As a business education environment that has been quietly focused on self-managed learning for many years, Roffey Park also uses its own business to experiment and deepen its collective understanding of self-management principles, and in particular accountability in self-managed teams.
The organisation experienced a challenging period 2 years ago when a managed service provider to the public sector suddenly lost a highly lucrative public sector contract which was delivered through Roffey. Although the situation was resolved in time, management took the opportunity of such a shock to examine how its own self-managed processes for business acquisition could be improved by implementing purer and more rigorous self-managed teams.
“After going through and surviving such a body blow, we knew it couldn’t be business as usual, especially not in terms of business development,” says Chief Executive Michael Jenkins. “We wanted to address the boundaries between faculty and non-faculty and actively try to involve more people in sharing responsibility.”
The experiment began in September 2017 with three cluster groups: Not-for-Profit, Public and Private Sector. Consultants were grouped according to their area of expertise and connections. Representatives from other groups were added: “Client services set up all the customised courses, arrange evaluation and invoicing, and are often closest to the clients – so it made sense to have their voice in the room too,” explains Michael. Step one was redesigning functional groups who could provide a view on every aspect of client acquisition and servicing. The inclusion of research team members also helped to connect information that was gathered at the client end about organisational needs to enable the production of ever more relevant research, and also enabled existing research to be better leveraged in approaches to clients.
An overall financial target was agreed for the customised programmes. The initial challenge was to see if the cluster groups could work without having a business development or sales director in charge and instead shoulder the burden for the sales responsibility. Support for the experiment was provided through Human Systems Dynamics who helped teams establish ‘simple rules’ on how the cluster groups would operate through a process of discussion and debate, and an interim manager who sat between the clusters and the CEO to drive accountability and performance. The ‘container’ for this particular experiment is keeping the rigid structure of having business plans to which everyone would be accountable.
Turn Up Tune In Speak Out
Look out the Window not just in the Mirror
Stay on Task
Accountable to the Whole and the Greater Whole
Although the simple rules look simple, they are anything but. Staying on task for groups that naturally include high intellects who are keen on free-flowing on philosophical discussion and deeply interested in knowledge and process, as well as others whose characters need tasks and deadlines is not easy.
Holding space for the pain of accountability in self-managed teams
Most challenging of all was accountability. Like many professional services firms, Roffey had been operating almost as a series of individual one-person proprietorships while underleveraging any opportunity for a more collective approach – and no obvious virtuous circle of information sharing between departments who might help each other. Almost immediately improvements in communications and conversations showed up, especially between research and consultants. New agendas such as The Compassion Project were able to emerge based on both research and client insights so that more relevant interventions could be developed.
As the groups introduced more radical transparency, the difficult issue of sharing numbers arose. Consultants in the clusters operate on the basis of delivering a multiple of their salaries as income to the group. When sharing targets and achievements to date transparently, it was immediately apparent in each cluster who was over-delivering and who was under-delivering. “When that happens, lots of things arise. People will say to those who are under-delivering – ‘how are you going to make up that gap?’ or “Our overall task is to hit X number, so if you don’t hit your part of the target, won’t I have to work harder?’ It opened up a very visceral, painful but necessary set of conversations.” With deep expertise in facilitation and experienced psychodynamic professionals experienced in Support & Challenge’, the clusters were able to navigate this critical piece of work while recognising that it is something that needs regular attention as well as trust.
For anyone coming from a high performing commercial environment, it may seem strange that such a leadership organisation would not have had transparent sales teams. Organisational culture here plays a significant role. Even though academic institutions are now high-performing businesses, the culture of intellectual disinterest in finance takes some time to eradicate.
Sharing incoming client requests across clusters has also gradually improved as people have become more used to the process. Prior to the organisational re-design, client tenders or requests might come in and go to the people who were known to have a specific experience in either NFP, public or private. As information sharing has improved, there has been more opportunity to consider, if appropriate, individual skills related to specific problems in any brief irrespective of sector which in some cases has resulted in faster and more efficient responses to client tenders.
Six months into the experiment Roffey is now extending the metrics against which self-managed clusters are evaluated from financial metrics to a discussion away from pure numbers. “We are looking at how people are feeling about the way the work is going. People reported having more meaningful conversations and being more insightful with each other about the work, especially about proposals. How we put them together, how we work together to produce them.” Before the restructure, a common pattern was that one person might start a proposal, and then through force of circumstance, have to hand it over to someone else to complete the work – but who would have a completely different style. “We often ended up with what felt a bit too much like cut and paste solutions, so now we feel we have made some improvements in quality and can feel proud that proposals are as good as they can be.”
Michael also aimed for a reduction in overall stress. “When you’re faced with a big number at the beginning of a new financial year, and worry – how am I going to do this? – it helps to be able to chunk it out. Little by little the sharing of information and cross-cluster collaboration makes it happen. At worst we now realise much earlier if there is under-performance or if someone really needs help and support.”
The role of ‘leadership
Most new initiatives are usually led by someone. The challenge of leading something that is going to move towards a purer form of self-management is in itself, challenging. “There was anxiety on my part that if I was too much in the weeds, a number of things could happen. I worried that colleagues would feel I didn’t mean it, that I wasn’t committed to letting go (of control), that I would end up simply telling them what to do. But if I was too hands-off and didn’t turn up to meetings, I could be perceived as being disinterested.” Balancing the tension of moving people towards self-responsibility is very difficult. The appointment of an intermediary who would be visibly seen as holding the role of accountability manager allowed the CEO to step out of that role and be present as a guiding hand rather than a commanding conductor.
The cluster experiment has also found practical ways of managing expectations and allaying people’s fears – which will arise. Michael sometimes uses simple Q&A memos which set out a series of reflective questions and thoughts which pre-empt responses to fear, uncertainty and ambiguity. As they pass the 6 month point, the intermediary is leaving the group. Michael sends a Q&A memo which looks at the potential impact of her departure before a head of steam builds.
Using this level of predictive applied emotional intelligence to imagine in advance what people’s concerns are likely to be, shines a light on what otherwise might be hidden, stultifying fears. This is one of the core tenets of the experiment – bringing everything out from under the rocks where it might be hidden and examining it in the cold light of day – however difficult and however painful.
As times change Roffey Park, which has been around for 70+ years, is evolving its sense of purpose. “You need to keep reinventing yourself,” says Michael. “We used to be very protective of our teaching space, preserving it exclusively for our programmatic work. It’s an honourable aspiration but when the chips are down and you need to increase income, letting the space out for private retreats and courses was sensible.” Even academia must be commercially savvy.
Roffey is coming full circle in its evolutionary purpose. Formed with a clear brief on mental health in 1946, the current arising need to look at mental wellbeing has become more acute in the past 5 years. In 2016 Roffey published its first compassion report. The Compassion At Work project now comprises courses and workshops, and a Compassion Index – a statistically robust model developed from an in-depth review of existing evidence and a survey of over 500 UK managers and non-managers.