24 July 2015

Think YES? How to deliver transformational change in relationships between staff, managers and local people

What would you do if the head of your organisation suddenly told you to change your working practice and ‘Think Yes’ in everything you do? Well, that's precisely what happened to housing officers working for Glasgow Housing Association (GHA) when their new chief executive piloted an approach to leadership that fundamentally altered relationships between staff, their managers and their tenant and resident customers. 

In this blog Claire Bynner and Ken Gibb describe the experiences and impact of this leadership programme from the point of view of staff at GHA, who shared the story of Think Yes at a What Works Scotland Roundtable event at Glasgow University on 15th June.

When Hazel Young, Director of Policy and Service Development at the Wheatley Group (a Group Structure that includes GHA) described their leadership programme at GHA as ‘transformational’ we were initially sceptical. In the early 2000s GHA was by most standards, a poorly performing landlord. The context was a fraught relationship with key partners including the Scottish Government, the City Council, the regulator and community-based housing associations. Several Chief Executives came and went quickly and the stalled second stage transfer programme was just the most high profile example of GHA struggling to make progress, other than its large-scale investment programme, which continued to push forward.

Hazel and the officers present at the What Works Scotland Roundtable were frank in their account of the organisation’s troubled past, citing lack of a clear purpose, low levels of tenant satisfaction, low staff morale and stalled regeneration. GHA’s troubled past was a good starting point for the discussion - failure being key to understanding the motivation for change. In this context and given the relatively top-down bureaucratic culture in GHA, it is hard to overstate the subsequent transformation.

In response to the question ‘How satisfied are you with the Glasgow Housing Association as your landlord?’ independent survey results show an increase of 23% in satisfaction between 2004 – 2014, from 67% up to 90%. Initially, this increase was probably caused by the massive increase in investment and wider improvement to the GHA housing stock. In 2010 those customers who were satisfied were approx. 80% and progress with customer satisfaction was starting to plateau. GHA’s Executive Team realised that increasing efficiency wasn’t going to get the step change that they needed to reach their goal of 90% satisfaction. Think Yes was born out of the need to do something that was very different to reach this externally-validated goal. Between 2011 - 2012 there was a large jump in those customers who describe themselves as ‘very satisfied’ from 24 – 40%, and dissatisfaction begins to drop (see graph below). By 2014 GHA reach their target of 90% satisfaction. At GHA they believe that step-change was caused by Think Yes.


The beginnings of Think Yes were in July 2011, when Martin Armstrong, GHA’s CEO visited four local offices to pilot a new approach. He asked the local staff to “take charge of their local service and do the right thing for the customer”. In a sense this was about thinking for oneself, as much as simply thinking positively, in order to tackle problems and customer requirements. There was no training; the only direction was to do what the customer wanted and not to break the law. The manager was there to support and coach staff to make decisions.

Change initially happened slowly: the staff were nervous that, despite assurances, they might be in trouble if they made different decisions and broke out of the traditional leader-follower route. It took time for staff to see that experiments and, yes, mistakes were actually encouraged in order to help change mind sets. A couple of people who were braver than others took the first steps. They used local budgets to solve small problems for customers and the response from the leadership was positive. Staff in the pilot offices were building better relationships with their customers, were more confident in making decisions - customer satisfaction was improving. Curiosity about the four offices began to spread throughout the organisation…

In February 2012 Think Yes was rolled out across GHA. Groups of 70-80 staff attended sessions in May, led by the Executive Team, followed by smaller sessions in which the staff from the pilot offices told the stories of what they had done. Key to spreading the approach and building confidence was storytelling. When the Executive Team visited the local offices in November/ December 2012 they were told that Think Yes had become part of the culture of working and services were being redesigned around the customer at the point of contact. The change in working practice was confirmed by external assessments for Customer Service Excellence and Investors in People (GHA achieved Gold standard) and EFQM. Customer Service Excellence UK reported “We have never been into an organisation that has transformed itself so fundamentally, so quickly, so positively”. EFQM observed “strong leadership at every level, right down to your front-line staff – and this is something you don’t see very often.”

A key aspect of the transition to Think Yes was a move towards clearer lines of accountability with each housing officer responsible for their own patch and reductions in the number of managers at the local level. This flatter staffing structure resulted in savings to the organisation of £3.4million, nearly £2million more than had been thought possible prior to the cultural change.

In terms of leadership, Think Yes entailed a shift from a ‘command and control’ to a style of leadership that recast the role of managers as supporting, mentoring and responding to the issues raised by front-line staff (see Leadership triangles below). Hazel Young observed that in a complex environment, command and control leadership doesn’t work. As a manager, you are not close enough to the issues on the ground to be responsive. But it doesn’t usually feel like that for leaders and managers. Emotionally, there is a feeling of safety with command and control and for some managers adapting to the new approach was difficult. For J, a local area manager, shifting to a culture where the team could challenge the leader, was a big change:

'Staff were saying to me ‘we have raised this with you why haven’t you done something about it? It was tough, learning to bite your tongue, learning not to give answers and decisions, direction. Letting go of needing to be in control of everything’.” 



Despite the positive external assessment, it hasn’t been easy for all staff to adjust to this new way of working. It took 6-9 months to get people to buy in to the new approach and there were different reactions. It was 50:50 who took it on and who rejected it.

Building the confidence and trust of the staff in the organisation was described as key to the improvement in performance. The new role of managers is to coach and mentor, so that staff feel confident to make decisions and are able, effectively, ‘to manage themselves’. R, a local housing officer explained that for her the change was about learning to make good decisions, taking account of needs, considering options, and learning to get the balance right without reliance on the manager:

“There is risk involved and you do take a chance, but it’s about being accountable, and having reasons for the decisions taken, having the confidence to cope with people, responding to their complex needs and making difficult decisions.”
 
Trust in the organisation has been built by removing bureaucracy and delay, and downgrading process. The days when five signatures were needed to get a decision taken (under the Council’s housing department), are now long gone. Where an issue has to be escalated for management decision this is systematically logged and managers seek ways to address these ‘blockages’.   If there is a shortage of funds for home improvements or adaptations, pooling separate budgets. When there are observable patterns in the type of support needed, new services are born. For example, the Home Comfort Service was a result of housing officers from across the organisation finding it necessary to buy furniture to support tenancies.

Think Yes is designed to respond to a complex environment where most customers are suffering the effects of multiple deprivation, unemployment, poor health and high mortality. The GHA service aims to be responsive, adaptive, and prevention-focused which is especially important with the onset of welfare reform. C, a housing officer with a background working in supported accommodation, spoke about tailoring the service to individual needs and communication:

“In the past it was: ‘We are the landlord. Pay the rent!’ Now there is freedom in how we work. Your manager is enthusing you and you are enthusing the customer. Now I can say: ‘We can give you a wee helping hand’.” 

Staff roles have moved from rescuing to enabling. This involves being the advocate and commissioner of other services, drawing in support tailored to the needs of the individual. Fundamental to the ability to do that was getting to know ‘the customer’ by adopting a more informal style and using resources to get the right support such as education bursaries, financial inclusion, employment generation etc.
 

While Think Yes did not spring from a received management textbook or approach to leadership change, it does echo closely leadership change in military organisations as practised by L David Marquet (2012) Turn Your Ship Around (Penguin) and by HH McArthur as described in Tim Hartford’s book – Adapt: Why success always starts with failure.

So, once you have ‘turned the ship around’ how do you make a change like this stick?

The new version of Think Yes in Wheatley is W.E Excel, a bottom up approach to improving outcomes for individuals and communities through developing more mature and considered responses to complex issues.  In response to a problem with youth graffiti, the staff have suggested conducting mock interviews with the young people and providing training in housing management. The understanding and response has moved on from ‘you need to stop the graffiti’.

From a What Works point of view is there something intrinsic here that could be spread to other organisations and public services?

Transferring this approach could be a challenge. GHA was in a particular situation when Think Yes was introduced. It was re-organising its staffing at that time so the organisation was able to let people go as roles were changed. An initiative like this might be met by staff opposition or viewed as too risky in some organisations. Most of the follow-up interest in Think Yes has been from the private sector not the public sector. Yet with many public services now in austerity-fuelled financial crisis, there is a strong drive for reform and, perhaps, a space for initiatives like this to prosper. Hazel Young felt the best approach might be for organisations to trial the approach in a particular aspect or area of their service to explore the benefits and challenges it may bring for them.  

WWS are keen to gather other examples of leadership change programmes that have transformed public services. If you have heard of a similar approach to Think Yes or experienced a similar process of organisational change in your service area, please get in touch and tell us more. Email:   Claire.Bynner@glasgow.ac.uk


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