Friday, 17 December 2010

Wicked procurement problems . . . ?

“Scandal of £6Bn squandered by the MOD" (The Times, lead story 14th December 2010). Even allowing for the Times ability to exaggerate and take the most conservative view of any numbers (after all they are stable-mates with the Sun these days), the numbers look pretty eye-watering. In fact, more noughts on a number than most of us – including me – can get our heads round.
So – what on earth went wrong?
I don’t accept simplistic explanations that ‘procurement processes need to be tightened up’. Or that individuals or teams are to blame; most public servants I come across work extremely hard to try and do a quality job.
The scale of the loss suggests to me that something more systemic is going on. And I found myself returning to a theme I have explored elsewhere – so-called ‘wicked’ problems.
These are problems that are complex, with multiple causes; problems that are emergent. That is, they are created by the conditions that give rise to them and constantly change as those conditions change.
It seems to me that defence in the 21st Century is all about wicked problems. Asymmetric threats from highly organised and sophisticated non-state players (like Al Qaida) sitting alongside more ‘traditional’ threats from states such as Iran or Russia.
So how do we tackle such threats? Well, like all wicked problems I suspect they are not amenable to a singular technical solution – some magic bullet like Trident or a new aircraft carrier (with or without planes to fly from them!).
So the threats the UK and elsewhere face appear to me to be wicked problems. However, I also suspect that recent solutions have themselves turned out to be wicked problems. This appears in part be self-inflicted; that is the nature of the solutions that are proposed are conventional and tend to be around bigger better, faster, more lethal TECHNICAL capabilities. Yet can those deal with wicked problems? Take the recent air craft carrier debacle covered in the Times. The threat was perceived to be state-sponsored conventional forces . . . so the solution was supposed to be lethal air strike capability deployable anywhere in the world – which requires planes that fly from concrete or floating platforms. Ironic then that the greatest threat at present appears to be non-state-sponsored unconventional so-called asymmetric forces. And doubly ironic that our lethal air strike capability may not include any aircraft . . .
Be that as it may – the proposed solution itself becomes a wicked problem; how do you procure capability that will take many years to become operational, by which time the world will have changed? And how do you make such procurement successful, in an organisation hampered by slow, cumbersome procurement that is almost certain to mean delivery occurs beyond the time horizon for which you have meaningful scenarios.
I’m no defence specialist, so my probably naive view is that part of the answer must be as for my related post; multiple approaches that are themselves meant to be emergent and able to adapt. Not a single, magic bullet capability.
But if the BIG capability is required, the procurement itself needs be handled differently – as a wicked problem. Working in collaboration with multiple partners in a way that allows the capability to evolve and adapt to a changing world. And I also suspect that a highly traditional command-and-control structure such as that in the MOD is probably incapable of dealing with such approaches. Don’t misunderstand me, I fully understand why command and control is needed in frontline troops when lives depend on the speed with which decisions are made and orders carried out. But put that into a (civilian) procurement context . . . how can the creativity required to deal with complex, multi-cause wicked problems be engendered from individuals who are in the thrall of leaders who have successfully led their forces into life-threatening situations? My contention is that it probably can’t.

So, MOD procurement appears itself to be a wicked problem. Ideally, lets not fall into the trap of seeking a single technical handed down ‘solution’ as a cure-all. But if we do . . . can we at least treat the establishment of that solution as a wicked problem?

Lastly, spare a thought for Bernard Grey the man charged with sorting all of this out. A non-MOD man - in fact a non civil servant; what advice would you have for him?
- how should he approach the challenge of dealing with such a large and byzantine organisation?
- does the system itself make the problem(s) worse? And how can the system be changed?
- are these 'wicked' problems - and if so how can large organisations respond to the uncertainty involved?

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Creativity and Imagination - the keys to recovery?

Despite regular claims of a few ‘green shoots’ of recovery, we have a long way to go to get over the worst recession since 1929-31 with one of the largest peace-time budget deficits this country has ever known. The scale of challenge is staggering. Whilst economists and politicians argue about how far and how fast, there is clear consensus on the need to reduce that deficit by cutting public expenditure. Failure to act may well see the UK in a similar position to Greece and Ireland and events there may well be repeated in other European countries, but were there warning signs that might have saved us from our current mess?

How did we get here – was it a failure of imagination?

The financial crisis and resulting recession have many complex causes; surprisingly perhaps, one of those causes appears to have been a failure of imagination – as this exchange in the House of Commons on 18th November 2010 demonstrates:
Mr Jenkin: “. . . did you ever hear of an organisation called ARAG?”
Mr Cameron: “No.”
Mr Jenkin: “Well, it was an organisation based at Shrivenham Defence Academy. ARAG forecast that there would be a banking collapse and that it would be the largest risk to the security of the nation. Unfortunately, the then Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, excluded it from his national security strategy-he very deliberately did so-and it [ARAG] was abolished to save £1 million. Do you agree that there is a lack of such strategic thinking capacity in government?“
Mr Cameron: “I think that the answer to that is probably yes . . . I accept the general premise that there is not enough strategic thinking in government as a whole.”
(Source: Hansard[1])

Astonishingly, Gordon Brown had a scenario that suggested that a banking collapse was possible. Leaving aside whether this was a prediction, a forecast or merely a possibility, the fact that such a strategic threat was ignored – worse, buried – defies belief. How little we learn from history; George W Bush also ignored a security scenario for being implausible that was painfully close to the reality of the 9/11 attacks[2]. 

The way out of the recession: the roles of creativity and imagination

In both of the last two recoveries, it has been the knowledge economy that has been the power house of growth[3]. It is the quality of our creativity that will help to pull us back from the abyss.  Nowhere will this be more crucial than in Government; firstly, to set direction – to steer rather than row – setting out a new vision for the UK and defining the outcomes that must be achieved. Secondly, to ensure that the necessary cuts to the public sector expenditure don’t amount to a wholesale dismantling of vital services. We must not throw the baby out with the bath water.

All the more worrying then that a recent Government report stated: “If we now have a renewed need for National Strategy, we have all but lost the capacity to think strategically. We have simply fallen out of the habit, and have lost the culture of strategy making.”[4]

To add insult to injury…a senior manager in a major central government department was recently overheard saying that that thinking was now a ‘luxury’, the civil service should just ‘do’ and not think.  Sir Humphrey Appleby would turn in his grave.

The road to recovery: ideas in to action

Clear thinking and the creativity that comes with it is not a luxury, it will be the driving force behind the UK’s recovery. That does not mean ponderous processes or navel gazing. It means rigorous analysis and the use of tried and trusted creative thinking techniques (such as change driver analysis, scenario planning and logical modelling). All of these can be done at pace and make a substantive difference in terms of results achieved.  It also means slaying some sacred cows, taking bold decisions without the normal luxury of time to build consensus amongst the senior civil service.  This will not be easy for an organisation used to working in extremely long timeframes, but this is where private sector experience can make a valuable contribution and a real difference. The government’s aim must be to unlock the creative potential and talent that is latent in the civil service, with outside help if necessary – but critically they must not treat them as an unthinking and subservient machine.

If you would like help in unlocking the potential in your organisation, please contact us here.

[1] Uncorrected transcript of oral evidence:  (neither witnesses nor members have had the opportunity to correct the record).
[2] Several sources, including a US intelligence report titled the “Sociology and Psychology of Terrorism: Who Becomes a Terrorist and Why”
[3] Will Hutton “Them and Us”, Little, Brown
[4] Who does UK National Strategy: first report of Session 2010-11, reference HC 435