Less Fred, More Mary and The Organisational Goldilocks Zone

I’ve posted and tweeted this stuff before in little fragments, so please excuse a touch of deja vu. This is the first time that all this blather has ended up in the same place, at the same time. For my Healthcare interpretation of the Organisational Goldilocks Zone phenomena, I’ve got to go back a fair way to set the context, but I’ll begin with the Griffiths Report 1983. This NHS review has been so badly misinterpreted over the years, as to compete with that of scientific management.

Look at any Hospital Board in the UK around the mid 80s and you’ll see a couple of specialist managers amongst a load of clinicians, in charge. The Boards were mostly middle-class middle-aged men, so far from representative, but they were all steeped in many years of delivering the business. Griffiths wanted to make these Boards and mostly the senior clinicians (a professionally autonomous national militia) much more accountable. The answer was to distribute responsibility for delivery away from Government and onto the shoulders of regional management teams, who would set objectives and manage performance. This was arguably, the first attempt to privatise the NHS.

In a flash, NHS General Management was invented and those responsible for implementation had absolutely no idea what to do, so looked to those atop the civil service for inspiration. They took one distant squint at the NHS and declared that the new bureaucracy will work like the civil service; providing generalised management over whatever specialties and structures are in place.

Trouble is, the context for those senior civil servants, their contribution, was to hold the territory and assist various transient professional politicians in navigating both the idiosyncratic governmental etiquette and the legislative bureaucracy. Arguably, the NHS ended up with the exact opposite structure: of an enduring professional territory held by the clinicians, with a swathe of transient amateur civil servants trying to tell them what to do. Very quickly the Regionals avoid any accountability by delegating to Locals, who in turn delegate to Divisions, to Directorates, to Departments and all the way down to the Deputy Assistant Photocopying Needs Assessment Training Team Supervisor. This process for delegation and the myriad HR policies it spawns, is typically summarised on an organisational pyramid chart: a bureaucratic convention intended to avoid any moral responsibility for both telling people what to do and doing what people tell you. It’s both the management definition and the literal antithesis, of Accountability.

I think it should be law that nobody is allowed to read any management text book, until after they’ve studied Mary Parker Follett. She was correcting Frederick Winslow Taylor as his ideas were being wrongly applied, for the first time. I should do a seperate blog on how Fred’s Pyramids are defeated at every turn by Mary’s Webs. Then again, we have moved the thinking on just a bit in the past century and Nicholas Taleb has even worked out that you should never trust the decisions of people with no personal Skin in the Game – a more useful book than Black Swans.

So having some personal skin in the game is critical because (Mary explains this better), beyond a few generalisations like good communication and being able to read a spreadsheet, the insight required to manage different parts of healthcare is incredibly nuanced and situated. Most clinicians devote an entire career to their specialty and even their singular department: Geriatricians are not like Anaesthetists and we expect both of them to work in their chosen field for at least 10 years before they can make any enduring decisions. Yet your typical manager doesn’t last more than a year or two, before being shuffled about. As a result they don’t get the chance to immerse themselves in the context and gain any real insight. Throughout my early management career, I was one of those, until something profound happened that opened the door for me to commit some of my own skin in the game. I recently posted about that Epiphany.

Back to Griffiths. Shortly after the first wave, it was clear that general management did not appear to be working very well. Put yourself in their shoes: you haven’t been around long enough to gain any real insight and thanks to Griffiths you are now accountable, so what on earth can you do? “I know” someone said, “let’s have a little reorganisation”.

Rather than looking at the systems in place to actually do the work (Mary), these naive managers naval gazed at their own structure (Fred) and spent millions convincing one and other that a slightly different shape will work better. If there was an Olympic Sport that involved rearranging deckchairs on the quayside after the ship has sailed, NHS management would be undefeated. Anyway, ten years in and approaching its third redisorganisation, NHS management was in a bit of a crisis.

Then all of a sudden, to the rescue, crashing through an early 90s stained glass boardroom window, charged a magnificent white steed straddled triumphantly, by the medieval fantasy codpiece of egomaniacal Leaderism (Fred). The smooth talking weasels – afront various mercantile predatory bureaucracies that have never actually done the work of your organisation – alight their steed and stand agape at the end of your board table. They bang on about the character traits of various successful Leaderists and declare that a convenient set of context free competencies will, cut the mustard. The Leaderists in question were all middle-class middle-aged men who accidentally became rich enough to pay someone else, to write a book about their personal amazingness. Sponsored by the weasels – in exchange for honorary professorships – a load of business schools then show up with their case based obsessions for industrial best practice, 1950s car factories, pseudo-religious coffee shop psychobabble and a sudden penchant for autobiographical hero worship.

Despite the inumerable flavourings of prefix-leaderism that have emerged over the years, every single course and convention can be summarised in one sentence: why bother actually being competent and understanding the territory, when a generalised set of shiny behaviours can be simply applied in any context to universally great effect.

Sorry, couldn’t help myself. Anyway, roll forward another decade or two and what are we left with? A great quote from the HSJ in 2014: While the post-Griffiths’ generation of managers had to get to grips with techniques such as process improvement and queuing theory, the next generation must understand the subtle alchemy of incentives and the arts of behavioural economics. The irony of a weasel from Ernst and Young spouting that, is as sad, as it is profound.

We are left with a Bauble of Lightweight Leaderists with very little insight to speak of, put in charge of those with lots of it. Or at least, far too many lightweights camouflaged amongst the dwindling numbers atop our organisations, of good people ‘steeped in many years of delivering the business’. The worst type of Leaderist by far is the Fasttracker. The irony is that they themselves don’t realise how insightful CEOs use the fasttrack to eject idiots, as it’s far simpler than attempting a sacking. Fasttrackers have typically had so much smoke blown up their arse about how amazing they are, that they can no longer see the world through the fog and truly believe that other people need to be led by them – “obvs because I am committed to my amazingness”. In a blaze of Fundamental Attribution Errors these psychopaths believe that problems are all about other people not being good enough (more Fred) and have an almost complete and utter contempt for context (less Mary).

In other words these idiots, tend to blame every failure on the poor character of the people involved; the leaderless and the laggards. Therefore, to do a better job next time, you need only be a better person than the last one and of course you are – more smoke please. Clearly all you need is any old linear recipe that sounds plausible and someone amazing to implement it, namely you. Fortunately, the world is now full of weasels who’ll gladly sell a Leaderist a recipe for success based on nothing more than their existing amazingness and a very expensive glitter cannon. Shiny!

This has become ubiquitous over the past 25 years as more and more organisations have been invaded by Leaderists, each replete with the same shiny bauble of context free competencies. Our organisations are becoming depractitionered and dumbed-down to the point where the weasels get all their Christmases at once, every time we redisorganise ourselves and some new Leadersist nails a hero landing. We are facing a whole new generation of career tourists strewn about the organisational world like the physical flotsam and jetsam of nepotism and good old fashioned arse kissing.

Good at interviews and crap at jobs, the Leaderists are typically parachuted on top of a system that they can’t possibly understand. They quickly set about upsetting the locals, peeing in the sacred fountain, kicking the loyal guard dog, taking the credit for great stuff that’s always been there and making their mark on a burning platform – having inadvertently just set fire to themselves. Clearly, the new Leaderist has no organisational memory beyond what the last idiot did and obviously, can’t burn their own platform by continuing that stuff. So they resort to inevitably reinventing what the last but one idiot did, all dressed up in slightly shinier shoes. They instigate a whole new cycle of command and control wrapped up in words like culture and vision and most often prefix-leaderism (zeitgeist flavoured).

Now to be fair, most of us want people to succeed and at the beginning, give the Leaderist a fair chance (Mary). Maybe this one will learn quickly and those of us with some skin in the game, take a deep breath and sit back to watch the unfolding drama. This is a critical part of the cycle as during this honeymoon, the typical Leaderist gathers around them a shallow clique of future Leaderists and other arse kissers, to do their bidding and go balls out on the positive communications. Unknown to them, the marketing glitter cannon signals the formation of the Staff Militia. We secretly prepare for when the burning platform gets too close to the work and people we hold most dear. The insurgency begins by offering to reason with the Leaderist: occasionally they go defensive, but most often they show their true nature and go decidedly, offensive. I assume you all know never to argue with an idiot, they drag you down to their level and beat you with experience. So we reach an armistice and because the Leaderist has no skin in game, before anything can possibly besmirch their amazingness … they are gone.

The amazingness has disappeared off up itself with all the other Leaderists, into a room called organisational transformation. Then 18 Months later the Leaderists emerge triumphant, all wearing each others badges.

Did you spot it?

During that 18 months, we begin by piling into the nearest pub to celebrate our liberation, before setting about repairing the damage – we empty the fountain onto the burning platform and bury the dog. Then before the next staff consultation can be published, we move fast and take full advantage of the short window of opportunity when there’s little to get in the way of us all engaging in our best work. There’s a lovely sweet spot as the insurgency and the engagement begin to synchronise, creating a fecund cultural disposition. I call that The Organisational Goldilocks Zone.

The 4 Year OGZ Cycle – not too close, not too far away.

Anything ruled by political timescales is particularly well evidenced. The system runs in 4 year cycles, so if you want to know what to put in your transformation plan for next year, simply look back 7 years and copy and paste in, that old shite. The trick is to always get your pet projects signed off just before the new Leaderists lands. Then you rejoin your colleagues and with a collective sigh, brace yourselves for the inevitable catastrophic cliff dive into the chasm of despair. Helpless, as the matrix reboots.

Remember cynics are not bad people, we’re the ones who truly care and commit ourselves to protecting the important things, from the idiots. Feel free to copy out the blank version of the OGZ in the header. Have some fun with your team naming the actual events that have taken place in your organisation, to create the cultural dispositions playing out along the fat red line. Hopefully, you now know how to navigate the Organisational Goldilocks Zone, by being less Fred and more Mary.

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