Tuesday, April 10, 2007
From my April progress report - ho hum
Since the individual projects in the Learning Division were started, they have built up different but very positive team cultures, based around strong values. Through these values they have been able to get things done rapidly and effectively, focusing on getting results, without always having, needing or wanting precise policies or procedures. Decision-making has been fast, and responsibility has been passed to team members, who have been trusted to do the right thing. Managers have been able to manage, and have felt trusted to do so responsibly. There was little hierarchy and a lot of flexibility, of roles and attitude. Motivation and optimism have been high. Internal communication has been quick and intuitive – people knew about their projects and what was expected of them. The experience has been one of energy, creativity, enjoyment and fulfilment. Team members prided themselves on not being like FIRDOS (sorry), which was seen as slow and institutional, or government departments, or even like the private sector. There was a distinct ethos and process to these projects, which made them stand out and impress. They were different. In many ways they represented and made real exactly the inspired, empowered and enabled qualities we seek to build in young people.
It would be nice to report that we are building on this positive picture. Instead, it is sad but necessary to say that inside the Trust these qualities are now disappearing at an increasing speed. Values, responsibility and self-reliance are being replaced by policies, accountability and bureaucracy. Increasing numbers of people now have to be involved in often quite trivial decisions. Processes which once would have taken weeks now take months. New external priorities are now arriving, which conflict with project critical paths, and as a result the urgent is overtaking the important. Communication is better between projects, but is slowing overall as more explanations are given to more people. A sense of creating something new and different is now being replaced by a sense of being part of something conventional and impersonal. A celebration of creative entrepreneurship and teamworking is becoming the celebration of institutional behaviour and avoidance of risk. Managers have little autonomy, and process priorities are now controlled by Admin, not by them. The pace of delivery is slowing, while the pressure of work increases. There is very little fun. Distinctiveness and diversity is being replaced by uniformity and parity. There is an emphasis on process over achievement, rules over trust, organisation over people.
All of this might be mitigated by a feeling that the Trust was likely to actually reduce the load on project teams, and make life simpler, if not now then at some time in the future. To date all the evidence available to team members has been the reverse. An accumulation of administrative requirements, none necessarily large but adding up to a considerable number of hours a week, consumes management time. Candidates are shortlisted for interview who are plainly unsuitable for the role in question, wasting time. Projects are asked to respond in writing to requests that themselves are often verbal, making it impossible to document any exchanges. Policies are implemented without adequate resources in place, creating bottlenecks, or without all the components (eg payslips), creating confusion or frustration. Additional process steps are put in place, as in contracts, which add time and do nothing to reduce errors, which project managers still have to check for. A recent requirement from Finance to get three quotes for expenditure over SYP15,000 [c£150 at that time] exemplifies the impression that the Trust is looking to save pennies while happily wasting pounds in management time and delay to progress. Accountability is being required to inappropriately microscopic levels of detail. It ignores the fact that project managers have already established who are reliable suppliers of quality goods and services and built effective relationships with them. Reliable quality is infinitely more valuable to projects than the saving of a few pounds. It would be bizarre to throw away this value now. Nowhere is there evidence that the emerging Trust is actually looking to get projects done better, only to control them tightly from the centre against cost-mentality criteria.
There is a strong sense that nothing is more important than getting the Trust’s systems into place, that forming the Trust is the only project that matters, whatever impact this or the new systems may have on the “real” projects’ work commitments. Project teams can appreciate that there is work to be done by Admin to get this in place and wish to support it; what is not apparent is any reciprocal recognition that projects are already under extreme pressure to deliver outputs and timetables agreed some time ago. Or indeed that the work of the project teams might of itself be of greater fundamental worth – to the Trust, to Syria – than administrative systems. We will miss delivering Business Awareness altogether this term as it has taken so long to recruit; left to herself, the project manager could have had staff in place weeks ago. It may not have been the best way to do it, but the old way got the job done. The effect on staff’s circumstances is also ignored. As an example, Majed’s salary raise, agreed in principle back in December in order to stop him taking another job, has still not been paid, as this individual case has been swept up in the general process of salary review. As a stop-gap a personal loan has been made to Majed, but there appears no good reason why an uplift could not have been made already as a one-off. The effect is that the Trust is seen to have little care for individual employees.
At the same time, the process of establishing the Trust formally is achieving the opposite of confidence-building. Target dates not met (salary review, legal process), changes to “final” decisions (name), staff working for months without even temporary contracts, uncertainty over senior appointments (RD/FIRDOS, Communications), grasp of facts (salary net/gross issue recognised late in the day), all reduce trust in the Trust. Statements that budgets are not confirmed or approved create uncertainty. Stupidities such as the procedure proposed for re-allocation of laptops donated to WorldLinks diminish faith in policy. The fact that some Admin managers are privy to draft policy detail which is kept from project managers, such as the proposed salary scales during a recruitment process, means that the process is a) ineffective, b) confusing, as one person may be working rigidly to one set of assumptions not known to the other, c) divisive, encouraging an “us and them” attitude, and d) counter to the sort of transparent culture we should be building in the Trust.
Project teams are also now finding that what once were simple channels of communication are now proliferating. They are responding to requests from HE’s office (Lina and Wassim), HE’s press office (with a yet-undetermined remit in respect of Trust media work), and dealing with Protocol for formal events. It would be good to streamline this channel.
All of this is resulting in increasing stress, deteriorating morale, and general dissatisfaction. Tempers are getting shorter as frustration rises. It is particularly true of managers, on whom complaints and worries, from both their own project staff and Admin, converge. Till now, these managers have been able to take the morale and commitment of their teams almost for granted. It is another inefficiency that management time has to be spent reassuring and motivating once healthy teams. Managers' own sense of responsibility and autonomy in respect of their teams has been replaced by the sense that they are accountable to HR, certainly not the other way round. As independent businesses, projects would hire and manage their own administrative services. The services would be accountable to the projects, share their business targets, and report to the directors. What we have now is the reverse, and it is not working to the benefit of project delivery.
Already the Trust is competing with projects, rather than enabling them. It has emerged as yet another demanding stakeholder, with the privilege of questioning projects but immune from questioning by them. It adds no value whatever to the process of delivering projects; instead it is acting as a drag anchor, procedurally and spiritually. If things stay as they are the Trust will become one of the most significant risks to the delivery of project outcomes, and arguably to the achievement of its own vision. It should, I feel, be creating a model of a new type of organisation in Syria, a beacon of best practice attracting the brightest of talents. To date it looks very much like a government department.
It would be pleasant to report something other than a litany of woe this month, but apart from project work, as reported separately in individual progress reports, little but this has been dealt with or talked about in the Learning Division. It is my recommendation that the emerging shape of the Trust is given an urgent and fundamental re-appraisal, as I fear that the current Learning projects will be unable to sustain much more of this short-term building work, or thrive in the apparent long-term Trust form. I can say with conviction that almost nothing of the excitement of Massar (eg giving young people local responsibility for limited budgets) will survive if it is required to stay in the Trust, and I am doubtful that we will meet even a 2010 deadline. All the Learning Division managers are committed to delivering results for the Trust. I hope we can discuss and agree ways in which they can be empowered to do so.
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