How to be Ingenious (Jamie Young RSA 2011)

I snaffled a copy of ‘How To Be Ingenious’ by Jamie Young (RSA 2011), after I saw RSA CEO Matthew Taylor’s blog.  I was drawn to it for two reason.  My day job is a consultant, researcher and writer working in leadership and change in complex social systems, and – unsurprisingly – ingenuity, creativity and improvement is a recurring theme for clients. But also because, through some unexpected and unsettling life events, I am seriously in need of a bit of ingenuity myself right now.

Matthew sang it’s praises and so I was curious to see what this small pamphlet might have to offer – and that we hadn’t already done to death in the creativity and innovation spheres.

Helpfully Jamie sets his stall out early here, differentiating ingenuity from both ‘creativity’ – producing work that is novel and useful – and ‘innovation’ – implementing creative ideas in an organisation – to define it as:

  1. Using the resources at hand
  2. In surprising combinations
  3. To solve practical problems

The notion of ‘using the resources at hand’ means that ingenuity utilizes things that are both ‘finite and heterogeneous’ so that solutions are ‘frugal and elegant’ and entirely fit for their specific purpose.

Whilst Jamie draws heavily on the practical arts of engineering and craftsmanship to illustrate this, he also directs us to the ‘frugal and elegant’ solutions found in other aspects of our lives – from the haiku poem to the tweet of 140 characters to improv comedy.

This interplay of knowledge and practice from such different worlds is so attractive. My own research at Ashridge Business School is about connecting up very different organisations and sectors to work on the problem of delivering complex projects – from defence procurement to infrastructure construction to national security to health improvement to sustainable communities.  From the privileged position of a consultant who gets to work with many different organisations, I know that the systemic characteristics of the ‘complex project’ transcend organisations and sectors: and there is so much potential for learning and improvement from collaboration across seemingly unrelated territories.

In the chapter on Enhancing Ingenuity, Jamie highlights Hoegl’s work on the effects of financial constraints on ingenuity (which will be uppermost in many people’s minds right now).  He suggests five principles, to overcome ‘barriers of capability’ (when reduced resources prevent a team from undertaking tasks which have previously proved useful) and ‘barriers of will’ (where reduced resources affect motivation).

These really struck a chord.  Several years ago now I chaired a Health Board in Wales, charged with establishing a new organisation although most players in the system had been around for years (as so often happens in the NHS!)  I inherited a very challenging financial settlement, a disengaged group of people, frustrated stakeholders and a local hospital closure plan, among other pressing problems.  In spite of this, we were a largely successful Board and looking back, these five principles provide at least one way of telling that story.

  1. Bounded creativity – we concentrated on what was possible, do-able, within our financial and political constraints (often just getting on with things as trials or pilots and keeping below the political radar)
  2. Transferring knowledge from one domain to another – the multi stakeholder boards that were a feature of Welsh Local Health Boards introduced knowledge into the commissioning system that had, hitherto, been fragmented, often competing and silo’d. We worked hard to foster respect and confidence in each other’s perspectives, exploring our differences and finding ways to our common ground, which was, ultimately…
  3. A clear and exciting goal.  We were all committed to doing whatever we could to improve health and well being in our communities
  4. We are in this together.  We fostered inclusivity about who we called ‘we’ – and then we pooled our resources.  We included not just the ‘health’ budget, but also partnered with the local authority (with Wales’s first joint appointments): with primary care (involving clinicians in strategic decision making and review, using their front line and clinical intelligence about what was working – and what was not); and patients and carers, valuing their stories and experiences in service design and evaluation.
  5. A can-do attitude. We created and supported ‘crucibles of experimentation’ on important issues, learning from their successes and their failures, staying focussed on the practical things we could actually do to improve health and social care.  We refused to be thwarted by constraints (and there were many!) and took these as a challenge to be more ingenious, keeping our shared goals uppermost.

This pamphlet is full of practical examples of ‘applied ingenuity’ – from the Comedy Store Players, to Danish wind turbines, to human survival itself.   From these very diverse examples come ingenious responses to the significant challenges we face.  The RSA is supporting more experimentation to foster ingenious solutions in three key projects – Ingenious Communities, Ingenious Incentives and Ingenious Education. (more info

Back to my own pressing problems.  Facing divorce, the resultant reduction in family income and living on a small farm with elderly parents and teenagers, the prospects of also uprooting us from the place we love and where we can support each other feels too unbearable to contemplate. The day job pays well but it’s not enough and there’s the small matter of managing a farm… So I hoped for some genuine inspiration from ‘How to be Ingenious’.

Well, applying these rules, I have formulated a few next steps.  Looking around, what are the resources available to me? I have 52 acres, great farm buildings, a few sheep, cattle, hens, abundant trees, footpaths and an environment grant.  I have my research skills.  What’s available where? Who’s doing what? What support is available for farmers?   And most importantly I remembered I have my networks and I have my friends.  Friends who have also faced such challenges and done extraordinary things.  In the start up days of the Health Board, we navigated and negotiated a lot of difficult issues in my conservatory with a bottle of wine and the ‘posh crisps’, as they came to be known.

Hosting convivial places for inquiry, support and collaboration, genuinely seeking other perspectives, introducing fresh, even unusual ideas – but all within the practical considerations of what we can actually accomplish…  This might be my best resource.  I feel a party coming on….

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In praise of sheep

We’ve kept sheep since we moved here in 2001.  Our first starter flock of 10 stayed with us through foot and mouth disease.  We’ve added and bred ever since, selling the lamb to family and friends.  Now we have a mixed flock of about 45 Welsh crosses, Jacobs and Jacob crosses.  We bought our first Jacobs in 2001 and, thrown in as a freebie, was Old Ewe.  Too old even then to have a commercial value, she was given away so that her old owners could avoid The Difficult Decision about what you do with a pet sheep when it’s old.

In the last ten years, she has been the leader ewe.  Some call these the ‘Judas Sheep’ because they will lead the flock into whatever the farmer intends for them.  For us, she has been a trusty helper, coming as soon as she’s called and leading the flock between fields or into the yard for their treatments.

Now she is really on her last legs and we found her down in hedge this week.  She must be 17 or 18.  We’ve brought her into the barn to munch on some cubes and then we’ll have to despatch her humanely so that she doesn’t die a slow death.  Very sad – but it is the right thing to do when you have livestock.

Meanwhile, I’ve just been moving the rest of the flock to a fresh field with actual green spring grass.  As I went up to call them, I wondered whether they’d come without Old Ewe  and who – if any – would take up leadership.  To my surprise, the ewe we call Katy Mama was first to the gate and nuzzling my hand.

Katy Mama was born as we moved here, so she’s ten now – old in sheep years.  She’s a pretty little thing but she has been a bit feisty over the years.  Very aware of what’s going on around her – and first to run off and last to come – she has also been a fantastic, protective mother to all her lambs.  She has often been seen on lamb-sitting duty  in the Spring evenings when all the lambs gather to play ‘king of the castle’ on the muck heap.

The flock gathered behind her and I swear she looked at me square in the eyes as if to say “I’m in charge now.”  As she led the flock up the track to the Quarry fields I couldn’t help but marvel a little at how the flock ‘eco-system’ works – how leadership – and ‘followership’ – just got renegotiated amongst them and what sheep-y leadership qualities seem to matter to them.

And how, in truth, I also found myself slotting in to my place within it, in partnership with her authority, strolling along behind them, shooshing the stragglers and shutting gates….

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On International Women’s Day: what I learn from my daughters

I am the mother of two daughters*.   Today is International Women’s Day and I’ve enjoyed reading women’s tributes to the other women who’ve been important to them – role models, icons, mothers, friends.  I want to celebrate what I learn from – and love in – my daughters.

My oldest daughter M is now 20, at Med School in London.  She is clever, beautiful, independent, kind and balanced.  Being the eldest child she has taught me how to be a mother and borne the brunt of all my mistakes.  She has been patient when I’ve been distracted; generous when I’ve been sharp; loving when I’ve been distant.

The things I’ve learned from M are resilience and perseverance.  M used to ride competitively.  Full of pride, we bought her a lovely competition horse, who, it quickly became clear, was too much for her, at age 14.  This horse used to drag her round the yard, spook and shy, wouldn’t go forward, couldn’t be stopped or dump her in front of (or sometimes across) fences, leaving her the lonely walk of shame back to the lorry.  In spite of much advice, she stuck with her, picking herself up, dusting herself off and trying again and again.  Then she won some really tough competitions.  The most memorable occasion was her first Open Tetrathlon in 2006.  The weather was dire, the course waterlogged, it was her first competition at this (big) height.  Many other seasoned competitors retired or didn’t even start.  M set off and I waited by the finish.  The commentator gave updates on the other competitors on the course.  One horse appeared with no rider. Nothing about M.  I was convinced they’d fallen at the first fence and were making their slow way back.  Then, over the final fence, in driving rain and howling wind, they appeared, racing for the finish.  Mare and Maddy, when the pressure was on, and in the worst conditions, had stepped up and nailed it.   Most of the time, the horse was a pain and continued to be unreliable.  M, however, loved her, for all her faults, and stuck with her, scaling down her ambitions and doing the best with what she had.

My youngest daughter, I, is 14.  She is feisty, smart, sunny, loving and brave.  What I learn from her is a practical courage and conviction.  Number 3 child, she has always been determined to keep up.  Even as a tiny child, she’d square up to her siblings and insist they took her seriously and along with their games.  She simply refused to be crushed by the older ones.

When she was six, the vet came to castrate some colt foals.  She rolled her sleeves up, carried his bag, handed him his instruments, puffed the antiseptic powder into the incision – and carried the testicles around in a bucket for a week, convinced everyone else would be as fascinated by this as she was.  She was utterly unfazed by the task and lives her life with this same practical, purposeful courage, from picking maggots out of flyblown sheep to nursing injured ponies.

She applies this to her relationships, sticking by friends in times of trouble, squaring up to bullies and negotiating difficult conversations with patience, courage, empathy and wisdom beyond her years.  She hugs me every single day – her warmth and affection sustain me in ways she will never know.

Without doubt, my daughters live a privileged life – a thousand miles away from the experience of many girls around the world.  They are healthy, comfortable, much loved.  Now they are grown up and encountering a world that is both full of beauty and also rife with injustice, unfairness and inequity, I love that they are each carrying with them, in their very different ways, a sense of their responsibility to do the right things, right.

Whatever, as a mother, I am supposed to have taught them, I learn so much from them.


* I also have a lovely middle son and he is, of course, as wonderful as the girls, but, just for today, they take centre stage.

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Women on boards – ‘same old, same old’ suggestions from Davies Report

What a missed opportunity – again.   Perhaps this awful sense of deja vu comes with age, but reading the recommendations – and commentators’ responses – makes me wonder whether the last 30 years ever happened.

If you’ve missed it, Lord Davies of Abersoch (nice beaches, btw) conducted an Independent Review into Women on Boards.   He found – perhaps unsurprisingly, given the amount of research, evidence and campaigning that has been done in the last 30 years – that there aren’t very many of them.  And in 50% of FTSE 250 companies there are NO WOMEN AT ALL on the Board.

His response to this travesty?  “…companies should set targets for 2013 and 2015 to ensure that more talented and gifted women can get into the top jobs in companies across the UK.”  Oh good.  Companies (who, de facto, haven’t yet done a very good job at self-regulation) have to ‘set targets’…   Furthermore, he “also calls on chairmen to announce these goals in the next six months and Chief Executives to review the percentage of women they aim to have on their Executive Committees in 2013 and 2015.”  Well that’s telling them!  Set a target for several years hence and then announce it.  That always works.  And finally, the big sting. “…companies should fully disclose the number of women sitting on their boards and working in their organisations as a whole, to drive up the numbers of women with top jobs in business”.    Oh puhleeze!

We know all this already!  We know exactly how many women work in these companies and we know how many sit on the Executive Teams and on the Boards.  We already know this thanks to all the work done by the likes of the Equalities Commission, The Fawcett Society and even the regular reviews in the broadsheets about the makeup of Boards.  And so far, apparently, the ensuing shame and humiliation has not yet motivated them to do anything to redress this imbalance.

But what drives me to the brink of despair is the general acceptance of this approach at best (see the BIS press release) – and, at worst, the tone of the responses along the lines of “…c’mon ladies! We don’t need targets! Let’s get there on our own merits!”  or “…we don’t want boards dumbed down by recruiting women who aren’t up to it.”   I’m not making this up – see FT letters page.

So, one more time:

1.  The possession of a penis and 40 years experience in a City Firm Old Boys Network does not make you a good Board member.  It makes you a member of a conforming, compliant minority with vested interests and prone to groupthink.

2.  Boards choose people who look like them.  The ‘halo effect’ means that they value the qualities and styles in others that they exhibit themselves.  They rarely seek out and recruit difference, diversity or challenge, even though there is more than enough evidence to support the value of ‘requisite variety’ in good decision making.  ‘Fitting in’ is way more important in recruitment choices than seeking out fresh or different thinking.

3.  Women don’t apply to become Board members because they mostly don’t have time for all the rigmarole and hooplah that goes with it.  They are rightly sceptical about all the game playing that goes on and prefer to focus on more practical contributions. When I chaired a Board and actively sought out women to fill vacancies I’d often hear a sighed “But does all that effort really make a difference?  Isn’t it just all about set pieces and status…?”

4.  We’ve been waiting 30 years for organisations to make these changes themselves.  But like turkeys voting for Christmas, Boards have shown themselves to be incapable of making difficult changes under their own steam.

This IS a political issue.  The quality and effectiveness of scrutiny and decision making in Boards is ALL our business and not just that of individual share holders.  The events of the last few years have shown us, starkly and shockingly, just how important it is to address issues of governance, integrity and accountability at the top of the shop.   Requiring better representation of women on boards would have been a good indication that Government takes this seriously.  This weak, conventional, unchallenging report does not.

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leading complex projects – what the MOD could learn

Listening to the piece about MOD procurement R4 this morning, I felt my usual deep pangs of frustration and despair.  This debate has been running for years – and the lack of progress is so depressing.   The solution, according to both Fox and Hodge, seems to be to ‘try harder’.   They trot out the usual cliches:  ‘people need to get a grip of the project;’ ‘these things wouldn’t be allowed to happen in the private sector.’  And they neglect to mention other government projects (NHS Connecting for Health springs to my mind) where similar patterns arise…

The problem is, these so-called solutions are utterly entrenched in the existing mindset that creates the problem in the first place. (i)

I’ve been interested in this for the last four years, since I worked with the Board of the Defence Procurement Agency.  Good, honourable people, who had excellent track records of leadership and service were genuinely and deeply stuck about how to get out of the messes they were in.  Since I was coming fresh to this world I noticed things that seemed interesting or curious to me, but were taken for granted by them.  And I also noticed several patterns they shared, unbeknownst to them, with other parts of the public sector, with which I was much more familiar.

Several things struck me at the time and I’ve continued to explore in the last four years of action research with folk who have real skin in this game. (ii)

The tyranny of the Project Management mindset.  Conventional project management – Prince2 in the UK – assumes that the world is linear, ordered, predictable  – and constructs management tools on that basis.  Such a mindset is unproblematic for simple projects, such as building a bridge, a railway line – even an Olympic Village, arguably.  But it simply does not hold up in the more complex world of political positioning, contested national interests, fast-moving technologies.  Nonetheless, government remains deeply attached to its Project Management methodologies and is slow in asking the intelligent questions about the extent to which it is, itself, part of the problem.

Acknowledging the complex world (which is different to ‘big’ or ‘complicated’).  The complex world is unpredictable, interconnected, emergent, diverse and contested – there are no simple solutions.   For example, the defence projects that Hodge referred to today are already delivered by powerful private sector corporations with their own complex interests.  Moreover,  MPs themselves collude in the whole shenanigans – perhaps because they have a shipbuilder in their constituency which provides employment; or large scale military accommodation…  This is not a bad thing per se: of course MPs will defend their constituents interests – this is legitimate in a democracy – but to whitewash away this complex balance of interests and choices is disingenuous at best….

Our leadership and change models are stuck in these old mindsets:  We still suffer under outdated notions of leadership.  The ‘One Responsible Owner’ notion is dangerously close to reinforcing the idea of a single heroic leader, who wears his pants on the outside (with a very large pair contained within them…) who will transform the prospects of the project.    This does not work.  At best, dissent goes underground, surfacing only at project failure, accompanied by “I told you so” or, at worst, the project turns into the battle of the X Men, with superheros battling it out on the lawn.  Unfortunately, the vast majority of the advice Government gets on these issues comes from those very organisations who make their money selling simple, scalable solutions.  The ‘Big 4’ professional services firms and the McKinseys of this world are themselves deeply entrenched in this systemic problem.

In fact, this analysis covers pretty much all the ‘wicked issues’ we face today.   And yet we persist in gritting our teeth and rehashing really unhelpful practices that got us there in the first place, trying to apply simplistic, mechanistic solutions from ‘what we’ve always done’  to the new, complex, interconnected, emergent problems we face today.

I’d argue that the opportunities to really shift expectations and outcomes are contained in 1) how we frame the problem and then 2) how we choose to work together to act on it.  The research papers go into rather more detail,  but meantime, a couple of the critical areas seem to me to be:

1.  Engage all those who have a real stake in the project outcome – and its implementation.  This usually means listening a lot more to front-line staff and project ‘customers’ – those who have to make it work, ultimately. It also means listening better to those who might disagree with you or who have very different interests at stake.

2.  Seek to learn from the what goes on elsewhere – sometimes this can be the most unlikely places (our ‘research’ or ‘evidence’ is often as silo’d as our projects!)  For example, we can learn most from how to really resolve disagreement and difference from those places who have had to work through this – South Africa, Nicaragua

3.  Use project management tools in service of the outcomes – not the other way round.  Too often the project plan becomes the end in itself – and ticking the project milestones becomes more important that delivering the project outcome.  This is where good governance can really make a difference.

We are starting a Community of Practice at Ashridge for those who are interested in this – with people from all parts of public and private sector.  Get in touch if you’d like to hear more about this.

(i) Einstein’s quote “No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.”

(ii) Leading Complex Projects (in Complex Social Systems) with Ashridge Business School

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Scaling up or joining up? Size matters….

I was talking to my my friend Bob last week about how he should respond to politicians who ask “why, if there are so many pockets of good practice around, we can’t simply scale them up to create uniform and large scale good practice across the country?”   It’s an important question for him: as CEO of a Public Health body, these questions about how to improve the nation’s health and wellbeing have a pressing relevance.  He recounted a particular meeting with the NHS Director who challenged him to just ‘industrialise’  pockets of good practice on a mega scale…

We reflected that this drive to ‘scale up’ has been around the UK public sector for at least as long as we have – that’s a very long time now….   It has been manifest by ‘benchmarking clubs’, ‘beacon sites’ ‘best practice networks’ ‘leading practice’ ‘sites of special practice interest’ (I made that last one up…   I think…)     All have been motivated by the need to identify what works –  then ‘scale it up’ across its sector  – whether  that’s health, education, waste, policing, community development, to name but a few….

And after every effort, governments ask why this hasn’t worked.  Why haven’t, for example, GPs working in one part of the country slapped their foreheads in a moment of crystal clarity when presented with the best practice from another and enthusiastically adopted it forthwith?

There are two important principles at work here, drawn from complexity theory and systemic practice.

1.  Size matters.  To draw a parallel from (and anticipate) the forthcoming Royal Institutions Christmas Lectures, just like the laws of physics operate differently at different scales, so does human behaviour and social processes.  What works at the micro level – trust, relationships, connection, involvement and participation between people in their neighbourhoods and communities, does not necessarily work when scaled up into larger units of operation.   These bigger structures, whilst making sense to the organisations that construct them in the name of efficient resource management, become utterly meaningless and abstracted to their citizens or service users.

2. Context matters.  What works in one place, or in one set of conditions, does not necessarily work when transplanted into another.  Even the most forensic deconstruction will struggle to identify and understand all the subtle nuances, relationships, connections and  interdependencies in any given social context, in order to make confident assertions that what works in one community will work just as well in another, even if we can recreate such conditions.

Instead, then, rather than talking of ‘scaling up‘, perhaps we should be talking first about creating and sustaining the conditions for real local experimentation, learning and adaption at the micro scale and then ‘joining up‘ these crucibles of experimentation to build networks for learning and improvement.   This doesn’t require any more ‘exhortations’ from the top down, nor more paternalistic ‘interventions,’ nor testosterone fuelled command and control leadership.

What it requires instead is serious capacity building at the very local level and in the spaces between communities and institutions, through real engagement of all who need to be involved, genuine enquiry and curiosity about how the world looks from different perspectives and a focus on taking real purposeful productive actions – as experiments, or baby steps at times – but to get started – and then to learn through the process.

And the reality is that, thanks to social networking, the internet and widespread access to (often hitherto privileged) information, communities are, in fact, already doing this all by themselves….

Of course for the New Public Service, this requires some different forms of leadership practices….  I’ll come back to this next time…

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Moving from Spring to Summer

It’s been a lovely week off over half term with the family.  With Theo in the thick of AS exams,  Maddy working in Madagascar in her gap year and Izzy full on with rowing and riding, it is starting to feel like the family is growing up and moving on.   So just hanging out together in the sun, reading, eating, even watching films together all feels very precious now, even if it is pretty low key and somewhat prosaic.

This week has been time to finish up the springtime activities and ready ourselves for summer.  We’ve finished lambing and moved the lambs and their mums into a fresh field.  We’ve got 31 lambs with only 2 losses this year – which feels like a good year…   All glossy black feisty little things, thanks to the services of the Black Welsh Mountain rams from Sarah and Nick Miller.   Charlotte the llama is still nannying them for the time being, but they are an incredibly independent and robust little gang and she will come back to the paddock shortly for her daily conversations with my mum.

The cows have kindly provided two new calves – both boys – and they will keep the freezer topped up in a few years time.   On the pond, we’ve discovered a family of ducklings, alongside the moorhens and kingfisher.  Mummy Duck proudly popped out with eight delightful ducklings in tow last week.

We’ve cleared part of a barn ready for the hay we might cut this year – fingers crossed that we continue to get nice, predictable chunks of dry weather – but we could also do with some rain here.  The garden, at last springing into life after the long hard winter, is already bone dry, and now it’s clear that we lost quite a few shrubs and trees  – the bay trees, some hollies and even the fig is only coming back to life from it’s very base.   Luckily, the hedges that we’ve planted around the fields in the last three years, thanks to Tir Gofal, are all getting really established.

This year we’ll be restoring the area round the ponds so that we can get round them and enjoy them more easily.  Doesn’t take long for the nettles, brambles and weed trees to take hold.  And we want the space back for some relaxing gatherings…

On the work front, I’m delighted to be joining Ashridge Business School as an Associate Consultant, alongside developing my own business through my consulting network.  Working with Ashridge allows me to work with some great colleagues on the bigger projects with some very exciting global clients.  Can’t wait!

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