Wednesday, 30 January 2013

The Curse of the Quick Win

I once joined a workshop strand, set up by my employer, to examine what could be done within the workforce to tackle issues around work / life balance. Stress among the workforce was a high factor in attendance rates. It was an important issue at the time and many people were enthused by the notion that the company took staff concerns seriously and wanted to evolve the best working practices possible. Many employers today would claim to do just that. But no matter how often they say it, the proof is quite self evident that it is not true.

Anyway, back to my intro. The company was big enough to allow for things like term time working and by all accounts was the exemplar to be followed by other business models. Some attending members confessed that the event was just a day out of the office but for myself I wanted to address certain issues regarding disability and work / life balance that, if implemented, would have broadened the workforce to include happier and more productive staff with less stress. I saw it as an opportunity to make a difference. It turned out to be no opportunity at all.

A senior manager directed the group of around thirty people to list the issues they wanted to address. After examining what everyone had put forward, she ignored the lot and said, ‘Let’s go for a quick win’, which in management speak means,  let’s avoid the real issues in front of me that may be costly and involve lots of work and come up with something that costs nothing and looks good on my end of year appraisal. In this case the quick win was a list of ten things to do with looking after yourself that was nothing more than a common sense check list.

What a disappointment. The list could have been copied off the back of a cereal box. The product was about as useful as a jelly spanner and solved nothing. In that one instance I knew that the workshop was merely window dressing to show the workforce that management were taking their concerns seriously (pure lip service) and were doing something about it (but nothing useful). It was an exercise in placation that achieved nothing more than a scarcely veiled attempt at pacifying the workforce in the short term and built mistrust and disillusionment for years to come. That was over ten years ago and if anything it has gotten worse. My company might be viewed as a typical example of this kind of senior management hubris.

The quick win, I feel sure, was designed originally to fix the easy stuff first so that goodwill was generated among a disgruntled workforce. In it’s truest guise it can be a confidence booster to everyone that things are getting better. But somewhere along the line the focus on who the quick win was designed to benefit got dragged into the detritus of management’s vacuous target oriented, appraisal driven, and ultimately self serving, tool kit.

To higher management in the 21st century, it appears that the quick win is a way for managers seeking to climb the promotion ladder to score a plus box in their next appraisal.  Be under no illusion that this is all it does. There are no real benefits to the company. But what is more devastating about the clamber to get noticed in the short game is that the ‘slow win’ is forgotten, or at least swept deeply under the carpet of very long grass by management in the process. 

The large workforce at the bottom of the heap, the essential nuts and bolts of many a company that often defines the businesses ‘raison d’etre‘, are subject frequently to prescribed working processes with very little control over their autonomy. The ability to expand beyond their remit is only possible with promotion to a higher level of responsibility.   Managers of a certain ilk, those who look at processes instead of people, are quite happy to focus on their personal targets through the lens of personal self interest. For them the most expedient way to secure a good end of year appraisal is to push the staff to achieve their set goals while fobbing off any concerns that might detract from those goals in the short term. In my experience, business encourages this practice.

Not surprisingly surrounding this malady of selective vision there is often a sense of resentment and group lethargy, as morale and good will dissolves like sherbet in a bucket of dirty rainwater. This is particularly so when an enforced change in the process is detrimental to the workforce, like doing so much more but with less staff. While it is human nature to be resistant to change, it is not unreasonable to resist one sided change. For some staff the changes can raise barriers where none previously existed (for instance a change in hours conflicting with child care responsibilities or a change in working practices affecting a person’s disability). But instead of dealing with the problem or harmonising work life balance (because it is usually thorny or costly or detracts from the goals set) the manager sets about trying to get the ‘quick win’.

A typical management quick win solution to low morale is a team building day. The logical thinking is that a fun day will help to bond the team, improve morale and lead to better performance. Sometimes these days can even be enjoyable but this is very unlikely to lead to lasting improvement if a fundamentally important issue remains unsolved or management are being disingenuous about the reality they have imposed. However, there is a benefit to management that when targets are missed and performance is failing, they can point to the fact that they tried to do something about it. The quick win becomes the excuse that saves face, while dodging the career-ending attempt to solve the real problem.

And the higher up the managerial ladder you go, the more acceptable the quick win looks, because to contradict the quick win solution would be like signing their own death warrant. So the myth perpetuates until at least one person in a management structure has the courage, and the position of power to protect themselves, to acknowledge that the quick win does not work if the slow win is ignored as a result. No manager has done this to my knowledge thus far and resistance to some much needed changes by employers to work / life balance is far more entrenched; even denied. So the punishing regime of ever more restrictive work practices excludes those who cannot meet them, striving for profit at the cost of ostracising people from the workforce; the very customers they exist to serve.

When the slow win is ignored by managers, and the problems derived from it remain, the next line of approach after the carrot is normally the stick, which is invariably some sort of disciplinary process.Thousands of people all over the world with disabilities and issues around work / life balance are being dismissed on capability grounds because business is frankly not interested in looking after any staff but those with extremely low maintenance. By all accounts, getting rid of a problem by dismissing it, rather than solving it, is the most sinister perspective of the quick win.

As each business progresses, or not as the case may be, the quick win legacy becomes plain. There are no lasting or meaningful effects that improve either performance or long term benefit and the problem that the quick win was meant to address remains. In fact the only benefit to the quick win appears to be on the appraisal sheet of the manager who can demonstrate an action taken to save money, resource and improve performance - even if it achieved none of those things. In other words it looks good on paper but the effort had no lasting effect if at all.

The most appalling effect of the quick win culture is how millions of people find themselves dumped on the rubbish heap, unemployed because they have a problem with the rigid terms and conditions that employers require. Among the most discarded are those who develop active disabilities that might change the way they can work, while people who have had mental health issues may never even make the interview stage of a job. And this is not because they cannot do the job. The mindset of business is simply geared to bypass what they see as unnecessary problems that do not translate directly to profit. But the bigger the business becomes, the more likely it is that those who are lucky enough to be within the workforce will encounter a change in their circumstances that conflicts with the simple model of ‘turn up for work on time, do your job, go home’. 

The grand masters of the quick win are those engaged in short term politics. In the UK, in a period of austerity where the cost of long term commitments like welfare, health and pensions dominate the expenditure sheet, there are so many people claiming benefit due to ill health that the government policy (their quick win solution) is to raise the qualifying bar higher, so that more of those people become eligible to look for work.

But if the environmental culture dominating the business world is unchanged, excluding the less than perfect from the workforce for reasons of maximising profit by the easiest route possible, it is an exercise in futility. The unsolved problem is that employers will not consider people who may have higher maintenance issues than those with no issues. There is no reason, they see, to engage with people who may need reasonable adjustments to enable them to work if there is someone else who does not.

And why should they when the government of the day plays the same game by pushing a problem from one place to another? By artificially raising the conditional bar it looks like they have reduced the benefit bill on people claiming for health reasons. Good news for the tax payer? Not at all. It is yet another quick win that achieves nothing meaningful because the benefit bill for unemployment goes up proportionately and employers will still reject them. If anything, the additional stress is likely to cause a greater strain on the health budget and end up costing more.

The curse of the quick win is set to continue for as long as government and business turn a blind eye to some very deep routed issues within our society. No amount of quick wins will change it but I hope this article will identify this important observation. What was once a good start in best practice and goodwill, has now been usurped and redefined as a management escape hatch.

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