It’s the people stupid

Are they truly smiling or just complying?

How many times have we heard the spiel from a consultant or a new Chief Executive promising us that a new structure, new way of working, new computer system or new approach to reviewing the local authority will deliver the savings or improved service we need?

The answer of course is many many times.

As regular readers of this blog will know we are generally fairly sympathetic to this approach. Too often local government is trapped in the belief that we should just continue to do things the way we always have and there is a lot to learn by considering problems from a different point of view or by applying sensibly thought through management tools and techniques. At the same time we get trapped in our management silos and forget that the main aim of the work we do is to serve our customers.

Indeed, sometimes the change is useful even if it is not perfectly designed as just the act of changing things can be beneficial.

However, over the past few months I have been reflecting on the changes we’ve tried to make in our local authority and the one deciding factor in each case of success, and indeed each of failure, has been the people involved. Perhaps, the hardcore systems thinkers amongst you will be shouting at this screen that if that is the case then we’ve obviously chosen the wrong solution to implement or simply not done it properly. My observation is based on nothing but anecdotal evidence but to me it seems that the people involved, especially at management level, are just as important, if not more so.

This should not be a surprise really. We all know who the really good people are in local government and have a pretty good idea who the poor ones are too. However, what was a surprise was how absolutely the staff involved influenced the success or otherwise of the work.

This has a few different elements:

1)    Attitude: Do the staff want to make the changes? Do they understand why we might need to improve things? Do these members of staff see the council as a support to them when serving the public or do they exist within their silo?

2)    Competence: Are the staff capable of changing to different ways of working? This question is classically asked when implementing a new IT system but I think it goes much further. Some staff are simply not up to the job they are doing however it is structured and therefore implementing change is simply beyond them.

3)    Management: Are the managers able to lead their teams as well as simply manage them? Managers who do not necessarily have the ability to implement major changes within their services adopt two types of response; resistance and compliance. In the former they resist and in the latter they might as well have been resisting as they just go along with the changes and take the attitude that they are being imposed on them.

4)    Commitment: Doing new things means going above and beyond the minimum expectations of the job and requires commitment. Good staff will understand what needs to happen and get out in front of you. Bad staff will not be committed to the change and will let it happen to them.

So, what does this mean for the management consultants and Chief Executives I mentioned at the beginning of the piece?

Well, I wonder whether local government is spending its money in the wrong places when we embark upon major transformation programmes. Instead of investing money just on processes and systems maybe the councils should be spending some of their money on making sure they have the right people in the right roles? The irony of the fact that the first thing good people do when they arrive is to fiddle with the structures and processes left by their predecessor is not lost on me here.

The reason this doesn’t happen?

Well, that’s simple.

It’s hard to do.

Although I stated above that I have a pretty good idea who the poor staff are in my council that’s just my opinion and not exactly a reason to replace a member of staff. Councils are 100% reliant on their human resources and yet the management of them is often relegated to a department hidden away in the west wing of a sprawling council building rather than a central part of the councils operations and each individual service managers job expectations.

Nonetheless, that doesn’t mean we should ignore the people element of transformation. Local government needs to address the human side of ‘transformation’ as much as the systems, processes and structures.

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7 Comments on “It’s the people stupid”

  1. Richard Says:

    This post rang really true for me. I’ve experienced lots of transformation efforts in my organisation, and many (although not all!) the successful ones made an effort to pay more than lip service to the ‘people’ bit of the people-process-technolgy transformation triangle. Generalising hugely, these efforts seem to have taken longer to complete (getting people on side takes time and effort) but delivered a better result – but quick turnaround is important to the head of service or project manager who needs to impress their boss and get on with the next bit of transformation. I’ll be using those questions in the 4 elements in my project.

  2. Anna Smart Says:

    Yes I do think there’s something in this, particularly in needing the right people in the right jobs (most importantly in those leadership roles). I do think this argument could be taken too far in the ‘people’ rather than ‘system’ direction though as there is good evidence that most performance is governed by the system rather than people (ref John Seddon). So there’s a balance to be had.

  3. You are right about the evidence Anna.

    When local government officers study the nuts and bolts of their service, they find around 95% of the performance is down to the system and around 5% down to the staff. This is the balance to be had. To find out what the exact balance is, staff listen and record exactly what citizens/customers say when they ring or call into reception. They then find out exactly what stops staff from doing a good job using hard evidence. Reasons local government staff can’t do their job well are almost always down to the design of the system (arbitary numerical targets, ridiculous IT systems, standard proceedures, forms, protocols, silos, purchasing decisions, inspection, management decisions, checking etc). Restructures, tinkering with processes and new IT packages don’t solve this problem. Nor does recruiting positive staff because the same things stop them from doing a good job too. The only thing that solves the problem is managers learning to think differently. This includes ditching the myth that it is all about your people.

  4. Ange Says:

    “Perhaps, the hardcore systems thinkers amongst you will be shouting at this screen that if that is the case then we’ve obviously chosen the wrong solution to implement or simply not done it properly.” – you are misjudging us ‘systems thinkers’ if you believe that we don’t think people are key to change!

    The 5/95% rule is generally true, but what it means is that its pointless beating-up the people to try to improve performance, without changing the things that constrain what they can do (i.e. change the system not the people).

    But in the end it is always people that actually enable change, through a change in their own thinking and the resulting removal of the limiting constraints within the system!

  5. […] politicians as a panacea. Yet the implementation of change is incredibly difficult due to the  human side of ‘transformation’; the nature of organisational culture; and the nature of public […]

  6. Hypopraxian Says:

    “It is not the consciousness of men* that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness” Karl Marx

    *For men read humans

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