Of bad ideas and humility
“Don’t interfere with that which you don’t fully understand or manage especially when working in a highly hierarchical organisation such as local government.”
That is the (perhaps wrong) lesson I took as I walked home from work last Tuesday after having what can only be described as not one of my finest hours. I thought it might be instructive, and a little cathartic, to share my experience.
Last week I was sitting with a manager in a team that is not related to my day to day job and discussing some of the problems he has been having. Many of the problems were external to his team and he wasn’t sure what could be done about them organisationally.
At that stage I had an idea.
It wasn’t necessarily a good idea (I thought it was a brilliant idea at the time), and it was on the radical/crazy end of normal working practices but it was an idea nonetheless. I persuaded the manager that he was ok with the idea and that I was the best person to go off and pursue the idea. I then went off in search of someone with some clout who might be willing to a) listen and b) implement what had become in my mind ‘the idea’.
I spoke to a couple of senior-ish managers and although no-one enthusiastically embraced ‘the idea’ they all thought it ‘might’ be worth a try and suggested I go and have a chat with someone from one of the other teams that would be impacted by my idea and see what they thought.
By this stage ‘the idea’ and I were best friends and I was fully signed up to the idea that it would definitely work. My misconception was fully punctured by my next discussion. The member of staff in the other team affected by ‘the idea’ was not happy at all. And by not happy I mean severely peeved, monumentally miffed and fundamentally chagrined. He saw my intervention as having an ulterior motivation and made it very clear that if I suggested it to any other people he would ensure that ‘the idea’ failed and me with it. He was annoyed that I had talked to his managers and generally felt that my advocacy of the idea showed me to be a weak and misguided member of staff.
Without the enthusiastic involvement of the people I had identified ‘the idea’ would be an absolute disaster. And yet, I had spent the best part of a week hawking the idea around the council telling people how brilliant it would be. Here is where I did the first sensible thing in relation to ‘the idea’.
I thought about it for a day and then gracefully retraced my steps and informed everyone who I had talked to about ‘the idea’ that it was going to be a non-starter.
Despite the fact that my idea could have worked I had made things worse by not shoring up my constituencies first and now everyone was a little more hacked off at each other than they had been before I stuck my big feet in the middle of things. Oh, and everyone is a bit (by which I mean a lot) annoyed at me; for some I had ‘promised’ what I couldn’t deliver, for others I had interfered where I wasn’t wanted and for others I had highlighted problems that they were hoping to keep under wraps and manage.
However, it isn’t ALL bad.
Since last Tuesday (the collapse of ‘idea’ day) I’ve thought about this a little more and maybe there are some positives to take from the story.
Ok, so ‘the idea’ was probably a bad idea and in all likelihood I could have done a better job of selling it in but my bull in a china-shop approach might have done some good. The issue I was addressing has risen up a couple of different agendas (although I am getting NO credit for that at all) and staff on both sides are hopefully more aware that there is actually a problem. I’ll only really know in a few months but maybe shaking things up can be a good thing.
Secondly, I’ve learnt a few things.
‘Ideas’ are great but sometimes it is better to investigate them a little rather than to jump into every one like it’s the solution everyone has been waiting for. Sometimes problems are problems because others have tried and failed. Hubris can get you unstuck pretty quickly.
Learn how to apologise; sometimes you’ll get it wrong and being graceful in defeat is a good talent to have.
Patience can be a virtue; not every problem is ‘fixable’ with a simple short term fix. Some are going to take time and a number of different interventions.
Sometimes senior managers are not actually the key stakeholders; especially when you are not a senior manager yourself.
Most of all I’ve once again learnt the lesson of humility. Sometimes your ideas, or your performance, are simply not as good as you think they are.
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