Saturday, March 10, 2012

Achieving management excellence in a constipated world

Such a silly thing, really. I came home quite late from work Thursday and borrowed youngest's car to do some grocery shopping. On return, I managed to lose the car keys somewhere between the driveway and kitchen. So far, we have not been able to find them. Clare is understandably cranky.

I don't know about you, but I find that when I'm stressed and under pressure little things start going wrong that I then struggle to handle.

In past posts I have referred to Alvin Toffler's  1970 book Future Shock; Activity, Change and a Sense of Weariness is an example from May 2007. There I said in part:

Toffler's key point was a simple one. Each real decision imposed strain. Human beings could only make so many decisions before the capacity to decide started shutting down. So, and this is 1970, the pace of change was outrunning people's capacity to adjust.

Today in Australia, the official discourse is full of discussion on the need for productivity improvement. Australia must improve productivity to gain full advantage from and indeed compensate for the mining boom. I agree. And yet, I feel that as a country we have just lost our car keys.

Our organisations are stressed, as are the people within them. We struggle to cope. We have lost resilience. I see this on the trains and busses. I see it in my family and in my own life. I see it at work.

In some of my writing on the problems that Ms Gillard has faced as Australian PM, I have suggested that she has struggled to create that island of calm she needs within the constant political and media flux. This condemned her to constant reaction. She has become, to pick up the theme in this post, a Tofflerian victim.

Any good manager knows that that if you are to get good responses from your people you have to support them, to create an environment that allows them to do their jobs. Mind you, some of our organisations are now so thinned down that the very idea of a "manager" has become attenuated to the point of meaningless. The word still exists in the title, but the real role has gone.

To my mind, Australia cannot achieve the desired productivity improvements because cost cutting is the only mechanism left in our arsenal.

In traditional terms, the role of the manager centred on managing the resources available to achieve the best results. Today, and to the degree that it still exists, the role of the manager is to do more with less. The idea of optimising results based on existing resources has been lost. That loss lies at the heart of Australia's productivity problems.

In my professional writing, I have pointed to the way that management fashions are linked in mirror fashion to on-ground problems; the now vanished emphasis on the importance of HR and people management coincided with process re-engineering and the rise of job instability; the emphasis on the importance of the brand coincided with the greatest period of brand destruction in modern economic history; and so it goes on!

The real buzz word today is innovation: we must all be innovators; our organisations need to innovate; innovation is central to productivity improvement. And yet, all the evidence is that real innovation is in decline. How could it be otherwise? To innovate, you need time and access to resources, and both are in short supply.

As an experienced manager who has also worked as a change agent, I know that it is possible to get improvement in just about any management circumstance. Most often, this comes from small changes that accumulate: fix this problem now; change that working procedure; find the resources required to get a longer term payback here; cut those costs there because the work is no longer vital. In all cases, the focus lies in getting a better return from people.

This is innovation in a real sense. It won't give you Facebook or Twitter or any other grand change. It will give you constant improvement in the use of the resources you have.

In all the discussion on innovation, we have lost sight of the fact that innovation requires graft. The word graft has changed meaning with time. I am using it in the sense of hard and often unrewarding work. The idea of joining new growth to old is equally applicable. It also requires imagination and, most importantly of all, time.

That centre of calm that I suggested Julia Gillard required is equally applicable to managers. You cannot innovate in a world of constant instability.

Looking at my experience in recent years whether as a manager, a consultant or contractor, instability is a constant theme. Managers work in an environment where they actually know that nothing that they do has longer term meaning, for there is no longer such a thing as the longer term. It's still there in the various strategies, the visions, even some of the KPIs, but these things are disconnected from the realities of daily working life.

To me, the remarkable thing is that people still try. Even more remarkable, they sometimes succeed.

I have very specific examples in mind, but I cannot give them properly at this point for confidentiality reasons.

I was thinking the other day of my own system of management awards. Central to these would be awards for managers, indeed for people at all levels, who have the personal capacity to actually achieve things despite all the barriers we have created.

I struggle to explain this properly. although many will know what I mean.

I have come back into my current working environment after a gap of two years. The real heroes or heroines are not the varying senior managers in this or other linked organisations, nor the politicians who set the framework. They are the people who have actually kept things going.

I saw a classic example of this yesterday.

A colleague and I were talking to the auditor currently reviewing certain aspects of the organisation's performance. Like all auditors, he had zeroed in on what he (it was a he in this case) saw as key weaknesses and risks. Like all auditors, he was using chat among staff at all levels to gather information. I was actually very impressed, although that's not the point of this story.

As the conversation proceeded, I realised that the work done by my colleague was a defining point, the difference, between a positive and negative audit report on certain aspects of the organisation's performance.

My colleague is not a senior person, but she is stubborn and persistent. She cares. She is also innovative. As she showed the auditor the reports that she had prepared on her own initiative, the things that she had done, the systems that she had created, I became more and more impressed.

I don't know how you reward someone like her. I do know that people like her are the reason why our systems still work. So, J, I award you the first Belshaw award for management excellence!

In later posts, I will give you other examples drawn from my own experience.        


Evan said...

I think the reason we are stuck is that no one is articulating a vision of a way forward.

The current debates have reverted to the old tired battle lines and no one is offering an alternative.

Churches and green groups could do this perhaps. The Australia Institute's report into downshifting shows there are huge numbers of people who don't buy the 'money is what it is about' line.

When a Labor government changes a policy due to an advertising campaign by very wealthy people I don't see much hope that the way forward will come from the parties.

If someone can articulate a vision that asks for sacrifices from all (not just the poor) and that is in our long term interest I think they could be very successful.

New alliances can be formed. Eg in today's Fin (Australian Financial Review) there is a report on greenies and farmers getting together to oppose coal seam gas companies.

Jim Belshaw said...

Good morning, Evan. The alliance between farmers and green groups is an interesting one on coal seam gas is an interesting one because it combines very different interests that are not always natural allies.

I am not so sure on the vision argument, although I have argued that way myself. There is a back to the future feel about current debates.

If we just focus on purpose, the reason why, we are told that we need to do things such as improving productivity, but not why beyond limited sets of arguments linked just to economic efficiency or growth. To many, this seems like running very hard just to stand still!

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