The smaller picture

I suspect I’m not the only person in a senior leadership job who regularly feels like a fraud: am I doing enough to justify my position? What vital opportunity or threat have I missed? Am I being strategic enough?

Ask most people who profess to know about how to do senior leadership and what makes a good leader, and they will often talk about ‘being strategic’. Taking a step back, getting a ‘helicopter view’, seeing the bigger picture.

There is truth in this: often as a senior leader you are in a unique position to have an awareness of what every part of an organisation is doing, which means you should be able to tell whether the parts are fitting together well or not and where the whole thing is heading. If you get bogged down in the detail of a single part, you risk losing that perspective and using up your time and energy on one part of an organisation whilst the others drift.

There are some problems with being strategic though. Firstly, we live in an increasingly unpredictable and chaotic world. However many steps back you take, there are huge changes, like Brexit, which the vast majority of the most powerful leaders did not see coming, and which even now it is happening, feels entirely unpredictable. We live in an age of social movements which bring great shifts in power for good or ill, but which the establishment cannot ignore and cannot always ‘manage’.

So the strategic skill of analysing and building complex systems is becoming less useful. You are as likely to make the right moves by being able to hear and move with fast-moving cultural changes. Savvy senior leaders talk about creating movements, but in reality, those movements are more likely to be started by a personal story and a hashtag, than a research and piloting budget. Working with the world in this way starts with building a shared values base for an organisation and requires closer and more communicative relationships with a much broader range of people.

The trade-off between strategic overview and a relationship with reality has always been under-estimated. For some years now, public service leaders have been talking the language of personalisation, person-centred care, communities and empowerment. Many of them have meant it. Few though, have been willing and able to translate those arresting visions for a more human model of public service into the collective activities of large organisations which continue to be run by middle managers who are performance-managed on balancing their existing budgets and ensuring their teams carry out a narrow and familiar range of tasks. The vision stays unengaged with the real-world pressures.

I see that disconnect when local leaders become passionate about developing their Shared Lives provision, but that passion dissipates as it meets the cynicism and stasis of their just-about-surviving teams. A mentor some time ago suggested to me that complex strategic plans, particularly if supplied by outside consultants, were always works of fiction. Instead, he recommended having a clear view of who you are as an organisation, which in turn would enable you to spot the opportunities to take, and the challenges to respond to.

I’m increasingly convinced of this.

You cannot of course, know who you are as an organisation, if all you have is an overview of it. You have to be prepared to get close to it too. Senior leaders who want their visions to become reality, have to be willing to get out of the helicopter and to work alongside colleagues on ground-level system change. And leaders who want to be sure that what their organisation writes about their values are real, must not only live those values in person but also spend time with people on both sides of its front line.

Step back from a large organisation or system, and instead of achieving a clear, strategic vision, you may fail to see the faulty processes which make the vision impossible to achieve, or fail to hear what people really experience. Bankrupt values will sink an organisation as quickly as bust budgets. The bullying culture Continue reading


The need for a Slow Policy movement

(I was not aware when writing this blog of this 2005 paper by Peter Bates which has a similar theme and which draws on In Praise of Slow by Carl Honore, also new to me. Some ideas percolate, well, slowly.)

There is a slow food movement, which began in Italy, based on the belief that fast food lacks real nourishment and flavour and that its intensive production methods and short cuts are unsustainable for the environment within which it is grown and produced. Slow food is produced with time, care and the understanding of local culture, farming and ecology which can only be developed over years, or even generations. It tends to value small-scale production for its sustainability and for being rooted in community and place.

At present, government and the NHS express the importance of a policy change through the urgency of the deadlines they set themselves and their partners and the amount of money they can ‘find’ in an emergency to fund the change. NHS Sustainability and Transformation Plans (STPs), in which every area was required to set out how its health system would transform itself to survive the current resource crisis and become sustainable, were clearly important, and therefore urgent. So, most were drafted by small groups of very senior people, who regretted they had not the time nor resources to engage widely, particularly with charities, grassroots groups and people with lived experience who are the most complex and time-consuming to find and talk to. It is no surprise that STPs, despite many containing necessary and pragmatic ideas, have been widely reported by the media as ‘secret NHS cuts plans’.

This cycle of crisis, frenzied activity and shallow changes is endlessly repeated. The urgency turns out to be illusory every time: whilst a report will be rushed out in months, underlying causes of problems will remain unaddressed for years. STPs are morphing into the next set of initials whilst the NHS and social care continue to go bust.

We need a slow policy movement in our public services: a new norm for how to create change. No more flurries of reports and plans from the same group of highly paid people, who remain embedded in group-think. No more heroic leaders on a mission to fix things.

Instead, the slow policy approach would be to cultivate different people and networks which are more deeply-rooted in the lives and service cultures of those affected: people with lived experience, their families and front line workers, who all need training, preparation and a slower pace in order to contribute meaningfully. A change programme would examine the problem or challenge from the point of view of people use services, families, front line workers and people who do not or cannot currently access the service. The conversations with them will start with “What does a good life look like?” not “How can we improve, cut or close replace our service?” The questions will include, “What are you willing to contribute to achieving the goal we all agree is important?” (which is a different question to “Will you pay for our service?”, or “Will you volunteer for us?”)

In place of short term pilots generating tentative findings, new models should be implemented on a small scale but with a plan to scale them up incrementally if they appear to be working, until they replace the current system. As my colleagues in Local Area Coordination say, ‘move slowly, to move fast’. With people who use services genuinely involved in their design and delivery, we would finally have the confidence to remove resources from models which do not work, rather than continuing to resource the status quo, regardless of how much more effective new models proved.

High Performance Failure

Every public service organisation has the potential to forget its purpose – working for the people who use its services – and instead being run for the benefit of those who work for or lead it. This happens in poor services through incompetence or laziness, but it also happens in high performing services, which get seduced by their own reflection.

The recent scandal of St Olave’s school, found to be unlawfully expelling sixth formers whose first year results looked like they might bring down the school’s A level results and threaten its league table position, is an example of this phenomenon. This was a state school, spending public money, which was lauded as one of the best, but which was in fact becoming in some ways one of the worst: wilfully failing and damaging young people at a crucial time in their education. This now appears to have been the practice of a number of ‘top-performing’ schools, who presumably shared the view that their league table success, and accolades for their leaders, outweighed the importance of harming those pupils seen as inconvenient. Arguably, this ‘wheat from chaff’ view of children is just a reflection of a wider crisis of values within the education system, with its lingering fondness for selective schools.

The school system has some features of which make this ‘high-performance failure’ more likely. The head teacher and the education system places huge value on the ‘heroic leader’, with ‘super heads’ wielding unchecked power. 2016 Harvard Business Review research looking at hundreds of heads showed that the most lauded head teachers, who made dramatic short term gains in academic performance, often through excluding more pupils, left no lasting legacy of success, but probably a trail of destruction as they removed ‘problem’ pupils and staff who disagreed).

Governing boards can lack real power, with parental voice limited or non-existent. Despite talk of empowering pupils, the focus of most school policies is on their compliance to rules set by others. An extreme example of this was circulating the internet today: the behaviour policy of an academy school, which, whilst clearly starting with the laudable aim to raise young people’s level of ambition (speaking clearly and confidently in full sentences, for instance) had strayed into an Orwellian nightmare: shy pupils could expect to be punished for speaking too quietly (city hypothetical future job interviews, this would make them appear ‘not that bright’) or even failing to smile enough, which was ‘ungrateful’ and ‘negative’. Despite glib slogans about how successful this would make children (“We’re Charter. We’re smarter”), it’s hard to see what leadership or creativity skills could be learned from being subject to such a monoculture.

This is partly a product of the gap between simplistic notions of success and quality in the education system, and what makes a diverse group of children not just as academically successful as they can be, but also as happy, kind and resilient – which are outcomes either unmeasured or which take second place to results. We also see this gap in adults’ services which are ‘high-quality’ but fail to help people achieve wellbeing or build resilience. Continue reading