It’s in the DNA of FutureGov to have hard conversations.

We work with organisations to design and deliver better ways of working and capabilities to support 21st-century service models. This means that we don’t focus on making people happy. We focus on helping people deliver what’s right for the future of their organisation and the services they deliver or support.

Hard conversations should be uncomfortable. It’s only by learning to live with this feeling that we make progress. It’s important to find ways of doing this individually, so we build confidence in them to do the same.

Insightful, challenging and supportive approach — for which I am most grateful

Rob Walsh

Chief Executive, NEL Union

An art, not a science

Picking the right moment to have hard conversations is crucial. There will always be times when building confidence and trust with people in new ways of working should be your main priority.

In my experience, it’s usually when we begin to test things in the real world, and when change becomes real, that hard conversations need to start happening. This is when we’re asking the most from people, to suspend their disbelief about how things should work, and to be more ambitious about how things could work in the future. It forces us to move beyond superficial conversations into deeper reform. The conversational equivalent of not just digitising a form, but fixing the service that sits behind it.

More often than not, it’s about thinking through together how we can dare to be great, rather than accept being good.

The ability to empathise with the experience and frustrations of the people we work on the front line of services is important here. At FutureGov our teams have worked in local and central government, the NHS and beyond. Many of our team have been on the other side of the divide, grappling through the same issues while working inside these organisations. We understand what it’s like to work really hard to make a difference in each of these contexts. Having real conversations with people helps make sense of the change, rather than just understand it.

Context and ambition matters

I often find that conversations are hardest when they focus on organisational change.

This is because organisational change isn’t just the sum total of bits of service improvement or transformation. It runs much deeper than that. It’s easy to replace technology or to change the way a service operates, but opening yourself up to thinking about the future role or purpose for an organisation is much harder.

If we improve a service but don’t talk about changing the structure of the organisation and the business model around it, have we been ambitious enough? Have we designed for a future where the service and organisation can grow, thrive and make as big an impact as we could? I don’t think so.

Whether you’re a Director in a local authority, a senior GP in a CCG or the Chief Executive in a national charity, a large part of leading through change is about managing ambiguity and uncertainty. In 21st century organisations, communicating openly with humility, having a useful and usable vision, and being deeply empathetic are all essential.

A recent example of this was our project in North East Lincolnshire to review Adult Services where we worked with the Council, the CCG and 11 local providers, as well as members of the community. We combined direct project work, system-level engagement and engaging with elected members.

I had to get them to trust each other and work together constructively, to help create the conditions for more difficult conversations at the right moments. A core part of this was that we focussed on function before form, thinking about what would make the biggest difference to Adult Services and then working out how to deliver this. We were constantly showing our work and inviting feedback. By winning hearts and minds, we could ask everyone the really hard questions about themselves and the way they work, but in the right way.

Start small, think big

How you approach having hard conversations is part of the culture you build and sustain inside your organisation. The ability to communicate effectively is so important. Simple tools and approaches can start to shift the way people communicate with one another.

An approach I use is to follow up on our regular team stand-ups, bringing people together for 15 minutes a day to share updates on what they’re working on.

My approach is to find common ground with people, to build empathy with them, giving examples of what I’ve tried or learned on other projects, and helping them join up the dots across their own work and the wider FutureGov network. This helps to build credibility and trust, and over time these small conversations start to create the momentum for bigger conversations that are needed inside an organisation.

As an example, if our aim is to get managers in an organisation to model a new style of leadership or communication, we could start small by helping people realise that it’s ok to not know the answer or admit when they’re wrong. These behaviours, while small to begin with, are always amazing indicators that set a tone and eventually open up conversations about future styles of leadership, mindsets and approaches that might be needed in the organisation.

By setting the precedent for open, honest and regular communication, space gets created for harder conversations. Moving away from a confrontational style of communication to sharing problems and working together can be uncomfortable at first, but sticking with this makes it easier in the long run.

There ain’t no easy way.

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