Why monotony is the key to achieving ambitious things

Sir Michael Barber, the ‘deliverologist’ who famously set up and ran the Prime Minister’s Delivery Unit for Tony Blair, argues great achievements are ground out through routine, regularity and monotony.

by Kate Magee
Last Updated: 30 Mar 2023

In a world where leadership and strategy are feted, the detail-orientated grind of management is often dismissed as too grubby a concern for those at the top. Yet read the reams of reports lamenting the UK’s woeful productivity and there is a consistent answer: better management.

For despite the latest trendy theories, getting things done is still a leader’s highest priority. At least that’s what self-confessed ‘deliverologist’ Sir Michael Barber believes: “Anyone can hold a position of authority, but leadership is about changing things. That requires pushing people outside their comfort zone.”

Once dubbed “New Labour’s backroom boy” by The Guardian, and “the control freak’s control freak” by columnist Simon Jenkins, behind the scenes, Barber was perhaps the most influential figure on New Labour’s domestic policies during its heyday.

A brief history: in 1997, Barber became the government’s chief advisor on school standards, before Tony Blair asked him to set up and run the first Prime Minister’s Delivery Unit - a structure that was later copied in governments across the world. He left to set up McKinsey’s global education department, served as Pearson’s chief education advisor, and advised the hugely successful cycling team Team Sky.

He now holds a range of roles, including sitting on the board of the Football Association’s Technical Advisory Board, which helps prepare England’s teams for major tournaments. He has advised seven of the past eight Prime Ministers (Liz Truss is the exception) and is currently advising the Government's skills reform programme.

Barber’s latest book, ‘Accomplishment: How to Achieve Ambitious and Challenging Things’ is a detailed analysis of the patterns, behaviours and structures needed to achieve major goals, stuffed full of valuable tips for leaders both in and out of the public sector.

His method, dubbed ‘deliverology’ by critics - a moniker he later adopted - centres on three things: having a ‘delivery unit’, collecting data to set targets and trajectories, and building regular routines. “It's not conceptually difficult. The difficulty is having the discipline to stick at it in the heat of the battle,” he says.

Put simply, he believes you should: Set an ambitious goal. Have a good plan to achieve it. Build routines to regularly check whether the plan is working. Solve problems as they emerge. Keep at it until you get it done. And have some part of your operation that is constantly focused on the priority goals.

“You don’t need a delivery unit, but it does really help if you have a small group of people who can’t be distracted,” he says. Or as he put it in his book, ask “whose job is it to have sleepless nights?” over a task.

He has been on the sharp end of that question. In his first meeting at Number 10, it was established that he was personally responsible for delivering the literacy strategy. “As the tests were coming up, I felt that pressure and I did have sleepless nights. But I don’t regret it. It was one of the most transformational experiences I’ve ever had,” he says.

Why building monotony is the key

When Barber set up the Prime Minister’s Delivery Unit in 2001, it was one small change that had the greatest impact: inserting regular project update meetings into Blair’s diary. He argues this shifted the organisation from ‘government by spasm’ to ‘government by routine’.

In his book, he writes: “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 Prime Minister used his time was one of the most important contributions I made to British government.”

When asked to expand on this point in Management Today’s Leadership Lessons podcast, he says: “We all like a bit of excitement, innovation and imagination. They are all important, but a lot of achievement is about grinding stuff out. It’s 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,” he says.

These included a dedicated meeting every two months to review progress on each domestic policy initiative, such as improving health outcomes and reducing crime.

“Getting time in a Prime Minister's diary is really, really hard work because there are so many pressures on them. Even when you’ve built it into the diary by being nice to the diary secretary and getting Blair behind it, on any given day something can happen - some news, a minister in trouble, an international crisis. You've got to fight every day to keep the routines,” he says.

Once Barber knew the meetings were going to happen regularly, he could monitor the data, go to a department if he spotted a problem and then try and solve it together before the deadline of the next meeting.

This approach prevents organisations lurching from crisis to crisis, often led by press stories, where there’s a spasm response but not a well-thought out strategy that genuinely improves the situation long-term.

“For Blair, it meant that for an hour and a half a week, he could keep his domestic policy priorities on track. That’s an incredibly good deal,” he says.

He has seen similar benefits in other governments with whom he has worked, including in Pakistan, Canada and Australia. “That systematic application of routines to the way a government works is enormously important,” he says.

The challenge to this approach is how you ensure spontaneity and creativity can still flourish. But Barber believes that having routines can help creativity, because it can remove the chaos in which it can easily get lost.

It also sharpens the focus for creativity into the application of specific problems. “Routine creates the pressure for creativity. They go together, they are not in opposition,” he says.

Without the deadline of a meeting, and the discipline of the data collection, “someone might have a creative idea, everyone will say it’s interesting and then nothing will happen.”

What business can learn from government

Despite his more recent private sector experience, some readers may dismiss his advice because it was predominantly formed in the public sector. For many, the public sector conjures up images of a slow-moving mammoth. Barber feels this characterisation is unfair. “A good or a bad organisation will have common features, whether in sports, the private or public sector,” he says.

“I get frustrated when I hear people telling me that if only the government and the civil service learnt from business everything would be fine. I know about the frustrations of working with business.” For example, he criticises businesses for their inefficient customer service phone lines, where people wait hours merely to be given five options and directed to yet another queue.

At Pearson, he saw that market pressures on business can be as strong as the accountability pressures on a governmental organisation so he thinks there could be shared learnings there.

He also found that governments can be bolder than business. “In my final conversation with Tony Blair when I left, he said, and I agree with him, we could have been bolder still, but we were bold. We did take risks. I found in McKinsey, for example, that they weren't terribly risk-taking. So one difference I found is the governments I worked with were more risk-taking than many business organisations.”

How to conduct a review

Barber is regularly called upon to review areas of government. In 2017, he conducted a review into how the government measures impact for each taxpayer pound spent on public services. In 2021, he conducted a review of government delivery, to ensure it remained “focused, effective and efficient”. He is currently advising on the government’s skills reform programme.

Barber is broadly positive about how the UK government responded to the pandemic. It’s something he’s talked about with various government ministers and then Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

He’s particularly positive about the vaccine rollout, calling it a “phenomenal achievement admired around the world.” But he says the Government’s response in the early days looked “chaotic and panic-stricken” and the messaging “needed more organisation” because there were inconsistencies, especially among the experts who were saying different things in the media to the government line.

There were also opportunities to learn that weren’t exploited in the first year. He says: “It was the first time in human history that every government was given the same homework assignment at the same time, and they did it in very, very different ways. It would've been better for everybody if governments had learnt faster from each other at the beginning.”

When Barber is asked to review something, he always asks five key questions, in order. First, what is the organisation or system trying to do? “I challenge vague things like, ‘we'd like it to be better’. I want to know how much better, in what aspect and how you're going to measure that,” he says. “If the goal isn’t really ambitious, I get bored and say get somebody else to advise you - I like difficult things,” he adds.

If he’s satisfied that it’s a good goal, he asks, what is the plan? “We all know plans never work out properly, but having a good plan is a good starting point that you can adapt and refine along the way.”

Next, how will you know at any given moment that you're on track? Then, how do you solve problems when they arise? Finally, who are the people I will work with over time to achieve this?

He says: “As soon as it gets tough, quite a lot of governments and organisations say it’s too difficult and they go and do something else. If the goal is really important and ambitious and has a moral purpose, how dare you give up on it when you've only just started?”

To leaders who are still shy about having a bias for action, he has one final point: “The most common mistake is to think that the risks of doing something ambitious are greater than the risks of doing nothing. We live in a rapidly changing world. The risk of doing nothing rarely gets calculated. But standing still is a guaranteed route to mediocrity and worse.”

Management Today has pulled out some of the most pertinent points for leaders from his book. Click here to read Michael Barber’s 12 key tips for accomplishing ambitious things.