I talked recently to the Young Fabians (a UK-based left wing think tank) about “Britain’s puzzlingly poor productivity”.  In such situations, people often want to know the ‘secrets’ or the ‘answers’. The YF were too smart to expect that. They understand that complex problems require hard thought, experimentation and multiple potential interventions.

Of course, experience helps. I have worked around the globe and have some understanding as to what works in particular situations – with a different geography, history, culture and so on. This shortens the list of options and reduces the time for experimentation…. but there is still no guarantee of success. Pulling the ‘big levers’ is often affected by the little cogs … those little things that keep the whole machine running. Forgetting this is a big mistake.

In any situation, you have to understand who has the power, the influence and the commitment to making things work.

Generic principles apply – but may have to be overridden by local knowledge. That is why it is absolutely essential to ‘go to gemba’ and find out for yourself what is happening, what the current context is, who the key stakeholders are and what might or should influence the approach you take.

The members of the organisation (or the leaders of the country) are often too involved. They find it hard to step back and ‘read’ the current situation. Politicians, in particular, find it difficult to set aside their core political beliefs and act only on their core values. They ‘know’ what they want to work and are generally very surprised if and when it doesn’t.

So, we need people like the Young Fabians to keep an open mind but stay true to their core values, to read the situation they are examining and to construct interventions, with advice from ‘experts’ that they are sure fit the particular context and situation. We might then grow a generation of genuinely radical thinkers.