Derek Bishop


Suffering from a fortress culture

Date added: 06th Sep 2013
Category: Leadership

A life spent making mistakes is not only more honourable, but more useful than a life spent doing nothing.”

As an encouragement to people to try and accomplish something with their lives George Bernard Shaw may have had a point but there is a fine line between trying to accomplish something and making mistakes along the way and charging off to “do stuff” without sufficient thought or care.  Unfortunately this drive to “do stuff” without proper planning has become endemic within businesses and organisations worldwide and is one of the reasons why projects overrun, fail or cost far more than originally expected.

The latest project to hit the headlines in a negative way relates to the introduction of universal credit.  The National Audit Office’s recent report* into the scheme has been less than complimentary about some of the aspects  of what was an ambitious reform in welfare payments with one universal credit designed to replace six means-tested benefits.  With a net benefit of £38 billion over the first twelve years the incentive was sizeable.

Early in 2013 the Government “reset” the scheme following concerns raised by the Major Project Authority over the lack of detailed blueprint and transition plan for universal credit.  This “reset” and experiential evidence has resulted in a delay in rolling out the new system as well as a scaling back of its scope.  Now the NAO has raised further concerns in respect of the early stages of the project.  These include the identification of an over-ambitious project deadline which was compounded by a:

  • Lack of transparency and challenge
  • Inadequate financial control over supplier spending
  • Ineffective departmental oversight

Speaking to the Today programme, NAO director Max Tse commented that:

“The extent of problems, particularly around weak governance and the poor oversight of the programme was surprising. We think a lot of this stemmed from setting an overambitious timetable at the start of the programme. The programme itself was allowed to develop a fortress culture where only good news was circulated, and issues weren’t really identified.  People felt they couldn’t raise issues or concerns, and that overall messages always had to be very positive. Partly I think it was a failing of the programme oversight, so there wasn’t really a lot of challenge at high levels.”

A fortress culture, the reporting only of positive news; these unfortunately are signs which we have seen time and time again in failing organisational and business cultures.  Generally such behaviour is also characterised by a silo mentality with internal departments failing to work or even communicate with each other and a middle management layer whose top priority is to protect its own back.

When a company culture becomes so inward looking and protectionist it is time for sweeping changes to be made.  These need to be led from the top with a fresh culture of openness, co-operation and innovation taking the place of a culture of fear.  The NAO’s recommendations in respect of the future development of the universal credit programme include:

  • Producing a realistic plan with clear programme objectives, linked to policy design and service requirements
  • Using a management approach that allows policy experts, operational teams and systems developers to work together
  • Establishing effective governance processes and structures

The report makes interesting reading for all those who are considering embarking on large scale projects within their organisation as well as those who are concerned about the effect which a negative company culture may have within their organisations.  On a positive note the NAO does conclude that “Universal Credit is a key programme for the Department, and it is still entirely feasible that it goes on to achieve considerable benefits for society” but it also says that this will only happen if the Department learns from its mistakes.  So we’ll give credit for the original idea which may still turn out a positive outcome for the country and finish by turning back to George Bernard Shaw who also said:

Imagination is the beginning of creation. You imagine what you desire, you will what you imagine and at last you create what you will.

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