Thursday, 31 December 2009

Unintended consequences go to waste

The Search for Leadership: An Organisational Perspective discusses some of the truths and traps that await powerful CEOs who don’t know what they don’t know. Lacking education in organisational behaviour, such leaders are vulnerable and may push for the wrong thing.

One such trap awaits those who decide to centralise services to save costs. It seems obvious to them that economies of scale are bound to deliver savings. Figures may show that this is so, provided that the boundary of the system being considered is defined in narrow terms. But if all types of cost are taken into account, including those passed onto others who are affected by the change – often inadvertently – then the net cost may increase. There is also the added cost of frustration, delays, more customer complaints and lowered staff morale.

Centralisation is a political game, sometimes with a small ‘p’ and sometimes large, as in the case of government ministers looking for departmental savings. This week the probation union Napo treated the public to a laughable tale of this tragi-comedy in practice. Harry Fletcher, Napo’s assistant general secretary explained that “five years ago the Home Office decided to centralise [on regions] and privatise the maintenance of the probation estate”. Previously, local probation services had sought local solutions to local problems.

The upshot was stories such as “Window cleaners travelling from Preston to Leicester and staying in a hotel overnight. An office with four staff receiving 5000 paper towels each month that had not been ordered. A three-hour drive by an electrician to change a lightbulb. A dishwasher arriving that was too large to fit the available space”. These result from a distant and impersonal service that relies on a written contract rather than a customer and a supplier who know each other. Centralisation damages relationships as much as the balance sheet. No wonder ‘motivational and inspirational consultants’ were then hired to address probation staff. Only they told them that there was no such thing as stress.

Unintended consequences of one form or another are predictable, even without knowing about the natural oscillation between centralisation and decentralisation. When the lesson of the increased cost of centralisation is ultimately learned, these leaders will rediscover the attraction of decentralisation, localism and ‘small is beautiful’. Jack Straw, Justice Secretary, has now ordered a review of the contract. It can also be predicted that apparent weaknesses in subsequent decentralisation will lead to some future leader insisting on centralisation.

The current political vogue is for centralisation, but the political rhetoric is about localism. This is another of those ‘tugs of war’ (see yesterday’s post) that challenge leaders – and these days is talked about as managing ‘polarities’.

Wednesday, 30 December 2009

The Great Tug of War

The writer Beverley Naidoo recently visited Yarl’s Wood Child Detention Centre, where children are detained pending possible deportation. She was there to run a story-telling workshop for the children aged five to 16. On entering through security she passed under a sign saying ‘Serco brings service to life’. Inside she found the teachers wearing guards uniforms. They had bundles of keys dangling from their belts.

Does this remind you of another item in the news last week? By a strange coincidence we heard of a different sign over a different entrance: ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ (‘Work sets you free’). It hung over the entrance to another detention centre - Auschwitz. Perhaps I’m cynical. Perhaps the sign is. Like 'free', the word 'life' can have more than one meaning for people in detention.

Organisations sometimes tell tales about their brand. There can be tension between rhetoric and reality. Leadership is about being authentic and attending to these gaps.

And what book did Naidoo take with her to read from? The Great Tug of War. Just so!

Thursday, 24 December 2009

An event, a dear boy, an event

Paraphrasing Harold Macmillan, when asked about the challenges facing leaders, he nearly said the above. Though he didn’t mean it in this particular way, an event in Bethlehem long ago made them think. And still does.

Happy Christmas!

Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Edgar Schein’s future of culture

Does an organisation’s culture influence individuals’ behaviour? Or does it work the other way round: does the sum of how individuals behave help to define the organisation’s culture?

This question came to mind when, to my surprise, Edgar Schein proposed that we drop words such as ‘culture’, as they have become overworked, overused and misunderstood (he may have a point there) and instead start to focus on behaviours that we seek as the focus of outcomes (report on An Audience with Edgar Schein (IDeA Conference, 19 November).

One small point: I question the “focus of outcomes”, suspecting that it might mean “driver of outcomes” (otherwise it confuses means and ends). But there is something more worrying about Schein’s alternative focus. First, let’s get this post’s opening question out of the way. An organisation’s culture is rather like a fishtank is to fish; it is part of what surrounds people at work, largely taken for granted and unseen. It may contain sustenance and/or toxins, be clear and navigable or opaque. Schein may be correct that we’re confused about it, but I don’t think we should stop talking about it.

The big question is what is the engine that drives the system’s success? Schein appears to take the view that it is individuals and their behaviour. That conventional stance emphasises the role of competency frameworks, personal objectives, individual performance appraisal, and skills training. More radical souls include the likes of OD specialist W Warner Burke, systems thinker Margaret Wheatley, and complexity scientist Ralph Stacey (a school of thought to which I belong). We believe that what matters more is attending to all the gaps, spaces and glue in what surrounds people, what binds them together and what keeps them apart, in their relationships with each other, with the system in which they function, with the organisation’s aims, and with their environment. Individuals are defined by their relationships; they have little organisational power when considered in isolation.

If these radicals are right, then there is a stronger future for OD’s work on the system.

Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Stuff happens!

When questioned about the death of Meredith Kercher, Amanda Knox responded “Shit happens!”. Her response differs little from that of Donald Rumsfeld’s “stuff happens” to the looting in Baghdad. He added that "They're also free to live their lives and do wonderful things. And that's what's going to happen here."

When something bad happens it may be an unintended consequence of some plan or event. But these things are rarely planned and predicted. Indeed, one of managers’ biggest problems is that so little can be predicted. Things come out of the blue, with a dynamic of their own. When asked what represented the greatest challenge for a statesman, Prime Minister Harold Macmillan replied: 'Events, my dear boy, events'.

As explained in The Search for Leadership, Rumsfeld is also known for saying “Reports that say that something hasn't happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don't know we don't know.” He was right, though was widely mocked over this remark.

Given his intelligence and his awareness of the huge knowledge vacuum present when taking shocking and awful decisions about the Iraq invasion, his level of confidence in the expected outcomes seems surprising. He expected the US troops to be welcomed with open arms. And he thought that the west’s gift of democracy would be equally welcome. Given his sayings, we might have expected greater modesty and some recognition of the need for a contingency plan. We now know that he believed none was needed, so sure was he of success. ‘Stuff happens’ is not embedded in his management planning method; it is an excuse when confronted by evidence of failure. Presumably, Fred Goodwin was equally sure of the Royal Bank of Scotland’s disastrous decision to purchase ABN Amro. We can predict that hubris will play a part in leaders’ decisions more easily than we can predict a successful outcome.

The work of Margaret Wheatley, Ralph Stacey and other writers on the complexity sciences reveals and explains the Achilles Heel in management’s claimed justification for their role; i.e. very little in this life can be predicted. So even the need for contingency plans, the usefulness of their diagnosis, or likely outcome cannot be predicted.

Wheatley’s conclusion (see Leadership and the New Science) is to seek to control less, try to manage more simply, be more humble, and allow a greater role for nature to produce order out of chaos. It won’t stop death, but it may happen further from one’s own interventions.

Monday, 21 December 2009

What defeated leaders leave behind

On 17 December on BBC Radio Four, the World Affairs Editor John Simpson recollected the 20th anniversary of the downfall of communist rule in Romania. Simpson had been present during the bloody overthrow of dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. The dictator had banned Christmas and even thought!

This brings to mind other sudden and dramatic downfalls of fiercely strong leaders of various shades and reputation: Robert Maxwell, Margaret Thatcher, Fred Goodwin among them – and what legacy their surprise and shocking departure leaves in its train. In referring to former communist dictators, Simpson remarks: “Getting rid of them was an ugly and highly questionable process, and it isn’t over even now”.

The day after the impromptu executions of Ceausescu and his much-feared wife Elena, Simpson bumped into a sociologist inside the communist central building in Bucharest. This person confided “We Romanians will always suffer as a result of Ceausescu. He’s inside every one of us. That’s his revenge”.

A few years ago the guest conductor Alan Tongue was invited to Romania to conduct a performance by the Bucharest Symphony Orchestra. After the rehearsal he invited any of the players who wished to come back to his hotel and practise their English. He waited, but no one came. He subsequently asked the orchestra’s leader for an explanation. Tongue was told, “No conductor has ever expressed an interest in them, or wanted to listen to them. The only model of leadership they are used to is autocratic. It’s our way: look at Romania’s dictator Nicolae Ceaucescu. Your invitation totally confused them. It was wholly outside their experience. They couldn’t relate to it.”

Friday, 18 December 2009

Councils should become more businesslike but not more like a business

The New Local Government Network thinktank proposes that local authorities should be allowed to engage in commercial trading in order to supplement their income. It suggests that councils could sell insurance and mortgages. The idea is specious, ill thought-through and dangerous. It undermines the public ethos of councils and the importance of maintaining a clear distinction between organisations that trade with the public in order to return a profit, and those that have a guardian status in protecting and serving the public. It risks moral confusion inside the council, as well as with members of the public and other commercially competing organisations.

Under existing legislation, local authorities already have powers to raise revenues from car parking. The London Borough of Hounslow has been accused of sharp commercial practice over this, from which I have personally suffered. Such councils have no interest in charging just for the time used. It suits them if people have to estimate the likely time they need in a pay-and-display car park, then inadvertently overstay, so that they can then ‘fine’ them £50. Showing discretion and tolerating overstaying by a few minutes runs counter to the council's interest in collecting a stiff fine. This commercial mindset can lead to setting targets and incentivising parking attendants.

Darlington Borough Council has been criticised for fining householders over refuse collection infringements, such as a £50 fine for putting their rubbish containers out onto the pavement six hours too early.

The consequence of commercialising a public service is an erosion of trust between councils and members of the public. It overlooks ethos-related questions such as ‘Why are we in business?’, ‘Who are we here to serve?’ and ‘Who is paying our wages?’

Such philosphical issues are, of course, matters of leadership. This subject is explored in The Search for Leadership: An Organisational Perspective. In particular the book examines the important work of Jane Jacobs in Systems of Survival.

Monday, 14 December 2009

The leader's intoxication with power

We hear it time and again: ‘People want strong leaders’. This near universal claim is rarely challenged. But just what is this so-called ‘strength’? Does apparent strength mask weakness? By many measures, and despite his faults and misjudgements, UK ex-prime minister Tony Blair seemed to be a strong leader – clear in his own mind, articulate, confident, persuasive. The call for ‘strength’ is one of the themes explored in my book The Search for Leadership: An Organisational Perspective.

As Blair’s distance from power grows, and spurred by his imminent appearance before the Chilcot Inquiry on the Iraq war, another former establishment figure breaks ranks. Ken Macdonald QC, former Director of Public Prosecutions (2003-2008), claims that UK ex-Prime Minister Tony Blair was a weak leader (‘Intoxicated by power, Blair tricked us into war’, The Times,14 December). Macdonald writes:

“Blair’s fundamental flaw was his sycophancy towards power. Perhaps this seems odd in a man who drank so much of that mind-altering brew at home. But Washington turned his head and he couldn’t resist the stage or the glamour that it gave him. In this sense he was weak … we have frequently heard him repeating the self-regarding mantra that ‘hand on heart, I only did what I thought was right’. But it is a narcissist’s defence, and self-belief is no answer to misjudgement: it is certainly no answer to death.”

My book considers how leaders manipulate opinion to get their way: that a strong leader’s job is assumed to be to decide and then persuade others. (Even recognizing the need to persuade others may be seen as a concession.) Such a role for the leader results in information being edited, timed and manipulated to obtain others’ agreement. This prevents people from marshalling their thoughts, arguments, doubts, and how to plan safe ways of expressing them. The plan is to neutralise potential opposition, making the leader’s chosen role of persuasion that much easier. In this school of thought The Prince is required reading.

In his report of his earlier Iraq Inquiry, Lord Butler (then Cabinet Secretary) commented critically on the use of intelligence to support the decision to go to war with Iraq. He said: ‘Without papers circulated in advance, it remains possible but it is obviously much more difficult for the cabinet outside the small inner circle directly involved to bring their political judgement and experience to bear.’

As an imagined alternative role for a truly strong leader, my book offers Blair the option of behaving literally and constitutionally as a ‘first-among-equals’ prime minister. How might he then have seen his role in relation to his cabinet colleagues when deciding to go to war with Iraq? He might have said to them something like this:

‘My job is to help you to arrive at the conclusion that enables you to look yourself in the mirror, to enable you to face your families and friends, to act consistently with your personal values and beliefs and remain authentic, to speak to me on this matter from your heart, without being concerned how it will affect your remaining in a cabinet post. My role is to ensure that you have all the relevant information you need to arrive at the right decision as you judge it and to express that view freely. I also need to give you time to reflect on this and not feel bounced into taking an immediate decision.’

Such imagined language would be a model of the leader’s role to support and serve others.

Thursday, 10 December 2009

Gerry Robinson at home

This self-styled celebrity TV fixer of business failings has been looking into care homes. What can we learn about leadership in this context?

The two main employers featured in the programme were ‘penny wise, pound foolish’. To save money, the food and services provided by the kitchen staff to residents were not available to the carers. Such staff were not allowed to make themselves a sandwich or a cup of tea. A loaf of bread was even inspected to check for cheating. It was not surprising that Robinson heard that this was a source of considerable ill-feeling.

This little incident loomed large and brought to mind two lessons from my time in the great British Airways turnaround in the mid-1980s. The first was Arlie Hochschild’s research into jobs which constituted ‘emotional labour’; i.e. the need to recognise the special demands placed on staff whose work exposes them to heavy emotional demands. Care work calls for qualities of patience, concern, resilience, and the means of recovering emotional balance in order to return to face the demands of residents suffering from dementia. The employers are paying their emotional labourers, not simply to wash and dress residents, but to show genuine and repeated care, in a highly stressful environment.

The other learning from my British Airways days is research by Benjamin Schneider. This showed that staff’s treatment of their customers is a reflection of how they are themselves treated by their supervisors. In the residential home context, if carers feel poorly treated by their boss, they will ‘take it out’ on the residents.

Gerry Robinson witnessed all this at first hand. He was rightly angry and exasperated at what he encountered – almost lost for words. But I doubt that he understood the psychology behind the nature of what he was witnessing. More to the point, neither did those in charge of the homes. But Robinson knew it was wrong, and the owners didn’t.

Monday, 7 December 2009

When in a tight corner is it a good idea to come out fighting?

Leadership consultant Danny Chesterman recently observed “I am increasingly finding that oppressive types of leader behaviour are becoming commonplace”. Whether it’s actually getting worse is open to question, but there is no shortage of examples. Three in the last few days come to mind. First up was Ed Balls, Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, writing to 12 local authorities with poor-performing primary schools “demanding” that they write action plans by the end of January. Second was Prime Minster Gordon Brown criticizing the “culture of excess” among the senior public-sector ranks (no matter that the pay levels for their jobs are set by others when they want to fill a post). Third was Barbara Young, Chairman of the Care Quality Commission, who resigned after a difficult meeting with Andy Burnham, Secretary of State for Health. It had emerged that investigators were being sent into an Essex hospital (see post on this topic on 30 November) because dozens of patients are thought to have died due to inadequate care. A month earlier, the CQC had rated the quality of care at the hospital as good, leading to a row about the CQC's credibility.

In all three cases, these public leaders had found themselves in a tight corner; their quality, budgetary and PR systems – for schools, civil service and hospitals – were all failing. Barbara Young’s response, it was reported in The Guardian, was to propose a stricter inspection regime. Ball’s response was to turn up the volume control button. Brown’s was to “name and shame”.

In place of seeking to judge and direct, all three overlook the importance of quality relationships and dialogue if one wants to bring about improvement. The author Margaret Wheatley advises: “Hierarchy and defined power are not what is important; what’s critical is the availability of places for the exchange of energy” (Leadership and the New Science, Berrett-Koehler, 1999). Wheatley is a staunch advocate of participatory relationships. Nowadays, we might speak of relationships based on a sense of partnership. Paradoxically, partnerships are all the rage (sic) in the public sector.

Thursday, 3 December 2009

More Socratic dialogue needed

When a man came to converse with Socrates, he usually thought that he had a fair knowledge of what he was talking about. But after half an hour of Socrates' questioning, he discovered that he knew nothing at all – and at that moment, Socrates explained, his philosophical quest could begin.

Socrates maintained that wisdom consisted of the disorienting realisation of the profundity of human ignorance. People must interrogate their most fundamental prejudices or they would live superficial, expedient lives, because "the unexamined life is not worth living". To philosophise was not to bludgeon your opponent into accepting your point of view, but to do battle with yourself.

Furthermore, a truly Socratic dialogue must be conducted with gentleness and without malice. It was a joint effort to obtain new understanding: you expressed yourself clearly as a gift to your debating partners, whose beautifully expressed arguments would, in turn, touch you at a profound level. Socrates once described himself as a midwife whose task was to help his conversation partner engender a new self. By learning to inhabit each other's point of view with honesty and generosity, participants were taken beyond themselves, realised that they lacked wisdom and longed for it, but knew that they were not what they ought to be.

Dialogue is a current buzzword, but despite the vaunted rationalism of our society, there is little genuinely Socratic dialogue going on. All too often in a debate it is not sufficient for us to seek the truth; we also have to defeat and even humiliate our opponents. In a panel discussion it is often evident that participants are not really listening to adversaries but busy thinking up a riposte that will deliver the coup de grace.

And yet if ever there was a time when we needed an appreciation of how little we know, it is surely now. Our financial institutions are in meltdown; we are bound together more closely than ever before – electronically, politically and economically – and yet the world is polarised; we are engaged in destructive wars we seem unable to end or win; and we are facing environmental catastrophe. A joint effort and a Socratic humility and openness to others is required if we are to meet the challenges of our time and create a just and viable world.

(Quoted from Charter with Compassion: At One with our Ignorance, Karen Armstrong, The Guardian, 10 November 2009)

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Emotional book review

A book review of The Search for Leadership: An Organisational Perspective and its associated Systemic Leadership Toolkit, has highlighted the place of emotion in change initiatives. Specifically, the question raised is whether a highly analytical and intellectual approach to the study of leadership improvement is at odds with the messy emotions in organisations, such as loss, fear and anxiety. Eschewing Tom Peters’ ‘wow, bang, wallop’ style of prose, I believe the analytical writing style can be separated from the subject being written about and separately from the emotional motivation that readers then require to take action.

There is no doubt that the book talks openly about highly emotional issues, such as bullying, whistleblowing, hubris, power, and much more besides. The chapter on the shadow side of organisational life explains that the non-rational forces in an organisation, such as greed, ambition and fear, account for what happens far more than the rational forces such as policies, edicts and structures. So the subject-matter is unreservedly emotional.

The toolkit’s process uses analytical roundtable discussions to tease out what managers think about their organisation’s leadership culture and what leadership is used for. When faced with the data, they generate the necessary emotional commitment to do something to improve it.

But another aspect concerning emotion and change emerges in the review: that of deep, unconscious drives; for example, the need to belong, and the need to have an identity. The book doesn’t discuss these, but they are very real nonetheless. If groups were presented with a cool analysis, they may agree with it, while the emotional cost of shifting behaviours may not yet, for them, outweigh the benefits of carrying on as they are. But the toolkit’s process does not give people someone else’s analysis; they generate their own, and then discuss, as leaders, what they want to do.

John Kotter says "People change what they do less because they are given analysis that shifts their thinking than because they are shown a truth that influences their feelings" (Kotter and Cohen, The Heart of Change). Kotter advocates ‘feel-see-change’ not ‘analyse-think-change’. A very interesting point, but less relevant perhaps if leadership has been distributed.

Today, the Home Secretary bemoaned the reluctance of the UK’s 43 police forces to merge, even though they had been given compelling data of the benefits. It is not difficult to imagine how some of the chief constables have not yet overcome the emotional cost of personal change.

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Sufi teaching and systems thinking

Margaret Wheatley, in Leadership and the New Science, says:

One of the differences between new science and Newtonianism is a focus on holism rather than parts. Systems are understood as whole systems, and attention is given to ‘relationships within those networks’. Donella Meadows, an ecologist and author, quotes an ancient Sufi teaching that captures this shift in focus:

“You think [that] because you understand 'one' you must understand 'two', because one and one makes two. But you must also understand 'and'.”

The point, of course, is that the ‘and’ is represented by the system and the way it makes positive connections. Any organisation should be capable of adding two parts together without loss, though in practice many detract value (the book The Search for Leadership identifies all the places and ways in which leadership runs to waste). The trick is to manage the system that surrounds the parts in such a way that the total organisation adds net value so that the whole is more than the sum of the parts. Then we might be able to claim that we truly understand and manage 'and'.

Monday, 30 November 2009

Basildon and Thurrock University NHS Hospitals Foundation Trust is sick

Reminiscent of the up-one-minute and down-the-next ratings applied by the children’s regulator Ofsted to Haringey’s children and young persons services, something similar is happening now with hospitals and their sector’s regulator, the Care Quality Commission (CQC).

On 27 November, reported that CQC ‘… found that poor nursing, filthy wards and lack of leadership at Basildon and Thurrock University NHS Hospitals Foundation Trust contributed to 400 avoidable deaths in a year. … Concerns about death rates … were first raised a year ago, but an internal investigation failed to find anything wrong and senior managers dismissed the concerns. … The new external report found “systematic failings” in the trust’s senior management team … Yet the trust was rated as "good" on quality of service in the CQC's 2008/09 assessment and marked "excellent" for its financial management. It was also given 13 out of 14 for safety and cleanliness ...’

The inspection system calls for an overall rating (e.g. ‘excellent’); but this cannot capture the variability over multiple aspects which may be marked low, while others may be marked high. How can you average these, and how meaningful is such an outcome? Baroness Young, who chairs the CQC, herself admits that ‘the rating covers about 200 indicators and tries to summarise the performance in a very complex hospital in one word, either 'good', 'excellent', 'fair' or 'poor', I don't think that's right’. What I personally find frustrating is that I was pointing out this problem 15 years ago in the book Developing Corporate Competence!

A way round this rating dilemma would be to rely on narrative descriptions of the component elements; it is the detailed story that contains the potential for learning and improvement. A rating is merely a crude headline that induces anxiety and the threat of managers being replaced, or alternatively leads to relaxation. In a previous round of inspections, hospitals were incentivised to achieve an ‘excellent’ rating by offering them ‘foundation trust’ status, becoming semi-independent of government control. Another hospital, Stafford, was one of those whose executive team tried so hard to achieve foundation trust status that it took its eye of its real goal, that of serving its patients and blamed this for its poor performance! Many of the hospitals that passed the first hurdle and became foundation trusts have now been labelled ‘failed’. But the system of labelling has also failed and has even contributed to that failure. Elementary psychology teaches us, for example, that external inspections are responsible for the situation quoted above; i.e. where a subsequent “internal investigation failed to find anything wrong and senior managers dismissed the concerns”.

Ultimately, it becomes impossible for the leaders of a failed regulatory system, one which has become so corrupted and discredited, to provide their own solution. The remedy usually entails a change in the cycle between central and local control, and between extrinsic and intrinsic motivation. The need for such about-turns is an argument for limiting tenure – not just of chairmen, chief executives and regulators’ chief inspectors, but also governments.

A further issue in the hospitals debacle is that leadership is itself being rated as though it is an independent variable. This presupposes that it would be theoretically possible for all the other measures of hospital success to be rated high while leadership is rated low. Or vice versa. But where the organisation has suffered systemic failure there has, by definition, been a systemic failure of leadership. The confusion over the place of leadership in the inspection regime arises where a distinction is not made between the enterprise’s ‘business’ (what it exists for) and its ‘organisation’ (the internal arrangements that enable it to serve its business). Leadership is in the latter category; it is a means to an end. Incidentally, note the CQC’s reference to ‘systematic failings’ instead of ‘systemic failings’. Leaders who don’t understand systems frequently make this error. ‘Systematic’ means methodical, regular or deliberate – you wouldn’t deliberately set out to fail, would you? ‘Systemic’ means it is a feature of the system.

Thursday, 26 November 2009

Ofsted receives a low rating, but that's its job

A month ago (see post dated 28 October) I first mentioned public criticism of Ofsted, the inspectorate for children and learners. The stream has become a torrent, including the Association of Children’s Services, which represents the head of children’s departments in English local authorities, claiming that the new annual performance profiles being developed by Ofsted are “not fit for purpose”. Why is that of interest here? The point is that systemic leadership focuses on what is going on between and around managers when they try to take on a leadership role. Are managers’ efforts helped or hindered by Ofsted’s approach? The answer from those being inspected is an overwhelming thumb’s down. For a summary of the problem, see

The root problem is that Ofted is required by government to sit in judgement – of schools, teachers, social workers. Is that helpful? Is it necessary? The heavy-handed style is pervasive in the present government culture, and ratings are a big part of that. Ofsted aside, many people seem obsessed with being able to confer a rating on others. Organisations’ performance appraisal systems are frequently brought low by this assumed requirement. As the inspiring conductor-cum-management guru Benjamin Zander says in his book The Art of Possibility, such ratings “are all invented”. In other words, why should we take seriously something that lacks any objective foundation? In his classes his own approach is to give all his students an ‘A’ grade, so that they can stop worrying what grade they will receive and can ‘grow into this top grade’, as he puts it. “An A radiates possibility through a family, a workplace, and a community, gaining strength, bringing joy and expression and a flowering of talent and productivity. Who knows how far it will travel."

Behind this is the view that it is learning and improving that matters, not having a fixed grade. There are times when it can be helpful for others to know what your grade is because it drives something (such as a job application or a computer programme calculating a bonus), but sometimes a grade serves little purpose and tells us more about the rater and the system than the person or organisation being rated. If Ofsted refocused its ‘inspection’ on learning and support, then it might have a future. But that would mean changing its values and those of its government sponsors. That is unlikely to happen. Trust has evaporated. As has faith in Ofsted’s own internal organisational management. The only question now is ‘Do we need an OfOf – a regulator to cut the regulators down to size?

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

Thoughts about thought leadership in declaring war

On the day that Sir John Chilcot’s Iraq Inquiry opens for business it’s worth reflecting on the work of Keith Grint. I find his work riveting and troubling at the same time – see ‘Problems, problems, problems: the social construction of leadership’ in Human Relations Vol 58(11). Grint takes a swipe at contingency theory. The theory holds that leadership is situational: that once a situation has been rationally assessed, the appropriate leadership response can be adjudged. In this view, George Bush’s ‘commander’ style happened to be the appropriate response to what he found going on in Iraq. But Grint says that the process actually works in the reverse direction: that decision-makers render their accounts of situations in such a way that the style of decision making needed is preordained and self-interested. So Hans Blix didn’t stand a chance. Bush was able to portray Iraq as an urgent crisis in need of strong command leadership. Opponents who wanted to ask questions, explore options, or try well-honed management processes such as diplomacy could be portrayed as weak, given that Bush’s description of the situation in Iraq (e.g. Saddam Hussein is a friend of Al Qaeda and has weapons ...) successfully overpowered other interpretations. A popular feature of leadership studies is belief that situations can be rationally assessed; but as Grint points out, they are the products of ‘social construction’. The ‘truth’ is simply how it can successfully be portrayed. That’s a step beyond ‘what we perceive it to be’: it’s how we sell it. The shadow side of leadership is alive and kicking!

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Who needs to behave ethically?

Do competency frameworks adequately spell out the requirement for managers to behave ethically? Some people look at the state of the banking sector, business in general, and the UK economy, and conclude not. But, while moral failure is occasionally individual (e.g. Bernie Madoff, Robert Maxwell), it is usually more widespread and a feature of the way the organisation chooses to do business. The banking failure was systemic. The TV premium rate phone racket was systemic. The MP's expenses scandal was systemic. Pensions misselling was systemic and probably the most egregious: the induction process and message for this high-turnover workforce was blatant. Once the companies were found out, they blamed their salespeople and either fired them or sent them for pointless retraining. Then the companies reassured the public that the culprits had been discovered and dealt with. You can’t get more unethical than that.

Most of the individuals who get caught up in these scandals are not bad people, but the organisation's purpose, business model, market pressures, design, culture, processes, pay and recognition, targets, incentives and dynamics leads these people collectively to behave in a way that most outsiders consider unethical. You cannot get such a system to behave more ethically by adding items in competency frameworks or by training individuals. To bring about improvement you need to directly work on what is going on between and around individuals (the quality of the water in their 'fishtank' that is poisoning them). And there will usually need to be some external pressure on the organisation to make changes (e.g. the FSA putting the squeeze on bankers' bonuses).

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Planned versus emergent leadership

I have been challenged: how can organisations get their needs for leadership met (or should they even try) when commentators now claim that leadership is ‘emergent’ and should be allowed to do so; all the organisation should do is create the right conditions. Good question. Here is how I reconcile the dilemma.

Situations are unpredictable (as my book discusses), especially in the light of what complexity scientists say. So there must be scope for individual leadership responses to emerge, free of the organisation hand on the tiller. Yet, that cannot be the whole story. When Thatcher put my old boss Lord King in charge of British Airways, she gave him a brief - broadly, make it earn money and become independent of annual Treasury bailouts, take customers seriously, and privatise. There was a new agenda for BA. King couldn't do it on his own. It would not do for his managers to say: 'that King's job: our job doesn't change'. Nor could they afford to say 'what we do will 'emerge' '!

Rarely is an organisational need or message 'steady as she goes'; usually change is required - be it the banks, BBC, Royal Mail, etc. There will be an inevitable tension between top-down, organisation-mandated change (which requires the organisation to take a positive view of what it needs leadership for at a given time) and a bottom-up emergent perspective where little can be predicted and forced, and people need a considerable degree of freedom in what they use their leadership for.

Taking another example, did the TV companies' telephone premium phone charge scam 'emerge' in some bottom-up, uncoordinated and unplanned way? Or were objectives and conditions deliberately being set which made such behaviour by executives inevitable? When it all went pear-shaped and fines were imposed, the top brass made clear what it wanted from these leaders to put it right. If the truly emergent model rules OK, then it seems to me we will lurch from unexpected crises like this followed by a crackdown, and so on. That doesn't seem a very clever way for an organisation to manage its affairs. And yet, you might argue that a firmer view of what the organisation needs before things go wrong might stifle creativity and testing the boundaries. Overall, the answer to the conundrum probably lies between these extremes.

I end up thinking how can organisations be happy to spend so much on leadership development without taking a view on what they want it for? If you were put in charge of the MOD, wouldn't you want to be clear about that and to communicate it and make sure it was being used for that? Or would you put all your faith in 'let's see what emerges'?

Monday, 16 November 2009

How are you feeling?

The call by the Chartered Management Institute for managers to sign a pledge “to develop the way I manage and lead, setting the example for others” reminds me of what my boss in British Airways used to say about edicts. He didn’t think they made much difference to what actually happened (he was less polite than that). A good test for anyone who has made the pledge is this: what are you now doing differently? Or even, what do you expect to do differently?

Organisations have two faces. One is rational (the side that’s taught in business schools); it consists of policies, structures, directives, strategies, standing orders, budgets, plans, etc. The other is non-rational; it contains politics, greed, ambition, the grapevine, friendships, jealousies, power, etc. This second ‘shadow side’ better explains what really happens. Edicts are part of the former; they are an expression of intention, wishfulness and hope, usually flying in the face of humanity’s self-interest and weakness. Pledges fit here too.

Pledges make people feel warm. We all need some of that. It’s an important emotion. Yet when I think about the banks and look out on the state of the economy, politics, climate change, criminal justice, global warming, Afghanistan and think about leadership, a more appropriate emotion right now would seem to be anger.

Friday, 13 November 2009

Raise them up and knock them down

Picking up from where we left off last time, the Chartered Management Institute runs a blog site for its members’ network. Based on its ‘manifesto’ for a Better Managed Britain, the call for strong managers and leaders has inevitably surfaced. There are several reasons why I argue against this, not least that an organisation’s services are provided by systems, not individuals. A systems thinking perspective puts the leadership focus back where it belongs: the aim is to have a well-led organisation.

Hence I say to the CMI blogging community ‘Management and leadership come about when the organisation gets its collective act together. Management and leadership result from attending to the spaces between managers and also between their personal, departmental and company agendas. Management and leadership come about when all the gaps down which talent and energy is wasted are plugged. … strength is needed by the system to control and channel the dangerous tendencies of overly strong managers. Wars and battles (even within organisations) are usually the result of too little restraint, not just self-restraint but that which comes from the system – for example, cabinet leadership. A strong leader doesn’t necessarily equate to wise or competent; it may just mean loud, over-confident and dominant.

Look at the example set in the failed banking sector by Royal Bank of Scotland and Northern Rock. Fred Goodwin and Adam Applegarth were too strong, and the system that surrounded them was too weak. Examples of hubris from the United States were as extreme or more so. Excessive power corrupted their judgment and the decision-making process.

So my response is: give the strength and the glory to the system, not to the individuals. However, there is a problem, as shown by the torrent of invective that followed my article ‘Sometimes it’s the workplace that’s stupid, not the staff’ (Guardian, 11 November). A child psychiatrist explained readers’ response this way: “Systemic thinking is infuriating to the paranoid mind (to all our paranoid minds!) precisely because it doesn't blame an individual. It's public hangings versus democratic discourse. No contest?”

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Taking the pledge

The Chartered Management Institute (CMI) has now launched its Better Managed Britain campaign. The institute asks managers and government to pledge their support and sign statements about how well they will manage and support managers. Will the campaign work? A strategy based on ‘If only we push harder this time’ while the broad message remains the same is unlikely to prove transformational. More importantly, it’s worth noting that lots of managers managing well or better does not on its own produce a better managed organisation (or even Britain).

The discipline of Systems Thinking propounds the principle that one cannot optimise the whole by breaking down the parts and then optimising those separately (as the systemic leadership model explains). Competency frameworks for individual managers, better qualified managers, and more use of training fails this test. That is not to say that these do not make a contribution, but if they are necessary they are not sufficient. To use a familiar analogy, you cannot improve a fishtank by improving the fish. If that was possible, we wouldn’t need organisation development as well as management development.

It’s like wine. If a group of friends come round for dinner and drink a lot of really good wine, it helps but of itself it doesn’t produce a good evening. The wine is just one ingredient. What matters as well is what complements the wine, of which food is a vital element. But even that doesn’t suffice. If a dinner party is to be successful we need a host. The host chooses who is there and provides the reason why they come together. It’s then a matter of the quality of relationships and ‘connection’; what conversations take place in the spaces between the participants? What do they have in common? What do they value? What do they want to happen? Organisations are like that. If the CMI wants managers managing better to result in better management for the organisational 'host' it needs to heed that lesson.

Monday, 9 November 2009

It’s the system, stupid!

In last Tuesday’s Guardian newspaper, Eileen Munro of the London School of Economics (LSE), made a telling comparison between the public’s acceptance of systemic explanations for failure in the case of aircraft accidents versus those concerning breakdowns in child protection of the kind that cost Baby Peter his life in the London Borough of Haringey (‘Beyond the blame culture’, 3 November). Munro points out that, in social work, the assumption is that blame can be laid at the door of individuals who are “stupid, malicious, lazy or incompetent”. In the case of aircraft accidents the assumption is that a system fault (e.g. confusing instrument layout) offers a more likely explanation than a bad pilot. Hence, investigations into aircraft accidents are systems based, but in social work they focus on individuals and someone to blame. The public, media and politicians have a need to find scapegoats in one case, but not in the other. Guess which.

Professional management institutes have done shamefully little to wean their members, the public, the media, regulators, and politicians off instinctive assumptions of individual manager responsibility, (in)competence and culpability. In cases of high-profile systemic failure this has sustained baying calls for summary dismissal of managers (such as Sharon Shoesmith, Haringey’s former Director of Children and Young Persons Services) or naïve faith in their retraining (those left behind). High pay for top executives has served only to reinforce the mythical status of the individual leader either as saviour, or as dunce when the system fails. But leadership is only as good as the system of which it forms a part, and on which its improvement effort should be focused.

At its heart lies a basic confusion between what managers do and the concept of management. The former emphasises the skill, qualifications and training of managers. It assumes that more and better managers will result in better management. But successful ‘management’ of a complex system depends on attending to the gaps and spaces. Hence the importance of Munro adopting a systems perspective for conducting serious case reviews to improve child protection. The simplistic equation between managers and management has bedevilled attempts at improving public services for years. The National Skills Academies are offering ‘learning for leadership to transform their services’; they are in danger of repeating this basic attribution error. For those seeking a systems perspective, there is a tool for diagnosing, understanding and remedying instances of systemic shortcomings and failure in management and leadership.

Thursday, 5 November 2009

Where’s the evidence?

It is a political requirement to state that policy decisions should be ‘evidence-based’, yet ‘policy-based evidence’ is what politicians actually want. Professor Nutt claimed that his views on drug classification were evidence-based, but the Home Secretary rightly argued that scientific evidence was just one factor. Building large prisons isn’t evidence-based, while ‘restorative justice’ methods of rehabilitation are, yet are not politically acceptable. What is politically acceptable plays a big part, as does what is affordable. Intuition and common-sense have a rightful role. Myths are powerful but may mislead, as in belief in ‘economies of scale’, where the evidence runs contrary.

Any organisation’s management likes to believe it manages rationally. But there is a more powerful, non-rational side, as the above shows. This includes prejudices, envy, departmental rivalries, networks, groupthink, etc – all more powerful than edicts, rules, codes, databases, targets, budgets, etc. In The Search for Leadership I identify 35 rational components and 40 non-rational ones.

There is scientific evidence that evidence itself is socially constructed. We see what suits our purpose. The banks have evidence that supporting arms manufacturers is profitable, but is that the right question to ask? George Bush ‘saw’ that Saddam Hussein was a friend of Al Qaeda; his ‘evidence’ supported the need for the US to have a strong commander-in-chief – himself.

By all means try to seek out evidence, but please consign the language of ‘evidence-based policy’ to the dustbin of history – or should that be hypocrisy?

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

No expense spared

Today sees the official publication of Sir Christopher Kelly’s proposals for getting out of the MPs’ expenses quagmire. As further evidence that this sorry mess is as much a system problem as it is one of personal morality, Baroness Shirley Williams spoke out on last Friday’s BBC Radio 4 Any Questions programme, saying “… governments have been completely complicit in this, by refusing to raise MPs’ salaries, by asking them, telling them, to claim the maximum expenses they could, which was, in fact, an invitation to behave in a dodgy manner … Government has to stand up and take part of the blame for all this."

Returning to the story in yesterday's post concerning Professor David Nutt’s views on drugs, I had a chance to read selective extracts from his paper. I must say that it was a model of measured professionalism. I could find no overt criticism of government policy, double dealing or hurt feeling. While most people take a strong view either for or against Alan Johnson’s sacking of Professor Nutt, one wise soul simply advised ‘I think he [Johnson] could have let this one go’. That’s how it seems to me. Keep your powder dry for the most egregious cases of reprehensible behaviour.

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

How to have your Nutt roasted

Following the subject of yesterday’s post is the continuing story of the Home Secretary, Alan Johnson, sacking Professor David Nutt from the Government’s Advisory Panel on the Misuse of Drugs, of which Nutt was chairman. The spat has polarised around Nutt’s rights (‘freedom of speech’) to continue to speak out against the Government’s drugs policy, especially upgrading cannabis (it had earlier been downgraded by Caroline Flint, another government minister), after the then Home Secretary had rejected Nutt’s advice. Nutt had gone on to publish his views that tobacco and alcohol – and even horse-riding – are more dangerous than many drugs, including ecstacy, LSD and cannabis.

There are several issues here, including whether it is reasonable to require the scientific panel to ‘support’ the government. But a question facing dissenters (in any organisation) is how, when and where you go about voicing it. Is it a responsible dissenter’s place, indeed duty, to voice criticism vigorously but only up to the point when a decision is taken? Should the criticism be voiced in a formal but private setting with colleagues present, but not shared publicly in the national press? Is it acceptable and possible to continue to express one’s viewpoint without at the same time saying that one’s employers/masters are stupid for disagreeing? Is the argument more about method and style than constitution?

Monday, 2 November 2009

Stephen Fry gets the message

Tweeting a million followers ‘Hurray, curry’ is boring, some said. The medium has become the message, as Marshall McLuhan foretold. Never mind the quality, feel the celebrity. But stopping might be difficult for Fry. He needs to tell, and his musings range from the ridiculous to the sublime. Take this from his book Paperweight (Quality Paperbacks Direct, 1992) “Education means freedom, it means truth. Training is what you do to a pear tree when you pleach it and prune it to grow against a wall. Training is what you give to an airline pilot or a computer operator or a barrister or a radio producer. Education is what you give to children to enable them to be free from the prejudices and moral bankruptcies of their elders. And freedom is no part of the programme of today's legislators. Freedom to buy shares, medical treatment or council houses certainly, freedom to buy anything you please. But freedom to think, to challenge, to change. Heavens no. The day a child of mine comes home from school and reveals that he or she has been taught something I agree with is the day I take that child away from school.”

I remember attending a conference at Henley Management College in the 1980s. The Head of Management Development at Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC), made a presentation. At that time DEC was one of the mainframe computer giants, but it was struggling against its competitors (not least because its boss, Ken Olsen, had said ‘People won’t want a personal computer on their desks’). The presenter stated the aim of the MD programme: ‘To ensure that the board is supported’. I stood up and asked pointedly: ‘Isn’t that the exact opposite of what it should be?’ Stephen Fry would have been proud of me! The choice facing organisations between education- and training-led approaches to management development is discussed in The Search for Leadership.

But what is responsible followership in an organisation? Is Professor David Nutt (the UK Government's former drugs tsar) showing how or how not to do it?

Friday, 30 October 2009

How will the system treat Sharon Shoesmith?

Many readers will know that Sharon Shoesmith was summarily dismissed without compensation from her job as Director of Children and Young Person’s Services in the London Borough of Haringey following the death of Baby Peter. She has taken her case to court, which is expected to announce its judgement any day now. Just remember the precedent: not only did Victoria Climbié’s death happen only a few streets from that of Baby Peter, but the disgraced social worker in that case, Lisa Arthurworrey, also took her case to court. She won: Haringey’s system had failed her, and not the other way round.

PS: A follow-up to yesterday’s post: on BBC TV’s Question Time, when asked about the Parliamentary expenses scandal, an MP on the panel said that staff in the Fees Office were unclear what their role was when presented with a claim by an MP.

Thursday, 29 October 2009

MPs’ noses in the trough or sniffing at the system?

Excessive expenses claims by UK members of parliament is a major political scandal. But was the problem that they were simply greedy and had failed in the public’s eyes as leaders? Or should we also blame the system? While each MP shares some responsibility for the expenses system’s collapse, the MPs are a product of the system that surrounds them. Research shows the powerful effect of social influences (relational and environmental) on individuals’ decisions; so the system (built by Parliament over time) shaped the MPs’ behaviour today.

To find a sustainable solution to a problem like this requires an understanding of the system dynamics. What grievances exist about politically restricted past pay increases? What is the so-called “tea-room effect” that occurs when one outlandish claim rapidly leads to a flurry of similar claims as word spreads? What should we make of the errant personal examples set by those who should have known better? What is the status and nature of the relationships in and with the Fees Office, and how is power played out? How does the Fees Office get rid of its unexpected budget surplus at the end of the year? And, yes, what are the published rules, the ones that should have been well-known and stringently followed, but were deliberately left vague?

Both rational elements (e.g. the rules) and non-rational ones (e.g. the tea-room effect) need to be understood. As you begin to assemble a picture, you start to generate ideas about some levers in the system that are amenable to being pulled on to bring about improvement and change. The deeper one digs, the less the problem appears to be one of individual morality and personal leadership — and the less likely the solutions are to be found by trying to elect more honest MPs. If the MPs failed the Parliamentary employment system, then that system failed them, too.

Wednesday, 28 October 2009

Cornwall in childish scrap with Ofsted

Cornwall’s Children Services were condemned as ‘inadequate’ when recently subject to an unannounced inspection by the regulator Ofsted. Among other things, the Council was criticised for ‘ineffective leadership’ and ‘poor supervision by management’. It has a ten-year poor record. Government intervention was deemed necessary in 2006, but the expected improvement did not materialise. So again leaders are being replaced. So what assumptions are driving attempted improvement?

When a system fails, is the problem translated into ‘the leaders have failed’ (think Sharon Shoesmith)? Is it assumed that better new leaders can remedy a flawed system? Do the managers sufficiently understand the nature and dynamics of the system and its resistance?

I remember a new chairman arriving at British Airways many years ago. He was quickly flummoxed. He confessed ‘When I say what I want, nothing happens’. He didn’t understand the system and how to make it work.

Ironically, in a tit-for-tat public scrap, Ofsted is widely criticised for its own performance. Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Life's a system!

Life’s many things. But is it a system? Well, it’s one way of looking at it! But to a systems thinker how anything ‘works’ can be better understood by taking a systems perspective. A friend of mine, Danny Chesterman, finds it helpful to see individuals as "systems in motion, more or less held together in a network of loyalties, relationships and shared meanings and rituals”. You can think of leadership as a system too; this radical viewpoint is explained in The Search for Leadership and accompanying toolkit. Cornwall Council’s child services failure of leadership was ‘systemic’, not just individual failed managers. And, of course, Baby P’s tragic death in Haringey. So too was the Puma helicopter crash, the Met’s shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes, Stafford Hospital, Newcastle United Football Club, and the BBC Jonathan Ross/Russell Brand episode. In all such cases “Lessons will be learned”, they reassuringly say (but they rarely are). So why is improving an organisation and its leadership so difficult? Don't look to leadership (leader) development; that doesn’t achieve this. The real lesson to be learnt is this: to fix leadership you need to fix the leadership system and ‘the way leadership works round here’. To find out how, take a look at