A reflection upon the madness of the schedules that run our corporate lives, and what you can do to change it.
I find myself working with leaders who seem to have less and less time, and yet more and more pressure to deliver results. The impact of this double bind is all too evident in their approach to work. A constant pressure that means that someone more senior wants answers to problems, updates to information, or explanations about dips in performance. This manifests itself in an almost constant stream of emails, phone calls, and texts fitted in around a constantly changing schedule of meetings.
An army of people is constantly being contacted by the leaders or their PAs to be briefed and updated on a range of programmes and projects that form part of this year’s key deliverables. On top of this comes the inevitable crisis that appears on a regular basis that requires leadership involvement throws plans in to disarray. Much effort will focus upon making sure that plans and programmes are delivered to ensure that efficiencies can be made in accordance with the plan.
All of this work can be characterised as a seemingly endless stream of activity that gathers pace akin to a treadmill that is running out of control. The ending is almost inevitable; it just depends upon how long you can hang on before you fall off.
My own research with leaders would suggest that around 80% of a typical working week is spent in meetings of one sort or another. Many will focus upon the remote receiving or giving of feedback on progress. The meetings will almost certainly take place in a formal boardroom style with large amounts of paperwork highlighting activity, achievement against milestones, financial updates etc.
The Agenda’s for the meetings will be too ambitious in length given the time allowed; and leadership expectations of achievement will be high. The more senior the leaders involved the more conflated the detail will be. Each leader in the chain wants to ensure that the input presented meets the expectation of more senior leaders who are reviewing progress. The game is obviously to make everything look as if it is on track.
The reality of course is that what is happening in practice at operational level often bears little resemblance to what’s written in the highlight report, or the briefing given in the meeting. Typically few people in the room, if any, will know the true picture of progress, but in the game of management few have time to look outside the confines of the meeting room, before moving on to the next meeting in the diary.
Outside this management cycle of endless meetings lies organisational reality.
This is a world where front line colleagues battle with an organisational system that conspires on a daily basis to stop them doing the right thing for citizens. Policies, practices, procedures, and governance arrangements instituted by management that in practice make matters worse by clogging the system up with processes that add no value to serving the citizen. In one organisation I worked with recently around 75% of the working week, and 90% of the activities that had to be undertaken by front line teams, and middle managers added no value to the service user. They essentially existed so that management could retain control over cost. In practice what leaders went on to learn was that this capacity could be redirected in to undertaking meaningful, value adding work that helped deliver better outcomes more efficiently, rather than to help defend the status quo required by the current policies and practice.
The lesson for leaders who are focused upon doing more with less lies not in the boardroom, reading lengthy project update reports on activity against plan, but out with front line teams gaining a thorough understanding of what is really going on. Stepping back and asking the right questions to help gain an understanding about what is getting in the way of delivering good outcomes for citizens, and then taking leadership responsibility for identifying and tackling the root cause is where real progress can be made.
For some this may reveal an uncomfortable truth about the comfort zone for middle and senior managers many of whom may well have been detached from operational activity for a number of years. However, true leadership in a difficult financial environment requires us to challenge our own preconceptions and face up to our own fears. In the words of Albert Einstein, We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.
By slowing down, breaking the endless cycle of activity, and pulling our heads up it is possible to take stock. Then we stand a chance of finding a workable solution to meeting the unenviable challenges facing the public sector for the foreseeable future.
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