How to crowd source an IT strategy

1.5 days. 100 people. 20 design sessions, and 200 ratified decisions.

It’s the reason I went dark last week online. We were running a crowd sourcing un-conference event to work out the details of IT strategy in as short a time as possible.

It was an event that showed me the reputation the public sector has for being bureaucratic and unable to do anything quickly is unfounded.

Lots of people doubted us when we said we wanted to crowd source strategy development. “Crowds won’t give you anything you can use”, someone said. “They don’t have all the background” someone else told us.

The thing is, they may not have all the data my strategy team had, but collectively, they had deep insight that we would never have gotten ourselves. All we had to do was provide this big group with a way of expressing it in a reasonable way. 

Just like most organisations, whenever there is a decision to be made in the Department, lots of people like to have their point of view. The traditional approach is to call various meeting with various stakeholders until you reach what passes for consensus. This can sometimes take a long time. Everyone complains about it, but nothing seems to make things go more quickly. It was exactly the same at Lloyds Banking Group. Big organisations are challenged when you ask them for quick decisions.

But none of that happened at the strategy event last week. In each design session, the subjects were discussed in detail, but since we made it a rule that anyone making a proposition would automatically trigger the chair to call a vote, people naturally put their cards on the table quickly. It worked well.

Now, I don’t propose to go into the IT strategy we’ve come up with here, though I have to say it is a very powerful document, and vastly more detailed that you could expect to get when you task a small secret-squirrel team to do the work, who then do a big reveal once everything has been watered down appropriately.

But for those of you who are interested, I though I’d explain exactly how we ran the day. Several of you who’ve been reading my Tweets have been asking.

So we started out by doing PowerPoint to the whole group. We laid out the problem we were trying to solve, and provided some stimulating material that people might liked to consider across the event. This was the only time we did Powerpoint, actually.

Then we moved straight into propositions for the first design session, using the basic format pioneered by unconferences. We asked the question “What do we need to design”, in order to prompt proposals for sessions, and then voted as a group on what was needed. The top voted four sessions were immediately scheduled in breakout rooms.

At this point, I’ll pause to let you know that we decided to use electronic voting systems throughout. There were a couple of reasons: firstly, there 100 people in the room, so it was too hard to count hands every time we wanted to put something to the group. But secondly, we were hoping there’d be a bit of contention and provocation, and we wanted the anonymity of electronics. Plus, it gave us the ability to get actual metrics on how positive people were about each thing that came up.

Each design session used standard unconference principals. You got to move freely between sessions as the mood took you, and could interject at any time once the preliminary points were made. In each room, the discussion eventually got to real proposals – and we asked the group to vote if they “agreed to add it to the strategy”. With a majority vote, it was tentatively added. I’ll get back to that in a minute.

We ran screens in each room so that attendees would know what was going on in other sessions, updated live as the tentative decisions came up. The idea was that people should be able to bolt from one room to another if they felt things were going on they had to be a part of.

We realised pretty early that walking out of meetings  for some people normally constrained by traditional formats didn’t come easily. We had to get specific in encouraging people to do it, actually. Perhaps they felt it was rude, or something.

Anyway, we ran 20 design sessions of an hour each over the 1 and a half days, and you’d not believe the breadth of topics. Or perhaps you would, if you’ve been to a BarCamp.

And the final step, after each design session, was we brought everyone back into the main room and had them ratify, electronically, every single tentative proposal that came out of the breakout sessions.

Just as a side note, I have to admit I was very, very nervous about how this format was going to be received. Firstly, we didn’t know if it would work in a corporate setting.  As in, when the outputs have to be more than networking and learning. We wanted a real document, and who knew if people would engage enough to do that?

But there was another worry as well, and that was that we’d find people in such violent objection to each other that we’d never get any decisions at all.

What actually happened was that most of the propositions were carried by a landslide. There were some, the especially contentious ones, that didn’t of course. I rather liked that, actually, since it showed that people weren’t just pushing the Yes button every time.

But I think the big learning is this: if you put people in a room and give them a novel way to make decisions, you will get decisions. It has proved to me that struggling against the big corporate stakeholder machine (which is highly optimised not to make any decisions) need not be the only approach one takes when trying to introduce change. At least, it seems to work for us.

If any of you want more details, feel free to reach out.

21 Responses to“How to crowd source an IT strategy”

  1. January 18, 2010 at 11:10 am #

    Wowser. Well done! Wd love to hear more. Do you think it would be possible to crowdsource with a group that included clients/customers as well as DWP colleagues?
    Can you share any further insights for our crowdsourced ideal government IT strategy at and
    Are you up for a beer? email me 🙂

  2. January 18, 2010 at 1:51 pm #

    I'd delighted to have the chat with you… and am sure that your ideas would be very interesting.
    I've emailed you my details.

  3. January 18, 2010 at 3:24 pm #

    this does sound interesting. Just out of curiousity were all of the attendees internal staff? At my last place a colleague of mine ran something similar with NESTA ( Certainly was an effective method.

  4. jose luis campanello
    January 18, 2010 at 4:22 pm #

    James, is it posible for you to make the final strategy document available to everybody on the net (open sourcing it, perhaps?).
    Cheers, José Luis

  5. January 19, 2010 at 12:02 am #

    I'd be interest to know what "level" this was happening. Obviously you weren't planning the departmental email servers. But did you go down to how individual bits of business process were going to be handled? Or was it more Big Picture and priorities.
    On the subject of BarCamp's there's a BarCampBankLondon coming up on the 30th.

  6. January 19, 2010 at 4:14 am #

    <!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD HTML 4.01 Transitional//EN">
    I would Love to do that. But I doubt very much it is something that will be possible in the immediate short term… we do an annual business plan, though, and it will certainly feature as part of that. The timing is a few months away, however. 
    Am sorry I can't give it over immediately.

  7. January 19, 2010 at 4:17 am #

    <!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD HTML 4.01 Transitional//EN">
    The attendees were only internal staff. There was some debate about broadening the event, but we decided in the end to keep it internal in case it didn't work. Next time, I am sure we will give wider invitations to interested parties.
    I actually attended some of the Open Alchemy sessions. They were, indeed, excellent. NESTA does some very good things, in my opinion.

  8. January 19, 2010 at 4:19 am #

    <!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD HTML 4.01 Transitional//EN">
    It was at a pretty high level. We didn't go into little bits of business process – it was more general stuff, like how can we handle citizen service generically, rather than doing silos for every new piece of policy… that kind of thing. Interestingly, there's a Government Barcam this weekend… you should come!

  9. January 19, 2010 at 5:16 am #

    Brilliant! And congratulations!
    I'm a huge fan of leveraging a collaborative approach to IT strategy: ideally an approach that includes the people who will be the end users (even customers and partners where possible). I've done this for a few clients, using the collaboration / facilitated event capability of a company I used to work for, and it's been a huge success each time.
    You get a better result and a lot more buy-in from all stakeholders, all in a greatly compressed time frame. This really sets you up to have a strategy you can execute on, rather than one you shop around to the various stakeholders for the next 12 months.
    Please keep us informed on progress as you execute (the good/bad, lessons learnt …)

  10. January 19, 2010 at 5:38 am #

    <!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD HTML 4.01 Transitional//EN">
    Thankyou! Actually, your observations are exactly what we've experienced too. The fact seems to be that because everyone has already been part of all the decisions, you don't seem to have to go around the whole loop of asking for permission again. At least, that seems to be what's happening for us. I will write a few more posts on this, as things continue to move along.

  11. January 19, 2010 at 7:55 am #

    I'm very, very interested in this James, as you know, but I still can't quite picture what sort of decisions that you are talking about. You said that they were high-level decision about IT strategy but (without giving away any confidences)
    * Are they strategic decisions, such as "no more paper benefit cheques will be printed and mailed from 1st January 2012" or "we will apply for our own Payment Institution (PI) licence and issue prepaid cards for the financially excluded"?
    * Are they tactical decisions, such as "we will shift 20% of queries from telephone to Facebook messaging to save money" or "concessionary travel cards issued to the over-60s will have a POCA EMV application on them"?
    * Are they operational decisions, such as "we will move from Internet Explorer to Firefox 3.6 on the desktop" and "all new servers must run open source software only"?
    The reason I'm asking is because I'm curious how the crowsourcing processes works for these different kinds of decision. I'm still only halfway through the book so I apologise if this is covered later on!

  12. January 19, 2010 at 9:03 am #

    <!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD HTML 4.01 Transitional//EN">
    Oh, good, am glad you finally got the book. I had terrible trouble getting the review copies out.
    You won't find crowd sourced strategy development in the book… other kinds are there, of course.
    The kinds of decisions we made included:
    1. Those about the way we would design systems if we assumed that most citizens are honest
    2. The kinds of things we'd have to think about given the likely financial situation in the near term
    3. What kinds of technlogies we might have to create to deliver future policy agendas…
    that sort of thing, anyway. There was a very broad range from tactical to mammothly strategy… because we didd't constrain the agenda in any way at all.

  13. Rob
    January 19, 2010 at 12:55 pm #

    James. A good model that obviously scales up well. Setting out the problem then asking the group to solve it is a nice approach. Tomorrow I'm hosting a small event that will ask for ideas that people are bursting to give (think online and model banking innovation ideas), but of course a list of ideas is great, but the problem we'll set out is how are all the ideas to be connected to create one holistic solution or digital ecosystem that solves business problems. In 1.5 hours, it will be interesting.

  14. Stephen
    January 19, 2010 at 11:47 pm #

    Well done James,
    You will get the 80%, consensus and buy-in, and as you say you will have thwarted the corporate challenge of making decisions.
    The next bit is the hard part, e.g. the other 20%.
    The really hard part is working out the transition steps – keeping them small and focussed.
    People engagement, communication, collaboration….boy…IT….is becoming …..Exciting again.
    The potential is endless, but one has to keep a foot on the ground.
    At the end of the day…it is all about delivery…
    The biggest productivity factor is true engagement – Business, Technology & People.
    Looking forward to using some of your ideas and experiences in the southern hemisphere.

  15. January 20, 2010 at 12:30 am #

    An old friend is going, so I might have been tempted. Although, working in gold investment, I'd be contractually obligated to just foam at mouth about big government and inflation 🙂 But the tickets are all gone.

  16. January 20, 2010 at 3:54 am #

    <!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD HTML 4.01 Transitional//EN">
    We do not underestimate the challenges of delivery. But, frankly, that's a question of influence more than anything else. Can we sell the decisions we've made to the people who have the power to overturn them? I think so. What the team came up with is truly amazing.
    The rest is all project management. I accept that doesn't always work perfectly, and we're going to need some truly great PMs. Luckily, I think I can say we have some of those. I've really enjoyed watching my preconceptions of public sector being demolished one by one 🙂

  17. January 21, 2010 at 6:45 am #

    <!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD HTML 4.01 Transitional//EN">
    So how did your event go… care to tell us the outcomes? I know everyone would be interested.

  18. Chris Barry
    February 1, 2010 at 7:00 pm #

    Very cool concept. Curious – what did you use for voting buttons – sms text ,e-mail, website, actual voting buttons / terminals like you see in game shows, mobile phone call, twitter?

  19. February 4, 2010 at 5:58 am #

    We used little credit card sized devices connected wirelessly to a server. It meant we could collect and display results in real time.

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