Much of the public sector has started the year on a burning platform. The years of failure to radically reorganise are coming back to bite.
A new era of year-on-year budget cuts point to an acceleration of shared services, and a disposal of many peripheral projects.
This may be a positive thing. A burning platform is good for focussing the mind — and none of our organisations , social or otherwise, have a right to exist. The question though is whether boards and leadership have even asked themselves that question.
Do they really need to continue to operate?
And would the world be any different without them?
I recently had the opportunity to visit the Google campus in London and what impressed me the most was not the hipster offices or culture, but the way the organisation continually questions its own existence.
Google, or Alphabet, is 17 years old. The average lifespan of a company listed in the S&P 500 index of leading companies has decreased by more than 50 years in the last century. By 2025, much of the index will be companies that we have not even heard of yet.
The point Google made was stark. By rights they should no longer exist. They are old and at risk of stifling bureaucracy , corporate stagnation and unwillingness to change. There are younger , hungrier organisations out there.
Google remind themselves of this each and everyday and have structured their company and culture to ensure they avoid complacency.
Much of the public sector is ancient by comparison , but I wonder whether the average board questions themselves this way. Have they considered whether they themselves really need to exist? Whether the value they add couldn’t be delivered more effectively by others? If boards aren’t talking about this on a regular basis I’d suggest they are no longer fit for purpose.
I’ve written before about the need for organisations to organise themselves very differently through better use of shared services, supply chain or merger. Much of the social sector — almost all publically funded — delivers pretty much the same product to the same client groups. Any sector that has multiple players performing similar services is ripe for disruption.
Part of the problem in the social sector is that it’s too polite. We talk about equal partnerships, collaborations and joint working as the language is comfortable and we don’t want to upset people. We pretend there is space for everyone when it simply isn’t true.
What we really need right now is honesty — and that means talk of takeovers, disruption and organisations ceasing to exist. Scary, frightening stuff.
All businesses that last more than a few years have to change, whether it’s by updating technology, redesigning products, or recruiting different skills. But in some cases, demographic shifts, income loss or changing tastes alter the business climate so much that an entire organisational structure ends up in jeopardy. That’s where much of the public sector is right now — but I don’t always sense the acceptance of the need for radical change.
Now is the time to imagine what the world would look like if the likes of Uber ran health, housing and social care.
In an era of platforms it’s perfectly possible that your organisation could fulfill its aims by just getting out of the way. There’s no evidence that older organisations perform better or are more profitable. If anything the evidence points the other way.
The question for many organisations is not really about how to survive but about when to die.
We are now in a world post Kids Company, where high profile social purpose organisations will face far greater scrutiny. The public expect ever greater levels of transparency and accountability.
Just because you do good does not mean you are good.
Let’s not resist change but actively embrace it. Let’s challenge ourselves radically over our form as well as our function. Let’s resist self preservation in all its forms and create a leaner, hungrier model where we question ourselves constantly.
Our organisations won’t be around for so long in the future. We need to organise around getting the best deal for customers and end users , not for ourselves.
The ultimate question: if your organisation ceased to exist tomorrow who would truly notice the difference?
A version of this post first appeared in Inside Housing