Strange rings in the water after the Coronavirus

This week our media has  made some observations, reflections and revelations of unusual situations and reactions which  are worth noting and which I cannot avoid seeing from the perspective of my work with organisational leadership. 

Together with other Scandinavian educators, I have advocated for several years that we should adopt a radically different leadership approach to one that prevails especially within the public sector in Denmark. Our approach to leadership in Denmark is to a significant degree based on experts who plan and tell the rest of us, what we should do. This we then comply with as loyal citizens and obedient employees.

Our organisations are typically divided into sectors, departments and other silos, where a local expert – a duke or czar – rules and optimises based on his or her perspective. Communication between these silos often develops into border disputes and skirmishes over who has the authority over details. Most often this happens in a polite and correct manner, but a lot of time can be spent on it. 

This is all textbook behaviour taken right out of F. Winslow Taylor’s “The Principles of Scientific Management” from 1911, which together with its modern version “New Public Management” has dominated our thinking for more than 100 years. 

In an article (read here…chief physician Morten Sodemann expounds how under the present crisis, we are suddenly able to treat people more quickly and holistically and not only Corona patients. Why is that? Well because now people and also experts are available immediately.There is no need for lengthy documentation, planning, waiting lists and so on. Instead it is possible to find and get someone’s input straight away. There are teams of practitioners who perform together in a very dynamic manner.

My colleague in Norway reports similar effects in a hospital in Trondheim, where they get almost  twice as much work done now. Why is it that it requires a crisis, for us to figure out how to solve problems in this dynamic way? 

  • 100 years of baggage from Taylor,  is deeply embedded, particularly in the Danish educational system, where we educate experts in narrow fields and give them small duchys within organisations, where their expertise has to be consulted before anyone is allowed to proceed. It makes us good at complying with rules but not very good at reacting to new challenges. 
  • We believe that there is a clear and distinct scientific explanation to everything and that we are in control. Politicians, of course, like  it , because it strengthens their self-image and perception of authority. It is almost a given, there always has to be an expert driven and/or political solution. 
  • For far too long we have rested in the “Zone of Complacency”, where we think that our designed and thoroughly regulated society and organisations hold the answers to everything. It is so comfortable to believe in rules and checklists, and as long as everything is proceeding fairly smoothly, our conservative mental biases make sure that we don’t change anything. There are almost no people alive who have lived through a crisis that threatens our society like this – WWII was 75-80 years ago. This became very clear when one of our top civil servants, Kaare Mølbak from the SSI (Statens Serum Institut) happened to remark that “the most important thing is that the story of our welfare state remains intact”. (read here…).
  • In our society and within our organisations we have convinced ourselves that we live and work within the “Obvious” or the “Complicated” domain , where the problem will be solved with just a few more rules and a bit more input from experts. We struggle with the “Complex” domain, where only fragmented knowledge is available and only a few of the pieces of the puzzle exist, but where we still have to act. And we hardly know how to handle it, when as now we experience a sudden drop into “Chaos”,  and have almost no useful points of reference on which to act

What is it then that makes it possible to suddenly find solutions to things in such borderline chaotic situations? There is an overwhelming amount of research that points to the three following points:

  • First of all, in the current situation there is a very clear goal which everyone connects to. There is a need and it is obvious to  almost everyone that it would be wrong not to do your best. 
  • Secondly, since the bureaucracy with all its rules and delays has obviously stopped working, the authority moves out to the frontline people, who have to act, and suddenly it seems natural to trust them and their decisions.  
  • Finally, people are allowed to do their best and experience the satisfaction of having made an effort, which is appreciated and is not slowed down or frustrated by an impersonal system and hierarchy

This is called “Intrinsic Motivation”. See for example Anders Dysvik from Oslo BI, where they have researched and taught this topic for years. They are not driven by Taylor and his modern day disciples. 

It is my great hope that this current mental earthquake of a level 7 or 8 on the Richter scale, which is the Corona crisis, will make just a few responsible individuals within organizations and not least among politicians and public leaders, think differently. 

In our little thoroughly regulated corner of the world, everyone benefits from behaving alike and being treated uniformly. But perhaps we need to start reclaiming the dignity of the individual, by allowing people to engage fully in solving the important tasks at hand. To do this we must trust others to take responsibility and not be afraid to create common goals. 

The old power-based hierarchy, plan-driven bureaucracy is not working anymore. It has become dramatically apparent that a new way forward is necessary. 

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Follow the next articles in the series “Rings in the Water after the Coronavirus” here on the channel.

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