A time for leaders...

Following the spending review announcement there will be feverish work going on all over the public sector to make plans and budgets for 2011/12. The level of cuts that these public managers are facing is an order of magnitude larger than they would have faced in the previous ten or twenty years.

What these managers are facing is what Ron Heifetz calls an adaptive problem as opposed to a technical problem. I saw Heifetz give a lecture at Warwick Business School in the summer where he explained that managers are good at technical problems. They’ve seen them before, they know how to find the solution. Adaptive problems, on the other hand, are novel, complex and don’t lend themselves to easy solutions. What they require, said Heifetz, are leaders rather than managers.

Looking at the financial conundrum facing public organisations, this means that the answer is not likely to be found by trying to do what has been done every year for a generation. Yes, over that time, public managers have found ways to eek out 2 or 3 per cent efficiency savings, or to put fees and charges up a bit, or to find a new grant that will pay for a project, but that won’t work to find the 7 or 8 or 10 per cent that has to be found for three or four years in a row. Public organisations have to try some radical ideas, take some risks. And to do that they need leaders who can show the organisation how to move ahead.

In his lecture, Heifetz draw a parallel between the tackling adaptive problems and natural selection, where random adaptions that best suit the environment succeed. Failure to adapt quick enough can lead to the ultimate failure: extinction. I guess this idea, when brought up in association with bureaucratic public organizations, inevitably leads one to think about dinosaurs and that the future is bleak. But consider this: birds are evolved from ground-dwelling dinosaurs so perhaps the future could be dramatically different from what we know today.

In my next post I have an idea for tackling the current budget crisis that perhaps fits this bill: not having a budget at all.