Based on his research into the experience of Senior Responsible Owners in implementing Public Service Agreements.
I am writing this article on the back of research I conducted in 2008/9 into the experience of the 27 Senior Responsible Owners (SROs) of Public Service Agreements, (PSA) in the UK, in leading the implementation of these 30 cross cutting priorities of the UK Government. The PSA regime has been discontinued under the administration which took office this year but the lessons are still valid and the need to work across the system without formal authority has not diminished and if anything is becoming more necessary. So it’s a good place
to start understanding what is involved in leading when you can’t compel anyone to do anything.
My research surfaced quite a bit of data on leading without authority which was not a surprise because the ‘agreements’ had been set up to foster a greater spirit of collaboration between government departments. They were intended to make the public services more responsive to the needs of citizens and ensure that important aspects of leading for citizens did not fall between the departmental boundaries. Other reasons were around attempting to harmonise policy tensions; make better use of resources; enhance communications and ultimately a more integrated set of public services.
It may have come as a bit of a shock that the rules of the game were Changed when we weren’t looking and more and more we are being asked to do this thing called ‘leading without authority’. We might as well all be contestants on the apprentice. It may be useful, at this point to step back and examine this phenomenon. Lets ask some questions and suggest some answers: the first question is, what does leading without authority mean and why is it necessary and why now? Second, what is involved? Third, what skills do I need; fourth, what are the leadership challenges? And finally, what support is available and how do I access it?
‘Dan Harris tried unsuccessfully to assert his
authority in a desperate attempt to show the other contestants who was ‘boss’ in the first episode of series six of The Apprentice’
The rest of this presentation focuses on what I found out with regard to the experience of how the SROs attempted to work across their organisational boundaries and what that meant in terms of how they led when in reality, and to put it crudely, some of the people that they needed to work for did not necessarily even knew who they were or
why they should have a conversation with them. That at it’s most basic is what powerlessness means.
1. What does ‘leading without authority’ mean; why is it necessary and why now?
Traditionally, leaders had a range of options that they could use to get things done; in our mechanistic language they are often called power levers: power levers are, for example, money, status, rules, regulations, standing orders, reward, sanctions etc. what we also call hard power. The new rules require you to use abandon these and start doing ‘soft power’.
Using soft power requires you to abandon all notions of being able to make anyone do anything simply on your say so. It requires you to acknowledge your ‘powerlessness’ in the circumstances and to make a fundamental shift in the way you engage with people. A fundamental shift In the way you get them to do things for you.
Using soft power requires you
to abandon all notions of being able to make anyone do anything, simply on your say so.
The shift is being experienced by those who work in what is called ‘matrix’ arrangements or matrix management. I should point out that there are variations of what this means in practical terms but to a large extent it means working with other people to achieve an outcome in many instances where there is no designated leader of the task or where there is a designated leader the team members have no direct line relationship with that
Why now? The simple answer is that the way the world work has changed. We are now operating at a more sophisticated level. we have moved to a more interdependent and interconnected world. A more fluid world. A world where you can’t redesign your organisational hierarchies for every task that comes along. A world in which a multitude of projects are taking place simultaneously and people are involved in more than one project at any one time. A world in which individuals are expected to and are taking more ownership of what is expected of them and where ‘hand holding’ and supervision is less and less a guarantor of success.
2. What is involved?
In leading large scale complex and expensive projects and leading them without direct authority a number of issues arise. These are issues which need you attention. The first four are what you could describe as soft stuff’; Relationships, High levels of trust, sharing information and collaboration.
The next four are a bit more concrete; governance, accountability for outcomes, sharing resources and finally dealing with policy tensions. Leading Outcome focused PSAs highlighted these as some of the critical things that the leader has to pay attention to. I will now comment on each in turn
The first and most critical element of leading this requirement effectively are the relationships that you build with other individuals and which you sustain over a period of time and is the cornerstone of ‘soft power’. In fact in many cases it’s the relationships that you have nurtured
over the years with no specific purpose in mind. Relationships that you build with your peers and people from other parts of the system. It is when you have to lead without traditional power that these relationships pay off.
High levels of trust
The second element is the need for high levels of trust. It’s fairly easy to strike up a conversation and to engage someone and think you have a great relationship. Lots of back slapping. coffee meetings etc. You keep all your commitments and promises to the other party.
You do them small favours and not unrealistically assume that they will do the same for you. and then get the shock of your life when you are stuck and nothing happens.
Sharing information assumes that trust exists between the parties involved. PSA 26 had as its objective: ‘to reduce the risk to the UK and its interests overseas from international terrorism’ and involved 16 different departments of state. The challenge was that some of the players were traditional national security departments and they were accustomed to sharing information over a long period of time and through different threats to the UK. This PSA now included departments such as the Department for children, schools and families, The department of the Environment and Department for transport to name three. I am sure it is not very difficult to imagine or to empathise with some of the data sharing challenges they faced. But face them they did and found ways to share data. I can only make assumptions but there must have been some sort of agreement around ‘need to know as well as protective marking of what was shared. I can’t imagine however, that even with those conditions in place, that any of this took place without implicit trust.
Collaboration becomes necessary when
we are no longer by our own effort and resources and in the time and place
of our own choosing, deal with a problem. It becomes necessary when we are increasingly uncertain about what the problem is and how to solve the problem. Figure 1 is taken from the work of professor Keith Grint which builds on the work of Churchman who introduced the concept of ‘wicked problems’ in 1967 Governance issues
Confusion around governance structure can lead to uncertainty regarding who is responsible for what and who will provide the resources for certain actions and tasks. A number of problems stem from unclear governance in collaborations such as those involved in collaborations being in danger of repetition where different stakeholders carry out actions that only need to be done by one party. Also the omission of important tasks can occur where one department assumes another department is carrying out the task.
Accountability for outcomes
At some point this collaborative endeavour has to produce something. Someone has to explain if nothing happens or if the outcomes are not the ones expected or have been achieved at a cost that is disproportionate to the benefits?
Working collaboratively and leading without authority means that although something has to be produced no one actually owns the full means of production and the named leader may have no resources at all and is depending on others to contribute from their resource pot. The challenge here has to get the involvement of a higher level sponsor or develop some process that will ensure equal or proportionate contribution to the effort.
Policy tensions are contributing partners with conflicting goals, for example, the environmental PSAs vs. the building of new transport systems or the need for parallel processes, e.g. getting other departments to change conflicting and/or problematic policies such as prisoner release vs. benefit claims, or flood protection vs. bio diversity.
First: Everything in your Emotional Intelligence inventory. What’s in
your EI inventory? Do you have one? I am going to assume that you have an EI inventory in which case you would be well advanced in your journey of self awareness. Part of which expects that you will ask people what they think of you and having got that information you will do something about any unattractive aspect of what you were told. You will know that asking for feedback is an influencing mechanism but it is only so if you do something about what you have been told. Another aspect is to tell people about who you are and why you are the way you are. Again, this is part of your way of helping people to be able to influence you on the basis that they have an understanding of what knobs to turn. They understand what makes you tick.
You will also know that a key aspect of emotional intelligence is building relationships; a great segway into the next paragraph.
‘They know what knobs to turn’
Second: the ability to building and sustaining relationships
Building relationships can be hard work if you are not naturally a sociable person. It can be a time consuming activity and in many cases it is not obvious when you will need the help or support of the other person on the other end of the relationship. So it’s an investment that you make in your
time and energy, in good faith. The interest on your investment is not always shown on
your monthly balance sheet. Sometimes you build relationships because you connect with someone and you just seem to get on. In leading without authority you sometimes have to deliberately set out to build relationships with people with whom you have not previously found any
These are strategic relationships and very different from the personal and or professional relationships that you already have. They are relationships which are created for strategic purposes. They are not nice to have relationships or relationships which you have because someone happens to share the same parents as yourself. They are not relationships which
you had to develop when you joined a team and found out who the other members were and realised that to be able to get the job done it was worth having some sort of decent day to day relationship with the other members of the team. Relationships that were prescribed for you. Strategic relationships are your own creation. You decide who is in and who is out. These relationships are future oriented and created to help you to figuring out future priorities and challenges; getting stakeholder support. Membership of these networks is Discretionary and as I have previously said relevance not always obvious. The final thing to say is that relationships are built on trust. Where have I seen that before?
I have elaborated on two of the skills that I think are essential and have listed below the skills that were being used by different SROs that I interviewed in my research piece which shows the wide range of skills that they deployed to achieve their task of successfully. You will notice a predominance of ‘soft power’:
High levels of emotional intelligence
The ability to building and sustaining relationships Diplomacy
Team building/Developing a vision to bring a department together
Analysis of data
Use of evidence
Working with complexity
Understanding the sensitivities of other departments Being able to ask the right questions
Programme and project management
Engaging the organisation
Hard cop/soft cop, i.e. using influencing and process and procedures in tandem to get results
Task allocation – playing to the strengths of the team members
Thinking further down the system – recognising the
contribution of others deep into the system
What are the leadership challenges?
Drawing again on my research the challenges the leaders of the cross departmental PSAs found themselves working on were 30 large scale, expensive and complex priorities which
were cast in an environment that was as unpredictable as it was uncertain. Below,
I have condensed the key leadership challenges they faced under four headings:
Making sense of the task and the environment. In practice this means:
• Understanding the task and its implications/interpreting what is required to achieve the goal;
• Preparation for taking up the SRO role One SRO asked “how do you prepare for something for which there is no precedence”;
• Creating the right governance structure • Coming to grips with the scale of the task and how to incentivise the organisation to deliver – in this particular case the PSAs had long term objectives but the Assessment Framework in some cases used a short term methodology to assess success
Making the task happen end to end
• Getting started;
• Deploying the right skills/need for a multiplicity of skills;
• Knowing what levers to use and when and what to do when there are no levers to pull;
• Visible leadership – what can people see that is making a difference
• How to move things along quickly when working on multiple fronts;
•Using the governance system to focus on and scrutinise the right issues
• Personal example
• Mechanisms for creating more challenge within the project board
• Handling inter departmental cultural issues • Being collaborative – see previous section on skills which dealt with collaboration
• Making best use of non integrated IT systems
• Engagement and involvement of professional groups
• Knowledge transfer, knowledge management and sharing good practice
Wider issues – these are issues more concerned with people not directly involved in achieving the task
• Keeping those in the department not involved in PSA motivated;
• Ministerial involvement and sponsorship;
• Focusing top officials on managing the joints;
• The competitive male culture vs. the collaborative approach;
• Getting political leaders to understand why performance is different from what is expected;
• Getting political/ministerial support;
• Getting results that allows for exploration and experimentation;
• Broadening the pool of people with PSA experience – not just the ‘usual suspects’/‘the club’;
• Coming to grips with the scale of the task and how to incentivise the organisation to deliver;
What Support is available to me?
Finding support when you are faced with working out of cultural preference and in some cases out of personal preference can be difficult. Here are a few suggestions:
There are quite a few people who have the experience of having done it and are willing to share warts and all with you. I recall one SRO saying to me ‘this is not something for which I was trained’. So some of the people who now have the experience and the expertise started from scratch. The good news is that you don’t have to. You can ask them to mentor you and the chances are that they will say yes. Your ability to take advantage of their willingness, however will rest on your ability to be a good mentee. People who make the best of mentoring relationships are: proactive, confidential, receptive to feedback and act on it, do not expect favours from their mentor, keep their appointments and
Your networks – In taking on tasks which need you to lead people and deliver outcomes with little direct power, no direct or scarce resources and where expectations are high you need the support of your strategic networks.
Churchman CW; Management Science (Vol. 14, No. 4, December 1967) referenced
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