Join the Queue!

[caption id="" align="alignright" width="300"]simple system Queueing for the Proms 2008 on the south steps of the Royal Albert Hall (Photo credit: Wikipedia)[/caption]   I’m sitting on the steps outside the Royal Albert Hall in London. Fortunately today it isn’t raining, but even if it was, I needn’t worry. These days the Proms have an excellent system for managing the queue – rather like the ones on the deli counters in supermarkets. When you arrive, you are given a numbered ticket, which guarantees your place in the queue. Once you have your ticket, you can wander off for a coffee or a snack, or take shelter if it rains, knowing that everyone will be admitted in the order they joined the queue regardless. It is not particularly sophisticated – but it is a simple system, and it works. Simplicity is hard-fought-for: it does not happen by accident. Once a complex process or system is in place, changing it to remove unnecessary complexity is hard, just as all change is. Even stopping a simple system getting more complicated needs constant vigilance: otherwise, it is likely to gather exceptions and special cases, as well as extra checks that seem important, but which have a cost which is frequently overlooked. Just as nature dictates that the disorder of the Universe (or a teenager’s bedroom) increases with time, and that this can only be reversed by the input of work, so it is with organisations. Why does it matter? Because a simple system is inherently more efficient and less error-prone. Have you tried to explain your organisation’s processes to a new joiner? If so, how easy do you find it to explain the judgements required if the process has branches (if this, then that, but if not, then the other), and how quickly do people learn to make them properly? Good governance depends on people following the rules. Complexity makes it more likely that people will make mistakes, and also makes it harder to spot when people deliberately try to get round rules. For an extreme example of what happens with complexity, think about tax codes: with complex rules and many special cases, expert advisers earn a good living, which must be at the expense of either the tax-payer or the tax-collector or both. While that is good for the experts, does that not make its complexity bad for the rest of us?

Be prepared!

interview A few years ago I needed to hire an assistant. I’d fixed an interview, and everything was organised. It was five minutes before the time the candidate was due, and I was just collecting my papers and my thoughts. At that moment, the din of the fire alarm started up. There is – of course – nothing that you can do. Down the concrete back stairs, and out round the back of the building to the assembly point, into the London drizzle without a coat, while I imagined my interviewee arriving at the front. I had left all my papers on my desk in the dry, and had no other record of his contact details, so I had no way to suggest an alternative plan. A little while later, my mobile rang. Having arrived and been barred from entry, he had managed to track down my mobile number himself, and we were able to arrange to carry on with the interview while we dried out in a local coffee shop. Needless to say, his resourcefulness impressed me and he got the job. Despite the unhelpful circumstances of the interview, he was one of my best hires ever. Life has a habit of not going the way we plan it. Unexpected circumstances can often be turned to our advantage though, if we grasp them rather than trying to stick to the plan, and often the results are better than you could possibly have expected.

8 reasons to review your governance

[caption id="" align="alignright" width="300"]review your governance English: Corporate Governance (Photo credit: Wikipedia)[/caption] All organisations have to find an appropriate balance between central control and local freedom to act. Governance provides the framework and checks and balances within which this is established and managed. It ensures that the process by which decisions are made is appropriately managed. It allows them to be seen to have been taken in the best interests of the shareholders, taking account of all the demands on the organisation, the risks, and the information available at the time.

Review your governance

If several of the following statements are true of your organisation, it may well be a good idea to review your governance arrangements.
  • The governance structure (meetings and delegations) does not constitute a simple hierarchy underneath the Board, with clear parent-child relationships and information cascaded up and down the hierarchy
All authority derives from the Board (or equivalent), and no-one has any authority (including the authority to sub-delegate) unless given it explicitly or implicitly by the Board. Consequently all delegations and sub-delegations should form a tree structure with the Board at the top. Any structure which does not follow this rule will create confusion about where authority lies. Decisions and issues for escalation, and reports of lesser decisions taken, should flow up the tree. Policies, strategies, decisions made, etc, should flow down. This is not to say that the structure has to be complicated or bureaucratic – every organisation has to find the balance that is right for it.
  • The governance structure is not clearly documented (e.g. including a consistent set of Terms of Reference), communicated and understood
The governance structure exists to serve the organisation. It can only do this if people in the organisation understand it. Clear documentation that resolves any apparent ambiguities is an essential starting point, but this then needs effective communication.
  • People do not have clear written instructions as to the limits of the authority that they have been given, or these are ignored
This is part of the essential documentation of the structure. Without a clear statement of what they should decide for themselves and what they must refer elsewhere for decision, unhelpful deviations from intentions (in both directions) will occur. In one case senior time is wasted, in the other unintended risks may be taken. Naturally the limits specified need to be appropriate. Compliance must be monitored and enforced.
  • Committees are allowed to approve their own Terms of Reference and/or memberships
In order to ensure that the governance structure retains its integrity, any ‘parent’ body making delegations must retain control of the terms of the delegation. Approving ToRs and committee memberships are the primary ways it can do this. A committee approving its  own ToRs is like someone signing off their own expenses.
  • Governance meetings happen irregularly, or with papers which are poor quality or issued late
Unless meetings are irregular because they are only arranged when needed, irregularity makes it very difficult for those requiring decisions from the meeting to plan. That in turn leads to papers which are of poor quality or late, and so to delayed or riskier decisions.
  • Senior staff are allowed to ignore the rules which apply to others
Governance, like the law, only works properly if everyone plays by the rules. If the CEO believes it matters, he or she will be willing to set a good example by sticking to the rules themselves, and will expect other people to do the same. If the CEO does not think it matters, and is not willing to do this, it will be very hard to make other people do so.
  • Decisions are often taken late because of papers missing submission dates, inadequate information, wrong attendance, submission to the wrong meeting, unexpected need for escalation, etc
There are many reasons why a decision may be reached later than it was really needed. Sometimes the request may have been made to a meeting which did not have authority for that decision, perhaps because the value was too high, or because the decision was out of scope. Sometimes a critical expert is absent from the meeting. Sometimes the supporting paper does not contain, and the presenter is unable to supply, information the committee regards as essential. Mostly, however, these come down to poor planning, often driven by poor understanding.
  • There is a feeling that the governance process is too bureaucratic
If the system has been well-designed, this should be a rare complaint. Most commonly, it occurs for one of two reasons: levels of delegation have been set lower than the people concerned are comfortable with, or there is a reluctance to engage with the hard thinking required to make cases concisely but effectively. If significant, it probably indicates a mismatch - in either direction - in maturity between the staff concerned and the governance arrangements. Contact Ottery Consulting if you would like some independent help with to review  your governance arrangements.

If it isn’t broken, why fix it?

innovation Let's face it, if innovation isn’t change, what is? So in thinking about why change is difficult, and how to overcome the challenges, thinking about how to make innovation successful may help. A frequent characteristic of innovations is that the needs they address, or could address, are not recognised. History is littered with examples, from Marshal Foch’s view that aeroplanes were of no military value to Thomas Watson’s famous assessment that there might be a global market for at most 5 computers. Most people have heard the saying “build a better mousetrap, and the world will beat a path to your door”. Innovations still fail, though, because the world didn’t know it needed a better mousetrap, and so it wasn’t listening. Before you can even start to persuade people to adopt your innovation, you may have to help them to recognise that they have a problem it can address. Change initiatives are no different. I was recently helping an organisation plan a major change. I believed that the change would have consequences for other aspects of the operations, and that these consequences needed to be planned for too. Although I made several attempts to explain this to the CEO, I failed to convince her. Needless to say no such planning was done, and so I shall not be surprised if there are later problems requiring emergency solutions. A pity, but you can’t win ‘em all! How do change initiatives start? One or a few people have an idea about how to do things differently. Sometimes there may be a widely-recognised problem, but even then it may be a big step to create the link to the proposed solution. Often most people – even management – have not yet recognised that there is a problem, and before they will consider any change, they need to be persuaded that the need is real. Change initiators are often the people who are able to see what will trip up the organisation before others can, but that means that they also have the challenge of helping others to see what they see. Think of the lookout on a boat – their vantage point means they can see rocks ahead before anyone else, but before they can get the boat to change course they have to be believed. The power of the human mind to cling on to existing beliefs, for example that the rocks are miles away, is very strong. So change management starts with taking the time to educate people about the problem that needs to be addressed. Until they believe that there is a problem – that there are rocks ahead – trying to persuade them to accept the change required to address it is likely to be wasted breath. If you need help seeing the rocks, or persuading people they are real, do get in touch.