Going for gold: what Whitehall can learn from emergency services

Written by Clair Fisher on 21 February 2018 in Feature
Feature

To build an organisation that makes good strategic decisions, leaders should learn from the way emergency services respond to critical incidents

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In times of pressure and uncertainty it is more important than ever that leaders understand how to build resilient organisations. Resilient organisations are those that can withstand the challenges they face, respond positively to the opportunities that arise, and protect the wellbeing of their staff in the long term. In a resilient organisation, challenges are perceived as positive opportunities rather than unwelcome threats.

The cultural challenge is to transform mindsets so that adversity, uncertainty and change are considered “normal” rather than exceptional. By positioning our responses as positive action rather than passive reaction, leaders can help individuals feel the degree of control that is crucial to organisational resilience and personal wellbeing.


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To get our culture right, we need to get structures right.

Dysfunctional and ineffective organisations are characterised by leaders who seek to fix day-to-day problems themselves through micromanagement, thus causing huge resentment and ill-will from the people we should be relying on to deliver services. The pull of the “now” can be so powerful, but if the strategic leaders don’t provide a strategic lead the organisation is doomed to fail. Most damaging of all is the discrediting and misunderstanding of the role of the middle; a well resourced, highly empowered middle layer is often the key to building a successful and resilient organisation.

Leaders across the public sector can learn a lot from the emergency services. Their critical incident management systems – using a structure of gold, silver and bronze commands – are based on years of research on the psychology of command, and a deep understanding of how stress affects the individual’s ability to make rational decisions. A resilient organisation is one that understands how to take strategic decisions well. Crucially the important strategic decisions are taken away from the “heat of battle”: they are taken by the gold command function, insulated from the adrenaline-fuelled reality of the now. A delivery function (bronze) deals with the immediate tasks and the work of integrating strategy and delivery is performed by a silver command in the middle.

So what should the model of a resilient organisation look like? Here’s my quick three part checklist:

Ensure that there is a clear ‘strategic space’ that is distinct and separate from the delivery function of the organisation. The strategic level should keep their focus on the future and find ways of communicating the vision that inspires the whole organisation. In times of crisis there should be particular efforts to insulate the strategic layer from the pressure of the now – at the very least mobile phones and email checking should be banned at board meetings! Think too about how you receive briefings from the rest of the organisation; are there ways to streamline this process to make sure you get the right information at the right time? Strategic leaders should avoid operating in “reactive mode” by making time to listen to what those in the middle have to say about risks and opportunities facing their organisation.

Empower the middle. Those working in middle management are the crucial link between the strategic vision and delivery function. They allow the strategic function to be separate without becoming disconnected. Those working in the middle need to be experts in communication, integration, negotiation and collaboration, and tasked with busting silos. Resilient organisations often have well-networked middle layers, and this should be encouraged. If you are a leader in the middle try to get to know your peers better, perhaps organise joint training, information swaps like lunchtime talks or take part in Randomised Coffee Trials!

Resource those involved in delivery so that they can provide the standards of service that the organisation expects. Invest in skills training, value professional expertise and allow those in the front line to make the kind of fixes necessary to keep the show on the road. Provide routes for progression and promotion for experts in the delivery layer that don’t require them to go up the management chain. Look for opportunities to put in place process fixes that allow for real-time reporting of delivery activity to allow critical front line staff to concentrate on the now.

Resilient organisations are built from the ground up by empowered, equipped, resilient individuals. The more we invest in the wellbeing of individual staff members, give clarity about their roles and encourage strong connections to be made between them, the more resilient our organisations will be.

Author Display Name
Clair Fisher
About the author

Clair Fisher is an associate at Dod’s Training, working across Whitehall on the Civil Service Learning contract and a freelance leadership expert working within the public sector. She tweets as @pashleyfisher.

For further reading, see Developing Resilient Organizations by Doug Strycharczyk and Charles Elvin, published by ILM

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