Leading Public Sector Change

In the current economic climate the public sector in the UK is under extreme pressure to continue to deliver the services that we need while cutting budgets. The remedies adopted by those who class themselves as leaders seem to fall into two categories:

  1. slicing thorough the organisation
  2. undergoing some form of ‘transformational change’

The first remedy is easy to implement. If we need savings of 10% then let us trim 10% from everything. This takes no account of what we do, it is just simple belt tightening and when services start to suffer our leaders just cry ‘we had to do it to make ends meet’ and ‘its all the fault of the government’. For those who cannot understand why this approach is bad, let us use the metaphor of a soccer team. A club that has a large ground, a reasonable squad of players and ground and catering staff. Times get tough and the accountants in charge cut 10% off everything each time there is a round of spending cuts. What can happen?

  1. We lose seating capacity in the stadium (10% each time) so eventually we have to lock out fans
  2. We lose ground and catering staff so eventually the pitch does not get prepared and we are also unable to generate extra revenue through match day catering and functions
  3. The number of players eventually falls below 11 so that we do not even enough players to form a team
  4. We can no longer function

In these situations common sense should prevail and we should prioritise but compare this to the public sector where this course of action is being actively pursued.

And now we come to the dangerous part. For those who have realised that simply hacking off 10% is not good we now introduce the ‘Transformational Change Programme’. My own personal view is that if an organisation must change then it is up to the leaders and managers to first of all decide on the reason for the change, what the post change organisation will look like and then make the change happen. However, it appears that many public sector organisations are  embarking on a course of action that goes something like this:

  1. Decide on an arbitrary cost saving
  2. Create a transformational change programme at a cost which will save an amount equal to or more than the above
  3. Draft in one or two outsiders who have successfully achieved this elsewhere (unlikely as this is not a good way of doing things)
  4. Set up a standalone project to analyse the organisation using ‘Lean’ or similar techniques
  5. Implement the streamlined processes

On the face of it this looks like a good plan but there are flaws. LEAN is meant for manufacturing or situations which can be treated as such, with highly replicable processes and little or no scope for the ambiguity that humans introduce. LEAN does not cater for humans.

Next, because of cutbacks the composition of our change projects means that they are staffed internally. This can mean that one or both of the following happen:

  • Staff are taken away from their ‘real’ jobs, leading to an accidental accelerating of our 10% cut strategy
  • Many staff are untrained for carrying out the required business analysis or project management tasks with little context specific knowledge

This may then lead to a lean looking set of business processes which can be flawed but which are then forced upon largely unsuspecting employees, reducing motivation and increasing fear and uncertainty in the current economic climate. Many leaders will say that they will ensure that this never happens but both of the above can never achieve their desired objectives.

What does work then? Well a system that:

  1. Gains buy in from front line staff
  2. Increases effectiveness
  3. Reduces management overhead
  4. Can reduce the need for compulsory redundancy
  5. Uses your own staff with minimal outside intervention
  6. Is low cost (compared to the alternatives)

Such a methodology exists. Colleague Dr Paul Thomas has coined the phrase Simplexity as a combination of simplicity and complexity theory. It has now been successfully trialled in a number of organisations. Get in touch to find out more, or see my other blog posts Ban The Boss and Ban The Boss – update.

 

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Give Your Colleagues A Whack On The Head!

Now that I have your attention, please do no resort to violence, I just want to wake you up!

Organisations, just like people, can get set in their ways. Relying on established ways of working and fixed patterns when solving problems not only stifles innovation, but can lead to a narrow perspective and moments of self delusion when you kid yourself that things are going ok ,and there is nothing else you can do. Here are three ways to help your organisation  wake up:

  • Challenge existing rationale. Every organisation has shared explanations for doing things the way they do. Be critical about these explanations and ask the question ‘why is this standard practice?’
  • Expose faulty either/or thinking and decision making. Sometimes we are forced to make irrational choices about how to work. Don’t let your choice be A or B. Propose options  C or D as new ways of working and evaluate them all.
  • Focus on the long term. By focusing on the  near future you will be more inclined just to keep on doing the same old things. Help to wake up your colleagues by letting them see the bigger picture, and understand not only the short-term gains but also the long-term consequences.

Be gentle!

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The Future of Leadership

The future of Leadership (and also Management) continues to be debated. It is widely recognised that things cannot remain as they are. We are in a challenging era and we need organisations to be more effective (not necessarily efficient), to be better places to work and to be sustainable. Up until now these have mainly not be attainable apart from in a few organisations. These few do, however, show that what we are all striving for is in fact possible. The question is, how on earth do we get there?

There are professional bodies that see themselves as the custodians of Leadership or Management, however are these the bodies to take things forward? In fact should there be representative bodies at all? The problem is that we are trying to paint a picture of the future which a) obviously does not exist b) which we wish to be different from the present.

This means that if we use the current knowledge and models from any existing sources then we are likely to be interpolating in order to create the future. Even current management thinking tells us to be wary of this. Surely what we desire is a way of extrapolating from what we already know. Fans of Douglas Adams will only be too aware of how the ‘Infinite Improbability Drive’ was extrapolated from an exceedingly hot steaming cup of coffee in The Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy (please read it if you have not already done so). If Douglas Adams had interpolated then he might have just created a frothy Latte rather than an ‘Infinite Improbability Drive’.

So what does this mean for Leadership? In terms of concrete actions, I am not entirely sure. However, to find out I believe that we need to paint a picture of the future which does not have to be complete fantasy but which should not be limited by current thinking. This should maybe focus on organisational structures (or not), behaviours and the ways in which employees communicate as well as the requirements of organisations. The let us consider how we get there.

We should not throw away what we already know but neither should we accept an interpolated future just because there are aspects that we are unclear about. If there are no Leadership and Management models then let us invent them, if we do not like the language used then let us create new language. Even if we cannot do that, let us experiment and create a prototype of the future which others can borrow or add to.

The danger is that this will be seen as too high a price to pay for creating a brighter future. What price are you and your organisation prepared to pay?

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Using Negativity Wisely

There is a lot of it about, negativity. Negativity is often seen as disruptive and something to be banned from organisations. Often we can spend far too much energy fighting it so why don’t we make use of it? In a previous article I described the use of Reverse (or Negative) Brainstorming as one of the ways we could do this. This was purely for generating ideas for new products and services but you could use it in many other ways too. Here is just one possibility.

Do you have any ideas about the things that could wreck your business? Market changing new products announced by competitors, new government legislation, flash flooding or severe bouts of food poisoning are all possibilities! Some of these threats are predictable (to some extent) such as flooding but many are not. It is likely that you have the predictable events covered already so let us focus on the unpredictable for now. As well as protecting your business you could actually discover ways to threaten the competition.

As you would expect, we are going to use creative thinking techniques but in a slightly more focused way than normal. Instead of asking “What could destroy our business tomorrow?” questions should be more relevant to the type of business that you have. To start off with try coming up with some ideas about the areas in which your business might be vulnerable. If you manufacture products from raw materials then you might be vulnerable in areas such as production or delivery of raw materials, continuity of energy supply, or distribution of finished products. You might also be threatened by Government legislation or exchange rates if you export.

Now let us get focused. If we have identified that transport and distribution is a potential issue then ask:

  • What could stop us obtaining raw material or delivering to customers?
  • What would happen if the price of diesel fuel rose dramatically?
  • What would happen if our competitors did a deal with road haulage companies?

If you were making consumer products you could also be worried about bad PR if your products were faulty or even killed people! You get the idea?

To get the best ideas you will need to involve as diverse group of people as possible and make the questions relevant to your business or business.

If you do identify serious threats then you can do something to reduce their impact or avoid them altogether. Identifying a ground breaking product that might put you out of business is also good since it provides you with the opportunity to develop such a product and hence outfox your competitors.

Wherever there is a threat there is also opportunity, so get thinking!

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