87- Local government strategy implementation. Myth 3: Communication equals understanding.

Posted by Lancing Farrell                                                                              240 words

targets

This is the third post in a series of five. The first post discussed the myth that strategy execution equals alignment and the second post covered the myth that strategy execution means sticking to the plan.

Donald Sull, Rebecca Homkes and Charles Sull say that many executives believe that ‘relentlessly communicating strategy is a key to success’. They suggest that checking whether staff are ‘clear on the organisation’s top priorities’ is less useful than asking them to describe the organisation’s strategy in their own words and to list the top five priorities.

This would be an interesting exercise in local government where the ‘strategy’ is not always clear.  Strategy can mean different things.  It can be the ‘strategic position’ taken by an organisation in response to customer or community service demands (i.e. its relationship to its market). It can also be the ‘strategic approach’ the organisation adopts in doing the work necessary to meet those service demands (i.e. thinking long term and holistically). And it can be a documented ‘strategic plan’ with actions to move from the current state to another preferred state (i.e. a roadmap). Often these definitions are used interchangeably.

An additional problem identified by the authors is that strategic priorities are not only poorly understood but they often ‘seem unrelated to one another and disconnected from the overall strategy’. This feeling is not uncommon in local government. They believe that part of the explanation is that communication is measured in terms of inputs (the number of times something has been communicated in different ways) instead of outcomes (how well do people understand what has been communicated). Again, this is not uncommon in local government either.  It is easier to measure inputs – ‘I told them about it!’ 

In the next post: Myth 4: A performance culture drives execution.

Sull, Donald, Homkes, Rebecca, and Sull, Charles 2015. ‘Why Strategy Execution Unravels – and What to Do About it’, Harvard Business Review, March.

85 – Local government strategy implementation. Myth 2: Execution means sticking to the plan.

Posted by Lancing Farrell                                                                              600 words

Gantt chart

This is the second post in a series of five. The first post discussed the myth that execution equals alignment.

Sull, Homkes and Sull describe how organisations translate their strategic objectives into detailed plans that specify who will do what by when and with what resources. A large amount of time and energy is invested in the plans. Executives are then reluctant to deviate from the plan because they think that would reflect a lack of discipline and undermine execution.

However, a plan cannot anticipate all of the things that might help or hinder the organisation in achieving its strategic objectives. Continue reading

84 – Local government strategy implementation. Myth 1: Execution equals alignment.

Posted by Lancing Farrell                                                         700 words

alignment

Image from http://www.clipartpanda.com

This is the first post in a series of five posts drawin on ideas from the article ‘Why Strategy Execution Unravels – and What to Do About it’ by Donald Sull, Rebecca Homkes and Charles Sull.

In the article Donald Sull, Rebecca Homkes and Charles Sull describe the usual way strategy is implemented – i.e. it is translating it into organisational objectives, which then cascade down the hierarchy, progress is measured, and performance is rewarded. This accurately describes what theoretically happens in local government.

The authors found that when asked about improving strategy implementation, executives suggested greater use of tools such as management by objectives and the balanced scorecard to ‘increase alignment between activities and strategy up and down the line of command’.  In other words, execution relies on alignment and failure to implement strategy is a result of a breakdown in the linkages between strategy and action at each level in the organisation.

This type of thinking is also prevalent in local government. Continue reading

83- Myths of strategy implementation. A series of posts.

Posted by Lancing Farrell                                                                              280 words

treasure map 2

This series of posts builds on a previous series about how job design impacts on strategy implementation to focus on other systemic organisational factors. It draws on ideas from the article ‘Why Strategy Execution Unravels – and What to Do About it by Donald Sull, Rebecca Homkes and Charles Sull, which was published in the Harvard Business Review in March 2015. The authors have been conducting research for nine years into how complex organisations can execute their strategies more effectively.

The research is ongoing and the article discusses some of the insights that have already become apparent. In particular, five myths about how to implement strategy are exposed and alternative approaches are discussed. The central thesis is that most organisations have clear and accepted definitions of strategy but know a lot less about how to translate a strategy into results. Continue reading

26 – The first 25 posts. What have you missed?

Posted by Lancing Farrell                                                                                              1100 words

Writers have posted 25 times since the start of the year. A number of themes and ideas have been discussed. This post provides a brief overview.

The goals are set out in post 1 – track current issues and discuss the issues that are ‘everlasting, widespread and insoluble’ (using the least amount of words). A range of issues have since been covered from the daily media, day to day work life, and the things people often talk about but seldom resolve.

Post 2 and 5 discuss local government services – what we do and how we can define it. The conclusion is that local government needs to provide services that fit within legislated requirements, are responsive to broader community needs and expectations, and meet the individual purpose for each person receiving a service. Each service can be defined as a cross-functional process or value chain.

In post 3 the complexity evident in local government is discussed, including the involvement of customers in service delivery, the variability they introduce, the difficulty measuring service quality or setting service goals and measures, and the impossibility of separating service delivery from politics.

The impact of training on performance is discussed in post 4 in response to media criticism of the Australian government public service for its spending on training. The post suggests that understanding, documenting and improving processes would yield more benefit than providing more training for most councils.

In post 6 the differences between customers, clients, citizens, residents and ratepayers are discussed. Understanding which role someone has chosen to take in an interaction is important in determining the value they expect. This can be useful in differentiating between public and private value expectations.

Post 7 looks at public service job cutting and the link to productivity. Some key messages from the Centre for Policy Development report False Economies: Unpacking public sector efficiencies are discussed. The post identifies the importance of defining public value so that any changes to resource levels can be made in the knowledge of the impact they will have on the value produced.

Post 8 presents an imaginary script for an episode of Gordon Ramsay’s ‘Kitchen Nightmare’ in which he assesses the performance of local government as if it were a restaurant.   Hopefully it is both entertaining and thought provoking. What would Gordon Ramsay say?

In post 9 some emerging characteristics of people and councils are discussed. Obligatory empiricism, oblivious narcissism, and consensual lying are put forward as reasons why councils always seem to learn everything from scratch, leaders set out to meet their own needs first, and why people tell others what they want to hear for the sake of convenience.

Post 10 draws a ‘line in the sand’ with a discussion of the changes that have impacted in Victorian local government since the 1990’s. Part history lesson and part explanation of the present, the post concludes that the most influential change has been to the tenure of the CEO and their increased dependence on the goodwill of their council for survival .

Planning in local government gets a thorough airing in posts 11, 12, 18, 19, and 20. In posts 11 and 12 the current organisational planning processes is critiqued. Posts 18 and 19 suggest ways to better integrate planning. Post 20 discusses the role of the Council Plan.  All posts provide commentary on how to develop plans that are realistic, achievable and focused on delivering the value expected by the community. Constraints identified include the need to work within legislated requirements and the need for leadership to really understand ‘the business’ to be able to implement a ‘top down’ and ‘bottom up’ planning process.

In post 13 the role of policies and strategies is discussed. Are they becoming convenient but ineffective solutions to difficult problems, devices to avoid doing something that needs to be done, or just a way to be seen to be doing something?

Post 14 is an attempt to explain why councils stick with conventional organisational structures and avoid dealing with cross-functional processes; why systems seek to control risk and increase compliance without regard for producing public value; and why council culture encourages people to avoid making decisions. The discussion centres on what an organisational culture survey, an ABEF organisational self-assessment, and the Executive’s risk appetite can reveal.

Four books that should be read by every leader in local government are discussed in posts 15 and 17. The books are Recognising Public Value by Mark H. Moore, The Whitehall Effect by John Seddon, Improving Performance – How to Manage the White Space on the Organisation Chart by Geary A. Rummler and Alan P. Brache, and The Leaders Handbook by Peter R. Scholtes. Each book has a different focus and there is a mixture of public sector and business reading.

Post 16 discusses the rate capping proposed for local government in Victoria. The history of rate capping in Victoria and the long-term effects of it that are apparent in NSW provide a backdrop to a discussion about what councils can do in response. This post covers the potential for shared services and the potential impact on capital and operating budget cuts.

In post 21 the way councillors feel about their role is discussed. Do they feel inundated and manipulated or respected and influential? The difficulties they face as volunteers and in becoming skilled in their role, working together in an adversarial system, and coping with very demanding workloads, are covered. The message is stop complaining and support them more effectively.

What does a high performance local government organisation (HPLOGO) look like? In post 22 a methodology is proposed to define and create a HPLOGO. Based on the work of Andre de Waal, a set of characteristics of a HPLOGO are described (as actions) and prioritised.

Post 23 is a bit tongue in cheek. It is an attempt to pick up on the ‘chip on the shoulder’ prevalent in some parts of local government. Is local government a plaintive country tune or a majestic aria?

In post 24 an article by Frank Ostroff from Harvard Business Review (Change Management in Government) is discussed in relation to making high performance happen. He describes four unique barriers to change in the public service related to leader skills, leader tenure, rules that create inflexibility, and stakeholder resistance to reform.

Finally, post 25 looks at local government budgeting and how it is focussed on the past and has difficulty coping with improvement and innovation.   The need to balance investment in compliance with improving customer service and developing new services is discussed with reference to Christopher Stone’s work on public sector efficiency.

13 – Salvation, obfuscation or simply tokenistic? What roles do policies and strategies play in your organisation?

I was talking to a colleague whose Manager has recently joined Victorian local government for the first time, to find out what were her initial impressions. He said that she had commented on the large number of policies and strategies, and whether they could possibly be effective given the difficulties synchronising them and avoiding conflicts. It started me thinking.

When I first started working in local government we had policies and strategies. They were important documents that guided action. We didn’t have many and they weren’t changed without very good reason. Making a new one or changing an existing one, wasn’t a regular way forward on issues. That has certainly changed. Today, policy fills a number of roles, one of which is still to guide action. The other roles are worth some brief reflection.

Policy and strategies have increasingly become a source of salvation for CEO’s and senior managers faced with elected representatives wanting to pursue political goals that are unpopular, unaffordable, unachievable or unnecessary. It can be a way of saving politicians from themselves. Rather than committing to action on the initiative, a process to develop a policy or plan is commenced to ‘map the way ahead’. The fact that it often doesn’t lead to movement anywhere seems to go unnoticed. The last time I completed a stock take of strategies it revealed that the majority of actions hadn’t been acted on (in some cases after 20 years, although the strategy was still live) and the actions were not implemented for very good reasons. They just weren’t a good idea.

In fact doing the stock take revealed that the review schedule for policies and strategies was logistically unachievable without significant extra resources. If you look at the number of policies you have, the scheduled review interval (typically 3 to 5 years for policies and 5 to 10 years for strategies), and do the maths, you will realise that the organisation can’t actually do it without stopping delivering services to re-allocate the required resources to policy and strategy review.

Policy and strategies have also become a way to obfuscate. Instead of acting on an issue that has an obvious but difficult or expensive solution, a policy or strategy is created that hides the real significance of the issue and provides and easy, cheap and ineffective ‘way forward’. I have heard officers talking about policies or strategies that have been implemented and had no effect. The outcomes are still the same. Surprise, surprise. Sometimes the choice of policy or strategy in these situations is not deliberate – it has become almost innate and part of the modus operandi of some senior people.

One of my ‘favourite’ examples of strategies is one that deliberately failed to specifically address a critical and contentious issue. When I questioned the officer responsible for developing the strategy, he said that it was a deliberate decision on his part. Because he believed consensus was not possible and this would have delayed agreement to the strategy, he left it ambiguous so that it could be ‘sorted out later’. The ‘later’ happened to be when I became involved and there was a budget for works and no clarity about what to do. Thanks. He was a senior policy officer and it was his standard approach.

Policies and strategies have become increasingly tokenistic. In a recent post on the Pannell Discussions, the topic of ‘tokenistic policies’ was discussed. The focus was on government actions that are tokenistic, and as a consequence, unlikely to make a real difference. David Pannell asked, ‘why do governments do this, and how do they get away with it without provoking public anger?’ These are good questions and they apply to local government as much as any other level of government in Australia. I have seen policies that everyone knows are infeasible but it solves an immediate political issue in a way that minimises any future organisational commitment.

Pannell suggests two reasons for tokenistic policy. The first is to be seen to be doing something, even though they know that is unlikely to be successful. This is better to be seen to be doing nothing. His second reason is ignorance. People think it is a good idea and they don’t have the technical knowledge to know that is poor policy and will achieve little. His most interesting commentary is in relation to how governments get away with it. He cites four reasons:

  • Complexity – even experts would have trouble working out an effective policy response and most people can’t judge whether or not it is good policy and they end up trusting that the government is doing what it says it is.
  • Time lags – the effects of the policy won’t be known for some years, and by then it is hard to connect the results to the policy.
  • Intractability – some problems can only be solved at exorbitant expense or not at all. Implementing a low cost policy limits the waste of resources.
  • Communication challenges – it is just too hard to discuss the issues in terms that most people will comprehend.

I am not suggesting that all local governments are creating policies and strategies that are simply convenient but ineffective solutions to difficult problems; devices to avoid doing something that everyone knows should be done; or simply a way to be seen to be doing something with no intention of it being effective. However, there are occasions when they obviously do.

I suppose, we all need to ask ourselves the question.

Colin Weatherby

Pannell Discussions, http://www.pannelldiscussions.net/2014/10/274-tokenistic-policies