Minimum Viable Transformation: Change should be Small and Imperfect

IMG_4794Speeches you never hear at a Corporate Conference: “… Our Transformation Programme is going to be small and imperfect. We are going to do many small things that probably won’t work straight away. However, we will learn lessons from these ‘experiments’ and apply the learning to a better next small thing, making sure we progressively move forward, in the right direction…”

If you have heard this sort of thing at your Corporate Conference, you probably don’t work in public services, and you can switch of now if you like.

Transformation is a BIG word. Most ‘Transformation Programmes’, (particularly anything to do with Culture, Values or Behaviour) talk about BIG changes, often in impressive language. This frequently involves the following; a clearly defined vision for the endpoint, a communications plan, milestones and targets, and a carefully crafted ‘road map’ which ‘articulates the journey’ to the troops.

As far as I’ve seen the idea of small ‘experiments’, testing multiple ideas, accepting that failures will happen, and a process of learning and iteration rarely feature. The ‘Transformation Programme’ is about certainty and guaranteed success, there can be no room for failure (it’s too big to fail). I’ve touched on this idea before in the comparison of Trojan Mice with Trojan Horses.

Minimum Viable Transformation. Have a look at this graphic from Deloitte University Press before I continue.


The Minimum Viable Transformation business model explained in the Deloitte University Press article builds upon the  concept of Minimum Viable Product (MVP).

MVP has been around in the world of digital startups and IT development for a while and seems to work as an alternative to the traditional: ‘Big Bang, linear path focused on excellence of delivery and detailed planning’.

It think MVP is a really useful approach which could be applied to any change in how services and products are delivered in public services – and even the ‘transformation programmes’.  You can read more about Minimum Viable Products here. In essence the basic process involves:

  • You identify what needs to be changed / done / produced (this should involve some market research),
  • You develop the ‘minimum viable product’ (MVP) that you can get away with (this will require some judgement and discipline –   problem solvers love to solve problems and will often do more than is necessary),
  • You share the MVP with some ‘early adopters’, people who ‘get’ what you are trying to do. The idea is that they will tolerate the imperfections because they are interested in the concept and what you are trying to achieve,
  • Your ‘early adopters’ give you feedback. Lots of lovely, very honest feedback,
  • You ‘suck up’ the feedback, learn the lessons and change your product. This could be improvements, it could be major changes, or you might just STOP. This idea was never going to work so end things right now,
  • You quickly repeat the process until you have reached a point where you have a product that meets many needs,  and
  • It’s a huge success.

MVP’s and Public Services – A Marriage Made in Heaven.  For me, there seem to be a number of opportunities and benefit in using the MVP approach to tackle some of the challenges facing public services:

  • Co-Production. The process of testing very early ideas with ‘early adopters’ and using their feedback to shape a better product seems to have a lot in common with what co-production is trying to achieve.
  • Well Managed Risks. A MVP is by definition ‘minimum’ so therefore probably quite small in terms of scale and the potential impact. The potential for damage if it doesn’t work can be managed into the territory of ‘safe to fail’.
  • Learning from Failure. Linked to above, if we are a bit more explicit about failure happening, and even expecting and planning for it, there is more likelihood that we will look for learning rather than pretending it didn’t happen.
  • Different ways of thinking. Working on ‘low risk’, ‘safe to fail’ projects might encourage the involvement of people who aren’t the usual ‘safe pair of hands’. This might help introduce some of the different ways of thinking that is so desperately needed.


If it’s that easy, why don’t we do it?

The Deloitte article is well worth reading. Minimum Viable Transformation is a useful concept, but will need some serious thinking and behaviour changes if people are to use it.

One of the areas Deloitte article mentions is ‘working at the edges’. It is far easier to do this sort of thing in places where the ‘core business’ isn’t threatened and you aren’t fighting against long-established views and  power structures.

I do hope the graphics I’ve used here are helpful in getting the ideas across. In particular the first one where a Transport MVP starts as a set of disconnected wheels whilst the other (better approach) starts with a skateboard and builds to a car. Good Luck!

So, What’s the PONT?

  1. Most Transformation Programmes are about BIG ideas (and BIG language), where there is little room for experimentation and learning from (safe) failure.
  2. Testing and development of small ideas is much lower risk and potentially leads to solutions that work better for more people.
  3. The Minimum Viable Product (MVP) approach offers something different that could be widely applied to most changes in public services, even the ‘too big to fail’ Transformation Programmes.

Picture Source:

Linked Posts: Trojan Mice, why it matters to win small.

Update: A number of people have pointed out that the skateboard to car graphic is useful as an illustration, but not representative of what actually happened – cars did actually appear in the world before skateboards (if you want to get technical it could be an example of ‘forking’). The graphic does get the point across though. For something more realistic have a look  at the Minimum Viable Bridge (MVB) example below, from  Image Source:

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:

13 Responses

  1. zoeharris13

    This makes a lot of sense and is exactly the approach we have been discussing at Bethnal Green Ventures, where I am part of a cohort of startups, all of us wanting to ‘change the world using technology’. Doesn’t sound as if we’d go for the ‘small and imperfect’ approach does it! But there is no point in developing the world’s next greatest thing if people refuse to adopt it. So not only do a series of small steps allow you to iron out the wrinkles in your new idea, but also allow people to adapt to the changes you propose in bite size chunks as well. Excellent post!

  2. Useful collation of ideas, thanks.

    The beauty of the MVP model is that it has parallels with the processes and design thinking of continuous service improvement and so can be an easy fit into an organisation’s development culture. Transformation is a process, not an outcome so the idea of a Minimum Viable Transformation delivering a Minimum Viable Product seems sound.

    Unfortunately, many of the organisations that go in for big transformation programmes do so because they don’t go in for continuous service improvement and see transformation as the organisational equivalent of getting the decorators in to repaper the walls. They’d never be receptive to quantum-level incremental change and it would be their loss.

  3. Brilliant. Annoyingly I was literally typing the last bit on a post about change through learning fast and small instead of change through big fanfares and not learning anything at all.
    I’ll park mine for a bit then cos it’ll look like copying.😄

  4. Really nice post. Good to see the Deloitte graphic shows Double Loop Learning – I covered that a bit during my OU degree. That stuff is *hard* and is often resisted in large organisations.

    I think many transformation programmes do try the ‘trojan mice’ thing but they often run off in different directions, get lost or eaten by trojan cats. (This metaphor sounded better in my head).

  5. jonathanflowers

    The “T-word” really doesn’t help us, does it? I was on the Independent Service Transformation Challenge Panel set up by government in 2014 and before we began our visits and request for submissions we defined what would be “Transformational” in our eyes. We then didn’t find any examples of it! (Possible exception being the Troubled Families Programme). Saw lots of modernization and improvement, and some inspirational but very small scale local cross-sector working. I think the MVT is a really good model especially for those public services that (relatively speaking) have time to change, and don’t need to change that much (and there are a heap of those). I think there are some other places that will have to do something big, quickly (properly) to survive.

    Where I think the MVT model is especially useful is in cross-sector working, where the critical success factor is actually relationships, trust and collaboration, so getting some positive experiences going is tremendously valuable.

  6. Ecosystems are dynamic and co-evolving communities of diverse actors who create new value through increasingly productive and sophisticated models of both collaboration and competition. Read more about our view of business ecosystems in the Introduction .

  7. Andy Rhodes

    A colleague sent me this link and I really can relate to the idea of avoiding big bang from my experiences leading on change in the emergency service sector. The comments here on public sector appeal in terms of collaboration (agree totally that multiple small innovations create shifts) resonate and good point re low risk being an attraction.
    My main challenge has been to create real change which is resisted by the status quo due to fear of behavioural change and i wonder if big bang IS needed sometimes to stimulate those in power out of complacency as well as to reassure the early adopters that change is genuine

  8. […] The Corporate Rebels have written about the Minimum Viable Team. Start small, get experience, grow bigger only when necessary.  I agree with this but also think there’s crossover with the points Chris Bolton makes in his post on Minimum Viable Transformation. […]

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