Much as I enjoy Ella Fitzgerald’s 1939 recording of ‘T’ain’t What You Do (It’s The Way That You Do It)’, reinvigorated by The Fun Boy Three with Banarama in 1982, it’s not entirely right. Ella probably wasn’t singing about this, but in terms of running service organisations, it absolutely is about both what and how. What service organisations are here to do (their purpose) is inextricably linked with how they do it (what matters) – they are two sides of the same coin. If we want to build thriving communities with people living good lives, and when the time comes dying good deaths, then first we need to understand the ‘what and how’ from the perspective of citizens/patients/customers (from now on referred to as people).

T’aint what you do

So how do organisations typically go about understanding their ‘what and how’ from the people’s perspective? There are three common approaches:

The ‘It’s-always-been-like-this’ or ‘There-is-no-alternative’ approach

One approach is that they don’t go about trying to understand people at all. Instead they do what they (or usually their regulators, politicians, shareholders, other stakeholders) want, however they want to do it. Their actions are often well-intentioned but disappointingly ineffective from the perspective of the people.

The ‘Words-speak-louder-than-actions’ approach

Another approach is to say they listen to the people, and sometimes make expensive attempts to do so, but ultimately they actually carry on as they always have.

The ‘Design-against-demand-and-what-matters’ approach

This approach is all about listening to what people are really saying about what they fundamentally need and how they need it, and then doing just that.

Which approach is likely to be the most effective, in the sense of maximising the satisfaction of people and staff while simultaneously lowering costs? Hint: it’s the third. If you’re not convinced, spend an hour or two listening to the people wherever they interact with your organisation and consider a) how often they interact because of something the system has failed to do, or failed to do properly, for them; b) the steps involved in dealing with that interaction; c) the cost of those interactions and steps.

It’s the way that you do it

I’m assuming that the first two approaches are familiar. As in, ‘Of course we listen to people, our poster says we do, as does the recorded message we play before people can talk to us, and the online surveys we ask people to complete, and the complaints team we’ve put in place, and the people engagement groups we run. Oh, and we’ve got a CRM system’. Engaging with people has never been such big business. And yet this is where Ella is right, it is the way that you do it that gets results. Some typically misconceived ways to do it:

  • Regarding engagement as an end-in-itself. We’ve engaged; the box has been ticked. It’s the organisational equivalent of a student asking their teacher ‘Will this be in the exam?’ Rather, engaging is a means to an end, the end being understanding what people fundamentally need from us and how they need it, and then actually doing it.
  • The methods used to engage do not enable us to understand the ‘what and how’ from the people’s perspective. For example:
    • They ask leading and/or closed questions. In effect, what they say is, ‘Tell us about what matters to us (not what matters to you), in a way that’s easy for us to report on’.
    • They believe (maybe) that ‘people engagement groups’ (a handful of people who can spare the time, sitting around a table once in a while, sharing their opinions) are a legitimate means of informing organisations about what people (all people) need.
  • Confusing effectiveness with efficiency (see also article on p XX). For example, ‘The more people we can (be seen to) engage with, the better. IT will help us do that more quickly, easily and cheaply. Let’s use Twitter to ask people what they think’. This is to mistake quantity of response for quality of understanding and thereby getting neither. Social media is just as much about building relationships as old-fashioned face-to-face methods. Without those relationships (how many of us have a meaningful online relationship with an organisation about our lives, let alone one we are prepared to share publicly?), you may as well be shouting into an empty room. The ceaseless march towards digitalisation, driven by the flawed assumption that it’s more efficient (ie cheaper), has blinded us to the reality of its limitations.
  • Misrepresenting and/or misinterpreting what people say (see points above) and using it to maintain the status quo and impose service-led solutions. If you don’t really listen, or choose not to, you don’t really hear. A less amusing version of The Two Ronnies’ ‘Four Candles’ comes to mind.
  • Even the most effective understanding is meaningless if nothing (good) is done with it. Using understanding to design and manage your system is the logical, but often missing, next step.

That’s what gets results

So, if perfunctory and ineffective understanding of purpose and what matters leads to sub-optimal performance, what’s the alternative? How do we optimise performance to build thriving communities and resourceful individuals? Where do we start? By going to the places in our organisations where people interact with us and listening to what they say. In their words, write them down, don’t précis them. Do it until you don’t hear anything new. Identify the themes and use them to shape your purpose and understanding of what matters. It should tell you everything you need to know but, if more detail is needed, ask people directly what matters to them using non-leading, open questions. Have a dialogue, the old-fashioned way. We humans are quite good at that.

The beauty of doing this is that it’s right there, in the work, freely available, part of the day job, not a bolt-on exercise undertaken at great expense. It’s full-strength, real-time, comprehensive knowledge. Just like sitting by a fire, there’s no substitute for proximity. You can’t sit in another room and ask someone else to sit in front of the fire for you, and expect to feel the benefits. Understanding serves two purposes, both of which enable informed choices about what action to take next. First, it provides valid data. Second, it affords you the opportunity to unlearn old, dysfunctional assumptions and beliefs about the design and management of work, and learn about new, optimal thinking. That’s not something that can be delegated.

Real understanding is the prerequisite to taking action using better (optimal) principles. That’s what gets results.


Emma Ashton

Read similar articles in Edition Two of The Vanguard Periodical: The Vanguard Method in People Centred Services. Ask for your FREE hard copy or PDF.