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An interview with our client Dr Catherine Howe of Adur and Worthing Councils, about managing change and organisation design

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In this podcast episode Martin Saville interviews Dr Catherine Howe about she has been approaching change at Adur and Worthing Councils.
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In this podcast episode Mayvin Director Martin Saville interviews our client Dr Catherine Howe. Catherine is a researcher on change in the 21st century on digital and on civic engagement. She is also the chief executive of Adur and Worthing Councils in the South East of the UK. A post she's held for about a year. And we've been working with her supporting her through a process of organisational transformation (organisation design work).

Martin and Catherine caught up in the incongruously grand wood panelled Chief Executives office at the town hall in Worthing. Characteristically, Catherine had managed to create an informal and friendly feel with a skillful use of a large plate of chocolate biscuits. And by filling the glass fronted bookcases, not with dusty tomes, but with toys. And other artefacts from the local museum. 

In their half hour conversation, they talk about change, the differing design philosophies of Google and Microsoft and how that impacts on organisations. And yes, really the use as a change tool of snog, marry, avoid. You have to wait to the end for that bit. 

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Martin Saville 1:20
Hello, I'm Martin Saville, Managing Director of Mayvin. And in this latest Mayvin podcast, I'm delighted to share with you my recent conversation with our friend and client, Dr. Catherine Howe.

I do hope you enjoy listening to this podcast as much as I enjoyed making it. It's certainly the first one in which our guest manages to get the word bollocks pretty much into her opening sentence. And also the only one so far in which my dog has made an impromptu audio appearance. So here goes my conversation with Dr. Catherine Howe. Enjoy.

Martin Saville 3:05
So, Catherine, thank you very much for talking to me.

Dr Catherine Howe

Dr Catherine Howe 3:10
It's entirely my pleasure. Always enjoy it.

Martin Saville 3:12
Yeah, me too. Me too. We were saying just before we started that, it'd be good to talk about change. And I guess the reason I really wanted to talk to you was because you've got what I think of, as a really interesting approach to the way you're going about doing change at Adur and Worthing. It would be just lovely to hear a bit about how you how you think about it. So yeah,

Dr Catherine Howe 3:44
Let me dive in. And then you can tell me if you think I'm talking bollocks, frankly. Because because I think there's a lot of this. I keep trying to balance my sort of practitioner view of this, and my practical view of this. And the two need to come close together. So, I'm trying to combine a view about a very difficult different organisational form with a view about how actually you get there in a nonlinear way. Right.

That's been particularly challenged recently as I was on a particular trajectory of getting stuff done. And then obviously, cost of living financial, you know, sort of financial pressures, you know. You get hit from left and right with that. And you've got to decide whether or not you go deeper into a particular process. Or whether or not you step back and you go back onto your linear train tracks. Which your managers might feel really comfortable with.

But I fundamentally don't think it makes change happen. And I think that the place where it comes from, for me is a belief that, you know. It's not my own belief, is that you know, we are change people. We know that the cultural deep work for the actual people is the thing that makes the change sustainable. But because that's the thing that takes a long time, you end up rushing often into the process. And the structural and the technical stuff and the things that feel less messy and a messy situation.

You expect somehow that, that sort of emotional stuff will just catch up with the change. I think you also assume a lot about what people will bring to a situation. And you probably underestimate them a lot of the time. You underestimate them. Because once you actually have to engage with them as people, it becomes an even messier, process.

So I guess what we're. What I'm trying to do here is to, is to get this balance between, you know. Thinking, you need to know what you're doing, and you need to know why you're doing it. Feeling, you've really got to have that psychological safety. And that understanding about what's important to the people who are going through it.

And then the doing of have, you got really clear? A clarity of process about how you're going to get up and go about. And what you're going to look like at the other side. I've found the last year to be a constant balancing act between those three things.

I think the the interesting thing. The thing that your colleague Tory has really brought to the process. Is by using a tool like insights to look at the natural preferences in the organisation, it's done a brilliant job of helping us to balance the thinking, feeling, doing activity. so that we can approach the change in a nonlinear way. And I think it's felt a lot messier for people.

And the process clarity hasn't always been there. But I'm just about to ask them really to jump off a cliff with me, because of the budget situation. And actually, I think they're getting. I think we're gonna do. Because the emotional readiness is there to dive into a much more profound and difficult change conversation.

Martin Saville 7:07
Yeah, lovely. Yeah. So so what I'm hearing is the sense of trying to work through planned versus emergent, processes versus emotions. Bottom up versus top down.

Dr Catherine Howe 7:27
Absolutely. And the other thing that's very much in my mind about this is I'm a digital practitioner, as well. So is the idea that, you know, ever since we met the internet, nothing's ever finished. Nothing is ever perfect and you never know everything that you need to know. So you need to bring an attitude of: Do I have enough information to move forward? Is this good enough to let me take the next step? Yeah.

And one of the things I'm finding is that it's that comfortableness with the unfinishedness, right, that is also a factor of what we're doing. And I'm really lucky here. Because the first. The last wave of digital transformation has meant that there's a lot of people who kind of get those principles. And we're able to bring that to bear. So we talk a lot about working in pencil, right.

And the thing that allows us to move between the different areas is to be able to say. Well, we're going to decide that. But it's in pencil, and then we're going to come back around it when we've done this other bit. And that's the other thing, I think that's helping us stay in a more holistic process. Rather than that linear, this has to be nailed down.

And that has to be nailed down. Because I think that linear process kind of forces you into making decisions too early. Whereas in some areas and whereas a more agile process. An iterative process allows you to hold things in a certain state, and then come around again. Yeah, and that's serving us really well actually. Yeah.

Martin Saville 8:59
Lovely. And, you know, I'm really interested in this question of, you know, what are the practices that, that enable that? So you've, you've kind of pointed to a few there because, you know. Change theorists can sort of talk about these grand ideas. And the question that people on the ground always grapple was, well, yeah, what does that mean in practice? What are the things? So, you know, I heard something like, the use of insights, the profiling tool, so preference tool. Something like as simple beautifully simple as keeping things in pencil. These are some of the practices that enable you to to square those circles,

Martin's dog - Skye

Dr Catherine Howe 9:42
I think so if I was going to because, I keep, really I sort of in a really simplistic way. But I find really helpful come back to this thinking feeling doing. So in the in the feeling space, this is the space of insight. Insights is giving us a language where we can talk to each other about how we're feeling. And where we can signal the, you know, the shift in your energy, you know.

So I've been signalling a lot, OK, I'm moving into my red energy. Which because we've got deadlines, we've got to get it done. It's been very helpful to give us a tool to help us come to a place of more psychological safety. Which for me is an absolute foundation of any change that is going to happen really sustainably.

So there's, there's a tool, there's that tool with a goal of psychological safety as being really valuable. It's not a substitute for the fact you've got to be able to have adult to adult conversation. Surely, these are all things that help you get into that space. On the doing I really lean into my digital practice around the sort of that agility, that iterative. Kind of like actually don't hold things too lightly until you actually have enough information. And, and to be able to kind of like work in complexity. So there's a big difference, I think, between the sort of digital and analogue approaches. Around the actual doing and organising of the work.

Martin Saville 11:03
how would you characterise those differences, then?

Dr Catherine Howe 11:05
So I think that digital practices are better at context and that there's a bit of a myth with some of the. If you're just talking, for example, project management philosophies. And the sort of a Prince 2 linear Gantt chart, Microsoft Office kind of world Microsoft Project kind of world versus. You know, sort of agile, iterative, you know, JIRA, we're all gonna out on Slack.

You know, there's a difference between the two. In the digital space, we'll deal with the whole context. Whereas there's a lot of the machine in that in that more linear work. Which is that I have all the information, you know, I can make all the decisions, and I will be right. Yes, a certainty. And there's a drowning out of, of complexity and a drowning out of ambiguity. In that, that traditional space, if I can call it that.

Martin Saville 12:02
Which you're calling the analogue space.

Dr Catherine Howe 12:04
And that's the analogue space. Whereas the digital space, you know, there's all kinds of inherent things. Inherent, that, you know, sort of like, actually come back to the data. Come back to iterative practice, but also wrestle with the whole complexity and content and context. Yes, yes. And so that that's where I lean in the doing, in the beginning. And that's where my organisation and my target operating model of thinking would be very informed by what you know. Not quite, you know, sort of what would Google do now. But actually, you know, there's a thing in that doing space, which is assume technology is a fundamental in your organisation.

Martin Saville 12:35
Yeah. But I really like the fact that that in PRINCE. You know, the project and project management methodology, the C stands for controlled environment. And your world is anything but controlled environments. And what happens though, when. I think of you as you're a digital person through and through - your PhD's in that. You come in as a digital evangelist, if you like into a Chief Exec Role, where you meet, I imagine a fairly analogue organisation.

Dr Catherine Howe 13:14
To some extent, I mean, I'm really lucky. And one of the reasons I was drawn to Adur and Worthing, is that so much of the hard work in terms of what does the modern organisation that like had already been done. So it had thrown a lot of stuff up in the air. But I wasn't, I'm not the first person talking about agile here. I'm, you know, the iterative practice, the good services work has been really embedded. So to some extent, I'm here because the organisation was ready to go deeper into the work. And that's what attracted me.

Dr Catherine Howe 13:42
And that's what what made you attractive to them. Yeah,

Dr Catherine Howe 13:45
I think that's one of the reasons why it was a good fit. The other thing, though, is that the the third bit of the practice would be around the thinking stuff. I'd consider myself to be a systems practitioner. So not just sort of like systems thinking, it's systems doing. And, and that's the stuff that I think comes full circle around the feeling stuff. Because I think systems practice is very much about navigating a systemic, you know navigating systemic change.

And I think this is where the whole, the whole thing comes together. So to start to think about a strategy in terms of the theory of change. Instead of a strategy in terms of how I'm going to get from A to B is quite a departure. But I think it links beautifully back to why is it that you need people to have psychological safety to be able to be adaptive, resilient, participative. So then operate in a much more digital kind of way and manage with complexity. And then be mapping a theory of change rather than a linear strategy. The three areas of practice come together.

Martin Saville 14:50
And that's really interesting. Because in typical organisation design methodology, you're in many ways, looking at the hardware of the organisation. And, yes, of course the people matter, and you're going to pay attention to that. But orthodox organisation design methodology would say almost that kind of culture is a product of the design. So actually, what what you're saying here. And I think this is what what has characterised the work that we've done together. That you and Tory have been doing. Is a sense of actually saying, no. In order to do the kind of organisation design work that that's needed. You know, that you've just been describing. Actually, you have to be paying attention to culture and people and psychological safety in order to make that even conceivable.

Dr Catherine Howe 15:48
I suppose that the other way that I put it is, now I'm going to have to look up the person who this I'm quoting, which is that "we make our tools and then our tools make us". Yeah. And that's, that's a digital thing. So So I think there's a, there's something really important about the fact that we were a Google site. So we don't have like, we don't have Microsoft, or we don't have teams, we don't have any of that, any of that nonsense, we're a Google site.

I have an argument sometimes for the tech people, because that's kind of like there's quite a bit of inconvenience in that. This was something that I inherited. And I'm delighted about because there's an underlying design assumption in Microsoft, which is somebody's in charge. The hierarchy is deeply embedded in the design of the software. This is that collaboration is deeply embedded in the design of the Google environment.

And it's a really good example about why the thinking feeling doing has to come together. Because the environment that you create around processes and tools like that affects the culture, as much as the behaviours of the people affects the tools. And, and I'm a sort of a digital sociologist, if you like by in academic space, and this thing about the understand the affordances of the environment that you've created is really important as an element of change. So why is it symbolically important? Because Google, what what are the symbols of change?

Martin Saville 17:12
Yeah, lovely, lovely. I mean, can you talk for people who might not have engaged deeply with MS teams or Google? I mean, in really practical terms, how do they show up differently, and therefore,

Dr Catherine Howe 17:28
so if you want to collaborate outside of your team, yeah, in Microsoft Teams, is that you would probably so this guy, we're very lucky on the podcast today, because Skye, Martin's beautiful dog is here, she's just shaken her tail.

Martin Saville 17:43
Guest artist.

Dr Catherine Howe 17:45
So if, if you're in a Microsoft team's environment, and you want to collaborate with somebody, and they're, they're not in the structural unit that you're in, they're not in your team and in the organisational structure, you would have to send a request to some administrators somewhere to get to create a special collaboration space.

So and then that would spin up all manner of digital crap. Because you get you get a SharePoint site, you get this, you get the other because it's a big deal deciding to collaborate with someone outside of your place in the hierarchy. If I want to do that, in Google, I can fire off five emails and they're there within moments. You know, if I want, you know, there is zero structure. And now that can be a bit dangerous, because you suddenly find you've got all kinds of people in your documents, right?

You got to be disciplined about it. But think about the difference in terms of collaboration and a multidisciplinary working and actually being able to at pace, suddenly realise that the right people can swarm around the right problem. Yeah. And that's the difference. Thats the difference that that kind of environment can make. And that's actually repeated in all of the technology use, but people. If you're not a technologist, I think you kind of you let yourself be limited by the text in front of you, and you don't realise how it's limiting you.

Martin Saville 19:05
But that mean, that's really lovely as a such a sort of simple but but all encompassing example, you know, the idea that that actually collaborating outside your your silo is, yes, a thing, you know, that needs to be. I mean, I guess then, that also makes a really nice connection to the importance, you're underlining around psychological safety, because actually, that Google world where, as you say, things can quickly get out of control. Is I imagine also potentially deeply anxiety provoking if there isn't that safety.

Dr Catherine Howe 19:41
Yeah. And what we've you know. What we're definitely finding is that there are you know, sort of people can be really up for the kind of thing that we're doing. But be really uncomfortable with a lack of process certainty around it, right. And that can really stress them out. And it's something which I because I'm arguably too comfortable with sometimes

Martin Saville 20:02
You thrive,

Dr Catherine Howe 20:03
I thrive on it, and I kind of like it and I, you know, I take it, you know, I find it very easy to go to my sort of researcher place and go that's interesting. Is the thing that we probably need to work on the most is the process certainty. So the thing that I keep saying to the organisation and keep failing to quite deliver is that you can have content and outcome uncertainty or process uncertainty, but you can't have both at the same time.

And the thing that I'm most critical of myself about is that is to not be, you know. I don't want to nail down the whole process, but to give people enough clarity about what they're doing next, so that they're not having to face ambiguity on all sides. Yeah. And that's my biggest learning point from the last year, I think, which is to really prioritise giving, you know, because I don't want to give them outcome certainty, because I want them to shape that themselves. Right, I've got to take responsibility for giving them some process certainty, at least until the next milestone, and then we can turn it up, put it all up in the air again.

Martin Saville 21:05
And then the way in which you and Tory have been on that journey and led led that journey has been as you've been doing what you've been doing, you've also been talking about what it's like to be doing what you're doing and almost reflecting in the moment and in so doing kind of building that greater capacity to tolerate the kind of challenges that yeah, that the process is bringing up?

Dr Catherine Howe 21:35
And what's been and what's been really good at working with Tory on this. And working with you guys generally, is the fact that is that there's a risk with having a change person leading the organisation and not just the change, right, is that my you know sort of is, I am confusing to people. So are you? Are you leading the change? Are you the Chief Executive, so some you know, so there's my power, not, you know, I've got, you know, I've got particular kinds of power in the system.

And it's, and it's confusing for people when I'm designing the process, as well as doing that. And what working with Tory is allowed, has made it possible to create that separation of the role, but also she's, she's outside of our structure, and is able to challenge me, the Chief Executive, when actually the change process isn't quite right. As well as bringing as sort of a deeper skill set, than I've got around that feeling stuff, you know, I value it immensely. But that's, you know, my skill set is in the other two boxes.

And, and so, so bringing that, bringing that bit that I really need to be there. And I think it's really important, it's not me doing that, because to create psychological, I can't make my people safe, they have to make themselves safe, I can create, I can create an environment where psychological safety is possible. But that's people have to take responsibility for their own psychological safety. And that's why it's really important not to have me in the front seat for that kind of work.

Martin Saville 23:00
Yeah,

Dr Catherine Howe 23:00
I also think that until right, it'd be interesting, you should get Tory's comments on this is that I think I've taken her to a place of greater uncertainty than she's experienced. And

Martin Saville 23:10
I think you have.

Dr Catherine Howe 23:12
And I've been so grateful for the way that she's gone there with us. It's made a real it's made a real difference.

Martin Saville 23:19
Well, I mean, it's one of the things obviously, having been, you know, more tangentially involved in in this work that I think I'm I'm proudest of is a sense of, it feels like it's something that that we've created together, that neither side could have actually necessarily done on their own. And it does feel like in all of this stuff that we're talking about, there's a kind of a, there's some really rich learning about how organisations can go through this kind of process.

Dr Catherine Howe 23:57
And one of the questions I wanted to ask you, because because my one of the things, one of the reasons why I've gone I've I've approached it in this way is that it just feels more true. You know, change is messy, it is difficult, it's massively filled with uncertainty. And there's something about the shift in, in work that is happening as a result of multiple driving factors.

But you know, that people don't want to be done stuff to be done to them. So there's a real there's a real change in the way that change needs to happen. And it feels like, you know, what I'm trying to do is to approach it in a way which is more honest. Yeah. And that that doesn't make it more comfortable, but it maybe makes it more understandable. It makes it it makes it better. Even if it's not doesn't if it's not more comfortable. And I'm really interested in whether or not that's that resonates for you because obviously you guys work across a much wider range of change stuff than I do.

Martin Saville 24:53
Yeah, I'd say hugely, yes, it does. When we are running programmes with, you know, we tend to work with large organisations. Public sector organisations, private sector organisations that are used to doing things in a particular way. So often what we'll do when we're for example, working with internal change people, you know, introduce them to ideas and models around complexity, the kind of thing that we're talking about.

We've got this kind of diagram, which sort of has an A and an arrow and a B, and we invite them to critique it, and then we offer them as sort of an alternative approach to how change happens, which is much messier. And that sense that that you've, you've just articulated, yeah, that's more how it really is, is almost universal. And then there's a source of possible two directions that people can go in.

One is a kind of sigh of relief, it's like, Oh, thank goodness, you know, because I thought I was failing. And somehow, if it wasn't like, the initial diagram, the nice A, you know, the arrow and the B. Somehow, that was my fault, you know, I was responsible for it. And you have a real sense of that from committed people of somehow I've got to take responsibility for the whole loss.

Then you show me this other model. And it's like, okay, I can just do my bit, because actually, the world doesn't work in the way that Prince land imagines. And so that's one reaction. But the other reaction is the one that I was sort of pointing to in terms of anxiety, which is that sense of okay, yeah, I get that. But what on earth am I supposed to do?

And what am I supposed to tell my stakeholders, you know, my boss, or our political masters? Or, you know, and, you know, and, you know, yes, it's all very well, but but actually, you know, if, if you're not allowing me to take, you know, what you're calling analogue traditional processes, you know, how can I, how can I be in control of this, and that's really challenging for people.

And so one of the things that we sometimes find ourselves talking about is thinking in a more digital way, and again, using your sort of distinction, you know, more emergent, perhaps a more 21st century way, but but sometimes having to wear the clothes of a more traditional approach to change, whether that's in the languaging, or the tools, and that that being a skill as well. I don't know how that that shows up.

Dr Catherine Howe 27:59
That's really interesting. This is such an interesting thing about the, like, how much do you tell people? And when? Right, so how much do you reveal of the messiness to people? Or how much do you actually be ready for and that cloaking in the old way? Yeah, is partly partly what that's about. There's definitely something there's something in there, which is the how, how, how normal can you make it feel? And and when does making it feel normal not feel helpful? Yeah.

And that's definitely something we've we've we've talked a lot about language and about, so we're introducing mission as language, ie, we're going to drive outcomes that may go beyond organisational boundaries and go intergenerational thinking, but we're retaining talk about projects and project management, so there's a blending of the language that feels right for the organisation. But I do think that needs a bit of in my academic world, bit of ethnography, you've got to go out and listen to the language that's resonating. Understand, where is it you need to disrupt whether we're actually actively doing this? And where is it? You say, yeah, alright, let's just call it that, even though it's slightly different.

Martin Saville 29:13
Yeah. And be really thoughtful about it. And I suppose also, there's an ethical piece, you know, you don't want to be misleading people. But But, but I think, you know, this is where it comes also down to leadership, you know, because there's something around I bet in the case of Adur and Worthing, your okayness with all this is incredibly enabling of people. And if you weren't okay with it, that would that would leak. And also

Dr Catherine Howe 29:44
Yeah, there are two things that you really just triggered in that. So So one is that I'm trying to spend quite a lot of time with people trying to remind them that they know the answers. So when it's all too much, and it's all too complicated. and complex.

And you know, actually you've never, you just don't have enough to get everything done that you need to get done is you kind of know the answer. So we explored this through some forced choice exercises which scandalised Tory by saying one of them was snog, marry, avoid with our corporate priority, and then I did another couple of agile exercises as well.

But actually, when you stop doing the analysis, stuff like that, and you do not and in my world, marry is very positive, is that when you do forced choice games, actually, you end up, we ended up with a set of corporate priorities, we prioritise the 20 things that we thought were important, and everyone was going yeah, that is the order. By the time you got down to about 15 people were going, we're gonna have an argument about that. Top five zero point. Yep, that's right.

So there's something about reminding people that they actually know the answer. And, and this is something I'm hoping to take into the next bit, and that actually find your centre, find your place, find your place to stand and the rest can be moved is really is really, really important. And I think that in doing that, I think that that that gives you that links again, that thinking, feeling, doing back together, which is the feeling is your personal resilience and your personal centre in this is what leads you through change.

Yeah. And I have to keep I remind myself a lot, come back to my centre, because that will help me hold space. And one of the ways I've been doing that this, the other thing is that I've stopped. I've started asking people as a checkout question. Can you see the path? And do you think we're on it? So I'm trying to talk to people about the path, not the plan.

And that's, that's something I've been, you know, that's that's something which has been bubbling up for me recently. I've been using actually in an organisation, I'm a non executive of. And it really helps people understand that this isn't that old linear Prince 2, I'm going to tell you what to do. What else? This is one where we're on apartments, and we're going to get somewhere but you know, can you see your way is the question, not what do I do next?

Martin Saville 32:03
Lovely. Yeah, yeah. My goodness, the time has shot by we could talk for many hours more, and maybe we should at some point, and maybe bring Tory into this conversation.

Dr Catherine Howe 32:14
That would be lovely. also kind of like, you know, you need to see whether it actually works. Come back again, to see how I'm getting on.

Martin Saville 32:23
Absolutely.

Dr Catherine Howe 32:24
Because it could be a grandexperiment.

Martin Saville 32:25
I bet it will. But it will work. But in the meantime, thank you so much for for making the time to talk to me.

Dr Catherine Howe 32:32
Lovely to talk to you.

Martin Saville 32:34
Great.

Claire Newell 32:36
Thank you so much for listening to us today. And we hope to see you next time. Take care bye bye

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