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Transforming at Scale - Episode 3: Time and place

6 min read

I have always loved the coast of Cornwall but living here all year round has allowed me to see some new things and I’ve been using this as an analogy for thinking about things at different scales of time and place.

Every few seconds another wave will break on the sand. Watch for a few moments and it will be clear there is a rhythm but this isn’t as simple as a metronome or clock tick. Watch for long enough and you will start to see another pattern. At one of my local beaches the waves reflect off a cliff at a sharp angle and the waves from two distinct directions create patterns. At first these seem random and chaotic but after a while they seem to repeat. Another of our local beaches is in a wide-open bay. Here a different pattern appears. The waves are often clean and regular but the height of the waves varies in a regular pattern. In acoustic waves this effect is called a beat[1] and is created by two similar sets of waves interfering with each other and moving in and out of phase with each other.

Wait long enough and another process will become evident. The cycle of the tides is measured in hours, not seconds, and also has a second repeating pattern over a number of weeks as the effect of the Sun and Moon interfere with each other. Holiday makers might stay long enough to spot the tidal patterns but you really need to be a local to spot slower working patterns.

One of our beaches is in front of a cliff. The action of the sea tends to push sand higher up the beach. Gound water trickling from the cliff tends to carry the sand away back out to sea. During our wet winters the ground water wins gradually exposing a set of large boulders which make it hard to cross at low tide and a hazard if you try to get into the water at high tide. During the dryer summer the sea wins burying the rocks in deep sand to the point that you wouldn’t know they were there.

Wait even longer and new things keep appearing. Our local cliff top walk has changed twice since we have been here. One section of path was rerouted due to a small rock fall. The path and fence are still there but the risk has risen. A mile or so further on a section has fallen into the sea and some of the old fence posts are hanging from wires in mid-air! The footpath now detours into the edge of a field. I don’t know where the next fall will be but it is a safe bet that another part will go in a year or two. Armed with historical photos or a time lapse camera even more, normally hidden activity, might become visible.

Analogous things are going on in our workplaces. Financial transactions, performance reports and customer services calls have a regular beat. Like the waves they are not identical but they do have patterns. Some of the patterns are even seasonal as our local population explodes during the summer and most school holidays. Policies set by Central Government can exert a tide-like force. Cyber security work makes me think of those cliffs under constant battering by the elements. The rocks in the cliff are exceptionally strong but, eventually, the weather will make a mark so you always need to be careful near the edge.

Improvement, change and transformation work also have patterns that show themselves in different times and places. Some of these are fairly arbitrary and can be changed relatively easily such as reporting cycles. Some arise because other forces are at work such as the way permanent and temporary work contracts operate. Some of the patterns aren’t obvious unless you can observe what happens over long periods of time or compare similar work in different organisations.

The patterns can be a mixed blessing. If you can correctly identify the underlying processes the patterns can be helpful. Successful approaches that have been applied in other circumstances or in other organisations can be put to good use to tackle new problems. However, if you are not in tune with the natural rhythms and cycles you can easily draw the wrong conclusions and waste time trying to apply inappropriate solutions. For example, a health or community initiative may have been successful in one town. If the primary reason for success was the approach that was taken there is a good chance of repeating the success somewhere else. If the primary reason was the passion of the individuals involved it might be difficult to replicate. In either case, there is no guarantee the initiative will scale in other ways, for example, in a big city or rural area. Similarly, some ideas will successfully move between sectors and others get stuck. Something which works well in the commercial world might not succeed in a health setting and an initiative that has proven itself in health might fail in education.

The same difficulties can lead us to miss out on opportunities when scaling is a good approach. Otherwise good initiatives can fail due to exceptional and rare circumstances, analogous to the rare and random cliff falls. It can be really hard to separate cause and effect so these failures can cast an unfair shadow over the whole initiative, especially if you are unlucky and experience one of these early on. If you have rolled out an initiative 9 times and the 10th one struggles it is quite natural to attribute the failure to local conditions and keep going. If this happened to the 2nd or 3rd roll-out it would be quite natural to have doubts about the whole thing. You might stop and miss the benefits of the next 6 or 7 roll outs. Two very different conclusions as a result of pure chance.

Sadly, there aren’t any universal strategies for tackling these scaling challenges. In other episodes I’ve mentioned the adventurer spirit of being both bold and humble and these tactics can help when you are trying to scale over time and place. Boldly take what seems to be the next good step but have the humility to realise that you may have started down the wrong path and don’t be too hard on yourself if you need to back track and try again.


  1. Beats in acoustic waves ↩︎

Originally published on by Richard Barton