A few years ago I co-presented with Helen Whitten of positiveworks to the title 'Stress Makes You Stupid'. We used a piece of technology called 'biodots', little circular stickers which we gave out to delegates. If you stick a biodot onto the back of your wrist you can watch it change colour according to your skin temperature; and skin temperature, I was told, is a good indicator of your stress level. When you are stressed, your body diverts oxygen from the brain to your muscle groups to aid the 'fight or flight' response. However, the depletion of oxygen levels in your brain impairs your ability to think deeply, reflectively and wisely - not that you need to do in a moment of threat!
However,the point it that chronic stress reduces our analytical and conceptual abilities to almost habitual thinking patterns. We miss opportunities because we are always living in stress, and lack of oxygen doesn't allow us to see possibilities.
Right now executives teams of public bodies all across the UK are under great stress. They will have to live with unprecedented budgetary challenges for the foreseeable future,and the future they foresee is not very far ahead at all. Just getting through the next financial year seems like a huge achievement. These decision-makers are asking themselves, "How can we maintain services whilst making 25% cuts in budget?"
My concern is that stress is shaping their approach with, shall we say, less-than-smart thinking. This quality of thinking will not allow them to conceive that this is an opportunity for positive transformational change, and that maintaining service levels is even a possibility.
Stressed public executives will miss opportunities for transformational change - radical changes to the way services are delivered, such as rationalising and sharing delivery with other local agencies. They will slash services, because their thinking abilities in this climate of stress will funnel them into limited EITHER-OR thinking.
Jim Collins and Jerry Porras found in their research that all organisations of outstanding performance reject this 'Tyranny of the OR', and instead adopt the 'Genius of the AND', insisted on more creative BOTH-AND thinking. Where are our public leaders who can do this now, who can achieve necessary budget cuts AND maintain service levels?
Today there is an opportunity to transform positively the delivery of public services in the UK. But will the stress that these chief executives live under allow them to believe this is even possible?