• Gary Lloyd

What can Boris Johnson's "Freedom Day" teach you about organisational change?

What can Johnson's "Freedom Day" teach you about organisational change?

The UK government's decision to lift most of England's legal pandemic restrictions from today is a valuable lens through which to critique your own change initiatives. If you think the government is making mistakes or could do things better, ask yourself whether there are lessons for changes that you want to make? You can examine whether your work shares the same shortfalls or blindspots when it comes to change.

The government's decision sits with a complex ecosystem of individuals, groups and organisations, as does any change you want to make yourslef. Ecosystems have three core characteristics:

  • Unpredictability

  • Interdependence

  • Limits of control

In that context, the government's decision to lift all restrictions in one go is a big bet. The number of simultaneous changes makes it impossible to model what will happen. However, there is a risk that some in the government think its epidemiological models are more definitive than they really are.

Confirmation bias is a significant risk when it comes to modelling. The best-case scenario is rarely the most probable. The worst-case scenario is rarely the worst. What sits in between, "the most likely scenario", is often the best case in disguise. It's the most acceptable scenario. This is as true of business decisions as it is of pandemics.

The 2008 financial crisis is an excellent example of what can go wrong with modelling. At the start of the crisis, the UK bank, Northern Rock, was contemplating whether to return money to shareholders, as its modelling showed that it had a surplus of cash. A couple of weeks later, according to the then Governor of The Bank of England, Mervyn King, Northern Rock "literally ran out of money". The problem said King was "bogus quantification". However, it's important to note that Northern Rock's models used the same assumptions as those used in the rest banking industry. There's a fair chance they even used the same software application to run the calculations.

New CEO's and senior executives love big bets, regardless of whether they try to model what will happen (see my article about J. C. Penney). And because the tenure of CEO's and Prime Ministers is insecure, they tend to be people in a hurry. So, rather than incremental change, they like big flagship change programmes, accompanied by much fanfare and emotive language. UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has described today as "freedom day" and the decision to lift restrictions as "irreversible". Hostages to fortune if ever there were ones.

But when you're in a hurry, it's all too easy to paint yourself into a corner. Having done so, you are forever explaining why you have taken an utterly sensible course of action. After making an initial commitment to a course of action, says eminent psychology Professor Robert Cialdini, you will have a strong desire for your subsequent actions to be consistent with that commitment. Moreover, even if that initial commitment is small, you will make much larger commitments to remain constant. In other words, if you take a position in haste, you might find yourself defending the indefensible for the foreseeable future.

But whether made in haste or not, big bets rarely deliver lasting value, as I illustrate in my book Gardeners Not Mechanics: how to cultivate change at work. Some big bets may appear successful in the short term, while the spotlight shines on them, but long-term value is elusive. Corporate mergers and acquisitions, for example, are replete with failures to increase overall value.

Lasting value is most often delivered by boring incremental changes, such as those that powered Toyota, Google and Facebook to industry-leading positions. Today's technology giants talk about A/B testing to determine what does and doesn't work, not huge gambles.

As a gardener, I call it small scale experimentation. But small scale experiments don't suit the UK government because political pressure is forcing it to show results, even if that means risking a winter lockdown. A big bet indeed.

Today's changes could have been sliced and diced in any number of ways. That would have allowed the government to evaluate each change or group of changes, particularly on the lookout for the unforeseen or unwanted side effects common in complex ecosystems. But "Freedom Journey" sounds less sexy than "Freedom Day", especially if you are in a hurry to show results and be lauded as a hero.

It's important to acknowledge that some big bets do pay off. You may be reading this in six months when Boris Johnson is lauded as a strategic genius and about to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. Such is the nature of big bets. It's just that big bets are riskier and less reversible than smaller bets.

So, even though you may not be a CEO or Prime Minister, there are some questions you can ask yourself about your change:

  • What are my fundamental assumptions?

  • Can I subdivide my change to isolate assumptions?

  • How can I test my assumptions as quickly and cheaply as possible?

  • What can I do to monitor for unwanted side effects?

  • Am I saying or doing something that paints me into a corner (or direction of travel)?

  • Am I risking my reputation on one big bet? Is there an alternative?

Note for those outside the UK: The UK government decided solely for England, not the whole of the UK. That's because public health is a devolved responsibility in the UK, so in theory, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland make their own decisions.