Barry Marlow on how organisational behaviours are shaped and driven by complex systems, structures, policies and procedures, but can be simplified to great effect.
Part of my work is finding out how people think. From there it’s a matter of identifying the behaviours that affect performance.
Behaviours drive performance. Traditionally, it was thought that it was systems, structures, policies, procedures, job descriptions and appraisals that were behind performance. It’s not. It’s the behaviours that are created by all these ‘hard’ things.
I have something called a Rent Diagnostic. This is a programme for social landlords that combines seminars, observations and a series of rent conversations that creates a picture of what people are doing. What they actually do. Not what the process says they ought to be doing. What they actually do. There – I’ve said it three times for impact.
Another part of the diagnostic involves me and my team having conversations with customers. In this case, social housing tenants. This is to find out if all the hard system/procedure stuff makes a blind bit of difference to them. Which is surely its aim.
It is frighteningly obvious that housing officers are working their backsides off on something called ‘escalation procedures’ that customers have absolutely no connection with.
Hard Stuff Soft Stuff
All this hard work, resource and dedication to a way of working that, eventually, makes matters worse. One answer has always been the traditional one. Review the hard stuff. Or, if that doesn’t work, blame the staff or train them to get on better, smile at people and improve the attitude that surely must be the problem. This is the ‘soft’ stuff.
When I talk with customers I’m always objective and easy-going and they respond openly and candidly about what goes on when housing officers go through utter desperation to get them to engage, respond and pay. The aim is to get a rent account that’s in trouble back on track. A clear rent account is a good outcome.
But housing organisations are well known for making life complicated. The procedure is complicated because it pre-determines the ‘right’ behaviour. This isn’t the job of procedures. They’re only there to be shot at, allowing people to dodge what it says and find their own solutions by shifting behaviour. Remember – performance is what people do…not what they’re supposed to do.
I have an opinion questionnaire as part of the diagnostic that asks the sort of questions that escalation procedures never ask. Like ‘how are you feeling about this’ and ‘what was going through your mind when you decided to…’
One question I ask is ‘What is financial inclusion?’ I do this because it's a popular pastime with social housing people.
I’ve interviewed over 200 people during the diagnostics. Not one person has described financial inclusion the way a housing officer would be happy with. If they manage to describe it at all. It’s just not how people think. It’s not their language. It’s not part of their behaviour. So it's not part of their performance either.
And yet, most social landlords have financial inclusion strategies, financial inclusion policy, financial inclusion systems and even have officers who promote financial inclusion, compile financial inclusion leaflets and call themselves financial inclusion officers.
Financial inclusion is complicated language in an already complex world. This is neither translated nor sold well to customers who might well benefit from its laudable aims. My own experience is my evidence here. Not only this, but layers of complicatedness justify its complexity, creating little industries where people justify their job descriptions with the processes and other hard stuff. All ways to fail but in an accountable and justifiable way.
Frankly, my dear, customers don’t give a damn.
Once it’s unpicked (not what it is but what it does) and explained in proper, simple language, people get real and say really insightful things like “Why couldn’t they have said that in the first place”
For more information about the SMART Simplicity approach and your invitation to a free event in Birmingham on 22 September follow the link.