206 – ‘The Outstanding Organisation’ by Karen Martin.

Posted by Colin Weatherby                                                         870 words

the outstanding organisation

This is a forthright and practical book full of inconvenient truths for local government. I suppose its relevance to local government depends on whether or not you believe that becoming an outstanding organisation is either possible or desirable. Karen Martin says that people know excellence when they see it and they know when they are not excellent. But do our leaders in local government?

This is another book (and I am repeating myself here) that everyone reading it who works in local government will wish they had read years ago. The key idea is that it is chaos that prevents organisations from becoming excellent. Martin says that managers and workers often don’t see the chaos or its causes. In many cases the behaviour causing the chaos is habitual and invisible. Typically, she says organisations respond to chaos by:

  • Becoming accustomed to it so that they think it is normal.
  • Recognising it but thinking that there is nothing that can be done about it.
  • Embracing it as a good thing and developing skills in coping with it.

Councils do all three to a greater or lesser extent. If you have been following posts on this site you will have worked out that writers see complexity as a feature or local government services and believe that everything possible should be done to simplify the organisation. Martin’s hypothesis takes this view further. She challenges people to ask whether their organisation is delivering significantly higher quality services today (with better safety) than it did 10 years ago. Most councils would be unable to answer yes.

Being outstanding isn’t straightforward. Martin describes how managers can look at organisations that are succeeding and not notice the real differences between how that organisation behaves and how their own organisation behaves. They lack the knowledge that allows them to understand the difference between competence and incompetence. They may attempt organisational improvement (e.g. Lean) but ‘consistently fail to see the things that truly make a difference’.

I think this is a leadership problem for local government with so few leaders with deep experience and broad management knowledge and skills. Many don’t know what high quality work looks like when it is happening. They don’t know how disorganised and unproductive many of their people are in the midst of the organisational chaos. Many top managers have quickly found their way to the top through a single functional responsibility. Martin says that the Dunning-Kruger effect explains the inability to differentiate between competence and incompetence in some organisations. This has been discussed in relation to local government in a previous post.

She introduces an interesting and related concept – isomorphic mimicry. This is the copying of form rather than function, and she gives the example of a non-venomous snake that evolves to look like a venomous snake. But mimicking other organisations doesn’t work because you can’t copy their history, culture, knowledge, experience and habits. They may look the same but they have different capabilities and behaviours. We should keep this in mind in local government before we adopt the next management fad or look out the window and copy what someone else is doing because it looks like what we should be doing.

Martin spends a fair bit of time talking about the need to build a solid foundation for performance. Without it, improvement approaches won’t solve problems and will create more chaos. The chaos she is concerned about is avoidable, undesirable and self-inflicted.

“Chaos sabotages ability to provide value to customers, satisfy stakeholders, and offer a work environment that doesn’t break employees’ spirits.”

In comparison, externally-inflicted chaos is unavoidable and a reality that every organisation must deal with. It can be a catalyst for innovation and flexibility. However, fighting fires that your own organisation has lit reduces the energy and resources available to cope with unforseen external circumstances and changing market conditions. In local government we have enough of this in dealing with the numerous sources of external accountability.

By now you are probably wondering what an outstanding organisation is. Martin says it is one that has consistently delivered high value, relative to alternatives, to stakeholders for years, if not decades. The delivery of value can be measured in many ways. Several relevant to public services have been discussed in various posts. Martin has identified three capabilities of outstanding organisations:

  1. Problem solving – organisations exist to solve problems, whether it be the gap between a current and desired condition, unmet customer needs, or a social issue.
  2. Continuous improvement – being able to solve problems can maintain performance and ensure consistency. Continuous improvement raises the bar on performance and starts the move towards excellence.
  3. Resilience – the ability to cope with the inevitable’ slips and stumbles’. If the way things have always been done isn’t working any more, a resilient organisation will stop doing it and look for a better way.

For me, Martin’s story becomes compelling when she describes the symptoms of chaos: shifting priorities, unclear direction, unstable processes, unhappy customers, and disengaged employees. This is a daily struggle in most local governments. If we are to become more effective and efficient, make productivity improvements, and reduce operating costs, there has to be less self-inflicted chaos.

Martin, Karen 2012. The Outstanding Organisation.