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People, not systems and processes, will power transformation

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It’s the people – first and last and throughout that get things done and who will deliver the transformation required for public services for the future.

If we look at where things go right we’ll see good relationships, trust and openness and genuine engagement in the enterprise. Where things fail we’ll see poor communication and unclear goals and objectives resulting in people doing different things rather than pulling together. Good leaders are first and foremost human beings who understand how to inspire and motivate people to do their best, who can paint a picture of a better future and enable people to achieve it.

Systems are fine as far as they go. They are tools for getting things aligned and ensuring that standards and deadlines are met. Like any tool a misused system is ineffective and in the wrong hands can be downright dangerous.

I was talking – or rather listening to – a transformation director recently. He spoke for around 45 minutes about plans and systems and processes. At no stage did he mention people or culture. When prompted he agreed that staff would need training on how to use the systems and processes but the idea that people might be his most valuable resource to bring about the transformation seemed entirely lost on him. I am convinced that transformation cannot be directed but must be built through the thinking, behaviour and activities of every one of the workforce.

People are not assets, which are fixed and finite, but endlessly evolving creative beings whose energies can be engaged to try new things, innovate, collaborate and experiment – if we let them.

Public services are in dire need of a rethink. No system, no amount of caterpillars, charts, reports, slide rules and other “tools” can bring about the fundamental shift in thinking required to reshape, reinvigorate and redesign services for today’s communities.

We need to create the kind of culture where people can see what needs doing and then do it, find new ways to think about things and build different organisations free from the hierarchies and the bureaucracy that stifles and hinders. We need real innovation in our workforce. The question is how.

Understanding what gets in the way of innovation and creative thinking, unblocking the barriers which prevent people trying new things and promoting collaboration across boundaries is the start, planning what needs to change, really change, and challenge the status quo. We don’t need a system for that, we need effective and empowering leaders who will encourage and support and cheer from the sidelines, help pick up the pieces when things go wrong and celebrate when things go right.

Real and sustained transformation will only come where we can trust and empower – it will be built, not though systems but through the hard work and creative abilities of our people – if we let them fly.

Sue Evans, director Sevans Refreshing People Ltd, past president Public Sector People Managers Association and former HR director at Warwickshire CC

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