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Nobody Makes Bad Decisions…

July 2nd 2012


…But They Could Make Better Ones.

It has been suggested that nobody in the public sector purposefully makes bad decisions, designed to make things worse.  My experience with leaders would agree with this – decisions are made with the best of intentions.  Sadly, they often have unintended consequences.

An example is the Local Housing Allowance, intended to give recipients of housing benefit more control over their finances.  This policy was brought in instructing local authorities not  to pay landlords directly unless under very specific circumstances.  Instead, the money must go straight to tenants, to pay their landlords themselves.  As you can imagine, once this policy was enacted, it led to lots of failure demand (demand caused by a failure of the system to do something, or do something correctly) into local authorities from landlords saying their rent had not been paid.  In addition, the majority of tenants, when asked, stated that they would rather their landlord was paid directly, to help them manage their finances.  These difficulties also had knock on effects in advice agencies, with around 15% of tenant housing problems arising from this policy at one point.

This decision was made with the best of intentions, but had unintended consequences.  I see this very commonly – leaders feel it is their role to make decisions.  However, without knowledge of how the system currently works, it is impossible to predict the consequences of these decisions, however well intentioned.

As such, I help leaders learn that decisions should not be made without knowledge, and that this knowledge can only be gained and understood by studying the work first hand.  This leads to control over the consequences of decisions, and far better performance – service to citizens, lower costs, and happier staff (as they are the ones that tend to have to deal with the unintended consequences of decisions from leaders!)

A simple framework to help you make decisions with knowledge is to work with the people who do the work, and follow the steps below:

  1. Ask, “What problem are we trying to solve?”.  Don’t suggest solutions, don’t blame anybody, just be clear on the real problem.
  2. Ask, “Is the problem so serious that we need to put a contingency in place while we understand and tackle the root cause?”.  This can be judged on a probability and impact basis, to understand the risk.
  3. Ask, “What data do we need to truly understand the root cause of the problem?”.  There is no substitute for direct observation.
  4. Ask, “What measures do we need to see if we have solved the problem?”.
  5. Ask, “What experiment will we need to run to test any possible solution?”
  6. Ask, “If the measures show the experiment is successful, how do we help other people understand why the change is needed, and then work in the new way?”.  As discussed in previous postings, telling people will not do this, they need to go into the work and see the problems, and solutions for themselves.

The above approach is quicker and produces better results.  This can be used on small problems, or large ones.  The framework also holds for Welsh Government and Whitehall policy makers too.

However, it is vital that policy makers understand the thinking that led to the problem in the first place, to learn for future decisions.

For example, in the local housing allowance example above, the thinking behind the policy was, “everybody should have control over their finances”.  A laudable aim.  However, when you consider the thinking behind how work should be designed and managed, a blanket policy approach was used – this policy will apply to everybody, with only small exceptions.  In reality there were a lot of exceptions – as the majority of people wanted the payment to go straight to their landlord, rather than to them!

Therefore, the unconscious thinking behind the design and management of work could be articulated as “everybody wants the service delivered in the same way” and, “it is OK to create polices without asking citizens what matters to them”.  Although these can be construed from how the policy was implemented, they are unconscious thoughts by the policy makers.  It is for the very reason they are unconscious, that they need to be surfaced and understood.

Again, people don’t make bad decisions intentionally.  However, the way they think about the design and management of work leads to unintended consequences.  Understanding how we think work should be designed and managed, and challenging that thinking, lead us to far better decisions.

Change Thinking – Change Lives


Thanks to Stuart Corrigan for the inspiration:

Simon Pickthall worked in the public sector in Wales for many years before forming Vanguard Consulting Wales.  He has been fortunate to have worked with many leaders in Wales to help them understand their organizations from a Systems Thinking perspective –  and improve them as a consequence.  Simon was privileged enough to work on the Munro Review of Child Protection, and is committed to helping the public, private and third sectors deliver social justice.  [email protected]

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