Learning to talk to one another – politics and practical judgement

I went to hear Prof Colin Crouch promote his new book The Knowledge Corrupters: Hidden Consequences of the Financial Takeover of Public Life at the Institute for Government.

Crouch’s thesis is that the financialisation of public institutions reduces the meaning of what they do to a limited number of numerical targets and performance indicators often of a financial kind. This has the effect of also reducing the spectrum of knowledge we need fully to be employees, citizens and customers and constrains expert judgement. It has the effect of trumping all other valuations of particular organizational or social problems with one supposed truth, that of the bottom line or a financial target.

One example he gives of the consequences of financialization from the UK is the monetary incentive offered to GPs to refer more patients with suspected Alzheimer’s disease for further medical tests. The incentive is problematic on a number of fronts: although it is offered on the basis of encouraging behaviour which politicians deem to beneficial to the public as a whole, it nonetheless implies that GPs would not refer patients without such a financial reward. It enacts a theory of motivation at odds with the medical profession’s own values: the overwhelming majority of doctors would not consider it either necessary or desirable to be offered money to refer someone for tests who needs them. Additionally, in Crouch’s terms it has the potential for corrupting expert knowledge as well as creating perverse incentives. Crouch is not implying that professionals need no scrutiny or don’t need managing, but he does argue that financial targets, and numerical targets more generally, are a crude measure of what is really important in specific situations when the work is complex. It is a very crude, mistrustful intervention to bring about a greater focus on potential Alzheimer’s sufferers. Continue reading

Leadership and the ‘vision thing’

Roberto Martinez, manager of Everton football club which did very well in the Premier League in the UK this season, says that he always had a vision that the team would play in the European Champions League, for which his team has now qualified. Meanwhile political pundits, and sometimes members of his own party, are critical of the fact that the leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition, Ed Miliband, doesn’t have a sufficiently clear vision. In contrast, President George Bush (père) once said that he didn’t do ‘the vision thang’.

If you search on the terms ‘leadership vision’ in any search engine it will turn up thousands of hits, consultancies, business schools, books, which claim that having leadership vision is probably the most important quality a leader can have. There are any number of proprietary tools, techniques, grids and frameworks for generating such a vision. The idea is now virtually unchallengeable.

How would I square the idea that vision is something an individual leader ‘has’ with some previous posts where I argued that leadership is an improvisational and ensemble performance? If vision really is the exceptional and innate characteristic of an individual leader, then maybe the leaders of banks and corporations really do deserve the fantastic salaries that they command. Is it really the case that some are born with visions, and the rest of us are born to be led by them. Continue reading

Changing organisational culture: a moral and disciplinary project

This post is another contribution to thinking about organizational culture in preparation for the Complexity and Management Conference due to be held 7-9th June this year, 2014, which will be dedicated to this theme.

The Christmas period provided a very good example of the dominant thinking about organisational culture change, which I wrote about earlier in a previous post on this blog here. The new CEO of Barclays Bank, Anthony Jenkins was the guest editor for BBC Radio 4’s flagship news programme, Today, and he used the opportunity to draw attention to ethics, leadership and organisational transformation. You can find some of the clips from the programme here.

The banking world in general and Barclays in particular have been rocked by a number of scandals, including mis-selling of financial products and the manipulation of the inter-bank lending rate, LIBOR. Jenkins sees his task as rebuilding the bank and restoring public trust by ‘transforming the culture’ of the bank away from short-termism and a narrow definition of maximising shareholder value which he feels has predominated over the last 30 years, towards an understanding the banks serve society at large.th

To achieve this Jenkins has started a review of all the bank’s activities and has set alongside it an organisational change programme called Transform. The Transform programme sets out what Jenkins describes as five core values: respect, integrity, service, excellence and stewardship. All of these are to be ‘embedded’ in the organisations and measured episodically with numerical scores to give a reading of the bank’s progress towards operating differently. To give a token of his seriousness, Jenkins argues that he and his colleagues have developed a set of ‘explicit behaviours’ which staff have to exhibit in order to demonstrate the values. They will be recruited, promoted and developed according to these standards. According to Jenkins this change in culture will take up to ten years. Continue reading

On organisational culture change

There is a great deal of discussion in contemporary organisational life of the need to ‘change the culture’ in organisations. This is a way of talking that assumes that organizations do have discrete cultures and that they are manipulable, although the discourse can have it both ways with the term: on the one hand culture is known to be symbolic, intangible and abstract, on the other it can be the object of conscious and rational redesign and reframing. A good example of this way of talking about organisational culture can be found in the 4th edition of the eminent management scholar Edgar Schein’s book Organizational Culture and Leadership[1].

Usually a prime role is assumed for leaders or senior managers in making the changes to organizational culture because they are considered to have the necessary abilities and skills to diagnose what is wrong with the current culture and to design a better one: one which fits better with the environment. Schein states this very explicitly in his book: ‘In this sense culture is ultimately created, embedded, evolved and ultimately manipulated by leaders’ (2010: 3).  As a result of their leaders’ efforts, employees will be obliged to commit to a fresh set of values, or reaffirm an existing set which are thought to have become moribund, as well as demonstrating a suite of required ‘behaviours’ or new procedures. The new values and procedures are then set ‘at the heart of everything we do’, are vigorously communicated and disseminated and form the basis of widespread training programmes for staff, and are then subject to regimes of inspection and performance management. Such change programmes can consume weeks and months of organizational time and resources.

The whole process is a good demonstration of the systemic assumptions behind organizational realignment: values, behaviour, systems, procedures, training, communication and quality regimes are all supposed to line up and fit over each other and form a coherent whole. The emphasis is on integration, stability and alignment. It is a huge reduction of the complexity of what is at stake when attempting organisational change.

A book recently published calling for radical change in the NHS is a refreshing attempt to explain why ‘culture change’ in organisations is likely to be highly problematic. [2] Instead of assuming that whatever we might mean by the term culture is contained within one organisation, even one as big as the NHS, Ballatt and Campling, an ex-senior manager and psychotherapist within the NHS, explain why the institution reflects much wider conflictual social processes, as well as provoking profound questions about what it means to be human. That is, they try to bring together society-wide trends in social patterning in the UK and beyond in terms of their impact on changes in the NHS, and they wrestle with the profound human difficulties and dilemmas involved in professionalising the often spontaneous and improvisational human response of caring towards another human being in need. Though written specifically about the NHS, I think the book also raises important questions for anyone thinking about what is involved in processes of organisational change and echoes some of the themes from the perspective of complex responsive processes of relating. There are some key differences, however, which I will also explore below. Continue reading

Acting into organizational complexity: comparing and contrasting relational leadership and complex responsive processes of relating

At the Complexity and Management Conference 2013 our guest speaker, Ann Cunliffe, described her ideas about what she terms relational leadership, which are also set out in an article in Human Relations here. In her conference presentation and in her article Ann Cunliffe responds to what she understands as a crisis in leadership education and practice. In the news we are presented with example after example of failures of leadership which also point to an impoverished moral understanding on the part of leaders about their responsibilities, she argues. Cunliffe sets out her alternative by drawing on Bakhtin, Ricoeur, Heidegger and Shotter whom she adduces to develop her argument that leadership work is to be found in the everyday conversational activity of people trying to achieve things together. Her ideas turn on the idea of inter-subjectivity, that we are formed by others just as we form them, which she argues has implications for the way we think about our relationships. We should, she says, develop better anticipatory awareness about what matters in those relationships and the moral consequences of our responsiveness, or lack of it, to others. Responsibility arises, Cunliffe argues after Ricoeur, by recognising oneself as another.[1] Continue reading

Values and Norms – insights from Norbert Elias (Part 1)

I was recently reviewing a research narrative in which Max, the researcher, was describing what was happening in a health care organisation that was undergoing an organisational merger. Max had responsibility for leading a programme of work aimed at improving the care of patients with diabetes. This involved redesigning their treatment pathway to improve their disease management and reduce what were regarded by the organisation’s management as unnecessary and expensive admissions to hospital, which it thought could be better managed in the community. This work required him to bring together clinicians and managers from three former organisations, one of which he had worked for prior to the merger. His research interest is in exploring the concept of “transformation” and the narrative describes a series of meetings he is having with staff about the work. These meetings are proving difficult, because it is clear from what is being said that the groups from the three organisations have strong “we” identities arising from their former organisations and are all involved in stigmatising gossip based on their prejudices about each other. Max finds himself defending his former organisation when this is being criticised and also feels surprised and uncomfortable when it begins to appear as though the perceived source of the problem- the hospital- may not be the only cause of the problem – as he and his colleagues had formally perceived.  He describes vividly the detail of a very difficult meeting in which one of the influential Doctors loses their temper and refuses to co-operate with colleagues from one of the other former organisations on the grounds that what is being proposed could compromise patient care. Max describes the frustration and anxiety this raises for him and others – including a discussion with his manager Carl, in which he is told that “failure is not an option”. Continue reading

Taking the perspective of the airman and the swimmer – reflections on the ethics of organisational change

In order better to understand the unique flow of social life, Norbert Elias argues, we must adopt the perspective of both the airman and the swimmer. Unlike many objects in nature which are relatively unchanging, society is riven by tensions, disruptions and explosions. ‘Decline alternates with rise, war with peace, crisis with booms’. These disruptions are driven by the interweaving activities of highly social, interdependent people like ourselves competing and co-operating to get things done. Elias argues that it is only from perspective of the airman that we are able to gain some detachment, a relatively undistorted view of the order of the long course of historical changes and the way we are forming and are formed by them. These long-term historical trends are extremely hard to resist even by very powerful coalitions of people or groups. However, there is nothing inevitable about our actions and reactions to the processes in which we find ourselves participating. But only by adopting the perspective of the swimmer, who is obliged to take action in the moment itself, is it possible to see how varied are the different pressures that are brought to bear on the particular circumstances in which find ourselves acting, in order that we might create opportunities to bring about outcomes of a different kind. Continue reading