The complexity busters

The complexity busters

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Since February, businesses and governments around the world have managed to make changes in the way they operate within days and weeks; changes that would previously have taken months or even years to implement. How did they manage to achieve this and what are the lessons we can learn about implementing change moving forward; crisis or no crisis?


This panel was led by Harvey Maylor, Associate Professor in Management Practice



Three public sector leaders explained how they ditched 'business as usual,' and rapidly adopted new management techniques, to optimise the UK government's response to the Covid-19 crisis.

Lt General Tyrone R. Urch, Commander Home Command, British Army; Emily Ackroyd, Director of Strategy & Engagement for the Government Digital Service; and Lara Sampson, Product Director for the Universal Credit Full Service, led teams to achieve urgent and challenging goals within days or weeks, instead of months or years. 

The trio, all alumni of the Major Projects Leadership Academy, discussed how having a 'common purpose' had motivated teams to 'show what they can do', and deliver results at pace.

Lt General Urch commands Operation Rescript, the UK military operation to help the government tackle the Covid-19 pandemic. 

His team activated 20,000 personnel from the Army, Royal Navy and Royal Air Force, and formed a multi-skilled task force to support several government departments. Work included the design and delivery of a mobile testing system, and supporting the construction of 11 Nightingale Hospitals.

As a leader, he insisted that people never compromise on upholding Army values, standards, and professionalism. He added that it was vital to 'start with the finish and legacy in mind,' and deliver a clear plan; know when to challenge decisions, and adopt a people-first approach, based on reward.

Emily Ackroyd works for the Government Digital Service (GDS). She led a team to deliver, in just four days, a new online service which enables clinically extremely vulnerable people to notify the government if they need help whilst they are shielding.

Reflecting on the experience, and the importance of leaders building personal resilience, she said that in times of crisis it was more important than ever for leaders to recognise their own strengths and limitations; be mindful of people's unique circumstances and give teams the space and authority to deliver, focusing governance on unblocking complexity.

Lara Sampson leads the team which designs and builds the Universal Credit service. Her team managed a surge in demand for the benefit during the pandemic, which she said forced "difficult choices about risk, governance, and audit of decisions." 

Under Lara's leadership, the team shifted its governance approach - from looking six to nine months ahead, to focusing on urgent operational requirements. She also created a trusting environment where it felt safe to take calculated risks at a time when "mistakes will happen."

The session, called Lessons from Lockdown: The Complexity Busters, was staged as part of the Leadership in Extraordinary Times series. It was chaired by Harvey Maylor, Associate Professor in Management Practice, who summarised the discussion, and shared six ways to cut complexity in a crisis: 

  1.  Build strong relationships to gain trust – and build them in advance 
  2.  Planning is everything – include contingencies
  3.  Set a clear purpose and focus 
  4.  Minimise layers, and complexity, of governance 
  5.  As leaders, work to remove obstacles 
  6.  Agree tolerance to risk, manage it, and let people make mistakes.