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06 Aug 2014

Virtual Cuppa with Neil Usher

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  • Columnist: Columnist

Since Neil is masterminding a massive office move, this month, the tables (or inboxes) are turned and onoffice editor James McLachlan is asking him about the concept of "building readiness". What does it involve, and is it a job for an external agency? What does it have to take into account and is there any possibility at all of a Holy Grail, one-size-fits-all model that could be used by all types of organisation?

Hi Neil

Hi James

JM: You have discussed many issues relating to workplace design and culture both on your blog and in the pages of this magazine, but one issue that has flown under the radar is the idea of "building readiness". Can you explain what you mean by this term and perhaps shed some light on why the issue is so rarely looked at?

NU: As I was recently assembling a team for operational readiness and creating a tracking tool for all the activities for the last three months of the project, it dawned on me that readiness planning is a discipline of its own. This was further emphasised when looking for a manager for the activities, and finding no-one fitting the scope. It's part design, part FM, part IT, part brand, part communications, part change, part real estate, with some elements unique to the organisation thrown in. It was like discovering a previously unknown tribe living just behind Oxford Street who had no word for "programme". It might be one of the final frontiers of the workplace business.

JM: This hybrid creature – part design, part FM, part, well... everything sounds like an impossible job spec. Given your recent experience, could building readiness be coordinated by an external agency, or is the understanding of any particular organisation's culture so important that it means readiness must be tackled from within?

NU: While the cultural understanding is important, it's not central to the discipline. We can probably think of it as an x/y matrix where on the x axis sits the huge breadth of subject matter, and on the y axis hangs the need to see each both from a great height, and down in the detail. The model I built had over 400 individual tasks. Some of those were major projects on their own, some were reference points – each was like one of the lockers in Men In Black, with a whole world inside. But the role of the manager is the "living hyperlink" – the one who makes sure not only that it stays on track but that the implications of what is happening in one place are noted in all other relevant places. That role could be internal or external – the challenge is the rarity of the understanding of the role.

JM: Was it possible or indeed desirable to separate each "locker" into known and unknown civilisations? That is, were there certain variables whose behaviour was easier to predict than others? Can you give examples? I am interested in how you avoided being immersed into a never-ending feedback loop, given the huge potential for knock-on effects...

NU: At times it was like trying to ride ten bicycles at once. Over roadhumps. The only way to do that is to keep everything moving at once and reined in. While there were some new discoveries along the route, there weren't too many to dealwith. However, the capacity for one team's plan to totally screw up another's is immense. Examples are things like locking off a goods lift for testing over days on which critical deliveries are scheduled, or black building testing while vital IT installations are underway. I can't emphasise enough the importance of the tracking model, and the time invested in individual and team reviews. We might get to a more automated model, but human involvement will always be required.

JM: Jesus, that sounds like a circus! The tracking model seems like an achievement in itself. To create it, was it a case of chucking everything in it and then slowly stripping away the flab? And could the same model be applied to other organisations going through a similar process?

NU: I started with a service model I have developed over the last decade or so and built it from there. I did have some prototypes from previous projects, none of which did the job the way it was needed here. There was a certain amount of "heap moulding". The model now expands and collapses as you need, depending on the level of detail required. It's entirely exportable given its generic headers and groupings, with only a small amount of tailoring needed for organisation type and culture.

JM: So everyone is in and the place is running like clockwork?

NU: Second move this weekend so wouldn't want to jinx it – but the readiness programme, the tracker and the management of the activities behind it did its job. Building readiness – it's alive.


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