When talking to people about organisational change I use a cycling metaphor. The first phase is like riding up a hill into a fierce wind. It’s tough. If you don’t keep pedalling hard you find you have stopped moving or may even be sliding back downhill. Then there comes the brow of the hill and you enter an exhilarating time when change is happening effortlessly. The temptation in this phase is to freewheel down into the next valley; if you want to keep improving you have to use some of the downward momentum to start the next climb.
The first two years at the RSA certainly did feel like an uphill struggle. Important progress was made but it was slow and exhausting. There were times we had to stop pedalling. The best we could do was plod uphill pushing the bike.
2009 was the year things were supposed to change, the moment when we could stop pedalling, sit back in the saddle, admiring the view and feeling the wind in our hair. But just like happens in walking or cycling in the mountains, it turned out the peak we were aiming for had another one hidden behind.
We have been challenged by two reviews being undertaken by consultants; one on technology and one on our brand and communication. These reviews have suggested that the reason we are still finding change so tough is that we haven’t fully confronted some core dilemmas for the Society. Here are three in particular which have emerged:
• We need the House to make money so that maintaining the building isn’t a drain on our resources, but we also need the House to speak much more directly to the values and mission of the RSA.
• We want to have profile but we eschew the positioning that tends to give other organisations profile. We want to range widely, to be nuanced in our analysis and recommendations and, above all, to focus not on who to blame for problems (which, sadly, is the angle that tends to interest the media the most) but how to empower people to change.
• We want to have an impact on society but we also want to work closely with our Fellows. Because the Fellowship culture has not generally in the past been collaborative or outward looking, we are having to put in a great deal of work which is as yet reaping only modest returns in terms of Fellowship activities.
None of these dilemmas are irresolvable but they can’t just be overcome through aspiration and perspiration. We need to be brave in seeing that there are some hard choices here; we are going to have drop some luggage and maybe sometimes take a slower, less steep route if we are not going to end up lying exhausted by the side of the road.
It’s unusual I know for a chief executive publicly to open up these sorts of issues. At the heart of my continuing belief in the potential of the RSA is that it is that what makes change hard (the combination of our activities as a venue, a platform for ideas, a think tank and membership organisation) can one day be what makes us special.
So, I hope it’s won’t just be senior managers, nor even just staff members, but also our Fellows and those who partner with us who feel interested and engaged in the challenge we have set for ourselves.
We shouldn’t underestimate how far our societies have pulled apart. Yet there is hope for renewal, says Anthony Painter. The question is not whether we come together – but how.