A type of incompetence from which we can all suffer
I sit round the table with some very talented people in a number of different boards, groups and committees. Working individually (often in organisations that help co-ordinate their actions) they are very effective. But just sometimes, when we get together, we can be collectively incompetent.
This has struck me several times recently, particularly in relation to groups struggling with being strategic. It’s not that the knowledge doesn’t exist within the individuals to know there’s a problem and what needs to be done about it. It’s that it’s not happening at a collective level. So one person’s insight is lost, the individuals don’t work with each other to come up with answers, the group as a whole doesn’t see what needs to be done or know how to do it. The whole, in other words, is not as great as the sum of its parts. Indeed I sometimes wonder if it is worse than that, whether a single individual could do better than the group as a whole.
The group is often necessary though, for instance because it’s a partnership which requires everyone’s buy-in, or because the governance arrangements require collective responsibility.
This is important because many of these kinds of groups (such as Health and Wellbeing Boards) have the potential to make a big difference. Their task is challenging, sure, but shouldn’t the accumulated talent at their disposal be equal to that challenge? (And at a higher level of collectivity, shouldn’t similar bodies in different places be able to help each other to meet similar challenges?)
So why is this and what can we do about it? I think there are a number of underlying reasons for the problems:
- Shared accountability dilutes individual accountability (sometimes to homeopathic levels). Nobody sees it as their job, or responsibility or fault.
- There’s a risk of inputting into a collective effort without any guaranteed payback either as a collective product or in a way that will benefit me in my role, (whereas I will be judged for how well I do my job).
- Working as a group often limits the extent to which each individual can contribute. For instance, if there are eight people sitting round a table with only one speaking at once, each can only contribute for an eighth of the time. There just isn’t time for everyone to say everything they could usefully say (and of course some people spend so much time saying things that aren’t useful that it cuts down the time even more).
- There is often sub-optimal judgement and decision making. You might have a ‘perfect answer’ in your midst but as a group not realise it or be able to agree on it. Voting (rather than assuming a consensus which may not exist) can help but doesn’t guarantee a ‘right’ solution.
- The collective capacity will be influenced by the individual capacity and relationships between members.
- Some of the problems may be built into the systems and processes of the group. There are arrangements for producing reports and for running through them in advance. There is the way the agenda is printed. There is the seating arrangement. There are conventions, protocols and rules. Lots of things go in to making the committee, as a collectivity, what it is.
- Similarly, a shared culture can develop which, while made by individuals, in turn constrains them. This might be the extent to which criticism and disagreement is tolerated and can be managed, the status and regard with which members hold each other or how forceful people have to be to get their voices heard.
- Lack of awareness that there’s a problem or knowledge of what’s needed to change things. There may also be inertia – everyone continues doing what they’ve always done.
- Maybe not everyone wants it to ‘succeed’. A good health and wellbeing strategy, for instance, could be very disruptive. Do I really want my world disrupted?
For many people, therefore, if they see that change needs to be made, they may feel it’s best to do that in narrower areas where they can have more control, such as someone in social care working with their counterpart in a CCG on a defined range of projects. You can build up a level of trust between you and know you’ll be able to take your share of the glory if it all works out.
So is this collective incompetence inevitable? Is there anything we can do about it?
Of course, in one way or another, it will need a process of ‘Board development’, but what changes might that lead to? Some options are:
- Change the composition of the group if necessary. If it is impossible to change its composition, there may be other ways of bringing in needed expertise or help, such as inviting people to attend particular meetings or having regular stakeholder events.
- Find or develop better leadership – easier said than done. It relies on someone seeing what’s needed and being able to mobilise everyone effectively.
- Build greater trust between the members – a long, slow process, easily disrupted by personnel change or difficult circumstances
- Improve the arrangements for managing the group whether this is people dedicated to providing support (managing arrangements, writing minutes or implementing decisions) or the arrangements for setting agendas (such as the Chair and Chief Executive (or equivalent) working together).
- Improve the way you work together, such as through better facilitation, managing meetings in different ways or meeting in different locations (or even through site visits or ‘walkshops’). In particular this would give much greater opportunity for all individuals to input, such as constantly feeding in ideas on post-its or electronically. It also means making the most of different skills and styles. It is also about finding ways to build on each other’s contributions (challenging each other, helping find solutions to problems etc.). If arrangements are currently formal (presentations and whole group discussions) it may be quite challenging to consider alternatives.
- Do more work outside formal meetings such as by delegating tasks to individuals, sub-groups or task-and-finish groups.
- Build on the work of individuals. Someone does a good part of the job (which might be better than if the group tried to do it as a whole) and the others fill in the gaps, make corrections and modify what’s been put forward.
- Improve decision making (for instance having regular electronic voting available, allowing people to express their views instantly and anonymously) and paying attention to minority views.
Those are just a few thoughts. I’m sure there’s much more that could be done. But it’s one thing to come up with possible solutions – how do you make them happen? It’s too much for me, as an individual. Perhaps the group as a whole can do it?