The Pit of Inaction: My Thoughts



Many of us are frustrated by the way large organisations seem to get stuck. Even though people at every level are working really hard, somehow things do not change. I created a ‘messy map’ to make sense of my observations and shared it on Twitter. It seemed to strike a chord and generate discussions. So, I refined my scribbles into a neat graphic and decided to write this blog to provide some context and share some ideas for using this to promote some positive actions.


There are some things I need to make clear before I start:


I am sharing my observations and reflections, based on my experiences and perspective. I am not basing things on any particular organisation or individuals. My model is not based on on research or commissioned by anyone.


I am not an expert in organisations, systems, or management theories. It is not an area I am particularly interested in. I am a voracious reader/researcher and probably have more underpinning theoretical knowledge than I give myself credit for. I am interested in organisation cultures, how we learn and change, values-based practice, building strengths and healthy relationships, and finding creative ways to make sense of the world.


Given that I have only briefly dipped my toe in management arenas, how have I got the audacity to create a model about management and organisations? Over several decades I have worked for different kinds of health, social care, or education organisations and I have lived experience as a carer. In He Died Waiting, my book about my personal and professional experiences, I explore how ‘the system’ has become a self-perpetuating morass of non-improvement. I am expressing my opinions in the hope it might prompt reflection and change.


I created this model in my personal reflections as a ‘messy map’ on a large piece of paper. I cannot remember why I did this. I suspect that I was feeling frustrated about the way bureaucratic organisations function (or maybe dysfunction) and I was trying to make sense of what I observed. Incidentally, I am a fan of messy maps. My research supervisors have been subjected to a fair few. It’s a good way to get ideas and points down in a visual format. Almost certainly there will have been messier versions of that I discarded before creating the one pictured below.


I was looking for a large piece of paper to use for an ecomap I was working on and came across my ‘pit of inaction’ map. On impulse, I posted it on Twitter with a ‘Laugh or cry?’ comment. People started commenting and messaging me:

“You have captured the NHS.”

“This is my local authority.”

Even (this one made me smile), “Diagram of how the Church of England works, with the special ecclesiastical terms left out” (@thevicarswife).

Plus, plenty of “Can I share/use this?” requests.


I can suffer with Imposter Syndrome. Whilst I was delighted to see the reflective and useful conversations people were having with me or each other, I was slightly embarrassed to think my scruffy scribblings might be on display at boards in different organisations. So, I created an ordered map (a neat version of my messy map) and shared that on my social media platforms (see main picture).


This model applies to large organisations in the statutory and PVI sector. It seems to fit government and their quangos too. I can get pretty steamed up about initiatives, that cost millions, where most of the money is spent talking about what to do and reporting to the commissioners. Just imagine if the money was spent on doing something useful.


I think the diagramme is self-explanatory. People at the very top are very busy and they are reliant on delegating tasks to others (upper middle management and a plethora of boards, subgroups, workstreams, working parties, core groups etc.). They also have a habit of commissioning audits, reviews and investigations. Too often meetings are fruitless because without senior management present no-one has the power to action anything. Personally, I find these meetings tedious and unproductive, frustrating and stressful, or just plain pointless. But some seem to thrive on them. The upper middle management seem to spend all their time in meetings (with the senior leads or in all those working groups), running the audits and reviews, and delegating down. Often there is conflict because the middle management know just how frustrated and concerned their front-line staff are. They are the jam in the proverbial sandwich. All of the activity above the management line generates multiple reports or meeting minutes (sometimes hundreds of pages long and full of cut and paste from previous documents) that no one has time to read properly, let alone action. Boards and senior leads just get given the edited highlights in briefings. Those below the line rarely get interaction with the above the line folk. So, they just carry on as best they can and manage the flip-flop directives by digging in and continuing as they are.


And what about the service-users and carers? Well they sit firmly below the line. A chosen few are recruited to be part of co-production innovations. In too many organisations this means they need to join the endless meetings that produce endless reports (which effectively excludes anyone who cannot manage that). I have even seen adverts for service-users or carers that explicitly state they need to behave ‘professionally’ in meetings. As if the professionals always do.


What is missing from my graphic is where the power sits. An easy mistake to make is that the power is held by those at the very top. But often these people do not stay long. They are reliant on their team to brief them. They shuffle between similar posts as their careers progress. In my opinion, the real power is held by a few hardy souls in the upper middle or middle management. They hold the history of the organisation, have formed relationships (and know whose ear to whisper in). They might even be organised enough to have all those blessed reports and minutes stored where they can refer to. Like a rabbit out of a hat, they pull out their ‘good idea’ (which might be based on someone else’s work) and reinforce their power base. These people tend to see off threats and to block change. They somehow withstand, or benefit from, restructures (don’t forget they have the ear of whoever is designing the redesign). If anyone comes along who might have the knowledge, skills and courage to implement change they see them off. Forgive my cynicism but I have seen this happen too often. My advice is to work out how really holds the power. It might be the one who sits quietly behind their lap top in meetings.


It is not very helpful for me to have a rant about what’s wrong without offering any suggestions about what might lead to shrinking the pit of inaction. Here are some ideas about how you might use this model to support positive change:


· Feel free to use the model as a reflection tool providing you credit me. Ask yourselves questions about: what you recognise; who holds the power; what you might be able to do differently; what this means for recruitment and retention of staff; and (most importantly) what this means for service-users and carers … and whatever you do … do not sent up a working party to look at it and report back.


· The conversations on social media, about the rectifying of the pit of inaction, centred around relationships, values, compassion, emotional intelligence, and co-production. Consider what might you do to increase those things in your organisation. Kindness, emotional containment, and empathy are important in healthy values-based organisations.


· Take a look at Julia Unwin’s (Carnegie UK) Kindness, emotions and human relationships: the blind spot in public policy (2018). This describes the rational and relational lexicons - how ‘native speakers’ of these languages (lexicons) communicate with each other really well but struggle with each other because their priorities and approaches are different (this is available online and there’s a useful graphic on page 12). Healthy organisations need a balance of both. Thanks to @Jendaffin for reminding me of this.


· Heed this reminder from @galavpsychology that: “No amount of increasing above the line activity ever seems to increase the effectiveness or outcomes for below the line services.”


· Why not consider getting all the people above the line to spend part of their working week working alongside or engaging with people who are below the line? Resist the temptation to recruit above, set up another working group, or write endless reports nobody reads. Be brave and push back on whoever needs these things. Show them my model and ask them to think differently.


A social worker, in a senior position, once told me to ‘stay in my box’. I have been breaking free of boxes ever since. I recognise that this is an opinionated, even cheeky, blog. But then the model has prompted ‘laugh or cry’ reactions from people because it has resonated with them. My hope is that the model will get used.


Thank you to everyone who has contributed to the discussions about this and encouraged me to formalise my musings into a model.


If you would like a PDF copy please email me at: caroline.aldridgesw@yahoo.com


People are cited in this account using their Twitter handles.