to modernise into a world that accepts that we can’t make massive guesses and massive bets. We have to start small, think big and test and learn and grow our approaches rather than the other way around.

IW: From your perspective, do you see the crisis that COVID has brought upon us has been more of a threat or that we have opportunities ahead to build better businesses post-COVID?

DC: COVID-19 has caused huge human suffering over just a few months around the world and in the UK in particular. And there’s no doubt that you can see where there’s a need for immediate tactical responses. Government has done well, though it’s never perfect. Even as a massive fan and supporter of government I would never say it’s perfect.

You can see, the response of people and mutual aid groups has shown that communities are capable of working in hours and days where government is better at weeks and months. But also, government is much better at safeguarding, it’s better at scaling.

So for us, one of the opportunities that we’ve seen come out of this is that rebalancing of who should do what between communities and government? Who is best positioned to deliver which aspect of public value and service delivery? And then in our organisations, there’s no doubt that at least people recognise that doing your emails at home on a Friday afternoon does not a digital organisation make.

The risk I see inherently is now that everybody has Microsoft Teams they think they’re a digital organisation. But that’s just a chatroom. It’s better, but it doesn’t make you digital. There’s a risk that people will stop there and think ‘we’re 21st century now’. But as we go through this a bit longer, what we’re starting to see is that people recognise the thing that we’ve been talking about more than anything for the last ten years, which is digital culture rather than digital technology.

How do you reconfigure yourselves to communicate differently to do workshops online, to deliver through different means, which takes more than getting a chatroom to enable your organization to work from home? I think we’re starting to see people understand that they need fundamentally different organising models to make their organisations work in a digital world.

IW: Picking up on that point around digital culture, can you explain what you mean by digital culture or what good digital culture looks like?

DC: Digital culture is really understanding the fundamentals of your organisation and how might that cost significantly less when super-powered by technology, automation and other tools. And then within that, how do you get people to communicate differently and connect differently to have more small rapid interactions rather than large long meetings? How do you get people to communicate in a live way but also asynchronously as well so that not everything turns into the Team’s video call?

It’s about thinking in a design-oriented way and asking ultimately, what are we trying to do and what is the most human, efficient and effective way of doing it?

I think we all realise we’ve taken things for granted around the way things “should be”. Where now there’s no such thing as the way things should be. It’s just what’s possible. So we should come at everything from a mindset of: how do we achieve this outcome as an organisation in the quickest, cheapest, most effective way from a blank piece of paper?

IW: You’ve talked a lot about digital and digital transformation. I think COVID has demonstrated to us that technology has an even bigger role to play in the future. From your point of view, where do you view or where do you sort of look to bring in the technological elements when you are redesigning a service.

DC: It’s across a whole range really. We look at three waves of change, from the sort of tweaks, the transactional improvements and the transformation, so technology definitely plays a different role at different points.

On tweaks end, you could be talking about working with a council or an organisation that happens to be using Google, as rare as those are, and just teaching employees how to tag their emails to save them an hour a day. That’s much more an example of the end of the spectrum in terms of minor efficiency gains, but enabling them to see a whole range of tools they might use to work digitally.

Then on the transactional improvements side, it could be things like process automation, which we’re seeing a real rise in demand for. Particularly through this period where people are working remotely. When we aren’t in the office together, moving paper around, we’ve recognised how in many ways those processes aren’t effective when many of us are working at home without even a printer. Or replicating some of the methods we see in the insurance industry which is to automate insurance claim payments without any human interaction on the assumption that most people aren’t lying. And actually the cost of processing a claim is greater than just paying a claim. It’s the same in things like housing benefits and elsewhere. Is there a way to change the rules of the game to assume the best intent by people, recognising fraud might exist but trivially.

And then there’s the more transformational end which is more like the Hilton/Airbnb end of the spectrum. What does a founded in digital-by-default organisation or service look like that starts from first principles and really tries to use as little technology from the start as possible, rather than get swamped in the massive legacy that we all have to swim in our institutions right now

IW: We’ve talked a bit about culture and I wondered, how much of a barrier or an accelerator does organisational culture make for a successful intervention? If you’re going into an organisation, can you spot quite quickly what an organisations culture is?

DC: Absolutely. We’ve got organisational personas in the back of our minds when we go into places, in terms of this centralised, decentralised, who are the influencers, Is it a strong chief exec, who’s holding the keys? Where or who is it that you need to be pushing to make change happen? And often the answer is again, complex.

It’s rare you come across an autocratic organisation when one person quite literally can

decide everything and for it to just trickle down through the system. Even in those where they see themselves that way, it often creates a stronger immune response in the rest of the organisation. If the chief exec is saying ‘use these people’ and ‘spend this money’ and ‘change in this way’, people don’t feel brought into that change.

For us, it’s often multiple points of change, understanding people’s different drivers and showing what’s possible through fast delivery and demonstrative projects, whilst also giving the sorts of narrative and longer-term vision to those in a leadership position. Whether it’s politicians, board members or trustees, helping them see where it’s going and what the future could look like, whilst also making a strong financial case for why the change is necessary and important and something to invest in.

IW: So a final question, what’s the one piece of advice or thought that you would want to leave people with if they are looking to redesign or rebuild their organisation post-COVID.

DC: I think for me it’s taking a moment to try and reflect. We’ve been working with people like Trafford, North East Lincolnshire and Kingston to look at what’s happened in the last two or three months, see where remarkable things have happened but also to be really honest.

For example, the community response, the relationship between councils and housing organisations and their communities has been a sight to behold. Particularly in a context where they haven’t been supported from above. But then on the other hand, being very honest about being able to see even more clearly where those parts of your organisation are that are holding back change. The areas that really need your attention as a leader to move some of those barriers out of the way.

We’re in this moment where organisations have essentially been blown apart. Everybody’s been sent home and in some regards, organisations don’t exist at the moment. They’re just floating in the ether, held together through email addresses and purpose around a place or institutional vision.

What is it when that sort of entropic force happens and the organisation comes back together again? What are the things that you want to exist from this period and what are those things that you want to leave in the past? In order to do that, you have to have a moment of reflection and real honesty to look at what the good has been in the last three months. What has been a drag that you thought was necessary but now realise isn’t, be it culturally, financially, process-wise, etc.

But then, also introduce an element of imagination. It’s an external challenge; you can’t know what you don’t know so look around and talk to others and see what else you could be doing as you start to bring your organisation back together to think about what the future looks like.

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