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.