Organisations Category

Just Governance

Measurement, Meetings, Organisations, Teams No Comments

My colleague David Dowe and I were chatting recently.  We got onto thinking about what it takes for an enterprise to be ‘governed’ well and to avoid governing systems going wrong (or at least not work well enough).


There is a wide variety of ways organisations are established and led from owner run SMEs to the largest offices of State. ‘Governance’ is more likely to be explicitly discussed and not just assumed where there are formal structures such as Company Boards with non-executives, Charities with Trustees or campaign Steering Committees.


For many years now, there has been a bit of a fashion for ‘Good Governance’.  What does that mean – and how can it be assured?


In answering this question, we have drawn on our experience of working in all sorts of environments over the last couple of years: from technology accelerators to school systems; professional associations to conservation charities; improvement projects to academic institutions.


So, this is our governance ‘top ten’:

1)   The FRE framework for organisational success brings three fundamental roles for governing groups to mind.  The first part of FRE is thinking of Focus: is the purpose of the organisation shared? Is the strategy clear – is it understood? Has the governing group set out its intentions (and limitations) for the wider staff to work toward and within? Second in the FRE framework is taking Responsibility: do governing boards avoid overstepping the mark and resist micro-managing the executive? The third part of FRE is the Example of senior leaders, including board members or trustees, in setting the cultural tone for an enterprise.  This is a crucial, and often neglected, role of those involved in the governance of an organisation.  The remainder of this checklist probes further into this territory of direction, scope and culture.


2)   Governing groups are often expected to be many things: a sounding board giving advice; maybe providing a sort of litmus test before an idea is rolled out; and frequently a decision-making body too.  It is a heady mix trying to be a critical friend to the executives and part of checks and balances in securing the best decisions and way forward.  It is necessary to be clear on the scope of the governing roles – and to be sure that the governing group has the skills, and more important, the attention and awareness to do the job.  Is the group clear what its primary purposes are? Does it spend time giving an overall direction with an overall strategy?  Does it recruit and support a good CEO and then give them a clear sense of their autonomy and limitations, including how their performance will be reviewed?   How far is the governing group involved in assuring itself that overall goals are being achieved, the finances are secure and the best possible organisational culture is established?


3)   There are many cautionary tales of governing groups failing to take an interest, or get an accurate impression of, organisation culture (for example).  Many boards govern through dashboards and metrics – but organisation leaders can game the measures and Boards find them hard to discern.


4)   The mechanics of governing group meetings can be inefficient with an astonishing amount of managerial time spent preparing for board meetings, reporting, following up issues.  There can be a degree of gaming and a seeming disconnect from the actual business sometimes.


5)   Finding ways to keep in touch with both team delivery and organisation performance without overstepping the line into micro-management is a key balance and challenge for governing groups.  Boards tend to deal in papers and presentations.  It is very hard to really understand what staff are feeling and know whether the CEO is doing a great job or not. Their information often comes from others inside and outside of the organisation which introduces a time lag.  Finding ways for the Board to get early warnings of unrest, confusion and non-attainment are important. Useful indicators can be the experience of interacting with staff who are only occasionally and unexpectedly encountered further into the organisation, spending time out and about and being alert to ‘weak signals’ (e.g. through complaints).


6)   In doing its difficult work, is the governing group willing to have Critical conversations not just around issues of strategy and organisation process but also culture?  For true consensus to emerge important issues need to be named and given sufficient air time on frequently packed agendas.  In shaping the agenda and discussion it is important to recall previous discussions and reports – not just taking ‘matters arising’.  Finding ways to remember previous promises made by the executive and have time to explore and question that productively and collaboratively.


7)   Given these challenges, there are often choices about how to arrange (or, frequently, rearrange) governing systems.  In our experience, there tends to be an over focus on the structural options at the expense of the behavioural.  For example, a committee structure is more likely to be reviewed than the sort of decision making and scrutiny discussions to achieve a real improvement.  There is a sort of ‘Inverse Attention Law’: where the changes that are most needed are less likely to be considered. Using a biological metaphor, sometimes the ‘Anatomy’ (that is, the structure of a board or its sub groups) needs changing, but more often it is the ‘Physiology’ of how the existing parts work together that is crucial.  Getting the governing groups ways of working right is often more necessary than the overall wiring.


8)   The role of the Chair is crucial. There are many high-powered Boards where strong personalities are quite deliberately given a platform to speak as separate voices.  It is possible for the management team to take away different opinions on direction or performance. It is easy for chairs to either let all the voices speak (wishing to be seen as inclusive) or become too dictatorial.   Pulling together a wider ranging debate into a clear corporate line can be difficult to achieve.  This summing up is sometimes avoided to allow personal agendas to be pursued through the ‘smoke and mirrors’ after a meeting.  Chairs are often chosen for their sector knowledge.  However, the key role is to manage a good discussion and lead the development of a strong team (where you can disagree well en route to agreeing a collective line that all are publicly committed to, and where the group holds each other to using the best possible behaviours).


9)   It is possible to invest too much power in the board, council or steering committee.  Sometimes board members are very high powered and sit on lots of governing groups, possibly collecting too many appointments and not having sufficient time to give to their role.  So it can be useful to find other ways to improve the advisory architecture so that checks and balances are in place.  Setting up working groups and advisory groups can be used to show organisations are engaging more widely – but they can run into the many dozen, leading to a lack of consensus or good ideas get lost.


10)   Given all this, what is a useful way forward?  Well quite simply, take time to review how you are doing.  Be prepared to question the “Inverse Attention Law”: the structure might need rejigging and processes rewiring.  However, it is likely that securing the best behaviours will be a key task: achieving the physiology rather than the anatomy.  Do you meet well?  Do you have good conversations?  It might seem a bit prosaic, but reviewing how your meetings go can be a good place to start, using something like this assessment – which can be presented in a variety of ways including as a wheel, and can be tracked over time.  It is a simple first step: governing made easy.


So “Just Governance”?  It is not necessarily simple and straightforward.  And yet it needs to be thought through and fair.  It can then provide amazing value added oversight with a light touch.  Helping the right things to happen, and helping avoid things going wrong.



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Cultural insight interventions: when start ups level down it helps the rest of us see how to aim high

Organisations, Uncategorized No Comments

This year we have seen Airbnb seeking to shift the culture of the world whilst Uber get into bother about its internal culture .

Getting the culture of start-ups right is increasingly discussed – this list of things to watch out for has resonated for many on one social media platform.

The culture of a business or charity is formed in its early days – often around the behaviours of its founders and the way other colleagues respond to it, and that normally involves acceptance or leaving. The truth is that once a culture of an enterprise is formed, it is very, very hard to shift it.

So getting it right at the start is key – and not just for start-ups in the sharing economy.

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Are you FREe?

Checklists, Front foot, Improvement, Organisations, Reflect, Teams, Think, Values No Comments

Earlier this week I attended a concert at Kings College Chapel. As I sat there in the dark stillness a storm raged outside that rattled the ancient doors as a nearby college clock chimed the hour. I recalled how exactly 27 years before I had first been in that place.

I remembered I had been a little shocked to find myself in higher education – as a working class lad who struggled a fair bit at school. Yet in my mid 20s I had applied to study at tertiary level. When interviewed, some of the alternative angles I shared from my experience as a front line NHS worker, plus the insights from my union activism seemed to appeal to those who selected students.

Over the years I have found sitting in that building to be a powerful place for reflection during times of significant personal change.

So, I was thinking – but on this occasion about my work. My studies all those years ago were the start of my deeper interest in how organisations perform (or don’t). Over the last few months I have been crystallising what I now know about institutions – from larger networks to smaller teams, from commercial enterprises to noble purpose initiatives – based on my experience of working across sectors and continents. What makes an organisation worthy of commitment? What are the features that make them likely to succeed? And fail?

After a quarter of a century, I think there are just three things that are crucial. I summarise these with the word FREe (actually FRE, as you will see below).

Firstly, FOCUS. Is the purpose of the organisation shared? Is the strategy clear – is it understood? Has the governing group set out its intentions (and limitations) for the wider staff to work toward and within? Do individuals know how their particular role contributes – and do they realise where their personal motivations fit, and where they do not?

RESPONSIBILITY: are staff expected to use their initiative to sort out issues? Do they have freedom to act? Do governing boards avoid overstepping the mark and resist micro-managing the executive – and do line-leaders avoid constraining their staff with overly detailed instructions or the expectation of involvement in all decisions? How clearly are all staff held to account for how they have used their autonomy?

Crucially, EXAMPLE highlights the role of senior leaders in setting the cultural tone for an enterprise plus the part played of line managers in re-iterating this – and the importance of peers in reinforcing the ‘right’ behaviours. Most of us are not saints or sinners, rather we absorb the ways others work. This extends from basic ‘pro-social’ interactions to do with decency and civility through to the modelling of focus and responsibility and other important attributes like curiosity. ‘Example’ also concerns how the implied attitudes at the core of a business’s purpose are demonstrated by staff in their dealings with each other as much as with customers: be that caring in the case of health services, learning for an education provider or speed for a high street fashion brand, for example.

I am discovering how this simple framework is powerful in a range of settings.

It helps individuals: it is useful in ways from coaching leaders through to prompting those being interviewed for new jobs to ask useful (and interesting) questions.

With teams it is a checklist to test that the platform for achieving positive results is in place.

For organisations it highlights three important factors to work to get right in all places – to ensure well-served customers, content staff and a fulfilled mission.

Are you ready for FREe business?

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What DEE-cisions?

Do, Improvement, Meetings, Organisations, Reflect, Teams No Comments

Imagine the scene. A producer pitching the idea for a film: in Africa, people are living insecure and impoverished lives; thousands of people decide to start an exodus to Europe; they walk and walk and walk, and they talk to the media covering their movement – “we are poor because you are rich”; those in the North are fearful of the mass migration from the South.

The surprise about this film? Well, firstly it is has already been made. By the BBC. A long time ago. In the 1980s a pitch something like the one imagined above actually happened. ‘The March’ was made with leading figures in front and behind the lens. It was broadcast over 25 years ago.

Even so, the surprise is not that it was so prophetic – the story remains prescient.

Rather, it is striking that the film is almost totally forgotten. It has never been repeated. You can’t buy it online – even through the BBC bookshop. It has just about disappeared, other than a couple of YouTube clips, for example.


This film was an insight – into insecure lives and the challenge of economic development.  Today, in our work (and lives) we are offered insights all the time. Sometimes our colleagues or bosses or contacts expect us to act.

We have four options in any situation:

First, we can IGNORE the information and time to decide.

Or, we might DO something. Possibly instinctively.

These are the two main responses. Both can be due to cognitive biases. The complexity or anxiery might just be too much for our busy life – so we ignore it. Or we are a bit discombobulated and just want to do something – so we rush to action.  Either way, we may (over) rely on our intuition.

Or possibly we want to take our time. Our third option is EXPERIMENTATION. We might want to give something a go. We might wish to try something out.

The fourth and final possible choice is EXPLORATION – wanting to find out more, or reflect.

When viewers saw ‘The March’, my hunch is most ignored the implications. Maybe it seemed too fanciful. Or worrying. Some probably signed up to the campaigns for third world debt relief that were popular at the time. Others maybe chose to give supporting a particular charity a go. Some others might have decided to read more about the issues and think about how best to respond.

In our organisations we can manage our DEE-cisions by:

1) being totally clear of the criteria for ignoring a topic or possible choice. Maybe it is the responsibility of another group. However, ignoring should be used sparingly.  Often issues that are important are not on the radar. Methods like ‘scenario planning’ help shift some issues from being tuned out to ones that have further effort put into them – i.e. making the shift from ignoring to exploration or maybe even experimentation.

2) Deciding and acting is important for progress. Even here, ‘do and review’ is both poetry and philosophy. When will you take time to see if your ‘no-brainer’ decision had indeed worked?

3) Setting up some trials is at the heart of experimentation. What ‘improvement cycles’ or ‘prototypes’ can you try? The 90 day cycle is really valuable – what will you take stock of in a Quarter? Or 30 days? Or even after a week? This tweet remains a very popular tool for managing this spirit of trial (and error) and taking stock.  Experimentation builds momentum.

4) I do believe in the ‘art of procrastination’ in decision making – and this is where exploration can really come in.  The ‘art’ thing is the difference between ‘ignoring’ and ‘exploring’ – the difference between unecessary or unproductive delays and choosing deep, insightful thought. Keeping an eye on a topic or deciding to come back to an issue before making a decision can very helpful – or it can be avoidance. A symptom of a troubled group is continually revisiting and changing prior judgments – very sloppy governance indeed. But if it is well managed (sparingly, with strict deadlines and some effort) then exploration is helpful time to ponder and consider – and helps limber up our thinking for a future experiment or action.

So why not try triaging your next set of decisions in the group you work with. What can you ignore? But most importantly, what would DEE have you decide? What should you DO? What could you EXPERIMENT with? What might you EXPLORE a bit more?

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An example of shattered expectations in an NPO

Noble Purpose, Organisations No Comments

Bob, is a well-qualified clinician in his thirties. He has wanted to help development work overseas since a teenager.

He has been waiting for THE job. In an organisation doing the most important work. Somewhere that would be a joy to work for.

And then he got it.

In one of world’s leading development charities.

But Bob became deeply unhappy with what he considered the personal empire building amongst some of his colleagues plus some of the narrow rules and systems that seemed designed to control the many motivated middle level staff.

So he left. Disillusioned. Almost burnout. Definitely dispirited and pretty cynical.

There are at least two interpretations to this sad tale.

First, Bob doesn’t like fitting in – as a ‘true believer’ he sees himself as highly motivated and wanting the space to determine his own priorities. Others in the organisation, especially those more senior or long toothed, know the value of management systems in these difficult roles as a way of holding to account young, self-centred idealists.

Second maybe Bob was just overwhelmed by the self-interest of others, just as he said. Frued is reported to have said in the cliché: “sometimes a cigar is just a cigar”.

Knowing him (and the organisation), I think the it is probably latter. Others might say former.

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Lessons for the NHS…from Vincent Van Gogh

Improvement, Organisations No Comments

A friend recently went to visit the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam. She was hugely impressed by the work – and one thing in particular stood out. From the tour, she learnt how derivative Vincent Van Gogh’s work was, in some ways. His oeuvre wasn’t totally unique. He used and combined what he learnt over a short period of time in Paris.

He copied others, for example
– Delacroix in his use of a colour wheel for bold, almost clashing, contrasts.
– Romanticism for its use of texture
– Impressionism and pointillism for pixilation in composition

He added this to his use of a wooden perspective frame to help him get a sense of aspect that alluded him naturally, like the early masters.

He used others’ ideas and strengths – and yet he combined them into something unique and powerful.

He wasn’t afraid to ‘steal with pride’.

The English NHS has been in the news this week. As I have written before the desire to copy other people’s good ideas is at the heart of improvement. Those to learn from might be on the next shift or the next ward or the adjacent profession or the younger recruit or the older team member. Or maybe from far away: this piece  outlines some of the many things that could be creatively pursued in a ‘pick and mix’ – learn from elsewhere – fashion.


Fake compassion (in)action?

Organisations, Values No Comments

I am just back from Sweden, where I found all train, hotel and airport staff hugely kind and helpful.  I loved the cheery greetings of ‘hay’.  I was so struck by the culture that I looked on Google to see if online troll-like behaviours, or ODE, were less likely in the land of the Trolls .  Sadly I couldn’t find anything to support this hunch!

However, when on the train to the airport (with phenomenally fast internet speeds, by the way), someone sent me this piece on compassion in health care from the Daily Mail.  At the end of the piece, I note some comments verge on the uncivil – and interestingly the ‘worst’ rated comments are the ones supporting Dr Smajdor (with some of the early trollish ones apparently removed at the time of publishing this blog).

Having read the piece, it makes me wonder more about what the vilified author was actualy trying to convey.  For me, the piece made me reflect on the difference between compassion (a feeling) and kindness (an act).

You might know of our interest in compassion in health care, at from 2008 and this, a bit more recently. Actually, with hindsight, we would have probably been much better to be part of a social movement for greater warmth and kindness…and maybe the NHS Constitution is not that helpful using the ‘C’ word.


Some days it is hard to feel compassion (even after hours of mindfulness or Buddhist meditation)….and some people are hard to love at any time.

So kindness is good enough.

Actually this is true in all sectors: civility and helpfulness is the benchmark in a shop or restaurant too. The author Caitlin Moran argues that at the heart of all civil rights movements is the demand to be nice to each other. US academic Bob Sutton points out that jerks in teams are the bane of organisational life.

So all any of us need to do (in any sector and any role), is to act kindly to our customers and co-workers – act warmly, even if frustrated.  This is something I have personally learnt (and keep relearning) the hard way (!) through conflicts and judgements I would now rather avoid.

And what we might find is, that when we overrule our emotions with our logic (as in CBT), our feelings actually change.

For a few decades now, in western countries, we have all had to to be nice in public to those who are gay or from a minority ethnic community, for example. I don’t think it is unrelated that now opinion polls support gay marriage and we are more tolerant to people with different non-white skin colour.

This ‘fake it till you make it’ route might work in health care too…

…in today’s UK health system, post Mid Staffs, it is increasingly the case that staff are no longer allowed to appear unkind. However, it should be ok not to feel compassion I reckon – and be open about this in 1:1 supervisions, for example (honesty that will help avoid burnout and cynicism along the way too).  This act first (and feel it later) approach will end up shifting the culture faster, I predict.  And if you are doing this surrounded by colleagues acting the same, it actually might be quite easy…

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The chief culture officer?

Organisations, Think No Comments

In our work, as regular readers will know, we support senior leaders in shaping the thinking (creative exploration, option generation, decision making) and behaviour (values, ways of working, culture) of their senior teams and organisations. Many years later, we still find the 4i model helpful in framing this task.

As a colleague pointed out to me this week, one of the early management theorists, Jacques, made a big deal of getting the right sort of thinkers at the appropriate level in an organisation (noun) with the right degree of ‘requisite organisation’ (verb) – see this  and this.

However, this more modern piece – actually published this week – is a more contemporary account, with the role of CEO as the guardian of not just the thinking of an institution, but of its behaviour too. We like this – as do a number of clients we have shared it with over the last few days.

We have long believed that what leaders say and do matters – more than their ability to personally think clever new ideas. This twin focus (on thinking and behaviuour) is part of the way we like to develop teams in what we sometimes call our ‘Team Gymnasium’ of several development sessions linked to specific readings, assessments and conversations. Some of the ideas that are core to this process are those of Lencioni (for his team model), Heron (for the 6 interventions), Fairtlough (for responsibility autonomy) – alongside some of our ideas on VIP (values into practice), FFO (front foot organisations) and NPO (noble purpose organisations).

As always, we are happy to share more on any of this FOC (free of charge)…

That is enough TLAs for now – by the way there are ‘only’ 17 thousand possible permutations I read recently! So a few more to go…(even accounting for a couple more here)

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Blog = conservation conversations…and more

Improvement, Organisations No Comments

I am having a sustainability focused week from

1) Working with a great conservation client – helping them in their mission to protect bio diversity

2) Through an interesting conversation with an education client about promoting sustainability thinking in Higher Education (drawing on ideas from here)

3) Being encouraged by the launch of the B team & now working at a café in London between calls to Australia and meetings in this great city (sustaining myself personally too).

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Noble…energy, this and that

Front foot, Organisations No Comments

You may have seen our recent blog and our book idea on Noble Purpose Organisations. We have had a great response. However, please do pass on the idea to others you know…and please say if you want to get involved.

Our intention is to write an entertaining and personally practical book – full of ideas for people to put into action in whatever role you have in a NPO (from volunteer to trustee, admin to CEO).

We want to do it with a really positive energy too….and on the importance of a positive stance, have a read of this.

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