211 – Unpredictability, interdependence, complexity and chaos – why councils need to adopt the Third Principle: optimisation.

Posted by Lancing Farrell                                                                                              1200 words

the third principle

I recently rediscovered a book that I bought 17 years ago when it was first published. It is one of those useful management books that is an absorbing read when you buy it, and then it quietly sits on your shelf waiting for the day you really need it. It is now a book for the times with rate capping coming into Victorian local government.

Neville Lake’s central idea is that management practice has three fundamental organising principles – effectiveness, efficiency and optimisation. He believes that an organisation can be both effective and efficient but be sub-optimised. This leads to only 80% of its potential being realised.

The other 20% is trapped in processes that don’t work, management models that don’t deliver, and interactions with customers that fail to deliver expected value.

Having worked in local government for 30 years, I have to agree that we are sub-optimised organisations. Continue reading

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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. Continue reading

203 – ‘Systems Thinking for Social Change’ by David Peter Stroh.

Posted by Colin Weatherby                                                                                                         950 words

systems thinking for social chnage

The subtitle of this book says it all – ‘A Practical Guide to Solving Complex Problems, Avoiding Unintended Consequences, and Achieving Lasting Results’.   Every so often you pick up a book and it provides answers to problems that you and thousands of others grapple with every day. This is one of those books.   David Stroh co-founded ‘Innovation Associates’ with Peter Senge, who later wrote the management classic ‘The Fifth Discipline’. Both are proponents of systems thinking. The premise of this book is that ‘applying systems thinking principles and tools enables you to achieve better results with fewer resources in more lasting ways’. Wow.

Stroh uses detailed, real-world examples to make his case. His ‘systems stories’ explain how people can improve performance by shifting from just trying to optimise their part of the system, to improving the relationships between all parts of the system.   The systems stories start with seeing the big picture.

It is often the case in local government that people focus mainly on their functional responsibilities and either fail to see connections to the work of others, or they are not interested. Life is simpler when achievable goals can be set and complexity is overlooked. Putting the effort in to understanding the whole system is seldom rewarded. Local government is epitomised by sayings like ‘keep it simple’, ‘look for quick wins’, and ‘pick the low hanging fruit’.

In contrast, Stroh uses the ancient Indian story of the blind men and the elephant to illustrate the importance of the big picture. Continue reading

195 – Leadership connections and disconnections – some thoughts on Jeffrey Pfeffer’s ‘Leadership BS’

Posted by Colin Weatherby                                                                                         950 words

leadership BS

This is a new and interesting book. Promising to ‘pull back the curtain’ to show how leadership really works, Jeffrey Pfeffer (Thomas D. Dee II Professor of Organisational Behaviour at the Stanford Graduate School of Business) argues that ‘much of the oft-repeated wisdom on leadership is based more on hope than reality. This appealed to my pragmatic, rationalist view of the world. Things are not always what they seem (or how people would like them to seem).

It is a provocative book and reading it will challenge those who subscribe to the current leadership orthodoxy. In the Preface, Pfeffer compares management to medicine and highlights the progress modern medicine has made by rooting out the charlatans and quacks, and introducing science into the practice of medicine. He revisits this comparison in Chapter 8 when he provides advice on ‘confronting the reality of organisational life’.

This is where the ‘rubber hits the road’ after an interesting and thought provoking read through the first seven chapters covering why fables cause problems; why leaders aren’t modest; how authenticity is misunderstood and overrated; whether leaders should (or do) tell the truth; where trust has gone; why leaders ‘eat’ first; and how to take care of yourself.

In Chapter 8, Pfeffer starts with a discussion about the difference between management science and medical science. Continue reading

167 – High performance: ‘Why I Like People with Unconventional Résumés. Claudio Fernández-Aráoz.

Posted by Colin Weatherby                                                                         500 words

its not the what or the how cover

This is the title of a chapter in Fernández-Aroáz’s book ‘It’s not the How or the What but the Who’. It is also the title of a blog he posted for HBR.org . In it he discusses the unconventional candidate with exceptional potential. I was surprised at his honesty in discussing his personal ‘epiphany’ when he realized that, as a recruiter, he had been advocating a recruitment strategy that his own company did not follow.

Fernández-Aráoz starts the chapter by discussing his HBR.org blog post and the response it prompted. Many of the respondents described their frustration at recruiters who didn’t appreciate, understand, or even consider their track record. For many people who have pursued executive roles in local government this is not news.

Many councils or almost all recruiters play it safe. Continue reading

111 – High performance: ‘The Best and the Rest’. Claudio Fernández-Aráoz.

Posted by Colin Weatherby                                                                         560 words

star

This is the title of a chapter in Fernández-Aroáz’s book ‘It’s not the How or the What but the Who’. It discusses the difference between a typical worker and a highly productive worker. I was surprised at the differences in performance between the best and the rest.

Fernández-Aráoz says that a ‘star’ worker in simple jobs, for example an assembly line, and a ‘typical’ worker is about 40%. The distribution of performance follows a normal distribution, or bell curve. The distance between the best and the rest grows quickly with increasing complexity of work. He cites a top life insurance salesperson as being 240% more productive than an average salesperson, and star software developers outperforming others by 1,200%. Continue reading