The Tricky Question of “Purpose”

When creating or ‘improving’ some kind of product, business process or service, a question that will often crop up is that of purpose.  We might (quite logically) ask what the underlying purpose of the thing is, and we might even be tempted to define some kind of measures around what ‘success’ looks like.

As outlined in my previous article, what ‘success looks like’ is very likely to vary depending on who we ask.  It stands to reason that the perceived purpose (i.e. what ‘ought’ to be) is likely to vary too.  Ask ten people what an insurance company’s primary purpose ought to be and you’ll get ten different answers—probably all of which are valid.  (“Make money”, “protect policyholders”, “provide information so as to reduce risk” might be three possibilities).  If the insurance company is to be successful an ‘accommodation’ 1 between a range of possible and valid perspectives is likely to emerge.  Lurch too far to one extreme and the viability of the organisation comes into question.  The challenge is understanding which perspectives are key—which form environmental constraints (e.g. regulation) and which others lead to strategic choices (e.g. which markets or customer segments to focus on).

These types of considerations apply at a more granular level also.  Not only can we ask ‘what is the purpose of this company’ we can also ask ‘what is the purpose of this product/service/process’.  Almost certainly the same types of differences in perspective will occur.  Don’t believe me?  Ask three people what the underlying purpose of the “Issue parking ticket when someone has parked illegally” process is (i.e. why it is done).  You’ll likely get a range of opinions from “make money”, “increase safety” or “to ensure the rule of law is respected”. 

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Gulls, Shellfish and Change: The Change Profession Needs More Empathy

A few days ago I was walking around Canoe lake in Southsea, lost in my own thoughts.  I felt a sudden adrenaline rush as I involuntarily slowed down and swerved to avoid a small object that had dropped from above, followed by a bird (a gull) that swooped down to retrieve it.  I was taken aback; I’d probably walked past gulls doing this hundreds of times before but had never consciously thought about what they were doing and why.  It was only because I nearly collided with one of them that my attention was drawn to it!

Gull next to a shellfish
Gull eating a shellfish

I paused for a second and watched from the side-lines.  There are at least two varieties of gulls that swoop down into the water and retrieve shellfish (some sort of clam or muscle). The shellfish, understandably, aren’t keen on this encounter so tend to have their shells in the ‘closed’ protective position.  The gulls have figured out that the concrete besides the lake can be used as a tool for opening the shells.  A shell dropped from high enough will open or shatter, leaving a tasty morsel for the gull to enjoy.

Perspectives and Evaluation: Important for Change

Is ‘The App That Chimes The Loudest’ Robbing Your Attention?

One of the first jobs I had was in an insurance broker’s office.  This was back in the day when (believe it or not) people used to buy home and motor insurance face-to-face or over the phone from a local broker.  I sat in front of a monochrome ‘green-screen’ monitor in an office full of folders, secure filing cabinets and a lot of physical paperwork.  Many of the “information systems” we used were entirely manual, including a ‘date file’ that was nothing more complex than an expanding folder with 31 pockets.  If you wanted to remind yourself to review a particular item on the 28th, you’d put it in the pocket marked ‘28’…

Image Credit: © stokkete — stock.adobe.com #297320833

A lot of my work was administrative and customer facing.  It was a small office, and work was triggered by information or requests arriving. When I started work, we didn’t have e-mail, so the primary ways that information got in or out of the office were by:

  • Post (delivered daily, batched and sent daily)
  • Fax
  • Phone call
  • Face-to-face
  • Occasional courier/urgent document delivery

Since many of the processes were manual, work was very tangible and visible.  Motor policies were applied for via a ‘Proposal Form’, at which point a handwritten ‘Cover Note’ was written. The proposal form was then sent to the insurance company by post. They then sent a ‘Certificate’ back a few days later.  I am aware of how frighteningly archaic this all sounds, but it really wasn’t that long ago…

This tangibility somehow meant that there was an inherent hierarchy of attention.  Let’s imagine it was first thing in the morning and I’ve sorted the post and I’m working through it (based on the urgency of the items).  The phone rings, I’ll pick that up because it requires an urgent response, it’s synchronous and somebody is there waiting for attention.  If somebody walks in, I certainly won’t hang up the phone, but I’d gesture to the person to take a seat so they know I’ll be with them as soon as I can.  If a fax came, or if a second bundle of mail arrived whilst I was on the phone or speaking face-to-face with someone, so what? It’s asynchronous, it can (probably) wait.  I certainly wouldn’t let a newly-arrived fax or letter interrupt a face-to-face conversation with a customer (unless there was a very, very good reason to do so).

Technology and Intangibility Disrupts the Perceived Hierarchy

Connection, Community and COVID-19

Wherever you are in the world, it is highly likely that your routine has been disrupted by restrictions on movement that have been implemented to slow down the spread of the COVID-19 virus.  There have been a whole range of significant changes thrown at citizens throughout the world, with relatively short notice.  I suspect it has been (and will continue to be) a period of adjustment for all of us.

I live in the UK, and like most of the population, I am pretty much confined to my home.  We are (currently) permitted to leave the house once per day for exercise, providing strict rules around physical distancing are observed.  I am someone who feels a lot better for exercising daily, so I’ve been leaving the house early (before most people are awake) and going for a brisk walk.   I’ve found myself falling into a routine—I tend to take the same route and around the same time each day.   Perhaps subconsciously I am finding comfort in the fact that this routine is something I can control… for now at least!

Canoe Lake
Image: Picture of Canoe Lake

After a few days of following the same route at the same time, I started to recognise the same people at certain points.  One person does aerobic exercises near a war memorial; another feeds the swans at Canoe lake (a constructed lake near the seafront).  There’s a person who jogs around Canoe lake, another that roller-blades, and there’s me who walks anti-clockwise around the lake five times before heading off.  At this time of the morning, everyone is acutely aware of the need to maintain a safe distance from each other.  New etiquette has emerged on crossing to the other side of the path to maintain at least 2 metres distance.

Emergent Connection and Community

Decision Making: Context Is Crucial

  • Adrian Reed 
  • 6 min read
Picture of an open-air music concert
Image Credit: © Africa Studio — stock.adobe.com #119408486

Back in the mid-1990s, when I was a teenager, a group of friends and I made the trek from Portsmouth to London to attend a one-day open-air music festival.  We had been looking forward to the event for months and we’d spent a fair amount of time planning our journeys to ensure we could get there on time and (crucially) also get home.  I remember one of my friend’s parents was a classic car fan and had offered to drive us in his restored Lincoln Continental (a car you virtually never see in the UK), but we decided to get the train instead.  As an adult looking back this seems like a crazy decision (seriously, who wants to be on a train when you can be practically chauffeur driven?!). However, part of the fun was being independent and travelling “sans-parents” for a day—it was an absolutely logical decision given what we valued at the time.  A reminder that what is the “right” decision really does depend on what those affected by the decision find valuable….

Sunburnt And Sleeping On A Platform

Beware “Efficiency” Myths: Are You Just Shifting The Burden?

Image Credit: © Bojan — stock.adobe.com #253531228

Organisations seem to regularly pursue the panacea of increased efficiency, and this is a regular aim of change initiatives.   There is nothing new about this and it is completely understandable, particularly in industries where competition is rife and where environmental changes are regular.  Pursuit of genuine efficiency, when coupled with an understanding of what the organisation’s customers, staff and other stakeholders value can be extremely beneficial.  Yet sadly it seems that some efficiency drives turn into little more than relentless short-term cost cutting. The focus becomes predominantly internal, and crucial stakeholder voices aren’t heard. Like a motorist who skips two annual services to a company vehicle to “save money”, the middle managers claim success and get promoted.  The new managers that take over then bear the consequences when the inevitable problems emerge.  An un-serviced and un-cared for car will eventually break down, an un-cared for team, process or service will too.

False Dichotomies and Political Narratives: It Matters To All of Us

You might have noticed that I’ve been uncharacteristically quiet on the blogging front recently.  There have been many reasons for this, not least that my day job has been very busy but another overriding reason is I have been trying to stop myself blogging anything too political.  The political landscape in the UK is—well—bizarre to put it kindly at the moment.  I look elsewhere and I see other nation-states subjected to different types of unforeseen chaotic disruption too.  I can resist the temptation to blog on items related to politics no longer 🙂 Now, before you tune out, don’t worry I won’t be touching on anything too controversial—but I’d like to look at some of the political narratives that exist in the world and what this might mean for our organisations and our attempts to change them.

The Dumbing Down Of Narrative and the Prevalence of False Dichotomies

Confessions of a BA: Deleting my ‘CYA file’

Image Credit: © Africa Studio — stock.adobe.com #188432485

Back in the dim and distant past, I worked in a highly political organisation.  In reality I suspect anywhere there are humans there will be politics, but this organisation had such prolific politicking it was on another level.  With so much political posturing—particularly from middle-managers—I felt really exposed as a BA.   After all, as BAs we are usually facilitating change, and quite often the sort of change that will affect the ‘empires’ of those that are playing the political game.  I started to experience situations where certain stakeholders would have ‘momentary losses of memory’ — they would have agreed to something verbally the previous day, but then all of a sudden they couldn’t recall that conversation at all.   Curious.