Friday, 7 May 2010

Renewal postponed

We all have a personal take on what leadership means. Words count better than polls. On a depressing political morning in which few people will be jumping for unalloyed joy, two positive-sounding words come to mind, and two negative ones. The positives are renewal and hope. The negatives are winning and tribal. Last night this country had a chance of grasping the former, and it blew it. The people ended up settling for a continuance of a discredited partisan game well past its sell-by date, whichever party gains power. I fear that, whichever party forms the government, the public will continue to witness and experience cynicism, disconnection, distrust, obfuscation, narrow party interest, the buying of compliance, and regulation and control over people, institutions, professions and sectors such as education.

It’s little different in the world of business. Rupert Murdoch, owner of the Washington Post, has embarked on a crusade to destroy arch rival The New York Times. Why? Is that what the people need? Is that leadership? Is such a winning and tribal model of leadership any longer life-serving?

By a strange coincidence, yesterday I found myself talking to a doctoral student researching anarchy in local community organisations. He was referring to the ‘honourable’ political strand of leaderless community activism. I responded by saying that when people begin working together an early question for most of them is ‘we need to elect a leader’. Most reject political anarchy movements. Oh, what irony.

South Africa had a chance at renewal and hope and blew it. The USA had a chance and is doing its best to blow it. Winning and tribal took over. Expressing great sadness over the lack of leadership both there and here this morning, I am talking about leadership not in the person of an elected leader (though we need that), but in terms of how collective leadership and the body politic conducts itself that prompts renewal and hope. It may be some while before the chance of breaking the mould comes around again.

Thursday, 6 May 2010

Baby Peter Connelly’s legacy (4): What might Ed Balls have done differently?

In the final post on this theme, what would I have done if I had been Ed Balls, when presented with Ofsted’s Joint Area Review report? Would I have instructed that Sharon Shoesmith should be dismissed? The answer is No, for the reasons I give below:

I would have been aware that the process by which the report had been produced was partial, and that there would be many views on what it had to say on Haringey and Shoesmith, many reputations at stake and several vested interests, and scope for a variety of conclusions concerning responsibility, blame and action.

Note that Shoesmith and her performance had been defended by some fellow officers. She had also been praised by numerous Haringey head teachers, perhaps not surprisingly given her schools background and not in social services. But since these functions were merged at the behest of government – a decision which is still controversial and required Shoesmith to provide oversight to the assistant director of children’s services (who had the necessary background expertise) – it seems unfair to criticise her on that structural point. Others found that she was autocratic in her leadership style; while not defending that, the same criticism might be levelled against both Ed balls and his boss Gordon Brown.

As Secretary of State, I would feel that it was not for me alone to decide the outcome or to punish, or to imply that my action solved the problem. I would have been aware that leadership is one element in a complex system, to which there are many partners as well as constraining factors, one of which was my own department’s performance and contribution to the national IT system for child care. It is simplistic for leadership to be laid at the door of one official.

Similarly, accountability, cannot be regarded in this unitary way. Shoesmith just might have chosen to accept personal accountability and seek an honourable exit on appropriate terms, rather in the romantic manner of the ship’s master who is expected to go down heroically with his sinking ship even when he could be saved (as have the remaining crew). Her employer might have reached the conclusion that the function head’s career death was inevitable and appropriate. Shoesmith had played with fire. Someone was going to get burned. But it was the system that had failed too.

So, what would I, as secretary of state, have done?

I would recognise that, as a leader, I first needed to make a conscious choice about my role in this affair. I could either determine to be a decision-taker and make a judgement. Or I could choose the role of facilitator, seeking to reconcile opposing camps and viewpoints and prompt a process of reflection and learning.

In choosing the latter role, I would have held Haringey Council to account by setting a deadline and asking them to come up with a plan, to be discussed with me and my department (not left to an inspector), that shows how they have taken the opportunity to learn from the investigations into the case, and what and how learning has been followed up and acted upon, including such matters as how well the organisation works as a system, how the process of leadership takes this systems viewpoint into account, what system weaknesses have been identified and are being worked on, how the much-criticised lack of ‘strategic leadership’ is understood and how it will be addressed, as well as the suitability of named individuals remaining in their employment or not.

It is too easy, too crude, too punishing and too uninformed simply to force the employer to summarily dismiss an official and say to the electorate ‘job done’.

Paradoxically, Balls is now being targeted for dismissal by his own electorate. What would he learn if that happened?

Wednesday, 5 May 2010

Baby Peter Connelly’s legacy (3): How can a fairer system of justice operate for cases of this nature?

Returning to this case (see post dated 30 April), let’s shift our gaze from the subjects to the legal process. Whatever his conclusion, the judge is the judge. Our deferential society tolerates that. Justice Foskett’s ruling stands (until and unless overturned on further appeal), whatever Barry Sheerman MP might think. And that’s part of the problem. Though deeply considered and having had the balance of evidence weighed, such rulings ultimately remain arbitrary. The judge has to come down on one side or another. Compare that with outcomes in tribunals, where one judge will frequently reach a minority conclusion. The design of the judicial appeal process is shaky in cases like that of Shoesmith. It is time to question this highly individualist and outmoded process and replace it with something better.

The purpose of the judicial review was effectively to decide right from wrong. Shoesmith would win or lose. Ofsted would be damned or cleared. Ed Balls’ reputation would be saved or dammed. But where are the shades of grey – on the one hand this, but on the other hand that? Shoesmith herself contributed to that starkness. When she smugly claimed that her department had been completely exonerated and had done nothing wrong, she damaged her own cause and brought accusations of a cavalier approach to Baby P’s death. She also lessened the possibility of learning – both for herself and for her department and organisation.

Shoesmith no doubt made mistakes. But her case could have been handled in a more dignified and sensitive way. In a revised appeal process the aim could have been that the organisation and all parties would learn – not be found innocent or guilty, or retain or lose one’s job. Where is the scope for organisational learning in a judicial review? The main lesson is ‘Don’t trust such a legal process’.

The judge recommended discussions take place between central government, councils and directors of children’s services in order to “establish a protocol for dealing with this kind of situation if it arises in the future”. Some good, some change and some learning might come out of that. We must hope so.

Tomorrow, what might Ed Balls have done differently?

Tuesday, 4 May 2010

Baby Peter Connelly’s legacy (2): How can a fair system of accountability operate when the organisation comprises a complex system?

This post follows yesterday’s theme. Ed Balls, Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, commanded that Ofsted deliver a clear answer on the matter of accountability in its report. That may perhaps have led Ofsted to finger Haringey’s department head Sharon Shoesmith so prominently and publicly, to the exclusion of other players. Appearing to lend weight to this view, Mr Justice Foskett’s High Court decision against Shoesmith could equally reinforce the view that leadership is entirely a function and property of one individual and the position they hold, rather than (or as well as) a function and property of the organisation and how it works interdependently. In large and complex systems, responsibility is diffused throughout the structure. It is held jointly with others and depends on others’ contribution, so accountability might reasonably be deemed to have a plural quality.

Factors beyond any one jobholder’s remit and skills have a bearing on leadership performance. The system shapes leadership as much as leadership shapes the system. A case in point is the government’s requirement that local authorities adopt its much criticised national computer system for managing social workers’ caseload. Another is the child protection partnership that operates with schools, doctors and the police. In the Baby P case, the police incorrectly claimed that mother and child were living alone. The doctor incorrectly said that there were no suspicious injuries. The lawyer incorrectly said that there was insufficient evidence for a Care Order. Shoesmith wasn’t responsible for all of these, so she could hardly be held accountable for their performance failures. But if she can’t, who can? Judge Foskett could see a problem.

In his ruling, Foskett said “… a substantial factor in the Claimant being replaced by the Secretary of State was because, as head of the department that was assessed to be inadequate, she was held “accountable”. To that extent, the normal conceptions of “fairness” to the individual do not really apply. There needs to be a debate, which one case decided on its own facts cannot possibly resolve, about whether individual responsibility in this way for a collective failure is what is to be expected of someone who achieves the position of DCS [director of children’s services] or its equivalent and, of course, whether it justifies summary dismissal. … It is to be noted that the Dismissal Appeal Panel at Haringey gave as one of its reasons for upholding the decision to dismiss the Claimant “that the Director of Children’s Services was personally accountable for any failings identified in the Service” by the Ofsted report. I have not heard full argument about what “accountable” means in the legal context … and the view I express about it is necessarily tentative. However, whilst there can be no doubt that the word is generally understood simply to mean the same as “answerable” (in other words, a person who is “accountable” is the person who must answer questions about why something did or did not happen), it would be a very significant step to say that “accountability” means liability for summary dismissal without compensation. That seems to me, potentially at any rate, to open up some very large employment law issues aside the obvious comment that few people would want to take on the role of DCS in those circumstances.”

The accountability issues raised reach beyond Foskett’s “employment law issues”. They include the need to embrace a systems perspective. There is work still to be done here; this includes challenging the popular notion that is it always individuals who should be held accountable; what about teams and other agency partners? Should such accountability be seen as something that is invoked only after failure? What about a suitable and ongoing accountability process being openly communicated before major change is required (such as improving child protection in a council)? What should that accountability process look like, whether singular or plural? Which party should initiate discussion about it? Who would be capable of conducting it? (For a fuller discussion, see Chapter 14: ‘Leadership and Accountability’ in The Search for Leadership.)

Monday, 3 May 2010

Baby Peter Connelly’s legacy (1): What does strategic leadership look like?

In this case (see the previous post) one of Ofsted’s criticisms was that Sharon Shoesmith had not displayed strategic leadership. It is a charge that can be laid at many a senior manager’s door. Judging by the behaviour of Gordon Brown, notoriously embroiled in detail, it is frequently true of senior politicians seeking short-term ‘hits’. While there is no single and agreed definition of ‘strategic leadership’, three key ingredients come to mind.

First, leaders need a systemic appreciation of their organisation (and what systemic leadership failure looks like, since that is what happened in Haringey), and how their leadership is shaped by that system as well as how their leadership can help shape that system.

Secondly, they need to know how to spread the activity of leadership widely and down the managerial structure in a carefully considered way that takes account of performance management and accountability design issues.

Thirdly, leaders need a mental model of their three roles and have a means of managing the time and commitment given to each. The roles are: 1 delivering today, 2 safeguarding tomorrow (via improvement and change), and 3 providing supervisory oversight to other managers actively engaged with level 2. This third aspect of the role is probably the lest understood and comprises the elements below.

1. provides a context, reason and challenge.
2. gives permission for the process and events to happen.
3. provides funds, time and other resources.
4. defines a standard of what success or ‘good enough’ looks like.
5. ensures readiness for change: a point between excessive stability and anarchy. (In complexity theory this point is known as the edge of chaos. Managers who have grown up believing that their job is always to seek greater order by exercising control may find this expression intimidating.)
6. disturbs or shakes up the status quo for relevant aspects of how the organisation works and moves forward, making clear that the status quo is not an option. In parallel, it maintains stability of appropriate business interests (e.g. safeguarding customers’ confidence during the change).
7. loosens the system, to weaken strictly hierarchical management of change.
8. licenses more widely distributed power for managers to engage in system-wide improvement activity.
9. gives managers a collective and cross-departmental identity.
10. makes people’s fate rely on inter-dependence, which leads to cooperation, warmth in relationships, and people taking a fair share of responsibility.
11. makes clear how the relevant people will be held to account, individually and collectively.

(This is explained more fully on pp 217-219 of The Search for Leadership.)

This is a tough balancing act, one which keeps the leader in touch with key current operational detail and today’s risks without being swamped by it to the exclusion of their strategic leadership role.

Friday, 30 April 2010

Baby Peter Connelly’s legacy

Baby Peter’s tragic death spawned much industry, if not quite an industry. Legal cases are an inevitable element, most recently the verdict of the High Court application for a judicial review by Haringey’s ex-director of children and young persons services, Sharon Shoesmith, into her unceremonious dismissal without compensation.

Mr Justice Foskett’s ruling (against Shoesmith’s appeal) was as disturbing as it was surprising. The judge found much to criticise in the behaviour of Ed Balls, the government’s children’s secretary, who required Haringey Council to dismiss her summarily after withdrawing her powers as a DCS. The judge criticised Christine Gilbert, the head of the inspectorate Ofsted, for mishandling the case by personally and publicly criticising Shoesmith. He criticised Ofsted’s inept handling of its obligation of candour before the court, and he expressed concern over Ofsted’s instruction to delete emails relating to the inspection. He criticised Haringey Council who ultimately isolated Shoesmith to defend its own interests. He even advised Shoesmith that she might have grounds for winning a case against unfair dismissal by Haringey Council at an employment tribunal. Yet, yet, Judge Foskett still found against Shoesmith, on the narrow remit of whether the Ofsted report was erroneous in its findings as a result of political interference by Balls and the Department of Children, Schools and Families, their being unduly pressurised by tabloid media hostility towards Shoesmith.

Ofsted’s investigation had been conducted too hurriedly, the judge claimed. Its report had allegedly been rewritten 17 times to beef it up [though this could indicate thoroughness rather than external political pressure]. Criticism in early versions of others’ responsibility in the case – especially by the police, doctors and lawyers – was said to have been removed from later versions, leaving the council and Shoesmith more exposed. Foskett highlighted evidence showing that the final report was changed “in a way that shifted the responsibility … from a combined failure on the part of members of the council and officers to an entirely managerial failure”. Yet, yet, Foskett concluded that, on balance, and given the evidence he saw, the report’s conclusion was fair. It was not within his remit, he said, to comment on whether a beefed-up report had unfairly strengthened the report’s conclusions. Why not, one might ask? Barry Sheerman MP, who chaired a Commons Select Committee investigation into the affair, was amazed at the judge’s decision. As were many others.

As one troubled commentator expressed it: Shoesmith was ‘guilty of leading Ofsted to give a ‘good’ rating when (previously) inspecting her department by concentrating on the surface appearance, the presentation and the paperwork. That, above all, is her crime in the eyes of politicians and bureaucrats … revealing that a department can get a ‘good’ rating despite the staff shortages and ludicrous case loads. Revealing that all the expensive inspection is no more than a tissue of fabrication and abstraction’. But some might argue that Shoesmith was simply beating Ofsted at its own game, as hundreds of managers have done to gain Investor In People status. We should blame the game and the incentives before the players who get wise to it. No wonder Ofsted would welcome a chance to get its own back. Foskett commented, too lightly, on the public denouncement of Shoesmith by Gilbert, when Ofsted rules require the focus be on the department and not on named individuals. Being married to a government minister may not have helped some people’s perceptions of Gilbert’s leadership of an Ofsted required to be ‘independent’ of government.

Where does that leave matters? Shoesmith will reflect on her loss and consider an appeal or a claim to an employment tribunal (already lodged but stayed pending the outcome of the appeal for a judicial review)? Recall the irony that in 1995 the ‘disgraced’ social worker Lisa Arthurworrey who was involved in Victoria Climbie’s death won a legal case to reclaim her professional standing following her earlier dismissal by Haringey Council. That court decided that the Council’s system had failed her and not the other way round. Shoesmith isn’t finished yet.

The outcome from the application for a judicial review is a loss, not just to Shoesmith, but to all those who hold a systemic perspective of how organisations work. Judge Foskett may have been aware of that himself when he wondered aloud why anyone would now want to become a children’s services director: “The prospect of summary dismissal, with no compensation and a good deal of public opprobrium, is hardly likely to be an inducement for someone thinking of taking the job.” His own decision hasn’t helped matters. Beyond that issue lie some others that need deeper exploration. Key systemic leadership questions that arise from this case are:

1. What does improved strategic leadership look like in senior posts like Shoesmith’s?
2. How can a fair system of accountability operate when the organisation comprises a complex system?
3. How can a fairer system of justice operate for cases of this nature?
4. What could Balls have done other than removing Shoesmith from her position?

Over the next few days we will answer those questions.

Friday, 23 April 2010

Can we see a clear need for skills?

‘One of the fallacies earnestly and unquestioningly maintained by New Labour is that we live in a primarily individual economy. We don't. To adapt Adam Smith, it's not through the efforts of the individual baker, farmer and consumer that toast, eggs and tea materialise on our tables in the morning - it's through the very visible hand of Tesco, Associated Foods, Nestlé and the utility companies. No organisations, no breakfast. The consequence of living in an organisational economy is that management - the orchestration of collective activity - matters greatly: at least as much as individual ability and skills.’ (Simon Caulkin, The Observer, 10 August 2008) Time and again comes evidence that this lesson has still not been learned, the latest from the National Skills Audit for England 2010. There are two major flaws.

The first is the conflation of too many diverse interests into its aim “to raise UK prosperity and opportunity by improving employment and skills … to benefit individuals, employers, government and society … help the UK become a world class leader in productivity, in employment and in having a fair and inclusive society”. Good stuff, but – leaving aside fairness and inclusivity for the moment – what needs to happen to make people employable is very different from what any particular employer needs to do with people when they are employees. Individuals’ generic skills are more relevant to the former; managing the whole by bridging relationships in the spaces is more relevant to the latter.

Just take a look at the business of the many sector skills councils to see how this confusion traps them into offering employers training services for their (post-engagement) individual employees. There is a risk of seducing employers into thinking that their responsibility to provide training (let alone promote learning in and for the organisation) has been met and that the organisation can be expected to improve as a result. In practice, such skills training will make little difference organisationally because it fails to acknowledge the specific organisational context, and it fails to develop that context and thereby expand the organisation’s capability. It is not just Caulkin’s ‘economy’ that is organisational rather than individual, it is the improvement levers too.

The second problem is one of accurate prediction and its usefulness. However thorough the research, there is limited value in attempting to predict future needs ten years ahead (see report ‘Horizon Scanning and Scenario Building: Scenarios for Skills 2020’). No-one predicted the eruption on Iceland’s Eyjafjallajokull volcano. No one knows how long it will last, whether it will strengthen or weaken, the height of the ash cloud, how badly aircraft engines or holidaying families will be affected, or what this volcano’s stronger twin may do. We literally don’t know which way the wind blows. As our understanding of complexity science improves, we are slowly coming to terms with our humbling inability to make meaningful long-term plans and predictions, and to be able to link cause, effect and action.

The late Russell Ackoff, a systems thinker, identified scenario planning as a management confidence trick. At the same time, he points out that ‘few organisations are ready, willing and able to change in response to unanticipated internal or external change; they lack the responsiveness of a good driver of an automobile who gets to where he wants to go without forecasts of what he will encounter but the ability to cope with whatever occurs’. The paradox is that while it’s difficult to plan with confidence, you need to work out in advance what might prove useful if you encounter the unexpected.

Monday, 19 April 2010

Northern rocks

Two former senior executives at Northern Rock have been fined by the Financial Services Authority (FSA) for misreporting the bank’s arrears figures affecting near 2000 bad loans, masking its true health. One of them was the former deputy chief executive, David Baker, fined over £1/2m. ‘Alarm bells about Rock’s dangerous reliance on the wholesale credit markets might have sounded sooner if the true picture of rising arrears had been revealed in January 2007 when Baker made misleading statements to the City’ (Nils Pratley, ‘Financial Viewpoint’, the Guardian, 14 April 2010). When Baker discovered malpractice by the bank’s debt management unit, he failed to report the situation to the risk management committee or to the chief executive.

Pratley goes on to mention the “peer and market pressure on junior employees to hit targets on arrears. That’s a cultural failure …”, he claims. To be more precise, the failure of the culture lies in the bank’s values and the absence of a message to all employees that bad numbers cannot be hidden. By contrast, the targets are an aspect of how the system was designed to support those values. There are two points worth making here: the first on targets and the second on the nature of pressure to hit them.

Targets work in the sense that they do get results. People who are in receipt of targets take them seriously. Hitting the targets helps people’s job reputation and often their pocket too. But remember that these targets are mere proxies; they are arbitrary, imperfect but measurable inventions that try to capture something that is important but not directly measurable that lies behind the target (like improving the bank’s state of health). This nature of a target carries the risk that the target may be hit while missing what really matters. In this case, employees had to hit targets on arrears. Employees know that the target matters to them but may lose sight of what lies behind it (they may not even be told what really matters); and that can lead to short cuts and malpractice, especially if employees are given discretion about how to achieve their target, as in this instance.

While this was going on in the debt management unit, elsewhere in the system employees were being encouraged to make reckless loans; Northern Rock allowed customers to borrow more than the value of their homes as it sought market share. This too conveyed general messages to employees about the bank’s values and the risks it was prepared to take.

Besides ‘inviting’ employees to cheat (and then managers turning a blind eye), in systems terms there is always a price to be paid for hitting a target. This price needs to be understood, though it may be deemed a price worth paying. The problem is that a target applies to one component in a system that has been singled out for special attention. To achieve the target requires that it be given priority over other non-targeted functions. If people give more attention, time, energy, funds and resources to one area, they can do so only by privileging this area at the expense of others. There may be unintended consequences, some of them perverse or contradictory. One way or another, the performance of the whole will suffer. To believe otherwise is like saying at a child’s birthday party that the child whose birthday it is can have an extra large piece of cake, but that the other guests shouldn’t have a smaller piece as a consequence.

The second point is that pressure to hit targets can be insidious, implied and assumed. Employees don’t need to have a manager standing over them with a whip. Managers can make their wishes known more subtly. In the collapse of the Royal Bank of Scotland, staff around the CEO Fred Goodwin would get together to discuss what they thought Goodwin would want. Perhaps Baker worked out what his boss Applegarth would and would not want to be told. There was pressure on Baker as well as on the bean counters.

Friday, 16 April 2010

Iceland economy goes into deep freeze

Just as there are ‘wheels within wheels’ (according to the book of Ezekiel in the Old Testament) there are systems within systems. Little systems nest and overlap within larger systems. The banking collapse revealed a system operating (or failing catastrophically) at a very high level. The sudden and unexpected collapse of the Icelandic economy was one of the most dramatic consequences. The report into how three Icelandic banks failed and brought ruin to their country reveals systemic leadership failure on an astonishing level. Repeated below is a key section of Eirikur Bergmann’s chilling account (‘How Iceland lost its soul’, the Guardian, 13 April, 2010).

‘Newly privatised, each of the three main banks came into ownership of three nouveau-rich families in Iceland. The report graphically explains how the three business blocks then, in a kind of a testosterone-driven pissing contest, used the savings of generations of hard-working Icelanders to storm the global financial market, including the City of London.
'The report also shows that the crash was mainly caused by a systemic error within Iceland. By vigorously enforcing its deregulation policy the lassez-faire government created a monster it couldn't control: the Icelandic Viking-capitalist was born. Any voice of caution and classical wisdom was dismissed as old-fashioned. In an opinion-oppressed political environment the regulation industry was made laughable by the politicians and business elite alike.
'Then the Icelandic business Vikings headed for the high streets around Europe with their pockets full of borrowed money. Fresh out of business school Icelandic CEOs took over established companies in fields they couldn't even pronounce. The fast decision-making and risk-seeking behaviour of this new breed was hailed in the business media around the world, boosting the already overblown egos of these young alpha-males.
'Within one short decade we turned a traditional Nordic welfare state economy into one of deregulated bonanza capitalism. We somehow lost sight of our roots and values, as is evident in the part of the report that deals with ethics. The president of Iceland, Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson – who recently vetoed the Icesave agreement – is portrayed as the main cheerleader of the new business elite.
'When the clouds started to gather on the horizon in early 2006, all criticism against what we had grown accustomed to calling the Icelandic economic miracle, was dismissed as ill-intentioned whining by envious foreigners. Throwing nationalism into the mix of inexperience, the Icelandic government responded by launching a defensive PR campaign in London, New York and Copenhagen.'

One can speculate how this disaster might have been avoided. Most leaders lack a suitable mental framework to help them to see and understand the dynamics of what is happening around, between and even within themselves. Such a framework might have enabled Iceland’s leaders to fit the emerging pieces into a systemic picture as the awful risk unfurled. Without this facility to capture, process and make sense of the unfolding of events, valuable data appears like so much random and unwelcome noise.

Thursday, 15 April 2010

Lessons must be learned

The NSPCC (National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children) plays a key role in child protection in the UK. The Society is rightly exasperated with the seeming inability of the many parties involved to learn from past mistakes (‘NSPCC calls for reform of child abuse inquiries’ – BBC News, 8 April 2010) . ‘Lessons are not being learned’, claims the NSPCC. Too many recommendations from reports into past failures are not acted upon, it says. The same mistakes are repeated time and again. But is the problem with the way inquires are conducted and reported, or with how they are followed up?

The failings in child protection – including their repetitive nature – are, of course, systemic in nature. Children are protected by organisations working effectively (or ineffectively) as systems. Individuals play their part, of course, but within a wider and constraining system. If organisations fail to deliver, this whole system has failed. Attempts to blame individuals as though they are free and powerful agents are both misplaced and unfair.

The NSPCC expresses two interests: The first is to improve serious case reviews. These reviews follow individual child deaths, such as those of Baby Peter and Victoria Climbie, and recommend improvements. On this aspect my colleague Professor Eileen Munro of the LSE has undertaken pioneering research into alternative systemic methods of inquiry. Intriguingly, the NSPCC’s other interest is focused on post-inquiry implementation of recommendations for improvement. I discuss that next.

It may not be sufficiently recognised, by the NSPCC and other parties, that implementation of recommendations is also a systemic matter. If you examine the current post-inquiry implementation process that is undertaken following these reports, you can’t help but notice the absence of a systemic approach. But ‘lessons will be learned’ only if a systemic perspective is adopted after failure as well as before it. Improvement will not happen if implementation is simply left to players to pick things up according to how they see their particular roles and responsibilities in a typically run, hierarchical, silo-driven functional structure. Otherwise, the warts-and-all system will continue to thwart their aspirations to learn lessons just as it thwarts their good intention to provide faultless child protection in the first place.

Wednesday, 14 April 2010

It’s the system wot done it!

In November 2009 I wrote an article for the Guardian newspaper entitled ‘Sometimes it’s the workplace that’s stupid, not the staff’. My purpose was to support child-care social workers who were being singled out for criticism – by the media and politicians – in high-profile cases of child deaths or abuse.

Instead of a personal focus, the article showed how the behaviour of social workers was shaped by what was going on around them and between work colleagues and partners in their local structure. This ‘system’, I argued, was probably more influential than individuals’ own level of skill, capability, motivation and training. In other words, if not victims as such, workers are nonetheless vulnerable to the vicissitudes of their system. They are in a sense pawns, with a limited number of moves available to them under the rules, and they are themselves easily predated upon by those looking for a scapegoat – both from within their hierarchy and from outside their system.

My article showed that workers are often thought to be ‘stupid’. Indeed, the article triggered a handful of readers who have a pathological hatred of social workers, to vent their spleen on me as author of a sympathetic stance. They couldn’t stand the thought of ‘guilty’ social workers being able to escape their due by being able to claim “It’s the system wot done it.”

Yet we have all experienced a stupid system; for example, almost every encounter with a call centre. When something fails, ask if more than one person is involved in this failure. Ask whether there is something systemic about the performance failure, something that could apply similarly to other individuals that might go wrong. Might the failure recur if the design of the system remains unchanged? Indeed, is it the system that is stupid and needs spotlighting and improving?

A systems perspective is concerned with such questions as: who is allowed to talk to whom; how is accountability managed; how does leadership work; how does the organisation learn; how does the hierarchy operate, and how is power used?

In the fishtank analogy of a workplace, it is the quality of the water in the fishtank that determines the lustre of the fish. It is what people are surrounded by that shapes their work behaviour. Yet most onlookers see only the fish, and then criticise them. Seeing and challenging the system takes imagination, patience, and a thick skin.

Tuesday, 13 April 2010

Invitations to tender can suppress leadership

I am sometimes invited to submit a competitive tender for work, for example to run workshops. I nearly always decline – for three reasons. Firstly because of the costly inefficiency of a bureaucratic process that can waste considerable time for both parties. Secondly, the assumption that it is acceptable for multiple bidders to apply their creative effort in the knowledge that all but one will fail. Thirdly because of the poor quality of inter-personal connection, the game playing and second-guessing.

The challenge of obtaining value for money for the buying organisation, in an efficient and respectful way, which acknowledges the needs of the suppliers as well as the buyers, raises several issues about leadership.

Eastern cultures tend to prefer to develop reliable relationships with a small number of suppliers over time and stick with them. But this can work against novelty and new entrants. A case can be made for competitive tendering when it applies to purchasing commodities such as stationery. But it works badly when buying intellectual and creative contributions. Centrally organised purchasing departments can fail to make this distinction and be excessively driven by cost and uniformity of process.

There is something fundamentally wrong with a model that separates people into two groups: those who identify, understand and specify a need, and those who are then told what this need is and are asked to deliver against it. The approach is reminiscent of the division between head-office managers whose job is to think up strategies for front-line workers to implement. Or between systems analysts and computer programmers, which finds the latter often rejecting the former’s specification.

The same is true when it comes to human systems in organisations. Commercial imperatives may dictate that suppliers need to bite their tongue and comply with the buyer’s requests, but privately they may have misgivings about the buyer’s analysis. They may resent being kept at arm’s length from the organisation’s problems. They may want to challenge the buyer’s basic premise. They may have unrecognised expertise beyond that being sought. Once suppliers have landed the contract they may seek to reshape their offering, having kept this intention hidden initially.

How can this situation be improved? The aim of both parties should be to strive for authenticity, the minimalising of power differentials, the maximisation of trust between the parties, and a sense of partnership in matching problems and emergent solutions. There is only one way to do that: it means sitting down and spending time together, before specifications are hardened up, paperwork completed, and sums applied. If this kind of dialogue doesn’t take place at the outset, the strain, game playing and inauthenticity may remain during the period of delivering the contract.

In The Search for Leadership I discuss two possible mindsets behind inviting competitive tenders; one exhibits a managerialist approach and the other a leadership approach. In the case of the latter, the manager asks him/herself questions about the current tendering practice, including: ‘Why am I continuing to do what I am continuing to do the way I am continuing to do it?. What values and assumptions are driving the approach? What is being done merely out of habit?’.

Friday, 9 April 2010

Keep it clean, but only when I say so

Simple but flawed human nature offers the best explanation for the problems identified in the two most recent posts. The following real story makes the point well.

A manager was responsible for a machine shop. The shop was always dirty and presented a safety risk. He couldn’t get the workmen to keep it clean and tidy. So he hired a consultant to help. The consultant took photographs of the mess and pinned them up on an office wall. He then invited the workers to rate them. The workers were shocked when they saw the photos, seeing the mess with a fresh pair of eyes. They gave the photos very high (bad) scores for presenting safety hazards. They returned to the workshop and started cleaning up the mess. Job done? No.

The manager was most put out and immediately instructed them to stop. He explained that he had not given them the order to begin cleaning up the place. This was an affront to his authority. What he needed more than a clean and safe workshop was recognition that he, as manager, was needed and that his authority was to be respected. If there was going to be something closer to self-government in his workshop, it would come only on his terms.

Managers are sometimes the problem as well as the solution. But there is a solution to the problem of what to do with managers, and that is to see the manager’s role and how it adds value in a very different way – switching its focus from managing the people to managing the system.

Wednesday, 7 April 2010

Them and us

Yesterday I wrote about two different types of dialogue – both in politics and in organisations. In the first of these, people accept their position and are grateful for what is provided to them, sometimes being allowed to offer their feedback to their betters. In the second, the people expect more involvement and seek to influence change more directly. While leaders may claim to believe that the latter is good for others, and indeed for themselves, in practice they are tempted to seek shelter behind the certainty and protective shield offered by the former’s hierarchy.

By a strange coincidence, as I was sorting through some papers yesterday evening, I came across a Guardian article by Madeline Bunting dated 19 January 2004. In it she quotes David Marquand (in his Decline of the Public) referring to ‘‘Alexis de Tocqueville’s description of the parent state which aims to keep its citizens in ‘perpetual childhood’: power is absolute, minute, regular, provident and mild … it is well content that the people should rejoice, provided that they think of nothing but rejoicing.”.

Bunting recognises that ‘The 19th century Frenchman has provided a chillingly accurate assessment of Blairism. In a reworking of the bread and circus formula, New Labour will tirelessly seek to deliver the electorate better schools, hospitals and a rising standard of living (for the majority), but has no appetite for the debates on how that should be done. To a significant section of public opinion, that’s enough – just don’t make the mistake of thinking it’s called democracy’. In other words, don’t confuse the content with the process.

All large organisations reflect that dilemma. Employee climate surveys, for example, reinforce simple upward feedback in a version of Transactional Analysis’s parent-child model. Negative feedback can be easily shrugged off with a “Well they would say that at this time wouldn’t they”. But what does this say about trade union relationships with, say, signalmen and cabin crew. What about striking workers expressing a concern for safety? Is that management’s responsibility? Or is it everyone’s?

Tuesday, 6 April 2010

Focus groups don’t go far enough

After being the butt of jokes, focus groups are again receiving a favourable mention. It’s election time, after all: let’s find out what people think.

If the question that is the subject of the focus group is clear and accepted, then asking a group of people to discuss and express their viewpoint is valuable. This kind of conversational process embodies what is known as single-loop learning; that is, the broad premise is assumed to be valid. But a different form of discussion is needed where double-loop learning is required – that is, when the question being asked is itself open to question.

In organisations, single-loop learning helps with alignment and compliance. Double-loop learning opens up the possibility of change; it is a more challenging process. For those engaged in discussions aimed at achieving change, we need to replace the focus group with what Lesley Kuhn (Adventures in Complexity, Triarchy Press) calls ‘coherent conversations’.

The point about coherent conversations is that they permit ‘emergence’. This refers to the capacity of complex entities to exhibit unexpected and novel properties or behaviours not previously observed …’. Thomas Hunt Morgan captured the idea as long ago as 1927 when he said: ‘The emphasis is not on the unfolding of something already in being, but on the outspringing of something that has hitherto not been in being’.

Politicians and their favoured focus groups should take note. Single-loop questions such as ‘which of our policies do you prefer?’ have their place, but a sceptical and apathetic public has its own questions to ask about the name of the game being played.

Thursday, 1 April 2010

Ruby Wax helps senior leaders provide a civil service

The celebrity Ruby Wax has been hired to teach top UK civil servants emotional intelligence. She cites the Home Office as one of her successes. May a raised eyebrow be permitted?

Wax’s assignment raises a number of questions. The first is whether she is the right person to do this. She may embody how to talk rather more than how to listen, but she has sought to transform herself and gain relevant coaching qualifications.

A more serious question hangs over the analysis of what improved capability the civil service most needs. Where is performance falling short, and what explains this? What is blocking the release of leadership – system wide and not just at the top?

Most managers could and should improve their personal capabilities in areas such as emotional intelligence. You can’t knock that premise. But any serious analysis of what lies at the heart of departments’ poor performance would point to systemic issues (the fishtank and not the fish) of the kind discussed in The Search for Leadership.

‘None of us can exist independent of our relationship with each other’. So runs the opening sentence of Keith Morrison’s 2002 book on School Leadership and Complexity Theory. Paradoxically, Morrison’s words, and indeed complexity theory itself, offer both a reason why managers need emotional intelligence and an explanation as to why sheep-dip training exposure, devoid of context and the other party (especially including politicians), plus untold complex dynamics, is likely to lack traction.

Conclusion: well-intentioned, headline grabbing, a fun experience. Enjoy it but don’t expect transformation. In the civil service ‘fishtank’ there are bigger fish to fry, and they are not individual managers. The main determinant of behaviour at work lies in the system that surrounds people. Coincidentally, the banner of Wax’s website shows goldfish milling around. I wonder what they are searching for.

Friday, 19 March 2010

Peaks and troughs

The late and great systems thinker Russell Ackoff (who died aged 90 on 29 October 2009) would have had some choice things to say about an item in this week’s news. It seems that many UK university vice-chancellors have been enjoying substantial pay awards, as much as 20% annually, more than three times the rate of inflation over the past ten years. Many are now paid over £300k.

The modest Ackoff – a professor at Wharton School in Pennsylvania – bemoaned growing greed in US universities, drawing parallels with corporate life. “Most corporations proclaim maximization of shareholder value as their primary objective. Any observer of corporate behaviour knows that this is an illusion. As a study conducted a while back at GE showed, the principal objective of corporations is to maximise the security, standard of living and quality of life of those making the decisions.” Returning to the UK, today’s press contains a report from the Treasury Select Committee claiming that Lloyds Banking Group bent the rules (disguising loans as investments) to maximise profits, resulting in large bonuses for executive directors.

Readers familiar with corporate social responsibility (CSR) will know of the framework for assessing an organisation’s stakeholders. The list usually includes customers, employees, funders, suppliers and the wider community. Normally notable for its absence is the organisation’s chief executive and fellow directors. Since the ‘agency principle’ in company law requires directors to act as agents for shareholders, there should be no need to identify them as a separate interest group. But that mood changed in companies long ago. The university sector now wants to join this elite club.

Ackoff goes on the say “One could mistakenly believe that the principal objective of universities is to educate students. What a myth! The principal objective of a university is to provide job security and increase the standard of living and quality of life of those members of the faculty and administration who make the critical decisions. Teaching is a price faculty members must pay to share in the benefits provided.”

Not that one expects vice-chancellors to behave altruistically, merely reasonably, modestly and decently. But even altruism isn’t all that it seems to be, as psychologists point out. If you read those celebrity reviews of whether it is better to give or to receive, many say ‘give’. In other words, when they give, they get a buzz and feel good about themselves. Trevor Bentley rightly notes in The Search for Leadership that “All communication and interaction have the single endeavour of personal satisfaction” (in other words, not automatically doing what the organisation contractually requires). Such self-interest is innate and not cynically exploitative.

A friend of mine recently proclaimed that she didn’t like humanity. The chief psychologist in British Airways once told me that she preferred plants to people. In both instances I was shocked. But greed sometimes stretches my faith in humanity too. Whatever next – politicians overpaying themselves?

Wednesday, 17 March 2010

Another wheeze comes and goes

Sometimes people ask why it is important for leaders to take a systems perspective. Yesterday, the Government gifted us with a wonderful example.

In 2008 the Justice Department raised its fee for court cases for taking children into care. The fee was increased from £150 to £4,800. It backfired – predictably.

In The Search for Leadership there is a discussion about the dangerous trend for publicly funded services to look out for commercial opportunities. A controversial initiative was launched in 2008 to treat the courts as a business. That was and is the wrong thing to do, not least because the bureaucratic mindset sits ill with a commercial one: the former may be corrupted, without benefiting from commercial success.

But the case here is more than that. It is what systems thinker Russell Ackoff calls ‘doing the wrong thing wronger’. In charging fees, the Justice Department was simply shifting money into its own coffers from local authorities, who receive most of their income in a government grant anyway. But even that wasn’t the most stupid bit. In order to cover the higher court fees the Justice Department decided to give local authorities an extra £40m.

In systems thinking terms, if you draw the system boundary around the Justice Department, or even one small part of it, you see what looks like a monopolistic money-making opportunity. If you draw the system boundary round the whole system, you immediately see what a nonsense it is.

The key point to make here however is that no one appeared to ask what the consequence might be from raising the fee level. The answer came: the high cost to local authorities was deterring some social services departments from applying for a court order to take abused and neglected children into care.

So the government has decided to scrap the court fees altogether. They are now £150 worse off!

Friday, 12 March 2010

Battle of the systems

On BBC Radio 4’s PM programme yesterday evening, there was a discussion between experts on the significance of the systems viewpoint in the incest case reported in yesterday’s post in this blog. A father had raped and abused his two daughters over 25 years, leading to 18 pregnancies, many giving rise to genetically malformed babies and embryos. By the ‘system’, the interviewees were concerned with what people (including perpetrators and professionals) were surrounded with that either led to inappropriate behaviour, prevented undesirable behaviour, or encouraged positive behaviour. But they were talking about several different systems.

Professor David Cantor, the psychologist who pioneered offender profiling in Britain, wanted to talk about the effect of society and the neighbourhood as systems. A family too is a system. Christopher Hayden, the theatre director, also wanted to talk about the systems operating in authorities (local councils, police, health, schools) that can help or hinder the prevention of abuse of children. They are all systems, of course, all having their 'wicked' way with those inside them.

Christopher Hayden reminded listeners of Professor Philip Zimbado’s Stanford Prison Experiment in 1971, which showed how the allocation of roles (either of prison guard or of prisoner) to 24 unsuspecting and ‘normal’ young volunteers (between the ages of 18 and 24) very quickly brings out extremes of stereotypical behaviour. In particular, the volunteer prison guards turn nasty very quickly, so much so that the Stanford experiment had to be terminated abruptly.

Rightly, Hayden is appalled by the Abu Grahib treatment of Iraqi prisoners. He stopped short of pointing out the weakness in the MOD’s recently announced training of soldiers aimed at getting them to behave ethically. This kind of intervention neglects the system conditions, which then limit training’s effectiveness. If the toxicity is in the fishtank, don’t expect to solve it by remedying the (bad) fish. Once they are plopped back into an unchanged environment, the system will reassert its own ‘authority’.

Professor Cantor goes on to say “We know plenty of people who get themselves into bureaucratic positions who will be perfectly pleasant friendly people within a pub, but once they get into a particular situation where they think they have to act out a given role, they can be very unhelpful". In a boring and routine job, for example, people can find inappropriate ‘fun’ things to do at the expense of customers and their employers. Trying to police this and stamp it out is usually a less successful strategy than enriching the job. ‘If you want people to do a good job, give them a good job to do’, advised Frederick Herzberg a long time ago.

Returning to child abuse, the inspiring work of Professor Eileen Munro shows how the reaction of authorities to clamp down on social workers’ initiative, discretion, and judgment by circumscribing their work roles ever more tightly with procedures, protocols and inspections, ultimately turns professionals into defensive robots, more concerned with their own protection and survival, leading to “distorted priorities and growing alienation of the workforce”, as Munro expresses it. It is still a system, but no longer an enabling one and instead a controlling one.

A ray of light is being shone by Hackney Council in their bold ‘Reclaiming Social Work’ programme. This new model prioritises shared risk and the reduction of bureaucracy, allowing social workers to spend more time working directly with children and families. But that has required Hackney to stand up to another system, the Government one that tries to circumscribe Councils with controls and inspections. Being a leader requires the courage to push against the system. No other councils have yet had the courage to follow Hackney’s lead. Human behaviour being what it is, the failure of one system may cause much glee in another.

Thursday, 11 March 2010

What happens when professionals get stuck?

The staff were competent, experienced and qualified and they acted in good faith, but they were 'stuck'. This was the claim of Professor Pat Cantrill, who chaired the Serious Case Review into the appalling 25 years-old case of incest by a father with his two daughters. This case of dereliction takes some beating – a dereliction of leadership, not just of parenting and social work.

It comes as no surprise that an implied belief in competence, experience and qualifications proved to be insufficient. Or that the social workers became stuck. What is more concerning was what was happening to and in the system in which they worked. It was said to have developed a wholly inadequate culture of “having a quiet word”, where “informal, unwritten information was passed between services.” How did this come about? How did they get away with it?

Services, such as child care and protection, are delivered to the public by functioning systems, not by individuals. The power of individuals alone is puny, however competent, experienced, qualified and well-intentioned. Only the system within which they work and try to perform at their best can surround them with an appropriate structure – including purpose, support, accountability, supervision and leadership.

So where was leadership of the system? Was it asleep? For 25 years!

Tuesday, 9 March 2010

Weather men know which way the wind blows

Eventually they got the message. The guys at the UK’s Meteorological Office have abandoned their futile attempts at long-range weather forecasting. They may have the most powerful computers in the world, but that didn’t help then when they forecast a barbecue summer for 2009, which turned out to be the third washout in a row, with the wettest July since 1914. A mild winter was then given a high probability, only for the UK to suffer its coldest winter for 30 years. After a storm of criticism, they withdrew hurt. But Edward Lorenz’s fabled butterflies flapping their wings in Brazil could have told them they were wasting their time anyway.

Forecasting has always been difficult, especially when it is about the future – as the joke runs. Human systems suffer from unpredictability too. But politicians are slow to learn. They still think that it is their job to predict outcomes. The public expects it. Target culture requires it. Their advisers think it is their job to help them with specific advice, for which they can later be blamed.

Take Iraq. There was little post-war planning. But there were some predictions, such as that the Iraqi public would be dancing in the streets and hugging their US liberators. Looting the museum wasn’t on the cards. More planning might have helped, provided it wasn’t taken too seriously. The problem is that when humans are involved, a myriad of events and twists and turns cannot be foretold. What matters is diverse capability and flexibility that can cope with the unpredicted when it happens. Plus resilience when faced with an unforgiving public who say ‘you should have planned for that’. Even more important is to be more cautious in deciding on elective wars of choice based on too-carelessly predicted success.

Managers have a different problem. Their claim to their positions in authority rests partly on a supposed ability to link cause and effect, to say that ‘if we do this, that will be the result we are looking for’. But unexpected events get in the way. Who would have predicted Toyota’s pickle. A car accident here and there and a perfect storm blows your finely crafted plans away.

Monday, 8 March 2010

Why planned change often fails

There have always been doubts about the success of most attempts at major change. Over time, these misgivings have become more vocal, and the reasons for the frequent lack of success have become better understood. Complexity science offers reasons enough to explain failure. But there is a further reason that I have never seen discussed in quite the manner below.

Attempts to move from an old organisation design or culture to a new and better one are mostly rational and formal in concept and execution. During this process the organisation’s informal shadow system remains constant – if recognised at all – and this presents an obstacle to change. Instances where the intervention includes the shadow system, and where the change agents have an active presence there, are rare.

The problem is that although the organisation’s surface appearance is affected (probably structural changes, new reward systems, new performance management systems, new competency frameworks, new training programmes, etc.) the dark underbelly of the organisation hasn’t changed. Most of the people are still there, with all their comfortable habits, ambitions, rivalries, power struggles, jealousies, etc.) and the organisation still has its in-groups and out-groups, turf disputes, bullying, politics, etc. Even if their existence is acknowledged by the planners and consultants, these shadow elements are much harder to shift.

A parallel exists with adopting children from a troubled background, maybe where they have been in care in the meantime. The contrast between the old family and the new is dramatic and a wonderful improvement. The new parents may assume (like planned culture change) that the new family will ‘cure’ the child of dysfunctional behaviour. The ‘old’ will become history. But they are often proven wrong. The child can be thought of rather like the organisation’s shadow system. The child has a very different worldview of what it means to be in a family, and he/she will carry this worldview (and hence the behaviour that stems from it) into the new family.

A few writers have an understanding of this problem, most notably Patricia Shaw. But messing with the organisation’s inherent messiness isn’t easy, and may not be permissible. Those who hold the purse strings in the organisation can get rather anxious about paying OD consultants to roam in the shadow system and to listen to what people have to say about the official system.

Thursday, 25 February 2010

The system’s performance matters more than that of individuals.

It is said that the world divides into two types: those who see the big picture and work down to the details, and those who notice the details and work up from there. Leaders in the latter category may get swamped and never sufficiently raise their gaze. Gordon Brown may be the latter type – lost in the detail. Either way, concern for the big picture lies at the heart of the systems perspective. Diagnosis may start with the details (finding out what is currently happening), but the aim is to optimise the whole, not to optimise the parts. Optimising the parts sub-optimises the whole.

Take performance management. Whatever its claims, in practice it attempts to optimize the parts. I am bombarded with brochures about performance management. They usually mean individual appraisal. In some cases, by working from the bottom up – from the individual parts to the whole – an attempt is made to establish a link between an individual’s performance/goals and those of the organisation, but this is often perfunctory and tokenistic. It is, in any case, the wrong place to start.

See what happens if you take a genuine systems perspective. The organisation’s performance matters more than that of the individuals, and it comes about when the parts work well together as a system. That is why writers like Margaret Wheatley argue that the prime unit of an organisation’s performance is its quality of relationships, not individual talent. For a network to work well, maximise the connections and not the nodes.

An individual’s appraisal reinforces a management hierarchy’s natural controlling tendency, and may even be viewed as its raison d’etre. But, whereas individuals can be controlled to some degree, networks cannot. External forces are also undermining the significance of individual appraisal. When it comes to doing one’s job well, learning from the world is taking over from learning from one’s boss. Increasing complexity, plus changing technology (the internet and social media) and reduced deference accounts for this.

Conclusion: Individuals’ performance still matters, of course, but not as much as that of the organisation as a whole. So instead of being obsessed with getting 100% of individuals’ appraisals completed, put energy into appraising how well the organisation works as a system. When getting together with people to discuss performance, ask them how the organisation can improve. Leadership’s purpose is to liberate performance rather than to control it.

Wednesday, 24 February 2010

Near misses in the dark

Public and media misgivings over whether Gordon Brown is a bully causes his defenders to counter ‘He is very good at coming up with the right policies’. It is as though the question of what is a good leader can be answered through these limited dimensions. But there is another little-discussed issue: ‘How well does the leader look after his colleagues?’ Take two examples.

James Purnell comes and goes, rises and falls. In office he changed from being free thinking to being a constrained thinker. His cabinet resignation letter takes the leader by surprise, as does his decision to stand down as an MP. This is all treated as if it is to be expected – that ships are supposed to look after themselves and pass in the night without support and without anyone knowing where they are and where they are going - that political life and death at this level are matters for the individual alone.

Then comes revelations from Alistair Darling that Gordon Brown’s henchmen were ‘briefing’ against him, undermining him for warning that the world faced the worst downturn in 60 years. Claiming that the ‘forces of hell’ were unleashed on him, Darling graphically answers the Downing Street question that we posed in yesterday’s post on this blog: ‘How does leadership work round here? Is it functional or dysfunctional?'

Chatting to Piers Morgan reveals some of Brown’s human qualities, but where is the nurturing of companionship, talent and the sense of a shared endeavour? This too is the leader’s role.

Tuesday, 23 February 2010

The leaders have to want to change

There is a frequently noted paradox in organisations: to change the culture you have work within the present culture. That culture might itself be the barrier to change. There are few ways round this other than sacking the whole board, which Lord King did in British Airways in July 1983, since he deemed the board the barrier to change. HR advisers and ‘change agents’ lack that luxury.

The same paradox arises with more specific leadership change interventions. When trying to move a business towards accepting a less individualistic and more organisational model of leadership, you have to work with and persuade a top leadership team that knows only a strongly individualistic model.

When faced with novel concepts and proposals – such as distributing leadership more widely – the traditional form of executive leadership typically displays high levels of scepticism, a fondness for personal advocacy (telling) rather than enquiry (questioning and listening), a competitive rather than collaborative streak in relation to colleague relationships, and a low interest in personal learning.

Who can blame them: the old ways have served their personal careers well? They know the individual model and how to use it to their advantage. They know all about deciding who to trust, who to favour, who to form alliances with, and who to gang up against. Politics wins at this level every time.

That is why two questions are so important – if you can get the questions accepted as valid and worth discussing. They are:

1. What is the leadership culture (‘how does leadership work round here?’), and how functional/dysfunctional is it?

2. Who is formally accepted as the responsible official in the company (who may not be a board member but may be accountable to a board member) whose job responsibilities include:

• monitoring and advising on the health, design, functioning and improvement of the organisation as a system? and

• advising on and ensuring that a proper accountability system is in place (i.e. one that is understood, practised and respected) in terms of how well leadership works?

And by what process is that official formally held to account for the discharge of these responsibilities?

Wednesday, 17 February 2010

Do we need weaker leadership?

Tongue-in-cheek, the entertaining columnist Marina Hyde argued the case for weaker government (‘Keep your Blairs or Caligulas. Better a line of puny Cleggs’, The Guardian, 12 February 2010). She had a point: “Caligula wouldn’t have been nearly such an arse if he’d have had to make an alliance with Nick Clegg every time he wanted to bump off a consul”. The issue isn’t necessarily one of strength per se, or hobbling it, but rather what ‘strength’ means and who should have it.

In my own county of Surrey, a chief constable unilaterally put a stop to the restorative justice programme and controversially introduced ‘Staying Ahead’, leading to resignations of colleagues in disgust. In another county, David Blunkett as Home Secretary pressurised the local police authority not to renew their chief constable’s contract. Reason? The chief constable had disagreed with him on how to deal with two particular policing issues, over which, in hindsight, the chief constable was shown to have been right. So much for strong leadership.

Wartime, it is claimed, calls for strong leadership. In going to war in Iraq, George Bush was a strong leader. Or was he? Was he actually a weak leader clothed in the strong powers available under the ‘unitary executive theory’ available in the US constitution? The same case might be made for Tony Blair.

What is the alternative? Do we want/need weak leadership? The problem is that we are trapped by our mental models, especially the one that says that strong leadership means a strong personality – until we don’t like what the leader decides or he becomes a bully.

However, instead of wanting to weaken strong leaders’ power we should want to spread the power so that the system is able to act, and to act wisely. Those counties and their policing authorities needed the strength to be able to stand up to autocratic leaders.

With a general election not far away, it seems like we’re due another bout of strong leaders making their mark. Watch out!

Wednesday, 10 February 2010

More training. But what does it mean?

Leaders both use and misuse training. Leaders are adept at agreeing to big expenditure on training. Some are equally adept at curtailing the training budget when the pinch comes. But what is training? What is masquerading as training?

In a roundtable discussion on ‘extended services’ with the Training and Development Agency for Schools, the Guardian (9 February) ironically reported ‘As well as a common language (sic), the other unifying factor is training. As one participant said: “The school workforce, in all its complexities, needs training. … We need to plan ahead with training …”. A speaker added, “We need training to understand what it is that different agencies can actually add to the child package for children to reach their full potential”.’

Clearly, some of these people have a need for more information. The call may be for simple, old-fashioned briefing. Perhaps they need to be called together to hear, and possibly discuss, this, even be consulted. But they may not need training. They need to hear, be informed and know. They may need to meet. But they may not need to learn, in the proper use of that term. Do they need to learn about something, or learn how to something? Or do they need to agree to something?

Dr Peter Critten at Middlesex University holds concern over misuse of the term ‘training’, and tries to avoid using it, preferring to talk about learning (where that is the intended outcome). But he points out that “training can result in no learning at all”, … adding that “training is needed for airplane pilots, for example”.

This theme is picked up by Stephen Fry in Paperweight (1992), where he draws a distinction between training and education: “Education means freedom, it means truth. “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.”

In The Search for Leadership I describe how training can be misapplied. I cite examples where ‘Leaders sometimes invoke training either naively or as a strategic ploy to point the finger elsewhere or to try to reassure the market and investors, as in the pensions mis-selling scandal’. In Developing Corporate Competence (Tate, 1995), I analyse the use of ‘training’ as propaganda.

As Alice says (in Alice in Wonderland): "The question is whether you can make words mean so many different things."

Organisations do – and need to do – most of these things. But, please, let’s not call a spade an obfuscation.

Monday, 8 February 2010

Give Theory Y a chance

It is 50 years since Douglas McGregor wrote The Human Side of Enterprise in which he put forward his Theory X and Theory Y view of assumptions that underpin managers’ motivational behaviour in relation to other employees. I hoped - no doubt along with many others - that organisation cultures based on Theory X (‘you cannot trust people’ etc.) would gradually wither, and the bright uplands of Theory Y would come to dominate the employment landscape. But Theory X never went away, particularly in hard times when the call is for higher productivity.

We had a taste of this last week. A report on public-sector people management from the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) was covered in the Guardian (‘Will the message sink in this time?’, 03 February 2010). It said ‘Line managers and supervisors in particular lack the people management skills that will be necessary to get more out of their staff …’ The formula sounds horribly dated. Workers are not working hard enough. It is managers’ job to make them work harder. But the managers (who may be working hard enough) lack people-management skills. The answer is to provide them with more training. Hands up everyone who shares this analysis. ‘Them and us’ refuses to die. The easy appeal for more training is wheeled out again, but it never solves the problem and never can, as any systems thinker will tell you.

What is the root problem in this analytical morass? Answer: the assumption that the organisation is the same as the people. Hence, better ‘people management’ is assumed to equate with a better-run organisation. But you cannot turn an organisation on by turning the people on. If the fishtank is no longer the fine attraction it once was, clean up what surrounds the fish rather than polishing the fish in the same old dirty water. ‘People management’ keeps taking our gaze back to the fish. If they are sluggish, management’s job is to improve their system. Give Theory Y a chance!

Thursday, 4 February 2010

Managing waste takes leadership

By a strange coincidence, twice this week I have received settlement cheques, only to be told subsequently to tear them up and that they will be replaced by ones that take account of Vat. What was going on? And what has this to do with systems thinking and leadership?

In both cases the settlement system was flawed but could have easily been remedied by managers accepting responsibility for inspecting, measuring and improving the system rather than inspecting, measuring and improving the workers.

In my latest book I discuss the various forms of waste in organisations that result from this misplaced focus. When I am required to phone or write to a call centre about a mistake I am wasting not just my own time but theirs too. When managers have to come to the phone to help the agents out, they have their managing hat on. But when they are learning from this and improving the system so that the mistake doesn’t keep recurring (entailing more waste), then that is a different kind of activity, arguably one that calls on some motives and qualities of leadership (making tomorrow fitter than today).

In case you are interested in the more egregious of these two cases, my car had been written off when a large oak branch fell on it under the weight of snow. I received a cheque in settlement of the ‘market value’. As I am Vat registered (they knew this), I needed to ask whether the amount was inclusive or exclusive of Vat, and whether I should treat the amount as vatable income and hand over Vat on the amount to HM Revenue & Customs. So, had they added Vat; or had they deducted it, entitling me to reclaim the amount? (The latter turned out to be the case, though they had forgotten to make the deduction when writing out the cheque – hence the instruction to me to tear it up - once I had alerted them by my call!). The insurer did not provide their Vat registration number on their letterhead to back up their position. All this took time at both ends to sort out.

As John Seddon never ceases to point out (see yesterday’s post) if managers spent time listening to the range of callers’ queries, they would learn all they needed to about the ‘failure demand’ (calls which happen only because something didn’t go smoothly first time), to work out what aspects are predictable and therefore preventable, and thus be able to see where to improve the system. Monitoring call centre workers’ activity rate misses the point.

The main act of leadership here is that required by organisations to question the role of managers.

Wednesday, 3 February 2010

What should leaders focus on – the people or the system?

Systems thinkers confidently respond to that question with ‘the system’. John Seddon, a well known exponent on such matters, argues that management’s role is to ‘continue to work with the system, solving problems beyond the control of the workers’. In my book The Search for Leadership I claim that a manager is in leadership mode when improving the system ‘to make tomorrow better than today’. I say: Get the system right and workers’ behaviour will improve: the need for prodding, training, external motivation, targets and incentives will lessen. Don’t manage the people while neglecting their system.

But a possible challenge to this systems way of thinking appears in the shape of positive psychology. This school of thought focuses on people management. Manage people positively and their performance will improve. It is claimed, for example, that if a doctor has a positive encounter just before being required to make a diagnosis, that diagnosis will be more accurate. I can believe it. Different sections of the brain can be turned on and off by positive and negative experiences. Being fearful, for example, induces simplistic thinking such as “if you’re not with us you’re against us.” It is easier to make a smoother presentation in front of an audience if they are smiling than if they are glowering. Strength is a state of mind.

So managing the people (using positive psychology) works. But does this negate the systems perspective? Seddon abandoned his earlier career as a culture-change consultant in favour of systems thinking. He associates culture change with managing the people, and it doesn’t improve performance, he says. But it is possible to see work aimed at improving the culture and the climate (though not the sheep-dip mass training version) as systems related and part of managing the fishtank rather than the fish – i.e. what surrounds people. You can limit the definition of the system to hard things like the work flow, job roles, measures, etc., or you can include softer things like the culture and climate. I favour the latter. People’s personal fishtank contains them all.

Is it possible to see the use of positive psychology with people not as an alternative to improving the system, but a case of ‘both/and’ rather than ‘either/or’? Many flawed systems are a direct result of their designers’ negative beliefs in Douglas McGregor’s ‘Theory X’ (‘people cannot be trusted’, etc.). And if the resultant system is flawed and you do nothing about it, positive psychology will take you only so far. People will see through an organisation’s use of positive psychology if it still requires them to work in a badly designed system. As an example of managing the people rather than the system, in one well-known company’s call centre operation, when workers feel exhausted they can blow a whistle and throw a large ball about the room. They are then ready to return to the fray. But what fray? How about making the work fun, not the time spent away from it?

Monday, 1 February 2010

Winning at the expense of learning

After Tony Blair’s bravura performance in front of the Chilcot Inquiry into the Iraq war, it seems unlikely that the Inquiry will achieve its aim: “to learn the lessons of the Iraq conflict”. Who now believes any new lessons will be learned, given the standard of questioning? Who even believes lessons could be learned, given the inquiry format? If Tony Blair’s cabinet government was broken, so too is the public inquiry as a means of learning lessons. Maybe a different structure is needed.

As a public spectacle, an inquiry may show leaders being held to account. With forensic questioning the process may reveal a few things we didn’t already know. But as a means of learning, forget it. As for Blair’s own learning, he now seems to be arguing for doing to Iran what he did to Iraq. A further problem is that inquiries take years to set up, hear evidence and publish a report; meanwhile energy has dissipated and people’s interest has moved on, as have most of the players.

The inquisitorial process only serves to endorse a leader’s natural game: that is to win, whatever the context. They are not there to learn, as they see it, even though leadership and learning should be bedfellows. In an inquiry, responsibility for learning is delegated to its members, how they write their report, who reads it, and why and how they read it. Learning is left to chance, is not to the fore or overtly happening in the public space.

Few leaders are seriously interested in learning. When Sir Fred Goodwin was determined to take over ABN Amro, or Irene Rosenfeld was fighting to take over Cadbury, they were simply trying to win. Any subsequent examination of whether these deals were good news – for shareholders (of both companies), customers, employees and communities – would simply cause them to defend their judgment, not assist anyone’s learning, whether that of their questioners, their successors or colleagues.

So, in a different format, what questions might an Inquiry ask if its purpose was for all the parties to learn; that is, inquiry members, interviewees themselves, politicians at large, media, the military and victims?

Here are some alternative questions to prompt reflection:

How else might you have proceeded?
What other options did you have?
Was there anything that prevented you from … ?
What stories were you telling yourself about … ?
How might it have seemed from …’s standpoint?

That would be a very different and reflective learning process – for everyone. It might lack the voyeuristic appeal of a gladiatorial chamber, but it might help save future lives.

Friday, 29 January 2010

Kindred spirits

For years I have been ‘banging on’ about a particular approach to improving leadership – in essence, one that is more organisation-centred, compared with the individualistic model. I say: “If you want to find leadership, don’t search for the leader, first look at what is going on inside the organisation” (i.e. manage the fishtank more than the fish).

At times I have found that a lonely furrow to plough (mixing my metaphors). But for the first time at this year’s annual Windsor Leadership Dialogue on 25 January, I sensed that the penny was beginning to drop. When a few people shouted that what I was saying about current leadership surely couldn’t be true, others responded from their own experience saying ‘Yes, it is’. That was so reassuring.

Something else happened on Wednesday to cheer my heart. In the Society section of the Guardian newspaper I found an illuminating article by Esther Cameron of the Integral Change Consultancy saying much the same thing (‘Shifting into a higher gear’). Claiming that a “fresh type of leadership is urgently required …”, Esther argues for six important shifts. Some quotes from her article are:”

“… removing obstacles and unleashing energy, not doing change to people”
“ departmental leaders are still defending their fiefdoms.”
“There is still too much blind faith in management training. Unless it’s precisely targeted, the impact on delivery is small. … .
“Leaders instead need to focus on identifying the deeper obstacles to higher performance …”
“Learn to have tough conversations about what’s not working. This means getting beyond half-hearted performance reviews.” [See most recent post.]

Reading Esther’s article, it would be easy to feel ‘Here’s a rival; a systems approach to leadership is my speciality.’ But I felt ‘Thank God I am not alone in this battle for ideas and common sense. A fresh perspective on leadership needs wide support if organisations as a whole are to be better led.’ Training and expecting managers to be good leaders isn’t enough, especially if they are expected to navigate shark-infested waters.

Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Holding leaders to account

In my talk to the Annual Leadership Dialogue at Windsor Castle two days ago I spoke about the scope in many organisations for improving the process by which leaders are held to account. Both the words and the action are frequently misunderstood and loosely handled. Besides holding responsibility, every senior manager should be accountable to an appropriate authority and in an appropriate way for how well that responsibility is discharged. This is deeper and more challenging than an annual appraisal. It may entail groups being held to account together, or individuals accounting to a board. The focus is usually on a change programme, and its purpose is to ensure success, not to hold a post mortem after some failure.

Early in the contracting process for change programmes there needs to be a discussion on what is the chief executive’s role. This is too easily fudged, with fellow directors then able to shun their responsibility for implementing changes in their departments. It is easy to see such programmes as HR initiatives which will succeed or fail according to how well HR designs and runs the programmes, plus the competence of any consultants. Failure becomes more likely, and it becomes easy to find scapegoats. To avoid this risk, the chief executive must make clear to the top team that he/she will hold that team accountable for the success of the programme and that the process for doing this is spelled out (e.g. they will be called to account, together as a team, in a challenging face-to-face discussion that will be robust, etc, etc.). At the same time, HR’s accountability is clarified; with such clarity, HR’s sense of vulnerability diminishes, and there is less need for them to protect information and hang onto control. A greater trust between the parties develops.

To give a different kind of example, how clear and how discussed in the organisation is the matter of who is responsible for how well the organisation functions as a system? I have in mind questions such as ‘How freely is information enabled to flow unimpeded by rules, protocol, status, hierarchy, etc?, How easily can people gain access to those they feel a need to talk to?, How truthfully can people speak to colleagues and managers?, How are people allowed to participate in decisions that affect them?, What is the focus for performance management discussions?, What attitude is taken towards working across boundaries?, What are the underlying mental models, mindsets and assumptions?’. The responsible executive then needs to be held to account in an appropriate manner.

In organisations plagued with silo-behaving functions, a similar process of holding functional heads to account (in person and acting together) can be used to engineer a dismantling of those silos. But the behaviour of the chief executive, and the form of words used, is critical. These examples are discussed in the book and the toolkit. Or phone for further advice.

One participant at Windsor explained that he was engaged in a major leadership programme with a large city council in NE England. The programme was stuck and failing. On Monday he joyfully said that he had now found the missing ingredient: ‘managing accountability as part of managing change’. It may seem obvious, but it is easily overlooked.

Thursday, 21 January 2010

Who are we to be appraised?

Picking up on yesterday’s post, if we translate that scenario into what goes on inside most organisations, from time to time an individual’s performance is appraised, and almost always in isolation. But performance for the organisation results from what happens in the relationship between people. Yet that space is left outside the appraisal room, outside the interview discussion.

It gets worse. Appraisal assumes that there is a reality to be identified. And it is the appraiser’s job to decide that reality, often for pay purposes. But there can only ever be perceptions of reality, and there will be many of them. We have multiple perceptions of selves by those with whom we interact, including the appraisee’s own self-perception. What I am in the eyes of one person will differ from what I am in the eyes of another. I personally went from being a star and receiving a big bonus with one boss to being a dunce with a much reduced bonus with the next. My performance (as I saw it) hadn’t changed. In terms of yesterday’s post, Blanchflower is a visionary to some, and a nuisance to others.

If performance happens in the spaces, then the same person’s interaction at work with those in other departments may be perceived quite differently. The person being talked about may be a joy to deal with as far as one colleague may be concerned, and a ‘pain in the ….’ to another. The individual may accordingly choose to spend time with those who find the experience a joy, and shun contact with the others. Yet that (im)balance in how time is spent may not be what the organisation needs.

As with Blanchflower’s agenda, it is not just the judgements that may be wrong, but the game being played, and those who are allowed to play it. Not just the rating may differ and suffer, but a much more fundamental perception of who this person really is, who should decide, and why are we doing this anyway.

As it stands, probably without exception, every performance appraisal system fails to consider these dynamics. Rather than embrace double-loop learning, the appraisal discussion settles for a single loop. In place of recognition that organisations are complex adaptive systems, they are treated as machines, and we look for the faulty cogs, and fix them individually rather than the system as a whole. Modern science has yet to supplant out-of-date Newtonian thinking in the workplace. So what can be done?

Since appraisal and performance-related pay appear to be with us for some time, in parallel to individual appraisal you can bring work groups together and discuss questions aimed at improving the organisation’s performance; for example, “What is working well and not working well?. What are the obstacles that are stopping us from doing what we need to do? And what happens when we attempt to use leadership to improve things?”.

Wednesday, 20 January 2010

David ‘Danny’ Blanchflower’s ideas

Blanchflower is the rebellious ex-member of the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee (MPC). His turbulent term came to an end in May 2009, after a frustrating period in which he frequently found his views (and votes) at odds with his fellow members. But his minority view was often proved to have been right in hindsight.

Now speaking from the touchlines (writing in this week’s New Statesman), Blanchflower argues that "the MPC's days are numbered, certainly in terms of its remit and probably its membership. After the election we are going to have to reconsider who sets monetary policy." He adds: "This MPC is not fit for purpose and should be disbanded.” He wants a complete rethink on what should be targeted, whether the MPC is the right place to take these decisions, and who should be party to those decisions.

Blanchflower also appeared on BBC Radio Four’s Today programme this morning. After saying that he was worried by this, that and the other (8 times), Blanchflower was repeatedly challenged by John Humphries to say what his answer was. He wouldn’t or couldn’t provide it. All he could say was that a major rethink was needed and that people needed to give thought to this. This interview pattern is a familiar one on programmes of this kind. Some people might criticise Blanchflower for appearing to duck Humphries’ question. But Blanchflower has a point. It goes like this.

If you involve many individuals to discuss a problem (such as the future of the MPC or an alternative body and its brief), they become a ‘system’. A system has so-called emergent properties; that is, the outcome that emerges is more than the sum of the parts. No one part or party (any individual participant) holds the complete or acceptable answer. In a healthy discussion, the answer emerges from what happens in the interactions and spaces between them. This may be consensus seeking, or it may be more creative.

‘Wicked’ problems like this one cannot be ‘solved’ as such because there is no single right answer. But problem situations may be improved by involving people widely in generating sparks between them in a healthy dialogue. Blanchflower’s ‘answer’ on its own would contribute little in an interview, and he may have understood that.

Monday, 18 January 2010

James Purnell’s vision, but where is the leadership for it?

James Purnell, the Government’s bright, young Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, walked away from his Cabinet position on 4 June 2009, saying to the prime minister “I am therefore calling on you to stand aside to give our party a fighting chance of winning” [the forthcoming general election]. He probably hoped to encourage others to follow and thereby force a coordinated attempt to unseat Gordon Brown and force a leadership contest. But nothing happened.

Purnell now says he did too little to make clear his beliefs for the future of a Labour Government, what it would stand for and try to achieve. He remedied this vacuum by publishing a remarkable vision. As a model of what is meant by vision, this was quite something. But he then undid his good work by backtracking on his earlier action, praising PM Brown as a “remarkable man”. He appeared to think that Brown was less of a problem than was the lack of a clear vision. He was confused about the relationship between what leadership does with how leadership goes about it.

So what is the relationship between what an organisation believes it needs leadership capability to achieve for its stakeholders, and ‘what leadership is like around here’? Can you have one without the other?

This question needs to be approached from both ends. It is possible to have good leadership processes such as good relationships and good communication between leaders, but not deliver very much for the ‘business’. It is more difficult to successfully deliver what the stakeholders need leadership for while also falling apart in ‘how leadership works round here’.

Purnell’s vision is fine (that is, for those who share his political sentiment, of course), but his latest political maneuvering has spotlighted the issue of the Government’s ability to realise this or any other vision it until the right kind of leadership process is in place.

So it is for any business.

Friday, 15 January 2010

Sir Michael Parkinson as the Government’s ‘Dignity Ambassador’

Sir Michael Parkinson is the UK Government’s so-called ‘Dignity Tsar’. He has come up with many suggestions for improving the treatment in care homes for the elderly, much of it based on the experience of his own mother. In parallel to this, Sir Gerry Robinson has been looking into the state of care homes in a television programme and coming up with his own insights and advice.

Those responsible nationally will be hearing of the many views and suggestions for improvement and many will find themselves agreeing with them. This is all very interesting and pertinent. But the serious question is ‘How can this become an agenda that can be operationalised?’. Which brings us, as ever, to leadership and its role in bringing about change.

It was reported that after the Robinson programme, the wife of Phil Hope, the government minister for social care, phoned him to ask: "And what are you going to do about it?" Some commentators offer the familiar formula of an injection of money and training, a re-evaluation of professional caring, and the recruitment and retention of compassionate and dedicated staff. But there is more to leadership than that, beginning with a systemic understanding of what is going on.

There are basically two kinds of possible intervention in a case like this. If you would like to know how these would work in this context, please email

Thursday, 14 January 2010

Matching the job to the person, and matching the person to the changing environment

On the train two days ago I sat next to someone reading a job description. These ritualistic documents continue to look important. Yet they fit with an image of the organisation as a machine, with each jobholder in the role of a reliable cog. The aim is to produce predictable output. Everything and everyone has its correct place. But is this what makes organisations tick any more? Systems thinking, complexity science, and shadow-side dynamics suggest otherwise.

If it is the individual who holds pride of place in an organisation’s success and its productivity, then a formal, detailed, fixed job description that defines what lies at the heart of a job might make some kind of sense. But organisations succeed because of what happens in the spaces between individuals – whether smooth-running or sparky. It is the quality of those relationships that matter.

We live in an organisational economy. Services are successfully supplied to customers by systems, not by individuals. Arguably, what goes on at the periphery of a job and between jobs is more important than what goes on at the heart of a job, but this receives little if any attention in job descriptions. Similarly, it is what goes on between partner organisations that is increasingly significant. Organisations are open systems not closed ones. A job is an open system too.

When Alistair Campbell appeared before the Iraq Inquiry yesterday, he gave a most creditable performance. He seemed to see his job as protecting Tony Blair, protecting his own skin, and laying into the media. Campbell’s successor sees his job very differently. What matters is interpretation, one’s personal gifts, what the boss calls for, and what is changing in the environment.

The machine metaphor fails because it can’t be redesigned quickly enough for fast-moving and unpredictable times. Complex organisations need to be capable of adapting quickly as demands and environments change. Job responsibility needs sharpening while becoming less pinned down – a modern paradox.

The most valuable things people do are often not what is contained within the defined job, but what lies beyond it – in special tasks and projects connected with improvement and change. Appearing before the Iraq Inquiry was surely not in Campbell’s job description, but what he did mattered, couldn’t be ducked, and he made a good fist of it.

The most important question a jobholder can ask is “Why am I continuing to do what I am continuing to do the way I am continuing to do it?” No doubt it is someone’s job to write job descriptions. Perhaps they should be asking themselves this very same question.