Want to Overhaul your Strategy? Then, avoid the Ballymun Syndrome

‘Keep your Organisational Strategy on Track’

99% of the time, I tend to see the glass as three-quarters-full. But, now and again, a trickle of cynicism breaks through the positive veneer. That kernel of cynicism was on high alert during a recent assignment…

Strategic Planning: I’d worked with a senior team to craft a new strategy for their organization. It wasn’t a complete overhaul of what they had been doing; there were strong elements of continuity. We pulled a summary of the new strategy together onto a couple of A3 pages, had it ‘prettied up’ and congratulated ourselves on a job well done. Then, a couple of weeks later, I went and did something really stupid. I asked the staff what they thought about the new strategy and challenged them to actually show me what they were doing to implement it. Doubting Thomas! And, the answer was… nothing or virtually nothing. The senior team had worked diligently on a ‘better tomorrow’ – but the trickle down communications on this hadn’t worked and staff were ploughing traditional furrows. The Lesson: New strategies need to be implemented. It’s not enough to be an Architect; you also need to be a builder, making the concepts real, bringing them alive. Why? Because, results pay the bills.

Existing Services: The same basic point (finding out exactly what’s happening on the ground), applies to existing strategies. In the social sector, a range of services are dependent on Government support. To illustrate, lets look at the case of Ballymun, a community that has many positive features. At the time of writing, Ballymum has 44 Youth Workers. To put that number in perspective, that’s more Youth Workers than are employed in all of Connaught! Why? Because in the ‘good times’, the government was tripping over itself to offer supports to socially deprived communities. Without any real cross-pollination about what works and what doesn’t work. Without evidence-based data on developing a sustainable community model. Using different pots of money from different departments to deliver band-aid responses, has led to a massive overlap and duplication of services. These can best be understood as social control models, the equivalent of sweeping all the bad stuff (disaffected youth) under the carpet (don’t get me started on the Methadone programme).

Radical Surgery: I can hear you shouting from here. “OK, just let me at it. I’m smart. I have an MBA to prove it. I will simply overhaul that system. Right away”. Perhaps you would start from scratch (needs analysis) rather than just conduct some piecemeal tinkering and minor modifications. If that was your orientation, you’d be 100% correct. But, the real politic is that any mention on cutting back frontline services in disadvantaged communities brings out the lobbyists. Working class communities are not afraid to protest and have always understood the power of jockeying politicians, using their vote as a big stick, or using the media to celebrate ‘indignation’. Think of it as the ‘Big Switch’ (not from the ESB to Bord Gais), but a vote switch to another party. As Joe Duffy gets excited, the politicians get scared. And that ‘scared’ message gets communicated to local managers. So, we don’t really consider the consequence of ‘mission creep’ in individual organizations. We avoid mergers of overlapping services. We run a mile from business process reengineering and all the tried and tested tools that manufacturing organizations have pioneered. We substitute all of this good stuff with tons of strategic thinking, but little real strategic implementation. No overhauls. Just preliminary ‘tyres & brakes’ checks before we send the same organizations back out on the road. That’s why we need strong public sector managers, independent of ministers. We need those managers to have tools that allow, when required, radical surgery. And we need public sector managers to feel empowered to do this, without political interference. We don’t need a war on terror – we need a war on waste!

Pain Acceptance: In organizations, staff can tolerate ‘pain’ when this is for a clear purpose. But not when it’s for the purpose of upholding bullshit. As when 2 Care Centres mysteriously find their way onto the priority list in a Ministers constitutiency. To mix metaphors, some things are shiny on the outside, like donkey droppings! Like drug treatment programmes that don’t provide any treatment. Like Youth Work programme, which can disempower local communities. In implementing strategy, you have to have the ability to join up the dots, to make sure that the system works on the ground.

Work Organization: The exact same points apply at the level of individual organizations, whether public or private sector. You have to be able to ‘re-think’ what currently exists. You have to see beyond today’s services. If you can’t do it yourself, get someone else to do it for you. The only thing that you can’t decide is to do nothing. Because doing nothing, or its first cousin, ‘tinkering at the margins’, is a recipe for mediocrity. And you’d hardly want that carved on your gravestone.

Paul Mooney

PS: Lighter Moment (for the purpose of Executive Relaxation). This is an old one, but still funny. It’s in line with the points made above.

The American and the Japanese corporate offices for a large multi-national decided to engage in a boat race. Both teams practiced hard and long to reach peak performance.
On the big day they both felt ready, but the Japanese team won by a mile. Afterward, the American team was discouraged by the loss and morale sagged. Corporate management decided that the reason for the crushing defeat had to be found. A consulting firm was hired to investigate the problem and recommend corrective action.

Consultant’s Finding: The Japanese team had 8 people rowing and 1 person steering; the American team had 1 person rowing and 8 people steering. The firm concluded that too many people were steering and not enough were rowing on the American team.
As race day neared again the following year, the American team’s management structure was completely reorganized. The new structure: 4 Steering Managers, 3 Area Steering Managers and a new performance review system for the person rowing the boat to provide incentive. The Japanese team won by two miles. Humiliated, the American office laid-off the rower for poor performance and gave the managers a bonus for uncovering the problem.

Know someone who’d benefit from reading this blog? Forward it on or ask them to contact paul@tandemconsulting.ie and we will add them to the mailing list. If you’d like to have a discussion about management or organization development, give me a call on 087 2439019.


About Tandem Consulting

Paul Mooney holds a Ph.D. and a Post-Graduate Diploma in Industrial Sociology from Trinity College, along with a National Diploma in Industrial Relations (NCI). He has a post-Graduate Diploma and a Masters in Coaching from UCD. Paul, a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, is widely recognised as an expert on organisation and individual change. He began his working life as a butcher in Dublin before moving into production management. He subsequently held a number of human resource positions in Ireland and Asia - with General Electric and Sterling Drug. Between 2007 and 2010, Paul held the position of President, National College of Ireland. Paul is currently Managing Partner of Tandem Consulting, a team of senior OD and change specialists. He has run consulting assignments in 20+ countries and is the author of 12 books. Areas of expertise include: • Organisational Development/Change & conflict resolution • Leadership Development/Executive Coaching • Human Resource Management/employee engagement
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