The early 2000s was a febrile period for public services in the UK when government expected improved outcomes for increased funding levels and regulatory inspection and audits were expanding in scale and reach. Direct or implicit intervention was an ever present risk if failure was suspected. Resilient and adaptable leaders were expected to craft effective responses to the challenges.
Some interventions took the form of relatively ‘light-touch’ oversight of specific services. In other cases the interventions were more dramatic and included:
- Leadership teams excised from the organisation
- Interim leaders installed
- Governmental appointees sent to guide and oversee improvement
- Councillors referred to standards boards
- Compulsory outsourcing of services
The Challenging Environments for Recovery, Progress or Improvement
Aspects that were particularly challenging included:
- Governance breakdowns
- Poor internal officer/councillor relationships and bullying
- Disconnected managerial processes and sub-standard service performance
- Fractured external relations with key stakeholders
If the shortcomings were of a particularly severe nature, then deeper assessment and remedial action would be recommended to Ministers who expected specific interventions to address situations. Interventions often brought with them a range of traditional, project-led approaches. With the stakes high, correct choices of intervention were vital.
Finding Islands of Excellent Performance
From within the organisations though, the picture was often more complex and nuanced. Understanding relative dysfunction defied simple cause and effect explanations. Islands of good and excellent performance often existed in a sea of (perceived or actual) mediocrity. Resilient and adaptable leaders often looked beyond the obvious narrative for solutions.
Being a leader in these environments brought with it:
- High pressure and visibility
- Multiple, competing and contradictory demands from within and outside the organisation
- The threat of even tougher intervention if initial improvement measures failed
- A message that ‘this authority is dysfunctional – identify the worst problems and solve them’
Searching for strengths was thus risk-laden, requiring courage and nerve. Focusing on different aspects, searching out the good and what worked, alongside excising the failing and deficit, produced outcomes of quality and sustainability.
In a notable instance of doing the less obvious, an interim leadership team in one of the poorest performing councils in the country addressed the deep challenges by taking the time to identify those within the council who were potential proponents of change and then engaged with, listened, nurtured, built trust and supported them. Once employees and politicians heard the language of truth and reconciliation rather than failure and punishment, they engaged with the interim team, encouraging them to be positively challenging and more effective.
In another authority, an interim leader (Janet Dean of the Dean Knight Partnership) introduced change workshops for large groups of employees. Instead of concentrating on the worst aspects of the ‘failing’ service people were encouraged to change and produce a video highlighting how far the service had shifted, the positive changes that were underway and show what was left to do. It was used to enlist ideas and support for next steps. The examples of success together with colleagues’ positive quotes reinforced the key message; “appreciate the present and create a vision for a better future.”
The same leader introduced performance ‘clinics’ with officers from different tiers. These took a balanced and multi-layered view of performance. The leader recalled these as “heads-up discussions about issues, rather than heads down in the detail and numbers.”
This leader also considered that weekly face-to-face contact with groups of managers was a more productive way to make sure change was happening than focussing on sheets of assessments with traffic-lighted warnings which were the more usual ‘proof’ of action and improvement for external assessors.
In another large city authority, one of its services was graded 4*, the highest national ranking for a service. However, it was almost invisible to the wider organisation. To rectify this, the service made presentations and ran workshops at a conference for several hundred managers in the authority. By sharing the service’s improvement journey and its learning, this process directly challenged the prejudice some other managers had about the service and placed it in a different light across the rest of the authority.
Interim leaders also made different choices in the first mentioned city when they brought senior and middle managers together for a leadership development programme in a troubled service. The prevailing wisdom was that this manager cohort had little talent and few redeeming qualities. The reality was that when the interim leaders engaged with the managers they identified unanticipated degrees of talent. As a result, they altered their approach, training a small group of the managers as internal leadership development assessors, to work with their peers. This provided a sustainable solution based on looking for and recognising internal talent, then trusting and guiding it to deliver improved leadership capability and capacity, obviating the need for additional and expensive, external resources.
These and many other interventions demonstrated and reinforced adaptability, which were further enhanced more generally by:
- Giving public appreciative ‘nudges’ combined with private challenge
- Identifying and promoting the ‘root causes’ of success
- Providing informal appreciative support to proponents of change
- Taking a generally appreciative stance when reviewing performance
- Positively challenging colleagues through strength-focused reflection
Alongside the more traditional deficit and problem-focused work leaders were expected to do, these modes ensured the challenges were confronted in a balanced way. At the same time, the formal face to the external world of government or regulator had to show that leaders were addressing deficit-based concerns too. The need to be rigorous, to check and verify and confront inappropriate behaviours marked out the most effective and resilient leaders.
The Key Outcomes
Whilst concentrating on the positive core of the organisation, i.e. its good works and positive features, could feel counter-intuitive, these and many other similar interventions brought the following key outcomes:
- Created energy that ‘worst-first’ approaches often failed to ignite or sustain
- Liberated people to test different approaches and take manageable risks
- Ensured the intervention environment felt more supportive and less retributive
- Encouraged leaders to praise, even though the external narrative was of failure and deficit
- Supported officers and politicians to be more open to the need for fundamental change
- Promoted adaptive thinking rather than mere technical ‘fixes’
- Made learning capture and sharing the default position
- Developed new thinking and enhanced self-confidence
- Improved leadership capacity and capability
- Reframed how people saw themselves whilst addressing dysfunction
- Encouraged leaders to trust their judgement
- Helped colleagues to re-build confidence damaged by external inspection reports
- Supported officers and councillors to develop resilience and agility when negotiating external regulators’ expectations of problem-centred improvement
These important outcomes all hastened each authority’s return to the mainstream. Sometimes this took several years such was the depth of the challenges faced by the leaders and their organisations. Yet in each, positive core aspects were revealed and nurtured by resilient leaders.