2012 the year for UnLearning management

It is very clear now that the changes taking place in the public sector will make it a very different place to work. For staff there are unwelcome changes in job security, pay and pensions. For managers too there are big changes as HR, Finance and IT support is out sourced, fewer services are directly provided as more are purchased from the private sector and the full impact of management restructuring is felt.

After such dramatic budget cuts organisations will look very different. They will require a very different type of manager. Those managers who remain will have to unlearn much of what they thought management was about.

It is no longer the size of your budget or the number of staff you manage that determines how big your job is it is the sheer diversity of services you are responsible for.

The bigger your span of responsibility and the more diverse the range of services you are responsible for the less you will know about the day to day running of individual services. The skill now is knowing what questions to ask, knowing when to get involved and knowing how best to support those you rely on.

Management is less about making decisions more about influencing and shaping both in commissioning services rather than directly delivering them and in adopting a collaborative rather than a competitive approach. This is about the nature of the relationship you have with those you do business with. So not so much about getting the best deal more about establishing ways of working together to achieve longer term objectives

Three long held management truisms will have to be unlearnt. Management is about controlling people. Management is about knowing things .Management is about getting things done. These will need to be replaced with management is about asking good questions. Management is about freeing people up to get on with it. Management is about influencing and shaping.

So how will managers learn what questions to ask? How will managers cope with “not knowing”? What do these changes mean for accountability?

If you want good questions to ask your managers, questions that uncover what is happening at the front line then you need to meet front line staff either at their place of work or by shadowing them for half a day. This is part of getting to know those new services but it is not a one off it is your new way of working. If you want to know what it is like to use these services you need to regularly attend user forums. I guarantee these experiences will give you plenty of good questions to ask your managers.    

If you suddenly find yourself managing a wide range of services that have little in common then the traditional team meeting is no longer relevant. From being a senior manager responsible social services I found myself with additional responsibility for a diverse range of services including Adult Education, Libraries, Museums, Records, Arts funding, Registrars and Coroners support. What these services had in common was that there managers all reported directly to me. The traditional team meeting agenda with papers submitted in advance was replaced by a "round robin" where each manager takes it in turn to update the team on what's happening in their service focusing on the Hot Issues. These issues are opened up into a discussion if others round the table want to explore it more or if it strikes a cord with events in their own service. Some issues provoke discussion because they cut across services for example managing absenteeism, introducing new ways of working, recruitment, disciplinaries and efficiency initiatives.

In this way the meetings established common themes, help managers see the bigger picture and helped me keep up to speed with what was happening around the Directorate.

Clearly the old idea of meeting once a week was no longer appropriate as managers would not have much new to report. So we moved to meet monthly for an hour and a half. As a result I freed up three half days a month to undertake my” walkabouts” and attend those service user forums.

It's amazing now to think that we use to be able to fill a whole morning once a week when I was managing social services.

This helped me feel more in touch with services but couldn’t disguise the fact that I lacked both specialist and detailed knowledge .I found myself bluffing my way through meetings until I realised I had either to take the relevant manager with me or to confess to not knowing and commit to finding out. I had to accept that I was more reliant on my managers’ competence than was comfortable. All the more so when a colleague was forced to resign when a follow up inspection revealed a remedial action plan had not been delivered despite assurances that it had. The colleague had accepted the repeated assurances given to them by the manager of a small, very specialist service, a tiny part of my colleague’s new additional responsibilities. Clearly one thing that hadn’t changed was the need to find someone to blame when things went wrong. 

Blair McPherson author of UnLearning management-short stories on modern management published by www.russsellhouse.co.uk



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