219 – Do we value competent management in local government?

By Lancing Farrell                                                                                                        1200 words

Image result for Why do we undervalue competent management hARVARD BUSINESS REVIEW

Raffaella Sadun, Nicholas Bloom and John Van Reenen have written an interesting article (Why Do We Undervalue Competent Management?) that explores a deep and persistent problem in organisations across the world.  This problem also manifests itself in local government.

The article is based on research over the past 16 years in 34 countries involving 12,000 organisations and 20,000 interviews (see more at http://worldmanagementsurvey.org). A strong evidence base is used in providing some clear insights into a problem that is disturbingly common.

The fundamental premise is that competent management practices make a difference to the productivity, profitability, growth and longevity of organisations.

This seems like such an obvious thing to say or write. Of course, the quality of management is critical to the performance of an organisation. After all, aren’t we are all managers and doing something that makes a positive contribution? This is where the story starts to get interesting.

The authors say that competent core management practices can’t be taken for granted and that there are big differences between and within organisations they have researched. Our experience in local government validates this finding. Every time you move to a new organisation you notice differences in how it is managed (either better or worse than your previous council). You also notice differences when you move from managing one functional area to another within the same council. It is one of the benefits of moving to broaden your experience.

Big differences in management practices within organisations, and organisations not being good at identifying and spreading their own best practices, is relevant to local government. Councils often have ‘pockets of excellence’ within them. These are often the services that also rate highly on community satisfaction surveys, for example, libraries and waste management. We tend not to study those services and learn from them. In fact, the opposite often happens, and organisational drag is ratcheted up to contain them because they are seen as higher risk. What makes them better makes them a problem.

The authors see operational excellence as a critical complement to strategy – it provides the capability to act on strategic intent. Core management competence is the platform for more sophisticated capabilities, such as data analytics, evidence-based decisions making and cross-functional communication. In my experience, this is relevant to local government because we frequently over-reach and try to implement complicated management ideas on a poor foundation.

The authors list the characteristics of the organisations with higher scores in their research:

  • Rigorous performance monitoring.
  • Systems geared to optimise the flow of information across and within functions.
  • Continuous improvement programs that support short and long-term targets.
  • Performance systems that reward and advance great employees and help underperformers turn around or move on.

Think about your own organisation. Do you see these things happening? There are reasons that they probably aren’t.

One reason highlighted by the authors is that the costs of improving management practices can be as high as the capital investments organisations make. Imagine a council spending tens of millions of dollars improving management practices – how would the councillors and the community view it? The results are not guaranteed, they are intangible, and the returns on investment are difficult to articulate. Making a building is a lot easier and less risky.

As with many HBR articles, making links between compelling private sector ideas and public sector management takes a bit of imagination. The statement by the authors that operational excellence results in higher profitability, which in turn means firms will grow faster and be less likely to die, started me thinking about a local government equivalent. What can you say about the benefits of operational excellence for a council?

Well, I had a go.

 “Councils that create greater public value through operational excellence will have more satisfied residents with a greater willingness to contribute in providing community services and infrastructure”.

I am assuming that the value that matters is public rather than customer or stakeholder or private value. I am also using satisfaction in terms of expectation and experience. The idea that people who feel they are getting value for their money or effort will contribute more, and the contribution will be for services and infrastructure that benefits everyone not just themselves, is also important. Have a go at a statement yourself.

The last section of the article deals with why every organisation isn’t focussing on their management competence or capabilities and in achieving organisational excellence.

In local government, I think part of the answer to this question lies in believing there is a problem. In my experience, councils tend not to see their problems. In many years spent working as a consultant to local government, I noticed this frequently. In situations where you could see an obvious problem or opportunity for improvement (and, of course, an opportunity to sell a service), councils would not see it.

Sometimes they did, and then the issue could be that they would think it was a problem without a solution, or at least a solution they would be able to implement. As a consultant, I spent a lot of time convincing councils that they could solve these problems (and that I was the person to help them.

The authors list six external and internal reasons for the variations in management competence they have identified:

External

  1. Intensity of competition – a competitive environment it creates a strong incentive to reduce inefficiencies and badly managed firms will die. In local government, the same incentives don’t apply but a general level of dissatisfaction with, and distrust of, government is creating pressure for change.
  2. Labour relations – it can be difficult to give opportunities to more talented staff on merit. This is also true in local government, which has the added problem of difficulty dealing with poor performers.

Internal

  1. False perceptions – managers are unable to observe how badly or well their organisation is being run. They might also over-estimate the cost of introducing new practices or under-estimate how much difference they could make. I am sure local government suffers from both problems.
  2. Governance structures – managers who know what needs to be done and choose not to act for fear that the change will adversely affect them. I have known many leaders who have put their personal ambition and career ahead of the best interests of their organisation.
  3. Skill deficits – this includes basic capabilities in numeracy and analysis. In local government, it also includes more sophisticated capabilities, such as operations management.
  4. Organisational politics and culture – this is evident in resistance to change.

The last dot point is addressed by the authors in some detail. They say that resistance to change is most successfully overcome in the organisations they have researched through top management involvement, constant communication, message reinforcement and visibility. Take another moment to think about your organisation.

I will finish with a quote that captures a key challenge for local government:

 ” … management quality was significantly higher in organisations in which CEOs dedicated a larger portion of their time to employees that to outside stakeholders.”

Sadun, Raffaella , Bloom, Nicholas and Van Reenen, John 2017 Why Do We Undervalue Competent Management? , Harvard Business Review, September –October. https://hbr.org/2017/09/why-do-we-undervalue-competent-management

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217 – What should our Executives spend their time doing, and why don’t they?

By Lancing Farrell                                                                            1800 words

time

Image: http://content.wisestep.com/why-your-resume-should-be-one-page-good-reasons

This is the question that crossed my mind recently when discussing time management with a colleague who is part of an Executive team that is reviewing use of their time. They have engaged a consultant to work with them individually to understand how to best use their time. Like every Executive team, they always have more work to do than the time available to do it.

After keeping a time diary in 15 minute intervals for two days and coding up each activity according to musts, wants, work that should be delegated, and work that shouldn’t be getting done at all, it became apparent to my colleague that more efficient use could be made of available time but this wouldn’t solve the problem. Optimising use of time wouldn’t provide enough to do all the work. The nature of the workload needed to be examined.

In part this examination was prompted by the time management consultant suggesting that the time spent by my Executive colleague in meetings with direct reports could be reduced or the meetings held less often. In considering this idea, she realised that this was some of the most valuable time they spent each week. She also realised that (at the moment) she didn’t have a better use for that time. What could she do with the time that would be more valuable than influencing and helping her direct reports? This realisation started her thinking more broadly about the work she was doing.

This led her to re-examine Elliott Jaques’ work on requisite leadership. In particular, Jaques’ concept of time defining the degree of complexity in managerial leadership roles. The idea that every task has a target completion time and that the longer the time-span of discretion for tasks, the more complex the role, struck her as relevant in working out where she needed to spend her time and effort.

Jaques’ describes seven levels of organisational hierarchy, each with a different time-span of discretion ranging from 3 months to 50 years. He calls them requisite levels. Based on this, my colleague sketched out the relationship between Jaques’ theory and her work and time allocation challenge in the following table. Continue reading

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

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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