Know when your plan will fail

The other day I was listening to a talk by Russ Vane about how to effectively design public policy. I last attended a talk by him several years ago, and for me both talks struck a terrific balance between theory and practical help. This was no exception.

When Russ talks about public policy he means policy by public bodies for large numbers of people, and his insight could apply equally to policies or plans made within large organisations. He made one particular point then he took care to repeat:

“If you don’t have one context that your solution doesn’t work in, you do not have a good understanding of your context”

A couple of these words need explanation: “context” is the same as “situation”, and “solution” is the policy or plan we’re putting in place to change the situation.

Russ’s point is that no solution (or policy or plan) exactly matches a particular situation. No-one has full understanding of the situation, and different people have different perspectives on any one situation. They will all see the solution as aligning differently—some will see it as meeting the needs of the problem exactly; some will notice flaws or gaps or areas where the response is disproportionate to a particular scenario. Therefore it’s important to test the solution against different reactions and consequences—make sure you know where it fails. For example, what if many more people avail themselves of something the policy offers? What if few do? What if part of the message is misunderstood? What if two constituencies you’re appealing to overlap more than you expect, or react negatively?

On a related subject, Dave Snowden suggested that when systems are very complex, and a subtle change can have significant and unpredictable consequences, it’s important to understand what things have most impact on the system, and develop strategies to correct those. For example, if effective communication is critical, then do we have mechanisms for correcting miscommunication?

When I work to produce digital products I like to iterate over the solution. But Russ’s view is that it’s dangerous to iterate over public policy, because you can easily do too much damage when you launch an official policy in an early, unfinished state. Instead, you need to wargame scenarios and adjust the policy before putting it into practice.

If you want to know more about this kind of thinking take a look at Matthew Leitch’s write-up of Russ’s earlier talk, or seek out Russ and his work.

Photo by The Steve