Dr David Rummage sent a trophy icon to Plackard with a short message: “I think we have a winner!”
Bev Heaver’s “unpresentation” had passed the 40-minute mark, which meant that Rummage was on target to collect this year’s Christmas sweepstake.
But help was on its way. Sir Trevor Longstay was tapping his pen on a large tub of Celebrations and glancing at his watch. “Surely not long now,” thought Plackard.
Sir Trevor, executive chair of the Blithering Them and Us Health and Care Partnership, cleared his throat as if to speak. Plackard involuntarily pumped the air with a pallid fist.
“Something to say, Plackard?” growled Longstay.
“Just a question for Bev,” Plackard said, recovering quickly.
Rummage frowned. Interruptions were against the rules. The sweepstake was void. He’d take it up with Plackard after the meeting.
Bev Heaver smiled at Plackard. “What can we explore together, Martin?” she asked, inclusively.
Making it up as we go along
“I just wondered if you could, I mean we could, identify the essential elements of a change story,” Plackard said.
“Great question,” Heaver said, even though it wasn’t a question and she’d just spent the best part of an hour spelling it all out in painful detail.
Her theme was “Making it Up as We Go Along: Leadership Stories for Our Change Journey”. Story-telling, Heaver insisted, was one of the Seven Characteristics of Great Leaders (her capitals) along with active listening, enabling others to be heard, empowering people, showing vulnerability, reinventing other people’s ideas and positive thinkfulness.
The weekly meeting of the Blithering top team – thankfully the last of the year – had been treated to a number of familiar Heaverisms, which the chief transformation officer claimed to have “adapted”, by which she meant stolen from obscure academics or discredited management textbooks.
Leading from the bottom
They included: “Old power paradigms involved telling people what to do, setting standards and goals, leading from the top, feeling responsible for what happened, hiding your feelings, and dwelling on the achievements of the past.
“New power is all about asking, agreeing, leading from the bottom, letting go of responsibility, showing your human side by posting pictures of your dinner or your pets on social media, and focusing on your aims for the future, however far they may be from reality.”
Despite Bev Heaver’s constant reminders of the importance of conversation, it was rare that she stopped talking for long enough to hold one. At this stage in the proceedings people were usually too awestruck (her word) or dazed (theirs) to do more than murmur assent. She leant into the screen as if to address Plackard’s request more intimately. The other participants on the call fought the urge to lean back. All except Sir Trevor, who gave in to the urge, toppling backwards and sending his chocolates flying as he disappeared from view. He reappeared a few seconds later, looking cross.
Bev Heaver forged ahead.
“People have always told each other stories. It’s the first thing we do when we want to engage the imaginations of young children,” she said to Plackard in the manner of a parent engaging with a very young child.
“It’s how we learn to learn, and later it’s about how we learn to share our learnings. Perhaps you have a story you’d like to share, Martin?”
The only story that occurred to Plackard involved keeping Sir Trevor’s name out of the papers after details of a questionable procurement had been “shared” by a disgruntled member of the finance team. He didn’t think that was quite what Heaver had in mind.
Plackard stared into his computer screen miserably, hoping for someone to throw him a lifeline.
For once Rummage took pity on him.
Rummage waves his tool
“So, what does this template have to do with it?” Rummage asked, waving a copy of the document Heaver had asked them all to print in preparation for the meeting. It was a single side of A4 containing empty boxes with headings such as “back story”, “cast of characters” and “plot lines”.
“Think of it as a tool, a framework for constructing your own impactful story of change, your own compelling leadership narrative,” she said.
“I notice that in these headings there’s nothing about outcomes or results. Nothing you’d call an ending or a conclusion,” said Rummage. “And nothing you’d call a plot.”
He was playing with fire. Participants on the call who had been surreptitiously checking emails or playing sudoku looked up from their phones. Plackard pressed “record” in the hope that he might be about to gather some footage to use against Rummage at a later date.
Direction of travel
To everyone’s disappointment, Heaver either did not notice Rummage’s sarcasm or pretended not to hear. Instead, she cast a mildly pitying look at the camera and declared that “outcomes were a very ‘old power’ concept”.
“We’re on a journey, David. We’re telling the story of that journey to each other so that we can bring others along with us, agree that we’re going in the right direction and co-plan our next journey together.”
Rummage was not giving up that easily. “So where are we actually going, why are we going there, when do we arrive, what are we going to do when we get there and how much is this trip going to cost?” he asked.
Plackard could feel his sphincter tighten with excitement. He wanted to look away, but couldn’t.
Longstay’s change journey
Again, Heaver proved impervious to outmoded notions of rational thought, and despite the onslaught of logic from Rummage, failed to self-destruct.
“More great questions!” she said. “David’s already writing his personal change story. Now, who else has something they’d like to share? What about a contribution from you, Sir Trevor?”
Somewhere in cyberspace a tub of Celebrations went flying and a knight of the realm parted company with his chair for a second time.
It would enter Blithering folklore as Sir Trevor Longstay’s day of unexpected change journeys. And for many, it confirmed Bev Heaver’s status as NHS Blithering’s leading virtual thinker and strategist.
(c) 2020 Julian Patterson
Thanks for reading the blog this year. If you like it, please tell other people and encourage them to subscribe. Sir Trevor and the rest of his team would like to wish you a very merry Christmas and a happy new year. And so would I.