We interviewed Aidan Rave, the Interim UK Director of Strategy at Barnardo’s. Aidan joined the business sector after his experience in politics serving as Deputy Mayor of the Doncaster Council. He continued his work in consulting with a special interest in social sector work. Aidan is an expert in strategy, organisational structure, and has experience in bringing practical and impactful solutions to challenging problems.
We discussed the role of performance measurement in organisations, Barnardo’s strategic plans for the future, and organisational culture.
About Aidan Rave:
Aidan Rave is an experienced strategist who works with clients to challenge and stretch their outlook and their thinking, before applying that to practical and deliverable outcomes. He is currently the Interim UK Director of Strategy at Barnardo’s, as well as a Director at LKS Quaero, an international management consultancy firm. He is an expert in strategic planning, performance management, organizational culture management, and talent development. In his past Aidan has worked for various consultancy and social agencies such as BellPaul, Peopletoo, Pinnacle PSG, and Rockpools. Before going into business and the social sector sphere, Aidan had extensive experience in politics, serving as the Deputy Mayor of the Doncaster MBC (Metropolitan Borough Council). His experience is an unusual mix of strategy, policy, practice and politics.
Aidan studied social sciences at the University of Derby, and now holds an MBA in Organisational Strategy from University of Hull as well as an MSc in Human Resources Management from University of Wales, Cardiff.
Can you tell us a bit about your background in politics, the switch over to business?
Aidan Rave: I started in local politics in the town I grew up in, Doncaster. I became involved in the local voluntary scene, working in a local charity helping people get back to into work. That sort of work brought me into the hemisphere of local politics. I stood for the Labour Party as a counsellor in the village I grew up in, and was elected in May of 1999 to the council. There was quite a lot of turmoil in the council at the time, and by May of 2001, just two years later, there was a new leadership and I became the Deputy Leader of that new leadership team. Relatively quickly after that, came the Doncaster referendum for the mayor system, which is a fairly new system in England, and I became Deputy Mayor for five years. I think partly because I did it at such a young age, and partly because even though I had ambition to go to parliament but was beaten in the selection for the local seat by Ed Miliband who became leader of the Labour Party; I decided that I wanted to try working in the private sector. In 2006 I took the plunge and I moved out to work for a consultancy firm called Rockpools. It was still linked very much to the world that I knew of local government and local public services but from a different perspective. I guess because I had been a politician in my twenties, I wanted to do something else in life and not just be a William Hank-type-character who spends his entire life in politics and does nothing else.
Rockpools was an executive recruitment firm, but I joined specifically to build an organisational development practice, which focused on leadership, organizational culture, and structure. A big issue for the public sector is often re-structuring; its implications and the potential cost savings. I spent several years at Rockpools building that practice, and we built quite an interesting practice there. Unfortunately, the organization as a whole didn’t adapt fast enough to the changes that came after the so called credit crunch – the period of austerity and the cut in public sector spending. There was a period of consolidation in the industry and Rockpools was one of the causalities of it. I went on to work for one of Rockpool’s sister companies, Pinnacle. At the time, they were trying to build their work with Councils in terms of community transformation: housing, management, and community services. My job really was on business development on that basis, and partly to train and intellectually draw some of the strands together so that we could make offers more meaningful to local government, as opposed to through channels that we just knew someone had worked before.
What exactly does your role at Barnardo’s as the Interim UK Director of Strategy entail?
Aidan Rave: Primarily the job is to devise and implement a new ten-year corporate strategy for the organisation. There are obviously other bits to it; in terms of the usual things you get leading a team, and everything else with the corporate leadership arrangement, but primarily that’s what I was brought in to do. For the last twelve months I’ve focused most exclusively on developing this corporate strategy. We successfully achieved approval from the Board of Trustees in November for the outline strategy, and in three weeks’ time I will take the final strategy to the Board of Trustees for the sign off. Assuming all goes well, the strategy is then live from the 1st of April 2016 for the next ten years, which is actually a bit unusual for a corporate strategy.
Can you tell us a little more about Barnardo’s and its mission?
Aidan Rave: Barnardo’s celebrates its 150th year anniversary this year. It is a children’s charity that is probably one of the best known children’s charities in the UK, if not the world. It was set up by a man called Thomas John Barnardo in 1866. He was a General Practitioner working in the east of London who saw the plight of children born into poverty and resolved to do something about it—Barnardo’s started from that very premise. It is one of the best examples of Victorian philanthropy: trying to persuade people with means to support those who perhaps don’t have means. The charity has thrived ever since. There aren’t many organizations that have survived 150 years, so it’s quite a remarkable thing in that sense. We continue to grow, develop, and to help more and more children. The new corporate strategy is not about restating our morals it’s about doubling our efforts and pushing on further. As much as we do good work, as much as we support children, young people, and families, we know there are hundreds of thousands more out there who we don’t get to; so the mission is to continue to provide that support.
What is the Strategy Unit at Barnardo’s and how does it function?
Aidan Rave: The Strategy Unit is about thirty people strong. A key part of the work that we do as charity is what’s called in private sector terms ‘research and development’; there are a whole series of ways we try and support children, young people and families, and do so very successfully through our children’s services department. But we need to know more about the circumstances, what’s caused these problems in the first place. Is it historical, is it family situation, is it policy, is it lack of intervention from government, is it too much intervention from government? We need to know what’s caused those problems in order to come up with solutions to stop those problems from happening again in the future. And that’s really the job of our strategy unit, to really understand and dig beneath the surface of where some of those problems exist, and then to link up to our communications team to be able to influence accordingly. Whether it’s a report about child sexual exploitation, or a campaign we might run on the dangers of poverty in ethnic minority communities in inner cities, it’s really about articulating a voice on behalf of those who don’t have one. A voice that’s been researched and tested and has some credibility; credibility drawn in part from the work that we do as a charity but also from the rigor with which we tested and researched and analysed those components. So that’s really the job of the strategy unit.
How does Barnardo’s measure its impact and performance? What were some key measurements for the past year?
Aidan Rave: In a word, it’s complicated. This is why one of the things we are determined to bring to this new corporate strategy is a degree of simplicity, so that Trustees and key managers are able to take a high level view of the organisation and its relative performance, and then, should they need to, they can drill into more detail. We don’t want them to be confronted by too much data all the time, or details that are in slightly different formats that present things in slightly different ways, and are found in different parts of the organisation. So, the primary aim is: if we work on the basis of delivering what we formed within the corporate strategy, which the trustees have hopefully signed off, the logical and very simple question is, how do they know we are delivering it? The new performance mechanism we have developed is very simply designed in order to answer that question; to give the Trustees the ability to measure our progress towards developing the strategy that they have signed off.
How do these measurements impact the organisation and its staff?
Aidan Rave: Again, I think that’s where at the moment we are not performing as well as we need to. There’s something of a performance panic once a quarter because, when we put forward performance data to the board of trustees, there’s this all mighty rush to pour all data into the system to ensure that the trustees have the numbers. Performance should be something that we do every day. It should be something that is part of the job we want to do. In my experience, the simpler you can make it, the more likely it is to be embedded in people’s daily behaviours and workload. So, the challenge is to ensure that we’ve got that kind of simplicity across the organisation. And the design principle is really twofold; what do Trustees really need to know? They need to know the organisation is being run competently and on a sound financial footing, so let’s demonstrate that to them. Let’s show them a series of indicators that enable them to know that staff are reasonably happy at work, that turnover figures aren’t too high, that we are investing in staff training and development, that staff and volunteers have the ability to do their job better, and that they’re not encumbered in their desire to innovate. Similarly, in financial terms: How much money are we bringing in? What is the margin on it? What is our pension deficit? What is our reserves level? These are the kinds of questions any trustee would want to know about an organization.
On the other side, we have some operational indicators that enable trustees to do their job and keep the charity in trust. We then come up with a small basket of strategic indicators, which then give the trustees the ability to test what we’ve said we would achieve in the new corporate strategy: How many children and families are we supporting? What impact are we having with those children and families? Is it as high quality as we say it will be, or do we need to improve our performance in that area? To what extent are we shifting our investment to prevent problems in the future rather than just solving problems that have already occurred? Finally, within that basket and most importantly, how are we improving our ability to raise our own funding in the face of extreme public cuts? The trustees have been very clear that one of our targets is to improve our ability to raise our fundraising. And again, simplicity is the key to this basket of indicators that enable the trustees to track our performance against achieving those things that we say we are going to achieve. So, basically it falls down to better outcomes for all children, which is the title of our corporate strategy.
How do you report on impact?
Aidan Rave: There is a certain degree of self-reporting, and then there’s triangulation with the external assessment methods. For example, Ofsted will assess our performance in children’s centres in terms of support for children safeguarding, care leaves, etc. So for each specific contract that we work, there will be a certain degree of external measurement. The impact is measured basically through our own assessment of performance, triangulated with the external assessments, and then a kind of synthesis is brought together for the board of trustees to measure.
Is performance measurement a key expertise that you have? How have you developed it?
Aidan Rave: I wouldn’t say it is a key expertise I have, but I think I bring a fairly pragmatic eye to performance indicators, because my real expertise is strategy. In order to successfully execute strategy, you need to know where you are going and how you are doing. To coin the old saying, ‘what gets measured, gets managed’ and therefore, if you are going to refocus an organization to a slightly different basket of indicators, then you need to ensure that your track your performance against that. So, you need a performance measurement tool to do it. With the support of Aleron I’ve been able to work to design what I think is a devastatingly simple, but at the same time, devastatingly effective mechanism that enables us to measure our performance. As a consultant, I often go into organisations where they’ve got these hugely complex performance measurement systems that nobody understands in the organisation, and then they wonder why staff are not embracing performance. Well, they don’t understand it. It would be a first step to make sure that the key people in the organisation actually understand what performance is and how we get from A to B, and how I know, as an individual member of staff, whether I am doing a good job getting there or not. And if I’m not, then I need to know that in order to get some support. So I would not say that I am an expert in performance measurement, I just have a very simple view of it and I cling to that simplicity as much as I can.
Have you used performance measurement in the public sector?
Aidan Rave: Yes, frequently. Inevitably, the work I do in either the public sector or NGO’s tends to revolve around what the organization wants to achieve over a period of time, what resources has it got to achieve that, and what resources might it need to do it more effectively. Each of those positions requires a degree of performance analysis to know relatively where we are on that journey. I think there’s a kind of performance industry out there that sometimes feels very overcomplicated to a very simple process and really, the key is to understand the organization’s ambition, what it wants to achieve, and what its mission is. Building a performance framework as simply as possible enables the organisation to successfully execute that analysis and, critically, ensures that the key people it has enabled (staff volunteers, trustees) know where they are and how their performance is rolling out. That’s really what performance management is, for me. It’s critical, but there is always the danger in the public sector that with so many different stakeholders it becomes complicated because the government might want performance data in one way, local politicians might want it in a slightly different way, and private sector companies in another way. It’s how you keep the notion of the key performance indicators, the balanced scorecard, which ensures that only the critical data is there.
The final point on that is; the danger with too many performance indicators and too much performance data is that too much might as well be none, because it overwhelms the people trying to analyse it. I said to our trustees in November, me bringing to you fifty or sixty performance indicators gives me loads of places to hide in terms of performance, but me coming to you with six gives me nowhere to hide because you have six dials in front of you and you can draw straight into those. As long as they are the right six dials, then everybody in the organization knows what’s critical.
What are the six indicators?
Aidan Rave: There are two organization indicators: Are we running the organization correctly? Are we financially sound? Then there are four strategic indicators that relate to our ability to raise our own funding, number of children we are supporting, the impact we are having on those children we are supporting, and our ability to stop problems happening today from happening in the future (our ability to learn as an organisation).
What are the costs associated with implementing the performance measurement mechanisms?
Aidan Rave: Theoretically, the simple performance measurement tool should cost less. The challenge is not necessarily the efficacy of the tools and the systems that you use, the challenge often is in the culture of the organization you are trying to work with. Let’s take on the premise that the vast majority of people who work for any organization try to do a good job, but sometimes performance isn’t what it should be, so what’s causing that? Is it because they are purposely trying not to do their job properly or is it because they don’t quite understand where their role fits into the overall performance of the organization. I would argue that the more simple and straightforward the performance measurement, the more simply individuals can understand in their own context what their contribution towards it is. And the costs with it sounds very simple; the cost often comes in the aligning of the two because you have to train people to do that, you have to incentivize, support, and challenge people to be able to do that. You need to have line management systems and mechanisms that align the managerial inputs with the desired performance you are trying to achieve. The systems themselves are relatively inexpensive, the challenge is the overall direction and culture of the organization and ensuring that the management culture is properly aligned. The truth of it is that effective performance measurement is a good investment for an organization. The investment is necessary. If you take the 10-year corporate strategy for an organization like Barnardo’s, which has a £300 million turnover, that’s 3 billion pounds we will spend in the next ten years. How do you get the right price for that? In the context of spending £3 billion in ten years, is a million or 2 million too much to spend? That’s a significant amount of money, but in the context it’s a drop in the ocean. I think that sometimes there is a false economy where the public sector and NGO’s as a whole try and save money up front by not investing in performance, missing the fact that we are going to spend this money and of that money it only takes 1% or 2% to be spent more efficiently over the course of that decade because you have invested in in a good performance measurement system and you suddenly got a tens of millions of pounds return on that modest 1 or 2 million investment. You have to see the whole, the long gain, and see the role that effective performance management plays in that.
So it’s not about a specific tool, so you would not have recommendations what tools organization can use?
Aidan Rave: When I say it’s not about the tool I am saying the tool is not the only important aspect. You can have an effective mechanism, but you have to be comparing like with like when it comes to data manipulation. And you also have to ensure that data entry is consistent. There’s an old accounting phrase – ‘crap in crap out;’ if you don’t put in the right data you won’t get the right data out. So the tool has to be fit for purpose in that sense. Once that is in place, it has to find its role within the context of the organization. And the way that the organization’s culture is aligned towards performance measurement is critical to that working effectively. Because if the organisation as a whole does not take performance management seriously, doesn’t see it as critical to what it does, it doesn’t matter how good your tool is, doesn’t matter how much you spent. It could be the best thing in the world, but it won’t have any impact on the organisation, because the organisation will just ignore it. You will get poor performance data, you will get people not using it properly, and not using it at all. You might as well not have it because it is not giving you consistent data and you can’t track performance. So the tool is important, but important within the context of an organisation that understands it and is culturally aligned to using it as effectively as possible.
Can you talk about some of the difficulties SMEs and large organizations face in regards to measuring performance? How do they overcome these obstacles?
Aidan Rave: The larger the organisation, the more challenging it become sot measure performance, because you have more interpretation in terms of what performance looks like. You also have more people, and therefore more views and more ideas. In an organisation like Barnardo’s, who employs 8500 people across the UK, you have four very distinct geographical cultures, before you even get into England’s regions and all the challenges there. You also have a number of different professional cultures; the culture of children social workers will be very different from information services professionals, which in turn will be very different from the culture of financial managers, human resources, states, the retail division, the fundraising, and the strategy. Each one will draw its people from a very different background, discipline, academic background, and to unify that in a single culture which gives us all clarity of purpose is one hell of a challenge. The bigger the organisation is the harder that becomes, the key is having a very clear and understandable dashboard that is measuring our progress towards clear and understandable goals. Ultimately our goal over the next ten years is to ensure that we create better outcomes for all children. You can disaggregate that pretty quickly. It that means more children; we currently help 240,000 children, families and young people every year, and by 2025 we want that to be 300,000. So there is a line in the sand we are moving towards. We also said very clearly that we want to maintain our position as a charity that only delivers services which have a palpable positive impact on children, families and young people. So we would not take on a contract, or engage in any work that is simply a numbers count and only has a marginal impact on children’s lives. We only work with people if we think we can have a positive impact. That gives us a clear performance measurement and therefore we need to be able to say we are having a positive impact on children’s lives. I think what we have done with this new strategy is frame a very clear and very simple goal. In my mind, when we were conceiving it, it was the simplicity of the NASA mission statement of the 1960s: put a man on the moon by the end of the decade. It was time framed, gave a clear outcome, and gave a mission statement to the organisation. In a strange way we are more complex than NASA, because NASA’s goal was singular, ours is more complicated because of the diversity of the children the families and young people we work with, but there is a simplicity to better outcomes for more children. I think everyone in the organisation can understand and see their contribution towards.