Lost in the NDIS?

Work with your compass and ditch the map

I am a big fan of Seth Goden, a wonderful commentator with a belief that we can all do good work that matters. In a connected world, we can find success doing things we know are right, we no longer need to follow a set of instructions we receive from higher up.  He says it’s about working with our compass, not a map. It’s a truly inspiring message and it’s an approach most frontline disability workers already take, even if they do not always articulate it to their bosses.

I have never been a great believer in the latest management fads that claim to finally ensure we can get the frontline doing the things we want them to, to make the changes we need to make. Over the years, we have moved from managerialism to KSF’s and KPI’s, more recently from outputs to outcomes. What has changed at the disability frontline other than the paperwork they hate so much? Precious little.

Quite a while ago I was recruited to one of Australia’s largest disability organisations to ‘manage change’. After two years in the role I woke up in the middle of the night, sideways in the bed, crying. I figured it was probably a good time to leave.  For two long and frustrating years, I had been trying to get frontline staff to adopt new service models developed higher up and for two years they had outsmarted me at every move. If they didn’t believe in it, it just didn’t happen. There were some staff who simply refused to change the way they worked (shocking to me, a newly minted manager at the time). Others said yes, then just didn’t do it. I knew some of them were just waiting me out, knowing I would go before they had to do anything different.  They were right.

Since then I have become an even stronger believer that the internal drivers, trust and commitment are the key things that motivate people on the frontline and all the KPI’s in the world make very little difference. I firmly believe managers need to do their best to win hearts and minds and genuinely engage everyone in change. If you want your organisation to change and survive in the NDIS, you need to tap into each person’s moral compass.

We are currently in the middle of releasing DSC’s first ever podcast series, where we interview people who operate by compass, not maps.  I am incredibly proud of this work, we candidly converse with people who have succeeded in making a real difference in disability. Rhonda Galbally went deep and told us about speaking her own truth when the personal became political. Nic Rogerson helped us to understand the bravery of authenticity on a large stage and John Baker insisted we get over seeking big external solutions and look much closer to home for the answers we need. We learn so much from the iconoclasts.

Ever since the early days of the NDIS we have been trying to encourage organisations to engage in broad based discussions that centre on the big questions, what really matters? What matters to people with disability and their families, what matters in leadership and the way we serve? A minority have wanted to have those discussions and we love them for it, the majority do not.

I think most managers have avoided the deep and meaningful approach because they have been caught up in the white noise, they fear the outcomes of the poorly managed NDIS changes. When we feel threatened, it is very difficult to access our executive function, to think creatively and undertake long term planning. We focus on what needs to be done immediately, even if this may have adverse consequences in the long term.

Way too many organisations have their heads down, worried about day to day survival in the NDIS and are likely to look up in the not too distant and get hit by an oncoming truck. We are already seeing this in the growing numbers of organisations hitting the wall these last few months.

Our podcast interviewees point to different ways of doing things, ways to be look beyond the daily grind, to be less interested in following the rules and the dodgy maps the NDIA gives us. These are people that have the battle scars of long term commitment and are still engaged in thinking about doing better.  They tell us how far we have come and how much further we have to go.

The world has changed in disability, have you? It is clear that integrity and authenticity are the foundation stones of success, but you also need to take a longer term lens on where you want to be as an organisation. It is time to engage your whole organisation and the people you work with in candid conversations asking the questions:

  • What really matters here?

  • What is meaningful for me in this work?

  • What are we really good at?

  • Where can we make enough money to survive the next few years?

In this turbulent world, real success will come from keeping an eye on the margins while being true to oneself. Lost in the NDIS? Try working with your compass and ditch the map.

Listen to today’s episode - a candid conversation with Rhonda Galbally:


Image: ‘Fishing’ by Nhan Nguyen, 2017, in on paper, 28 x 38 cm, image courtesy of Arts Project Australia.