Memo to ‘Top Management’ – Subject: Engine Technology

I’ve just been searching for a post that is hugely relevant to a recent conversation, and have found that it was an old piece that didn’t get published onto this blog…so here it is:

Jet engine“Management thinking affects business performance just as an engine affects the performance of an aircraft. Internal combustion and jet propulsion are two technologies for converting fuel into power to drive an aircraft.

New recipes for internal combustion can improve the performance of a propeller-driven airplane, but jet propulsion technology raises total performance to levels that internal combustion cannot achieve. So it is with management thinking.

Competitive businesses require jet (even rocket!) management principles. Unfortunately, internal combustion principles still power almost all management thinking.” (H. Thomas Johnson)

And so Johnson nicely compares and contrasts the decades old ‘command and control’ management system with a new ‘systems thinking’ way.

Let’s take incentives as an important example:

You report to a manager, who reports to a manager, who…etc. You have ‘negotiated’ some cascaded objectives and you will be rated and then rewarded on your ‘performance’ in meeting them. Sound familiar?

Here are the fundamental problems with this arrangement:

  • Obey and justifyYou will tell your manager what you think he/she wants to hear, and provide tailored evidence that supports this, whilst suppressing that which does not;

  • If you are ‘brave’ and tell your manager something that they might not like, you will do so very very carefully, like ‘walking on eggshells’…and, in so doing, likely de-power (i.e. remove the necessary clout from) the message;

  • You realise that it’s virtually suicidal to ‘go above them’ and tell your manager’s manager the ‘brave’ thing that they should hear…because you fear (with good reason) that this will most likely ‘come back to bite you’ at your judgement time (when the carrots are being handed out);

  • You are locked into a hierarchy that is reliant on a game of ‘Chinese whispers’ up the chain of command, with each whisperer finessing (or blocking) the message to assist in the rating of their own individual performance;

  • Each layer of management is shielded (by their own mechanism) from hearing the raw truth and, as such, they engineer that they ‘hear what they like, and like what they hear’.

…and therefore this system, whilst fully functioning, is perpetually impotent! It has disabled itself from finding out what it really needs to know.

“Hierarchies don’t like bad news…. bad news does not travel easily up organisations” (John Seddon)

If you’ve been in such a system and HAVE broken one of the rules above through your passion to make a real difference for the good of the organisation you work for (or perhaps worked!), then you’ve probably got some scars to show for it.

If you’ve always played it safe, then this is probably because you’ve seen what happens to the others!

The ‘Bottom line’ for ‘Top Management’:

If you want to transform your organisation, change ‘engine technology’! Tinkering with your existing one is simply not going to work.

  • Managers should not be rating the performance of individuals. Rather, they should understand what the system is preventing the individual from achieving…and then work with them to change that system to release their untapped potential;

  • Managers should not be incentivising individuals to comply. Rather, they should be sharing the success of the organisation with them. (These are very different things!)

Neither of these fundamental changes is in the gift of ‘middle management’ – they belong to those that determine the management system.

… and so, if (and this is a big ‘if’) ‘top management’ want to know the raw truth (‘warts and all’) they must constantly remove, and guard against, system conditions (e.g. incentives, performance ratings) that would prevent the truth from easily and quickly becoming lucid and transparent.

Afterthought, to counter a likely retort from ‘Top management’:

I have often (professionally) provided well intended feedback to ‘management’ as to what’s actually ‘happening out there’, particularly when I believe that they may not be aware of this. Many an Executive has derived great worth from this feedback (and thanked me accordingly).

This isn’t saying that I’m always right, or that I know everything. Obviously I’m not, and I don’t. But I do know what I see and hear.

However, there has been a subset of deeply command-and-control executives that confidently respond with “no Steve, you are wrong – that’s not the case at all. My people tell me exactly what’s happening…and there’s no problem here”.

I find this interesting (sometimes amusing, but mostly disappointing).

A manager can never be sure that people are being totally open and honest with them…but they can constantly look for, and understand, what mechanisms and practices would put this desired feedback in doubt or at risk….and then tirelessly work to remove these system conditions, for the good of all.

Footnote: I wrote this post before I wrote ‘Your Money or your Life!’…which considers the question as to whether ‘Top management’ in large corporates CAN change.


“Citizens face many front doors…”

Doors-Doors-DoorsGovernments all over the world want to get the most out of the money they spend on public services – for the benefit of the citizens requiring the services, and the taxpayers footing the bill.

Government officials regularly devise initiatives, and even new departments, aimed at getting their myriad of agencies to work better together.

However, looking at this from the outside, the media regularly uncover seemingly daft (and sometimes tragic) instances where government agencies have failed to effectively act, connect and co-operate with each other. In such instances, each agency appears to ‘the person on the street’ to have been wearing blinkers with their ‘common sense’ radars turned to ‘exceedingly low’.

But is it right to lay blame on the agencies or, worse, the people acting within them? In the majority of cases, I’d suggest that the answer would clearly be ‘no’. We should be looking at the bigger ‘whole of public service’ system that they are designed to operate within.

A new phrase was termed some years back called ‘Joined up government’. The Oxford dictionary defines it as:

“A method of government characterized by effective communication between different departments and co-ordination of policies.”

When a dictionary defines a word, it usually provides the reader with an example sentence showing its proper usage. In this instance, the first example sentence given is a negative one, as in:

“There is an obvious lack of joined-up government here” (Oxford Dictionary)

i.e. Governments openly recognise that there is a big problem (a lack of togetherness)…and that they would love to ‘solve’ it…but it’s regularly in the ‘too hard basket’!

The purpose of this post is to share (what is to me) an important (and very well presented) 30 min. video by Jeremy Cox1: Budget Management and People Centred Services that nicely explains, by way of reference to a real case study, the ‘multi agency’ problem and how to go about changing it.

If you are interested (particularly if you work within the public sector) then I’d expect that watching it should be a worthwhile (and thought provoking) use of your time.

Right…if you’ve got to here then I’ll assume that you’ve watched the video…the rest of this post pulls out (what I believe to be) key things said by Jeremy Cox in his presentation (blue italics below) and my ‘wrap-around’ narrative.

Note: What follows is incomplete and not a substitute for watching the video. It’s just an aide-memoire so that I (and you) don’t have to watch the video every time to pull out the key points or discuss it with our colleagues.

Jeremy Cox starts at a summary level by walking us through “four critical steps”:

1. The first thing to do is to study your system…and, just to be crystal clear, YOU (those responsible for the system) have to study it, and do so WITH those who operate it. A consultant cannot do this for (i.e. to) you2.

“You have to go and study because if you see it with your own eyes, you can’t deny it. If someone ‘tells you’, then you can ‘rationalise’ it away quite easily.”

2. From studying your system, you can then see and understand the effects of (supposed) ‘controls’ on its performance.

3. Only when we understand (at a root cause) WHY the system operates as it does, should we redesign…because then, and only then, is such a redesign based on meaningful evidence…as opposed to the usual ‘conventional wisdom’ or ‘current in-vogue ideology’;

and finally:

4. Devise new measures, and move to a new model of leadership.

Cox then goes into each step in some detail.

Going back to Step 1: Cox talks about studying demand.

HelpHe takes us through a case study of a real person in need, and their interactions with multiple organisations (many ‘front doors’) and how the traditional way of thinking seriously fails them and, as an aside, costs the full system a fortune.

Understand demand in context….don’t understand people from the point of view of your organisation, understand the person and what matters to them about living a better life.”

The case study is sad…and yet not really a surprise – we all kind of know that it’s true. It shows the huge power of following some cases around the full system.

In explaining Step 2, Cox opens up the madness within silo’d (i.e. single department) thinking, which is driven by their ‘budgetary controls’.

Rules of playHe identifies three survival principles in play, and the resulting anti-systemic controls that result:

a) “We must prioritise [our] services for the most in need” which leads to attempts to stop entry into the service, and then the requirement to break through escalating thresholds of eligibility.

Such ‘screening out’ logic creates the following madness: “Your case isn’t serious enough yet…go away until things get worse!”

b) “We must stick to what we do” which leads to “I can see that you need A and B for you to get better…but, here, we only do A.”

Cox gives a real example of an alcoholic with depression being turned away by mental health practitioners because “we don’t work on alcoholism – you need to solve that first and then come back with your depression”. We can predict that such unhelpfulness will lead the needy citizen towards a rather large drink!

c) “We must limit service delivery” which leads to attempts at closing cases, doing things on the cheap, and setting time limits…all of which are about pushing things through at the expense of the needy citizen…which will lead to failure demand (probably popping up unexpectedly in another department…and therefore not seen as linked).

The redesign at Step 3 requires different principles.

IntegratedCox makes the obvious point that the actual redesign can’t be explained up-front because, well…how can it be -you haven’t studied your system yet!

…but, generally, it is likely that “genuinely integrated, local-by-default problem solving teams will emerge from [following the steps]”.

A clarification: ‘Genuinely integrated’ doesn’t mean a multi-disciplined shared building where people regularly come together for, say, case review meetings…and then go back to their ‘corners’ and work to their existing (i.e. competing) policies and procedures.

A nice test from Cox:

“How do you know a team is genuinely integrated rather than co-located?…All you have to do is look in the fridge – nobody’s written their department’s name on the milk!”

And so to Step 4: New measures and new leadership

shovelling sand with a pitchfork[Once you’ve successfully redesigned the system] “The primary focus is on having really good citizen-focused measure: ’are you improving’, ‘are you getting better’, ‘is the demand that you’re placing reducing over time’.”

Notice that these measures are about the purpose of the system (i.e. for the citizen), and NOT about the activities performed within the system. It’s not about the volumes of calls taken or visits performed or payments made or cases closed or…[carry on naming activities].

“You have to shift leaders from managing the budget top-down to adding value to the process of studying, and improving outcomes for individuals.”

The point here is that you are never done. The outcomes from a redesign can radically shift performance, but you’ll quickly be ‘back at square one’ if you haven’t grasped the WHY and don’t ‘kick on’ to yet more learning, and yet more improvement – becoming better every day – for the good of citizens, and (importantly) for the pride of your employees.

To close

What’s most interesting to me from the video is the graphic explanation of one unit of demand, a needy citizen in a really shitty situation, being bounced around – presenting at public service ‘front doors’ in multiple and seemingly unrelated ‘cases’, with each agency doing what they can but not what is required….and the needy slip ever further into their personal quagmire.

“We limit what we do to ‘what we do’, not to what the person needs.”

Cox makes the hugely important point that, once you open your mind, then the study and redesign of the work is relatively easy. The hard bit is re-conceiving the ‘system of management’. This takes real leadership and (perhaps most importantly) self-development.

Cox closes with the following comment:

“Some of the most rewarding work that I have ever done is just working with these integrated teams who are out…on the ground, with good leadership, learning how to solve problems for citizens. You actually see people’s lives turned around and people who otherwise would have been dead who are now still alive.”

This is powerful stuff! There can’t be much more meaning to anyone’s working life than that.


1. The video covers one session within a ‘Beyond Budgeting’ event run by Vanguard Consulting over in the UK. The first 3 mins. is an introduction from John Seddon, and then Jeremy Cox (a Vanguard consultant) presents the rest.

Note: Cox refers to names of UK government departments (e.g. The DWP). If you live elsewhere in the world then you are likely to have similar agencies, just with different names.

2. A consultant cannot do it for you: I should clarify that an experienced ‘systems thinking’ coach CAN facilitate you through studying your system and its redesign….BUT they aren’t ‘doing it’ – you are!

I have a post with the ink half dry that explains and expands this point called ‘Smoke and Mirrors’. I guess I should get on and finish it now.

3. The NZ government is setting up a Social Investment Agency. Its focus is fundamentally about changing the lives of the most vulnerable New Zealanders by focusing on individuals and families, understanding their needs better, and doing more of what is most likely to give the best results”. I like the intent.  I hope that those involved watch (or have already watched) the Jeremy Cox video, and consider the messages within.