2 min read

Take the Handbrake Off: Create systems change

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Eating well sucks. I’m in training season for a marathon at the moment, and doing my best to put the right fuel in for long Sunday Rundays. I’m also on a continual quest to make my life difficult, it seems, by trying to be the kind of mother who does weekly-ish baking for her kids lunchboxes. These two visions are not aligned. How many date scones can I run this Sunday? The mind boggles.

The policy wonks among you will be familiar with the concept of a ‘nudge’. The rest of you might enjoy reading the Blinkist of the appropriately titled book, by Thaler and Sunstein. The basic concept is that it’s much easier to influence people’s behaviour by providing an environment that supports ‘good’ choices, than it is to rely on agency, willpower or sheer determination. The lesson: stop baking, if you want to stop eating scones.

I had a blast co-hosting a Morning Out for The Public Sector in Melbourne yesterday morning, where I spoke about the frustration for public sector teams who feel like they’re driving around with the handbrake on.

On the one hand, we’re asked to work toward an exciting aspirational outcome with good at its heart. On the other, every attempt to do this is stymied by policy, process, or bureaucracy.

One of the government agencies I work with has a team that is all about supporting communities to shape their own futures – putting together their own projects, running their own initiatives and engaging their people. This is great stuff….  Until you’re one of the community groups who want to be involved, and find out that the red tape requires a formal constitution, charitable status and $2 million in public liability insurance.


Making good stuff happen is hard enough at the best of times. But it’s close to impossible when the way we do business directly contradicts our goals and intentions. Achieving strategic coherence means eliminating all the points of friction we can find, by looking at things like policy process, people, budgets and systems.

How To...  Lift the Handbrake

  • Ask your team (and customers and stakeholders!) what’s making progress hard – trust me, they know!

  • Think outside the budget box. More people or funding won’t make any difference if we continue to work in the same way. In fact, it will be worse, because now you have new people to train and new cost codes to account for. Think about systems, policies and processes first.

  • Indulge in some dangerous thinking. What if you started from nothing? What if there were no rules? What are the harms you’re trying to prevent? What would minimum prescription and maximum delegation look like?