By Jamie Kirk
“Houston, we have a problem.” These were the famous words from the stricken astronauts aboard the Apollo 13 space vessel when a technical malfunction left the crew stranded 200,000 miles from safety. In an iconic scene from the film adaptation, NASA employees gathered in a room and were presented with a small box of jumbled everyday items that the astronauts had in their damaged capsule.
The stark reality was that if they didn’t come up with a solution using just those items then the men would soon perish in space. In the face of this insurmountable uncertainty their commander reminded everyone in the room that “failure is not an option.”
In this time of immediacy, the traditional command structure was replaced by pragmatism. The NASA leaders didn’t care about job titles or what informal teams worked together as long as it produced effective solutions. By working collaboratively within tight constraints they managed against all odds to get the astronauts back to safety. Times of uncertainty, scarcity and high stakes when guided by effective leadership often produce the most creative solutions.
So, what does Apollo 13 have to do with public sector leadership, you ask?
Well, this near disaster hides some helpful lessons for the crisis that is now facing the public sector. Public sector leaders, like their Apollo 13 counterparts, need to work with immediacy, work collaboratively and produce radical solutions using the little resources that they currently have. The hard reality is that due to budget cuts and demographic changes many funding outlooks for local authorities project that by 2020 social care and waste spending will absorb the vast majority of all their resources.
This means that unless significant change happens there will be virtually no resources for any other local public services within a decade. In short, public sector leaders can’t just rely on best practices from the status quo but will have to forge new solutions to avoid the imminent disaster. Given this backdrop how can public sector leaders learn to equip themselves for the forthcoming challenges?
IBM has put one solution forward. It opened up its Top Talent programme to develop current and future leaders across theUK public sector. I was one of the participants on this six-month course that began in May. The cohort was made up of a cross section of public sector staff, ranging from experienced IT managers to those like me who were relatively nearer the beginning of their career. Participants in the course were given a professional IBM coach to help them get on the right direction to complete a personal transformational project within their organization.
We used free UK public sector online tools such as the Knowledge Hub, to help our small group share and create ideas. We were provided with leadership material and became well versed in psychological models such as Myers Briggs to aid us on our journey and more effectively influence change within their organization. To stimulate ideas the group visited the IBM research labs in London and Dublin to see cutting-edge technology developments. These trips began changing the perception of IBM from a technology supplier to a partner in helping the group understand the changes impacting their organization and beginning a process of building crucial connections between the public and private sector.
What became clear to me over the course of the programme was that everyone bonded the more they shared their experiences and challenges from their professional life. Job titles and organizational affiliations dissolved into the background as everyone assisted other members to achieve their goals. This cohort will graduate at the end of November and by empowering public sector leaders to think differently and creating an effective support network, the Top Talent programme has allowed the participants and I to take big steps to make our challenges seem less overwhelming and insurmountable.
As the old adage goes, desperate times call for desperate measures. This period of uncertainty also offers the opportunity to create sustainable public services for the challenges we face this century. So while the future projections for the public sector may seem like the beginning of a disaster movie, the counterbalance of effective leadership, combined with a dose of pragmatism and a little luck can result in a happy ending.