Thursday, October 11, 2007

'It takes more than Mr Targets to get results' - another Caulkin 'must read'

Lest anyone remains that thinks that targets work to effect results for which they were intended then read this excellent article by Simon Caulkin. To any systemist targets epitomise all that was wrong with the Blair years. As Simon points out:

'As someone said, carrots and sticks are useful for donkeys and if the object is direct and simple. Likewise targets. Of course, as Barber [Sir Michael Barber who set up and ran the Prime Minister's delivery Unit - PMDU - from 2001 to 2005 and was Blair's 'Mr Targets] writes, it is important to know what success is and devise measures to track progress towards it. But it's bad faith to try to motivate people with financial incentives then complain they are self-interested; and disingenuous to pretend that the unintended consequences of crude numerical targets are trivial.'

'Even Barber concedes that getting from 'adequate' to 'good', let alone 'great', can't be done by central fiat. It needs to enlist hearts and minds. It also requires the ability to look at and manage the system as a whole. Barber acknowledges the need for 'whole system reform' in passing, but only in passing, and gives no hint of the extent to which the blunt, soviet-tractor-style techniques of PMDU Mark 1 (targets, carrots and sticks) are incompatible with it.'

In his argument Caulkin makes the case, I believe, for 'delivery' based around systemic practices that acknowledge the complexity that has to be engaged with. Indirectly he makes the case for significant capacity building in systems thinking and practice skills. As he says:

'As an easy solution to a complex problem, this is what targets do. It's not that they are too ambitious or can't be made to work, at least temporarily; it's that optimising the parts is the enemy of the much greater returns that only system reform can deliver.'

To think and act differently - to appreciate systemic complexity and act purposefully to improve complex situations is one of the major needs of our times!
Mushrooming numbers of managers may actually be stifling UK enterprise…

In a very perceptive article Simon Caulkin, Management Editor of the Observer points out the litany of unintended consequences arising for the professionalising of management, as in MBAs, and the unquestioning adoption of flawed theories in the social realm. He argues that 'it can seem that the principal role of management these days is to make life a misery'.

In explicating his argument he draws on the work of Russ Ackoff:

'Russell Ackoff, the distinguished systems and management theorist, memorably described the self-set trap as “doing the wrong thing righter”. Most of our current problems, he maintains, are the result of managers and policy-makers trying ever harder to make something come right that they shouldn’t be doing in the first place. “The righter we do the wrong thing,” he notes, “the wronger we become. When we make a mistake doing the wrong thing and correct it, we become wronger. When we make a mistake doing the right thing and correct it, we become righter. Therefore, it is better to do the right thing wrong than the wrong thing right.” The wrong thing that managers have been striving to do righter — and in support of which a whole industry has grown up to amplify the wrongness — is, not to put too fine a point on it, central planning: an amoral, dysfunctional (and dangerously self-reinforcing) command-and-control management model that would not have been out of place in the Soviet Union.'

He concludes:

'In every sense, today’s dismal discipline is not economics but management.'

I hope there are folk out there taking notice of Simon's insights!

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Can you believe it?

I have been surprised that more has not been made of the British Conservative Party's new policy document: Blueprint for a Green Economy. Perhaps it has in the UK but in Oz it has mostly slipped below the radar - with a few exceptions! It is in many ways a radical document and although not yet adopted as Conservative Party policy it seems to move the debate, in some respects, light years ahead of where it is here in Oz. If only the current Oz election campaign involved discussion about these matters!! The description on the Conservative's home page says:

The Quality of Life Policy Group, chaired by John Gummer and vice-chaired by Zac Goldsmith, released their final report on Thursday September 13.

The Group have spent 18 months developing an agenda to make Britain a world leader on green growth by:
- Using markets to help create positive change
- Helping individuals change their behaviour
- Making industry use resources more efficiently

They have outlined a series of proposals to reduce pollution and improve the wider environment and quality of life.

Refreshingly the paper addresses a number of complex issues systemically. For example co-author John Gummer said:

"If we are to create a way of living that can sustain, then water, waste, transport and energy, as well as farming, food, fishing and the built environment, have to be thought of as a whole."

This can be interpreted as a need for investment in building systems practice capability. Systemic insights can be found elsewhere in the document:

'It is increasingly clear that the global economy must be retooled in order to ensure that it operates sustainably, within environmental limits. In this urgent task, it will be the world’s developed countries which lead the way. Over nearly three centuries we have grown ever richer but we have done so at the expense of the environment upon which our lives depend. We have therefore both the means and the obligation to repair the damage.'

'Yet, although Conservatives understand the vital role of markets, they recognise too that markets are mechanisms not gods. The market is crucial to our vision, but cannot deliver it alone. The strength of the market is its unique ability to meet economic needs. Its weakness is myopia. The market lacks the dimension of time. Unrestrained, it will catch till the last fish is landed, drill till there is no more oil, and pollute till the planet is destroyed. Its efficiency in creating material wealth is both its strength and its weakness.'

'We believe that growth and progress need to be redefined for a new century. ‘Growth’ should also encompass growth in the value and richness of society, of tolerance, diversity, and variety and of the strength and empowerment of family and community As a leading American economist, Herman Daly, has argued, economic growth is focused upon quantitative expansion and the notionally ‘limitless transformation of natural capital into man-made capital’. Sustainable development, by contrast, is about qualitative improvement, promoting increased economic activity only insofar as it does not exceed the capacity of the eco-system.'

'The social cost of material growth is becoming increasingly clear. Even as the global economy continues to consume beyond its ecological means, the long-assumed link between increased financial wealth and increased social wellbeing is showing signs of stress. Levels of income and consumption have soared over the last three decades in most developed countries. Yet consistently, the people of those same countries report no increase in their sense of contentment or wellbeing. In many cases they report a decline. It seems that in wealthy countries, a continued increase in economic growth, is not increasing wellbeing. '

'A measure of wellbeing that takes such environmental accounting into consideration needs to respect the four interdependent ‘securities’ of nature – energy security, water security, food security, and climate security. All overlap in complex ways. For example, if we put huge areas of fertile land over for production of biofuels to gain energy security or increase climate security, what will be the effects on food and water security? Failing to understand how these things mesh together ultimately damages us all.'

Not for one minute am I recommending the uncritical acceptance of all that is here. But as a report for a major political party in a western democracy I hope it has the effect of taking us collectively onto a new, much needed conversation and policy space.

For fresh insights turn to the Centre for Policy Development (CPD)

The Centre for Policy Development was set up to foster a diverse, cross-disciplinary community of thinkers who are interested in changing Australian policy for the better. CPD provides authors, public intellectuals and policy entrepreneurs who care about Australia’s long-term future space to grow and develop their ideas, and sets out to connect these ideas with a wider audience of concerned citizens, policy makers, and the media.

A recent paper by Geoff McAlpine addresses a number of key systemic issues in regard to how we understand and engage with 'the environment'.
The questions that numbers reveal?

Thanks to my friend Ric for the following.

Regardless of where you stand on the issue of the U.S. involvement in Iraq , here's a sobering statistic:

There has been a monthly average of 160,000 troops in the Iraq theatre of operations during the last 22 months, and a total of 2,112 deaths. That gives a firearm death rate of 60 per 100,000 soldiers.

The firearm death rate in Washington D.C. is 80.6 per 100,000 persons for the same period.

That means that you are about 25% more likely to be shot and killed in the U.S. Capital than you are in Iraq .

Conclusion: The U.S. should pull out of Washington