Features: October 2nd, 2009

By Jody Goldsworthy

Team work will be essential to meeting the challenge of doing more for less and it is a top agenda item for everyone involved in the governance and management of public sector organizations. The author reveals that in many cases the team is not on board. She outlines an approach for getting everyone focused and engaged.

Now more than ever, public sector leaders have to deliver on increasingly difficult promises. With a general election just around the corner and stringent budget controls, it’s a difficult environment in which to operate. But operate they must – or the consequences will be far-reaching and exceptionally damaging.

Leaders need a responsive and dependable team supporting them. They cannot deliver strategy alone; team work with a united and dedicated support network is vital.

Chief executives are expected to lead from the front and an ability to explain their vision for the future of the organisation is crucial. To do this, all members of the team need to be ‘on-board’ with the plan and pulling in the same direction. Team work is vital, but according to Hay Group’s latest research, this isn’t always the case. In the average public sector organisation:

– over half of mangers and supervisors lack clarity over their organisation’s strategy
– 39 per cent feel they are not rewarded to take the risks required to deliver it
– close to half believe they lack the necessary autonomy – while a quarter feel they are not free to experiment
– over a quarter feel that under-performance is tolerated.

In Hay Group’s experience, and in light of this research, there are three major tools that chief executives can use to help keep their promises; get the organizational structure right; reward and manage performance and; communicate and live the vision.

How is your organisation designed?

Coherent organisational design begins with identifying the organisation’s ambitions. Although often inherited from previous administrations, structures, policies and processes are a signal of the chief executive’s priorities and an important weapon in the war against misinformation. For example, joint commissioning with a primary care trust sends a message that social services and health need to work together.

There is no point in reorganising the structure for the sake of reorganisation; Chief executives risk destroying the clarity of their message if they fiddle with reporting lines for no good reason. It is the role of the chief executive and his / her senior team to determine a strategy that best serves the organisations’s needs. That way, it is easier for them to build a consensus among senior staff as to what the new design means for their individual teams. This is how team work is promoted.

So what should a debate on organisational principles include? An organisation that is geared to deliver its vision starts with translating its strategy into the factors that are critical for success. These describe how the organisation serves its community through an ‘operating model’. This is a high level picture of decisions, principles and assumptions – the way the organisation delivers value for its community. This helps build a shared understanding among managers; it strengthens the ability of the structure to actually deliver the strategy; it provides the basis for an ongoing dialogue about how the organisation creates value; and it enables radical rethinking of the design of the organisation based on purpose rather than tradition.

How do you reward your employees and manage performance?

If used well, reward is a very powerful tools. It sends a loud, clear message about what the organisation is aiming to achieve. This is not a technical issue about pounds and pence linked to national guidelines. What an organization measures communicates its priorities and the actions of the senior team must support what the organization claims to value. One organisation we know recently removed a measure of customer satisfaction from their performance targets, in order to simplify them. The first question staff asked: “Is customer satisfaction not a priority any more?” At least staff asked the question, in other organisations employees may just assume.

In our experience, employees do not always fully understand their performance plans. Some targets are too broad and, therefore, don’t indicate the individual behaviours and actions required of a specific role; some are too narrow and don’t connect to the big picture. The major tools to address this problem are disaggregation or translation –breaking the end results into smaller units, more closely influenced by individual behaviour, moving down from the end results into the intermediate steps and actions that contribute to them. A performance management framework is not an argument for the uncritical reward of reckless behaviour in pursuit of targets – we can see the consequences of this in the meltdown of the banking sector. Organisations must reward the way things are done (how) as well as the results achieved (what); they should account for the risks inherent in someone’s approach, not just whether it worked this time. Failure to do so favours luck over judgement.

All people processes, whether led by HR or line managers, should be kept up to date and linked in with the strategy and this includes benefits, progression, promotion, performance management, training and development.

How do you communicate the vision, and do you ‘live’ it?

This is where leadership fits in. It gives soul and meaning to the other drivers.

Chief executives rightly spend a lot of time facing outwards, negotiating the promises that secure resources. If this means they become isolated from their managers then there is real danger. The first and most important step is to reveal the decision-making processes: the dilemmas and concerns, the choices and rationales behind the headlines. This creates legitimacy amongst staff.

Strategy is as much about what is not done as about what is done and it is important to be clear in communications about decisions as well as sacrifices. Too often the “bad news” is omitted from communication because it carries pain for those whose aspirations won’t be met, yet failure to do so is a major source of ambiguity and conflict.

Consistent repetition is important. Many leaders underestimate the need to hammer messages home well beyond the point they assume is reasonable. Messages get lost in translation as they cascade down the organisation or become overwhelmed by routine distractions. Chief executives must also personally check that the message has arrived, uncorrupted, at the front line. Not everyone gets excited about operational or financial targets. In order to get the full commitment of managers, chief executives need to get beneath the headline metrics; as goals, efficiency targets, inspection ratings and KPIs (Key Performance Indicators) rarely distinguish between organisations. Rather, they should consider: what is our challenge? What is our contribution to society? What are the principles and distinctive ways in which we will rise to the challenge and make the contribution?

It is when these three elements are mixed together that organisations will come together to deliver for their communities in a way that benefits all.

Jody Goldsworthy is a public sector expert at management consultancy Hay Group. For more information please contact 0207 856 7000 or visit www.haygroup.co.uk