News and Comment

Simulations and Futures

Friday 29 November 2013


Anxiety is the worst mental state to be in – it’s what happens when we feel threatened by events outside of our control – it’s what happens when we are afraid of what might happen but feel paralysed to do anything about it. For leaders in the public sector – politicians as well as managers – anxiety levels are now running high.

In heroic cultures, and bureaucratic cultures (and the public sector is both) we tend to repress our feelings and put a brave face on things. And since we don’t own up to emotions at work, we are left trying to deal with high levels of anxiety on our own.

The first round of cuts was painful, but achieved mostly by salami slicing – finding waste and inefficiency yes, but also stopping doing things that were less important, or not easily missed, or would not show up for a while. Finding the new cuts is proving far more problematic – there is no-where to go now without cutting services that the public depend on – but no-one wants to hear that.

So public sector managers are trying to be innovative and creative – and are trying to find radical changes that might save millions by working in new ways. Many of these experiments are exactly that – experiments – but there’s a huge amount riding on them. We don’t know what will happen in the future. We don’t know if, or how, change will work. So anxiety returns.

Futures work – environment scanning, developing future scenarios – even full scale simulations are a brilliant way to turn the energy that fuels anxiety into action. If we translate our thoughts about the future into exploration – we see how many changes interact together – we get the full measure of the things that worry us – and we discover opportunities we hadn’t thought of.

I recently worked with the top fifty or so managers and senior politicians in a courageous, go-ahead council – working within three different political, social and economic scenarios for 2018. Each scenario had different threats, and different opportunities – but in each the objective was to take over 50million out of the budget causing the minimum harm. We worked in three cross-departmental teams – at high speed – we had to find the savings in two and a half hours! The worst case scenario was very tough (and I made sure the leader of the council had to tackle that one) – but by facing it – and exploring – both managers and politicians were able to think the unthinkable. Of course there was a lot of guesswork, and a lot of ‘rounding up’ – but what was impressive was the level of courage, the care for residents and the lack of defensiveness – managers trusted each other and were willing to make cuts in their own departments to protect the value they saw in other council activities.

The honesty with which managers confronted the hard facts meant that they stopped looking for easy ways out, and contemplated all sorts of radical innovation. All three groups found ways of making the savings – but when we put the solutions together, we found that between them they saved 80million –giving us a range of viable projects to develop and 30 million headroom. We knew that not everything would work, and we could give politicians the assurance they needed that some of the worst case options would probably not be needed. But staring at the options focussed minds, and strengthened resolve. Working in the future didn’t give certainty – but it helped everyone see what the choices were – and understand what the consequences would be if innovation failed. What made the whole exercise successful was the transparency – the willingness to think together, to wonder out loud, to check out ideas in real time with politicians – and to share learning.

So if your managers, or your politicians, are paralysed by worry about the future – get them to spend time living in it instead. Not only is it energising, it helps to actively plan a way through.