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Wednesday 16 March 2016

Listen to noise and manage fluctuations

Those of us involved in collaborations need to differentiate between the noise surrounding and permeating our work and the changes and fluctuations going on within it.

Noise is mainly about people and their behaviour. It is about human errors and bad decisions, differing opinions, conflicts and arguments, differing expectations and demands. These can emanate from either outside or inside a collaboration and they will resonate within and around it. If listened to, analysed and learnt from, they will help clarify a collaboration's purpose, enhance its approach and strengthen its resolve.

Fluctuations are mainly about systems and their operation. They are about variations in systems, strategies, processes and administration, changes of role and function, changes to availability of budgets and resources, etc. If not carefully managed, these can cause an irregular rhythm within the heart of a collaboration, within the hub of its key partners, which can interrupt the flow of a collaboration's activities and cause pressures that amplify the resonating noise of human errors, bad decisions and conflicts, eventually creating a cacophonous chaos with terminal consequences.

So, differentiate between noise and fluctuation. Then listen to, analyse and learn from the former and carefully manage the latter.  

Intel sought to detect noise and fluctuations through a system of open and transparent meetings with both internal and external partners. At these meetings partners were encouraged to air their concerns and discuss their conflicts and disagreements. They were also encouraged to comment on the way collaborations were progressing and how well their various supporting systems were working. Concerns were addressed and improvements were agreed during the meetings, which meant areas of concern and conflict (the noise generated by the network of partners) were used as fuel to improve collaboration, and fluctuations and changes in supporting systems were carefully monitored and managed so that they did not unnecessarily amplify concerns and conflicts.

The UK National Health Service's system of Local Involvement Networks enables it to detect noise in the form of concerns, disagreements, errors and unforeseen negative consequences of decisions, etc., and use it to inform the ongoing development of care services. These networks also gain timely feedback about the effectiveness and consistency of the systems and processes that support the co-ordination of services and the collaboration of agencies.

Some collaborations have not only embraced noise but also made it part of the strategy creation process. A local metropolitan council knew there was significant noise being generated around the allocation and use of funds it had obtained to regenerate its area. There was a history of political game playing and less than perfect decision making, and personal and organisational disagreements and conflicts resonated around the allocation and use of the funds and the creation of the collaborations required to use them effectively. 

So the local authority decided to not only listen to this noise but embrace it and make it part of the strategy creation process. They held an open strategy event to which all current and potential partners and stakeholders were invited. People were encouraged to not only air their views and disagreements but also work together to create an effective collaborative strategy for allocating and using the regeneration funds effectively. The process was messy (and noisy) but a strategy was agreed and systems put in place to support it. As these systems were jointly identified and agreed, a strong foundation of transparency, trust and shared ownership was built which helped ensure they were effectively managed and consistently implemented.     

A community partnership in Aberdeen captured the noise resonating within and around its work and identified the fluctuations occurring within its systems by not only creating a citizens' panel that could comment upon its work but also allowing panel members direct access to its day-to-day activities. It encouraged panellists to visit where initiatives and projects were taking place, identify how things were going and how people were feeling and getting on, and pinpoint where any difficulties were being experienced. They were then asked to provide feedback and make suggestions about how things could be done more effectively and how supporting systems could be improved. In this way the noise surrounding the partnership's work was used to generate improvements to its activities and encourage reliability within its supporting systems.  

Various wiki-based approaches, or even straightforward blogs that invite replies and comments, can also help a collaboration listen to, analyse and learn from the noise generated within and around it. The added benefit of incorporating such IT/Internet based systems into a collaboration's noise detection is that they not only add another way of detecting noise but also provide a cushioning distance between the noise and those receiving it, which can help people reflect upon and respond constructively to it. 

It is interesting to note that many traditional institutions have been slow to take advantage of social media's ability to detect the noise generated around initiatives and issues. For example, many governmental and other public bodies have well-established processes in place to document comments made at public meetings or received through postal mail. They do not, however, always have the same processes in place for comments received through social media. Indeed, many of the statutory regulations related to the use of public funds for community engagement require people to arrange public meetings and request comments through postal mail. This can make institutions and their initiatives slow to detect the noise generated by their work and the early warnings it provides about possible errors of judgement and problems with systems and processes. This can lead to initiatives taking action to improve things too late or not taking action at all, so causing significant financial and reputational damage and encouraging dissatisfied stakeholders to take matters into their own hands.   

An example of the above is currently happening in Mexico, where government processes for engaging with citizens and involving them in policy and law making are old-fashioned, top-down and paper-based. Mexicans have the right to propose laws directly to their congress, bypassing local officials, but to do so they must gain 100,000 signatures written in ink on paper. As you can imagine, this is a significant hurdle to overcome and so far, unsurprisingly, only one law has been proposed in this way to the Mexican congress. This cumbersome and inaccessible process has amplified the noisy cries of dissatisfaction caused by the Mexican government's deep rooted corruption and consequential inefficiency. It has also, however, almost completely insulated the Mexican government from the consequences of the noise: muting and smothering it; stopping it from resonating within the corridors of power. 

The Mexican population, realising that its government is insulated from its noisy complaints and cries for reform by barriers of bureaucracy and avalanches of smothering paperwork, is taking matters into its own hands and using social media to get its message across and make change happen. Ordinary citizens have proposed a law that would enhance government transparency and help minimise corruption. They have made the form people need to sign in support of this proposed law available online through social media platforms such as Facebook, and they have asked people to download it, sign it and hand it in at official delivery points around the country. (Helpfully, Google Maps has been used to show where these delivery points are and how to get to them.)

If the Mexican government had done nothing more than initiate and own the process started by its electorate, it would have been quickly able to detect the noise of its population's cries for change and, even more importantly, react in a timely and effective manner, ironing out its flaws and inconsistencies, weakening its underpinning corruption and enhancing its credibility as a result.

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