How do we help things to die?

I don’t mean people, I mean organisations.

It’s been on my mind for a while now. How do we close things down that are no longer working?

Thinking so much about the impacts of technology on society for the last few years, and especially the longer term consequences, I’ve become even more aware of what’s being displaced by technology, being made redundant because of it and how it’s changed public expectations. It’s also laying bare that our needs as a society are evolving — as we try to adjust to a data-driven world.

“In all moments of major technological change, people, companies, and institutions feel the depth of the change, but they are often overwhelmed by it” — The impact of the internet on society.

But it’s not just because of technology that things change and some things continue to exist even if they no longer serve a purpose or are fit for purpose.

It’s a painful realisation, a hard truth, but from where I’m standing, we can’t possibly make the kind of giant leaps we need to make without letting go of some things. And to really understand what we now need, and especially what the social sector now needs to provide, it might only be through clearing space, that we’re able to see and understand that.

Charlie Leadbetter and Laura Bunt wrote a report way back in 2012 called the Art of Exit. It was ahead of its time. It’s one of the only pieces of work I know that directly deals with how to decommission things that are no longer working. Their work was focussed entirely on the public sector. I’m interested in what this looks like for the social sector and civil society. They were looking at how you could do this creatively. I’m interested in how you can do it ethically and intelligently — with compassion.

I’m especially interested in how to design a fund that exists solely to close things down responsibly, kindly and intelligently — in the social sector.

We are going to need to (and quite urgently) shift resources out of the old, no longer fit-for-purpose system to fuel the growth of an alternative system — see my previous post. An ability to do this, and to do it well, will be vital throughout the developed world in the next decade.

It’s not enough to just keep increasing the supply of promising ideas, this needs to be matched by just as sophisticated an approach to dismantling things and closing them down.

This is going to be an enquiry for me this year and I’ll be researching it, designing it, prototyping different elements of it — and then who knows, maybe eventually we will be able to raise some money to start the first ever Farewell Fund.

Approaching this as a design enquiry as I’m really interested in the how as much as the what, these are some of the questions and areas I’ll look at.

Wider social context

Perceptions and understanding about endings and death reflect the social climate in which they take place so I will be drawing on other perspectives and influences from across the social sciences and culture. What are the analogies and practices we can draw for the Farewell Fund from end of life care, grief therapy, our relationship to endings more widely, our cultural relationships to old and new, the care (or lack of) that surrounds people and things that are dying in comparison to the emphasis and attention we place on the new (babies and start-ups).

The cyclical view of time helps to shift our sense of an ending, which is always an echo of our fear of death. We need to complete, to close well — understanding that this is what makes space for the next cycle. A second Enlightenment perspective pays attention to endings as much as beginnings (‘start-ups’), hospice work for the dying culture as much as midwifery for the new.
From the International Futures Forum.

Recognition that it’s time

When is the right time to close something down? And who gets to decide? I’ll be looking at what it takes for that realisation to happen, what that feels like, and how an application to the Farewell Fund could help with that.

Aspects of this will include what gives people a sense of permission and a willingness to hold up their hand and say “this is no longer working”? To admit that they no longer know what to do and it’s an endless struggle to survive. I have a fantasy that there are organisations in the social sector that might feel a real relief if they were able to say that and know that there was a way out.

It’s also interesting to think about what would be needed to make the case? What would an application to the Farewell Fund look like? In Art of Exit they talk about “often evidence is not substantive enough to make decisions to disinvest in what is currently provided” but what if it was more like an ‘Invitation to Participate’ rather than a calling out?

Framing and narrative

In the Art of Exit they talk about “Decommissioning could be understood as a process of service improvement, driven by a search for better outcomes for the public. It should be as strategic and integrated a process as commissioning, and absolutely linked to it.” They also viewed change through a service lens — “decommissioning could be understood as a process of service improvement, driven by a search for better outcomes for the public. It should be as strategic and integrated a process as commissioning, and absolutely linked to it” — but you could change the words “service improvement” to “systemic health” or “systems change” and it highlights how a process of renewal is healthy and necessary.

What is the language and what are the narratives that help, prompt and honour endings to happen? Is it the idea of renewal and making space for something new or different? Is it acknowledgment of your contribution to the sector or field of work? When I was doing my ORSC training I read a book called Working With Loss and Grief and there are a lot of useful, practical exercises that could be redesigned from their focus on individuals to be used with organisations.

From the book: narrative therapy in relation to grief.


How do we prepare for closing things down? So that it is not prompted by short-term crisis but designed in a way and in a timeframe that is compassionate and respectful. Can we help people anticipate it and even rehearse it? What does good preparation look like?

Designing the transition — emotionally

Running through this whole enquiry will be a focus on the practical design of the fund as well as the psychology of it. When doing my MSc in Positive Psychology we learnt about what helps people meet adversity — resourcefulness (qualities of flexibility, courage and perseverance), positive perspective (hope — and a capacity to make sense of the experience), social embeddedness (where support is available) and where events are attributed to external factors, not the self.

“Choice my not prevent uncertainty or ambivalence in facing change but it is likely to reduce the sense of powerlessness that comes with loss.” — Working With Loss and Grief

Psychologically it’s also important to acknowledge people carrying around a feeling of unfulfilled potential, which comes with loss.

“Unfulfilled ambition may be carried as private loss over a long period of time. Morley (1996) calls it ‘grieving for what has never been.”

Care will be necessarily designed in all the way through. Care with the relationships, care with all the people — I love the poem below by John Smith, called The Gift.

The Gift,by John Smith

Designing the transition — practically

On a practical level there are all kinds of things that need understanding and designing. What would it cost to close something down well? What are those costs? What kind of timeframes? What happens with all the ‘assets’?

The wisdom and legacy

A core part of the Farewell Fund will be to ensure that any organisation that is closing down is resourced to really draw out all of its wisdom. In any organisation there is all kinds of learning and stories to tell. What would a process look like that drew out this wisdom, made it useful to the wider social sector, and left those involved feeling proud of their work and engaged in its legacy?

Recognising power

Power is definitely a part of this too — from the initial question of who decides when something ends? To in whose interest are we keeping something running? In the Art of Exit they made this excellent point — “there is a risk that services that provide for a less visible or vocal constituency or a smaller demographic can be vulnerable to pressures for decommissioning.” So that would also be something to be aware of.

The consequences

I know I should’t underestimate the consequences of closing things down.

Given the adverse effects of closure, exit and decommissioning decisions — the costs of redundancies, risks to service users and consumers, the impact on providers and communities — this aspect of innovation has been neglected, and holds strong, negative connotations. Our aim in this research was to shed some light on how this can be a part of a more constructive process of change, geared towards improvement.

Is there a way to mitigate for some of these consequences? To situate them in to a more constructive, hopeful and creative process of change? And can it be done in a way that is responsible (considerate of all potential consequences), kind (people feel respected, cared for and valued), and intelligent (the history,the learning, the wisdom and the assets have been successfully absorbed in to the new)?


Lastly, what happens afterwards? How do you design a process of healing and restoration? For the people involved and the wider set of relationships and systems of which it was a part. How do you help people adjust, to cope and to make sense of the change?

What’s next ?

I’ve already been doing some reading, revisiting end of life work I did with Doteveryone and thinkpublic, the Uncomfortably Alive projects I was doing back in 2014, keeping in touch with Being & Dying and digging in to some articles (listed below)and books that Graham Leicester recommended — Ernest Becker’s ‘Denial of Death’ and Stanley Keleman ‘Living Your Dying.’ Graham described them as “offering equal and opposite cultural views: the one that we live our lives unconsciously avoiding the reality of death, the other that everything we do is unconsciously shaped by that knowledge. If all change is also loss, it matters which unconscious pattern is in play in any ‘change’ process.”

Each week I will write a short post as I undertake research, do interviews and start the design and prototyping work of imagining the Farewell Fund. If you want to get involved or have any suggestions for reading, people to meet with and interview etc, then please do get in touch.

Graham’s list.

  • The critical one is the link to the ‘five principles for a second enlightenment’, specifically the ‘shift in our relationship with time.”
  • I wrote about death and dying and end of life decisions in a blog post here. Note the reference to the SHINE programme, our comprehensive ‘systems change’ work to change the culture of care, which started with a shift to ‘grown up conversations about living and dying.’
  • And balancing the twin tasks of hospice work and midwifery is the first of the ‘ten critical characteristics of transformative innovation’ in this essay for the Singapore Civil Service College on the policymaker of the future.