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Jeremy Cooper

Attention Deficit: how not to waste your time

Over the last two months, I have enjoyed lots of discussions with Chief Executives and other leaders in the sector about our new book, The EDGEWORK Manifesto: How to deliver sustainable change in complex public services.

One of the concepts that has resonated the most is Attention Deficit – a term we use for something we have seen consistently across local government and public services improvement and savings programmes.

We have found that, on average, 75% of specific savings projects relate to relatively ‘simple’ changes. These are typically one-off and time limited initiatives where the savings number is easy to calculate. Typical examples are the deletion of a vacant post, the non-renewal of a contract or the reduction in unit cost of a purchased item. They are usually well managed and on track to deliver as planned. These projects also receive 75% of management time and focus.

However, we also found that, on average, these ‘simple’ projects only make up 25% of the overall savings target. The other 75% by value is to be delivered through changing complex systems – for example by implementing a new practice model in social care or investing in preventative services. Although such projects make up the lion’s share of the savings, they are typically much less well articulated and managed. It is quite common that no-one is able to answer the question “will we be able to know if the planned saving has been delivered?”.

A number of Chief Executives and senior leaders told me that reading about Attention Deficit in The EDGEWORK Manifesto was a light bulb moment, because it reflected exactly what is happening right now in their own organisations. They recognised how very natural and easy it is to bias attention towards ‘simple’ projects. The reality is that it is just so much easier to spend time talking about and focusing on those projects where delivery is binary, and where you can see whether progress is on track. Dealing with complex problems is more painful – there are no black and white answers, and traditional governance models are not set up to address complexity.

Do you recognise this in your own organisation? Please let me know.

Of course, recognising Attention Deficit is one thing, but having recognised it, what can you do about it? You actually have two options. The first is to give up on the complex projects, and just have four times as many ‘simple’ projects. This is what many savings programmes looked like 3 years ago. If you can still do this, and if you are confident it won’t impact the outcomes you can deliver, that is probably quite attractive. Unfortunately, for most public sector organisations, that simply isn’t the case any more. The other option is to embrace the complexity, but come up with a new way of giving attention to your projects, so that you are able to tackle the big issues that are busting your budget. That is what we are excited about. Better outcomes can cost less, if you find new ways to improve complex systems. If that is what you are trying to do, we would love to talk to you about it.

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