COVID and Change: Beware the cowardly lion

By Alex Khaldi | 22 June 2020

As councils begin to pivot towards recovery, most recognise that there is a chance for change at a bigger and more fundamental level than has ever felt remotely possible.  Perhaps we will look back at councils in two or three years and see who was most successful?  We might ask who took the chance for change, and who struggled to make sense of the new world?   But as I talk to senior officers and councillors about change in social care in particular, what strikes me is how different their interpretations are.  For people like me, who are interested in change, navigating these personalities is a challenge.  Somehow the organisation has to use vastly different takes on the crisis and mould them into a coherent strategy.

Not being a psychologist, my frame of reference is a little homespun.  The sharply drawn characters in the Wizard of Oz appeal to me as an analogy, and perhaps people will recognise their colleagues in the following:

Dorothy

Dorothy is a good person that just wants to go home.  She represents the colleague that wants things to go back to normal.  These people will have a strong resistance to novelty – far from embracing the opportunity for change, they will seek comfort in old certainties and patterns of behaviour.  Change makers need to be careful that they are describing a new world that Dorothies can feel some comfort inhabiting. 

The Scarecrow

The Scarecrow is famously brainless.  Now let’s be careful, Town Halls are full of smart people.  But perhaps our version of the scarecrow is the person that optimistically jumps from one thing to another, without always thinking about the ‘why’.  Scarecrows are going to be very useful as they have lots of energy and enthusiasm.  Our changes are going to need to tap into a sense of excitement and opportunity about what the future could bring.  We should not describe the future to them in pessimistic terms, else they may go back to their field and stay put.

The Wizard of Oz

The Wizard is our technician.  S/he builds cities and designs aircraft, enabling the cast of characters to travel back to Kansas.  Wizards are a much needed resource, translating passion and emotion into practical plans.  We desperately need Wizards to design services, strategies and solutions that meet the needs of communities/

The Cowardly Lion

The Cowardly Lion is our biggest challenge.  This is someone who talks big but can’t always back their ideas up.  Worse still, when it comes to actually doing something, they lose their big talk and bravery.  It is up to their friends to help them find the courage to make good on their promises.

The Witches

Whether good or wicked, the witches provide our moral compass.  As never before, leadership and judgement are needed.  There is so much councils can do, economically, socially and environmentally.  But resources are finite, and judging where to make the trade-offs is a moral judgement more than a technical one.  I think of our councillors as holding the role of the witches, hopefully the good ones!

Perhaps we can see something of these characters as we begin to navigate recovery and renewal.  We need all of these people, but we also need to move forward.  When different versions of the future are overly contested, organisations can feel political and become draining for all involved.  The challenge for change professionals is not to be right, but to be progressive.  That sometimes means finding a way for all of these characters to complement each other.

Councils are doing incredible things in the face of much adversity.  But many are now saying that recovery will be an even tougher challenge than our current emergency management mode.  Certainties will melt away and there will be big choices to make.  I believe strongly that it is the quality of thinking locally which will determine success, not a diktat from government.  The lions, Dorothies, scarecrows and witches need to find ways to work together, and get us all back to Kansas.

Alex Khaldi is an independent consultant and interim, specialising in social care and COVID recovery

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