Why, in whole systems, is it so hard to move from papers to action?

This is a shorter version – the full version can be downloaded (top right)

One of the strangest experiences in whole systems change in the public sector is observing how much energy is spent writing papers that are not acted upon, attending meetings that don’t make decisions, and holding workshops that lead to elaborate diagrams but no agreement to proceed.

Ron Heifetz [1]coined the phrase ‘work avoidance’ to describe the way leaders are distracted from the difficult conversations that need to take place if we’re to achieve ambitious outcomes in tough times. Work avoidance is quite the opposite of laziness, indeed to avoid the real leadership work we often exhaust ourselves with back-to-back meetings, and slave over hundreds of pages of data and vast action plans.

Work avoidance, says Heifetz, can take a number of different forms:

  • Defining the problem as technical and apply a technical fix.
  • Turning down the heat – deny the problem exists
  • Taking options off the table
  • Shooting the messenger
  • Delegating the work to people who can’t do anything about it
  • Creating a ‘proxy fight’ to avoid grappling with the real issue

It can feel discomfiting to talk about deep feelings and intentions when we are used to an impassive managerial style in our meetings. It can seem like ‘not proper work’ to discuss fears and worries. A flurry of meetings gives a reassuring sense of activity, while difficult conversations can get stuck, or go backwards for a while. But real leadership takes time and self-conscious effort – it involves telephone calls, and meetings in coffee shops, reflection and self-examination, looking into our own hearts to find our values and priorities. It can seem destructive to challenge work avoidance activity, since people are clearly working very hard. Finding ways to do so without blaming individuals is an important part of leadership. But, just as an experiment, if you suspect your ‘system’ is locked into work avoidance, try some of the following:

  • Agree the outcomes you care about, identify the real risks and talking honestly about difficulties.
  • Commit your own heart and soul: ‘What I really care about is – and I will work hard to make this happen.’
  • Instead of suggesting that consultants or more junior staff in ‘work-streams’ solve a problem – get the right people round the table and try to do it yourselves.
  • Name the underlying problems – make sure all the elephants in the room are identified!
  • Sit with discomfiting truths – and find ways to talk about them.
  • Create alliances – a phone call before or after the meeting: ‘ I wondered why you weren’t there – thought I’d let you know what happened’ – or ‘ did you feel that we got anywhere – what can we do between us to help make more progress?’
  • Speak up if the right work is not being done – “We need to stop and think about this or we will create something that can’t be implemented’.
  • Design creative spaces where many brains can help solve a problem – including front line staff and service users.

This is an extract from a longer article. For more information about Traverse’s work on system leadership – contact Sue Goss, Principal in whole-system change and integration – Sue.Goss@traverse.ltd

[1] See, for example, Ron Heifetz: Leadership Without Easy Answers, Harvard University Press, 1994

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