Some thoughts on why people do what they do...

I’m closely involved with developments in defence and would like to think I’ve made a small contribution to the changes that now appear to be yielding benefit. As part of the new management structure, the Commands (Army, Navy, Air and Joint Force) now manage most of the defence budget giving them the ability to decide how to use their own resources to best effect (having adopted the principles of portfolio management). To do this they must engage with the procurement and infrastructure organisations who supply the equipment and infrastructure the Commands require (through better programme management).

In its most recent report (June 15) the National Audit Office found that the Commands are taking ownership of these budgets but need to develop their financial skills and project and programme management capability to take on this enhanced role. There is, however, I believe a greater and arguably more important challenge, and that is how to change behaviour across a government department – the Ministry of Defence. After all, it was Aidan Halligan’s experience of the NHS IT programme that led to his dictum that ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast’. Changing structures and processes is easy. Changing behaviours is an altogether different challenge.

A little history lesson might help us better understand the nature of this challenge. Immediately after the 2001 election, Tony Blair appointed Professor Michael Barber to head up the Prime Minister’s Delivery Unit. In his four years as head of that Unit, and having experienced the frustrations of the wall of inertia facing government, the conclusion that Barber came to regarding Whitehall officials was very telling:

The problem was psychological. Instead of setting out to decide what to do and how to do it, they decided what they couldn’t do and how they might explain away the inevitable failure. In short, our effort to promote improved delivery was as much cultural as it was technical.

With problems that are chiefly psychological, perhaps the solutions ought to have been chiefly psychological. That, however, was not the case. Instead, ‘Deliverology’ (as the methodology became known) focussed on the process and not the people. At the heart of this methodology were targets: whether in schools, hospitals or elsewhere, the system became fixated on stringent performance management and ‘key performance indicators’ with each of the links in the delivery chain being given its list of actions and milestones.

As we now know, several problems emerged from this target-driven command and control approach. The government essentially (though inadvertently) gave huge creative opportunities to the people working in hospitals, policing and schools to engage in behaviour that would produce the ‘right’ numbers to report, irrespective of what was going on – otherwise known as ‘gaming the system’. Curtains around beds in corridors became ‘wards’; domestic disputes were used to generate two assaults, two warnings and so be recorded as two crimes detected and cleared; teachers gave disproportionate time to get pupils from ‘D’ to ‘C’ at the expense of worse performing pupils and so on. This ‘gaming’ actually morphed into ‘trench warfare’ between the Cabinet Office and the offending department. On the front line, there was a growing frustration between the rhetoric and the reality. The numbers were saying one thing, but experience was saying another. In actual fact, and as the Coalition quickly realised, ‘blind’ target setting made things worse.

In his book ‘Systems Thinking in the Public Sector’ John Seddon describes ‘failure demand’ as being one consequence of target mania. This, says Seddon, is demand that produces waste because it shouldn’t be there in the first place. It is work that must be done by the organisation as a result of poor service design in the first place. Just think of the time and effort involved in processing a complaint and you begin to get the picture – all of it valueless, cost-creating work.

So, what has got to do with the management of defence, or more generally for project and programme management? Well, the underlying ideas that stem from the work of Seddon (like W. Edwards Deming, the ‘quality and lean’ guru) are essentially collaborative rather than competitive. As Deming himself put it:

By working with a team, you help other people. You may help yourselves equally but you don’t get ahead by being equal; you get ahead by being ahead, produce something more, have more to show, more to count; whereas teamwork means work together. This is impossible under the merit-rating review of performance.

Project management is often not about the solution to a problem. It’s more about recognising that there is a problem in the first place, seeing that something can be done about it and implementing an appropriate response as a team. The sensing of problems often comes from the people who do the work and so as project (or programme) managers, we will only be able to do something useful if those same people feel that they can bring problems forward and have them discussed. More than that, unless people feel that they can get that idea and be recognised for it, then very quickly they will stop coming. In other words, how people behave and feel shape our success and failure. They determine whether or not things actually get done.

So, could actual behaviour in government and politics be having important effects that we don’t understand properly? After all, the people who brought behaviour back into economics were not economists, but psychologists.

Perhaps, therefore, there is a deeper reason why the efforts of government reform over the past 30 or 40 years sound so repetitive. Why is it that the same problems – high staff turnover, lack of financial management, lack of good project management, a lack of ‘joined up’ thinking at the centre of government keep coming up time and time again? Might the causes have something to do with behaviour? I believe they do. So how do we start to change behaviour? Well, as with any problem solving cycle, the first step is to better understand behaviour.

With a son about to embark on a psychology degree, that is a challenge I’m looking forward to taking on in the coming months and years.

© Dr Bill Egginton

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