Martyn Drake: Cutting your personal waiting list

Delaying dealing with problems at your charity can cause irreparable damage, writes our columnist

Martyn Drake
Martyn Drake

Whatever your political persuasion, it's hard to deny that the service provided by the NHS is far less responsive than it was a few years ago. The Patients Association’s most recent report on surgery waiting lists highlights some of the statistics and points out various implications with which charities working in health and social care will already be intimately familiar.

But the damaging impact of delaying action isn’t just the preserve of the NHS: there’s a huge parallel in many charities. Within your organisation, right now, there are almost certainly people who don't behave the way you need them to, processes that don't work as they should and systems no longer fit for the needs of the people who use them. You might not be aware of them, or you might have good reasons for not prioritising them on your own personal waiting list, whether that’s a lack of money, capacity or the confidence to fire that person you know you’ll probably have to replace at some point.

Either way, you’re almost certainly underestimating the true cost of that delay.

When surgery is delayed, more time and money gets spent managing the symptoms: first the pain, then the psychological implications such as anxiety and depression. The person needing the surgery often tries to work around the problem, putting excessive strain on other parts of their bodies. And when the intervention finally happens, it’s with a higher risk of failure because they’ve been physically and psychologically weakened by the wait. The same is true for your charity.

The longer you spend managing the symptoms rather than fixing the underlying problems, the more strain you put on your best people, the more pressure you put on morale and the more likely you are to pay the price in lost talent and time off. The longer a poor manager stays in their role, the more poor employees they’re likely to hire and the more good ones are likely to walk. Beyond that, you’re doing even deeper damage. When your people are having to fight the system or each other just to do their jobs, you start to establish some very difficult-to-undo behaviours and beliefs.

Enthusiasm for the organisation fades, trust in the leadership erodes and the culture starts to fragment into silos and cells. As friction grows between teams, information stops flowing and starts becoming currency instead. And when you do get around to fixing the underlying problem, whether that be a difficult individual, a broken process or a defunct system, trying to reignite that passion, reboot that culture and restart the lifeblood of open communication can be incredibly hard. Sometimes the goodwill and good people you’ve lost turn out to be irreplaceable.

Engagement works both ways. We hear all the time that leadership is about getting everyone in the organisation fully engaged with your strategy, your vision and your values. But it’s also about getting yourself and your team engaged with the organisation, the people working in it and the challenges they’re dealing with every day. It’s about listening to their issues in real time, quickly picking someone who has the desire and the skills and giving them the authority and resources, not to alleviate the symptoms, but to get to the root cause and fix it.

If you’re not engaged with your people’s concerns, it’s impossible to engage them with yours. So take a couple of hours out next week, walk the shop floor and ask the people you meet about the problems they have, the things that annoy them and the workarounds they use to get the job done.

Charities are great at telling governments and local authorities to invest now to prevent issues in the future, to fix the root cause rather than treat the symptoms. So, doctor, heal thyself.

Martyn Drake is founder of the management consultancy firm Binley Drake Consulting

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