Lessons learned in service development part 1

There is a method to developing services in crisis – probably there are many – but I arrived at one. It was learned first in a hard way, as a young and virtually untrained junior manager in a service that suffered a catastrophic loss of resources (50% of the staff posts in a few years). I was then appointed to a role as quality manager in another service. This included assessment of individual libraries, including interviews with staff at all levels. It became clear from both these experiences what kind of management did not work – ways of managing that did not get results and left staff demotivated, even angry.

I also witnessed successful methods and was introduced to quality management. The lessons learned from these experiences were applied in the posts of responsibility that followed, often in services perceived to be failing or with critical challenges. Much later, I was introduced to Kotter’s writing on change management and understood better why some of the methods we had used worked, and had worked as a system.

The most important lesson I learned from all this experience was not about success but about the need, sometimes, to abstain from making changes. This is for self-preservation. It is not advisable to attempt a service turn-round unless the people in charge and most of the people doing the work agree change is necessary. I was mostly very lucky in this, but learned early on that, as a manager, you cannot save people from themselves, nor save a service that has no sense of self-preservation. People who really cannot or will not contemplate that there is a challenge to the future of their service and to the continuation of their jobs, or who simply do not care, will not thank a manager who tries to avert this crisis. Likewise, if you really cannot find a way to link your service to the priorities of the institution or community that it serves, then the service will surely decline, even disappear.

In short, if change appears essential, and this has not been understood yet, then the first responsibility of the manager is to articulate the crisis. If those below and above cannot be persuaded that the crisis exists, then as a manager in the middle the only safe thing I think you can do is to keep trying to convince and keep working on attractive solutions.

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