Culture change can feel like an elusive ambition. We often feel the effects of it, and it can be an inhibitor when encouraging teams to adopt new processes and ways of working. One of the areas difficult to shift is the who and how around decisions.
We’ve been working with Trafford Council on an ambitious change journey to creating an alternative council model which has involved looking at how Trafford works to deliver services, including operating models and ways of working, as they continue their evolution into a 21st-century organisation. Working with staff to uncover challenges and potential blockers for long-term change, we knew the next steps to change needed to start from the top. Modelling behaviours within the Corporate Leadership Group and involving executive members, Trafford could begin to define their vision for the organisation and create the conditions for change.
Autonomy is 21st-century working
Autonomy is often linked to teams being able to make decisions quickly and creatively. We sometimes hear leadership wish for greater levels of autonomy for their teams, but this autonomy starts with clear strategies and devolved governance from the top.
When directors each operate in different ways, it’s hard for staff to understand what the clear, directive strategy is or how it relates to their role. We’ve effectively created decision-making bottlenecks as opportunities on the ground are analysed and discussed for their individual merits rather than their relevance to the overarching strategy. A lack of clarity makes it difficult to prioritise and the amount of time spent getting answers leaves staff discouraged to offer new ideas. With a clear strategic priority, Trafford's strong leadership can support staff with the direction and insight needed to make informed decisions quickly.
As councils move to implement more multidisciplinary and place-based working, greater autonomy will be needed to ensure a seamless transition. Some staff members will be ready to accept autonomy in their roles, happy to work through a process of testing where boundaries lie in their responsibilities. But for many this feels like a personal risk. ‘What happens if I get something wrong?’
Challenging hierarchical structures of decision-making
Many see hierarchical decision-making, particularly when it results in pushing decision-making to the top of the organisation, as both inefficient and impractical. However, for staff on the ground or in middle management, it’s a safe and well-tested model.
“When in doubt, push it up a level.” Whether it’s the indented process in an organisation or the culture of the council, this is a learnt behaviour that while not rewarded, is not deterred. To change this learnt culture and build confidence in autonomy, we must create a new process for decision-making that can replace the informal (but well-used) process of ‘push it up’.
To do this, we need to identify some of the hidden cultural issues when decision-making is pushed to the top. These can include adequate distribution of resources, sensible prioritisation of resources to tasks (including having a visible backlog of projects and tasks) and recognising that ambition is about focus and saying ‘no’. All of which can result in staff being unable to make clear and confident decisions as individuals.