One size most definitely doesn’t fit all

I’ve been doing quite a lot of work recently on benchmarking. Not just looking at one particular organisation, but at a number of organisations across the public sector. And what has struck me is not how similar they are, but rather how different. Despite all fulfilling a similar role, they each approach this role in their own way.

This shouldn’t really come as a surprise. After all, each organisation has its own history and culture. It is embedded in the heritage of the geographical area in which it operates. And it is made up of its people; individuals with their own strengths, values, aspirations and ways they like to do things.

So it worries me a little when I hear and read things like ‘What local authorities need to do is…’, ‘NHS trusts need to be more…’ or ‘The things with charities is that…’. Sure, this may be the case for some local authorities, some NHS trusts or some charities, but it is highly unlikely to apply to all of them. And to pretend that it does is just inviting problems.

What we try to avoid admitting, it seems, is that organisations are complicated. They are complex entities that are a unique product of the people, the cultures and the histories that have built them to what and where they are today. Sure, they all have their own individual challenges to face. But they need to find their own, individual ways in which to face them.

This makes things very complicated for governments, regulators, researchers and (ahem) consultants. But things are complicated. We need to recognise this, deal with it and move on. We need to stop reaching for the easy answer. We need to treat organisations not as one of many, but as the unique, idiosyncratic and (sometimes) irrational things that they are.

In today’s complex world, nothing is simple any more. Nothing is as black or white as we would perhaps like it to be. And one size most definitely doesn’t fit all.

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