No, this is not an article about dressing well for business. My wife would tell you that unless it is technical walking gear I’m firmly in the Asda School of Haute Couture. This article is about the practice and principles of reviewing organisations – looking in the right places the right way. Companies can gain a lot from external scrutiny of their operations but, as I have found, success lies in how you look.
I’ve spent the last six months seconded from Sampson Hall leading an independent review of aspects of prison security on behalf of the Secretary of State for Justice, Michael Gove. I led a small team of independent and in-house scrutineers with a large task and a small timescale. Our experience has taught me a huge amount about the best way to gather and assess evidence. I think some of these lessons have value right across the business environment and I have listed my top 10 rules for review below.
1. Be very clear about what your task is. Agreed terms of reference are hugely important. They provide you with clarity and structure and they are your passport within the organisation.
2. Get very public very senior ‘buy in.’ This involves checking that your inquiry or review is fully endorsed by your commissioner and understanding the appetite for the truth, good or bad. Ensure there is widespread publicity for what you have been asked to do, who by and expectations for cooperation.
3. Get a day to day ‘sponsor’ for your review who opens doors (literally), handles admin and logistics and who acts as the interface between you and the commissioning authority.
4. Work back from your ‘product’ – the outcome the terms of reference ask for – to where you are now. Establish milestones for activity, progress checkpoints and accountability for tasks. Structure expectations now with the commissioner. If you need more time or resources and it is justifiable, ask. Remember, ambiguity kills.
5. Get a team that isn’t like you. Groupthink is a threat to cool objective assessment so ensure you have a diversity of people to assist you who will challenge your views appropriately.
6. Foster a team environment for ‘creative tension’ which can cope with dissent and differing views. This will make your conclusions better. Enable discussion and debate within your team at every stage. Aim for consensus but be personally responsible for conclusions.
8. Be resilient! The truth is out there but sometimes it is very hard to get to and it can be inconvenient. Remain true to your terms of reference, polite, sceptical and dogged.
9. Don’t alienate people unnecessarily but accept that sometimes it is inevitable if you are looking hard at their work area or performance. Foster respectful relationships but don’t be taken prisoner by any cause beyond your own.
10. Be brave and be focused. Gather evidence, analyse, conclude and explain without fear or favour.
I was exceptionally lucky to have a ‘commissioner’ who allowed, indeed encouraged me to go where the evidence led without interference and someone who was genuinely interested in the outcome. These principles can be applied to many organisations big and small where there is a genuine desire to improve organisational performance.
If you think your organisation could benefit from independent audit, we are interested in having a conversation with you. It could be that first step you need towards business transformation.
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