Solving the big problems

thumb image

Sometimes it is worth flicking through the old classics for new inspiration. I came across this recently from a 1973 book by Peter Drucker. The title dates it – Management tasks, responsibilities and practices. In it he describes different types of management jobs including this one:

“The widow- maker: finally jobs that are ‘widow-makers’ should be rethought and restructured. In the heyday of the great sailing ships, around the 1850’s just before the coming of steam, every ship company had a widow-maker on its hands once in a while. This was a ship which, for reasons no one could figure out, used to get out of control and kill people. After it had done this a few times a prudent ship-owner took it out of service and broke it up no matter how much money he had invested in it. Otherwise he soon found himself without captains or mates.”

The parallels and messages are clear here. We can all think of those organisations in the NHS which have defeated successive attempts to make lasting change for reasons which aren’t immediately apparent, and may not show themselves in some routine diagnostic to be damaged. But they continue to fail the patients they are due to serve and present enduring challenges to staff. The courage needed to make these decisions is clear – the advantage in Drucker’s example is that everyone knows who the ship owner is and they get to make the decision. If we think about the locus of control of most leaders in the NHS, it seldom reaches those heights but what ever our leadership role there may be parallels – teams, small parts of the department, isolated pockets of services – small areas of work that stubbornly resist change, diagnosis or solution. How many of us feel we have the courage or the conviction to make the right choice as leaders in those situations?

Drucker goes on to talk about how that relates to the construction of individual jobs and here again I think there are some interesting challenges for leaders today.

“In many companies, there are jobs that manage to defeat one good manager after another, without any clear reason why…if a job has defeated two individuals, in a row, who in their previous assignments had been doing well, it should be restructured.”

I can think of a number of very senior roles this might apply to – but again there is something here for all of us. Are we creating jobs that are doable? Even at the level of individual task or project. What can we do to restructure work and roles, possibly teams and services, to create roles that are achievable and set post holders up to succeed rather than fail.

Quite a bit of the book I read felt out of date but it has left me with a few thoughts:

  • The big problems that the system faces might be beyond most of our areas of control but there are usually parallels of the issues they face in our own area – are we doing as much as we can to look to our own practice. Maybe the big problems have better chance of being solved if we all make the little changes we can.
  • Are we creating jobs, tasks and roles that are genuinely doable – what action do we take when people fail? Are we always quick to look to blame their inadequacies without challenging ourselves first about what might need to be done differently?
  • And finally, we ignore the wisdom of those who have gone before us at our peril.  It is pretty fashionable to move on, to discard the lessons from some previous management thinker because, like your spoon collared, cheese cloth shirt, it is just so much out of date.

But – once in a while – dust off the old ones and give them a bit of your time (I’m talking about the books…) they may not be as prescient as they appear but you might be surprised at how it might help.