Capability debt

Are we really building capability, or just adding capacity and leaving debt?

I want the people within organisations we partner with to have every chance of their work being as impactful as possible, without us. So I’m starting to think more and more about ‘what might it take for this to really happen?’.

Let’s talk about technical debt.

Technical debt is a concept coined by Ward Cunningham (founder of the wiki) that refers to the idea of cutting corners when developing software.

It describes how debt accumulates, which ultimately needs to be ‘paid back’ when making further improvements. You have to clear the debt that’s built up before you get back into credit.

Let’s park that there and explore the context within which we are talking about ‘debt’ in this case.

Getting to impact

As a design, tech and change consultancy, at FutureGov we partner with organisations to deliver value through a reimagined service, organising model or product. Whichever lens is taken, impact is always important.

We try and measure this through metrics that suggest the needle has moved positively in a given direction. Generally in local government, this is in the way of efficiency, savings and (hopefully if we’re doing it right) experience for the citizen.

We might model this impact from the outset using indicative figures, or by extrapolating things observed in small sample sizes (via discovery research or alpha prototypes). The problem with this is that more often than not, the point when efforts shift from discovery to alpha, or beta to live, is actually carried out without us. Our engagement generally ends before we reach these periods.

In and of itself this is largely ok, it’s part of the consultancy tradeoff and part of any agency model where you’re dealing in short term projects, rather than long term partnerships. You often find yourself one abstraction or more away from delivery. It’s like the last mile conundrum in logistics. That even plagues Amazon. Though more and more I’m seeing that this is the moment in time where the real value of our interventions are either setup for success or destined for failure. We've built up capability debt, but don't have a plan to pay it back.

Capability debt

Building capability

With this in mind, it’s worth adding the fact most of our work involves some element of capability building, alongside adding capacity (more designers) or bandwidth (space to think about a problem). Consciously or not, we attempt to build capability at various levels within an organisation:

  1. Individuals – skills, tools, knowledge and understanding to get better
  2. Teams/services – new ways of organising and working / thinking through decisions with confidence
  3. Organisations – new behaviour in how you work with others to develop the place/system

Largely, we assume this happens as a result of inflight skill transfer, rather than a formal programme as part of our contract. We’ve seen that this is necessary. Creating enough momentum, appetite and exposure to 21st century ways of working and practice is so important to help our client teams deliver at pace, in the moment.

So, the question then becomes ‘can the team we’ve handed over or left this work to really deliver in a way that will realise the outcomes we’re targeting?’

Finding the sweet spot

As a framework for positioning design effort, we often refer to the Venn diagram of feasibility, desirability and viability.

Capability venn - the sweet spot

Though whilst we strive to position our design outcomes in that sweet spot, I think we’re overlooking a major factor. Sustainability.

Capability venn - the sweetest spot

How do you get there?

But how do you create lasting change? Let’s explore another analogy.

“If you want to make long-term impact, build the roads”

- Stewart Brand in ‘What Happens After They're Built’

The writer Stewart Brand points out that if you compare two maps of downtown Boston–from 1860 and 1960, for example, virtually every single building has been replaced. Gone.

But the roads? They haven’t changed a bit. The curbs and boundaries and connections are largely as they were. Roads last the test of time.

He argues it’s because systems built around communication, transportation and connection need near-unanimous approval to change. Buildings, on the other hand, begin to morph as soon as the owner or tenant decides they need to.

Building the roads

This points to the powerful idea that when creating an organisation, a technology or any kind of culture, the roads are worth far more than the buildings. They become the things people refer to when you ask ‘how do we do things around here?’

To me, this screams that if we’re serious about impact; building capability and lasting change, not just building debt, we need to get serious about creating and leaving sustainable conditions for clients. We need to build the roads. But building roads goes against the grain.

Going against the grain

There are some elements of our work that go with the grain. Things that require moving fast and mostly making the way forward more clear. Like presenting theory and concepts in show and tells, or outlining roadmaps and models for change.

But what we’re dealing with here is different. Capability involves going against the grain. The hard, messy and slow work that challenges norms. We’re changing belief systems and mental models at scale, and this causes friction.

“If you want to teach people a new way of thinking, don’t bother trying to teach them. Instead, give them a tool, the use of which will lead to new ways of thinking.”

– R. Buckminster Fuller

Which is why I love this Bucky Fuller quote. Although it sounds a bit like the old oxfam rhetoric ‘feed a person…’ – it rings true in work that requires us to go against the grain. Most of the value we provide needs to be in enabling people to be able to apply tools or frameworks to the approaches we take when working with them. These things last longer than just delivering theoretical concepts. That’s how we provide a sustainable way to pay back capability debt.

These are our roads.

NOTES

Things I'm thinking about, for long enough to write them down: