Mostly on the Relationships Project blog we talk about the value and importance of putting relationships first. The Post Office Horizon scandal, dominating the news in recent days, has made us think about the grim consequences of doing the opposite – putting relationships last. David Robinson shares his thoughts.
Putting relationships last
I once did some work with the Home Office where I met a manager who was so consistently and reliably wrong about everything that colleagues would routinely seek his advice with the sole intention of listening carefully and then doing the exact opposite of whatever it was that he recommended. Long after he retired, asking the “What would L do?” question was still regarded as the most dependable route to a sound decision.
The failings of the Post office, as laid bare in Mr Bates V the Post Office, the dramatization of the Horizon scandal, were so spectacularly disastrous that mangers everywhere should adopt a similar process: Ask “what would Post Office bosses do in this situation?” Then do the opposite.
Their approach had multiple defects: it was brutal and cruel, incompetent, and blundering, thoughtless and self defeating, mindlessly in thrall to technology, short term, arrogant and stupid. It was, in every sense, bad business.
Most of all, from our point of view, the culture, leadership and systems were all profoundly unrelational. Tech was trusted more than long standing colleagues, compliance valued above collaboration, brand more precious than people.
The scale of the Horizon scandal may be unprecedented but the lessons are universal:
This is what happens when an organisation is intentionally and systematically resistant to building and sustaining open, honest, supportive, humane relationships in every facet of the enterprise.
And this is how it ends for a business that was institutionally blind to the consequences of bad relationships, the accumulating corrosion of trust and goodwill and the ever more impossible process of sustaining a successful enterprise on rotten foundations.
Absence of humanity
Mr Bates V the Post Office was more than a story about the failure of computers, it was about the absence of humanity. Horizon call handlers, for example, were gas lighting callers to the helpline with the news that “no one else has your problem”. This was cruel as well as deceitful, yet people determined the policy, people wrote the script (and there obviously was a script) and people delivered the message, all, apparently, without reservations. They behaved like machines.
How did ordinary, probably fundamentally good people (the CEO was a vicar, almost a bishop!) combine to create an organisation that was so monstrously inhumane?
In the Relationships Project we often talk about systems “making” people behave differently from how they would in other aspects of their lives. The consequences are rarely so grave or extensive as they have been in the Post Office, but we repeatedly encounter organisations with a life and a character quite different from the sum of its parts.
Where the heart should be in every organisation, every system, there sits a deep code – the culture and mindset that shapes and determines collective behaviour. If the code is unrelational, any more empathetic practice will at best be maverick, at worst be outlawed.
That’s why we talk about putting relationships first, embedding relational approaches as the primary operating principle reflected back and acted out everywhere we go and in everything we do.
What would have been different if the Post Office had lived by this code? If good relationships with its sub post masters had been in place from the start, and if maintaining this prize asset had been a priority throughout?
Maybe it is an obvious thing to say, but it plainly wasn’t obvious to the managers and leaders of this once so well respected institution:
Trust, empathy, openness would have headed off this human catastrophe long before it became any more than what it really was – a troublesome but finite mechanical problem.
Beyond the Horizon
There have been far too many false dawns over the last two decades to be sure of anything but it does seem increasingly likely that the media coverage over recent days will at last bring forward some kind of justice. Even then, however, the story isn’t over because, as Hugo Rifkind noted in the Times, Horizon is not an isolated case:
In recent years, all around the world, automated systems designed to spot fraud have ended up making baseless accusations. In Michigan, a computer falsely accused 34,000 people of welfare fraud between 2013 and 2015. More recently, in Australia, the so-called “Robodebt” scandal saw fines issued to 470,000 people on benefits, leading to at least three suicides. The problem in these cases wasn’t just the “abrupt, unfair demand for life-ruining sums”. It was that when the innocent victims tried to talk to an actual human to put things right, they found there wasn’t one. And the more we automate, the fewer people there will be who understand what’s going on.
I am not anti tech, partly because we can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube, but mostly because, even if we could, I wouldn’t want to forfeit the myriad of possibilities that technology has opened up for us all over the last 30 years. It can enable the transaction of business at a speed and on a scale that would be otherwise impossible. But, and it’s a big but, it cannot replicate the unique qualities of a human being being human. That’s why the smartest operating systems balance the two – tech where it helps, relationships where they matter.
The Post Office management team, along with their technical partners, blundered on the technology, but it was their approach to relationships across and beyond the business that turned a significant but short term and fixable problem into a decades spanning, career ending, brand breaking and above all life wrecking catastrophe.