Postcards from Scotland – #5: ‘Letting Go’


The series Postcards from Scotland (click to link) has five titles published so far, and more planned.  The idea behind the series, edited by Carol Craig, is to generate debate and discussion about important issues for Scottish society, whatever the result of the referendum on independence next year.  Issues covered so far include Scotland’s health, diet, consumer culture and community action.  The fifth in the series, Letting Go (by Tony Miller and Gordon Hall), doesn’t initially sound like a riveting read – it’s about management and organisations.  But it has some really important messages for all of us – it’s about working culture and how too many workplaces alienate or demean people.  It takes a fresh look at organisational culture using the ideas of W E Deming, arguing that too few workplaces get the best from their employees,  grinding their enthusiasm and creativity out of them through imposed uniformity.   Which of us hasn’t felt that, in one workplace or another?

Like all the books in the series. it’s short and readable. – key ideas presented in a thought-provoking way.  The authors are steeped in the Deming worldview – a very attractive alternative to the ‘managerialism’ which clogs the arteries of so many of our workplaces.  There are some beautifully phrased pearls of wisdom sprinkled through the text, particularly in the short chapter which pulls to bits the culture of targets, tickboxes and inspection/accountability.  This is illustrated by some well drawn examples of how the target culture generates perverse incentives, so that the target is met, but at the expense of the intended outcome – council drain cleaning workers are set a target to increase the number of drains they clean.. what do they do?  They avoid the difficult drains which will take up more time, so there are more and more clogged drains since it’s the difficult ones that cause all the problems.  Generalist managers understood how to set targets, but did not understand the context-specific issues involved.  What organisations need is people who know about and  understand the balance of people, process and environment in specific contexts.

The next chapter illustrates Deming’s contention that most of the problems in organisational performance are system-based and not the responsibility of the individuals involved.    “Instead of thinking that the performance of the organisation depends on the behaviour of individuals, and therefore focus on managing the individuals, it is better to start the other way round, from appreciating that the behaviour of the individual workers is likely best explained in terms of the system or context they work in.”   People generally make their decisions, not because they deliberately want to screw up, but in order to adapt to the work system they find themselves in, a system which they may well feel makes no sense but feel powerless to change.

Across the book, Miller and Hall overemphasize their message.  This is not the only relevant or valuable perspective on organisational culture: organisations need structure and predictability, and people working in organisations benefit from benchmarking and an external as well as an internal challenge to do better.  But the ideas and values that underpin the author’s arguments are sound.  This may not be the only valuable perspective, but it is an essential one.   The challenge in any organisation is one of balance, between empowering the individuals who do the job and providing the kinds of structure and support which ‘raise the floor’ without ‘lowering the ceiling.’

Watch out for the Postcard on School Education coming out in 2014!!!


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