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 ClimbiĆ©’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