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Trust is not a feeling

Organisational development for STPs

Richard Vize’s excellent report on STPs, published by the IHM in January, emphasised the importance of investment in organisational development. He wrote:

“Shutting a group of people in a room and expecting trust to develop, shared ownership of problems to evolve and common solutions to emerge will almost certainly end in failure. STP need to invest time and effort in their own organisational development (OD). With everyone under so much pressure, suggesting that STP leaders establish an organisational development programme may seem naive and idealistic. But it is essential.”

But what are the specifics of the OD required? In drawing up a brief for a team to deliver an OD intervention, what are the outcomes and process that might be expected?

Richard highlights the centrality of trust to the STP process. Trust is a prerequisite if leaders are to take difficult decisions together. System leadership requires careful, co-ordinated action. Some decisions will temporarily disadvantage one organisation – by exposing it to additional risk, pressure or cost – before the overall benefits are realised, and before a new and better system is in place.

Trust is often seen as something that arises spontaneously when right-thinking people work together on shared problems. But as Richard says, this outcome is far from certain. Rather, trust will be an explicit goal of OD for STPs. This OD will be based on the understanding that trust is a process before it is a feeling.

This is good news. Because trust is a process, it can be designed as well as experienced. The kinds of change needed by STPs will take many months to implement and many years to deliver results. Withholding trust until we have the proof of the pudding is a recipe for disaster.

A trust process will set out a series of short-term, visible steps that STP partners will commit to take. These steps will be useful but may not, in themselves, be transformative. What matters is that they only make sense in the context of the evolving shared goals of the STP leadership.

At the same time as these steps are agreed, the design will allow STP partners to hold each other to account. Because the steps are visible, it is immediately apparent if they have not been carried out. Partners should be clear from the outset about the consequences of not following through on their commitments.

These consequences will not be framed as sanctions. Because the agreed steps only make sense in the STP context, and are not part of normal “organisational” behaviour, they are by definition challenging. Failing to follow through will signal not bad faith, but a lack of capability and capacity. The agreed steps act as early warning signs from partners who will struggle to fulfil their system roles. Consequences will therefore consist of interventions to help partners to deliver what they have agreed. Struggling partners receive support, not recrimination. But there must be absolute clarity about what is being achieved. The simpler and more visible the agreed steps, the better.

In the medium and long term, the trust that counts is not interpersonal trust between senior leaders. What counts is a culture of trust across organisational boundaries: not a feeling, but repeatable, reliable co-creation of value. Such trust is rooted in a rational expectation that partners will co-operate to realise opportunities. That expectation in turn relies on an assurance that frontline and mid-level service managers are properly supported and incentivised to do this.

The first duty of senior leaders in an STP is not, therefore, to “get along together”, or even to agree a strategy. Their first duty is to change the culture and to create a permissive environment in their own organisations. Unless this change happens, junior and middle managers, rigorously performance managed against organisational objectives which have not gone away under STPs, will simply not be able to commit to realise value at the expense of their own organisation. For each genuinely inauthentic leader, there will be ten who simply don’t take the time to ensure that a culture of collaboration is established in their own chain of command. The assurances of such leaders at the top table are worthless.

Early, visible measures to address the internal culture of organisations are quick, cheap and a powerful signal of good faith. Changing job descriptions, modelling and coaching collaborative behaviours, sharing space and time and fun with colleagues across the boundaries are all very achievable even in the current context.

These simple steps are the basic ingredients of OD for systems leadership. They need to be carried out intentionally and clear-sightedly, but they are not a black art and they need not be expensive. But as Richard Vize says, they are essential.

David Laszlo is an Associate Member of the IHM. He blogs at davidlaszlopartnership.com, tweets @davidjlaszlo and can be emailed at [email protected].