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A positive message in difficult times

User Avatar Blogger . 29/09/2010 10:49:03

By Dr Pat Tissington, Associate Dean Business Partnerships, Aston Business School

Having taken a short break from blogging, I'm returning to the fray with what I hope is an upbeat message - despite the frankly awful prospects of government announcements in October. So, to the awful bit first. I get the impression from the various polling and public opinion sampling that the general mood in the country is not completely opposed to government spending cuts on principle. But there does seem to be opposition when people are asked what they think about reductions in the services they personally get from government. Perhaps the whole thing is too abstract at the moment but it is going to become only too real come October when the announcements are due. Psychologically this seems to be a case of self interest with people being fine about pain so long as it involves other people but less enthusiastic when it affects us personally. Or maybe it has more to do with not yet knowing what the impact is going to be. It is some sort of economic phoney war currently which is likely to have it's Dunkirk moment soon.

Those of us involved in the running of organisations will have experienced this sort of thing before. In order to get change moving, you must gain some general agreement that change is necessary. A popular way of doing this is the presentation of a "burning platform" - alerting people to an imminent crisis. In a recent talk at Aston Business School, Justin King who has performed a remarkable turnaround as CEO of Sainsburys, preferred to say this was making people acknowledge the reality of the situation. The reasoning is the same though - people are naturally resistant to change unless and until they realise there is no alternative; whereupon they can adopt it enthusiastically. It is perhaps the other side of the personal survival instinct we see in current attitudes to spending cuts. If staff become convinced that the survival of the organisation (and therefore their jobs) is dependant on change, the job of change management becomes straightforward. If they feel the opposite (i.e changes proposed wick jeopardise jobs), heels will dig in and creative effort will be devoted to resistance rather than innovating.

So, where does my optimism come from? I recently met a group of senior public sector managers in a Work Foundation event. I was astonished at how upbeat they were about the future. Initially I thought they must be mad bearing in mind some were heading up departments which were planning for a 40% funding cut. But after a while it dawned on me that in fact they were relishing the challenge and with good reason. One told me "Actually I prefer a large cut. If you were told to cut by 5% or even 10%, I would be expected to deliver the same service. But when this becomes 25 or 30%, no sane person expects the same service level. What me and my management team have to do is work out what will continue to deliver and what to stop. We need to work out how to do this and make sure we take our stakeholders with us. It's difficult yes - but also very interesting." So, it is being regarded as an opportunity for serious thinking about what organisations are for, what their stakeholders want/need and of course a way of providing challenge for staff. I have found similar relish for the fight across the pubic sector.

Privately many senior managers have also been energised by the rash of early retirements since many who are burned out have decided they have no stomach for the fight and allowed new blood to take over. So, perhaps the Great Government Cuts of 2010 will be remembered as the time when a new dynamism came to public services.

To be fair, it is going to be pretty dreadful as well.

This post first appeared on Dr Pat Tissington's blog for the Birmingham Post on 23 September 2010

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