Tag Archives: failure

How Swansea Council undertook a scrutiny inquiry into their culture

Logo of the future of governance: Effective decision making for current and future generations

The Wellbeing of Future Generations Act requires organisations to go beyond tinkering at the edge of services into wider cultural change. Dyfrig Williams looks at what can we learn from the City and County of Swansea’s Scrutiny Inquiry into their corporate culture.

Culture is one of those intractable topics. When a problem is cultural, it means there’s no quick fix, no one process to tweak that will automatically help organisations to improve their work.

The good side of this is that it means that organisations tend to go beyond tick box solutions when they identify cultural issues in order to deliver real and lasting change. The bad side of it is that sometimes cultural change is seen as being so difficult that it doesn’t get done at all – the problem is too big to get to grips with.

So when I heard about the City and County of Swansea’s Scrutiny Inquiry into their Corporate Culture, I was immediately interested.

So why did they set up the inquiry?

Councillor Andrew Jones, the Convener of Corporate Culture Scrutiny Inquiry Panel said that:

‘The topic was chosen because, as a Council our corporate culture underpins everything we do, from how we engage with our citizens and provide services to how we treat our staff and grow and develop as an organisation. The challenges faced by the reductions to council budgets pose a threat to that notion of a shared culture. We therefore as Councillors, management and staff have a shared responsibility to respond to these challenges by developing a can do culture that ensures the citizens of Swansea continue to receive the best Council service possible.’

Getting things right at the start

So what can we learn from the pro-active steps that the council have taken to identify ways of improving their culture?

When I spoke to Michelle Roberts from the City and County of Swansea’s Scrutiny team, she emphasised the importance of getting the parameters of the inquiry right at the outset in order to focus on the right areas. The rationale of the review was to ensure that:

  • The council has the right corporate culture to tackle the challenges it faces
  • They create a can do culture to help turn the city around
  • Staff culture is focused on empowerment, personal responsibility, innovation and collaboration.

It’s great to see how the council have ensured that the inquiry has an ongoing legacy by linking it to the work of Leanne Cutts, who’s their Innovation Co-ordinator. As the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act requires, they’ve looked at their long term goals, whilst also identifying quick wins and medium term objectives.

There are some eye-catching proposals that focus on the organisation’s people. They cover the whole staff journey from corporate inductions, mainstreaming innovation into appraisals and developing personal skills to avoid buying in expertise.

Failure

We’ve done a fair bit of work around failure over the last couple of years through our Manager Chris Bolton. This work has underpinned a lot of our information sharing and our focus on improvement. So it’s great to see that the council are looking at how they can move away from a blame culture, whilst recognising the external issues that make it difficult (I’ve previously blogged on complex environments and failure). If we’re going to meet the expectations of the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act, we have to be able to take well managed risks and build upon the lessons from failure, as Huw Vaughan Thomas, the Auditor General for Wales, discusses in the video below.

Where to start?

If you want to examine the culture of your organisation, it’s well worth taking a look at this Culture Mapping Tool that’s been developed by Dave Gray, and which The Satori Lab have been using in their work. The stated and unstated levers of the tool are really useful in terms of thinking about what drives the behaviour of public service staff and organisations.

At the Wales Audit Office, we’re working on our approach to auditing the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act. For us as an audit body and for public services generally, it means that we have to change. If organisations try to deliver the seven wellbeing goals through the five ways of working without changing what they do, they’re likely to fail.

The Act gives us the chance to do things a bit differently in Wales. In a time of austerity, we can’t deliver the aspirations of the act whilst tinkering around the edges and adapting what we currently do. For the people of Wales to get the public services that they deserve, we need wholesale cultural change.

Learning from failure in complex environments

In his second blog post on the Learning from Failure workshop, Dyfrig Williams looks at failure in a complex environment.

It’s now been a few weeks since the Learning from Failure workshop, and my subsequent admission that I haven’t been very good at learning from my own failure. The event took place at the Wales Audit Office, so it was perhaps inevitable that we discussed the role of audit in learning from failure.

Systematic failure

James Reason Swiss Cheese Model. Source: BMJ, 2000 Mar 18:320(7237): 768-770

James Reason Swiss Cheese Model. Source: BMJ, 2000 Mar 18:320(7237): 768-770

Chris Bolton’s presentation was on the James Reason Swiss Cheese Failure Model, which compares human systems to layers of Swiss Cheese. Reason chose Swiss Cheese for a reason (see what I did there), as each layer is a defence against mistakes and errors, and things go badly wrong when the holes line-up. There’s an interesting critique of the model in the comments by Matt Wyatt of Complex Wales.

After a good Twitter conversation on the merits of different types of cheese as defence (I went patriotic and chose Caerphilly – ‘I crumble in the face of failure’), I looked at a model that Matt has developed, called the ‘Timeline of Inevitable Failure.’

Whereas the Swiss Cheese Model is a reflective model (you look back and check out the failure after Timeline of Inevitable Failureit’s occurred), Matt’s model is interesting as it offers opportunities to reflect on failure and its consequences at different stages, which fits in with a systematic approach to failure and chimes with some of the thinking in my last post on examining failure rigorously.

To be able to rectify failures at the early stage of the timeline, we have to be open and frank about failure, or issues will escalate and become bigger problems. By being comfortable with minor instances of failure, we’ll also be better prepared for when things go drastically wrong. As Matt says in another comment, ‘complex living systems will always fail, so instead of trying to make them failsafe, it’s much more useful to make them safe to fail.’ It’s well worth reading Chris’ post on Trojan Mice, which are safe to fail pilots, before delving in to a video of Dave Snowden discussing them as part of the Cynefin Framework.

You can see this approach in action through the work of the Bromford Lab and Dublin City Council’s Beta Projects. In terms of the latter, it’s worth checking out how their painting of traffic signal boxes led to less tagging and graffiti.

What does this mean for audit and audited bodies?

Aside for the recommendation  in the workshop to take your auditor out for lunch to better understand their approach to failure (which I’m completely on board with by the way!), this all relates to the complex environment in which public services are delivered and audited.

In Wales, this environment is about to change fundamentally with the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act. It’ll need a shift in thinking for organisations, as they’ll have to improve people’s wellbeing without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs. It’ll also be a challenge for us at the Wales Audit Office – it’s difficult to measure success when you don’t know what the future will look like. There’s a great post on the Wales Audit Office blog that outlines these challenges by Ann Webster, Assistant Auditor-General of New Zealand.

We’ve already shared steps that organisations can take to report effectively, including integrated reporting, at a seminar we held with the Sustainable Futures Commissioner. But in terms of this event, I was struck by some simple steps that organisations can take to evidence improvement. Jonathan Flowers gave a great example of how a Neighbourhood Network Scheme Manager asked for two instances a month of how the service had improved people’s lives. These narratives show that the service is moving in the right direction and can be used at the project evaluation stage.

Where now?

When it comes to evaluating our project, we’ve been gathering examples of how our work has led to organisations adopting good practice. These aren’t often measures in themselves, but complex case studies of how services have changed.

And in terms of our work, it’s important that we continue to have these conversations about failure, so that it’s normalised and people can be honest about it. And if we can do that, we’re in a better place to help organisations take further steps to improve their services.

Failing to learn from failure

How can public services make use of learning and information that result from failure? Dyfrig Williams blogs on learning from failure.

Last week I attended the Learning from Failure workshop in Cardiff. Before I go any further, I should clarify that these reflections are very much on my own process of working, rather than the work of the Good Practice Exchange.

The event was a bit of an eye-opening session, as it gave us all as participants the scope to look at aspects of our work that are not traditionally discussed. But why not?

In her paper on ‘Strategies for learning from failure,’ Amy C. Edmondson shares the Spectrum of Failure, which shows that blameworthy failure rarely results from the actions of any one individual. So why do we still tend to think that an effective and productive workplace culture is one that shuns failure and casts blame at all costs?

Order, order!

https://twitter.com/PaulBromford/status/628876214623727617/photo/1

In the group exercise, each table designed an enabling environment for innovation, and each one was an environment where failure was accepted. Which makes sense, because we’re not encouraging innovation by cracking down on failure, we’re cracking down on ideas for new ways of working.

I was given the task of feeding back our table’s thoughts, which were based around the point that an enabling environment is complex and messy. What I personally meant by this is that a traditional approach, and the way that I’ve tended to approach innovation, is messy. My own innovation has often been a by-product, rather than an outcome or focus I’ve chased. It’s not been something that’s been identified in my appraisals, and it’s not been something that I’ve had to report back on to measure success.

This messiness is complicated even further by the environment that we’re working in. There is no one-size fits all solution for issues around public service access and delivery. What works in one community may not work in another.

However, there are approaches to innovation in the wider world that are much more rigorous. It was interesting to look at the work of the Bromford Lab, who have got a much more structured approach to innovation by testing ideas. One of their founding principles is ‘to fail fast,’ which means that they uncover lots of information and learning from their tests.

This planned approach makes it much easier to measure the success of innovation. Whilst there is no doubt innovation taking place at Bromford outside the realms of the Lab, taking issues and ideas to the Lab gives scope to evaluate them in a more formal way. This is at its most obvious with their Trello, where evaluation is planned and built in to their testing process.

Making space to evaluate

Making the time to evaluate impact has been the main learning point for me. I’ve tended to treat evaluation as something I do when I get the chance, rather than a process to embed into my work. And if you don’t take the time to properly look into why something’s failed, then there’s little chance to learn from it.

And so my more rigorous process of evaluation begins. The dates are now in the diary – I’ll be taking some time out from my day to day work and getting on with my evaluation. I’ll be leaving the physical space of my desk, which will help me get away from the usual distractions like email and the pile of paper on my desk, and get me in the right headspace to approach a different aspect of our work. Wish me luck!

Google Atmosphere: think creatively and innovate boldly

Atmosphere

Dyfrig Williams took part in Google’s Atmosphere, a webinar that examined cultures of innovation. In this blogpost he reflects on the key learning points.

This Welsh Public Services 2025 paper clearly outlines that we’re in a challenging time for public services, as there are fewer resources to deliver services in a time of rising demand. If we can’t continue to deliver the services in the same way, how can we start changing the way we work? It was with this in mind that I watched Google’s Atmosphere, which shared lessons from organisations in the private sector.

Where do innovative ideas come from?

In this session Tim Brown from IDEO looked at how we need to think about our options in a completely different way if we’re looking for radically different solutions. He examined how we consider our issues, in the sense that if we frame questions in a really specific way, we have little scope to come up with solutions that look genuinely different. The example given was around asking the question “How do we make this chair more comfortable?” If we instead ask “How might we sit in different ways?” there is much more scope to think and work differently.

This chimes with Google’s 10x thinking, where issues are radically approached by trying to improve something by 10 times rather than by 10%. The only way to make those kind of improvements is to think in a different way.

Cultivating team innovation: A look inside the work rules of Google

Listening to Laszlo Bock from Google was heartening, as it echoed aspects of our Staff Ideas webinar from a few weeks ago. Laszlo emphasised the importance of staff engagement. It’s easy for managers to stick with what they know, because they’ve become managers by making good decisions. But as Laszlo pointed out, the sum of employee intelligence is huge, and we must make the most of it.

It’s fascinating that decisions at Google aren’t based on gut instincts, but that they rely on data. Their Project Oxygen was designed to identify the traits of successful Google managers. The team working on the project spent a year examining data from appraisals, employee surveys, awards and other sources, which resulted in more than 10,000 observations of manager behaviours.

Accomplishing business innovation: How Airbnb transformed an industry

We’ve been doing some work on risk management lately (including running a webinar on the topic), so Jonathan Mildenhall of Airbnb’s points on risk were very timely. Jonathan encouraged us to take risks and to celebrate both failure and success. Their monthly ritual of celebrating fabulous failures encourages this culture, as it focuses on ideas that didn’t progress as planned. Jonathan said that “The more a company celebrates failure, the more confident a company gets in taking risks. The more confident a company gets in taking risks, the more successful those risks are.”

In case you’re wondering how this learning might be applied in the public sector, Chris Bolton has written a series of blogposts that look at how we might approach failure, including this great summary post on loving and learning from failure.

Well managed risk taking in the public sector

The Auditor General for Wales has repeatedly advocated well managed risk taking, and you can see him doing so in the above video. As he says, if those risks are well managed, instead of casting blame on any failure, we’ll be looking to share the lessons that have been learnt.