Monday 17 January 2011

Willing and able - a tale of two sectors

I was having a chat with a work colleague recently, and he was raving on about the concept of "willing and able" - or if you're talking about the public sector, "unwilling and unable". For the benefit of Cav, I will now ask my "brother", the management consultant, to take over this post. (For the rest of you, just ignore the fact that I now have two voices in my head arguing with each other).

After 20 years of working in the public and private sectors, I'd have to say that the biggest difference in performance between the two is how they treat the dullards. The private sector has them, but they tend to get rid of them on a regular basis and they also tend to not allow their numbers to build up to the point where they become a risk to the company. Any operation can afford a couple of idiots - but when the number of clowns gets so large that they take over the circus, then the place turns to shit. The public sector doesn't do any regular house cleaning of staff, so over time, the number of oxygen thieves builds up to a point where they reach a critical mass, and then the performance of the whole department goes down the toilet.

As far as high performers goes, I've met plenty in both the private and public sectors. In fact I'd go so far as to say that at the top level of performance, the proportion is about the same across both sectors. There are some very bright, very hard working people in the public sector - unfortunately, they are dragged down by some absolute boat anchors.
I'm not saying that the oxygen thieves and WOFTAMs are stupid (Waste of Flipping Time and Money) - in fact many of them are exceptionally bright. Their problem is generally that their priorities are not aligned with the aims of the department. They go off on tangents and do their own thing, and sometimes work like mad to sabotage the work of anyone that isn't following their tangent. Others are manic empire builders, or serial organisational reshufflers, or followers of every management fad that ever made it into paperback. Some are lazy as hell, or spend all their time running a business on the side. I have met a few genuinely thick people in my time, but they are pretty rare. The rest are smart people doing very stupid things.

This is where we get to our "willing and able" matrix. Anyone who has ever seen a BCG matrix will recognise where I stole this idea from. Your top class performers - the "A" crowd, are willing (motivated) and able (skilled, educated, experienced) to get he job done. The "B" performers are a bit less motivated or don't have the top level skills of the "A" crowd. Those in the "C" group are just getting by - doing enough to earn their pay, and not much else. The "D" group are both unmotivated and unskilled.
I worked for one government department that looked like the above - it was quite new, so it hadn't been around long enough to accumulate any barnacles on its hull - and the CEO was also ruthless enough to sack anyone that failed to perform. That was a once-off performance; I have never seen another public sector CEO with the balls to do that (and our CEO was a woman). That department was a great place to work - it really got things done, and morale was excellent.

I've also spent a bit of time in a department like the picture below - it had been around for a long time, been through endless restructures (which always resulted in the good performers leaving) and was completely hamstrung by a huge dead weight of under performing numpties. In fact a massive amount of organisational time was spent in trying to prevent the oxygen thieves from sabotaging and destroying the entire place. Sacking them was not an option, so management spent all its time putting out the fires that the WOFTAMs deliberately lit on a regular basis. They work very hard to create a crisis, then sit back and watch the fun start. It's how they got their kicks. I suspect a fair few of them were psychopaths. Working there was the pits.

Since leaving that sinking ship, I've worked for a wide array of private companies. I spent some time with an well known entrepreneurial company - the owner deliberately employs young, enthusiastic people, and the image of the company reflects that. Unfortunately, those young staff tend to be wet behind the ears, and are not as highly skilled as older, more experienced workers tend to be. They're as motivated as hell, but sometimes they don't have a clue what they're doing. It's an interesting strategy, and it would probably work really well if the youngsters were leavened with a few older, wiser grey heads - but that wouldn't suit the hip, young image of the company, so they are left to blunder on regardless. A fun place to work, but a bit tiring after a while.
Another mob I worked for went through a takeover and about 40% of the staff were made redundant. Unlike the public sector, the redundancies were involuntary. If there was one job and two candidates, the candidate who failed got the boot. They were paid well on their way out the door, but the process had a pretty shocking impact on those that survived. Essentially, they did just about nothing for 3 months except work on ensuring they got a job. Their regular work was put aside - if they failed to get the job, they wouldn't have to worry about catching up on it, would they? Many of them ended up with jobs that they didn't really like, which upset them no end. In short, a lot of willing and able people were turned into unwilling and able - skilled, but annoyed and thus underperforming.
A company that I recently worked for laid off 10% of its workforce when I was there. They did the same a few years ago when I did another job for them. (I'm sounding like the kiss of death, aren't I?) Management worked pretty hard to ensure that they got rid of the dead wood during that process. In some cases, they had to get rid of people who were quite good - it was simply a matter of letting the bottom performers go in each team. In other cases, a team was carrying quite a bit of dead wood, but they only got rid of the worst cases, leaving a few useless ones in place. Each team had to get rid of 10% across the board. It didn't matter if one team had 5% useless and another 15% - 10% had to go. I didn't hear anyone complain too loudly - the payouts were very good, and since the object was to save money, they got rid of the most expensive people first (the CEO and a couple of other top managers).

The public sector does it all arse about though by offering voluntary redundancy. A lot of people in the "A" and "B" groups take the money and run, knowing they will get a job elsewhere very quickly. Those in the "D" group hang on like grim death - and they always seem to survive every purge. The department is then faced with recruiting more top performers (always a difficult task) and getting them up to speed in a hurry.

I'm not saying that sacking lots of useless public servants tomorrow is the answer. One challenge of being a manager is working out why people are not performing, and then trying to turn that around - either through re-training, putting an unhappy person into a different job or even moving staff around (some people just can't stand sitting next to certain personality types). If you can't fix them, then it's time they looked for a job elsewhere - they're either in the wrong industry, or the wrong company within that industry. (eg, a boat builder might be unhappy with the boss at one boat building company, but perform much better with another boat builder - that's moving between companies within the same industry. Other boat builders might just be jack of building boats - it's time they tried another industry, like running a florist or a cafe).

Here's the number one difference between the public and private sectors; in the private sector, managers are generally held accountable for the performance of their teams. That means they either motivate or improve the skills of their staff, or they sack them. If they fail, the manager gets the sack. In the public sector, managers never have to worry about losing their jobs. They really aren't under any pressure to make tough decisions - like getting rid of people.


cav said...

Hey big boy, are those dots supposed to move when ya look at them?

I'm not sure I follow everything ya bro says BOAB, but I do know that when a govt dept restructures, the good staff get jobs elsewhere straight away, and those 'less qualified' get left behind to carry on. Then another restructure, and another... and pretty soon things are not lookin' too good brains trust that are the staff.

But can you blame the staff?

Let's look at it another way. You have been a hard and loyal worker - putting in long hours to meet the demands of management. You have delivered over and over again.

Suddenly there's a restructure.

You realise that your efforts have been for nought.

You move and take up another position in the dept and put in extra hours making the new structure work usually with less staff and whinging clients complaining about they are not getting the same service.

With reduced staff numbers, the career moves are not there anymore. Indeed a new regime and change of culture means you are on the outer and do not form part of the new 'click'.

Younger less experienced staff are getting the promotions, yet you are still expected to make the show run as the new boys 'know nothing'.

Finally another restructure.

This time you decide to do nothing. You are still paid at your normal salary rate but you are now doing easy jobs as a kind of fill in.

You have no stress anymore, no deadlines to meet. You simply turn up and are given jobs to do on your same pay and you watch while the new whizkids are struggling with their new found responsibilities and inadequate experience to make things work.

It works both ways BOAB.

Look after your staff and they will look after you.

Give loyalty to your staff and they will remain loyal to you.

When effecting change, get staff involved and seek out their ideas in how to improve the operation. After all, it is they who run the show, not the bosses.

Sorry I dunno how to do this with dots.

Boy on a bike said...

Cav, I know what you're talking about. In my first job in the public sector, I worked with a 25 year veteran who had been through 25 restructures. He was totally over it - and I don't blame him. However, if he was that over it, he should have left and found a job elsewhere long ago.

Anonymous said...

Looks like Defence, Tourism, Climate Change and Immigration.

But the worst I have ever seen was Federal Police. Did 2-3 big redundancies as they were going to shut them down, then reversed the decision. But it's a closed shop, you have to be AFP to run AFP. The result was an organisation being run by the worst dregs of the worst dregs of an organisation so bad that the government wanted it shut down. Those with a skerrick of ability had seen the writing on the wall and left during the redundancies.

Climate Change was staffed with idiots from the beginning, and Defence is just huge and sclerotic with age.


1735099 said...

One of the major differences between the private and public sectors centers around restructures.
In the private sector, restructures generally happen for good reasons. In the public service, they happen so that the government in power is seen to be "doing something" in that particular area.
This breeds cynicism and many public sector employees simply decouple, in the sense that they remain in their jobs, but are simply going through the motions.
The upside is that if you stay long enough, you'll see old structures resurrected and given snappy new names. Many of the young bright-eyed and bushy tailed are dismayed when I explain that the "new" idea that they're so excited about was used twenty years ago.

Aus_Autarch said...

The Restructure treadmill is a problem. I'm relatively new in the lowest level of state education management, but it strikes me as painful/frustrating to hear the reminescences of prior restructures that are the same as the "New" idea.

Why can't we tap into the expertise of those who were present through the previous cycle of this "new" concept/idea to avoid the mistakes of the last implementation. The embittered/exhausted survivors of the change cycle should be the most valuable members of the community, not "blockers".

This strikes me that the change management leaders are ill-informed and almost evangelical. Instead of proclaiming that the new concept/plan/model is the be-all, end-all it needs to be integrating into current practices rather than displacing them and informing professionals that the way they have done things is outdated and must be discarded.