Friday, June 24, 2011

Problems with yes, but!

To my great frustration, we have run out of band width again, so a choke has been applied. It appears that youngest has an infinite capacity to download!

Some time ago I began a series on this blog just pointing to examples of failures in public policy and public administration linking this to modern management approaches. My feeling was that if I piled example onto example I might actually get somewhere in convincing people that we needed to look at new approaches.

Finally, the project really foundered on the "yes, but" syndrome. We all do this, of course, me included. Yes means that we understand what you say, but means that I don't agree or that this is an exception.

Sometimes  yes, but is inevitable. My wife gets very angry with me because she wants me to answer a very specific question and I keep on giving a qualified response.

My problem in these cases is often that I don't think the question is especially relevant and may even be misleading. I also can see the logic tree she is trying to build and know where a simple answer is going to lead. We are going to end up in a discussion that, from my perspective, has very little to do with the issues I consider to be important.

Philosophy I including logic has a lot to answer for. It's not just my wife who gets infuriated by this habit of mine of wanting to put arguments. A lot of my friends and work colleagues do as well.

Accepting that I, too, am guilty of "yes, but", one of the big problems with the phrase in both management and especially public policy is that it locks you in to simplistic solutions that don't actually work.

Conversations go like this. Yes, I accept that there are problems with this approach, but we must do something.

The difficulties become especially acute when answers are based on underlying logic structures that are, of themselves, suspect but sit there hidden and unchallenged. People want to deal with the immediate problem and dislike intensely discussions that seem abstract and unrelated. Why are you bothering to talk about this when we should be acting?

The most  acute difficulties of all arise where you have different logic structures. The conversation then appears to deal with resolution of an immediate problem, but there can in fact be no meeting of minds since the underlying questions and assumptions are so different.

I have a reasonably good track record in forecasting what won't work. My track record in suggesting what might work is not as good, but is still not bad. My track record in making some of my suggestions stick for long enough to get results is much worse.

Back at the end of the last century and the first part of this century, my then consulting group developed what we called new ways of working.

The basic logic structure was simple enough. The relationship between employer and employee had changed. We spelt those changes out. We then suggested that organisations had to change the way they managed people to get best results. Again, we spelt this out. We also trialed the new approach in my own work and in our broader consulting in practical areas like statements of HR policy, training, employment contracts. This seemed to work.

Yet our ability to get the message accross proved quite difficult because organisations simply wouldn't accept the logic structures that flowed from their own new approaches and from the response of people to those approaches.

Let me take a simple example to illustrate.

We all know that the concept of permanent employment is dead for the majority of the Australian workforce. We have told people that they must take personal responsibility for themselves, that they must be flexible and prepared to move in new directions. This requires fundamental changes in the way work is organised. Yet organisations, public and private, are in fact still organised around the idea of a permanent workforce even though the reality is different.

I am, by nature, something of a reformer. I am also, and this may not be apparent from my writing, someone who has spent a fair bit of time dealing with the practical and apparently mundane - charts of accounts, information systems, recruitment strategies, marketing strategies, HR policies.

When I was younger I would accept a fair degree of crap because that was simply part of the price paid as you moved forward. Now, and this is part of the fundamental change that we called new ways of working, I am less and less able to accept crap when I know it's not going to work.

As an older worker, I have to judge my performance in terms of what I achieve now. The contribution that my patience might make to my longer term career plans ceases to be relevant when those plans don't actually exist!

In all the abstract arguments about older workers and the need to keep them in the workplace, no-one really talks about just what this actually means.

It's not just older workers, of course. I talked about my daughters' generation in Saturday Morning Musings - kids, jobs & education. Maybe another campaign?  



Anonymous said...

It's difficult, Jim.

I completely sympathise with the feeling that you've 'been there, tried that' when faced with the eager young apprentices. But the problem is if you figuratively step on their heads, you might miss out on something which grows out of their attempts.

Not that it's ever worked for me, but the only thing I can suggest is a few deep breaths, and a quiet smoke outside, while they come to the same conclusion as you yourself achieved years ago.

Let me know if it works - 'cause I've given up.


Jim Belshaw said...

I fear you misunderstand me, KVD. Or I think that you do.

My problem is not generally with younger workers, although they can be pretty thin on the ground in some organisations I have seen. Rather, it lies with systems and people who have grown up in systems.

Each organisational period develops its own rigidities. The 1970s and early 1980s were a period of major organisational change, a response to change and to previous rigidities. They coincided with significant changes to technology and to social attitudes.

I am not saying anything new. Further, the exact pattern of change varied to some degree across sectors, so that it's hard to generalise.

Still, part of my thesis is that the combination of factors has introduced new organisational rigidities, a locked in way of thinking.

At the risk of generalising, many managers have had far less experience at the same age than their predecessors. They also face a system that has become somewhat constipated in people terms. I sometimes wonder where the young turks have gone.

As I said, the pattern varies.

One major change from the past has been the rise of the contractor. A second change greater mobility and a decline in internal promotion.

Do you know, I have seen some organisations where forty is the new young. I have seen others were position instability has become chronic. They often have younger workers, but they are all on the way to someone else.

Probably enough for now.

Anonymous said...

Sorry Jim - I picked up on your "know it's not going to work" line and went off on a tangent.

In my small retirement business my primary concern has been to consider health and safety issues before anything else; before even actually enjoying what I do - and believe me I do enjoy it.

It is always a point of frustration when an employee out of the blue decides there is a better way of doing things - things actually quite carefully thought through before being adopted. That's what I was alluding to.

But anyway, it provoked your further very interesting thoughts above, so I'm pleased I went with my thought train.


Winton Bates said...

"Yet organisations, public and private, are in fact still organised around the idea of a permanent workforce even though the reality is different."

Yes, but .... there must be powerful reasons why this is so. My guess is that employers still have a lot to gain from encouraging loyalty and that many employees still like to feel part of an ongoing team.

Jim Belshaw said...

Good morning, KVD. Businesses vary. I knew what perspective you were coming from, but it sent me in a new direction.

Hi Winton. Consider a smiley face added!

You have actually driven to the heart of a problem that I have been musing about. As an employer, I have wanted all my people to be part of a team. As a consultant or contractor, my personality dictates that I like to be part of a team.

Herein lies a problem.

As an employer, I realised that some of my approaches including bonding and training were actually quite silly with contractors and consultants. They had only so much time, and I was taking them away from their immediate job. The business couldn't gain benefit.

I did maintain some of these activities, but I also tried make them relevant to the longer term needs of the contractor/consultant.

As a contractor/consultant, I thought it quite absurd that I should be required to go through certain hoops simply because they were officially mandated for everyone. The organisation paid me, required me, to do certain things that only made sense if I was a long term employee. I resented the waste of money.

Perhaps more importantly, there were some team building activities that I was expected to participate in that I either could not or, in in all conscience, should not charge for.

Winton Bates said...

It seems we may share a problem with the 'smiley face', Jim. I see that it can be useful, but I am reluctant to use iT :)

Winton Bates said...

In case you were wondering, the capital T in 'it' was just a typo!

Jim Belshaw said...

Capital T for true, Winton!