Category Archives: Consultancy life

The cat’s dilemma

Here’s a case study in managing change.

Suppose you are working on a long-term and complicated project with a big team of more than 25 people. You all have a broad understanding about the direction of travel, but within the team there are several, not necessarily compatible, perspectives on the overall aim and how to get there. Your colleagues have a range of skills and experience, and some pretty entrenched views too.  Your predecessors signed up to your involvement some time ago.

The project, as projects do, has a number of fairly intractable issues, and serious inefficiencies have crept in over the years as the team got bigger and bigger. Every now and then you all have to sit down and re-think how you go about your activities. But it’s come to the point where people in your home organisation are saying it’s all too disadvantageous and it’s time to cut your losses and leave. You have to keep these influential people sweet, but you also acknowledge that there are others in your organisation who hold the opposite view just as strongly.

How to respond?

a) give up and go home – thereby losing all the benefits of being in the team in order to gain unspecified advantages through dissociating yourself from the project;

b) stay, make your own entrenched view known and make it clear that you are never going to change this position – it’s not you, it’s them – and hope that (i) the naysayers back home don’t give you too much grief, and (ii) the ensuing stalemate is not entirely detrimental to everyone’s interests;

c) stay, find out more about what your colleagues really think; look for the common ground that’s in everyone’s interest; build alliances and seek out an approach that meets some of everyone’s needs but expects everyone to give something up too; and

d) … get stuck in to streamlining that overblown bureaucracy.

Answers on a post card please, direct to 10 Downing Street, London SW1.

For the next five years the UK public faces the enticing prospect of protracted membership negotiations with our 26 partners in the European Union – or not, I suppose, if they decide not to bother negotiating with us. The Prime Minister has promised a referendum on the results of the negotiations, in other words we’ll get to vote on whether we want to be part of the EU on the agreed new terms. In the meantime we will be subjected to an awful lot of pontificating from all sides in the debate. And even then the question will not be ‘settled’ because whatever the outcome, a large proportion of the population will be unhappy about it.

Quite apart from the eccentricity of this approach to negotiating – the Eurosceptics will say ‘give us more powers back or we’ll vote against’, and the pro-Europeans will say ‘be more committed or we’ll vote against’ so the government can’t guarantee that it will deliver a vote in favour of the new terms, which means they are not in a position to agree terms anyway – how on earth are we the general public supposed to know enough about it to make an informed decision? Statistics, polls and the finer points of EU treaties and legislation will be quoted at us like passages from the Bible, all out of context and less than enlightening. People will just vote on the basis of their instinctive reaction, or faith, as it were.

Already it’s known as an ‘In/Out’ referendum, a phrase which cannot fail to conjure up the image of 27 eurocrats in a solemn circle dancing to the 1940’s song …

In, out, in out,
You shake it all about,
You do the hokey cokey and you turn around,
That’s what it’s all about.’

Or else we’ll be like our cat, who makes a big fuss to be let out if he’s indoors, and after five minutes outside is banging on the back door and meowing to come back into the kitchen. Wherever he ends up, clearly he always thinks he’d be better off on the other side.

There are matters of state to be decided - it's exhausting

There are matters of state to be decided – it’s exhausting

Leveson foreshadowed

Curiously enough, a colleague and I spent over ten years up to early 2012 regulating the UK media. We headed up an organisation called the Office for the Regulation of the Media, otherwise known as OFTROM.

There were two policy directorates which dealt respectively with press and broadcast media standards, a media complaints directorate, and corporate services. My role as Director of Media Complaints was to oversee teams of caseworkers who investigated complaints about press intrusion submitted by individuals. Once the evidence about each complaint had been assembled to confirm its validity, the file went to the Media Complaints Board which made a ruling as to compensation. The Board met twice a month and consisted of media representatives and OFTROM members. If the media organisation didn’t comply with an OFTROM ruling, the individual had to resort to taking them to court, but that was a less certain and more costly route for both parties.

In practice, OFTROM wasn’t really very good. We were over-staffed, badly structured, stuck in three locations across London and not making best use of new technology. We were also much reviled by the media industry, of course, so every problem was magnified in the eyes of the public.

The Leveson inquiry came upon us as a serious case of life imitating art and we wondered if, just in order to save everyone a good deal of time and money, we should submit our consulting skills role play scenario (created at the now defunct National School of Government) as evidence.

As Media Complaints Director, I enjoyed grappling with the balance between public interest and press intrusion, and it was interesting to contemplate how the dividing line between the two had changed over time. It was obvious that what was an acceptable press story in 2012 would not have been tolerated in the 1950s. Whether that shift is a good thing – progress – is a matter of debate. Although it would be hard to argue for a return to the time when Edward VIII’s liaison with Mrs Simpson was kept out of the British press until his abdication, the current obsession with celebrity trivia is equally distasteful. The public interest is not the same thing as what the public is interested in.

What also became clear during the OFTROM years was that it was impossible for the regulator to keep up with the impact of the internet.  When OFTROM was invented, the news arrived on paper or via radio and television. By the time of its demise, the distinction between one medium or another was irrelevant.

This is a point well-made by Hugo Rifkind in his recent article in the Times. Of course Hugo’s article sits behind a paywall and you won’t be able to read it unless you subscribe to The Times, one way or another.  But if there is going to be any real and valid journalism in the future it will have to be paid for somehow.

The rest of us are just typing.

office machines,Photographs,typewriters

Changing paces – a lesson in new behaviour

A hero for me of the year so far is Ruth Field, aka The Grit Doctor.  Her achievement has been to help me to realise after 40-odd years of inactivity that it’s good to move.  In fact to go beyond the realisation, because after all everyone knows exercise is good for you, and actually to do it and then keep doing it.

PE at my school was a pretty dispiriting experience if you weren’t inclined or able to shine.  It was netball or hockey in the autumn and winter, tennis or athletics in the summer term.  An occasional alternative if the weather was really bad: climbing bars and ropes in the school hall.  I was one of those always the last to be picked for teams, always uncoordinated and hopeless at everything.  What a relief to get into Sixth Form and leave it all behind forever.

Of course it was not just a matter of saying good-bye to Mrs Chester and Miss Bell, but also to any healthy exercise.  I continued through adult life with a self-image of being useless at any sport/game and, whilst maintaining an acceptable BMI or whatever, probably not what anyone would classify as physically fit.

Enter, in a post-Christmas feature in The Times, Ms Field and her book
‘Run Fat B!tch Run’.  As a result I am more toned, healthier, in touch with the benefits and serotonin arising from regular exercise, and out in the fresh air for a 3.5 mile circuit at 7am at least three times a week, more or less in all weathers.  I miss it and feel ill-at-ease if I don’t go.  It’s a major new behaviour established over a few months and on reflection it’s been an object lesson in bringing about lasting change.

The first step is to tap in to the knowledge or suspicion that the status quo won’t do.  All individuals and organisations know that life isn’t as good as it could be.   Even if it’s buried deep, somewhere there’s a nagging voice that says there’s a different way, and it’s probably a better one.  Then what?

  • approach whoever you are dealing with as one human being to another
  • make it simple and practical
  • make it fit with established preferences or what they are already doing (I have always been a morning person so getting up a 7am isn’t a problem)
  • make it sound achievable, possibly even enjoyable (though the Grit Doctor would never admit this)
  • make the change incrementally
  • get them to try it just enough to begin to see some benefits
  • emphasise that keeping it up is critical (‘if you don’t like re-starting, stop giving up’)
  • be empathetic but not patronising, disclose what you find hard about it too
  • get them to keep on keeping it up by motivating them with the benefits – or with the disbenefits of not doing it
  • be available to answer questions and offer support
  • offer role models, but not those who are so good that they are impossible to emulate
  • have other sources of expertise available so that you don’t have to have all the answers
  • encourage mutual support among those trying it out – social media platforms make this easy
  • set goals
  • let the new behaviour be its own reward, but also celebrate when goals are reached

So far, so straightforward.  But there is another ingredient which can be harder to manage – personal style.  Somehow Ruth’s approach just did it for me, but there are others whom she no doubt rubs up entirely the wrong way.  When you write a book, you just have to write it, send it out into the world and hope for the best.  Some will love it, others really won’t.  But when you’re working in person to make change happen you need to adapt your style to suit the situation, which means: a) getting to know what your personal style is, and b) learning how to be heard by those whose preference is very different.

And that’s another story altogether.

Can you keep a secret?

Of course you can – you’re a professional after all.  But it’s worth pausing occasionally to think about what you mean by ‘everything you tell me will be treated in strict confidence’.   Really??  You won’t be discussing the key facts that came out of the conversation with your colleagues?  The ‘hard’ data and the more interesting stuff about how your interlocutor felt about that time a colleague seemed to take the credit for their idea?   Clearly, unless you are going to work out advice to your client entirely in your own head, it’s not, strictly speaking, confidential, is it?

Trust is the bedrock of every relationship, professional or otherwise, and keeping confidences is one of the behaviours which makes trust happen.  One loose remark and months of relationship building are undermined.  So the confidentiality agreement needs to be more than something hidden in the terms and conditions of your contract, more than taken as read, it’s got to be real, and evolving.

Confidentiality has to be addressed upfront as soon as your interactions begin.  If you omit to say something about it and assume there’s some unwritten norm in the ether of the interview, possible outcomes are that your client (substitute the appropriate word for whatever relates to your role) spills the beans and then regrets it afterwards, or clams up.  In the first case the relationship will be off to a rocky start because the client is already feeling at a disadvantage.  In the second, you will have missed the opportunity to learn anything useful.

It has always seemed to me that the key is to be absolutely clear (and honest, of course) about what will happen to the information you gather in the meeting.  Then whoever you are dealing with can regulate for themselves how much they tell you.  If they know that topics will be analysed in your team meetings, or be part of your feedback to a wider group within the client organisation, they can judge what to share with you.  Which brings me to: ‘of course everything will be treated as non-attributable’.  It’s a mighty elephant trap for the unwary.  Believe me, I’ve been there, and it wasn’t pretty.  People within an organisation can always pinpoint the source of particular opinions.  So when in the ‘feeding back the results of our interviews’ session, an observation goes up on the screen or flipchart, client staff will know that Eric or Fiona said that.  They always know.

Underneath trust is confidentiality and underlying confidentiality are clarity and honesty.  And after being real about it, comes evolution.  Once you have demonstrated in practice that you don’t tell people what you think of someone else (making them wonder what you’re saying about them to others), and you don’t inappropriately share information even from casual conversations, you will get a reputation for not betraying confidences.  Only then is the client likely to share with you the real reasons the new system won’t work, or why that team underperformed.  You move on from a somewhat limited association with someone which operates only with information in the public domain, to a deeper relationship which can genuinely address the issues at hand and develop options with actual traction in the organisation.

So there’s the answer.  Just don’t tell them I said so.