Dominic Cummings’ departure from Boris Johnson’s inner sanctum as 10 Downing Street has dominated the headlines over the weekend (even while over 20,000 people a day in the UK continue to contract covid-19, and a further 450+ people die of the virus every 24 hours). Much has been written about Cummings personally, and there has been much speculation about whether and to what extent he has really ‘left’ or simply moved; and whether this signifies chaos at the heart of Westminster, or a reassertion of Prime Ministerial authority. To be honest, it’s impossible to know the truth and (on a personal level) I could hardly care less.
What is interesting to me is to reflect on Cummings as the most high-profile example of a type of theorist and leader that is increasingly common across the public sector. Writing after Cummings’ was seen leaving Downing Street with his box of office paraphernalia, Flinders and Blunkett define his style as “the belief in a pure, structured, depoliticised, technocratic and highly mechanical view of decision-making” and describe it as “a rather unattractive model of hybrid populist technocracy that is devoid of emotional content and lacking political understanding. It deifies a rather pure model of brutal governing efficiency that is more nightmare than vision.” The always entertaining, occasionally almost impenetrable, but never less than challenging, Complex Wales blog argues that the problem with Cummings and his ilk is that they : “live in the world of Work-As-Imagined rather than Work-As-Done. They imagine that doing good work is about filling in standardised action plans, predicting everything in advance and making pompous assumptions about other people.”
There is a real danger to organisations when leaders who have not properly understood the complexity of the organisation that they have been brought in to lead, then embark on transformational change programmes. The clue is in the definition, and to quote Complex Wales again : “Transformation is to become something new, in such a way that you can never go back. You cannot transform work, service and people if you don’t understand what makes those things what and who they are. The history, the individual delights and the shared dilemmas, the battles lost, the wars won and the scars earned.”
The problem is that too often organisations look to the shiny, new panacea because the time and effort needed to properly understand the complexity of Work-As-Done is deemed to be too hard. Rather than invest energy in really getting to know the organisation, leaders look to management consultants and ‘tool-heads‘, selling pre-packaged, off-the-shelf solutions to apparently intractable problems : “why bother actually being competent and understanding the territory, when a generalised set of shiny behaviours can be simply applied in any context to universally great effect.” Think about this in the context of examination result algorithms and it all starts to make a lot more sense.
Alongside an obsession with leaderism, though, there also seems to be a growing trend towards centralisation and the concentration of organisational power in fewer and fewer hands. This emasculation of autonomy outside the centre carries it’s own risks. As Flinders and Blunkett put it : “As a more centralised, presidential and technology-driven “hub” takes shape, then, so the capacity of local… leaders to question the system declines.” The coronavirus crisis seems to have accelerated this process in at least two organisations that I am familiar with. Early on in the crisis, local autonomy and responsibility for staff budgets was removed at a stroke. Any request to appoint to a vacancy (or even to extend an existing contract) had to be submitted to a Star Chamber panel where the case would be considered and either approved or rejected. Inevitably, this spawned an unwieldy and hugely time consuming additional local bureaucracy focused on gathering the necessary additional information to present to the panel to justify the cases submitted. At a time when publicly we were being exhorted to stop doing non-value adding work and to focus on delivering core teaching and research, we were increasing by a factor of two or three the amount of time and effort required to secure the very posts that were needed to deliver core research and teaching. The decision to introduce this more restrictive practice was superficially entirely logical and rational. The crisis represented an existential threat to the financial security of the organisation, ergo we should exert maximum control on spending decisions. What is less clear is the damage that the short-term expedient will have done to the confidence of local managers in making decisions as we move out of the crisis and back into something resembling business as usual.
Paul Taylor wrote about our obsession with leadership in January 2020, before covid-19 was the issue that is has since become in the UK. His conclusion was that organisations look to hero-leaders (and often exclude employees from active participation in decision-making) due to a fear of failure. “The more people involved in decisions means the greater the risk of screwing things up – or so the conventional thinking goes. Mark Robinson has argued though that it’s often better to have poor outcomes with a great decision-making process than it is to have good outcomes with a poor decision-making process. His reasoning is that ‘you need a culture where people aren’t to blame for decisions. What your culture should be about is learning from bad decisions.’”
So what, then, is the Goldilocks Zone? This is that charmed period of time that usually coincides with the departure from the organisation of one hero-leader and while the next one is still in the process of planning their own organisational transformation plan. Copyright in the term (and by far the most entertaining description of it) can be read on the Complex Wales blog. It’s the time when those who understand the Work-As-Done can get on with making a difference. “Real work with real substance and real insight into the nuances of quality and experience is not generalisable. Yes, there are some commonalities but the work is all about adapting, situationalising and absorbing the complexity, the diversity, the heritage and the uniqueness that makes it meaningful.”
Flinders and Blunkett suggest that political decision-making by machine “sacrifices any understanding of why feelings so often trump facts in politics.” The same is true for leadership on the basis of work-as-imagined. The last word goes to Paul Taylor : “The new world of work requires us to become less fixated on the leader and more focused on leveraging the community at every level of our organisations. Breeding the idea of the leader as superhero is getting us nowhere fast. As we begin a new year the most radical thing you could do is rip up your plans for leadership development – and concentrate instead on how you can democratise innovation for the 80% rather than the 20%.”