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 na├»ve 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?