Time for some evidence-based management in UK

Global Warming  Ice Cream Van queue at Studland by Watt_Dabney via FlickrGet a lot more done by focusing intensely on a goal

One of the stunning results of psychological research of the second half of the 20th century is that goals and feedback raise performance dramatically.

Depending on our starting point, we can raise our performance between 10% and several hundred percent by focusing on a fixed target and getting timely feedback about how close we are to our goal.

Target & box-ticking culture in the UK

In Britain, goals and feedback have been adopted widely and are known here as targets and box-ticking.   Some people intuitively grasp there is something wrong with the system.  Others believe that we are somehow able to control doctors, nurses, teachers and police officers and GET MORE DONE.

What is wrong with targets & box-ticking?

You have to look no further than the work of British psychologist, John Seddon, to understand what has gone wrong.

Why do goals and feedback dramatically increase our performance?

A goal gives us a fixed point to aim at and an environment where we learn what makes a difference.  Feedback about our progress to our goals, preferably built into the task itself, helps us work out what works and what doesn’t.

Why do targets and box-ticking dramatically fail to raise our performance?

Targets (and box ticking) are not a system of goals and feedback. They are a plain old fashioned assembly line in which we perform simple movements at a set pace.

An assembly line was innovative in 1910 but it was overtaken by Toyota in the 50’s when they realised they could work much more effectively by throwing out the set pace “do it like this” methods and charging each person with investigating for themselves what works and what doesn’t.

University students routinely play the the “beer game” (and its descendants) to learn an important fact about assembly lines.  Fixed ways of doing things don’t fit the natural variety of life.  Too often what we do does not fit what is required.  Fixed ways of doing things generates errors.  Fixing errors is expensive.  Before long, we have a mess and our budgets are way out of control.

Would I try to drive from London to Edinburgh at a fixed speed?

Let’s take a simple example.  If I decide to drive from London to Edinburgh at a fixed speed, I quickly run into frustration I am much better off responding to variations in traffic conditions as I go.

Having a person plan my trip from an office in Cardiff, for example, might look good on paper but it doesn’t work.  It is far better to give me good maps, a sat nav, and breaking news about traffic conditions.

I can take a break earlier than intended to escape a tail back, for example. I can take a detour along back roads and drive further faster.   And other days, my trip will go smoothly along the full length of the M1, and I will arrive early.

That’s life. And it is cheaper, more enjoyable, and much more efficient that excessive planning.

Turning our GP’s and kindergartens in to assembly lines is so 1910

The attempt to turn every feature of Britain from GP’s offices to the kindergarten into an assembly line is very simply 100 years out of date.  It is time to supply the person doing the job with the information they need to do it.  They still need training, yes. They will value coaching; of course.  They could use data to explore their own effectiveness.

The job of a manager is to provide the information they need in a timely way.  The job of management is to provide data that tells us about coordination.  Where is the tail back?  Where is traffic heavy and about to cause another tail back?  Managers have (or should have) the overview that the person on the job, or driving the single car, does not have, and cannot have because they are busy driving.

Managers are responsible for the outcome of our collective decisions.  They are responsible for tail backs.  They cannot make decisions for each of us though.  They cannot.  It is not practical. And it does not work because the only way to tell us all what to do, is to tell us all to do the same thing.  And then our collective behaviour is not sufficiently flexible and adaptive and we get the very tailback that we were trying to avoid.

The way to avoid tailbacks is to keep each of us making our own decisions on the basis of relevant up-to-date information.

It’s harsh to say it, but if a manager does not understand that standardisation causes chaos, they should never have been appointed.  This is MGMT101.  It is taught in first year in university.  We learn it in the boy scouts.  We learn it when we organize a sleep-over.

A GP, for example, needs information on the state of health of their entire patient group.  Then they can allocate resources sensibly. Discretion to spend half-an-hour with a patient might lead to a well thought health programme that resolves dozens of problems.  Equally a frequent user might be distracted from unnecessary visits by non-medical interventions, such as family meeting.

A GP is highly motivated to work flexibly precisely because it helps them eliminate the queues.  No system thought out elsewhere will achieve that.  Instead, it creates dissatisfied patients who are not getting their issues dealt with and who then return to the system for more attention.

A goal of keeping these 2000 patients in good health is very different from a target of seeing 30 or so patients a day.  Feedback about the health of 2000 patients is very different from filling in forms about whom one has seen.

If GPS’s get everything done and every one healthy and go home early, is that wrong?  Emergency calls can still be routed to them at home.

It really is time to demand some “evidence based management”. If a government department wants targets, then let it set up properly conducted trials to compare their method with methods recommended by psychologists.  Not just Seddon. All psychologists.  It is time.

Tell us a good story . . .but not an anecdote

Narratives are better than goals

I was talking today with @dominiccampbell and he helped me resolve another question that has been hanging around my head.  Why are narratives so much better than goals and targets for guiding action?

Goals do raise performance

We psychologists know that goals raise performance.  Put a target on the wall and people will try to meet it. Performance can leap by huge multiples of 100, 200, 300%.

Add feedback, that is add the circles around the bull’s eye, and performance goes up further, even by 20% for top performers.

We like making targets.  Just watch a dog at a sheep trial. We love it!

Narratives are better

But, now we are in election season in the UK, the poverty of goals becomes so clear.

Parties are tossing around specific promises for everything from deficits to bus timetables.  It’s most odd.  For a start, most of these target are the job of mid-level civil servants to set and manage.  Not sure what we employ them for if politicians do this.

The targets are also spurious.  Can anyone really set these targets for a year ahead at any time and can they do so now when the world is in such disarray and a double dip recession might happen within weeks?

Most of all, goals are wrong because they are artificially simple.  I pointed @dominiccampell to a Gen Y blogger who paints a depressing picture of the life being led by fresh graduates in the UK.   This is the life they lead and they can “see” themselves leading.

Politicians need to paint the picture of what they see happening in the UK and how it is unfolding.  Stories of the one-legged man they met on the way to the forum, or arbitrary numbers just don’t cut it.   (Can’t remember what they other fella said.)

We need a visual picture of UK – a synopsis of the movie we are living out.

This, dear psychologists, is why we should use narratives.  We need a moment of ‘aesthetic arrest’ where the relevant factors are brought together within a frame, in a story which shows how the main factors come together, counteracting and influencing each other, and it must be “true”.   We need a sense of “yes, I see it now”.  Aha!

Goals and anecdotes don’t deliver ‘aesthetic arrest”.  They are one dimensional or 2 dimensional cutouts.  They cannot deliver a picture of the world in all its complexities.  And that is what we need to hear.

Want efficiency? Make the space and time for people to be efficient.

Chain-of-command

Imagine 6 000 students gathering in a hall and becoming a little rowdy.  The police arrive. The local Chief Constable arrives.   So does the head of the riot police.  Who is in charge?  Who decides what will happen?

Well, the riot police often think they are in charge because they are bigger and more powerful. The local Chief Constable is likely to assert him or herself, though, and say, “I am in charge in this place.  Everyone will take their instructions for me.”

Chain-of-command in business

We might think that this reasoning only begins in the uniformed services. But it is relevant in business as well.

At any moment, it is someone’s job to make a decision.  We should not get in their way. Even when we are bigger and more powerful, we may not have all the information we need to make a good decision.  Nor can we follow through.  We simply have no business making decisions that we will not see through to the very end.

Work & organizational psychologists and the chain-of-command

Work & organizational psychologists, or occupational psychologists as they are known in UK, or IO psychologists as they are known in the US, are well trained to identify who is making the decision and what information they need to make it.

We often have massive status but we should not get in the way of the people who are doing the work. We wouldn’t get in the way of a surgeon and we should not get in the way of anyone else either.

Work & organizational psychologists respect the skill of decision making in each and every job

The information that people use to make decisions is also not immediately obvious to us.  Skilled workers have mental models for organizing their work.  They have goals, they recognize information as signals, and they pick up information as feedback which tells them whether they are approaching their goals.  We don’t have their expertise and when we move things around, we can utterly muddle the way they organize information.  Taking a single piece of paper off someone’s desk can be akin to knocking out a a supporting wall of a house -whereupon, it all falls down.

When we are working in someone elses workplace, we are trying to read what they are noticing, what they are responding to, and what they are trying to achieve.  None of this may be obvious particularly if they’ve been doing the job for a long time.

Work & organizational psychologists do not set up goals or targets for other people

Setting up goals or targets for skilled people is utterly absurd. When we do so, we imply that they have no mental models or expertise to organize and to bring into being a smoothly operating system.

Setting up targets shows incompetence on our part.

Goals & targets are set up in basic professional training

The time to set goals and targets is during professional training.  At that point people are learning what information is available and how it comes together into a working system.

Everything we do thereafter needs to recognize that organization or requires a hefty reinvestment.  We will always look first to see if we can wrap a system around skill models before we take that route.

So how do we work out how people make decisions?

  • We watch what they do.
  • We watch how they respond to different situations.
  • We notice what irritates them because that tells us their efficient operations have been disrupted.
  • When it is safe to do so, we interrupt and listen to their inner talk as they try to remember where they are in a complicated process!

And above all, we are patient.

The people we are working with may have inefficient habits.  But, it is much more likely that they have deep professional considerations for what they are doing.

Our job is to broker boundaries and space for people to do their work

Our first obligation as psychologists is to broker the space in the organization for people to follow the logic of their trade or profession.

Are we doing that?  Are we adequately setting the boundaries and making the space and time for people to be effective?