It’s about 25 years since Stephen Covey’s bestseller The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People was published. In describing one of those habits, he draws upon the parable of a woodsman tirelessly cutting trees in the forest with a blunt, rusty old saw. But whenever anyone asks the woodsman why he doesn’t stop for a moment to sharpen it – to make his work easier and quicker – he merely shakes his head and says “Oh, I’m far too busy for that”. And so, on he goes, hardworking yet inefficient, and never making time to sharpen the saw.
Covey used the parable to highlight the need for all of us to make time for our own self-improvement. Yet we also need to apply similar skills to our organisations, to step back from the urgent demands of our immediate workload to challenge the wider status quo, and to help identify areas for innovation and improvement. Yet, as Alan Kay observed, “our ability to open the future will depend not on how well we learn anymore but how well we are able to unlearn.” “Unlearning” is a skill in which technologists should be highly skilled: after all, every few years the pace of technology churn forces most of us to unlearn and relearn. What worked well perhaps just five or 10 years ago rarely works so successfully now.
This skill of unlearning and relearning needs to be more broadly acquired, and applied to re-designing and improving processes, operations and services around citizens’ needs. Our best technologists have extensive experience of continuous change management and can offer insight to their organisations on delivering innovation and improvement. Other executives may lack this experience: their career can often have been built on doing things today the same way they were done yesterday. To paraphrase Marshall McLuhan, innovation for them can represent not so much progress as annihilation.
Questioning and reimagining the way organisations and their services are designed should be profoundly disruptive, and hence threatening to the status quo: most executives therefore prefer to tinker and make cosmetic improvements rather than to drive substantive change. As a result, they end up merely generating the sort of delusional “improvements” that Blockbuster’s management were busy making whilst Netflix came along and ate its business.
Steve Jobs’ description of his role as curating the Apple customer experience highlights a function often unaccountably absent in the public sector: someone who understands and takes responsibility for the entire citizen experience. Good technology leaders, with their hybrid skills of both engineer and entrepreneur, can help start fixing this absence – drawing upon real-time citizen and frontline employee feedback, deep service analytics, and a critical eye for identifying cross-organisational inefficiency.
So the challenge is not simply to sharpen the saw, and then largely continue working in the same old way, but to find better ways to improve citizens’ services. To do this, leadership teams must make time to unlearn and relearn, to step back and seize the opportunity to deliver a sustainable future for our public services through genuine innovation and reform.