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Thinking about permission
and making what’s tacit more explicit


Exhibition at the Vienna Biennale

A couple of weeks ago, I went to Vienna to see the “It’s ok” poster in an exhibition as part of the Biennale.

The exhibition was called “How will we work?”, and it explored possible futures (and interesting presents) for workplaces and workers. Some of the ideas on show were quite dystopian and depressing, others were laugh-out-loud funny. It was a great thrill to see the poster there among them.

A thought kept spinning around in my head while I was there, and has continued spinning ever since: the “It’s ok” poster did not seek to define the culture of GDS, it sought to reflect it back.

We knew, when we wrote it, what things it should say. There was very little argument or discussion about what we should say was OK, because everyone on the team already understood. The point of the poster was to help newcomers learn and understand the culture quickly, without having to spend years finding things out by accident.

But it did something else besides: although not written as a message from “the management” to “the workers”, it effectively became one. By showing their approval of the poster, our management team showed their approval of the existing cultural norms within the organisation. What had previously been tacit became explicit.

It was a bit like writing down some unwritten rules.

A poster about our poster

Another thing that’s been spinning around my head for ages has been the idea of “permission” in large organisations, especially those that are seeking to go through what’s known to many of my colleagues as “transformation”.

Many have sought to define transformation, and my best effort is “catching up with the real world”. That is, more or less, what government departments are desperately trying to do right now: catch up with commercial organisations that changed their working practices, and changed their products, to better reflect the realities of the internet age years ago.

I believe that most of the people in government who really care about transformation understand what it means now. They broadly understand what’s necessary, and how government needs to change the way it does things (as Tom Steinberg wrote recently: User-centered digital government is an idea that cannot be put back in the bottle).

As others have already said, transformation isn’t about computers, it’s about people. Those people need permission to change.

I think what’s missing in some organisations is explicit, clear permission.

There are leaders who don’t realise that there are teams waiting for permission to work in different ways. There are teams who hear conflicting messages from different leaders about what’s allowed and what isn’t. This lack of clarity is slowing change down.

The exterior of the exhibition building

If you’re a leader and you want change/transformation to happen better and faster, I think the most constructive and useful thing you could do tomorrow is to clearly and explicitly grant your teams permission to change.

Make the tacit explicit. Write down the unwritten rules. Say what’s ok. Most of your people probably already know the right thing to do; they’re just waiting for you to tell them they can crack on with it.


(24 Sep 2017)