Moving from the sprint to the heptathlon

By Jon Ainger | 20 August 2020

I am a fan of athletics of all types, but I have particular reverence for multi-eventers: decathletes and heptathletes. Watching old clips of Daley Thompson still makes me proud, and more recently we’ve had an amazing run of top class heptathletes like Denise Lewis, Jessica Ennis, and Katerina Johnson-Thompson.

Multi-eventers rarely start out with a goal to be a multi eventer. At some point, they decide to convert from a single specialism, like sprinting, and try to become world class in a whole bunch of other disciplines. Going from mastering one discipline to mastering several takes years.

That shift feels a lot like the challenge that chief executives and their senior teams are facing right now, only it needs to happen over a few weeks. Managing the recovery will be much more complex than managing the crisis, and some of the disciplines are new.

In March in the MJ, I wrote ‘5 recommendations for managing a different type of crisis’ focusing on getting an early start on thinking beyond the initial pandemic response. I pessimistically suggested the crisis might last six months. The tail is proving longer than that. Recovery work is now happening in parallel with ongoing management of the pandemic.

In May, I wrote a follow up article, ‘Why future system resilience must be built into recovery plans’.  The core message of that piece still feels right; the true test of a council’s resilience isn’t its ability to have a good crisis, but about its ability to have a good recovery.

It might be two years before we know which local authority areas have recovered best, as we need to wait until the full effects of choices made today work their way through the system and into the data. Those that succeed will be the ones which accurately identify the new disciplines and then deliberately create the capacity to become expert at them.

The biggest barrier to success isn’t the absence of money. It is something that is even more scarce – strategic, tactical and operational management capacity. This capacity has already been reduced through austerity. It will now be tired, with depleted emotional and physical resources, and in need of a good holiday. The problem is that having mastered the single event, the seven-event heptathlon is next:

  1. The ongoing potential risk of a second wave and local lockdowns (requiring allocation of management resources on a semi-permanent basis), and development of new local track and trace functions.
  2. Complex operational decisions (for example the need to restart services, drive up lost income, protect the physical and mental health of staff, and serve the public) require detailed grip at senior level, often in areas (such as schools and businesses) where there is little direct control.
  3. Business planning and budget setting processes are behind plan. Data is inconsistent, forecasts unreliable, and levels of uncertainty much higher.
  4. An unknown quantity of pent-up demand has built up in the community, which may explode as lockdown is easing.
  5. In-year delivery of transformation and savings has been paused or knocked completely off course, and needs reframing and restarting.
  6. Central government will bring further disruption through devolution, likely changes to adult social care, and potentially other developments; and the risk of a hard Brexit is looming again.
  7. Local partners such as health still suffer from tunnel vision and are unable to look beyond a pending winter crisis, and may not be much help at a system level over the coming months.

My view is that between now and Christmas each local area will be making a series of critical decisions which will have significant consequences down the track.

In the short term, I have five recommendations for depleted management teams looking to make better recovery decisions:

  1. Agree on your ambitions. Do you want to do more than just restart services and deliver a balanced budget? Do you also want to help close the additional economic and social gaps the pandemic has created in the community?
  2. Crash separate processes together, with a single plan. Have one process for recovery, business planning, and Medium Term Financial Strategy (MTFS). This will help overstretched departments cope.
  3. Use the opportunity to challenge traditional assumptions which may be reasserting themselves:
    1. Managing demand – are your services really taking advantage of the opportunities that lockdown created, or are they reverting back to old habits?
    2. Working patterns – do you really want all staff to return to the 9-5 office-based routine? Do they want this?
    3. Trust in workforce – which managers have shown they can be trusted to manage teams, increase productivity and improve communications? Can you give them more responsibility, and use their example to set the bar for performance for the rest?
    4. Ambition beyond boundaries – which partners have you forged better relationships with, and can you use these to further the cause of local recovery? What investment of time and effort will this require?
  4. Make ‘asking for help’ a default requirement for your direct reports. If they aren’t asking for help, something is wrong – either they are afraid to admit they don’t know how, or they don’t comprehend the nature of the challenge, or they don’t think help will be forthcoming even if they do ask. Or, you aren’t stretching them enough!
  5. Direct more resource and effort at capturing live data and intelligence, with rapid turnaround and iteration. Reducing uncertainty reduces stress and enables better decisions.

For an important clue about where your recovery is starting from, we have just refreshed the IMPOWER Index with the latest available data – and despite the usual reporting lags, directors of resources and chief executives are still finding it a useful starting point for the business planning, budget setting and MTFS process. You know where to find us if you want a download of your council’s performance, framed around our belief that ‘better outcomes should cost less’.

Jon Ainger is director of IMPOWER

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