Leadership and learning: more than just words

By Barry Quirk and Gavin Jones | 09 May 2018
  • Barry Quirk

Following his recent series of articles in The MJ, Gavin Jones took the opportunity to reach out to key figures in the sector to get their perspectives on ‘organisational learning’. Barry Quirk was first to pick up the baton.

Gavin Jones: Have you always thought that learning is a critical component of your leadership?

Barry Quirk: The essence of organisational learning involves trying to spread curiosity. You only learn if you are curious about why what you are doing as an organisation is not good enough. Why is it that other organisations seem to do some things better? Why is it your experience, in your private life – as a consumer or tourist or visitor – tells you something about a place that means: ‘Why don’t we do that in our place?’

If you can spread curiosity then you are part-way there. It is difficult to do this. I have used a number of organisational tricks, but most of them haven’t worked.

I recall that in Lewisham we tried to use a ‘be curious’ quote from Stephen Hawkins’ speech at the Paralympics in London 2012. The quote is inspiring, but words alone don’t work.

Those of us who have leadership roles in local government must start from a premise that localism is great, but parochialism is awful. To become a really good localist, you need to learn from what is happening elsewhere.

Learning organisations are the ones where the people in them are open to the future. It is one thing to have a clear vision about the direction for your place and your organisation, but you should not over-determine things in advance.

Gavin Jones: Don’t people want certainty sometimes?

Barry Quirk: They may want more certainty than they currently have, but our leadership role is to help people live and work productively in the context of uncertainty.

People need support as they are bound to fail to achieve fully their goals and objectives. The overwhelming majority of our efforts are sub-optimal when viewed in retrospect.

Of course, in many cases we are going to succeed in large part. But some of the things we try won’t work as we expect and some of the new policies that we will try won’t work as we planned. We just have to be more humble about that and try our best.

Gavin Jones: It sounds to me that there is something about fit within the organisation. I’ve worked in organisations where it has been fine to be humble and it has been welcomed. In other organisations, this has just been seen as a sign of weakness.

Barry Quirk: That is not my experience. It wasn’t an excess of humility that was the problem: it was in those organisations where people were too recklessly certain about what would work and what the future would look like.

You need ideas and ideals and you need discipline and rigour. You must have discipline to do what you want to do. But you have to be free to do something which hasn’t been done before.

If you are just going to do the same thing, in the same way all the time then that is not good enough, is it? I don’t think humility about the future is a stumbling block at all.

Gavin Jones: You’re talking about people being curious? In my organisation, do I want all 5,000 people being curious and going around questioning?

Barry Quirk: We don’t want some people to be more curious than others. We want everyone to bring their humanity to work – that means their creativity.

If they are sweeping the streets, we want them to work out how to improve things. It doesn’t matter if they are undertaking refuse collection or working in social care. We want people to think through ways of how they can improve the impact of what they are doing.

What we want from the people we employ is the maximum creativity we can get. This comes from their curiosity and their empathy for other people and also from their effective connection with others. We want this at every level of the organisation. It’s not that we want some clever people doing some thinking and commissioning tasks on the one hand and all the doers and functionaries just moving material around on the other. Our role involves maximising potential.

Gavin Jones: I am working to apply the learning concepts in my organisation so that it becomes real, not just rhetorical and not just me saying it.

One of the things I perceive holding my organisation back is a trauma we had many years ago which created a response in the organisation which made it suddenly become very risk-averse, controlling, and needing certainty all the time.

We are now trying to become more curious, more comfortable with taking some risks, but it feels like that experience can still hold us back. Is this anything you have ever experienced in your career?

Barry Quirk: This is something I’m trying to do at Kensington & Chelsea RLBC. All organisations tend to have self-regard. They focus on themselves and their internal dynamics. They look at what people think of them. Abraham Lincoln famously said: ‘Your character is the tree. Reputation is the shadow.’ It’s what other people think of you. As organisations, we tend to be anxious about our reputations. That reinforces a self-regarding perspective.

Let me give you another example: risk registers. Is there anything that says: ‘Risks to the public?’ Or is it actually about risks to yourself?

Most risk registers in local government and the wider public sector involve elaborate blame-avoidance strategies. When something happens to an organisation, it turns in on itself.

In local government our very purpose is to be other-regarding. That’s the point of public service. If you can focus your staff on the people and communities that they are serving and are employed to serve, you get away from an inherent institutional narrowness of perspective.

Gavin Jones: With the financial situation we are in, I can see a great temptation for us to be all about the organisation, about how we safeguard ourselves, rather than how we see the financial situation in terms of what it means to our communities and to our public.

Barry Quirk: That’s absolutely right. The term ‘institutional egoism’ captures the problem about when organisations’ think far too much about themselves.

Over 40 years ago, Peter Drucker – inventor of the concept known as management by objectives and self-control – said that when organisations had computers, what they would do is turn in on themselves because they would have more information about themselves and their activities and less about the world in which they were operating.

We have all this information about our activities and about minor changes in those activities. We have regulators that check the minor changes. We argue with them about these things, but we don’t really know enough about what is going on in the wider world.

The worst thing that has happened, say for example, in child safeguarding, are the dreadful issues in Rotherham and now in Telford. The failure to notice the problem was not because of failures in knowing about what is going on inside the organisation. It was failing to know what is happening on the street and in our communities.

Gavin Jones: One of the things we’ve been thinking about in Essex is whether we are genuinely committed to this learning organisation.

Is there something about the type of people we recruit? How we develop our workforce? Are some people naturally more likely to embrace the learning concepts as a part of how they work, whereas others may not?

Barry Quirk: I think the short answer is, ‘no’. That’s because it is not that there are people who are curious learners and the rest are dullards. It is because people have different learning styles and are curious in different ways.

Gavin Jones: Why is it wrong to get part of your recruitment to understand people’s learning styles?

Barry Quirk: You should, but that doesn’t mean you recruit the people on that process, you should understand this in order to help them improve.

We employ people to serve people. We largely employ people from the area in which the people are served. It is important that we are a good employer and we need to be very good at developing people.

Gavin Jones: I embrace that, but how do you institutionalise learning if people learn in such different ways?

Barry Quirk: A great deal of management development involves a form of placebo effect. What people are aware of is that you are concerned about their development and learning. This enables them to be more open to learning at work. I am more anxious that people know I am worried about their learning than I am about almost anything else.

Gavin Jones: Would you advocate more experimentation?

Barry Quirk: Absolutely.

Gavin Jones: Do we do it in our sector systematically?

Barry Quirk: Not at all. Organisations tend to prefer the comfortable routine and what they are used to doing. Local government tends to think if it wasn’t invented locally, it can’t work locally.

We need to learn from each other’s experiments and see if, with adaptation, they might work in our context.

Is it better to sweep the streets with a broom or on a Scarab machine? Or to hose the streets down as they do in Spain? Is it a case of the streets or the climate? Service experimentation should be everywhere. Where there has been experimentation on gritting, apparently cow urine is very good. Someone told me that it is better than salt.

Gavin Jones: We are a rural county.

Barry Quirk: So, perhaps, store your cow urine, but be careful about the ammonia.

Gavin Jones: Given the commitment to learning, should I be looking to reframe the performance management system to more strongly reflect a culture of experimentation and learning?

Barry Quirk: I would say no. I wouldn’t advise that you combine performance management with organisation-wide learning. Organisations need discipline and ideas.

Someone once said good organisations need to meld together the properties of a clock with those of a cloud. A clock has discipline, rigour and represents predictability; a cloud is formless and emergent and represents ideas and ideals. You need both. If you’re all clock, your organisation is oppressive to work in. If you’re all cloud, you’re going nowhere.

Performance management is about ensuring organisational discipline. The problem is that over time there has been an enormous amount of gaming in performance management.

To overcome this in performance management systems, all you need to do is change the system incrementally every few months. People will ask why. We need to change the culture to minimise gaming and continually ratchet up our organisational discipline and rigour.

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