Wednesday 19 October 2011

Actually, we know why things work or not

Chester Conklin, Charles Chaplin in Modern Times

Why don’t organisations and systems work? Well, they do, of course – and our own experience confirms why they work and why they don’t.

We know perfectly well that any human systems that work have as my friend Pat Brown put it, “a personality behind them”. We have seen the efforts of individuals in schools and hospitals transforming the lives of those around them.

We know from our personal experience that if you employ imaginative and effective people, especially on the frontline, and give them the freedom to innovate, they will succeed. If you don’t, they will fail.

We know that, but for some reason when we rise up in the policy world something happens – maybe the cacophony of IT consultancies at our door – and we forget it. As a result, for the past generation, we have been engaged in a process that removes the human element from our public services.

Of course human beings are fallible. But they are also the only real source of success and the only source of genuine change. Removing them is increasingly expensive and wasteful, because our institutions are that much less effective.

That is the idea behind my new book The Human Element: Ten New Rules to kickstart our failing organisations.

It suggests that services and organisations are failing because conventional ‘efficiency’ destroys that human contact and human relationships that make things work. It suggests it is one reason why – far from slaying Beveridge’s Five Giants – they come back to life again every generation and have to be slain all over again.

I first realised this years ago at a conference on extended schools. The first speaker was an amazing headteacher, Debbie Morrison, then the head of Mitchell High School in Stoke on Trent, who is the first story in the book.

She told the dramatic story about how the school had been turned around, and also her first day in post.

There had been a commotion outside her office and her secretary warned her not to go outside. One angry parent had recently hit another member of staff around the head with a pair of muddy shorts.

Three years on, another angry parent was head of their anti-social behaviour unit. Her friends had also taken responsible roles around the school.

Debbie Morrison is one of those people who has a genius at making relationships with people and making things happen.

After she sat down, the next speaker at the conference was the civil servant charged with rolling out extended schools across one of the regions.

It was clear within a minute or so that he would fail – and for precisely the same reason that Debbie Morrison succeeded.  He thought in terms of systems, KPIs, targets and guidelines. But he missed the one crucial ingredient that made the difference between success and failure. The human element, in other words.

The Human Element is the result. I think it’s the most important book I’ve written, and covers everything I’ve been thinking since Authenticity was published in 2003, and draws some conclusions about what that means for the kind of organisations we need to run our lives.

"David Boyle is a modern sage and this book is a business and organisation classic setting out the core of his insight and wisdom. You will feel better just reading it. You will do better by acting on it."
Ed Mayo, Secretary General, Co-operatives UK

Find out more    Buy the book

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