A lesson from Florence Nightingale in managing unprecedented times

‘Unprecedented’ is one word I’m looking forward to hearing a lot less once we get through this.

It’s not just hearing it on TV every five minutes which grates, it’s the nagging feeling that  ‘unprecedented’ isn’t really that unusual.

Lots of what we deal with, particularly in business, is unprecedented.

Hearing the word constantly repeated when people talk about Covid starts to feel like it’s becoming a catch-all excuse for whenever our efforts to deal with it don’t go quite right.

I know this is unfair. We haven’t faced anything like the human, social and economic impacts of Covid-19 in most people’s lifetimes, so the word carries an understandable emotional payload; it’s just when it’s overused that it starts getting old.

And I believe that emotional payload is part of the problem, along with the fact that our efforts to tackle the crisis are largely led by politicians.

That’s not intended as a criticism of politicians. It’s just I think the traditional political management approach is not necessarily the best one for dealing with this kind of situation, one which I believe cries out for rational management.

Understanding why offers useful insights on management in general, while incidentally giving us another welcome reason for honouring Florence Nightingale on her bicentenary.

To mangle decades of management scholarship and theory, you could say that management involves a balance of at least three elements; rationality, creativity and politics.

Here, I mean politics in its broad and neutral sense of dealing with people as opposed to facts or ideas.

Rational management focuses on facts and deductions, creative management on ideas.

To help understand the different elements, you might want to imagine three whiteboards; the rational one is covered in equations, the creative one has just a think bubble with ‘Eureka!’ in the middle, and the political one is mostly emojis and tweets.

As managers, we learn to balance these three forces to meet the needs of the particular management challenge we face at any given time.

Managing a project or service these days tends to be rational management led. We gather information, set objectives, then make and work the plan, filling in the unknowns with reasonable assumptions and risk assessments which we refine as we work the plan and get new information.

Activities like new product development tend to be creative management led, while marketing campaigns, commercial negotiations and wars are mostly the domain of political management.

Which is where Florence Nightingale comes in. For me, her legacy carries an important lesson for our current situation, and not just because we’ve just celebrated her bicentenary and named a bunch of temporary hospitals after her.

Florence Nightingale is traditionally remembered as ‘The Lady of the Lamp’, a stereotype grounded in political management – you could put her on a campaign poster.

Yet there’s at least as strong a case for remembering her as ‘The Lady of the Awesome Infographic’ for her ground-breaking work using statistical data to drive step improvements in the conduct of the war. (If you get the chance, I suggest you look up her pie-charts comparing causes of troop mortality in the Crimea; they are things of beauty).

So why is Florence Nightingale remembered as the epitome of the caring nurse rather than as a pioneer of big data?

Leaving aside the element of our ingrained sexual stereotypes, I think it’s partly because it’s the political management aspects which capture people’s imaginations and get remembered.

It’s what gives us our heroes, even when their greater achievement may have been grounded, like Florence Nightingale’s, in rational management.

That’s why I’m a bit nervous about politicians being in charge of our Covid-19 response. Political management is generally about winning victories over human adversaries, in the office, boardroom, hustings or on the battlefield.

But Covid-19 isn’t a person or a regime or a political party that you can beat in that way; tackling it isn’t like your next career step or that big negotiation or a war.

To borrow from the ITIL service management methodology, it’s more like a major service incident.  The immediate priority in managing a major service incident is to mitigate its impact, then to address its causes, and that calls for an information-led, rational management approach.

Political management may set out with this approach, but it can all too easily easily slip back into its comfort zone, looking for adversaries and someone to blame.

Whether or not you agree, you might find it instructive to observe our politicians’ behaviours and consider whether their actions are led more by political or rational management. It can give useful insights for our business lives; if nothing else, I find it takes my mind off things for a bit.

Mistakes are a fertile area to consider when you are watching our politicians.

If you’re led by rational management, a mistake is important mainly as a source of data. You suck as much information from it as you can – root causes, likely immediate impacts, likely longer-term effects on the plan – and adjust your plan to minimise damage and prevent the same mistake being made again.

The objective is always to use the best available information to inform your actions and keep you on track to achieving your concrete practical goals.

In political management, you’re mainly concerned with how a mistake will impact your political capital; how it makes you look.

A mistake in an area you’re not directly responsible for is an opportunity to increase your political capital by making sure that area (agency, government, advisory board) gets the blame and the associated hit on their political capital.

If the mistake is in your area of responsibility, you can try delegating the blame to a subordinate, denying it ever happened, covering it up, or looking straight into the camera, admitting it, and taking it on the chin.

This last approach dovetails neatly with rational management because ‘fessing up’ still allows you to suck all the information value out of the mistake. The trade-off is that it’s riskiest for your political capital.

If you take one of the other approaches, it’s hard to get value from the mistake and you can find yourself making the kind of statement which is anathema to rational management;

“We know there will be lessons to be learned from this, and they will be learned at the appropriate time,” meaning, when it’s too late for them to damage your political capital or to have any practical value to the project.

This is just one area; there are plenty of others where we can usefully consider how a political versus a rational management approach can affect outcomes, such as the subtle difference between accountability and blame.

Accountability is fact based and rational management led; if you’re accountable for something and it doesn’t get done, the focus is on understanding how this impacts delivery and getting it fixed.

Fixing it may mean getting someone more suitable to take on that accountability, but the focus is still on the task, not the person. Political management tends to focus on the person, which can lead it into the more judgmental and less effective area of apportioning blame.

I could go on, but I don’t want to wander too far into a political minefield when I really just want to stimulate thought about the tensions between rational and political management as they apply in day to day working life, and how, as managers, we can best balance the different approaches.

If I haven’t achieved that, at least can I suggest that, if you find yourself in a situation where you’re not sure whether to be led by the politics or the facts, you try doing what I do and ask yourself ‘What would Florence Nightingale do?’



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