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Showing our working out

Written by Glen Ocsko on . Posted in Our blog

I hate maths. Well, I hate teaching maths. My children are all at an age where they are starting to get on to more complicated calculations, and I’m struggling to adequately describe to them how to get from A to B, or more appropriately 294 to pi.

The trouble is that in my head, I just do it. I don’t quite remember how I developed all of the techniques of chunking things up, rounding them up, doing a few separate sums to get each component correct and then recombining them at the end to get to the answer; I just sort of do it all in my head and blurt something out. My teachers hated teaching me as I’d usually get the right answer, but rarely adequately showed my working out.

The reason I mention this is that I came across a similar situation recently at an event which really got me frustrated. Picture the scene: a circle of senior Council staff from across the country, each describing their challenges and each looking to get some help and support to come up with solutions that will balance the books whilst delivering all of the services needed to those who need them. A few members of the group are taking part as they have been invited to speak as experts, sharing their stories and describing how they are in a better place than many others in the room. One of the group asks them how they can get from where they are to where they need to be; their answer?

“Well, you just have to do it. We do, and we’re great, so act like us.”

I paraphrase, but effectively that is all they ended up saying. There was no thought to the years of preparation that went into all of it, the discussions, the arguments, the position papers, the cajoling, the business cases, the low hanging fruit, the media preparation, the vision statements, the risk assessments or the sheer dumb luck factor; all the advice given was to jump to the end point with an expectation that the intervening steps actually wouldn’t be necessary or difficult.

As I mentioned recently on our podcast (did you know, we have a semi-regular podcast?), in some ways it reminded me of childbirth. While going through pregnancy there is trial after trial, adjustments to arrangements and a lot of negotiation about how things will work afterwards, followed by some extremely painful and difficult birthing pains after which all of that gets forgotten as you look into the baby’s eyes and resolve to have another one as they are so fantastic. You develop a form of pain-amnesia, forgetting all of the hurt and focussing on all that is good about the end product.

Whilst in evolutionary terms this is perfectly reasonable (otherwise our species would be far fewer in number), when it comes to organisational and cultural development it is possibly the most dangerous and/or useless stance to take when people come to you asking for advice. It leads the questioner to end up with one of two visions for success: either do just jump in with both feet and act in that way, or give up as there is just about no help out there. Whilst the latter results in little progress, the former would be far more serious as the internal knowledge and expertise built up during those long fights and debates simply won’t exist.

It is only by fighting the fights and beating down the doubters that a good, innovative idea can truly be tested, and the staff involved build up the required skill set and mental attitude to enact it. Sometimes it may be a case of living up to the adage that timing having an awful lot to do with the success of a rain dance: it might not matter how good or bad you are, sometimes everything just aligns perfectly and works first time. However, more often than not it will require a lot of work and learning to take place along the way.

It seems to be these stages of learning which we are not good at breaking down. We tend to look back and remember the good parts, rather than what we did to get from one stage to the next. We also condense these lessons down to very few, often focussing on the individuals involved rather than the processes we went through. We also rarely talk about any dead ends or failures, a cardinal sin when it comes to learning.

It is always useful to have examples to inspire others, paragons of virtue which we can all point to and say “I want to be more like them!” What we need more of is the real, honest analysis of how they got to where they are so we can then apply this to our own settings and devise appropriate strategies to make progress. Just saying “be more like us” not only does others no good but it does a huge disservice to those who are good, not valuing the effort that went into things and making it seem as if everyone could do exactly the same by tomorrow. Some may say “we were just lucky”, but in my experience there’s no such thing as luck; luck is simply preparation meeting opportunity.

Being open as you go helps as you don’t then need to go back and work out how it all worked. We all need to get a little bit better at showing our workings, lest we end up with a load of sums and answers but no idea how we got there, or even if they’re correct.

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