I am puzzling over the ethics of our youth. That’s not unusual, of course. By an accident of history, I am a typical Gen Xer. I drink water and carry a laptop. I’m highly independent and anyone not quite ‘up to it’ receives a glance of disapproval that is the hallmark of my generation.
Gen Y’ers elsewhere
I’ve also lived in a country where the Gen Y’ers clashed magnificently with the old guard who reminded them constantly of history. “We fought for your privileges”, said the old guard. “Toughs”, said the youngsters, “give us more. And NOW!”
Little emperors, indeed.
Student action in UK November 2010
The student action along Oxford Street of the moment are interesting. So many students are not there. We look around our universities and wonder. Not even self-interest can get them out.
But self-interest has got some out. Are they really ethical though? Are they pouting because they have been excluding from the loot and pillage of the economy? Or do they really care about a well run society and are they prepared to run society well in exchange for a fair and decent wage?
Solidarity is the ethical test of politicians
The test is in solidarity. Let’s see what alliances are formed and let’s see how easily they are bought off. How many of the leaders would join Top Shop tomorrow if given a graduate management position?
The test is in solidarity and I am hoping (against hope) that they will take the lead in mapping the issues that face the UK today.
But beware: Politics is about results not motives
But then an old politicial science professor said to me once: In politics motivation doesn’t matter. Only results matter.
Unless students have a clear ethical position and a map of the alliances they want to forge, they will find their energy quickly coopted to other causes.
It happened to other generations who were smug and complacent. It can happen to them too because that is politics.
We are waiting to see. Hoping but waiting. I hope their political science professors have taught them well.
A long time ago, a British Professor visiting Zimbabwe goggled at our 15% inflation rate and said, “How do you cope?’
Twenty years later, 15% seemed like heaven. And coping had turned into a lifestyle. Oddly though, you can still attend an HRM conference in Harare infinitely more sophisticated than you will in London. Lunch might be peculiar but ideas continue.
The power might go off repeatedly but a Zimbabwean firm has rolled out a 3G network. Living in the UK, I have copper cables that were replaced twenty years ago in Harare and my mobile reception is so dodgy that I can’t use it for internet.
Running away from collapse
I left Zimbabwe and came ultimately to UK because I didn’t want to cope with those circumstances. I had lived through Smith’s UDI and figured that “I had already done” war and sanctions. It was time for alternative experiences.
A psychological model of collective responses to despair
Around six months before I left Zimbabwe, just after the Presidential elections, I tried to make a psychological model of what would happen. I figured that everyone would make up their minds what they were going to do. Then they would test their plan. And after 6 months they would re-evaluate.
Of course, we had a definitive unambiguous event that marked a cross-roads. Mostly we don’t have such a call for decisiveness and we procrastinate.
Then we were surrounded by people making tough decisions but amiably accepting that we differed in our needs and values and might go our separate ways.
And we knew we were jumping out into the unknown. We might find our new lives hostile but few of us left a path to return preferring rather to “shake the dust from their feet and not look back”.
The Zimbabwean diaspora and the Zimbabwean survival
So 3-4 million people left Zimbabwe. I got on a plane. Others walked and with no exaggeration, dodged border guards, swam across a river infested with crocodiles, cut their way through fences and threw themselves on the streets of cities larger than anything they had ever seen before.
But 10-11 million people stayed. They were the old, the young, the sick and the infirm. They were those who stayed to look after the old, the young, the sick and the infirm. They were also those who had fought for the liberation of Zimbabwe and were continuing in their quest. They were those who lived “outside” last time around and “had done that” and now took the alternative route. And there were the energetic and entrepreneurial who make a go of anything.
Zimbabwe has suffered. There is no doubt. It is uncomfortable being there. But it has survived. And it is this survival that I want to write about.
People don’t curl up and die because the economists and politicians and pundits say they should. They pursue their ends as they see them. They experiment and revise. They keep going.
So Zimbabwe didn’t die. The currency shattered all records for inflation and it remained the currency of choice long after economists said it would disappear. It has gone now but probably more because of pressure on the German government by activists made printing it more difficult.
Simply, action matters; not theory and not prediction. People will not stop living just because we think we wouldn’t be bothered in their shoes.
African universities don’t die either
I’ll make this point again using another story.
A decade ago, I was part of a team reviewing the staffing situation in African universities for World Bank. Briefly, the a priori thesis was that Africa suffered a brain drain. Coopted belatedly on to the team, when I was briefed, I burst out laughing. “You can’t get rid of us,” I guffawed.
So how do universities run when they have bullet holes in the walls (one in our sample did) and havelittle money to pay academics?
Yes, universities suffer from “not on seat”, a Nigerian expression that someone came in, left his jacket and went out to do his own business. But despite one university paying its staff the equivalent of one chicken a month, staff kept pitching up, kept teaching, kept examining. They keep doing what they do. I know it sounds improbable, but it is your theory that is wrong; not the world!
But maybe Western economies began to die
Today I came across another story in Global Guerillas that illustrates the point again.
Pick up any HRM textbook in UK, Australia or NZ, and it is all about smashing the unions. Thatcherism was a dramatic struggle against labour power. And Thatcherism won. It liberated the economy from the tyranny of unions!
That maybe so but smashing the “working classes”, or the middle classes as they are called in the USA, also concentrated economic surplus in the hands of corporates. And we see the results now. Oh, you might have drifted off when I put it like this. Read on.
People don’t sit on their hands just because you told them they were worth nothing. They carry on living their lives. Instead of achieving their life goals by making more money by being more productive, they continued achieving their life goals and put their energies into other schemes – like second houses or just flipping their first. The goals stay. The energy to progress is diverted.
We will not put our lives on hold because you want us to. It simply doesn’t work like that.
A good system provides opportunities for us to achieve our own goals within a collective mutually beneficial framework. We need a system where each of us can see a promotion on the horizon and has access to learning experiences and training that allows us to seek promotion. As soon as the system says “nothing for you here”, we will divert our attention elsewhere but we won’t do nothing. Don’t say this is not possible; this is called HRM. And don’t laugh. Who hired the HR Manager you have?
Where will individuals put their energy in the UK now?
In a country as big and diverse as the UK, it can be hard to see what might happen next. The choices are not obvious.
Certainly, at an individual level, the prize will go to those who envisage positive goals in depressing circumstances and who continue seeing opportunity while those around them become panicky and depressed. But we will each do what makes sense to us at the moment that we do it.
At a collective level, it seems to me that we really must strengthen what Britain called the working classes. And the best way to do that is for people who have power to limit themselves.
Instead of running around asking for 25%-30% indicative cuts, Ministers should be talking to everyone with power or unusually high incomes (and I include the unions and the local drug barons). Ask them rather, what can you do to make the middle level guys better off. What can you do to free them up from worrying about housing and heating, food and chidren’s clothing? What can you do to help them feel secure about their future (to aged 90) and their children’s future and prospects?
Those with power and resources must settle down those who will otherwise divert their energy where they must – looking after me and my own. And the politicians must lead.
Instead of indicative cuts, come back to us with indicative solutions. Look us in the eye when you announce them. If our eyes light up, you are on to something. If we howl with laughter, deliver a sharp smack to your powerful mates.
I was talking to someone in one of the many branches of the public service yesterday. “And we get a lot of time-wasters”, he said.
This is a narrative, of course. It is the way we speak rather than any statement of fact. But it raises the question, “Why do we regard the public as wasting our time?”
Or is our time wasted by management who are poorly trained?
Sadly, targets are the culprits.
This is the psychology.
A target creates a goal. Yup, that is what was intended.
Goals create feedback loops. Yes, we all know targets distract people from their jobs. We have been complaining for years.
And there are two further points I would like to add.
Simplifying life slightly, we have fast feedback loops and slow feedback loops.
Public servants have infinitely slow feedback loops. Slower than “Mum” who runs a house and who cleans the house today and cooks your dinner, and cleans the house tomorrow, and cooks your dinner. In short, the work of those who serve is never done. It is very reactive, too. In plain English, public servants hang around a lot. That is their job and it takes a special temperament to be able to do that without fabricating a crises or two for stimulation and entertainment.
Slow feedback loops does not mean the work is unskilled. Slow feedback loops mean the opposite. The work is highly skilled. You have to work “by the book”. “Mum” cleans the house whether guests are coming or not. The pilot checks the entire pre-flight checklist whether they anticipate a problem or not. They do work and they do it without anything changing visibly and without applause or immediate reward. You and I can’t do that. We get bored and become disruptive.
Simply, public servants look like they are sitting around but they do “hard work”. It is hard to know that the workis done well unless you really know what you are doing.
The public are not time-wasters. Well they maybe, but we waste a lot more time angsting about time-wasters.
The public aren’t experts in the work done by public servants. Public servants start to take their skill for granted (as we do) and forget they can make a judgment that we will just get wrong. We could do with their wisdom.
Much of the time, the public is worried they are supposed to be doing something. Good counsel from a policeman or front-line worker reads the request in context and advises the right course of action. The right course of action might be do nothing (take two aspirin and have a good night’s sleep, etc.) and it is useful to know that. We rarely think that doing nothing is doing good. Public servants with with their slow feedback loops are masters of “let events unfold”. Let them make the call.
Rushing people who are worried slows them down. When we treat each request as seriously as the next or the last, people calm down and our work speeds up.
That’s not to say that we don’t do triage. Triage is part of taking people seriously. People aren’t cattle queuing up at the slaughter house. If it is better to take one person ahead of others, just tell them. When we have a good reason, everyone will understand, particularly if we can estimate when we will see them and give them back some control over their lives. They calm down and work goes faster.
Successful ways of working with people is often counter-intuitive
It is possible to treat each person as an individual. But when we go 8 hours/x people makes y minutes. Suddenly there isn’t enough time.
One. We waste time scheduling. Try not scheduling and see what happens. I once went to a doctor who simply gave 10 people an appointment on each hour. He called them in turn but saw whoever was there. Isn’t that what we do anyway? And if we a running late to get there for 9, for example, there is no need to panic, because we are in a buffer.
Two. We have time-wasted between appointments. I was given an appointment at 9:06 last week. Admirable precision. Pity the internal paper-work wasn’t ready for her and her printer wasn’t working.
Three. There is simply a simple rule of management. Make sure management doesn’t cost more than what is being managed. What would happen if we would remove the management and organization? Often little but saving time and saving heaps of money? Of course, skilled management that helps us be more productive would be cool to have particularly when it is inexpensive.
We often get more done by being patient. I know the arithmetic doesn’t suggest so. But arithmetic is not the right analytical tool for this problem. I am a numbers person but turning everything into “3 men dig a trench . . .” simply tells me your arithmetical training stopped when you were 11. My that is harsh . . but you asked for it.
Using arithmetic to solve the distribution of public service is a constellation of intellectual errors. And you know it is wrong because it doesn’t work. If feels wrong. Stop repeating yourself and try another way!
What happens when a boss walks into a room and says, we have to make cuts?
Our obvious response is emotional. We are angry. We are scared. We are threatened. We are determined not to get hurt.
But what happens to the organization?
Yesterday, Patrick Butler blogged on the Guardian’s Joe Public blog about the chances that the budget cuts would lead to innovation and creativity. I responded there and have edited my comments below.
My comments about the impact on the organization itself are based on experience and interpreted through lens of the principles of organizational design. My conclusions are counter-intuitive. That is, they are not the most obvious things we might think of. There are good reasons for us expecting organizations to behave differently to what they do but I won’t go into those reasons here. For the curious, they are to do with hegemony, reification and other similar concepts. Let me say here that I am not making a prediction about what will happen in the public service in the UK. I am simply describing what I have seen elsewhere and what might be worth thinking about.
My observations are three fold which may seem contradictory but are not.
There are unlimited depths to our creativity
The organization will be turned inside out but the leadership won’t acknowledge what they have done and will spend considerable resources covering up what they have done
Employees will put their efforts into developing autonomous careers and ‘business units’.
These outcome can be avoided but simply choosing the route of cuts suggests we may see these or similarly dysfunctional effects. The superiors in an organization are responsible for resourcing an organization. When they duck this responsibility, the game has begun
We have unlimited depths to our creativity
It is true that the individuals in any job know a multitude of better ways of doing a job. I could find solid research evidence but let’s just say for now that tt is more than our ‘jobsworth’ to tell anyone. Bosses don’t take kindly to being out shone. A wise employee does the boss’ way; even if that way is expensive, silly and possibly stupid.
The organization will be turned inside out
In my experience, when cut kick in, people do generate alternative ways of working, because they can. They know what they are doing.
The difficult that arises is that the boss has now done him (or her) self out of a job. In a hierarchical organization, it is the boss’ job, to find resources and to supply greater know-how.
When the know-how and resources come from below, the difference between ranks becomes redundant and the chain of command has to acknowledge that leadership is also bottom-up.
This challenge is not often acknowledged and this will be sad consequence. ‘Bosses’ will spend more and more resources having conferences to ‘problem solve’, meeting stakeholders to try to re-assert legitimacy, and staging confrontations with employees over perceived ‘insubordination’ (by which they mean their sense of inadequacy because the leadership is coming from below), etc. They will swell their ranks with more managers, experts and consultants (that has already happened in some parts of the public service.)
Ultimately the leadership begins to live in the Pink Floyd or was it U2 world where they watch themselves on closed circuit TV and they are genuinely surprised by reality on the odd occasion they encounter it.
Employees will put their efforts into autonomous careers
At the bottom levels, innovation is now at the discretion of the members of the organization and the key is in the word discretion.
Ordinary employees may be carrying the organization and its mission even to the point of paying their own salaries and part of the organization’s overheads. This may be seem extreme but I’ve seen it more than once and I’ve seen it in the UK.
Employees may also decide to match the effort they put in with their pay. A consultant coined a saying about salaries in Africa. The annual salary may vary a lot. The hourly salary does not.
Many people develop second careers (it seems that has already begun among British police). Businesses are run from work. Businesses are run outside work. Second houses are another career. Living abroad and arbitraging costs is another version.
In the UK, I’ve seen some online sites and plenty of workplace business models where work is sub-contracted indicating huge rents in the price charged to the customer. Employees don’t take long to work that out the system of rents for themselves and to find ways of owning the outfit which supplies the contractors.
Is the breakdown of organizational legitimacy inevitable?
Depressing? Possibly corrupt?
The key (and the game) is the legitimacy of the organization. In hierarchical organizations, the raison d’etre of rank is to manage and dispense resources and know-how.
When the ‘bosses’ make the statement that they do not have resources to run the organization, both the organization and the managers lose legitimacy.
The organization could, of course, reorganize both its purpose and the way it organizes to execute its purpose. This is rare though. After all, if this re-direction was on the cards, it would have taken place to prempt the cuts and the challenge to the managers’ legitimacy. A much more likely out come is the expenditure of vast sums shoring up the appearance of managerial legitimacy while the operational business develops a like and mind (many minds) of its own.
It will be good to see leadership that rejuvenates organizations and in the end, what happens is what happens. This is not science. This is life. What happens is what we decide to do together. And we make our decisions iteratively. You decide. I decide. You revise. and so on.
Right now, everyone is waiting for the bosses to make the first move. I hope this move is not “tell us what to do”. I hope even more it is not “do the same work with less resources”. Either of these moves is game-over – at least for the hierarchy.
Then a new game begins of what will replace what we once had. That is another story.
George Osborne has achieved something important. He has got us talking about the cuts. What cuts are we going to make?
What is the point of consultation?
We all have an opinion and inevitably, so do I. But mine is somewhat different and borne out of living through dramatic economic change, not once, but several times elsewhere in the world. To boot, I was working as a both as a management consultant and a line manager, so I learned a far bit about the “cuts business”.
What is the point of writing blog posts?
I pondered today the point of writing out what I learned. No one is going to listen. Believe me, that is the first lesson. We are going to talk a lot and listen little. I am already doing that as I tune out of the “101 complaints” that are drowning the air waves and Twitter streams.
Then I decided to write after all. Not because anyone will listen or even that I have anything very important to say.
But simply because I write. That’s what I do. I write to organize ideas that swirl around my head as I respond to what I hear in conversation and simultaneously work on other big projects that won’t see the light of day for a while.
What other people have learned about the “cuts business”
So these are the three issues that I will probably write about today:
Our general response to being asked to “cut”: bosses who don’t have cheque books big enough to run the organizations they run
Using consultants in organizations: managing up-skilling
Negotiating with public servants: talk service not money