I’ve been thinking hard about how you know if you’re getting better at making change. In sport you can play well and lose. But modern coaching is about increasing the likelihood that you do the right thing often enough to reduce the elements of chance. I’d like to see a similarly methodical approach to how public services assess their capacity to deliver complex change. 

Local government hasn’t recovered from New Public Management. We still obsess over output measures. How fast the phones are answered; How many repairs; How many registrations within 42 days. We’re relieved, apparently, that there are fewer than ‘the old days’. Though, inevitably, they haven’t quite died. Some still appear greyed out on the reporting dashboard. COVID hasn’t changed everything – yet. But it could. 

We are all very proud of how quickly we pivoted – from booking repairs to dispatching food. From asking for your postcode to helping you access befriending services. But we’re still counting the outputs, not evaluating the outcomes. 

The challenges of next year won’t be test & trace support grants or lateral flow tests. They’ll be something else. We worry whether we’ll all be too knackered, or finally taking that foreign holding. And soon enough there will be new political agendas. 

The legitimacy of public services comes not from our ability to do yesterday more efficiently but to adapt to tomorrow’s agenda. Yet we’re still using yesterday’s techniques to manage complex change. What if leaders could actively work to increase the capability of their organisations to think like a system and act like an entrepreneur?

In Hackney, I set a target that a new developer code deploy code on day one of a project. Most projects don’t. But the ability to do so meant that before day 1 we had contracts signed, ID badges issued, email accounts created, GitHub access permitted, cloud infrastructure available. 

That was an ok measure of our readiness to start. But it was built around a project-based paradigm that’s inherently limiting. Now we’re dealing with more complex change, I’d like to experiment with three new metrics.

Time to define

Peter Drucker said: “there is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all”. When working in a complex system it’s too easy to lurch from stasis to action without adequate understanding of the problem to be solved. The time it takes for an organisation can define a problem is a key measure of its capacity to change. Some are too good at leaping to action before the problem is defined. Others to slow to agree what should be done.

Decreasing your time to define means that the organisation is using data to understand ‘why’ not just ‘what’. It means that qualitative and quantitative data are being used actively. A multidisciplinary team has probably explored the issue so your internal comms is working horizontally. Your facilities frees up space for teams work together. There’s a culture of active challenge. And the governance is coordinating and enabling discovery rather than delaying or blocking it.

Time to deliver value

One of the biggest cultural shocks I experienced on joining local government was how many things took two years to achieve (plus or minus side months) regardless of their size or complexity. COVID showed we could deliver significant change in weeks. It should be the new normal. Whether Agile or just agile, the time to deliver value is my second key metric: how many teams go from problem statement to value. 

If you’re able to reduce your time from definition to delivering value then your business case process is efficient and you can marshall financial resources to solve problems. Procurement is enabling the creation of value. HR helps you recruit and retain talent. Your information governance is designed-in from the start. The IT just works and security is determined efficiently. 

Then you’ve got a team that prizes working solutions over documentation. Your governance is open and enabling – risk aware, not averse. You’ve got the tools to ensure branding and communication is consistent. And you’re working with service users to understand how to land the solution. 

Time to decide

The biggest illusion of NPM is that you know when it’s working. Initiatives where success is equated with completion. Projects that save money by pushing cost elsewhere. Effort that ceases at outputs. But a truly system-oriented, entrepreneurial organisation will be good at failing and iterating. The time from delivering value to deciding how to proceed will be the third critical measure. 

Reducing your time to decide means you’ve started at the end and worked backwards. You’ve got a clear evaluation framework. It means you’re sufficiently user-centric to know if it’s working. You’ve got governance ready and able to challenge and decide. Business operations comes together to end things quickly and elegantly. A way of working that’s open by default. A culture that prizes learning. 

Actively working to reduce the time to decide in turn will decrease the time to define. It will systematically make the identification of challenges faster and more accurate. And it will ease the process of moving from problem definition to delivering value. It’s the fly-wheel of an organisation that can think like a system and act like an entrepreneur. 

These aren’t the only metrics that matter, of course. Each administration is judged on its outcomes. But to continue refining the engine room, the art and science of achieving change must be continuously optimised.