Would working for Dominic Cummings be all that bad?

I’ve just watched Channel 4 News’ piece on Dominic Cummings’ blog about the type of people who he wants to help him run the country. Knowing that Jon Snow et al. have a left-leaning bias (which is no bad thing in my book) I decided to have a read of it myself to make up my own mind.

Before I get into his blog it’s right to point out my thoughts on Cummings the man. Whether you like him or not he’s obviously successful at what he sets out to achieve. He’s a maverick who doesn’t want to conform in what he says (as with his use of “assorted weirdos”) or how he dresses. Having worked for Vote Leave and now for the Prime minister who Frankie Boyle described as ‘Oswald Mosley’s soul trapped in a Furby’ — I’m really not a fan! I see him a bit like Roy Keane — you’d probably love him if he’s on your team and probably despise him if he’s not. It’s unfortunate that he’s chosen the dark side of the Force.

Back to his blog — I know that I will have a bias when reading it, and all the stuff I don’t like will confirm what I already thought, and my unconscious will want to ignore the bits I like. Having seen that the left-wing media and the people I follow on Twitter have already gone to town on the negatives (there are plenty in there — he’s not going to be a supportive leader by the sounds of it) I’d like to point out a few things I was surprised by. I’m a big advocate for progressive principles in the workplace; at the moment innovation, distributed authority, freedom and trust are high on my agenda as I’m working with a team to help move them towards self-management. So, with that in mind, amongst other things, here are the parts that struck a chord with me:

1. In recent years there has been scepticism of experts, something that is exacerbated each time a climate-change denier is put on TV or Radio to debate a scientist who’s dedicated their life to the field. Thankfully, it seems Cummings does value experts in the areas he mentions, and he also values evidence-based peer-reviewed journals.

2. He says that he wants to become less important and make fewer decisions, to the point where he’s ‘largely redundant’. For me this is what every good leader should aspire to; supporting their colleagues to learn and develop, to the point where the co-dependency of management is no longer needed. Chuck Blakeman talks about this during an insightful episode of the Leadermorphosis podcast.

3. He sees the value in great communication skills (understand and explain) and divergent thinking in order to join the dots. These are essentials when thinking in the context of an innovation process; when it comes to defining the problems with issues like Brexit and then ideating and implementing solutions.

4. He refers to a video that he’d like the potential candidate to watch and writes ‘If this excites you, then apply; if not, then don’t’. This is a method that I’ve used recently during a recruitment process that worked really well. We were recruiting to the team I mentioned above, so we asked them to watch this talk by Aaron Dignan. The candidates were then asked whether there was anything in the video that resonated with them, and how it should influence our organisation. This gave us valuable insights on how much each candidate was interested and energised by the type of change we want to make.

5. He’s looking for young people just out of University with ‘extreme curiosity’. Curiosity is one of the five ‘Rebel Talents’ that Francesca Gino discusses in her book of the same name. As we get older, we tend to ask fewer questions about the world around us or try new things, this inhibits innovation. There are methods for encouraging curiousness, and you should read the book to find out about them.

6. He says he doesn’t want ‘confident public school bluffers’ who ‘play office politics’ — quite simply I don’t like those type of people either!

7. I found it interesting that he mentions story telling. Purely because I’ve been reading/hearing a lot lately about how anecdotal stories are more powerful when influencing people than evidence using facts and figures.

8. He says that ‘Experience is often over-rated’. Where the ability work with people and develop teams is transferrable then you don’t always need the expertise in an area to be a success in that particular area. Going back to curiosity; being an expert in an area can often prevent challenging the status-quo, so someone with transferable leadership skills can come into a new domain with a fresh perspective that helps innovation.

9. But, he also champions mastery where he says ‘If you want to work in the policy unit or a department and you really know your subject so that you could confidently argue about it with world-class experts, get in touch’. Being given the opportunity to master something that you’re interested in is very motivating and leads to more happy, engaged and productive employees.

10. He’s seeking people with ‘genuine cognitive diversity’. This is something that Francesca Gino also argues for in her book, but I’ve already given her a plug so I’ll mention another; Matthew Syed’s new book called Rebel Ideas discusses the benefits of having a diverse team who have a different frames of reference — unfortunately this is something that the FBI and CIA lacked in the years running up to 9/11. This is something that I’d like to be able to consider more when recruiting people in the future, but I see bureaucratic issues that could potentially be a barrier.

11. He doesn’t want to be ‘stuck with formal hierarchies’, even though that won’t seem ‘proper’ to some. This is another progressive principle that he’s advocating. Hierarchy is so important in traditional organisations and challenging it can be seen as heretical. Leaders at the top have put a lot of effort into obtaining their power and some don’t like a young upstart crossing the hierarchical lines and challenging them. But, there are many benefits to flattening organisational structures and working in networks of self-managing teams.

There you go. It sounds like he does want to adopt some progressive principles in the ways that his teams will work. Whether he can truly do this without being a supportive leader though is debatable — there’s plenty of evidence in the blog that he isn’t one of those. When the shit hits the fan (thinking about Malcolm Tucker in The Thick Of It) will some of these principles go out of the window? Who will be binned?

Thanks for reading :-)

Worked in social housing since 2002. Formerly @BronAfon, now Innovation Catalyst @WeAreTrivallis. #FutureOfWork #MakingWorkMoreFun