This question is key for me, while I am working with senior teams or participants at a training event. Observation and analysis are needed to ensure any intervention is appropriate and effective. The question may be applied to group dynamics, individual reactions or organisational structure and culture.

It was brought to mind by a recent experience with Royal Mail. The Royal Mail was controversially floated on the London Stock Exchange in October 2013. The Coalition Government policies led to an increase in the procurement by private and public companies of public sector contracts let by central government and local authorities. One argument was that they are more efficient and effective and so cheaper for the taxpayer.  My experience with Royal Mail as a customer recently, compared with that pre 2013, did not bear out this government assumption. I was unable to work out what was going on in Customer Services. 

The story goes – on my return from a weekend away, I found a card from Royal Mail asking me to collect a large parcel from my ‘local’ parcel centre, five miles away. My previous collection point was Swan House, three miles away. I followed the instructions and drove through traffic to the Post Office as directed. The postmistress told me how frustrated she is with customers being given the wrong card for their parcel pick up, which now happens ‘all the time’. Without looking for my parcel, she advised me to go to Swan House. 

I found a large new name on Swan House and no public entrance. The sign ‘Swan House’ was still in a flower bed, looking tatty. So where could my parcel be? In a parallel universe? I rang the customer services number on the card. The advisor assured me the collection point was Swan House. When I told her it had been taken over by another company, she could find no further information about a move of building or a map with the precise location and no colleague was available to help. 

I took the initiative to try the sorting depot further up the road. A sign for Customer Services and visitor parking spaces were promising, although no sign for Swan House. I found a collection desk and asked the member of staff why there were no clues as to the location of Swan House, other than a misleading sign on a closed Royal Mail office. I discovered: 

  • Royal Mail are not allowed to put a sign on the sorting office building
  • They would not put ‘Swan House’ on the Customer Service sign because there are many teams in the building and Swan House is only the south west Leicester team.  
  • Swan House continues to be used on the collection information cards and the Call Centre as the team like the name and do not want to lose it. 
  • The sign cannot be removed from the previous building as the new owners like the name and want to reinstate it on that building. 

Models can provide useful tools in organisation development. I have found David Snowden's award winning Cynefin Framework for decision making relevant and thought provoking for chief executives and chairs of boards seeking a fresh angle from which to analyse their organisation. How to organise a Children's Party provides a humorous introduction to the model. 

Is anyone in Royal Mail asking the question ‘What is going on here?’ Might external consultation be needed to ensure efficient, effective clear communication with customers? 

My father surprised me in summer 2013. Dr Atul Gawande challenged and inspired me in his Reith Lectures ‘The Future of Medicine’ November/December 2014. 

In the relaxed setting of a two-day break in Somerset with my father, I decided to raise the topic of celebrations for his 90th birthday – some five months away. His initial response was it was too early as ‘something might happen by then’.  I countered that this possibility was not a valid reason to delay planning. Instead of sharing my assumption of his preference for the party, I then asked an open question:  ‘Have you had any thoughts about what you would like for your 90th birthday?’. To my astonishment he answered enthusiastically ‘Yes, I want a luncheon party (sic) in the village hall with all my friends’. Somewhat shamefully, I had assumed he would want a family lunch in the local pub. So, that was that then and we spent much of the next two days working on the invitation list and discussing some of the practicalities. Sixty-three people came to the party, he made a moving and funny speech and the catering and flowers were wonderful. The guests’ ages ranged from one year to over ninety. My father treasures the memories. My siblings and I followed this pattern of discussion again, in autumn 2014, with his much more significant decision to move 90 miles to sheltered housing nearer family from his much loved village of over 35 years. 

This challenge to my thinking was brought to mind as I watched the recorded interview by David Praill, CEO of Hospice UK, with Dr Atul Gawande before his Reith Lectures 2014, at the Hospice UK conference November 2014. The interview was thought-provoking - so much so that afterwards  I listened to all the Reith lectures and read his book: Gawande, Atul (2014) Being Mortal: Illness, Medicine, and What Matters in the End. (London: Profile Books Ltd.)

The fact that Atul Gawande is a doctor constructively criticizing his profession and suggesting a way forward confounded some stereotypes. His thesis is that the Hippocratic Oath and the training of doctors has led them to continue to focus on making people better at the very end of life even when the interventions may lead to effects that significantly reduce their quality of life. As patients, ‘We want doctors who promise to fix things’ (46: 2014). He also challenges families who set their relative’s safety and reduction of their own anxiety about their safety as a priority. 

Instead he proposes a set of questions that include asking the patient what their priorities are for the time that is left to them. He illustrates his points with case studies of family members and friends. 

My father is not in the position of the people Dr Gawande is talking about.  However, I now do my best to ask him what is most important in his life, so we may then work out how these experiences can be achieved. I will take these reflections and challenges into my co-facilitation of the Partners in Success workshops for Chairs and Chief Executives of hospices run by Hospice UK and, as appropriate, into other work.