On Principles

Recently, small-batch jacket company Paynter shared the principles of a photographer they know, a man called Jim Marsden. Go read them, they’re wonderful. Jim’s collection got me thinking about my relationship with principles and how this has changed.

Up until 2016 I’d not used principles intentionally at all. It was Andrew Travers that got me interested in the effect they can have when we were writing both the design principles and user research principles at the Co-op. But, in truth I wasn’t convinced of their role in a product shop; surely we just design and build what is needed?! That’s changed, and I now appreciate how significant a device they can be and I’ve begun to use (and advocate for the use of) principles much more to help guide my current work at the MoJ (and also at Folksy and side projects).

How we achieve our goals and objectives seems increasingly narrated by playbooks and join-the-dots type approaches. Such ‘how tos’ can be incredibly useful – especially when gaining initial experience in a job – but can prevent us thinking critically about how best to solve a problem. For that, principles can be a great decision aide; they’re both an anchor and guide.

A recent example at Folksy highlights this. The team were struggling to make a decision about product pricing , and were nervous about the ramifications of the decision. We’d done a bunch of user research, analysed the numbers and yet despite evidence, the decision still felt hard. In mulling over the problem, it became clear that the issue was about having courage in our convictions, and not being led by fear of being wrong: it was about what felt right, about principles. The next day we talked about a few things that are now hardening into a set of principles, one of which was “Make big bets over small ones”. As a small marketplace relying on network effects to succeed we need to win big because by making small incremental gains we’ll only stand still (at best). The principle could have been written as “don’t fear failure” but it felt better to frame it as a positive and also as something more prescriptive.

Work at MoJ has also required some hard decisions recently about how to organise our resources effectively to meet our goals. And interestingly, while we’ve danced around principles for a while it’s only with these difficult decisions being required that we’ve started to express our values and beliefs about how we should organise. Up until now any values we did express felt forced and false. (As an aside an ex colleague at the Co-op, Jamie, used to employ a wonderful device to try and get to some sense of a principle by asking “what would Cloughie do?Cloughie being the ex Nottingham Forest manager, and one of the greatest English football managers ever.)

So, In a quick 15 mins session last week whilst developing out some strategic objectives and plans for HMPPS, we started to note down things that felt like values and principles that could help us by anchoring or guiding our decisions.

Some of these are more like objectives or goals. But some feel right. “Prototype more” is shaping up to be “show don’t tell”. “Prioritise the core journey” expresses a desire to something like “be more holistic and less discrete”, and “bring business stakeholders with us on the journey” is an acknowledgement that we need them, and “we want to be one team”.

What I’ve learnt is that principles are not a luxury. Making explicit and conscious what drives your behaviour can be incredibly powerful as a means to critically shape a team and organisation to be who they want to be.