Sir Hugh Orde’s analysis of risk aversion as a major challenge facing service providers is profound.
This is a problem in the private sector as much as the public, and stems from cultures obsessed with culpability that, too often, cripple the development of new processes and services.
He also touches on what I believe is the solution to this problem: “Working to a code of ethics and principles rather than a rule book.” Through a focus on core values, organisations can liberate their management and people to take risks in pursuit of shared principles. As the thinker Simon Sinek argues: “If you hire people just because they can do a job, they’ll work for your money. But if you hire people who believe what you believe, they’ll work for you with blood and sweat and tears.”
In the public sector, fear of auditing committees and legal challenges can make managers lose sight of their principles and dodge risk, as they seek to avoid failure at all costs. But this is also true in the private sector, where pursuit of short term goals and profit can lead to the gradual decay of core values. The problem has little to do with the format or ownership of an organization, rather it is a direct function of its values. That is why the job of those at the top above all else is to repeat, promote and exemplify their core principles religiously.
See the benefits
The willingness to take risk in pursuit of an overarching principle can yield remarkable results. Sir Hugh had lunch with a convicted Northern Irish terrorist because he knew it was compatible with his core principles - restoring order as well as the community’s trust in the police - even though it didn’t fit his organisation’s formal rules. People who possess core values and beliefs will always be willing to take these kinds of risks, because their passion for the cause overrides their fear of failure.
Strong core values don’t only ensure risks are freely taken, they also increase the chance of innovations being well received. Organisations assured of their principles inspire the public. Look at Apple, who have a core set of beliefs at the heart of their organisation, which are now shared by fans that queue for days for their latest product.
The group that innovators need to win over are the early adopters, who make decisions based on values. They want to be part of your development - whether that means buying your product or using your service - because of their own values and outlook. If innovations target the majority without capturing the early adopters, more often than not they fail, because the majority won’t try something until someone else has tried it first. The number of first generation iPhones sold didn’t matter to Steve Jobs. He cared about winning over the early adopters - who in turn showed off the product.
Here managers can learn from the best in the world of politics, where five year terms allow initially radical proposals to settle and gain acceptance. The most successful and long lasting politicians learn to disregard the daily polls. They stick to core values that speak to early adopters and influencers, who in turn convert the early majority by the time the next election comes round.
Sir Hugh identifies a number of common traits in successful public service leadership. To me, the main element is an unwavering confidence in your organisation’s values. For team members to take risks, and for the public to be inspired by them, a strong and unswerving set of principles are priceless.
“What” leaders do should be based on a strong belief in “why” it has to be done. Only then will organisations have the moral compass to wade through “risky” waters.
Ali Parsa is chief executive of Circle