Monday, 18 March 2013

Complexity Theory in Thought and Practice

This is the second of two blogs (the first is here) which accompanied brief lectures at the CIPFA Scotland annual conference (March 13-14 2013). The second talk provided a chance to reflect on the conference as a whole:
The main thing that struck me, when watching the plenary and workshop sessions, was the potentially large disconnect between (a) the focus on creativity, problem solving and leading the framing of debates; and (b) the day to day realities of the environments in which most people operate.  This is by no means unique to CIPFA.  It is a common tendency to become enthused by positive messages, workshops and new networks made in conferences, only to lose that enthusiasm with 10-15 seconds of returning to the office, with a crisis, the usual constraints and/ or a long email list to work through.

Still, one interesting thing about the first workshop I attended – with a title of ‘Art or Science?’ – is that the daily realities tended to dominate a session that may have been designed to encourage a wider appreciation of the problem at hand.  The aim was to move an organisation’s staff from three existing buildings to one, producing criteria to determine how to make the move at lowest cost. The outcomes seemed to contrast with at least three other sessions:
  1. The tone and substance of discussions seemed a million miles away from Guy Browning’s initial exhortation to engage in lateral thinking, creativity (thinking new things), innovation (making them happen without upsetting peoples’ sensitivities) and getting to the core, not the immediate, problem; not accepting current parameters or the way that a problem is defined for you; questioning the problem and framing problems in different ways to influence how they are solved.
  2. It differed from the recommendation to consider systems thinking, in which we interact with a wide range of people to produce outcomes. Instead, much of the assumption of the session was that the strategy was based essentially on a single mind: hundreds of choices would have to be made in the future, when the group gathered and considered new information. This would be relatively straightforward for a single person making constant calculations, but complicated for a group of people operating within a structure containing many other influential groups. The focus was also very narrow (in general), without the group being able to consider the less tangible costs – such as the disruption to staff related to moving office, moving house, changing transport – related to staff productivity during transition and the development of new relationships with colleagues (although some contributors tried to get at these issues with their recommendations). There was little sense of the need to, for example, find out from staff what they thought about potential moves (which may produce ‘ownership’ of the decision) or to frame the issue in a particular way to influence the success of the recommendation at a higher level of decision making. Perhaps more thought could have gone into the importance of our ability to frame an issue in narrow ‘technical’ terms, according to financial and accounting rules, versus the tendency of major decisions to be framed in many different ways by other actors. It is a very different discussion when the issue catches fire and gets away from you – something that most are aware of, but not something much discussed. This may require a very different mindset, based on developing ‘political’ skills (since politics, broadly defined, is about making choices that do not suit everyone, when people have different preferences).
  3. It contrasted spectacularly with the Vangard exhortation not to exacerbate problems in the public sector with a fixation on unit cost (rather than across the board costs) and value
  4. It seemed to contrast with the session on quantity surveying which exhorted us to:
  • Focus on whole life appraisals; it is sometimes better to spend more in the short term to save in the long term
  • Focus on the links between costs, value and intended use (rather than assume those considerations away)
  • Ask yourself if particular performance measures are appropriate, focusing on ‘in the round’ measures
  • Note that it is difficult (but important) to measure increases in the better use of space and making people feel good (or not making them feel bad) in that space
  • Look at the service we deliver and consider the big picture

If we take the ‘art or science’ session as representative of the day to day work of accountants, it reminds us that it is difficult to know what professional accountants should do with all of this information. Perhaps the temptation is to focus on the ‘facts’ and technical requirements and to pass on the value based choices to policymakers such as elected politicians.  Is this a worse solution that taking the decision to lead and innovate? We began, in my original session, with the idea that public sector accountants have to show that they are accountable to the public via elected organisations and people. The glib assertion that accountability is ‘all you have left when you remove responsibility’ will not convince many accountants to throw caution to the wind (at least when they return to their day jobs).

The other recommendations throw up similar issues. For example:

  • Challenge silos, often physically, to include everyone and generate new ways of thinking (e.g. by comparing the norms and taken for granted rules in different organisations, often generated within professions). Challenge silos to make people more comfortable about managing other professions. Go to each other’s conferences. Note that the mixing of groups/ professions may initially be less efficient before becoming more efficient.
BUT who has the time (who is allowed to devote the time?
  • Embrace the relative uncertainties of the political and corporate sides of the job.
BUT they are the elected and accountable people there to make value based choices
  • Spend considerable time defining the problem before identifying the solution
BUT it felt like the opposite in the art or science session, reflecting an immediate setting
  • Base decisions regarding risk on data, not perception
BUT this seems like a false duality; impossible to separate the two – more about not basing it on hope, seeking other perspectives
  • Provide a better service for less money; motivate people while restraining pay.
VERSUS spend more money for a better service
  • Focus on the totality, not the margins of spending
BUT this may force us to enter the political sphere, where it is about bargaining, not zero based budgeting
  • Innovation may be about embracing and accepting risk
BUT remember to manage risk and try to reduce it 

Maybe this leaves a small number of recommendations which are less immediately objectionable, largely because they are quite vague and represent only a starting point before harder and more specific decisions have to be made:
1. Shift from an outputs to an outcomes focus
2. Avoid the league table approach to evaluation.
3. Shift from a command and control model to systems thinking.

What we may have learned is that this is easier said than done. Perhaps this is the role of a professional body like CIPFA – to remind us of the big picture when the pressure is on us to focus on narrow problems.  If so, this should be a regular conversation, not just an annual conversation. Blogs such as these should be seen as a way to encourage that discussion

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