john atkinson leadership

Are you good enough to lead?

Is there a problem in your organisation? Are you a senior person in that organisation? Have you been there any length of time? If the answers are yes then you are part of the problem.

There is a philosophy amongst senior leaders that if a problem is to be resolved then others have to be changed. As they look at their organisation they see where the discrepancies exist, where activity that should be cleanly resolved is causing issues, where things simply aren’t getting done. The quick and easy solution is that the people there aren’t good enough. They aren’t leading. They need to be changed, whether that be another round of ‘restructuring’, known otherwise as ‘hiring and firing’ or some remedial action labelled as ‘development’. 

Maybe sometimes this works. Maybe we do have people who no longer fit their environment, perhaps they’ve not adapted as the world has changed, or been promoted to a new position that was never their strength or calling. Maybe it is easier for us to simply get rid of them rather than acknowledge our own part in this situation. Blaming the symptom is a good way of avoiding the reality of the cause.

And so we find ourselves in a frame of thought that says where there is a problem, somebody connected to that problem is at fault.

A study of fortune 500 executives found that only a tiny handful of them outperformed normal statistical variation in the market. A study of premiership football managers found that only a tiny handful outperform their team’s ranking based on its wage bill (i.e. the talent available). A further study of change processes found that nearly three quarters failed, according to their own positive self-reports, to achieve the things they set out to do. A yet further study found that the time taken for major change to become an accepted organisational norm can be far longer than the average tenure of a senior executive.

Put all this together and we see that blaming individuals for organisational failure or lauding them as heroes for organisational success has shallow foundations. It might be that the predecessor who we fired was responsible for the success that we now see.

This is particularly true when it becomes an institutional mindset across multiple positions. Take as a good example the NHS in England where the political leadership (Secretary of State, The Rt Hon Jeremy Hunt MP) and the organisational leadership (Simon Stevens, Chief Executive) have been in place some years. Over this period performance has been perceived to have dropped steadily and repeatedly according to the measures they use. Their approach of replacing, haranguing and ‘performance managing’ leaders has resulted in rapid turnover of senior executives with no uplift to performance. senior positions are filled with expensive interim appointments. By the measures they use performance continues to decline.

So what does this tell us?

It tells us that the approach being used isn’t working. It tells us also, that simply replacing either or both of them is to mimic the exact same performance for which they are criticised. Our frankly lazy political and organisational rhetoric is harming the NHS and that means it is harming patients and quite probably killing them. It tells us that we need to reframe the problem. 

So here’s a suggestion. Stop performance managing people from on high, as all you do is ensure they manage their data to give you the information you need. The initial improvement in numbers you get is not a meaningful improvement. Over time, every time, the numbers drop off, because you haven’t addressed the underlying issue. Addressing underlying issues means getting up close and really conscious of the environment you operate in. That can’t be done from a large bureaucratic headquarters that considers numbers a suitable proxy for outcomes. This is a problem of scale. As organisations grow in size the benefits of greater purchasing power are offset by the cost of maintaining the internal bureaucracy and the disconnection with their environment.

So if you want to make an organisation like the NHS better, stop trying to control things the way you are long after it has been proven that you cannot. Emancipate boards and local politics to take a longer-term view on what is needed for the health systems in their places. Stop constraining them by organisational form and externally imposed direction and incentive. Why wouldn’t you if what you are doing now clearly isn’t working?

Living systems act to preserve their own identities, that's why not. So political and organisational leaders act to preserve their belief in their positional power, at all levels, from the very top to the very bottom. And those reporting to them are complicit in the deceit that this is actually the best way to do things. Only when the contradiction between what we say we are doing and what is actually happening becomes so obvious, so untenable, will change become inescapable. Lets hope by then it isn’t too late. The NHS had best start planning now for the 2017-18 winter pressures, but don’t expect anything to change…