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.