Like many people, I have been really impressed by the Meaning Conference that Will McInnes and his colleagues at NixonMcInnes recently organised. I followed on Twitter. If I was sensing such positive energy from afar, imagine what the atmosphere must have been like to be there.
Just do it
Contributions to the #meaningconf hashtag show that people have really picked up on several key messages, two of which are “don’t ask for permission, just do it”” and “believe in the power of small actions".
Rachel Happe wrote a great post, reflecting on how anxiety about facing complex issues makes it difficult for people and organisations to act and adapt. As she says:
Many people and organizations react by retrenching and becoming even more rigid about what they know and how they operate.
She also asks:
How do we as one person begin?
A tale of two leaders
There is an item on the BBC news this morning of how patients are suffering because of lack of routine care and calling for a change of culture. As one of the examples here shows, it could be possible for transformational change to happen in the NHS from the ground up, ward by ward.
‘Do better or do differently’ is the title of one of the chapters in the book I have currently in publication. The chapter describes what two people did to change the performance cultures in parts of the organisations for which they are responsible.
Both people work in the public sector but that is where the similarities between their contexts end. He is deputy leader of a municipality in Russia. She is a senior nurse in a UK hospital. While they both wanted to introduce or improve customer-focused service delivery, the scope of what they wanted to influence was very different.
He was initiating change as part of a top-down, strategic initiative involving multiple stakeholder organisations, including municipal and federal government agencies. This was a complex undertaking. The scope of what she wanted to do was operational and restricted to the hospital ward for which she was responsible.
So what did they have in common? How did they begin?
They both had vision, determination and energy. Both people were dissatisfied with the existing performance cultures in their workplaces.
An initial driver for the nurse was self-preservation because the disorganisation and lack of systems she inherited was stressful to her. Beyond that initial personal need, she has a deeply-held commitment to patient care and a desire to embed her work ethos into the culture of the ward.
Clarity of purpose
Although they both had no idea how things were going to turn out, they had clear ideas what they wanted to achieve. For him, it was implementing a new IT system but he knew that to do that he would have to deal with fundamental business processes and long-entrenched attitudes.
For her, tackling a long-standing problem with absenteeism was her initial goal, which signalled a no-nonsense intention to everyone. One she had everyone’s attention, sorting out absenteeism laid the ground for a series of smaller objectives, like reinforcing hand washing and applying hand gel as habit.
All of these small changes added up to a change in culture. The ward consistently had the lowest infection rate in the hospital, the lowest rates of absenteeism, a reputation for being the most collaborative in the hospital, and nurses clamouring to come and work on the ward.
Support from allies
Both leaders said how important it was to have the support of people to whom they reported directly.
The nurse was explicit in saying that making an ally of her manager was only one element of building a network of support. She deliberately put a lot of effort into creating a team of highly-supportive colleagues who shared her values and work ethos, and who themselves then modelled leadership behaviours to others.
The executive also talked about seeking out and influencing leaders distributed across the different municipal departments. It was also similarly crucial for him to secure the support of the head of the municipality, whose commitment increased through being involved in how decisions were made, particularly in difficult situations.
Both leaders said they acted from intuition. The senior nurse has had no formal management education, which she said she would have valued. She would have been able to compare her intuitive responses and experiences with others, would have understood why things she was doing were effective or not, and it would have given her options for alternative ways of doing what she did.
What the executive was doing was part of a formal learning programme. He said that learning to think systematically and making use of models, frameworks and theoretical perspectives helped him to reflect on why things happened or did not happen.
What both were trying to achieve was challenging. As well as having personal qualities of determination and courage, support from their allies encouraged their resilience. Remaining resolved in the knowledge that people were unhappy about changes was difficult for all concerned.
Setting performance expectations
Both clearly articulated and communicated performance expectations. The nurse in particular deliberately modelled expected behaviours and standards, influencing behaviours in others. She was able to set the performance environment in a limited way, for example in declaring a new approach to absence management.
He was insightful in saying that the ‘hardware’ of IT and information systems could only function effectively through the ‘software’ of “leadership, team working, communication systems and a continuous improvement culture”.
No more heroes
Certainly both people were pivotal in catalysing and influencing transformation processes but it is unlikely that either would have succeeded without influencing and persuading others to support them.
It has never been more possible for people to change how things are done. Doing better or doing differently can be kick-started from any point within an organisation. And if #meaningconf is anything to go by, then the good news is that people are ready to be challenged to ‘just do it’
This gives me another chance to quote Neil Usher (@workessence), who cleverly combined quotes from Ghandi and Shakespeare to say:
Be the change that you seek’ in kicking over barriers and if we do not then, ‘The fault, dear Brutus, lies not in the stars, but in ourselves ’