210 – Is innovation over-rated in local government?

Posted by Colin Weatherby                                                         1100 words

patched road

I was recently reading an article in Aeon magazine entitled ‘Hail the maintainers’. The central idea is that ‘capitalism excels at innovation but is failing at maintenance, and for most lives it is maintenance that matters more’. I think you could replace ‘capitalism’ with ‘local government’, although I am not sure that we are excelling. We are certainly preoccupied with trying to be innovative (or at least being seen to be innovative).

The authors, Lee Vinsell and Andrew Russell, believe that innovation is the dominant ideology of our era. Pursuing innovation has inspired both technologists and capitalists. It has also attracted critics.

“What happens after innovation, they argue, is more important. Maintenance and repair, the building of infrastructures, the mundane labour that goes into sustaining functioning and efficient infrastructures, simply has more impact on people’s daily lives that the vast majority of technological innovations. “

The idea that local government must be more innovative reflects the willing (and often mindless) adoption of populist ideas from the private sector by local government.   After all, being innovative is sexier than doing what we have always done but making sure we do it well. Continue reading

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

205 – ‘We don’t need to be clever – just less stupid’, The Age 23 February 2016.

Posted by Colin Weatherby                                                                         700 words

Dont need to be clever just less stupid image

Image

I read this article and though it was fortunate that the writer, author and polymath Satyajit Das, hadn’t been dealing with his council. No doubt a greater attempt would have been made to feign ‘one stop’ service but if it was anything but a simple matter, he would have come across the same dysfunction. His acuity is evident in his analysis.

Das’s dealings with his bank highlighted how the quest for efficiency and lower costs has achieved the opposite result. This is a recurring theme in the writings of John Seddon about the public sector. Das lists six sources of ‘unproductive and inefficient’ failures that he believes are now common in many organisations.

  1. Tasks have been fragmented across different locations and the simplest activity is now complicated.
  2. There is no continuity. ‘One person is not accountable for the complete activity. Workers lack any idea of how what they are doing, or not doing, affects the whole process overall’.
  3. Staff lack the skills and knowledge required.
  4. Performance measurement has lowered, rather than improved, performance. Staff actions detract from results instead of helping achieve them.
  5. Leadership is lacking in ‘domain knowledge’ (i.e. valid knowledge in a particular area).
  6. There is a tendency to see history as old and irrelevant. The latest technological wizardry is the best solution to any problem. Valuable lessons from the past are routinely ignored.

There have been a number of posts on these very topics. Continue reading

198 – Essay No. 5 – Local government and leadership.

Posted by Colin Weatherby                                                                         1300 words

Mark H Moore strategic triangle

Mark H. Moore’s ‘strategic triangle’ – the basis for value-led public sector management

I have been thinking about leadership a lot recently. It has been a recurring theme in posts on this site. Reading Jeffrey Pfeffer’s book has challenged my thinking about how leaders work and what motivates them. It has reinforced some of my scepticism about leaders and why they do what they do. I tend to agree with Peter Drucker’s questioning of the distinction between leadership and management. Ultimately, organisations, particularly in the public sector, have to be managed. The idea that somehow managers aren’t leaders or that leaders aren’t managing doesn’t make sense.

Having said that, I can think of organisational leaders I have known who couldn’t manage. At some point they just ticked the leadership box and assumed the position! Pfeffer explains how and why everyone then goes along with it. Once you are a leader it seems you can get to stay there without any real scrutiny and accountability for your performance. That has definitely been my experience in local government.

I keep imagining myself working in an organisation with an effective leader who manages the organisation for high performance (not career advancement). One that provides clear strategy, direction and goals.  One who coordinates effort to  across the organisation to achieve those goals. In particular, I have been thinking about how they could do that in local government. 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

193 – ‘Losing my importance’ (with apologies to R.E.M).

Posted by Whistler                                                                                          350 words

feather duster

I was talking with a colleague recently about a matter that I believed was important that wasn’t being addressed and my thoughts on why this was happening. He made a salient comment – the longer resolution is delayed, the less important the matter becomes. Over time it will lose its importance. 

How often have you heard people say ‘if it was important, it would have been done by now’. Working in local government is a constant battle between the urgent and the important, and finding out what is really both urgent and important. Social media has injected a definite sense of urgency into political problems, but are they really important?

I have often wondered why managers have such difficulty seeing the difference. The following matrix can be a helpful way to focus your attention.

important and urgent matrix

If a distant fire front is left burning it is understandable if it ceases to become important. Either people become accustomed to it or they don’t see the need for action. Far more attention is generated by the spot fires started by embers from the fire front and generating lots of busy work. They are usually at your feet and visible to everyone and there is immediate heat if they are left unattended.

In comparison, better planning and decision making is always deferred when distractions present themselves. I know many managers whose daily work is driven by the emails that they receive throughout the day – they continually scan their inbox for the next thing to do.  It is easier than getting their minds around the hard stuff of management.

On the flip side, I once had an experience when I was the acting Group Manager and I was unsure of the importance of a document I had received. I asked the Personal Assistant to the Group Manager whether or not she knew if the document was important. Her response was an insight into her 20 years as a personal assistant to Group Managers. She said ‘that’s your job – make it important’. So I walked down the hall and handed it to a manager and asked him to act on it.

Instant importance.

187 – A high functioning Executive. What would it take?

Posted by Colin Weatherby                                                                                         1100 words

awesome

This is a question I was asked recently by a reader. Having read several posts critical of the behaviour of the Executive (What can a culture survey, an organisational self assessment, and your Executive’s risk appetite tell you?, The Executive. What exactly is their role? , Does your Executive suffer from altitude sickness?, and The Executive: filters, traffic controllers or drivers? ) she wanted to know whether I had a solution. Knowing that it is easier to be critical than creative, I cast my mind to thinking about the nature of the problem and some potential solutions.

I think the starting point is to understand the problem. In a nutshell, I think the following issues illustrate the problem:

  1. The Executive is overloaded with the small stuff handed to them by councillors (not the council). Much of it has to do with the personal idiosyncrasies of councillors and behaviours arising from their inability to work together as a group. It is dysfunctional, urgent and produces little value for the community. There are better ways for potholes to be reported.
  2. The Executive has to deal with high level relations with external organisations and strategic external pressures. These are often CEO to CEO relationships and cannot be readily delegated.
  3. The Executive is not putting enough time and effort into leading the organisation. Their focus on councillors and the external environment takes most of their time and energy. At the same time, they worry about problems 1 and 2 being made worse so they try to control organisational communication and decision making. When this is done ‘efficiently’ by time poor leaders it drives dysfunctional management behaviours.
  4. The Executive operates independently of managers and participates in the Senior Management Team (SMT) episodically. There is frequently no genuine and continuous engagement with the SMT in strategy and decision making. Managers are included in decision making when it suits the Executive – which is usually when they have the time and energy to do it. Managers are effectively isolated from information and the strategy decisions being made continuously by the Executive.

Obviously there are different solutions possible. Continue reading