The Role of Leaders

February 15th 2013

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The role of leaders has always been an extremely popular discussion point – even before Donald Trump got a Twitter account.  However, once the fundamental understanding that 94% of the variation in performance of any system is created by the system itself, and not by the people who work within it, the role of the leader becomes obvious.

 This revelation was popularised by W. Edwards Deming, an outstanding Systems Thinking theorist.  Sadly, he ‘popularised’ it in the 1950s, and yet it is still relatively unknown.  If it was understood today, we would not have ‘team hugs’ in call centres, individual performance targets, and Hawaiian shirt Fridays (see previous posts).

 One of the things I help leaders understand is that acting on the people can do little to fundamentally improve performance, as the people are constrained by the system within which they work.  Consider your job.  What is the purpose of you and your team from the point of view of the citizen or customer?  Agree this with your team.  Then, as a team, list the things that get in the way of you achieving that purpose.  Next to each item write whether it is in the control of the system or within the control of the individual.  (NB, you should enjoy the discussion around whether the skills and abilities needed to do the job are in the control of the system or the individual).

 Once you have the list, your role as leader becomes much clearer – work with the frontline to sort out the things that get in the way.  Some will be easy to sort out, and some will not be.  However, some will cause more problems than others, so make sure you are prioritising on this basis.

 The use of data to validate the list will also help you decide where to start, and provide you with information from which to measure the impact of any changes.

 The things on the list that are not in your control need to be brought to the attention of those who do control them.  I am sure you have experience of attempting to persuade people that they need to change something or what they do.  Most people I speak to seem to have had mixed reactions to these requests!  As such, rather than present a paper or set of slides to these people, ask them to come into the work with you and see the consequence of the problem in the work.  This helps them put context around your discussion and is more likely to lead to them taking action.

 If one of the items causing problems in the work is from an outside inspection agency, feel free to ask them to join you in the work too.  It may take several weeks for them to find the time, but it is better to wait than try and persuade them while they are sat behind their desk.

 So, the role of a leader:

1. Understand and Provide Clarity of Purpose from an outside-in perspective;

2. Understand and solve the problems that get in the way of people achieving that Purpose.

Hopefully, that will save you a great deal of reading, or needing to scroll through Donald Trump’s tweets.

Change Thinking.  Change Lives

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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