I have seen a number of ‘open letters’ and advice to the new SoS and it lead me to thinking – what would my approach be?
1. Take the heat out of it
There is an enormous amount of ‘heat’ in the world of education currently. We have gone through a period of major structural change and turmoil. This has been exacerbated by austerity. Headteachers report it is like a pressure cooker at the moment and I am sure it must be similar for the civil servants. This isn’t helpful. When things get so ‘hot’ people begin to take fixed positions, stop listening and daft practices emerge. When people call for periods of calm and stability we can’t deliver because standing still isn’t an option, but what the call is really about is changing the culture around the pace and implementation of change. Genuine lasting improvements will require a slow release of the current levels of heat: calm it down, work at a fast pace in your own head while projecting a gentle calmness, and listen.
2. Dysfunctional organisations require asking a fundamental question: is it the relationships that are screwing up processes, or is it that the processes are preventing effective relationships? It is likely to be both with a ‘chicken and egg’ situation embedded. Answer the question with a highly simplified diagram of how the key factors interplay and pick one or two of these key factors to change. If we target the right areas it is amazing how much cultural change we can affect. My guess would be that promising and doing less but insisting on sticking to set timescales which make sense to education leaders, would see enormous improvement in both perception and performance of the department.
3. Organisations and people don’t like change. This means being very clear on what key outcomes you want to get from any restructure. You can’t do everything and you certainly can’t do everything quickly; but there are always some ‘quick wins’ to be had while keeping it very simple about the bottom line of exactly what you want to achieve. Don’t do detail because others do it better and it is what they get paid for, but ask them the ‘dumb questions’. I always find the “why do we do this this way?” question leads to a lot of other simple questions which ultimately uncovers something which can be changed easily. (A simple aside – I once radically improved behaviour, teaching and learning, the quality of food and saved around £50k from a school’s budget by asking a simple question about why lunch was at a certain time.) Things don’t have to be done in the same way they always have been, but they certainly will be if we don’t ask the simple questions.
There is another way of getting change of course – one that was adopted by a recent notable predecessor: that is having the answers yourself without taking others on the journey and forcing your changes. Sometimes that has to be done, but more often than not it turns up the heat, causes major dysfunctionality and the ‘pressure cooker’. It also presupposes we have the answers before asking the right questions (and we rarely do).
4. Be seen to assume that everyone wants to do their very best to make things better. Now of course we know that some people have a raison d’etre of opposing everything: the ‘bloody minded’ exist, but I have never found it helpful in being seen to assume people are like this. Instead be clear on your outcomes that are your key priorities and ask the stakeholders how they would recommend you achieve them. This is a great way of ‘selling’ your outcomes to stakeholders, and importantly the information you receive enables the development of strategy which addresses the issues of the cultural change required. Oh, and don’t do this in ‘meetings’: everyone knows that when they are invited to sit around a table in a meeting with lots of stakeholders it is usually a façade of consultation designed to flatter and ignore. Have ‘coffees’ and ‘lunches’ and phone calls with individuals and small groups, remembering that the most influential are not always (in fact rarely) those who shout the loudest or have the key positions.
5. It is hard not to be motivated by wanting to be seen to be a success and advance your own career, but when doing a really important job short-termism in this regard is nearly always fatal. History makes different judgement to the present, particularly in public service leadership. Doing some things very well indeed is much better doing than lots and lots of things which in the longer term are seen to have caused upheaval and turmoil but no system change.
Above all remember that the key word in ‘Public Service Leadership’ is SERVICE.