Avoiding Blunders

Blunder: a spectacular change failure

Government BlundersA book I have just finished reading contains some excellent ideas for avoiding a complete failure in a change. The book, The Blunders of our Governments by Prof. Anthony King and Sir Ivor Crewe describes a series of major blunders by our governments. In each case a government minister set out a radical change in the way things are done and ended up wasting billions of pounds and abandoning the change. The most famous is the introduction of the poll tax; but there are eleven biggies in here. As with many significant change failures, its not just the government that is hurt (well its the taxpayers that foot the bill for these in-competencies) but also customers: you and me (who are also tax payers). Similarly, those at the top who should be accountable seem to have the traditional punishment of promotion and whitewash. The authors identified errors in human thinking and system errors which led to these blunders.

These are the human thinking lessons the authors put forward (the system errors are in the next blog posting):

Cultural disconnect

Simply put, the people at the top of the organisation planning change just do not understand the business at the sharp end and what the customers want. I have seen similar disconnect between people in IT planning a new computer system and the users of the system on the front line; and I would also add the people in HR and some of their policy implementation ideas. I am sure you have many of your own cultural disconnect stories.


Booting Up

In one organisation I worked for the IT department planned a complex spreadsheet application to replace a paper system involving traces from instruments. The data was being digitised so the old instruments were to be replaced and the data loaded into a laptop for analysis. So instead of looking at an image and detecting patterns the front line staff had to look at a table of figures. The problem was that none of these front line staff had used a computer for their job so far. If you asked them to boot up a lap-top their first thought would be to use their steel capped boots to effect. These staff needed a couple of weeks basic IT training to even be able to understand a spreadsheet and open one. The IT development staff, every one a computer wizard, just did not see the gap.

As a result of these cultural disconnects the change designers make assumptions about what will work and how much effort is needed to make it work.

Group Think

A cultural disconnect can be quickly fixed if there is good feedback from implementation staff and the next level implementers of a change. However, if there is a consistent denial of the truth by senior staff such that their world model cannot be wrong then we have group think. This is particularly a problem in political organisations; of which government is obviously one. The senior staff surround themselves with yes-men; whose job it is to filter out the unwanted (and disruptive) messages. This is both hubris and self-promoting. Those who do carry the unwanted message will find themselves on the outside for rocking the boat — in effect challenging assumptions becomes a career killer.

An open culture encouraging differing views and opinions is essential to manage group think. In projects and programmes the use of reviews involving external experts is explicitly designed to counter group think within the project or programme. Yet I still find the reviewers reports ignored by senior managers if they challenge cherished assumptions. The debate about dredging to help avoid flooding seems to fall into this category. One group assumes dredging is essential; another group assumes it is not cost effective! Neither group seems to have any evidence.

Ideological Assumptions

These are unfounded beliefs about the way the world works; which are no longer true (they may have been in the past) so they guide decisions into approaches that no longer work. For instance a belief that the unions will always resist any change. An open scepticism about change and the way change is proposed is always healthy. It does not mean the unions can’t read the writing on the wall about external drivers for change. Because of the assumption that the unions will resist managers often withhold consultation until the last minute when changes to designs and plans becomes increasingly difficult. Presenting staff with a fait accompli is not the best way to get buy in.

Senior managers should engage with all those affected by changes (stakeholders) as soon as possible so that the widest range of possible solutions to the problems can be evaluated. All too often I find a solution is presented and I find myself asking ‘what is the problem?’. Managers seem to believe that their job is to find the solution; whereas modern management should be about collaborative problem solving; not solution promotion.

Operational Disconnect

Similar to the cultural disconnect, this is the problem of implementation not being fed back to senior managers who blindly carry on claiming success until failure stares them in the face. Implementation of radical new ways of doing things usually requires a large dose of new technology. Sometimes the technology developers are just not up to the vision. Often this is because the people charged with designing the implementation are completely new to the task and fail to talk to those with experience but who are in a different part of the business. For instance in developing the tax credit system the inland revenue failed to consult the Social Services department who had been paying the benefits so far. There are whole aspects of claimants needs and wants that HMRC was just not aware of. Hence their estimates of the complexities and timescales were completely unrealistic.

Senior managers need to involve as many people as possible at all levels and listen to those who are attempting to be realistic. I think the most common problem in delivering change is meeting the capability into the business in the timeshare agreed. Its the implementation what did for us!

Panic and spin

Realising that things are not going well; and that cherished beliefs are being challenged; the response of senior staff is to bunker down and call the challengers recidivists. Shoot the messenger seems to be the best action at this point. It is hard to let go cherished beliefs and to admit that some decisions have been wrong. However, the point about decisions is that sometimes they will be wrong! The challenge to manage the risks and work hard to make decisions pan out. The courage to recognise when a wrong decision has been made; stop the action and redeploy the resources is a critical management faculty.

I have written a lot in the blog on decision making; it all applies here!

Lessons learned

Of course, there is nothing new in the above reasons for failures, leading to billion pound blunders. And as humans we will no doubt continue to submit ourselves to all of these thinking errors. Or will we? What do you think?

Is this what it means to be human: to error again and again?


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