“It is surprising what a holiday can do for you” started the telephone conversation with a senior manager this week. Expecting the usual stories of chaos and entropy usually associated with such exchanges when the top boss reappears to take up the helm – it was a pleasure to find the reaction was indeed quite the opposite. There were stories of people who when faced with having to resolve complex issues when the boss was away – of doing things of their own accord that led to citizens and residents feeling that their local council had served them well. He went on to tell me of the organisation became unintentionally decentralised – no Chief executive, no councillors around and even fewer senior managers leading to willing staff taking on issues and problems and seeking to resolve them with no one to seek permission from to actually do things.
It is this unintentional decentralisation that creates a condition not too dissimilar from what Ori Brafman was pointing to in the seminal book of 2006: “The Starfish and the Spider: The unstoppable power of the leaderless organisation”. Despite having the usual resilience plan and senior people being ‘on call’ during the holiday period there were numerous occasions when the chain of command was broken and the choice was either to do nothing or to do something. That staff chose to do something was clearly leading to residents and citizens feeling that their council was serving them well. What Brafman made as an acute observation was that if a spider losses a limb it is doomed – it has a centralised neural system that at best copes with disadvantage but at its worst leads to death; a starfish on the other hand has a decentralised neural system and adapts to attack and challenge.
The dilemma he now faced was how to keep this going? “My job” he said, “was to have overall responsibility to ensure that we had capacity to do things” – the mechanism being one of clear accountability, hierarchy and transparent systems. This ensures that when things go wrong I can see who is responsible and put it right ensuring that it never happens again. But – it does happen again – that is the problem. Perhaps now the issue was about how to make the organisation ‘intentionally decentralised’ to be more of a starfish than a spider. The environment in which we operate expects us to be spiders – to have a centralised neurological system – the councillors want this and do Whitehall. Perhaps even the citizens expect it – to have a head to chop off in the event of major problems. However, the recent evidence does suggest that Brafman may have been right – he was clearly onto something in that hierarchy gets in the way.
Until the next holiday then – it may deliver more than an aching credit card and relaxed state of mind.
Ian Briggs is a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Local Government Studies. He has research interests in the development and assessment of leadership, performance coaching, organisational development and change, and the establishment of shared service provision.