Is the answer 42?

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As most people of a certain age know, the answer to the question ‘what is the meaning of life, the universe and everything?’ is of course, 42.  Having recently spent a day with my own and many other colleagues discussing what might be needed to ‘make a difference’ in supporting the development of ‘cross public sector leadership’, by the end of the session I found myself musing that the answer could be more complicated than the famous question posed to Douglas Adams ‘deep thought’ computer!

The complex and wide-ranging discussion was WME’s cross public-sector engagement event held in Birmingham earlier this month.  At the end of the day, those hardy and to be applauded souls who showed their commitment through to 4pm, participated in a real time on line ‘word cloud’ development as part of an immediate feedback session and the key (most repeated) word was ‘engaging’.  So, it was clearly an engaging, engagement event.

However, continuing the ‘hitchhiker’s guide to the galaxy theme, I also mused whether on the day all in the room may have benefited from a collection of Babel fish to help develop some common understanding and opinion around which we could corral.  For those too young to remember what a Babel fish does, the practical upshot is that if you stick one in your ear, you can instantly understand anything said to you in any form of language.

During the day, we were provided with a range of speaker inputs around approaches to developing leadership.  I have no issue with many of the contributions and perspective, which were grounded through the well thought out and evidenced research and practice we heard, but repeatedly found myself challenging the single organisation boundaries and context in which many elements were framed and trying to translate that in my head to the dynamics of a more integrated public sector and the communities it serves.  By way of example, the need to recognise the challenges of ‘leading’ in a complex multi partner and stakeholder environment?  Putting the importance of organisational ‘values’ to one side, how do we develop shared ‘place’ based values and enable both to co-exist?  It’s all fine and dandy talking about increasing productivity, but what does that mean in a systems leadership public sector context?

I know that I ‘banged on’ too much about the importance of ‘place’, but what we don’t need is another ‘development programme’ but rather something that releases, enables, supports those who are actually delivering services to communities to get better at doing it in a joined-up way which is citizen and outcome focused and frees them (at least a bit) from organisational constraints.

The Co-Lab approach described by Louise Teboul of Common Purpose very much ‘hit the mark’ for me, recognising the importance of “getting people out of their bubble” and building the confidence and capacity to lead beyond authority, reaching consensus (or constructive compromise) in the ‘outer circle’ of influence, whilst embracing and retaining the value of the diversity of thought and perspective.  The definition of a tangible and common goal which if successful would demonstrate the ability to make a difference, feels like an important pre-requisite and hence the importance of the place focus (in my view!).  This is about supporting and releasing the capacity of leaders (at every level) to work together to resolve real issues at whatever ‘local’ place is defined.

Catherine Mangan updated us on the work being undertaken to translate the 21st Century Public Servant research into practice, stressing the importance of recognising the changing citizen context and the importance of ‘human to human’ conversations, including the skills needed to relate to people and balance purpose and actions with at least a recognition of impact.  This is about ‘soft’ not ‘hard’ skills. The new 21st Century ‘playing cards’, containing points weighted roles and behaviours and provoking collective prioritisation clearly engaged those in the room and as one part of the ‘toolbox’ will no doubt add value in many settings, not least the co-lab type environment.

The contribution on resilience from Professor Derek Mowbray, shared his well-established research on workplace wellbeing. It was good stuff but (excuse the pun) possibly not set in the right place and I look forward to hearing more about how the BOLD and adaptive leadership traits can be reframed in the collaborative context and environment.

Whilst an advocate for the Trusted Executive Model, during the next presentation I found myself searching again for the ‘hook(s)’ to take it out of its natural single organisation context.  The importance of developing trust is of course a key component of working in partnership and ‘leading beyond authority’, and although ability and integrity are central to that, the ‘benevolence’ dimension may need some reframing to fit within the setting in which our thinking was positioned?  As well as the most entertaining video clip, Mac Farquhar’s session included the best quote of the day with the suggestion that leadership has seen “the outsourcing of humanity to the devil of efficiency”!

We also experienced a micro exposure to an example of the ‘collaboration canvas’ approach and this simple and practical tool for groups to define (desired) ‘result’ (current) ‘reality’ and (required) ‘response’.  Each table even attempted to use the approach to work out the key action(s) that were required over the next 90 days to take the development of our XPS leadership framework ambitions. Just to throw some more complexity into the mix, an ‘unscripted’ session led to an array of further perspectives being expressed and whilst I agree with Philip Lloyd Williams that we talk too much about ‘leadership’, I think he’s owed a right of reply to my response to his view that core management skills should be the priority.  Look out for the blog piece in due course!

So, where did all these inputs take us?  I’m happy to leave the first expression of that to Denise, my colleague who has been tasked to turn this initiative into delivery.   I took 5 key messages from the day. Firstly, we need to be clear what we are talking about when we use the word ‘leadership’ and that is something different to organisational leadership for sure.  Secondly, we must define and agree a common goal with enough stakeholders to start doing something.  Thirdly, the diversity of thought and opinion expressed during the day reflects the size of the challenge in trying to engage a wide group of public sector partners / decision makers in backing a collective effort.  Fourthly, getting enough of the right people ‘out of their bubble’ and prepared to consider approaches beyond that which are planted in our own minds, could be more of an issue in developing this ‘initiative’ than it is at the front line of service delivery.  Finally, the conversation must continue for a short while yet as an iterative dialogue develops in which the engaged (hopefully) remain engaged and the views of others are captured.  However, the collective ‘we’ will need to do something before we just run out of steam.

Returning to the Douglas Adams theme and my opening analogies, I don’t really think the challenge is as complex as the ‘42’ question and suspect that we may be looking for something that already exists and is already happening in different contexts (and places). What may be necessary is just pointing it out, not seeking to recreate any wheels, but working out how we can get the right people to support doing something, in the right place at the right level to do more of and get better at it?

What do you think?

Article by Colin Williams, Director, West Midlands Employers

(find out more about Colin here)

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