Innovators should not have to be subversives. There is a better way.

It was a privilege to attend the ‘Happy Workplaces’ CEO Conference recently. Led by the irrepressible Henry Stewart*, this annual conference showcases inspirational leaders creating great organisations through the development of high trust work environments. Bruce Daisley from Twitter, Katherine Horler – Adviza, Cathy Busani – Happy Ltd, Gill Arupke – Social Interest Group and Kevin Rogers – Paycare, all very different organisations united by a desire to extend to colleagues freedom and autonomy in order to deliver excellent services.

They have something else in common. They operate in highly regulated environments rendering high trust models a significant challenge. Their skill lies in finding innovative ways of working within systems geared, by accident or design, to dampening creativity.

What would it look like if instead of these inspiring CEOs having to find work-arounds in order to be creative, the system itself was designed with trust as the default? It could mean the end of dense and impenetrable tender documents, over prescribed delivery contracts, funder requirements bearing no relation to realities on the ground, one size fits all regulations given the status of Holy Writ. It would be an environment in which providers and commissioners/regulators operate on relational rather than transactional principles. It would mean a joint venture mentality predominating over a sterile ‘purchaser-provider’ orthodoxy.

Now I am not arguing for a regulation free zone! In my own world of working with vulnerable young people, we need to keep them safe and the unscrupulous out. However, much of the prescription we experience in our sector stems from an assumption that sensitive environments are de-risked by having rules for every possible circumstance, an assumption that runs contrary to evidence. This dilutes trust in professionals and encourages an inquisitorial mentality when things go wrong (as they invariably do), over a learning approach.

I know for certain there are commissioners and regulators desperate to break the mould. Indeed, I find myself increasingly working with enlightened commissioners similarly searching for work-arounds in a system unused to variation. How much better then if the energy we devote to subverting a low trust paradigm was deployed to establish principles of mutual trust in the first instance?

Vested interests in maintaining a rule bound, quasi-legal system are strong and I do not underestimate the commitment required to cut loose. However, I sense a change in the air as more people acknowledge the way we operate is wasteful and counter productive. If a critical mass can be achieved and change follows, the biggest winners will be the people we all serve.

*Check out Henry’s ‘Happy Manifesto’.

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