Aspirational picture of man on a mountain

 Reflections on Teaching: Emerging Themes (or, The Folly of Rewarding A, while hoping for B……..)    

Footdown Director DrMike Carter 


A while ago I was asked to co-deliver the Leading and Managing Change module on the University of Bath MBA programmes (fulltime and executive) and the Advanced Management Practice (AMP) MSc. I had taught these programmes before, but not for several years and even then not all in the same year. Fortunately I had nearly two years notice to prepare materials and the benefit of working with Ian Colville, a friend and colleague at Bath for the best part of 30 years. So what could possibly go wrong? Well, with just one (executive MBA) cohort to go quite a bit actually! All three cohorts are comprised of different age ranges and levels of practical experience, added to which, Bath, as a ‘Top 10’ UK university, attracts a strong international following e.g. the fulltime MBA cohort comprised 64 students from 22 nationalities. 
The practical consequences of teaching the same module to different audiences meant that whilst one size had to fit all (the same academic standards had to apply for a masters qualification), the style and context had to be shaped differently for all three programmes (not what was being taught but why and how did it inform the requirement of strong theory and best practice). The benefits of this enforced discipline on Ian and me was to think much more clearly about the linkages and broader themes of the content of the programmes, whether through the live case studies or the experiences of the guest speakers (e.g. a senior advisor at the Bank of England and the Performance Director of Bath Rugby). 
During delivery of the MBA/MSc programmes in Bath we had the opportunity to consider how the stated ambitions of organisations were usurped by a lack of alignment between what organisations said they wanted, what they rewarded and, therefore, what they got! We heard about and had opportunity to study: the NHS, financial services, the police and rugby clubs; very different activities but from which very similar issues emerged.  

The NHS  

By its very nature the NHS is at the centre of the caring public services and it enshrines the very essence of its mandate through the Patients Charter. This is a policy document and public statement of intent to put patient need at the centre of everything the NHS delivers including guidance on waiting times. NHS trusts are fined by the government when waiting times are breached e.g. patients referred by a GP should be seen by a hospital consultant within 18 weeks, if not a fine is levied. However, once a patient has ‘breached’ (and the trust has been fined) there is no incentive to then speed up referral of that same patient. It actually makes more [financial] sense to see those patients who are about to, but have not yet ‘breached’, and recycle those that have ‘breached’ to the back of the queue thus making their wait even longer and much less equitable.The NHS 

The Police  

Like all public sector organisations the police are working to a mandate of ‘more for less’ as a result of the government’s bid to control public sector spending. This has led to a focus on a series of metrics designed to demonstrate the effective use of resources and return on investment e.g.: levels of crime reported and solved, fluctuations in different types of reported offences, response to emergency calls and number of complaints from members of the public. Statistics are used routinely to ‘measure’ the effectiveness of forces and they are often quoted in parliament and the press, the intention being to focus resources and impact positively on areas of public concern. However, recent disclosures have demonstrated that the public scrutiny of performance has led to management pressure to reduce the metric scores (the visible outcome of their endeavours) rather than reduce the cause of metric scores. An output being the temptation to either reduce the recorded seriousness of a reported crime or find ways not to record it in the first place. 

The Rugby Club 

Professional rugby is, in many respects, just like any other organisational sector. It has products, customers, staff and overheads to maintain and all the support functions to do so; general management, marketing, accounts and HR. Where it differs is in the immediate visibility of its performance – e.g. results from individual matches are reflected in league or cup performance and are reported in the press the same day. Professional rugby (as opposed to amateur rugby) is also relatively new, the game only turned professional in 1995 and is still developing best practice e.g. how to govern the sport, create sustainable clubs and find appropriate ways to manage people in ways that encourages them to excel on the field. The latter point is highly contested and the sport has a long way to develop before agreement will be reached on coaching techniques that create immediate benefit and long-term development.  
One coaching style was shared with us where the head coach had broken down his strategy for each game into precise requirements for each of his players. A record was kept and, irrespective of the result of the game on a Saturday, when players reported for training on the Monday they were faced with a large wall mounted matrix that accurately recorded every touch of the ball by named players. A red cross or a green tick indicated their performance against the strategy of the coach for each move, irrespective of whether what they did had a positive impact on the game or not. The result being that players, during the game, started to avoid taking a pass because in the context of the game they would have felt compelled to make a ‘red cross’ move. Players started to ‘score’ better on the performance matrix…and lose more games! 

Financial Services  

The banking collapse in 2008 and continuing machinations in the ‘Eurozone’ crisis have had severe implications for the world financial system, the extent of the issues have been extremely serious for even developed economies like the UK. The crisis has been described as a ‘once in a lifetime event’ and, for the very young, it might be. However, banking failure is nothing new. The 25 largest banking failures can be tracked back from the 1930’s to the present day – and guess what? Follow the money and you find the same causes; namely people were rewarded for taking larger and larger risks with thinner and thinner collateral…until something broke. 
Despite the rhetoric banks do not exist to safeguard our money in large vaults. Quite the contrary. While retail banks might perpetuate a ‘good to save – bad to borrow’ myth, they actually lend out all but a small percentage of our cash to borrowers. Scale that up to commercial banks, lending on property or assets, and upscale again to investment bank purchases of complex derivatives, based on speculative and high risk lending, and we see a trend that follows the path of least resistance – where the most money can be made in the shortest period of time. Ergo, if you want to understand banking failures – follow the money! 
So, what have we learnt from these examples? Whether dealing with monkeys, rats or human beings, it is hardly controversial, and certainly not rocket science, to state that most people are attuned to understand what activities are rewarded and then seek to do (or at least pretend to do) those things; to the virtual exclusion of any activities not rewarded. Hence the aphorism ‘what gets rewarded gets done’. If this, almost instinctive, understanding of human nature is grounded in the everyday world we see around us, why do we screw it up so often and to such devastating effect by rewarding B, while hoping for A? We offer two recurring causes; the hubris of leaders who did not believe in their own fallibility, and a failure to learn from history. 
“Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” 
George Santayana (1905/2006, p. 284)