The administration of day-to-day life seems like it has never been more complicated. We all seem to be constantly navigating new services, products, registrations, cards, identification and so much more. New requirements are being layered over the top of basic activities from financial services through to grocery shopping. I can’t help wondering sometimes whether anyone who creates these products and services actually uses them!
Many organisations know the importance of engaging with representatives of their customers through focus groups, surveys and other user forums. Unfortunately these have become tired and struggle to get more than token engagement. Most people simply decline to respond and are halfhearted when they do. Even then, the scope of this engagement is superficial at best with management being kept behind closed doors and in the arms of a few.
By comparison, democracies around the world, together with many judicial systems, make extensive use of ordinary people. Governments and courts are run by professional bureaucrats and legal professionals respectively. In government, the bureaucrats report to parliamentarians elected from the population by all of us. In courts, the judges may be in charge but they leave the biggest questions to juries of ordinary people. Despite their obvious flaws, both systems work. Winston Churchill famously said: “democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time”! Similarly, regardless of the challenges of the jury system, most legal experts who work with them are also their strongest advocates.
Great systems work best when they include some common sense, best served up by ordinary people. I firmly believe we should never underestimate the contribution that we can all make in the effective running of our society. Why then do few businesses take a similar approach?
When we talk about involving staff in the management of the business, it is hard to go past Semco Partners in Brazil led by Ricardo Semler. Semler has been an innovator in industrial democracy for decades with great success, making him something of a business celebrity (not harmed by his successful books). He has transformed the business he inherited from his father from a conservative manufacturer into a leading services business and successfully engaged his people at the same time. Most important in Semler’s philosophy is the principle of trusting his people’s common sense over policy manuals and involving the wider team in leadership.
Rather than seek help from ordinary people to run their business, most companies view the wider population as best leveraged to search for new ideas. Innovation is a really important part of engaging people in the future of the organisations they belong to, or engage with, but is only a very limited part of leadership. It is also important to understand that true innovation is seldom a random stand-alone idea rather it is the joining together of a group of ideas in a coordinated and novel way as part of a programme to solve complex problems.
One way that companies do support management through outside leadership is through boards. However, unlike parliament, we draw our non-executive directors from quite a narrow pool of society, usually semi-retired executives. While boards are a welcome source of common sense, their lack of diversity of perspective means they can’t adequately support management as products, services and even internal organisational needs become more complicated.
A welcome trend is to create advisory boards in more companies. These boards are typically open to a wider pool of candidates and provide support to management on issues such as technology, social expectations or specific markets. Perhaps more companies could work to leverage this type of vehicle to broaden their perspective and act to gain new insights into issues that affect all their stakeholders.
Whatever the solution, businesses have to find a way to simplify their offerings, services and internal processes. Whether it is prioritising retail staffing over marketing, simplifying product application forms or recognising that hotel websites fail to take most family combinations into account, businesses seem happy to put barriers in front of their customers. They also need better ways to understand community temperament when it comes to issues such as data handling, use of automated algorithms and the expectations of their own staff.
Few people think of the public service as the model for private enterprise, but it pays to remember that government is the most complex business there is. In a world where few businesses stay on top for many years in a row, it pays to remember that the administrators of our nations tend to stay viable for an extraordinarily long time!
In a world of more and more business rules, many of which are opaque, it would be good to know that juries of our peers were in control.