“Discipline makes daring possible”

Sep 12, 2019

Posted in

Kate Sayer, Consultant at Sayer Vincent, Trustee at Association of Chairs and Director at Charity Bank, shares her experience in innovation & risk in the charity world.

“Discipline makes daring possible”

Dr Atul Gawande made this statement in a course of Reith lectures he gave in 2014. He was referring to the medical profession and he has subsequently written widely on the lessons medicine can learn from the airline business. There are lessons too for charities and social enterprises.

Risk-averse? Harness your imagination

Social purpose organisations have often been set up to respond to an old problem in new ways, inherently taking on risk. Moving away from tried and tested ways of working, organisations need to integrate an appropriate attitude to risk-taking to give them the best chance of success. It is perhaps surprising that one of the best tools to help teams to take risks in a managed way is to encourage them to use their imagination. If you are trying something for the first time, then detailed planning is obviously necessary, but so is developing scenarios of what might happen. Gary Klein describes an approach for project teams called the ‘pre-mortem’. The team leader asks the team to imagine that the proposed plan has failed. As a team, everyone contributes to an exercise where potential threats and hurdles to the plan are generated, as well as possible solutions.

Multi-disciplinary teams can also improve your chances of success. Bringing together people with different approaches, different ways of thinking and different experiences is more likely to help you cover all the ground when planning. You need to create a safe space so people with different perspectives feel comfortable offering their views – a culture where left-field thinking is appreciated rather than mocked.

Innovation is key

Other ways to enhance your chances of success include pilot projects, which can help as long as you build in an approach to reflection and learning. There has to be room to acknowledge failings and not blame individuals. Rather than assuming that the full-scale programme is going to be initiated whatever the results of the pilot, identify the key achievements that need to be present for the programme to go ahead. You don’t want to fall into a trap sometimes seen in the public sector where the political imperative to ‘get something done’ means that those in authority do not wait for the pilot to complete, let alone study the lessons learned.

Attempting to find new ways of working on old problems can pose challenges when it comes to compliance. Typically, regulations and established good practice are suited to a particular context and set of assumptions. Challenging those assumptions can make it difficult to comply with detailed rules, even though your new approach may be better in terms of outcomes. Successful organisations can take compliance in their stride rather than allowing it to drive their choices. For example, a home for frail elderly people can encourage staff to come up with new ideas about how they can prevent falls, without compromising compliance. And actually, successfully engaging staff to actively participate in the management of care and listening to their contribution is likely to enhance compliance.

Positively compliant: an assurance approach

Rather than seeing compliance as a risk to be managed, it is helpful to develop a positive approach which can be best described as an assurance approach. Instead of asking people to list risks and how they manage them, get them to think about what they do in day-to-day operations and why they do it. This uncovers the risks that are being managed by processes, but sometimes reveals that a process has no value - so it can be stopped. To help people with this exercise, give them a framework based on the following standards:

  • Teams should undertake planning and monitor performance regularly
  • Policies and procedures should be relevant, updated regularly and communicated effectively
  • Training and induction for team members is vital to ensure they have the knowledge and skills to do their jobs well
  • Fair and consistent management of team members
  • Clear roles and responsibilities to remove duplication and avoid gaps
  • Obtaining feedback from stakeholders whether inside or outside the organisation

The team describes how these standards are met. The next step is to think about how you would show someone this is the case – how would your trustees know that you are doing these things well?

Gather your team

One team I worked with enjoyed thinking about this together and realised that they gathered feedback from their main stakeholders but did not use it to help inform the way they worked. They moved from collating feedback because it was a requirement, to actively reflecting on it at a monthly meeting to develop their service. Other teams have realised that investing in people can lead to better quality and efficiencies. Teams that are proud of their work like to talk about it, improve how they work and share with others.

Crucially, an assurance approach gives senior managers and trustees a much better idea of how operational risk is being managed so they can exercise oversight more effectively. Helpfully, it also engages middle managers and team leaders, so they can understand the role of their team in managing risk for the organisation. This leads to better compliance because people are taking ownership of their processes rather than just following the rulebook.

You can read more about this and other fresh approaches to risk management in Rethinking Risk, available to download for free from the Sayer Vincent website.

Kate Sayer



The views on this page are of Kate Sayer.

Kate Sayer is an event partner of Charity Bank’s Road to Growth events, a series of free regional events exclusively for leaders of charities and social enterprises as part of our commitment to support the social sector.

The half-day sessions this September and October will provide insight on the state of the social sector at a time of change. Panelists will share research and insights on the challenges and opportunities that exist and give examples of how charities and social enterprises are responding.

Road to Growth

Last reviewed: 23/04/2020