Sir Michael Barber is a self-confessed 'deliverologist'. That means he understands how to get things done, a skill that is fundamental to good leadership.
Barber is most famous for setting up and running Tony Blair's Prime Minister's Delivery Unit, a specialist team that kept Blair's public service reforms on track during his premiership. It's a function that was later copied by governments across the world. He has advised seven out of the past eight British Prime Ministers (Liz Truss is the exception) and is currently advising the Government on its skills reform.
After spending time at McKinsey, Pearson and in elite sport advising Team Sky and England Football, Barber has written a book sharing his advice called ‘Accomplishment: How to Achieve Ambitious and Challenging Things’.
It's stuffed full of tips for leaders on how to get the big things done. He appeared on Management Today’s Leadership Lessons podcast to share his advice.
Here are 12 of his most important lessons for leaders when embarking on an ambitious programme of change.
1. You won’t always know what you’re doing
“Maybe the single most important message of my book is that if you're going to do something ambitious, then by definition, you don't know enough at the beginning to do it. You’ve got to learn on the way,” Barber says.
When he was half-way through the four-year implementation of the National Literacy Strategy, someone said to him "you are making this up as you go along". He responded: “That's what everybody does.”
Don’t get distracted or lose focus. Learn as you go and refine your strategy as you get better.
2. Set up a guiding coalition early on
At the start of any project, set up a guiding coalition - a collection of around six people that you can rely on to help right at the start of a project. It’s inspired by the theories of Harvard Business School professor John Kotter.
These are the people with whom you share the mission and a shared understanding of what needs to happen so you can move more quickly. It helps prevents one person becoming a bottleneck.
“It's really important because however ambitious and talented a person you are, you are unlikely to be able to change anything very substantial on your own,” he says.
3. Learn to love trajectories
In his book, Barber writes: “Trajectories are for everyone, beautiful things that require you to think about the impact your planned actions will have over time. Learn to love them.”
Not only do trajectories means everyone keeps the end goal in sight, the constant measurement forces people to think about the effect of their actions on the final outcome.
“When you suggest this to the average civil servant, they say, ‘oh but what if we are wrong?’ I say, ‘of course you’ll be wrong. How many people predict the future accurately? It’s almost impossible. But the very act of trying means that as you unfold your strategy, you see if you are behind, ahead of, or on, the trajectory,” he says.
It’s particularly useful when comparing peers, such as hospitals in a certain area. Why are some falling behind and how are others managing to go faster? The collection of data also means it is as close as you can get to real-time measurement and those falling behind can receive immediate help.
Barber reminds leaders not to always expect a straight line upwards. “Change very rarely happens in straight lines. Some things change fast and then get harder. Some things need capital investment and then you get a steep rise at the end. Some things are seasonal. You have to find the shape of the curve,” he says.
4. Don’t fall into the equipment trap
Throwing money at a problem, or buying the latest shiny gadgets is rarely the answer to an issue. It’s a lazy approach to change management and is unlikely to help unless you properly develop a system underneath the equipment to make it work.
“Over the past 25 years, it has been very common for a minister or government to get really excited about the potential of technology to change education. It’s a good aspiration, but they buy laptops or computers for schools and send them out and they think they've done it,” he says.
But the laptops often sit there gathering dust, because unless the teachers know how to use the equipment, or it’s got the appropriate software and internet connection in developing worlds, then they are useless.
Barber says there are five things that people must do when buying new equipment to ensure it works. Make sure there's the right equipment, suitable connectivity, the appropriate software for what you want the children to learn, teachers with the skills to use the software, and someone to maintain and repair anything that goes wrong. If you just buy the technology, nothing else will happen.
5. Decide if you are Captain Ahab or Pip
When embarking on a new initiative, another question is whether you should announce it publicly or quietly get on with it and let the results speak for themselves. It’s fitting that the literary specialist uses analogies from Great Expectations and Moby Dick to make his point.
In Dickens’ novel, the protagonist Pip is introduced at the very start of the book. (“It's a terrifying scene. I remember watching it on film when I was a boy and it still gives me nightmares.”) The fearsome Captain Ahab in Moby Dick only enters the novel on page 218 (after “an awful lot of stuff about whaling”).
Barber says: “When you’ve got your big, exciting, ambitious plan, it’s tempting to announce it straight away, but that raises expectations. You might want that, you might need to generate some momentum. Alternatively you can wait until it’s really working and then say ‘we’ve done this, now we’re going to take it to its logical conclusion.’”
6. Find your canaries in the mine
Don’t overlook the importance of informal networks to get genuine feedback on your actions. When Barber was in the education department, his 'canaries in the mine' were a dozen headteachers with whom he had regular conversations. They helped him to see how the policies were genuinely received at ground level, whether there were any practical barriers he’d overlooked, and helped him differentiate between “routine whinging” of people resistant to change and when he’d made a mistake.
7. Sign up for the suffering
Nothing worth accomplishing in life comes easily - are you willing to make the necessary sacrifice? Barber has taken this point from the former Team Sky leader Dave Brailsford, with whom he worked.
“If you're going to win the Tour de France or an Olympic cycling medal, you have to suffer a lot in training to be ready at the level of fitness required. You have to control your diet. You have to train very, very hard for many hours every day at very high speeds on a bike at very high power outputs, which is exhausting. So you have to sign up for the suffering to do ambitious and difficult things,” he says.
Things will go wrong and you will need to fix them. There are always people who don’t want to make required changes, and there are always critics. “The suffering and success go together,” he says.
8. Attention to detail matters
Keep an eye on the small things, because they add up to make a big difference. He says: “You can constantly get better. When we organised a big conference on literacy for 150 local authorities, my colleagues in the Department for Education told me they were really happy with a 70% turnout. But if you apply marginal gains, what about the other third? Are you really happy with that level of failure?”
Barber asked his colleagues to call the missing local authorities and personally called the last few absentees. When he got down to the final authority, he was able to say “did you know that 149 local authorities are coming and you are the only one that’s not? They said they’d come. “That’s the attention to detail that really makes a difference,” he says.
9. Remember your purpose
The reason Barber was so persistent in getting all the local authorities to the meeting, is because he cared deeply about the outcome. “It might only be one local authority, but that’s potentially 100,000 children missing out on the literacy strategy. Not getting educated to the level necessary for the 21st century, prevents you from the sheer enjoyment and pleasure of reading and being literate. The moral purpose is really important, it’s not just doing stuff for the sake of it.”
The same applies in business, he says. James Dyson told Barber that he cares about his gadgets being both functional and beautiful, because if you can clean your floor faster, or dry your hands more efficiently using his gadgets, this enables you to live a more fulfilling life.
10. Copying others is not cheating
Barber urges leaders not to be afraid of using proven techniques and adopting methods from others. Most things you want to accomplish in life have already been achieved by others. It would be “madness” not to learn from them, he says.
11. Routines are critical
The systematic application of routines makes a big difference to the success of an initiative, Barber argues. When he set up the Prime Minister’s Delivery unit in 2001, he says he changed it from “government by spasm” to “government by routine” by setting up regular update meetings in Tony Blair’s diary.
He writes: “This is how results got ground out, routine, regularity, monotony. It won’t appear often, if at all, in the history books, but I like to think my fight to build monotony into the way the PM used his time was one of the most important contributions I made to British government.”
Instead of only summoning ministers when something had gone wrong, in exchange for an hour and a half of his time a week, Blair was able to keep track of his domestic priorities. These regular meetings also acted as deadlines for the project team, and by measuring progress in between times, it helped keep the work on track.
“We all like a bit of excitement and innovation and imagination. They are all important, but a lot of achievement is about grinding stuff out. It is about building monotony. Some of the hardest work I did in Number 10 in those four years between 2001 and 2005, was building routines into the Prime Minister's diary and fighting to keep them,” he says.
This structure stops a leader from being too distracted by the urgent at the expense of the important.
12. Never delay an action twice
Barber takes a dim view of procrastination. In the book, he writes that postponing implementation once is usually a bad idea, but putting it off twice effectively means you’ve decided not to do it.
He tells the famous joke about civil servants on a march, who say ‘What do we want? Procrastination! When do we want it? Next week!’
“There’s a lot of that in government, so you have to get over procrastination. There are always reasons for delaying things. I was alway trying to urge people to go faster and be more urgent because there are people on waiting lists. There are people suffering from crime. There are people, children who should be learning to read and write and do numbers well. Urgency should be built into the way you think about it," he says.
There is also the fallacy that people often think their calendar will be clearer in the future, but by the time that date rolls around, it’s usually just as busy as it is today. If you want to chase an ambitious goal, there's no time like the present to make a start.