What if we developed organisational ecologists in the UK Civil Service? — Part One

Looking at organisations through a different lens

Credit: Image of an ‘Introvert’s Garden’ by Caroline Magerl

Connecting between present actions and future outcomes

Since co-authoring a blog post series on change work in government with DavidBuck and Clare Moran, I’ve been thinking a lot about the future of public service, reimagining what it will look like and how people will experience it. About what it takes to make difficult and meaningful things happen. Why it’s hard, exhausting, and incredibly rewarding to make progress. What kinds of values, behaviours, qualities, skills, and practices can help catalyse evolutionary change in the UK Civil Service (or anywhere else). With a real lack of clarity of what is to come, the future is both unknown and full of possibility.

Gif of Captain Jim Kirk, from the Starship Enterprise, charting a course to other planets in the galaxy.
“Illustrated map of existing and emerging design disciplines. The height of the trees indicates the age of the discourse. The breadth of the tree canopy indicates influence. The roots indicate ideology, and connections between emerging domains.” Credit: Kirsten Moegerlein’s PhD ‘Designing in Transition: Towards Intimacy in Ecological Uncertainty

History casts a long shadow

Often the UK Civil Service can feel distant, confusing, and obtuse to those that interact with it (in any capacity). Because the UK Civil Service is not really a singular ‘thing.’ It is a collection of diverse organisations with differing cultures, priorities, and processes that have developed over time and govern each one. It has structural complexity, coupled with complexity of problems and people, which makes the design of organisational structures for people to work within challenging, let alone any changes to how we work within them.

  • history and narratives — the study of people, actions, decisions, interactions and behaviours;
  • path dependence — the notion that present actions taken at an earlier point in time can set in motion developments that can affect future outcomes, i.e. what has occurred in the past persists, even if not visible on the surface; and,
  • initial conditions — which are specific contextual conditions (i.e. organisational structure) at the time of founding imprint upon organisational processes at later stages and, eventually, amount to a replicated pattern.
Gif of Officer PC Yasmin Khan (played by Mandip Gill) of Hallamshire Police, who was a companion of the Thirteenth Doctor on the TV series ‘Doctor Who’ saying, “We’ve got to save the future.”

Framing our thinking in terms of narratives

Language is the process by which things and concepts acquire meaning. It helps us to weave stories about relationships, organisations, and communities, building bridges across differences. This shapes how we understand, interact with, and perpetuate complex systems around us.

Tweet by Luke Craven: “The stories we tell ourselves about the world are always a mashup of different ways of making sense of it: scientific, intuitive, linear, mystic, spiritual, embodies. This is never pretty.” Sam Rye and Luke Craven’s recent blogs on language, metaphors, and meaning are particularly relevant, see here and here.
Gif of Katherine Johnson (played by Taraji P. Henson) from the film ‘Hidden Figures’ standing in front of a chalkboard calculating a mathematical formula. She is a room full of white, senior men seated at a oval wooden table.

Building capacity for embracing uncertainty, ambiguity, and emergence

The conventional form of organisation is a hierarchy, for example, command-and-control or top-down. This is where decision-making is sequestered in the upper tier of tightly managed management ranks and bureaucratic systems of control are the norm. At the other end of organisational forms is the heterarchy, for example, command of teams or team of teams. The difference between the two is whether you consider organisations as:

  • a set of linear processes to be optimised for speed and efficiency; or,
  • an ecology (a circular network of interdependent competing and cooperating organisms) from which the capacity for resilience may emerge when the conditions are right.
Judge Claudia Friend (played by Bebe Neuwirth) from the TV series ‘The Good Fight’ dressed in judge’s robes. She is seated at the judge’s table in a courtroom and speaking to the lawyers, “Share your thinking.”

Making choices in a radically uncertain world

We need to take the time to understand why things are the way they are and how the system actually works. The actual ‘work’ is soul deep, in how we live the questions. Our organisations are only going to be different if we’re willing to grow. There is much to learn from nature’s wisdom about how to organise ourselves. We can use nature’s own design principles to reimagine the basis of our organisations. This is both a new (e.g. living systems theories) and ancient idea (e.g. Indigenous thinking).

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Nour Sidawi

Mastering the art of disruption in procurement, leadership, and change @MoJGoVUK. Reimagining the future of multifarious possibilities with @OneTeamGov 🌍