What is governance for?Wouldn’t it be wonderful if whenever you asked someone to do something, they just did it? And of course, on the other hand, that they didn’t do things which they had not been asked to do? Oh for perfect control! But wait a moment. Midas asked that everything he touched should turn to gold – and look where that got him. Perhaps we had better be careful what we wish for. How often have you said “No, that’s not what I meant!”? Or “I’d have thought it was obvious that that needed doing!”? Let’s face it, most of us are not that great at giving really good instructions about what we need, and we certainly don’t have time to include every detail. At the same time, the people we ask are intelligent and creative. We get better outcomes, and they enjoy the work more and so are more motivated, when we expect them to use those abilities to interpret our needs sensibly and come up with the best solutions, even when we didn’t think to ask. In summary, then, we have specific outcomes we require, but it is neither practical nor desirable for us to be completely prescriptive about how they should be delivered. Governance provides a framework within which the desires for control of outcomes and for flexibility over means can be reconciled with the minimum of effort. Such a framework is fundamentally about good behaviours. Most of us want to behave well, but doing things the way we know would be best often takes more time and effort (at least in the short term), and time is one thing that is always in short supply. Formal governance arrangements help to stop us taking the short cuts which may be unhelpful in the long run. They ensure that we communicate what we are doing – so that changes can be made if required – and may force us to plan a bit further ahead. Being able to see good governance in place reassures stakeholders that the organisation is behaving transparently. It gives Government bodies and Regulators confidence that the organisation is complying with legislation and other requirements. And it allows Boards and managers to delegate authority while retaining sufficient control. Good governance means that we not only behave honestly and competently, but are seen to be doing so, which builds trust. In short, it is the rock on which a well-managed organisation is built. What good governance is NOT about is bureaucracy, box-ticking and delays. It requires finding balances – between control and practical delivery; between the risks of delegation and the cost of control; between wide ownership of decisions and strong accountability for them; between a simple structure and efficient decision-making; between minimum overhead and an effective audit trail – which provide the optimum basis for success. Every organisation has different arrangements because the optimum trade-offs depend on the context. This is the first of a series of articles will set out the main issues to be considered in designing an internal governance system and the principles which should underlie it.
Near where I live, there is a wonderful cheese shop. It sells an amazing selection of English artisanal cheeses, as well as a variety of other delicious local produce. Not surprisingly, it is my place of choice for cheese for Christmas. It's just a pity that the customer service is not up to the standard of the cheese. I placed my order in good time, for collection on 23 December. I duly arrived at the shop, full of anticipation, on my way home from work. The table outside groaned with goodies including beautifully-decorated cakes, rustic breads and colourful preserves. The shop is fairly simple inside, but filled with the wonderful aroma from the cheeses and from the delicious food being served in their upstairs café. There seemed only to be one young lady serving, and she looked a bit stressed by the queue of customers; cutting, weighing and wrapping cheeses is a slow process. Still, I assumed serving me would be easy – all that should have been done already. She looked in the fridges under the cool counter; not there. She looked in another fridge; no better. Looking more stressed, she told me that she was very sorry, she couldn’t find my order; “Would you mind going away and coming back later?” Bad move. “Yes, actually, I would. I’m on my way home from work, I've had a busy day, and I don’t want to hang around. That’s why I placed an order.” Another hunt still produced nothing. A small lady with shoulder-length reddish hair came in – the manager. We found where my order had been written in the book, just as I had said. “Well, if you can wait, we can make up some of your order again, but I’m afraid we have none of the Tamworth left. We are completely sold out of soft cheeses.” I grumpily agreed that they had better do that, meanwhile starting to wonder where I would be able to find a good soft cheese on Christmas Eve. Then she showed me a small cheese –under 100g I would say – and said “we have one of these left. They are absolutely delicious – unfortunately I can’t give you a taste as it is the last one. They are £6.” … So that is about £60 / kg? Are you serious? No thanks. After that, the manager lost interest. The assistant worked out the total price, and only then said “we’ll give you 10% off for the inconvenience”. I paid, and walked out with my cheese, about 20 minutes later than I had expected and in a thoroughly bad temper. So what did I learn from these unhappy events? Observing my own feelings, first, that the longer the problem lasts, the more it takes to put it right. And second, that if you don’t do enough, you might as well do nothing.
Good customer serviceThe first rule of customer service is “keep your promises”. And since things will sometimes go wrong, the second rule is “When you can’t keep your promises, try to solve the problem you have caused as quickly as you can”. If the assistant had said at the start something like, “I’m really sorry, I’ll make the order up as quickly as I can. You can have a free coffee upstairs while you are waiting. What can I offer you instead of the Tamworth?” – suggesting solutions to my problems – I would probably have been satisfied, and would actually have spent more. By the time the manager showed me the expensive cheese, she needed to have given it to me, not offered to sell it to me, to compensate. And by the end, a 10% discount not only did not solve my problem but felt like adding insult to injury. A customer problem is an opportunity for free good – or bad – publicity. The choice of which is yours. [contact-form][contact-field label='Name' type='name' required='1'/][contact-field label='Email' type='email' required='1'/][contact-field label='Website' type='url'/][contact-field label='Comment' type='textarea' required='1'/][/contact-form]
I’ve recently started taking singing lessons. A bit late, you might say, since I have been singing in choirs for decades, and I certainly wish I’d started sooner. But it has taught me something important about how we learn. I have been surprised to discover that almost none of my lesson time is about singing in tune or in time! Everything is about technique – how you breath, how you pronounce the words – and a lot of my practice is just saying the words, not singing them at all. It is really hard to train your body to work in a very particular way: months or years of lessons, hours and hours of practice. You can’t just be told the right way to do it, and go away and then do it right - it is more like learning to drive than learning to pass an academic exam. And sometimes you have to be told something over and over again before you are ready to absorb it. I have taken away three wider lessons: • What you have to do to learn a new skill may be quite different from what you expected; • Results may take a long time and demand considerable perseverance; there are no short-cuts; • Hearing something is not enough – you have to hear it at the right time. That has made me think about the problems of change in a different way. As an example, one of my clients has many junior and middle managers with a fairly low level of financial understanding, and with commercial pressure continually increasing this is holding them back. How should we fix this? The traditional approach would probably be to send them on a short course to learn the “facts” about finance – understanding a P&L, a balance sheet, etc. But perhaps it is not the facts but the practice they are short of, or they are not ready to hear the message? I have done enough short courses myself to know that few of the facts stay in the mind for long anyway. The singing lessons experience suggests to me that they are probably only part of the solution. Time to think about a new approach, based on how we learn!
Do you know where you are trying to get to? Are you sure? Could you write down clearly and succinctly what the output will be, or what success would look like? Are your objectives SMART (or at least clear)? Often people fight shy of being that specific. The trouble is, when you are, success or failure become black and white. And that raises the stakes. Or it may be that they just find it too hard to write such a specification – and it is hard. It forces you think through options and to make choices, often on inadequate information, and that requires a lot of confidence. Leaving things a bit vague is more comfortable on both counts, but also makes it much less likely that you will deliver what you really wanted to. That is partly because you have less motivation to do so, but it is also partly because clarity helps everyone in the team to see the contribution they need to make. If the overall objectives are not clear, different people will interpret them differently, and their contributions will not necessarily all be exactly what is needed. It also provides a poor example for them to follow – it means that each of their contributions is also more likely to have a vague specification, and so may deviate even further from requirements. Setting clear objectives is the first essential of leadership: if you don’t know exactly where you want to go, how can you lead other people on the journey? As the song goes, “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road’ll take you there”.
At the beginning of my career, I worked as a University lecturer. Academic institutions are unusual environments to work in, because naturally they have a large proportion of extremely clever people on the staff. And being extremely clever, vital though it is in a university (and many other organisations), often brings with it other less useful characteristics. Managing clever people can be very challenging! People who know they are clever are often extremely confident that they know, or can find, the right answer to any problem. They can be very forceful in arguing their point of view! It is probably true that they can do it. But just because they can find the right answer does not necessarily mean that they should: it is usually quicker, cheaper, and probably better to ask an expert in that particular area. I particularly recall some rather clunky community engagement events that the University decided to organise, without (as far as I could tell) getting any professional advice on the best approach. In another organisation – this time more industrially-focussed but still with a large preponderance of clever people – I was astonished to find that rather than buying ‘off-the-shelf’ milk-floats for transporting stores around the large site, the engineering workshop designed and built its own. In both cases, I’m talking about a long time ago, and I’m sure things have changed greatly since those days, but these examples illustrate the risk. All successful organisations have things that they are very good at doing, or risks that they are very good at managing. Those are the things that it is essential they concentrate on, and devote efforts to doing even better. They also need to do things that they will never do often enough to be experts in. Wise organisations subcontract these to people who do them all the time. However, organisations which are full of very clever people seem to find this kind of wisdom particularly challenging.
Why?I think there is a combination of a high need for control, and a fear of being taken advantage of by those experts. Perhaps this fear is heightened by knowing how easily they could do just that with non-specialists in their own fields. At the same time, and perhaps more importantly, the competition for status among clever people may be fuelled by being seen to be clever. When there is a high proportion of clever people all trying to outdo each other, this can be a real problem! I don’t think that there are any easy solutions, but recognising that managing clever people has some special challenges is a good start. When clever people dominate an organisation, a high level of ‘democratic’ management is often expected, and only equally clever managers will be given acceptance. Usually this means many come from the same professional background, which can also limit the spread of new ideas from elsewhere. Management teams need to pay special attention to their ability to find the right new ideas, and to influence clever staff to accept them.
[caption id="" align="alignright" width="300"] English: neck of bottle of champagne (Photo credit: Wikipedia)[/caption] What? Don’t you mean success? Well, no – although that is worth celebrating too. I came across the idea that you should celebrate failure recently in “Co-active Coaching”, and it makes a lot of sense. People rarely fail at things because they didn’t really try – or at least not at things that matter. First they had to find the courage to attempt something which they knew might to expose them to failure. Then, wanting to avoid failure, they tried hard, probably attempting things they had never done before. Finally they had to admit they had failed - even though in the process they had probably achieved more than they ever thought possible. All of those things are difficult, and worthy of celebration in themselves. But there is more to it than that. Failure is an excellent teacher! When you fail, you have to face up to things you tried which did not work. Often you will want to understand why they did not work, and this may lead to more success next time. There is also a less obvious reason. When we are criticised, blamed and shamed for failing, it usually has the desired effect of making us very keen to avoid failing again. Unfortunately, the consequences of that very understandable urge are not necessarily to make us try harder. We are very likely to learn to avoid taking the risky option in the first place, or to limit the options we consider only to the ones which appear ‘safe’. You can’t stop failure hurting, but instead of adding to the hurt, celebrate failure – the courage, the effort, the learning involved – and at the same time create a culture in which even risky options can be seriously considered.
 “Co-Active Coaching” By Henry and Karen Kimsey-House, Phillip Sandahl and Laura Whitworth
There is a rather impressive new office building going up in the City of London at the moment. Colloquially referred to as the Walkie Talkie building (London likes its building nicknames), instead of the usual flat walls, its walls are gently curved, giving it a very sculptural quality. And like many modern office blocks, it is covered with floor to ceiling glass. It will look amazing when it is completed. However, people living, working, or even just passing nearby are feeling amazed for all the wrong reasons. It seems that the architects didn't join things up - they forgot to take account of – or underestimated – the effects of the laws of optics. Think of a reflecting telescope. It works because the concave mirror in the telescope focuses the light from the stars that falls on it. What have the architects put on the front of the Walkie Talkie building? In effect, a gigantic concave mirror. And like all such mirrors it focuses the light – in this case particularly the sunlight - falling on it. On a hot summers’ day, the temperature in a nearby street has risen enough to blister paint and melt plastic. Now it’s called the Walkie Scorchie.