As the third and final in a series, this post explores how institutions might understand and manage the forces which can lead to behaviour that undermines their legitimacy in the eyes of stakeholders and the broader public (I am grateful to my readers for some very helpful comments on the earlier posts).
I have so far argued that many organisations – like most people – have a deep attachment to a discourse of self-pity which, combined with the will to survive, provides the enabling context for unethical decision-making (or decision avoidance). Ultimately, organisations need to behave as if they were operating in a glass box: if they are making decisions which most people outside the organisational would find unjustifiable they are storing up problems and risking further reputational damage.
This might sound like a pious injunction. Organisations might set such a goal but how do they live up to it? Here are three methods which, pursued in concert by organisational leaders, might help:
Name and tame the hurt: The group therapy process I described in the first post enabled participants to name the scars left earlier in their life which they had subsequently used to excuse bad choices. This is only step one but it is difficult and its power shouldn’t be underestimated.
Leaders need to find the pain at the heart of their organisation (why we feel under siege/hard done by/doomed) and name it. Only then can those leaders work with their organisation to transcend those feelings, showing that whether or not they were ever justified, they should not be a constraint on the organisation trying to do the right thing now and into the future. It will often be that part of the pain concerns feelings towards management so this too has to be identified and discussed.
Change the choice architecture: The phrase ‘choice architecture’ was coined by the same people who developed the idea of ‘nudge’, itself derived from insights provided by behavioural economics and social psychology. The point is to make ‘good’ choices easier and ‘bad’ choices harder, for example, putting healthier food closer to the counter in self-service canteens or opting people in to pension schemes.
The discourse of organisational self-pity generally refers to a set of adverse contexts which make it hard for the organisation to succeed while behaving ethically. Rather than simply exhorting leaders to be braver and more ethical we should encourage them to realign the forces around them so that doing the right thing is easier, and the bad thing harder.
Honest, open and independently verified social and environmental auditing might be examples of the latter. The decision of Unilever CEO, Paul Polman to stop quarterly reporting and to refuse short term investing is an inspirational example of the former.
Very often organisational or professional self-pity is of the ‘no one understands us’ variety. This is a corrosive form of self-pity to which the answers are ‘maybe they do and that’s the problem’ of ‘if they don’t you have to get out and find a way of engaging people rather than using their alleged ignorance an excuse for self-indulgence’.
A recurrent example of this problem in charities is that the activities the organisation could undertake that would have the most impact are not the things their funders or stakeholders most value. A failure to address this conundrum is the single biggest explanation of the profound level of underperformance that plagues our third sector
Accept the possibility of an honourable death: My interest in institutions stems from an analysis based on a set of ideas (unhelpfully) named cultural theory. This theory suggest there are three active ways of thinking about and pursuing change; individualism, hierarchy and solidarity. The analysis of my 2012 annual lecture was that these forces have become disastrously unbalanced in modern society. In particular, hierarchies have become frail and ineffective.
But cultural theorists also say there is a fourth, equally ubiquitous but generally passive way of thinking about change – fatalism. I have always found it hard fully to accommodate the fatalist dimension of the theory but perhaps I am beginning to.
Good organisations and their leaders know, accept and admit that they are involved in the messy business of juggling ethical goals with organisational self interest in changing and challenging contexts. This is not a problem that can be solved forever but must be continuously and reflexively managed. This is the stuff of leadership but it is also ultimately exhausting.
Freud talked about exchanging hysterical neurosis for everyday melancholy. Leaders need to recognise that sooner or later they will run out of runway. The dilemmas I am describing can only ever be successfully managed for now. Directly contrasting a plethora of theories which promise the possibility of transcendent, post conventional, leadership, sane leaders with integrity know that sooner or later they and or their organisation will lose the capacity to juggle successfully and then the right thing to do is to move on.
Going back to the charity sector, another problem is the difficulty organisations have with admitting that their best is behind them, their organisational form is no longer fit for purpose and that it is time to have big party, celebrate and pull down the shutters.
‘Fine words from the CEO of a 260 year old organisation’ you may well say. True dat. Across its distinguished history the RSA has suffered very long periods of ineffectiveness and has in the last few years substantially re-invented itself. But I am under no illusions that two weeks after I accept the inevitable mortality of leadership (or it is pointed out to me by the Board) the new CEO will – quite rightly – be telling the staff and Fellows it is time for a radically different approach!
That is my hurt, but now I have named it, you know it really isn’t that bad.
Every year I earn a few thousand pounds for the RSA in speaker’s fees. But with the public and third sector ever more financially hard pressed, I often wish my specialist subjects were not public service reform, social innovation and future citizenship but more lucrative, private sector-friendly, themes such as technology and new business models. If I am to enter the rarified world of the international business guru I need a new and exciting concept to open the door. Maybe today’s blog could be my key to the big time….
I was fascinated to see that Argos has today published impressive results. This is apparently due to to the rise of ‘click and collect’ shopping. It seems that people like the convenience and choice of on-line shopping but also want to pick up their goods in person. The biggest driver may be the hassle involved in being home for deliveries or having to pick them up from a depot (I have never queued for fewer than fifteen minutes at the Post Office parcel centre in Clapham and have simply given up on several occasions). Other factors may be impatience and, perhaps, the scope to check the item is safe, sound and as ordered before taking it home.
So maybe the death of physical retail is not quite as inevitable as many have been predicting. Indeed, click and collect provides new selling opportunities. Knowing what people have just purchased, stores can offer them reasons to linger – nice spaces, free refreshments – and suggest customers browse associated products (while you’re picking up your new saucepans, how about using your journey to get some cutlery or a recipe book?).
The possible evolution of click and collect into a new form of face to face retailing is reminiscent of other technology-driven processes in which a new business/consumption model arises from the ashes of another. The classic case study is how the access to free (albeit often pirated) on-line music led not to the death of the music industry but to the rise of live performance as the generator of income. Instead of bands going on tours to sell records they record music as a means to sell concert tickets.
Another example is the non-death of watch on broadcast TV. With the internet and technologies like TIVO, the widespread assumption was that everyone would become their own programme scheduler. But while many people do now consume series in the form of box sets not weekly live viewing (as I am right now voraciously doing with the stunning Breaking Bad) the desire to participate in social media conversation has also made it imperative for enthusiasts to watch programmes as they are broadcast. This has been an important factor in the unexpected return to popularity of Saturday night family viewing.
These examples have elements in common. On the one hand, the exaggerated prediction of the demise of an activity which formed social connections between people: shopping, buying records, watching live TV. On the other, the transformation or adaptation of that activity into what is, or what could turn out to be, a more sociable form (going to concerts, chatting on-line while watching, more personalised shopping). Sure, the examples also differ; buying records was not inherently social, nor does click and collect necessarily take us to a more relational form of shopping, but there is enough similarity to wonder if there may be some underlying processes a work here.
So if anyone out there fancies hearing me give an inspiring, ground breaking and amusing talk on the concept of ‘relational displacement in new business models’ (how social relationship hollowed out by technology in one area tend to emerge in a new and often richer form in a parallel area) I am available at reasonable – but not cheap – rates.
I have described the modern mission of the RSA as enhancing human capability. This can provoke two different critiques. The first alleges blandness and vagueness – who could possibly be opposed to such a goal and isn’t it possible to justify almost any activity under such a broad heading? The second warns against hubris; who are we to judge what is more or less enhanced capability and doesn’t the idea of enhancing people’s capability have rather sinister overtones of social engineering? Let me try to refute these perfectly reasonable sets of concerns.
Whilst it may be true that no one would say they were against enhancing human capability, one reason the capabilities school of political and social science has had such an impact is that it can be distinguished from the two other main strands of contemporary political thought and action: social democracy and free market liberalism.
Social democrats (British ones at least) have tended to act as though capability is largely a matter of access to material resources. A lack of concern about what dispositions and behaviours are best for individuals and society, and an unwillingness to be judgemental, goes some way to explaining why social democrats failed to see the dangers of allowing the reciprocal design of the welfare state to be gradually eroded.
For champions of the minimally regulated free market, a focus on capabilities is doubly flawed. First, it can help make the case for enhanced universal entitlements, confusing – from the perspective of liberals – the valid concept of ‘freedom from’ and the dangerous one of ‘freedom to’. Second, the idea of capabilities is judgemental, suggesting that some attitudes and attributes should be favoured above others. In contrast, free market liberals will argue that individual choices – as long as they don’t infringe the freedom of others – are equally legitimate and that the market can be relied on to turn these choices into the stuff of economic progress.
The RSA’s focus on capabilities is also, I would argue, of substance because we not only are interested in promoting policies and practices which enhance capabilities but also in using behavioural science better to understand the basis of human capability.
What of the second critique: is a focus on enhancing capability in danger of being elitist or overbearing? It does unquestionably involve some judgement about how we should live. One – instrumental – justification arises from the concept of the ‘social aspiration gap’, which separates the kind of society most people say they want to live in from the one we seem likely to build relying on current predominant modes of thought and behaviour. I have sometimes formulated this in terms of ‘enabling people to be the people they need to be to create the future they say they want’; unsurprisingly it hasn’t really caught on!
But I would go further, suggesting a very basic account of human fulfilment comprising three overlapping elements: first, contentment and quality of life, second, the fulfilment of potential (the domain of vocational skill and professional ambition) and third, the sense of contributing to the lives of others and the good of society as a whole. Individuals may not choose to take opportunities that are provided in these three domains, but the good society is one which, as far as possible, not only provides every person with the realistic opportunity – through institutions, rules, norms and entitlements – to pursue fulfilment in each.
There are, no doubt, many problems with what is a very broad brush arguments but what I find both depressing (about public discourse) and motivating ( about the RSA) is how rarely these kinds of questions are directly addressed in debate about politics and social policy. As is often said, our health service is a sickness service and we rarely explore what we mean by good health. The current administration is explicitly hostile to debates about young people’s capabilities in the context of education, seeing them as an excuse for dodging the real imperative of acquiring knowledge. And in welfare and criminal justice policy we work with almost medievally crude models of human motivation.
Who we need to be, who we should be and how we create the right circumstances for human development and fulfilment is blandly implicit in much debate; surely, politics would be more engaging and illuminating if these questions surfaced more often and more profoundly?
Four years ago, as the scale of economic downturn and the probable depth and longevity of austerity hit home, there was much speculation about whether this would have a profound impact on key aspects of society: expectations, values, forms of organisation and provision.
There was a widespread view that after the excesses of the nineties and early noughties, a harsher environment might be good for us. Some on the left hoped for a turn against consumerism and the excesses of the wealthy, some on the right for a more active civil society taking the initiative from a shrinking state. There was much talk of a new economy. Peter Mandelson spoke of ‘less financial engineering more real engineering’, business gurus opined that recession is the midwife of innovation. Everyone’s favourite quote was Rahm Emanuel’s ‘never let a crisis go to waste’.
How do things look now as the economy splutters like smouldering wet twigs and austerity is trudging uphill through mud with the mountain peak lost in dark clouds? Here are the key points:
As a society we seem to have become harsher towards each other, we are less sympathetic to the poor, we continue to be obsessed by, and negative towards, immigration. It is true that we have also become intolerant of excess at the top but this is driven more by self-righteous rage than a commitment to greater social fairness.
In terms of austerity, the economic downturn means the state isn’t actually getting significantly smaller as a proportion of the economy. Even now, we are only in the early stages of the full impact of cuts in funding for services and it looks as though many public agencies have been able to preserve most services by being more focussed and efficient. Also, important parts of provision – especially schools and the NHS – are still being protected. But despite all this there are two significant and accelerating shifts. First, forms of public provision deemed to be non-essential are starting to decline and – in some areas – disappear, this includes the youth service, arts provision, libraries and leisure services and various forms of community provision. Second, significant parts of public sector provision – from employment services to health care – are being transferred to the private (and to a much lesser extent) third sector; the announcement today about probation is another important step in this process. So, while large scale examples of civil society stepping up to fill the gaps left by a retreating state or of bold innovations in service configuration (the hopes that some people had three years ago) are few and far between, more conventional expectations of cuts and contracting out are being fulfilled. Given the paucity of evidence that contacting out leads to service improvement or innovation, the public sector is getting leaner but will it be fitter?
In relation to alternative values I can see little or no sign of a shift. Indeed, opinion polls suggest concern about the environment (climate change in particular), which is often seen as the alternative pole to consumerism, has declined in the face of economic concerns. Consumer debt may be shrinking and growth in the consumption of ‘stuff’ may have stalled but this is the consequence of economic necessity not post-materialism.
As for a new economy, it is encouraging that more people want to set up their own business (although probably more are doing so as a last resort), and in a large economy there are always success stories to celebrate. But, as the Government’s frantic search for growth and its gradual reversion to a strategy of restoring state-financed or underwritten capital investment shows, there is little sign of a new ‘real ‘ economy butterfly emerging from the rotting chrysalis of the old debt-fuelled, finance dominated model.
So, two questions: first, am I missing something? Is there a pattern of change out there but I am failing to join up the dots? Second, if there isn’t any change, or any positive change, why not? Is it just too soon to see the adaptation we need?
Were the hopes that our self-inflicted misfortunes would prompt soul searching and a collective stepping up to the plate always misplaced? Would we all just love to go back to the good old days of buying piles of junk, maxing out on credit cards, being made rich by house inflation and reading assiduously (but not resentfully) about the excesses of billionaires and celebrities?
Or has the possibility of new ways of living and thinking been stymied by a lack of leadership; a Tory Party obsessed by its eccentric enemies to the right, a Labour party happy to appeal to its core and rely on negative voting and Lib Dems plesed just to survive?
The core of the RSA’s modern mission (echoing a theme running through its history) is the belief that we need, and that we can achieve, a step change in human capability. This distinguishes us from a paternalistic left which tends to think the problem is not people but the structures in which they live and an economically liberal right which is agnostic about human development, relying on the hidden hand of the market to drive innovation and turn random individual preferences into progress.
I still think the Society’s modern mission is particularly suited to these challenging times, but sometimes, on the bad days, I wonder whether it is a triumph of hope over expectation.
This is the last of three posts exploring key issues facing the RSA as we enter 2013…
It is often said that the Fellowship has the potential to be the RSA’s greatest and most distinctive asset. In truth, the Society’s leaders have not always taken seriously the challenges involved in delivering on this aspiration. Although many individual Fellows have played an important role in the RSA’s activities and governance, there was until recently a lack of clarity and commitment when it came to the engagement of the wider Fellowship. There were several problems:
* The status of Fellowship was ambiguous, was it an award for past achievements or an invitation to get involved?
* The expectations of Fellows’ activities were limited with most regional programmes tending to focus on social and cultural events rather than charitable activities, much less civic innovation.
* There was very little investment in Fellows. Back in 2006 there was only one person employed to support their activities.
* Apart from valued individuals who happened to be FRSA, many parts of the organisation tended to keep Fellows at arm’s length.
* There were, at best, suspicious and often downright hostile relations between the regions and nations run by Fellows and the Society’s HQ, a situation which previous RSA Chairs have told me had persisted for decades.
* It was perhaps symbolic of the general situation that arguably the most active Fellows’ network a few years back was called ‘Fellows’ Voices’ and was, in essence, a group set up to protest at the lack of opportunities for engagement in the Society’s work.
Things really have changed since then:
* Relations between HQ and the RSA nations and regions are most positive and on a more professional footing than ever before.
* The Fellowship Council - elected by and made of Fellows – is a powerful, hard working and influential body.
* The Fellowship network team and the Catalyst Fund provide a range of forms of support for a growing number of FRSA groups and initiatives.
* Fellowship engagement in the work of ARC (our research and development team) is strong and is now built in to every major new project from the start.
Despite all this progress still a big question remains. The fact is that over the last five years the Trustees have agreed to invest more and more of the Society’s income in supporting Fellows’ activities, and still the resources we allocate often feel like they are being very thinly stretched.
No one resents this shift (not even the ARC staff who now have very year to go out and raise the funds to do research), after all Fellowship donations are still the Society’s biggest source of income. Yet, the hard truth right now is that pound for pound the money going back into Fellowship is achieving much less real world impact than the resources dedicated to activities in other key areas such as research, development, lectures and on-line content.
This is not a failure nor is it, in any way, a criticism of Fellows. The idea of Fellowship being genuinely central to delivering the Society’s charitable mission is still new. We are learning and improving all the time. And weaknesses in our own central organisation – most frustratingly technology (at last now being solved) – have made it more difficult than it should have been for Fellows to engage with the Society and with each other.
Also, individual Fellows have put an immense amount back into the Society, not only the activists in regions and on the Fellowship Council but, for example, the brilliant group of FRSA who have worked on the development of our ‘Transitions’ social enterprise prison pilot or the former regional chair who has opened the door for the Society to win local funding for a fascinating piece of research in Wiltshire.
It may be that we – Trustees, Fellows and staff – simply need to carry on doing what we are doing and gradually getting better at it. Cultural change is hard to achieve in a paid full time workforce, it is bound to be even harder working with a disparate and busy group of volunteers.
Nevertheless, these posts are about how the RSA moves from good to great and, as I have said throughout, I think this depends most on taking the mission of Fellowship engagement to the next level and doing it in the next couple of years.
We will know we have together achieved something really significant when:
* Projects begun by Fellows and led by Fellows are starting to become as high profile and influential as the research and development projects managed by professional staff and, as a sign of this, Fellows’ projects are starting to access external funds.
* Research among FRSA is showing a high and rising awareness of all aspects of the Society’s work and how Fellows can get involved.
* More Fellows are being recruited (and retained) because they see the RSA, and the Fellowship in particular as a powerful vehicle for innovation and social progress. At present the numbers are pretty steady (which is a good outcome in the current economic environment), but a gradually rising roll will make it possible for us to continue to invest more in Fellowship.
* And, most of all, outside the RSA there is a growing sense that the Fellowship is made up of people with the inclination and the tools to intervene when new solutions are needed.
There are many opinions about how we can achieve this step change. Importantly, the conversation can now take place in the context of good relations with regions and nations and a Fellowship Council humming with energy and enthusiasm.
Given limited resources and a challenging and competitive context am I sure we will make it? No. We are, after all, being more broadly ambitious than any other large membership organisation I know.
As a chief executive with supportive Trustees and a great team of colleagues I can commit to continuing improvement in the quality of the work we undertake at John Adam Street, but success in the Fellowship project, because that project is so diffuse, and because, ultimately, it relies on the attitude and actions of thousands of volunteers cannot be guaranteed.
So my RSA resolution for 2013 is not to deliver a highly engaged and productive Fellowship but to do everything I can to make this exciting prospect more likely and in so doing enable the Society to be ‘the kind of organisation the twenty first century needs’.