Long ago, I called my consulting company Two Worlds, because so much of my work was, and remains, about reconciling different views and attitudes: technology and business, art and science or physical and virtual worlds. Here though is an instance where two worlds of my own converge head-on: my organisational background and my voluntary work in advanced motorcycle instructing. It’s a rather sad tale but one which parallels and echoes what we so often see in the commercial world.
History and Involvement
I’ve been a member of the UK’s Institute of Advanced Motorists (IAM) for just short of thirty years. I’ve been a volunteer Observer (coach/instructor) for them for fifteen. I’m qualified to RoSPA Gold Standard (albeit overdue for a retest). Back in the mists of time I’ve also been an instructor for the RAC/ACU, Bikesafe and Camrider. In the IAM I have a 100% record in helping associates through their advanced motorcycling tests (with due allowance given for a group where associates got a different observer each ride). I’ve done training on track, road and classroom, with the IAM itself and with HRT, Rapid Training and the California Superbike School, all at my own expense. Because I enjoy it, it helps me be better at what I do for myself and it improves my ability to help others.
The last of those is a huge part of my motivation: I enjoy helping people improve at what they do. Also, I really don’t like it when people die on the road for lack of some thought and practice, so anything I can do to help pass on my experience and such skills as I have to others, makes me feel I’m playing my part in society. Then add in the ‘pay it forward’ principle: when I first expressed an interest in motorcycling, my parents’s reaction was definitely in the ‘supportive but concerned’ category. My father’s comment being, “If you’re going to do something, do it properly”. So I was packed off to the local RAC/ACU training scheme, where I was taught to ride by enthusiastic volunteers, on a collection of donated and superannuated BSA Bantams and Lambrettas. I enjoyed that so much that I actually qualified as an RAC/ACU instructor before passing my motorcycle test. That training gave me the start of a framework for riding and continual learning which has certainly saved me on multiple occasions. Thanks, Dad. I still regard every ride as a learning process and mentally review and challenge my behaviour to understand where I could have been smoother or safer.
Goodbye to All That
I’ll continue to do the learning thing but, as of today, no longer as an Observer for the IAM. I have handed in my IAM dinner pail and shuffled off in search of pastures new. This has been building for a long time but the final straw has been the exam for the IAM’s new National Observer qualification, itself required to check my existing skills against the new IAM training and ‘quality’ structure (the quotes are significant).
Which is part of the problem: I haven’t bailed out because I didn’t pass a test. I’ve bailed out firstly because most of what I was failed on was a lack of explicit adherence to some checklist dogma, when in fact I’d actually and carefully covered the ground by careful questioning and, above all, because this checklist approach in turn appear to be symptomatic of manifest failings and the path to decline I believe the IAM to be taking. If I’d been failed on my riding, observation, teaching or a couple of silly mistakes I readily acknowledge, I’d simply have knuckled down and tried again. As it was, a great wave of weariness swept over me and I realised that I’d finally had enough.
Prescription vs Emergence
This is where another part of what I do kicks in: I’ve spent a large part of my career helping organisations design or re-design themselves to suit a changing world. I’ve seen stuff that works and works well and I’ve seen, first-hand, some truly egregious and catastrophic cock-ups. And you’ll be entirely unsurprised if I say that I don’t think that the IAM falls into the first category.
There’s a fundamental principle of working relationships that says, “Do things with people rather than to them”. That’s pretty basic common sense, but is too often lost in corporate structures, where short-term self interest and a desire for certainty – however spurious – tends to overwhelm strategic thinking and planning. In these cases the creation and imposition of prescriptive process takes precedence over engagement, feedback and the building of trust. This in turn generates a downward spiral of micromanagement and the blocking of discretion and initiative. Of course that then requires the imposition of ever more prescription in an attempt to compensate, thereby driving the spiral onwards and downwards.
In a salaried organisation, an illusion of order can thereby be maintained for a while, but at the cost of long term viability, compromise of the mission and the destruction of resilience, adaptability and motivation. It can though persist for long enough for the inept or uncomprehending to reap their own rewards – in extreme cases legging it with the contents of the pension fund just before the whole thing implodes.
What though, about an organisation whose fee-generating services are delivered almost entirely by a network of enthusiastic, skilled but unpaid volunteers? You’d think perhaps that there the “Do with, not to” principle would be writ large in its brief? You’d think. But let’s get specific again with the IAM: it is a charity, from its founding in 1956 dedicated to the noble cause of road safety achieved through the raising of driving standards. Its services are delivered by a network of local volunteer-run groups, each of which was historically left much to its own devices. Collaboration between groups did happen but, pre-internet, was necessarily intermittent and either largely social or formalised through occasional regional and national meetings and conferences.
Nationally, much of the coherence in approach and training came from reliance on the Police method of training and delivery, something which has had both positive and negative results – there was a time when Police rider training could, not entirely unfairly, be described as “riding by numbers” and there has been a noticeable perceptual lag between the massive improvements seen in police training in the last couple of decades and the filtering of that into the further recesses of the IAM. At the same time, with a regular supply of new recruits to the IAM who were not conditioned by approaches long since abandoned by the police, local groups developed variations on the overall theme that sought to engage more effectively with actual and potential trainees and broaden the appeal of the cause.
Leadership & Discretion
For many years, the rather laissez-faire attitude of the small central IAM administration actually served the organisation well: many of the early executive had military backgrounds, something I regard largely as a positive, because they tend to have a better understanding of local capability and initiative and are more inclined to task people effectively and then trust them to get on with the job: there’s nothing like having people shooting at you to make you prioritise what really matters in leadership.
There was however a growing divergence of approach between groups and regions – I fell foul of this when I moved back to Scotland and was amused to be immediately pilloried for riding “English lines”. I still do though. However, with increasing awareness of this divergence there came a point where, to remain relevant as a national organisation, the IAM had to look to engender a greater degree of consistency in its approach, itself an entirely reasonable aspiration. Here though, it had a choice: to default to a regressive, ‘control freak’ corporatism or to take a step back and to reinvent itself as a facilitator of communication with and between local groups. So now guess which one of those increases engagement and resilience and which demoralises and demotivates? And guess which route the IAM took?
The difference here is between a system that seeks to define and to impose a single approach with little to no allowance for the encouragement of local or personal discretion and one that allows locally-driven change to emerge. In the latter case, ideas can be validated by peers, woven into the organisation’s broader body of knowledge and then rippled out across the country through education, example and discussion.
That’s an approach that allows for greater variation at any given time but is one that thoroughly engages with the local groups and volunteers and which produces a stronger, more effective and more resilient organisation that delivers higher quality outcomes.
It is also an approach that is not only viable but which is better suited to modern modes of communication and interaction. As things stand, there is a common perception of ‘them and us’ between local groups and the IAM’s salaried central staff, driven by a feeling of disconnect and of not being valued or heard. Accompanying that is a perception that the measurement of quality has moved from a matter of trusted judgement within an informed framework to being an absolutist checklist.
All of this is a classic formula for decline in any organisation. In an organisation whose service delivery and revenue relies on unpaid volunteers, it is a recipe for disaster: anyone who has been involved in creating ISO9001 quality systems will tell you that all they do is record consistency: they say nothing about the fitness for purpose of the product – you need to create quality and then write your quality system to support it, rather than expecting that writing processes and checklists will create quality.
Valuing the Volunteer
The IAM is just such a network of highly experienced volunteers, not a hierarchy of apparatchiks – we don’t get paid for doing this. So, to feel that this is worth doing we need to feel not only that we and our associates benefit from engagement with the ideas, attitudes and process of the IAM but that our ideas in turn are heard and acted on – that’s what keeps us going. Yes, there’s a strong social element, but that’s almost entirely at the local level and would persist regardless of whether a local group remained part of the IAM or chose to go its own way.
The simple analysis here is that the IAM has already driven away quite a number of its most experienced Observers and staff. Now, when I encounter staff examiners and local and national representatives, their body language oft tells me that they know damn well that they’re going through the motions without any genuine enthusiasm for the position they’re supposed to espouse but trying, as we all do, to make the best of a bad job. Others simply focus on those activities that they can believe in but which increasingly fall into discrete and uncommunicative silos. That helps get through the moment but ultimately only leads one way.
There are other symptoms of a detached and corporatist approach too, starting with a refusal to share basic operational data with members – I spent some time repeatedly requesting basic historical membership & test pass data from the Chiswick headquarters, to be refused at every turn. I simply wanted to check my memory that IAM had significantly more members when I joined in 1987 than the 90,000 it avers now. That’s pretty basic.
Then there’s the removal of the facility for members and Observers to share their thoughts about riding, driving and the IAM itself on its private web forum. That contained a deal of thoughtful, well-crafted and argued debate on both riding and driving technique and on the future of the IAM. It also contained a great deal of eloquent dissent from the direction that the IAM was taking. So, rather than engage and use it to inform strategy and policy, the IAM has, during its current rebranding exercise, removed that forum, with no plans to revive or replace it. Welcome to 1970. It is of course also the reason I’ve posted this publicly, in the absence of any private way to feed this directly to the membership.
And yes, there is a rebranding exercise, something that, in its own right, is thoroughly deserving of a first class berth on Douglas Adams’ B Ark. It is also something which is an entirely predictable action by an organisation that appears incapable of recognising either that it is or why it is failing to engage with its constituent parts and with its market. For what it’s worth, it’s now IAM Roadsmart, with a new sort-of logo and a web site that, whilst of a marginally cleaner design than its distinctly 1990s predecessor, lacks pretty much anything with which to engage and inspire people.
I’ve seen all of that before and it smacks of a a degree of denial and indeed of rearranging the deckchairs as the iceberg looms over the horizon.
Avoiding the Iceberg
It’s not actually too late: I’m not aware of any groups that have (yet) seceded en masse but I have seen the departure of a number of the most dedicated, thoughtful and experienced observers, trainers and examiners, people who are motivated, adaptable and widely respected. And of course those departures have been excused or airbrushed away and the cracks papered over, in manner that is as disrespectful as it is destructive.
There is a rôle here for a salaried central organisation in IAM. But it needs to reinvent itself – and be seen as – as a facilitator of continuous change in an organisation of peers. It needs to recognise and encourage diversity of thought and approach and to combine this with the continuous integration of new ideas into its body of knowledge and how it delivers that experience. And, above all, it needs to listen and support rather than prescribe and impose. There is an irony here: in recent years, the oft-voiced mantra of the IAM has been to produce Thinking riders and drivers. It’s a great shame that it appears to be trying to do so without being a Thinking organisation.
Enough then. Time to move on.