Increased competition, endless tendering for contracts, cuts to service, downsizing, paying people less: these are the things that a group of directors from a not-for-profit organisation supporting vulnerable people in the community tell me they have endured during the last three or four years. Although contractors, usually local authorities or public health bodies, want greater and greater quality, they pay less and less money for it. This is what ‘efficiency’ in the provision of community-based services has come to mean. An experienced worker supporting many vulnerable people in the community with complex needs might take home £17k a year, and then might need a second job in order to earn enough money to support themselves.
So how had the directors of this particular organisation kept themselves going during the period? What did they think about the way they had been working?
Firstly they said that they had paid attention to the way they were working themselves, including being open to, or even encouraging, differences of opinion. Rather than thinking that consensus and alignment were the most important thing to achieve, as some groups of directors might, they thought instead that it was the encouragement of difference that had kept them alive to other alternatives. This had not always been easy and they had lost some directors along the way, members of the board who were not prepared to contemplate some of the drastic action, cuts to wages, redundancies, which others thought had been necessary. So it had proved impossible to ‘align’ – they had lost some directors, without acrimony, and gained others as part of the process of renewal. In the end decisions need to be made and directors had to make up their minds to leave, to sit with their difference or to actively support what was being proposed. They told me they had never needed to go to a vote after a period of discussion since it became obvious what the group had decided.
The talked of the importance of ‘staying in the game’: what they meant by this was that they thought they had an ethical duty to stay discussing the issues with each other no matter how difficult, if the organisation was to continue. As long as they felt there was a point to the organisation continuing, and they were happy occasionally to ask themselves even this question about whether the game was worth the candle, then they had to try and keep in conversation, both with each other and with members of staff.
They had not just lost people from the board: during the restructuring process almost entire teams had left. This left the directors with the problem of how to bring new people into the organisation and get them up and working quickly. This was particularly difficult in some of the new work they had tendered for which involved their undertaking work alongside other, perhaps much bigger organisations in alliance. The work had been affected by power struggles within the team, and between the team and the other organisation. Again, it involved trying to keep the discussion going both in teams that were on the point of collapsing, and with staff from other organisations. This, they thought, showed that they had a strong organisational culture.
A discussion followed about what we might mean by ‘organisational culture’ and how we thought people participated in it, or became acculturated into this organisation’s way of doing things and seeing the world. One aspect of the ‘culture’ that we had already been exploring was the importance of discussion and trying to stay engaged with each other, no matter how difficult. There was no attempt to avoid painful issues, then, but to find ways of talking about them, which, of course, did not always end in success. Another strong thread of discussion in the organisation which the more able managers were able to perpetuate was an account of what made the work of this particular organisation different, and what were valued about ways of working. This arose from very close and detailed attention to the work with clients. Staff were encouraged to take their work with clients seriously, and in the detailed examination of what they were doing, strong managers and more experienced staff were able to go on defining and finding value in particular responses to particular situations. There was a strong discussion about what staff were doing, and what they thought about what they were doing, grounded in the specificities of particular interventions. Of course, policies, procedures and values statements helped, but these generalised organisational artefacts were particularised in groups and individually with staff who had different encounters every day with clients with highly individual needs. Nonetheless, it had taken up to two years for a team which had experienced crisis to be rebuilt.
One of the things which impressed me about this group was the way that they were able to be proud of their achievements at the same time as being aware of their deficiencies, the mistakes they had made along the way, and the pain that they had experienced. Their pride was robust yet contingent, their optimism real, but provisional. They were clear that some of their successes to date, i.e. the significant contracts they had won, some of the team turnarounds they had managed, did not necessarily guarantee them success in the future in a funding environment characterised still by huge flux. Sitting with them in the room I was conscious of the way in which I too was experiencing a sense of admiration for how they had been working in discussion with them. The discussion was convincing – I could recognise the complexity of what they were dealing with and recognised their skill at entertaining different possibilities. This, presumably is what many staff might also experience day to day in the organisation as they recognise themselves in the grounded and reflective discussions which are part and parcel of everyday practice. They were improvising together, developing their repertoire of responses to the fluctuating situation in which they participated.