Business management and purpose

2008

One of Britain's most prestigious and biggest organisations has just received a quality review of its business management that would have shocked the smallest and least glorious of companies anywhere in the world.

The critic stated firmly: "Without doubt, significant parts of the [organisation] are broken. The machinery of [management] is not even in the 20th century, never mind the 21st century."

Some parts of the system criticised are described as "modern and slick", but plenty of others were operating like a "horse-drawn buggy" when the rest of society had moved on to the automobile.

The subject of this withering attack once had a supreme, worldwide star rating. It is in fact HMG - Her Majesty's Government - an outfit which once had a reputation for operating with the smoothness and efficiency of a Rolls-Royce luxury car.

Zenna Atkins, the critic quoted above, is a consultant who told The Observer: "I have never met such bright people who really care about what they are doing, but they are working in a machine with a set of customs, cultures, values and practices that are utterly antiquated. A lot of the time the process is more important than the outcome."

That's hardly a recommended way to run any kind of organisation. The context in which people work is of vital importance.

'Everything for a purpose, every purpose good, and every purposeful step forward measured and justified by the LIMO standard, LIMO standing for Least Input for Most Output.'

The scenario given by Zenna Atkins hardly matches the above admirable formula. She also speaks of ludicrous decision chains (involving 58 people in a single non-critical decision); a climate in which no civil servant is ever sacked for doing nothing, whereas doing something carries heavy risk; a culture where the biggest spender, the Ministry of Defence, has a reputation for being impenetrable, not least because of memos that "appear to be gibberish, incomprehensible".

It seems unreal but it is all too true, so what hope is there of a new reality, in which public servants are involved in taking the decisions which they will have to implement, all within a framework of concise, well articulated and relevant purpose which defines the shared tasks of all staff and delineates all individual purposes?

The paradox is that great complexities lying beyond the business management nous of the old-line civil servants are not needed. The task is not complicated; let people, at all levels, enjoy the luxurious necessity of 'managing oneself'.

With this in mind, the late, great Peter Drucker put emphasis on 'feedback analysis'. Whenever "you take a decision or take a key action, write down what you expect will happen. Nine or 12 months later, compare the actual results with your expectations."

You will gain knowledge of that most important thing, Drucker promised: you will find out where your strengths lie, and what "you are doing or failing to do that deprives you of the full benefits of your strengths". You also find out where you're not particularly able and, of course, where you don't actually have any strengths.

All of this serves purpose great and small: "Given my strengths, my way of performing and my values, how can I make the greatest contribution to what needs to be done?"

Here, purpose translates to the results that really make a difference and lead to success, both for individuals and organisations.

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About The Author

Robert Heller
Robert Heller

Robert Heller, who died aged 80 in August 2012, was Britain's most renowned and best-selling author on business management. Author of more than 50 books, he was the founding editor of Management Today and the Global Future Forum. About his latest title, The Fusion Manager, Sir John Harvey-Jones wrote: "The future lies with the thinking manager, and the thinking manager must read this book".