Dream big with Stephen Quest and Dave Snowden

Dream big with Stephen Quest and Dave Snowden

(#18 in our Together-Ensemble series)

In this session, we talked about leadership of the future, complexity and the EU field guide.


Stephen Quest is the Director-General for the Joint Research Centre (European Commission). Stephen joined the European Commission in 1993. Since then he has held a number of positions across different policy areas, including Financial Programming and Budget of the European Union, Environment, and Employment and Social Affairs. Most recently he held the positons of Director-General for Taxation and Customs Union, and Informatics, the Commission’s department providing digital solutions to enable European policies and support the Commission’s internal administration; and Director of the Office that administers and pays the Individual financial entitlements of the staff of the European Commission. Prior to joining the European Commission, Stephen worked for the UK Department of Employment and the UK Permanent Representation to the European Union. He graduated in 1986 from the University of York, obtaining a degree in History.

David John Snowden is a Welshmanagement consultant and researcher in the field of knowledge management and the application of complexity science. Known for the development of the Cynefin framework,[1] Snowden is the founder and chief scientific officer of Cognitive Edge, a Singapore-based management-consulting firm specializing in complexity and sensemaking.

Key points: Leadership is about coordination not about decision-making The crisis is a wake-up call to apply distributed leadership more to improve decision support. Disintermediation and appreciation of diversity are needed. Politics cannot do without sense making any longer, and the European Commission Joint Research Centre is a good place to find out more about concrete examples.


The workshop, which followed, allowed colleagues to reflect on the main ideas presented by our guest. 230 colleagues had registered for this session; of whom 100 attended the live discussion and took part in the workshop.

  • Blockers to pursue systems change: Overly constructed political structures and established rights, identities seem to prevent deep listening (i.e. listening to understand) to citizens who are – as humans – often more inclined to live peacefully with one another and do not want to fight. Difficult to imagine a model that would be institutionally acceptable and which would not be experienced by citizens as attractive. Dominant culture is a blocker as well as old fashioned procedures, structures, culture of status quo and dependencies. “We have always done this way!’ . Sense of urgency is both enabler and blocker: things start moving vs. simplistic approach and blind activism. Urgency vs important as criteria for movement.
  • Main needs: Set a direction of travel. We need to change the management structure – distributed leadership cannot flourish in a very hierarchical organisation. And, apply subsidiarity. It is a good idea to “fractalize” the EU institutions and if so, how to go about that? How can we coordinate to get a proper political and global action to meet the climate crisis before it comes upon us with full thrust? How to get politicians to really act? More European coordination. Dream. Staff engagement and commitment. Care is core. Global challenges need bold and swift decisions and collaboration. Speed up our transformation to follow the world. Bigger changes to our way of living are possible if we set ourselves to it. Being caring and kind overall. What new competencies and skills would we need to attract and develop in our organisation to facilitate the transition to the new model?
  • Practical solutions: Which practical solutions are there to activate the power of the network of the systems thinkers vs individuals leading from the bench sometimes in an isolated way? Isn’t distributed leadership also about being inspired from the bottom? Provide more opportunities for experiential learnings in teams and sensible risk taking. Develop more situations and experiences where we will have the chance to appreciate complexity. Letting ideas and initiatives come up from every parts of the organisation. and onboard them. It is also important to split situational assessment from decision-making. The danger if the two are not separated – distributing situational assessment gains multiple perspectives before commitment to a course and action and radically reduces risk. Could distributed decision-making be completed with cognitive diversity at these decision-making levels, help building a more resilient system within the EU institutions ? Develop quick interactive channels for co-creation. If you engage a broad population in problem definition and situational assessment, and then fractal engagement in micro-solutions then we might achieve something. Key in all consultation is to avoid gaming and the role of the lobby industry – hence moving to attitudes and micro-interventions rather than grand plans. Public consultation needs to be continuous, and attitudinal in nature (attitudes are lead indicators). Build capability that can resolve and identify problems that we cannot yet fully anticipate – that than getting into the Problem-solution-consultation-action cycle. Increase widely disseminated open public consultations about policy initiatives of broad interest for many citizens (i.e. education) and open house initiatives (i.e. JRC). Need to train policymakers and decision makers with relevant skills. Structured, evidence-informed and open-minded decision making processes in government (read teaming, future scenario) with short feedback loops. Speed up, cut non-relevant issues. Permanent online deliberative platform for citizen input on hot topic issues as they emerge. How media, people and the government interact? That can determine the ability to deal with a crisis.
  • Enablers: Looking at change as a movement and believing that 1) people have more to give than we know and will take ownership for change if we let them, 2) everyone is a change-maker and a problem-solver with a perspective worth exploring and 3) the best change initiatives will emerge through the collective and not be forced into existence. The approach is less to control the change process and more to ignite/spark an ambition, rally a community and make it emerge into a movement that – ideally – will grow strong enough to shift the balance in favour of the desired change. Managers should rotate more and have building networks as an objective more than delivering results. Middle management to be enabled to dare boldly. You cannot solve a problem with the same mind that created it – multiple views needed. Technology/software solutions are already available today that can enable deliberation at scale with citizens e.g. for (re-)defining, capturing the policy challenge faced or identifying potential areas of consensus, instead of focusing on elements of division. Threshold for interaction needs to be low to reach„ beyond the usual suspects“. E.g. go (virtually) where people already interact informally or formally. Science matter. Citizens’ surveys as a basis for collecting ideas, but are not always a leader in long-term complex questions. Take the risk to question everything. How to conciliate speed with accuracy. Use champions networks. Less command and control. Empower informal network building through sessions like today’s. Have few true change agents across organization and regularly connect with them. Lead by example on eliminating silos. Lack of informal / horizontal connections / trust among low-level staff hobbles their ability to speak truth “upwards” towards management. Buying in from senior management to a change. Think out of the box. Keep meaning at the centre of work. Pilot, dare to fail, measure, scale success. Quality of meetings is key: well-designed, added value for team to be together, hosted, facilitated, prepared together and followed-up. Remove the barrier of technical jargon and specialised knowledge. Need for a renewed narrative for presenting our work & connecting better with people. Need for more diversity. Use AI. Putting trust in citizens ability to contribute key as well as acting transparently and being trustworthy.

Related links:

Next report on Dream big for Europe with Denis Prieur! We will talk decentralisation, future of public administrations and the main qualities of administrators.

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