45 – Does your Executive suffer from altitude sickness?

Posted by Whistler                                                                400 words

jet pack

A colleague has recently started reporting to a Group Manager who is new to local government. Her observations about the workings of local government provide an insight into our behaviour that we either no longer notice or just accept. This post discusses the observations made of Executive budget deliberations.

Over several days her Executive considered the budget prepared by the organisation and they deliberated over the ‘business as usual’ budget and new initiative bids. In this time the discussion alternated between the high level and the detail. The way she described it, the Executive would say that they needed to be strategic and take a ‘helicopter view’, but each time they attempted to do so they felt discomfort at the ‘altitude’reached and choked. They would then dive straight back down into the details of the matter where they would then spend 10 or 15 minutes going over the minutiae before reminding themselves of the need to deal with matters strategically. They then headed back to higher altitude but once there the altitude sickness resumed and they would dive back to the detail. As I heard the story I imagined them each strapped to a Jetpack.

Over successive issues, the available time frittered away and a series of small decisions were made about the numerous budget bids, resulting in a draft budget that lacked any overall cohesion or strategy linking it to the big picture or the long term. Why did this happen?

After talking to others who have worked in local government for a long time, the process described so colourfully is the same process witnessed annually. Every manager has seen it. Despite their best efforts, the Executive frequently fail to take the high level, big picture, long-term view required. I think this is because they are not confident about what the big issues really are or how they should be addressed. In addition, they lack trust in managers to understand the issues.  Managers and the Executive don’t share the same experiences of working in the organisation. This is evident in culture survey results. The Executive also overestimate the currency and accuracy of their knowledge of operations. This leads them to think they are capable of dealing effectively with the detail.

Low altitude can also be a safe place for some members of Executives.