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‘Constructive subversion’: turning off workplace autopilot

Examination of long-held practices that go on without much thought is an essential step towards developing more open and collaborative work environments that encourage innovation, advises corporate leader and Ethics Centre chief Simon Longstaff.

“Apart from the laws of nature themselves, everything else that we see around us is the product of human choice,” he pointed out at last week’s Innovation Month conference, setting up an unusual exploration of what is behind those choices. In the workplace, there’s often nothing much at all.

It’s common to go with the flow at work because traditionally, most employees are discouraged from questioning the status quo. This regularly leaves organisations or entire professions at the mercy of potentially dangerous groupthink.

“There’s no point invoking innovation as a value if you reward the wrong kind of behaviours.”

Long-established habitual practices, maintained because that’s just the way it’s done or through the time-honoured strategy of doing what everyone else does are the enemies of innovation, according to Longstaff.

Without a clear understanding of why they are working in a particular way or following a particular process, organisations can cause or allow very bad things to happen, he argues. Things like the global financial crisis. This is the intersection between ethics and innovation.

Simon Longstaff
Simon Longstaff

When someone gives these common empty explanations — everyone does it this way, or that’s the way it’s always been done — “what they’re telling you is that the actual basis of the choices they’re making is disconnected from anything more fundamental that allows a conscious choice to be made,” Longstaff said.

“You cannot have innovation if everyone is a prisoner of … unthinking custom and practice. If the only things that are done are those things that everybody just does, or the way it’s always been, there is no scope for innovation.”

The respected corporate leader and philosopher believes “the only antidote” for organisations that fall in the trap of going through the motions without any attendant reasoning is a certain type of leadership.

“This form of leadership is not something which is reserved just for people who have got senior titles within a hierarchy,” he said. “It’s something that any of us can do but it’s difficult, because I’d argue that real leadership always involves those wanting to act as leaders engaging in what I call constructive subversion.”

The word “subversion” in this context doesn’t need to be uttered in hushed whispers, Longstaff explains. Rather, he has written about it being a marker of good leadership:

“Constructive subversion undermines unthinking custom and practice by questioning the basis for perceiving the world through the eyes of and of acting according to ‘the familiar’. Such acts of subversion are not destructive because the task of a good leader is to help each organisation to become more like the thing it says that it wants to be. That is, leaders are not supposed to impose upon an organisation a personal or idiosyncratic view of what it should be. Instead, their task is to serve a defining purpose within a governance framework with core values and principles at its heart.”

Cynicism and employee engagement

From the various questions that were fired at the conference speakers when they assembled into a panel at the end of the day, it was clear that a lot of public servants still feel constrained by internal red tape and rigid hierarchies that demand long chains of authorisation for the most simple activities.

So it was presumably music to many ears when they heard Longstaff say the job of leaders is to subvert unthinking custom and practice — and not just replace it “their own idiosyncratic view on the world” either.

“Rather, the key to great leadership is to help the organisation become the thing that it says it wants to be, or to help make it more like what it says it wants to be.”

“The truth is that very many people don’t actually want innovation.”

Some of the questions and background discussions at the conference indicated that a lot of public servants in middle management and below can’t quite imagine how most of the lessons about innovation dispensed at such events would apply where they work. The idea of going above and beyond the normal day-to-day tasks and striving to plant the seeds of an innovation revolution does not seem realistic for many.

Research indicates that increasing employee engagement and getting staff to put in the “discretionary effort that innovation ultimately depends on” requires a sincere focus on the organisation’s mission that is backed up through everything it does, said Longstaff. Without that sense of moral authority, he explained, staff will only do the bare minimum.

The prospect of having more engaged employees, filled with enthusiasm about going the extra mile and doing more with less — without spending much more on them — might well be what leads so many government and corporate leaders to long for a culture of innovation. But happy and engaged staff don’t just happen, and one of Longstaff’s key points was that leaders have to clearly explain the intrinsic value of innovation so that everyone is clear about why they are pursuing it, and mean what they say.

One audience member pointedly asked how one could expect to build that enthusiasm when other forces push morale and engagement down. The unnamed department where he worked was “a very unhappy place” due to budget cuts and the effects of the federal government’s strict enterprise bargaining policy, and nobody was keen to put in the extra effort towards innovation.

The speakers could only suggest that innovation evangelists try to overcome the cynicism, shift the culture, and so on. The familiar elephant in the room was that in the public service, a lot of decisions affecting employee engagement are made at ministerial level.

Constructive subversion is not easy, said Longstaff, and that’s because of another obvious fact of life about innovation that is rarely mentioned: “The truth is that very many people don’t actually want it.”

Returning to the office after the conference, full of beans and excitedly urging colleagues to get on board and rethink everything in the context of the mission would probably just annoy a lot of people, he pointed out.

People below you would see sudden enthusiasm for organisational change as unnecessary; they know what they’re doing and how to do it, and are wary of new complications, Longstaff suggested. Peers might think you’re “making them look bad” and superiors are likely to shut you down by saying you’re going above your pay grade.

And that’s in organisations that aren’t feeling especially unhappy. All leaders need the “moral courage” to challenge this tendency to resist being led, Longstaff added, but he also cautioned that constructive subversion was about “picking the right time” and bringing the right skills to bear.

Six steps to constructive subversion

Bearing in mind the difficulties and the caveats, Longstaff listed six steps to create an environment of constructive subversion, which is “the precondition for any kind of innovation” in his view.

First, there needs to be a genuine commitment from the top, and fine words alone won’t do it. The “virtuous spiral of innovation … only begins to turn when people think it’s a credible promise that this is something that we might do,” he explained.

Here, the leadership guru acknowledged that senior bureaucrats are not actually in the same position as corporate leaders:

“It’s difficult in the public service … because at the very top you’ve got a political class which is in crisis at the moment, [with a] very low degree of trust and legitimacy in the community, and they are ultimately responsible so it puts a particularly high burden on professional public servants in terms of maintaining the integrity of the institution.”

The next step on the list was using the right language to explain why innovation is being pursued and how it relates to overall purpose. This needs to go beyond the financials, Longstaff argued, questioning the over-reliance on economic modelling to justify almost every action or inaction.

“Even in 2009, charities working in the area of child abuse felt it necessary to find a report from Access Economics to show us that child abuse costs too much,” he said to illustrate his point. “What kind of society is it that needs that? Surely we know that child abuse is wrong, that it ought to be prevented.”

Leaders need to apply the same thinking to explain the inherent value of changing to a new way of working. They need to frame the discussion in terms of the potential consequences of the change, as well the ethical constraints. “The thing about this language is it’s a certain kind of ethical literacy that all leaders need to learn, in order to unlock innovation,” said Longstaff.

Next is having all the signals and incentives that indicate what is expected of staff line up through every policy, system and structure to back up the stated commitment to the value of innovation.

“There’s no point invoking innovation as a value, if you actually organise things so it can’t possibly succeed, if you reward the wrong kind of behaviours, if you fail to notice things which are around innovation.

“The only way that people will actually become invested this will be if they get a series of signals which are consistent with what the organisation claims to believe. And if innovation is one of those things, you need to put it in place.”

Another ingredient is delegated authority. Longstaff argues most government institutions are filled with systems “so tightly bound by regulation and surveillance” as to stifle the capacity to make responsible choices and take calculated risks in trying something new.

“An environment of open communications” concluded the six points. “Not just suggestion boxes but real discussion about why things are done the way they are and what to do when they appear to be inconsistent with the purpose of the organisation itself — particularly in the changing context that emerges with new technologies,” said Longstaff.

“It should be possible for any person — without being labelled as a ‘whistleblower’ — to say, ‘Hang on. We say this, but we do that. It doesn’t make sense.’ And, in doing so, to provide vital intelligence to an organisation so that it can change the way that it goes about its operations and liberate the capacity for innovation.”

And the last element? The need to allow the possibility of taking a long-term view — another suggestion that is tricky, but not impossible for the modern public service dealing with the increasing pace at which the political world turns.

“There are some things that can only be done if you take this longer-term view. And unless you enable people to do that, with all of these other structures in place, it’s no wonder that human beings tend to go back to simply going through the things they already know — the safe, familiar, habitual tasks which are the great enemies of innovation.”

Author Bio

Stephen Easton

Stephen Easton is a journalist at The Mandarin based in Canberra. He's previously reported for Canberra CityNews and worked on industry titles for The Intermedia Group.