If you are interested in profound thinking on transformation, change and improvement then I recommend John Seddon’s ‘Beyond Command and Control’ (2019). And for those of you who have read the precursor ‘Freedom from Command and Control‘ (2003), prepare to be surprised. This book marks a genuine departure in both tone and style and I believe it to be Seddon’s best work. For its focus on digital and agile it should be at the top of any reading list.
About the author
The author John Seddon is the originator of the Vanguard Method. It is a structured normative approach designed for services and made-up of a sophisticated blend of psychology and systems theories. Together it acts as a powerful heuristic, underpinned by an unlearn and then relearn dynamic for achieving effective transformation. This method of systems thinking is in use by a number of private and public sector organisations with evidence of remarkable success for customers, service users and staff. There is evidence that the Vanguard Method has helped organisations to transform lives, satisfy customers and save money – £100m in one instance. Seddon is the Managing Director of Vanguard Consulting and visiting professor at Buckingham University.
In ‘Beyond’ Seddon and colleagues (Barry Wrighton, Ibby Hussein and Toby Rubra) argue that the current paradigm of organisational design and management, described as command and control, has failed. He articulates how this has manifested itself with organisational specialisms and practices. The first part of the book provides an alternative view of change, one that starts with getting knowledge. Seddon describes how the control architecture is providing an illusion of control at great cost (e.g. budget management) and how these are driving failures in services provision. The second part of the book looks at the infrastructure of organisational control, what Seddon calls the ‘management factory’. This part of ‘Beyond’ has a strong digital focus and chapter 9 ‘the day we met agile’, Chapter 10 ‘Is this the age of agile’ and Chapter 11, I consider to be very important.
In this Chapter Seddon outlines how in every organisation budget management and its associated activities dominate accounting and operational time. He argues that these activities are meant to give organisational leaders control. Providing evidence and examples (including from financial services organisations) he argues that such controls are illusory. Why? They take no account of failure demand, are based upon estimates, poor measures with no relation to the purpose of the services from the customer’s point of view. Worse still they drive dysfunction and lead to less control. The following chapters provide evidence of how this works in actual services designs and provision.
These Chapters in ‘Beyond’ I found to be a considered and evidence-based summary of the state of digital and agile. Seddon and his colleagues are actually complimentary about the intent and content of the Agile manifesto, described as a ‘bold and worthy initiative’. What the authors do detail is how Agile started as a ‘movement’ and immediately became projects and disappeared into marketable ‘training, consultancy, books and conferences’. The questions Seddon asks are fundamental ones. How did a methodology that started in software development come to be viewed as an organisational panacea? Where is the actual evidence that agile is successful and does this stand up to scrutiny? Where is the evidence that agile practices have lead to the right digital things being built? What is it about agile practices that is driving this dysfunction?
Proposing a different way
This book does not just argue against (with evidence) command and control approaches, Seddon and his colleagues provide a framework for a profoundly different approach. One that has evidence of effective application. In this way Beyond is a profoundly positive alternative.
Key ideas and themes
There is so much in this book that is important and it is worth reading the book in-depth. Here is a short list of key concepts covered.
- Definitions (e.g. of command and control)
- The nature of change
- Starting with a plan v starting by getting knowledge
- Failure demand
- The impact of regulatory design
- Different types of system – e.g. break-fix, people services
- When to use IT, digital and where to start
- The right way to use digital
- Theories of human motivation and how this has effected the design of Human Resources (HR)
- UK productivity
Where is the Vanguard Method in use?
The Vanguard Method is widely (in some instances solely) in use* in Aviva, Lloyds banking group, parts of Barclaycard, Portsmouth City Council, Stoke City Council and Coastal Housing Association to name a few. It is becoming more common that job advertisements require some knowledge of this approach.
*Or has been.