What’s irritated me about the whole direction of politics in the last 30 years is that it’s always been towards the collectivist society. People have forgotten about the personal society. And they say: do I count, do I matter? To which the short answer is, yes. And therefore, it isn’t that I set out on economic policies; it’s that I set out really to change the approach, and changing the economics is the means of changing that approach. If you change the approach you really are after the heart and soul of the nation. Economics are the method; the object is to change the heart and soul.
Margaret Thatcher Sunday Times, 3 May 1981
I worked with a group of senior managers in a higher education establishment to help them think about their ways of working while they discussed strategy. A pattern emerged in discussion about current difficulties and in anticipation of future changes that drew on ideas of an education marketplace, and which drew forth economic language. Managers were concerned about ‘buy in’ to plans and strategies, they worried about brand, they were anxious about their students’ customer experience, they wondered how they would act if their institution were a supermarket, a supermarket like John Lewis for example. They were anxious about competitive threats from the Chinese, they wanted to make business cases for change, they were concerned about their products. Education needed to be as flexible as possible so that students could consume whatever, whenever they wanted. They were worried about student satisfaction. These notes of market vocabulary were the clearest melody, although there were also contrapuntal themes opposing them – some argued that being business-like isn’t the same as being a business. Continue reading →
For those readers not from the UK, the story about the collapse of the not-for-profit Kids Company, an organisation set up to work with children and young people with complex needs in inner cities, may have passed them by. The organisation was founded by a very charismatic and telegenic psychotherapist 20 years ago who continued to be the organisation’s director. She became the darling of governments of all persuasions and seems to have been very successful at direct lobbying of senior ministers, and even the Prime Minister, for money and attention.
The organisation collapsed very dramatically and very suddenly despite the current government donating a £3 million grant, and on a weekly basis the newspapers carry stories of claim and counter-claim and mutual recrimination. These back and forth arguments resolve around the extent to which the organisation was or wasn’t well managed, did or didn’t produce good outcomes for children, had or hadn’t been audited properly, did or didn’t have an effective governing body. This post will focus on the struggle over the definition of what it means to be well managed, particularly with regard to strategy. Continue reading →
Having written about the experience of attending a hollow strategy event in the last post, I was interested hear criticism levelled at Microsoft’s CEO Satya Nadella for the address on strategy he gave staff recently. It is entitled ‘Bold ambition and our core’ and seems to be a terrific example of managerialist thinking (or perhaps lack of thinking).
After setting out an understanding of what the core of the company is, which seems to revolve around technology and the ‘customer experience’ Nadella then continues in the following way about the company culture:
Our ambitions are bold and so must be our desire to change and evolve our culture.
I truly believe that we spend far too much time at work for it not to drive personal meaning and satisfaction. Together we have the opportunity to create technology that impacts the planet.
Nothing is off the table in how we think about shifting our culture to deliver on this core strategy. Organizations will change. Mergers and acquisitions will occur. Job responsibilities will evolve. New partnerships will be formed. Tired traditions will be questioned. Our priorities will be adjusted. New skills will be built. New ideas will be heard. New hires will be made. Processes will be simplified. And if you want to thrive at Microsoft and make a world impact, you and your team must add numerous more changes to this list that you will be enthusiastic about driving.Continue reading →
The pragmatic philosopher Richard Rorty, who died last year of pancreatic cancer, took a critical view of scientific knowledge, particularly as it is used in relation to social interaction and ethics. For him, human relationships and their ethical implications were always emerging, never fixed. Taking the traditional pragmatic interest in language as the basis for the emergence of self and society, and at the risk of being dualistic he compared how it is used from the standpoint of those with a desire for objectivity and those with a desire for solidarity. Those who adopt the former position are ‘objectivists’, metaphysicians, who try to describe themselves in relation to a non-human reality, meanwhile the latter, committed to solidarity, like to tell their story of a contribution to a community. In the late 20th and early 21st century, Rorty argues:
We are the heirs to this objectivist tradition, which centres around the assumption that we must step outside our community long enough to examine it in the light of something which transcends it, namely, that which it has in common with every other actual and possible human community (Objectivity, Relativism and Truth, 1991: 22) Continue reading →
I recently served on an interview panel for a senior management post for a small not for profit. It was an interesting experience for encountering in condensed form how a sample of candidates, all with pretty good experience and qualifications for the job, understand the practice of management.
The first thing three of the five candidates picked up on is the fact that the organisation’s strategy document is not written conventionally. It does not have a vision, mission and values statement from which all work is understood to flow. Instead it sets out an overview of the work currently undertaken, has an assessment of some of the difficulties the staff have encountered in carrying out the work and goes on to set out some areas of future work, grouped under themes, which staff would like to find out more about over the next year. There are areas for concern, exploration and research, but no targets, no KPIs, and no performance indicators. The candidates were asked to review the strategy critically, and for three of them the strategy was inadequate if there was no vision, mission and values. How could you know where you were going if you didn’t set a direction? What was interesting about this for me was not so much their orthodox understanding of what a strategy should be, but their lack of curiosity. So one of the things they might be telling the interview panel is that if the organisation wants to be recognised in the community of other organisations also producing strategies, then it would need to produce a document that looked similar to everyone else’s. And it might be good advice. Continue reading →
I was struck in some work I am involved in at the moment how the phrase ‘being strategic’ is just as difficult a concept to unpick as is ‘living our values’ or ‘fulfilling our vision’. All these phrases appeal to universalities partly as justification for action but partly as a way of overriding dissent. So the idea of being strategic is the claim by managers that they have, as Norbert Elias put it, made a detour via detachment. They have tried to stand back from the day to day hurly-burly, and drawing on hindsight and foresight, have tried to develop a more reality-congruent way of working.
So in my current work, senior managers made a set of decisions that they then claimed were strategic. However, the decisions that they made were contested by different groups within the organisation who came up with different interpretations of what it might mean to be strategic. The dispute over what we mean when we say that something is strategic also involved the appeal to values. Senior managers claimed that their set of decisions would better suit the constituency the organisation was set up to serve: it made staff more accountable to this group of beneficiaries. Opponents of the decision argued that, to the contrary, if the senior managers had any understanding of what the organisation was set up to achieve, they would have made an entirely different set of decisions. Both groups appealed to the organisation’s values and mission in support of what they were arguing. The ensuing dispute became so heated that senior managers felt they needed a consultant to advise them on how to go forward. Continue reading →