Let loose the Trojan Mice…………don’t waste money on big stuff

Trojan Mice - back a winner!
Trojan Mice - back a winner!

Trojan Mice is a great phrase Euan Semple used in his blog about ten ways to create knowledge ecology .  Unleash Trojan Mice. Don’t do big things or spend loads of money. Set small, nimble things running and see where they head.”

I haven’t found the phrase on Wikipedia (yet), but a search on Trojan Mice will take you to an organisation of the same name.  They describe: “Trojan Mice….. are small, well focused changes, …..introduced in an inconspicuous way. They are small enough to be  understood and owned by all concerned…”  They also talk about complexity theory and complex adaptive systems.

It was in this context where I first heard the concept explained by Dave Snowden who spoke about “safe to fail” pilots or experiments by as part of the Cynefin Framework. For complex situations Dave talks about: “the relationship between cause and effect can only be perceived in retrospect, but not in advance, the approach is to Probe – Sense – Respond”.  There is an excellent video from Dave which explains it beautifully. For me, the Trojan Mice are effectively the ‘probes’.

I wanted to write about some of my experiences of Trojan Mice, and why I think we need lots more of them. Over the years I’ve seen many complex problems treated
as if there it is a ‘simple’ cause and effect relationship in place. Large scale, ‘single right answer’ solutions are introduced which ultimately don’t end up solving the problem (aka FAIL). I’m sure I am not alone in having seen this approach. If you are lucky, everyone learns and moves on, if not, well……. you end up with lots of ‘flogging the dead Trojan Horse’, or worse still looking for a culprit.  You are better off setting loose the Trojan Mice, and backing the winners.

The big advantage of carrying out “safe to fail pilots” is that they can be scaled up if successful or abandoned if not. The important thing is to carry out a number of pilots and learn from failure (and success).

Linking this to the use of social media in public services is almost a textbook complex problem within in a complex adaptive system. You cannot possibly predict how people are going to use any element of social media in a situation which is:

  • Complex:  a huge number of variables like accessibility, organisational policy, confidence to participate, IT competence etc.
  • Adaptive: the very act of people using the media will change the nature of that media (they are adding content) and the way in which others subsequently use it will also be changed. Just think about how the comments people put on a post will influence the following comments.

This has to be: “probe – sense – respond” / “safe to fail pilot” / “Trojan Mice”

Here are some examples of Trojan Mice which I’ve seen and have learnt a lot from.  All of them have been low(ish) cost and high impact, and in Wales!:

  1.  Monmouthshire Foster Carers Group. An online community of practice (OCoP)
    supporting a network of foster carers.  Established using limited resources and a free IT platform. Self moderating and sustaining through the group. Details here.
  2. Public Sector Social Media Yammer Group. Another very successful online OCoP established for zero cost. Over 100 people contributing.  Details here.
  3. Bernie the Sheep Pilot. Social marketing campaign using social media to tackle the deliberate setting of grass fires in South Wales.  Resulted in a 40% reduction in predicted fires and saved £120K. Now being scaled up. Details here.
  4. goodpracticewales.com. Website developed to search good practice / learning
    materials posted on public service websites in Wales. Developed at low-cost, currently in beta, please leave them a comment.

So, what’s the PONT?

  1. The introduction of social media into organisations is complex territory.
  2. Prediction of what will happen as the result of an action is very difficult. Better to use a Probe-Sense-Respond approach and set up multiple ‘safe to fail  experiments’.
  3. These ‘Trojan Mice’ will eventually deliver rewards; you may just not get what you were expecting. That’s fine,embrace a bit of uncertainty.

Picture source: http://bit.ly/r02xuQ genuine mouse racing….

About WhatsthePONT

I'm from Old South Wales and I'm interested almost everything. Narrowing it down a bit: cooperatives, social enterprises, decent public services, complexity science, The Cynefin Framework, behavioural science and a sustainable future. In 2018/19 I completed a Winston Churchill Travelling Fellowship, looking at big cooperative enterprises and social businesses in NE Spain and the USA. You can find out more here: https://whatsthepont.com/churchill-fellowship/

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