Wednesday, 30 September 2009

Alice, Alice, where the **** is Alice?

Lewis Carroll could have had no idea how sane and mundane his stories about Alice might appear now, one hundred and fifty years later. His alter ego, Charles Lutridge Dodgson, the mathematician, logician, photographer, inventor and would be priest, might not be surprised at all. Alice is constantly surprised by the impossible, the illogical and the nonsensical – but of course, it is just a funny story.

But it was not just a story, it is a cutting satire. In his time, Dodgson was illuminating the human gift for self deception and sustained irrationality, for overwhelming conceit and self absorption, for illogical argument and nonsensical assertion. Through the wondering eyes of Alice, Dodgson the logician, showed us so many of the ways in which people make fools of their peers, and of themselves. And, of course, nothing has changed.

“What would you do with a company which always misses forecasts, has unhappy owners, has a huge unfunded pension deficit, has increased overheads in real terms for 11 years, has had negative cashflow for 20 years ... and projects further negative cashflow, can only make ends meet by charging customers more and borrowing more to pay the interest, has recently made two large loss-making acquisitions without any turnround plan, cooks the books by missing out liabilities, has an appalling record on senior management expenses and has an unqualified finance director of bizarre appearance and a Trotskyist background? That company, ladies and gentleman, is the UK government.”

That was private equity entrepreneur Jon Moulton’s explosive opening speech to a private investor club meeting run by PI Capital last week. It was so outspoken — even by Moulton’s standards — that it deserves a wider audience if only because it probably reflects what a lot of people are thinking, if not openly saying, about the parlous state of the government finances.
Reported by Jenny Davey in The Sunday Times.

If we were to apply the Comparative Competitive Strength point of view to Jon Moulton’s description of the UK Government , it would conclude that UK plc is at the lower end of Constrained, heading for The Abyss. At the strategic level, that clearly indicates a serious failure of leadership.

However, the Comparative Competitive Strength point of view tells us something else of equal importance. The issue is cultural – incompetent at the top means incompetent at the bottom. So, a desperate mother can kill herself and her child in Leicestershire, helpless children die in Haringey, responsible policewomen are prevented from looking after each other’s children – the list is endless. Micro management under ever increasingly labyrinthine mountains of rules, regulations and guidelines is never a good idea – more than one hundred years of consciously competent managerial learning has proved that. So, when it is driven in by people with no managerial experience or competence, applying demonstrably very low levels of practical and emotional intelligence, the ghastly chaos, and squalid indifference to the individual, of the outcomes can be no surprise. Charles Dodgson would recognise it all – this would be Alice in Blunderland.

The incompetence at the top may soon be removed. But the damage to the fabric of public administration is profound. There have been 12 years of substantial erosion of operational competence in the leadership, managerial and operational culture within all public sector administration. Thousands of leaders and managers no longer know how to think straight. Their immersion in the mad logic of the Brown Queen’s Blunderland, with the White Rabbit Balls, the Darling Dormouse and Mad Hatter Mandelson, has damaged their critical faculties, let us hope not irreversibly. A massive regeneration of competence and motivation is needed to restore the effective use of public money for effective service delivery. The appalling and insidious political canard that these two phrases are mutually exclusive must be destroyed by demonstrated results – this truly has been the Grin without the Cat, and deeply unfunny.

When can this be done? Local Government and Agency leaderships do not need to wait for the cancer in Westminster to be excised by the electorate. Even the permanent leaderships of Departments of State could start now, had they the courage, to get ready for the surgery and vigorous therapy they know is inevitable – their political leadership is now far too self obsessed with personal career survival to really get in their way.

What needs to be done? The answers to this are an infinitely long list, and as such will be taken by some incompetent leaderships as a justification for doing nothing, starting a lengthy study, or urgently squandering millions on just one hot topic. In fact what is needed is simple, but not easy for the prevailing mind sets.

  • They need to Decide To Act knowing few, if any, answers.
  • They need to lead all their people at every level throughout their vast and cumbersome organisations to Decide To Act. Many of the people they employ will know what needs to be done, and how to do it. There are proven processes that can enable them to want to do it. They need to be set free from the stifling stranglehold of bureaucratic micro-management and to be trusted and supported in making their ideas happen.
  • Change will need to be led from the top, driven from the bottom and made possible by the middle. Anything must be possible, everything opened for change, no vetoes or taboos.
  • To the Public Sector leadership, this may sound profoundly radical – but given the extreme urgency of the nation’s situation, there are few alternatives.
  • For the Political leadership, this will require courage and vision, clarity of purpose and enormous self discipline. Now there is a question.
Can it be done? The Competitive Strength Report has been proven to assist the leadership and the management of commercial organisations to Decide to Act to transform their profitability. Its alter ego, the Service Excellence Report, has been developed to assist the leadership and management of public sector organisations to start to transform their performance. It is based on the same principles but focuses on effectiveness of service delivery instead of profitability. It helps the leadership and then every member of the organisation understand the implications of Constrained, to fear the threat of The Abyss and to get a glimpse of the possible personal transformation of their own working life if their organisation can get to Excellent or Free.
It can deliver the Decision To Act in less than 2 working days of effort within a 3 week timescale, and have significant impact on its participants. It is precisely this “lightness of demand” combined with “weight of impact” and speed that makes it an ideal tool to initiate the transformation of massive organisations.

And, last but not least, the Service Excellence Report process is underwritten by a genuinely logical approach, one which Dodgson the logician would approve, with simple personal insights into peoples’ behaviours and thinking that even Alice, the innocent, could recognise and apply. This way everybody can get to see everything the way that Alice can see it – simple, logical and possible.

Find out more about the Service Excellence Report, and the Comparative Competitive Strength point of view at our ChangeWORLD site and at our Competitive Strength Report site. Why not talk to us about these ideas, you may see ways forward you have never seen before.

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