Can we fix dysfunctional government? - Team Business
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Can we fix dysfunctional government?

Can we fix dysfunctional government?

What more evidence do we need that the way we run our government organisations doesn’t work?

In this respect, the Rotherham child protection scandal is a case study for our times. Systemic failure is built into the archaic management design adopted by social services and other government departments throughout the UK.

Under these conditions, catastrophic failure can happen anywhere and probably already is a lot more than we realise. We just haven’t heard about it yet.

Eric Pickles, the Communities secretary parachuted government commissioners to sort the mess out. Unless they have a brief to de-commission the whole apparatus, they have a herculean task on their hands.

Can a leopard change its spots?

In essence what the commissioners are being tasked to do is get the leopard to change its spots. We must not fool ourselves that somehow Rotherham Council has been a magnet that has attracted a unique bunch of highly malevolent and incompetent employees intent on destroying the lives of children and families within their remit.

There is a plain and inconvenient fact here. And that is that the appalling lapses in child protection, and the systematic and aggressive cover-up by politicians, social services and the police, reflect a pattern of behaviour that is innate to any bureaucratic organisation.

Some organisations will be worse than others of course, but the vary nature of a bureaucracy’s top down command and control culture is anathema to truth, excellence and sensitive ‘customer service’. By customers, I mean in this case the vulnerable children who were supposed to be under the protection of the various agencies involved in the scandal.

Hierarchy works against our genetic heritage

In my book Reinventing management thinking I explain that psychologically we are not suited to work in strict hierarchical organisations. In fact when we do, we tend to become stressed and this fear gives rise to a random and bizarre array of personal survival strategies that get in the way of effective organisational functioning.

As Edward Deming, one of the founders of the Japanese industrial revival recognised, “whenever there is fear, you will get wrong figures”. Essentially what he means is that because of the fear factor, bad news travels slowly up a hierarchy ­ if it travels at all.

Nobody likes to hear bad news that conflicts with their belief patterns and in this aspect, bosses are no different to anyone else. But it becomes depressingly more difficult for a boss to acknowledge that their beliefs might be wrong where a lot of self-interest is at stake in terms of status, salaries and career progression. The scale of their adverse reaction is directly proportionate to the amount of power, money and reputation under threat.

Hence the habitual response is to try and flatten the whistle-blowers. Three interlinked factors come into play here.

Senior management self-confidence can be a costly delusion

Firstly, we see that the type of person occupying the higher reaches of a bureaucracy usually arrives at this lofty level in large part due to a high degree of self-confidence in their own ability and judgement. Unfortunately, the research shows that this self-belief in their ability to manage is rarely matched by reality. The unsettling implication here for organisational design is that to a great extent senior management is self selecting. Furthermore, as status rises with promotion, so this self-belief becomes more and more entrenched. Thus, once a manager has achieved high office, it becomes even more difficult for inputs of contrary information to penetrate and alter their cherished self-beliefs.

The wrong people get to the top

Secondly, there is another reason why promotion in bureaucracy rarely goes to the most talented and conscientious individuals. At best promotion is due to an orderly career progression based on prudence, diligence, risk avoidance and a passive acceptance of the prescribed norms. Unfortunately though, also high on the the list of success factors is strong personal ambition, adeptness at political manipulation, skilled image management, an ability to play the system and compliance with the prevailing culture. None of these latter characteristics make a positive contribution to organisational wellbeing.

This compounds a third problem.

Belief filters out conflicting evidence from our conscious perception

Bureaucratic organisations have a tendency to adopt or create their own ideologies. In the case of Rotherham, and a lot of other councils and health authorities in the UK, just one of the prevalent politically correct beliefs is multiculturalism.

Importantly, organisational beliefs can suffer the same drawbacks as with individuals in terms of their impact on rational thinking. Where an individual holds certain beliefs, the brain literally filters out any conflicting evidence from the conscious perception. This peculiarity has been termed ‘premature cognitive commitment’. What this means is that our beliefs can literally prevent us from seeing what we don’t already believe in. This is why, where an ideology has become entrenched in an organisation, the same thing happens. People behave like corporate zombies refusing to see what they don’t already believe in. This happens even if, to everyone else outside the organisation, the facts are blindingly obvious.

This is as fatal for an organisation as for an individual.

The root cause of Rotherham’s malaise is the top down command and control culture

These three factors mean that the commissioners in Rotherham have an uphill task. The root cause of Rotherham’s malaise is the top down command and control culture. Governments seem addicted to targets and a culture of controlling operational affairs at local level by remote ‘experts’ sitting in Whitehall. All the evidence suggests that this never works very well. Top down command and control is always liable to inhibit productivity and performance and on occasions, as in Rotherham and say Staffordshire NHS, can result in catastrophic failure.

Productive and compassionate working in such an environment is obstructed by targets, regulations, inspections and politically-correct ideologies that all get in the way of honest and open enquiry as to the exact needs of the clients. Professionals are severely constricted from a fluid implementation of their intuitive judgement based on their perception of what is actually going on and their extensive experience and training.

The key message of Reinventing management thinking that if, as is the case in Rotherham, you want to dramatically improve organisational performance you have to drop the top down command and control approach and instead instigate a collaborative effort.

Get the people who do the work to plan the work

Research repeatedly shows that the best people to plan or design the work are the people that actually do it. Wherever you divorce policy-making, strategy and planning from actual operations you start going astray. Nowhere is this as important as in an environment where there is a strong element of vocation among the workers combined with a high degree of training.

People wanting to be social workers and police offers don’t do so because they want to screw up young children’s lives. Once recruited, their training and experience are largely going to support their aspirations to do something useful with their careers. It is the organisational culture that is destroying their ability to perform effectively either as individuals or as a group. Here, the role of leadership is to enable a strong element of bottom-up collaboration that will empower the trained professionals who are conversant with the precise ground conditions and the salient needs of the time and are fully capable of responding accordingly.

The organization has at its disposal a vast wealth of talent, loyalty, training and experience that, when unleashed, has the power to transform for the better the lives of everyone that it comes into contact with. The naive and often politically driven obsession with centralized hierarchy destroys this potential. What you are left with in functional terms is a shrivelled husk condemned to compliant subservience with the latest central government fad, target and regulation; whilst the organisational structure becomes a bloated parasite feeding of the guileless taxpayer demanding ever more resources for an ever diminishing return.

Collaborative leadership means trusting the professionals and other workers to do their best, apply their skills and think and act conscientiously on behalf of the needs of their customers. It means stepping back and allowing things to unfold and trusting that with trained and dedicated human beings this will happen in an orderly and beneficial way. Leadership is about creating the structure that will act as a conduit for the collective energy enterprise and intelligence of everyone working for a common cause.

In this respect, ‘Reinventing management thinking’ explains a variety of techniques, ideas and methods from the various schools of thought around collaborative leadership including lean manufacturing principles, TBD’s team planning, systems thinking, Kaizen and so on. All these concepts help collaboration to be thorough and efficient at translating the collective energy into beneficial group action.

Collaboration is written into our DNA

Essentially collaborative leadership and decision-making works because we have survived as a species by evolving into highly socialized, collaborative problem-solving mammals. Collaboration is written into our DNA and when a bureaucratic environment prevents us from expressing this natural talent it triggers a stress response. It is this stress response that is responsible for the otherwise inexplicable and myriad ways people under-perform and misbehave.

Collaboration – ­ The benefits

Among other factors, a collaborative working environment allows for a freer flow of negative feedback informing management of what is really needed, spontaneous problem-solving at every level of the organisation, infinitely greater adaptability to changing circumstances, parallel processing of ideas that prevent the ‘unintended consequences’ so often seen with targets and autocratic decision-making, an awesome ‘sprint capacity’ and the amazing ability to cope and respond speedily and effectively to errors.

If the commissioners have the authority to embrace this type of thinking we could yet see a transformation in Rotherham that will be an inspiration to public services across the country. Don’t hold your breath!


Jeremy Old is author of ‘Reinventing management thinking’ and
managing director of Team Business Development Ltd. Jeremy Old has twenty-five years experience of management coaching in the SME sector and has led over fifty business transformation assignments. His book explains the psychological principles behind the success of collaborative management styles and structures such as Lean management and Hoshin Kanri.

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