February 3, 2013
Why would the whole of the Universe be a complex, self-organising and interdependent system, and a business be a top-down, controlled machine? Why would the entire Universe be subject to the laws of Nature, and business, not? It’s almost as some businesses they think they exist in some bubble, where the laws of nature are turned away by some bouncer: “You can’t come in here with that gravity. Second Law of Thermodynamics? Not in here, sunny Jim.”
My favourite programmes on telly are the ones about the universe and how it came to be. One I was watching recently had a theme of complexity and order: how order arose out of the chaos of the Big Bang and formed some of the most beautiful sights in our solar system, such as Saturn’s rings. The narrator kept describing the wonders of the solar system as complex and marvelled at how it organised itself over many billions of years, subject to the forces of nature. As I watched, I was making connections to life here on Earth. The point he made in the final minutes of the programme was that we are part of the same complex and wonderful solar system and subject to its same laws. I made the link to organisations, to one client in particular and to one particular phenomenon of systems (you can’t tell a systems thinker to stop being a systems thinker in their free time, sorry). I had a moment of thinking how many who “run” businesses think they are immune from laws of nature, or certainly behave like they do, acting out of old myths like some kind of Flat-Earther.
Complexity, ambiguity, dynamic change and uncertainty are not the new normal; they have been around since the Big Bang. They are part of the fabric of the universe. We have just been (unconsciously) shielding ourselves from the forces of nature by pretending we weren’t a part of it. From the days of lords and serfs to the time we set out on the “scientific management” path, we have applied top-down control mechanisms on people to get them to work, like so many bits of a wind-up clock. Many are finally acknowledging that complexity, ambiguity and so on are part of the fabric of organisational life. Accordingly, we must adjust our ways of doing business to take account of these phenomena of Nature.
Just as, 1000 years ago, we “KNEW” that the Sun went around the Earth, just as we “KNEW” the Earth was flat, just as we “KNEW” that trepanation was a good cure for headaches , many organisations seem to “KNOW” that top-down command-and-control mechanistic structures, with a select few pulling the levers, are the best ways to run things. I believe that if we don’t “unknow” some of the nonsense we still unconsciously adhere to, the forces of Nature will present us with some unpleasant surprises. Even if we continue to “KNOW” that our business is a machine, it does not make it any less true that it is a living system, and thus subject to the laws of living systems.
A client who I described in a previous article was reflecting on 2012 recently and observed that they had made some progress in their business over the year. By progress, he meant that
- people were beginning to take up more responsibility and initiative without having to wait for the boss to tell them what to do
- there was more discussion amongst the staff as to how to manage some of the day-to-day challenges they meet and less referring to the boss for the “answer”
- mistakes were being used as entry points to examining business processes and working out how they could be improved
- they had a clearer idea of their collective purpose and how important relationship is to achieving that purpose
- the leaders were devoting more of their time to ensuring the conditions and structures of the business were optimised so that people could get on with their jobs (and less time micro-managing operational tasks).
Thrilling stuff. He also reflected on how shifting the focus away from “behavioural problems” as isolated events and onto the business as a whole living system seemed to have injected some new life (his words, not mine) into the business: that they were actually going somewhere. Here was an example of the practical benefits of applying systems thinking to overcoming business “stuckness”. They started the year stagnating, with things getting worse, they injected some new learning into the system, they are now moving to another level of effectiveness.
Here’s the link to that TV programme and this client’s business: entropy. As a living system, my client’s business is subject to the same laws that pertain to the rest of the universe. One of these is the Second Law of Thermodynamics, a corollary of which is entropy. Entropy, crudely speaking, is the tendency towards death. Social entropy, which applies to organisations, is a ”measure of the natural decay of the structure or of the disappearance of distinctions within a social system.” (Krippendorff) As the whole of the universe tends towards randomness, or death, so do all the elements within it. This is not to take a fatalistic approach and say “Why bother doing anything, then?” There are forces that also act to retard entropy. Like with other living systems, some energy needs to go into the pot in order to counteract it. My cup of hot tea will naturally cool down as heat is transferred away from it, but I can re-heat it by applying energy in the from of a microwave oven.
What does entropy look like in the business world?
How do we counteract entropy?
If a business is succumbing to natural entropy and feels like it’s losing track or going nowhere, how can we reheat it? Let’s look to Nature. How do other living systems in Nature counteract entropy? They bring in more stuff. Living systems find loopholes to counteract entropy. In the context of the natural world, this shows itself as adaptation. In the context of business, this means learning. Closed systems that spend their energy simply on maintaining themselves in survival mode eventually spend themselves out. If a business is spending too much of its time on hunting for food, and not enough on learning new ways to hunt for food, it will succumb to entropy. Vibrant and open living systems naturally tend to greater complexity, experiment often, are driven to what is possible and seek new opportunities which destabilise them until they restablise in a renewed way. They look for more stuff to put into the system to renew it.
“Systems thinking is a response to the failure of mechanistic thinking in the attempt to explain social and biological phenomena.” Lars Skyttner
Purpose, not anatomy
If something is not working, look at the bigger picture: purpose, relationships and interconnectedness of the elements. Because entropy (a phenomenon of living systems) is affecting the business, taking a systems thinking approach will be the path to finding its counter-measures. Merely looking at the anatomy of a business is not going to help us solve 21st century problems. As Skytnner writes, the emergence of a holistic approach came about in an effort to provide us “an outlook to see better, a network to understand better and a platform to act better.” This is something that is dear to my heart. Systems thinking gives us a real-life, practical way to actually craft the way we do things better and more effectively, not simply some intellectual exercise that sounds lovely.
Systems thinking is not a prescription or method, it’s more of a perspective or way of approaching problems. Systems thinking can help us to look for patterns within businesses, to see fundamental structures and their impact on the elements (the people, the departments, the sub-groups) within the business as well as on the relationships between those elements.
When living systems, such as a business, get to a certain point, they begin to entropy. Unless something new is added to the system, it will tend towards death. If we continue to apply the same-old, same-old solutions to address this problem, we are not bringing anything new into the system. ”Something new” requires learning. Learn what is working well. Learn what is not working well. Learn where the connections are within the business. Learn where the disconnects are. Learn from the customer.
A business will not have sustainable life unless it is infused with energy from outside itself. For a business to operate as a closed system, starving itself of innovation and creativity of its own people or ignorant of its customers and environment, entropy takes over. It will tend towards death. A “she’ll be right”, “it’ll sort itself out” attitude will lead to greater mess, greater randomness, and without new energy in the system to help deal with the mess, it will die away. Things do not sort themselves out. If I don’t maintain my house, it’ll eventually crumble over time. This is a real example of how the Second Law of Thermodynamics affects us. A hot cup of coffee will tend, over time, to lose heat. A living system starved of nourishment will eventually cease to exist. A business led by managers who see their role as nothing more than “competent supervision” will tend towards disintegration and eventually have a “Kodak moment” (not the picturesque kind). To be successful, a business must adapt to its ever-changing environment and to its own ever-changing internal dynamics that emerge out of the interactions between all the elements within in. A successful business must gain nourishment from outside its steady state: from innovation and creativity, from market information, from ongoing learning. When a business applies systems thinking, it can find new ways to renew itself.
Businesses that will do well in this networked age will overcome the natural phenomenon of entropy by becoming open to what could be and taking steps to do something different. They will learn to think bigger. They will see learning and renewal of their business processes as part of their new culture of continuous improvement. They will see the business as a living system and not a machine. They will see mistakes as opportunities for learning and renewal, rather than through the old lens as a “disciplinary issue”.
When Harold Jarche says work is learning and learning is the work, I think he’s suggesting that for a business to thrive, it must place learning at the heart of everything it does. Purposeful learning. Learning that is not “training” as we have visioned it up till now. Any training that is disconnected from the people is not sufficient. Learning that is not about the work is not sufficient. Real 21st century learning must change how we think, behave and interact with each other, as well as what we know. It must be relevant to purpose, activity and relationships. Not just one of those: all three. A business, which is a living system, requires relevant learning in order to subvert that thing which happens to all living systems: entropy.
August 23, 2012
The cosmos is a complex, and sometimes confusing, place.
Every three or four months, the planet Mercury goes retrograde. What this means is that if you track its movement in the sky, it will appear to move backwards for about 3 weeks and then it continues its forward course. In ancient Greece, the planets used to be seen as erratic and unpredictable relative to the stars, hence the word ‘planet’ (‘wanderer’). The ancient Greeks found ways to describe this retrograde motion that fit within the old geocentric view of the cosmos. They concocted mathematical descriptions to help them make sense of what they observed, given the evidence they had, but which are now seen as wrong. This bizarre planetary behaviour was not acknowledged to be an illusion until Copernicus suggested that it was a matter of perspective, i.e. it is the Sun that is the centre of the Solar System, not the Earth. Copernicus stated that the apparent retrograde motion of the planets arises not from their motion, but from the Earth’s. He resisted publishing his work because he did not wish to risk the scorn to which he would expose himself on account of the novelty and incomprehensibility of his theses, and even after being published, his ideas took quite some time to be generally accepted. Only over half a century later with the work of Kepler and Galileo did the first evidence appear that backed his theory. Not until after Newton, over 150 years after Copernicus, did the heliocentric view become mainstream. Who would now maintain that the Earth is the centre of everything?
Technology had a part to play in this shift in perception. The impact the telescope had on science was profound. Amazing how, when things are seen differently, whole mindsets shift. If we look at the night sky with the naked eye and observe Orion’s belt, we will see three stars: Alnitak, Alnilam and Mintaka. If, however, I look through a different lens (specifically, a telescope), I can tell you that Mintaka is, in fact, two stars. Faced with this information, you could
- reject what I say because you’ve always known that Orion’s Belt consists of three stars and that’s just the way it is
- suspend your belief and try to get your hands on a lens like mine so you could check it out yourself
- accept what I say and simply update your thinking
Viewing something through a new lens can cause a stir. Galileo and his telescope provided us with so much new information that we had to update our thinking and beliefs about the cosmos. Something similar is going on in the world right now. Many beliefs about the business of business are being stretched. It seems that most businesses are still holding on to outdated ideas, despite information now available which challenges these ideas.
Business does not work like that either, much as some would believe.
I was recently in a meeting where someone was describing how their business works while drawing an organisational tree diagram on a whiteboard. As I watched and listened, it was like watching TV while listening to my iPod. What I saw and what I heard did not match. I suspect there are many businesses like this. They have a hierarchical tree diagram to illustrate lines of reporting (or the way things are supposed to be), but lines of accountability and decision-making were pulling towards a more networked reality. The dissonance between the old thinking and the new more effective thinking is beginning to wake people up to the fact that something has to change. I have advocated for more diffuse power structures in organisations and to me, it seemed like that is what is occurring quite naturally in this particular business. This makes sense to me, as systems are naturally self-organising. The HR person present at this meeting piped up, “Of course, the informal structures and relationships are what really make things happen here,” and I was left bewildered why this business, which is in the midst of a significant transformation to a flatter and more cooperative way of working, would try to shoe-horn this far more effective organisational process into an outdated organisational structure.
When we are in a transition from one state to another, we cling on to what we know. We are prisoners of the familiar. The “new” is sometimes so new that we don’t have the language to describe it accurately. As we transition from a world of results-orientation, cause-and-effect, predictability, silos and planning to one of continuous improvement, complexity, ambiguity, cooperation and emergent design, we are in a quandary as to how to articulate where we are headed without giving the impression that it’s just a jazzier version of where we left. It’s not. Often, for example, when I try to describe what I do and how I do it, I sense that people are hanging my description onto what they currently know about learning and organisational transformation. ”Oh, I see, you do leadership training.” ”I get it, you teach EQ.” ”Hmm, you do role plays.” No, no and no. In command-and-control land (and still infected by the Mechanism Virus), people, understandably, will not get what I’m talking about. When I talk about managers re-visioning their function from Doer-in-Chief to Systems Stewards, I mean it; it’s not just semantics. It’s part of a sea change in the whole view of what makes work work.
We live in networked times, this is true. Now, more than ever, business is about relationship. There is a shift in mindset required in order to really do business effectively. I believe it is happening now. We are right in the middle of it. Work is not what it was and will never be that way again.
Harold Jarche uses the metaphor of the blind men describing an elephant, writing that “we are blind men unable to understand the new realities of work”. He goes on to suggest that tearing down the “artificial disciplinary walls” that we have erected out of our now useless mechanistic mindset would be a good place to start growing better functioning organisations. I tend to agree with him. Sticking with outdated models and trying to manipulate them to do something that they actually cannot do is a waste of our energy. We live in networked times and the tensions that this has created on our antiquated structures are revealing them to be increasingly irrelevant. As Jarche states, with a networked, cooperative mindset, it is possible.
We need to re-imagine how we do HR. No more treating humans as a resource to be managed. We now know more than enough about human motivation, group dynamics and psychology to deserve something radically different in how people are treated.
We need to re-imagine how we do professional development. No dull, lifeless training seminars that few pay attention to and in which fewer actually learn something useful. The 70/20/10 rule of thumb is far more reflective of the reality of work. Some serious thought should be given to that ‘formal 10%’ component too: I believe it is far more beneficial to modern business to attend formal learning events that generate real, significant and long-lasting shifts in perceptions and develops the users of the “tools”, not merely adding tips and information to a “tool-kit”.
We need to re-imagine how we do workplace relationships. No more power games. No more silos. In a social economy, social skills are vital. We need to develop greater self-awareness and compassion for others. Caring and compassion are not things to learn about; they are essential capabilities we need to learn.
We need to re-imagine how we do customer service. No bland corporate speak. No making excuses for poor service. No gamification to tart up a dull, lifeless product. What’s wrong with developing some good interpersonal capabilities and growing real relationship with customers?
We need to re-imagine what leadership means. It’s not about booting out the old CEO and replacing him (it’s usually a him) with someone who operates out of the same mindset. It’s not about a change of leadership style. It’s about a root-and-branch transformation of what leadership actually means.
As Russell Ackoff stated, “Thinking systemically also requires several shifts in perception, which lead in turn to different ways to teach and different ways to organise society.” How long till the old illusions disappear and the new mindset becomes mainstream? What will it take?
August 15, 2012
I’ve written relatively little over the past few months and am feeling for the lack of it. When I first set out to write this blog, my intention was to use it as an aid to digestion; that is, to assist me to synthesise the thoughts, feelings and experiences that come about in my work in the field of personal and organisational transformation. I’m honoured that my scribbles have been of value to others as well!
While I’ve been missing the thinking and reflecting that goes on as I write, I have made use of another opportunity for reflection. I have been doing some major house renovations of late and have found the meditative work of sanding endless window frames or staining the entire outside of the house, while physically exhausting, extremely fun. A good part of the fun came in having “nothing” to think about. I had hours to just reflect, with few limitations of time or demands of day-to-day busy-ness. It took as long as it took.
I realise that it was a luxury to have so much time to reflect on some of the big questions of life; I’m not independently wealthy and don’t foresee a period when I’ll have so much time away from the busy-ness of work. However, it reinforced in me the importance of building in time to unplug myself and ask the big questions:
- Who am I?
- What am I doing?
- Why am I doing it?
- What do I value?
The parallel for the business world, I suppose, is when senior leaders get away from the office so they can ‘work on the business, not in it’. Get away from the demands of email and phone (though it’s somewhat self-defeating when they spend their retreat constantly checking their smartphones), change focus from the day-to-day operational stuff and think bigger about the business. Similar questions get covered: Who are we? What business are we really in? Why are we doing what we do?
If business is to succeed in the 21st century, the same big questions need to be asked by the people themselves. It is not good enough for people to persist with the same old Theory X mindset. More and more, people are looking for more from work than just a pay cheque. While it is not so unusual these days to read about the relevance of personal growth and growing self-awareness in the context of work, it is more unusual to see a business culture that is actually orientated to providing people the means to derive meaning, mastery and autonomy from what they do every day. I would go as far as to say that increased self-awareness in the modern workplace is not an optional extra; it is fundamental to improving effectiveness, increasing satisfaction and maximising joy at work. It also behoves businesses to place value on people developing self-awareness because self-actualisation and effectiveness go hand in hand.
If this is the age of the self-awareness, why do businesses still pay for training about stuff, but shy away from investing in something where people learn about themselves, who they are, what makes them tick, what they value, which seem to me the things that would be of most benefit in unleashing true potential at work.
When someone says the word self-awareness, something in my head switches and I hear “self-awakeness”. To me, awareness of myself is being awake to myself. While total awakeness to my thoughts, feelings, values, drivers and motivations may be elusive, I am most likely to get close to it when I my line of sight is less obscured by the minutiae of daily life, requests from others, deadlines, emails, barking dogs and so on. If can take away as many of the filters that cloud my self-vision, I can get close to seeing myself as a camera might, warts and all. Why would I want to do that? Short answer: to be free, to be happy. When those executives at their away-day retreat announce at the beginning of the session that they need to keep their phones switched on because “people in the office will need to be in touch with me”, I have a Walter Mitty moment. An image of the universe flashes into my mind and I think, “It’s been here 13.9 billion years, this solar system for 4.5 billion…. and YOU are insignificant….the people in the office will get along just fine without you.” What I mean by this is: why not unplug yourself from the matrix and find out just a little bit more about who you are and why you do what you do?
When I do what I do in my work, I challenge people. I don’t give answers. This can be frustrating for someone who just wants me to use my external eye and tell them what’s going wrong. Speaking with a client recently, I joked that he is both the cause of and the solution to his frustrations at work. He smiled. I made a similar point in an earlier article about systems (the cause of and solution to a business’ problems). The point I was trying to make was that we are often the most significant authors of our frustrations and misfortunes and I was less likely to know his inner workings than he was. I could, however, act as an auxiliary who would help him probe, wherein he might find solutions.
With a little more self-awakeness, we can begin to uncover the solutions to the things that stump us, and then generate a little more freedom for ourselves. While I believe it is true that we are subject to the systems of which we are part, we cannot completely abdicate ourselves to them. A little self-awakeness can help us reduce some of the blindness we have to ourselves and the systems in which we operate. Over time, we become innured to the effects of our workplace cultures, our family systems and our social groupings. Because it’s just “how things are done”, we become infected with the same virus everyone else in the system is infected with. How refreshing it is to become unentwined from unhealthy systems; it releases us (even if just a little) to make choices about how to think, feel and act.
If we are more awake, however, we feel the pain of inhuman, unfair or violent systems more keenly. Our values and aspirations come into conflict with the day-to-day behaviours and attitudes that exemplify the system. So why bother? I, myself, sometimes say in moments of exhaustion or frustration, “I wish I could just un-know what I know about myself and be content with a job selling shoes.” Not that there is anything wrong with selling shoes; I’ve actually done it myself and learnt a lot about how to shop for my own footwear. What I intend is that developing self-awakeness is like taking the red pill in the film The Matrix. While it expands consciousness so that we are able to see more of “the real world” or our real selves, it can be challenging. Stripped of delusion, devoid of frippery and fancifulness, developing awakeness to ourselves can sometimes leave us feeling raw and vulnerable. We see both the light and the shadow. Once known, it is hard to un-know ourselves and plug back into the matrix in blissful ignorance. The pay-off, however, is worth it. Knowing our values, being familiar with our Achilles’ heels, getting in touch with our prejudices, all give us the power to do something about them. The knowing of ourselves frees our capabilities to know and serve others.
Do you take a daily blue pill, waking up each day believing what you want to believe about yourself?
…..or do you take a daily red pill, staying in wonderland and finding out just how deep the rabbit hole goes?
For anyone who deals with people in any aspect of their work, this is a key benefit. When we know how we relate to power and authority, when we know how we embrace or shy away from closer communion (read collaboration) with others, when we know where we lack confidence, we can actually DO something about it. We can actually learn how to deal with angry people or ineffective staff or dissatisfied customers. Real and significant learning of interpersonal skills is ensured when we find out about ourselves. Our intrapersonal skills are inextricably linked to our interpersonal skills. Self-awakeness is essential if we are to get by in this world. It’s vital if we are to get by and get on in our work.
One essential discipline is reflection. This article comes about as a result of an intense period away from my usual work and immersing myself in the meditation that is house renovations. Once the cacophony of daily life is quietened, we can begin to see ourselves and in the privacy of our minds, we can eventually just observe our thoughts, feelings, values and attitudes.
Another discipline is openness. Oftentimes, self-awakeness comes when someone has the courage, the caring and the wherewithal to tell us something that we do not see about ourselves. We can also develop the ability to invite feedback. This requires a certain level of openness and equanimity. The root of equanimity is “having an even spirit”. Being able to hear things about ourselves and make good use of this information requires us to develop composure. Uncovering our blindspots requires, also, a willingness to admit that we have them. If you say to me that you like getting feedback from others because it helps you improve, I will believe that when you demonstrate this, not simply tell me. So when I say in response, “….but you don’t like getting feedback,” and you reply “That’s not true,” the irony is not lost on me. If you fail in your attempt at equanimity, you fail to make good use of the feedback because you cannot see that first blindspot and you are likely to struggle when people really tell you how you impact on them. Practice and demonstrate openness to information about you by responding with something like (lose the passive-aggressive attitude…..people see it, feel it and smell it….do it genuinely or not at all)
- “Wow, what gives you that impression?”
- “Really, I had no idea, tell me what you see me do (when I get feedback).”
- “Hmmm, what is it I say or do that makes it seem I (don’t like feedback)?”
….O wad some Power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!
It wad frae monie a blunder free us….
If you are not familiar with traditional Scots, it goes: “…Oh, would some power the gift give us, to see ourselves as others see us! It would from many a blunder free us…” That clever Rab Burns was onto something. Feedback from others, when given and received with love and compassion, can go a long way to uncovering hidden gems.
Another useful habit is to get regular supervision. Anyone who has worked in the fields of counselling, therapy or social work will be familiar with this. A supervisor is not someone who tells you what you should do; they are a person with super vision. That is, they hold a bigger picture for you to see. Ideally, they are external to your business and they listen to you, tune in to you and point the way to things it could be useful to look at: either about yourself or the system in which you work. They are someone who is “on your side”, but doesn’t collude with your prejudices. They are a “trusted other” who challenges you, supports you and reveals you to you. A supervisor is not a coach. A supervisor will be someone who saves you from the perils of asymmetric insight. Anyone who works with people would do well to access good supervision and in these days of the social economy, who doesn’t work with people?
The thing about learning about ourselves is that we can’t get it from a book. We are the content, not a bunch of information about stuff. We get it from reflection and synthesis: making meaning of our experiences, relationships and interactions. We get it from others who care about us enough to tell us what impact we make on them. We get it from disinterested supervisors who have our growth and best interests at heart.
As always, I welcome and look forward to comments that add to and build on.
People do dumb things. Or rather, they fail to do smart things, even though it’s obvious to everyone else what the right thing to do is. They also do dumb things even if they also know in their heart of hearts that it’s dumb. I’m including myself in this, of course. While I like to think I’m the master of my own destiny, I know I’m not an island and am subject to the vagaries of the systems I’m a part of.
I consult with a number of people who sometimes despair at the dumb things their managers do. They throw their hands up in frustration at the dumb things their company asks them to do. In saying this, however, I am not leaping to the conclusion that people are dumb. There will be many factors as to why we don’t do the smart thing. Upton Sinclair, for example, said, “It is difficult to get a man (or woman) to understand something, when his (or her) salary depends on his (or her) not understanding it.” We endure anti-social bosses or mindless busy-work or bizarre hierarchies because in a lot of cases, making sure we pay for food on our tables and a roof over our heads takes precedence over what our hearts or guts tell us. Sad but true and I’ve been there myself.
My thoughts come out of a synthesis of some conversations I’ve had with clients of late. Even in the face of good hard evidence, we still do dumb things. There has been enough analysis of the global financial crisis, for instance, to indicate that letting loose the dogs of war on the floors of the world’s financial exchanges was, in hindsight, dumb. By grossly unregulating global financial systems, the conditions were set for the crash to happen. Sir Mervyn King, governor of the Bank of England, said recently that they should have “shouted from the rooftops” their concerns about the impending catastrophe before 2007-08. Apparently, he saw something coming, but was too timid to tell anyone. But now with crystal clear 20:20 hindsight, you’d expect those with the power and authority to do something about modifying those conditions to actually do something about it, wouldn’t you? If they saw how everything is connected to everything (and if they really cared), you’d expect those who can see what happened and the hardship it has created for people far and wide to adjust the regulations so that it doesn’t happen again, wouldn’t you? You’d expect those with the capacity to shift the culture away from short-term greed and entitlement, to take the bull by the horns and reign in financially and socially irresponsible behaviour, crafting a system founded on greater accountability and sustainability. Wouldn’t you?
I’ll be pleasantly surprised if they did, but I wasn’t at all astonished to hear the UK Minister of Defence saying that consumers must accept responsibility for their part in the financial crisis. Sure, it’s true that the banks were not the only ones who were behaving badly. Governments did it, consumers did it. Not to excuse anyone and at the same time, not to blame anyone, who set the conditions? Who set up a system that not only condoned, but encouraged and modelled unreasonable borrowing? Who unregulated the financial systems? Who let the dogs out? I think if we had leaders worth their salt, they’d take a good look at themselves and realise that the responsibility and the authority now rests with them to change the rules of the game. It is dumb to blame people for playing by the rules you set for the game.
While managers do dumb things, they sometimes inherit dumb (read: not fit for purpose) systems. Here’s where the leader’s responsibility sits. When faced with a dumb system, we can either:
- blame someone else and say “It’s just how we’ve always done things around here. What can you do?”
- pretend we see nothing and carry on doing the same dumb thing until the laws of physics hit us hard. The words “sub-prime”, “derivatives”, “Lehman” and “Brothers” might be springing to mind.
- actively set out to create a system or a culture that is fit for purpose, that is humane and that allows people to learn, do meaningful work and bring themselves to what they do
In the same way it is dumb to blame consumers for the financial crisis, it is unfair to say your manager is being dumb when they are doing what the system is set up for them to do. To paraphrase Deming, “Every manager supposes that he (or she) is doing their best, (however), their best is embedded in the present system of management.”
It is often the system of management that is dumb, not the people within it.
It’s an interesting paradox that every manager will be subject to the forces that act upon and within the system they operate, while at the same time, systems thinking suggests that the job of a manager is to manage that very same system. To borrow from Homer Simpson: “Ah, the system. The cause of and solution to all of our problems.” This is especially challenging because, just as a system cannot observe itself, it is hard for a manager who is within the system to get a good big picture view of it. It is also hard for a manager who lives the effects of the system to extricate him or herself from it. For example, in a business where people struggle to keep to deadlines, senior managers will often struggle with the same thing. In a system characterised by crossed lines and miscommunication, managers will similarly experience the same frustrations as everyone else while at the same time causing said frustration in others, sometimes failing to see themselves behaving in the same way. If the senior leaders cannot see this dynamic, it will continue to be a blind spot and, unseen, will remain unaddressed.
When Deming said that “the prevailing style of management must undergo transformation,” I believe he was pointing the way to a sea-change in what managers believe their jobs to be: from “Doer-in-Chief” to “Steward of the Culture” or “System Steward”. By taking up the role of Steward, I believe leaders will be much better placed to take the bigger picture view that is required in order to effect the transformation of the system. The place to exert influence is not at the level of what people do (their tasks and function), but at the level of values and mindsets. A leader who sees themselves as Chief Doer will orient their management practice more to what people DO. If they take up the role of Steward instead, they will diagnose the working of the whole, not viewing the business as a bunch of bits, some of which appear to be working well and some which appear to be dysfunctional. One particular manager who I believe to be a really effective Systems Steward would say that without his big picture perspective, the appearance of a well-functioning “part” may only be smoke and mirrors.
Not for nothing do they say that culture eats strategy for breakfast. Culture is the thing out of which emerge the results, so the systems leader will focus their attention on the cause and not try to manage the results. No amount of intense planning can mitigate for the cultural, or systemic, phenomena which impact far more on what gets done and how it gets done. Once again, the point of leverage is not at the “doing” level; it’s at the culture level. One of the challenges of a Systems Steward is to identify the most likely drivers for real change from a bigger picture perspective and to develop and nurture organisational processes and patterns that support a healthy and effective culture. An overly deterministic and linear results-based management style will not achieve this. Establishing a set of guiding principles and values, formulating and communicating a vision and direction, promoting ongoing learning and setting rough boundaries within which the business will operate are the way ahead if a manager wishes to behave as a Systems Steward. I’m watching that manager I just mentioned doing these things and it gives me heart.
A Systems Steward attempts to overcome systems blindness, that inability to see what we are currently mired it. One of the symptoms of systems blindness is that people within a business fail to see or misinterpret key relationships within the business. In other words, staff begin to mistrust senior management, senior management begin to mistrust middle management, sales staff begin to mistrust administrative support staff and so on. This occurs because, when afflicted with systems blindness, people lose sight of one of the key binding agents: relationships. Don’t underestimate the amount of attention that should be put into positive working relationships throughout the system. Once established, they also need to be maintained. Always.
A leader who acts as Systems Steward will also aim to assist the system reconnect with itself, help it understand itself better. This can be facilitated by ensuring that processes related to feedback, information sharing and knowledge management are in place and functioning well. These things lie at the heart of transformation and ongoing renewal. If relationships are the connective tissue of a business, information and knowledge are its nutrients.
Are you a Systems Steward type of leader? Do you know any Systems Stewards in business?
What experiences have you had of systems blindness?
As always, I welcome comments.
March 21, 2012
Developing ourselves is not about filling in “gaps”. If we are systems thinkers, we don’t see gaps. A gap is an empty space; where nothing is. We are not empty vessels to be filled; we are whole beings, not “hole-y” beings. We do, however, have things about us that need strengthening and enhancing. We have got this far in our lives with the capabilities that we have had at our disposal through a life of learning, but this is not to say that there isn’t more to learn and develop.
Dr. Russell Ackoff said, “Optimising one part of a system always leads to sub-optimisation of the system as a whole.” This is important to remember, not only with reference to an organisation’s development, but also for an individual. Our workplaces are complex social systems, the many people being interconnected and interrelated. Each person has an impact on the wider system and the other people in the system impact on them. Out of the dynamics of these social systems emerges culture and organisational performance. To take Ackoff’s statement, if we take one person out of a system and, for example, provide some coaching without awareness of that person’s place in the system, impact on the system and impact of the system on them, the coaching will be less than effective. Optimising one person in isolation and without attending to the whole system will lead to a skew.
Similarly, when developing capability within individuals, we need to remember that we, too, are systems. We play a myriad of roles in our daily lives, whether you are a customer service representative, a CEO or a project manager. The whole of ourselves is truly greater than the sum of our knowledge, skills, experience and character traits. This matrix of roles that we play is complex and interrelated; each role we enact impacts on other roles we play. Our character and personality arises from the interconnectedness of all these roles and each time we add a new capability, it affects the whole of our being. Sometimes we can easily discern this, sometimes learning something new affects us in more subtle ways. For example, developing greater self-reflective skills will impact positively on our abilities to put ourselves in the shoes of others.
In the realm of leader (or rather, people) development, it sometimes seems that there is always the next big thing: The Key Skill Every Leader Should Grow. It can be a bit like plate spinning, though; that old trick where someone would rush around trying to keep plates spinning on long thin poles. One week you have to develop your ability to manage diversity, the next week it’s about learning how to deal with the unexpected, the next week you are learning how to listen to your inner voice telling you not to listen to what they tell you the week after that. Madly rushing about from one “part” to another “part” of ourselves is a misguided approach to people development. We need to see leader ability as a matrix of interactive roles; the question is then not “What capability do I need to develop?” but “What is the matrix of capabilities I need to develop, and what capabilities am I over-emphasising at the expense of others?” Leader development should be focussed on the behaviour of the inseparable whole and even if there are specific capabilities that a person needs to strengthen, this should be done with a view to optimising the whole person.
Developing ourselves in a piecemeal, mechanistic way can be as exhausting as plate spinning. Taking a reductionist perspective is also counter-productive; it’s utter nonsense to view ourselves as clocks, with bits that you can take out in isolation and fine tune or replace. We need to remain mindful that our abilities to do something may be linked to a collection of other related abilities. In the same vein, our ability to do something may be hampered by over-use of other abilities. Take the story of the recruitment consultant who struggled to achieve his list of daily tasks. It wasn’t related to poor time management skills, which he had said it was. It was a direct result of being so driven and single-minded about achieving his tasks such that his way of interacting with his colleagues rubbed them up the wrong way and caused them to avoid dealing with him. Because he required the collaboration of his co-workers, he was not able to get through his tasks effectively. When we did some work with this person some years ago, we witnessed his manner with others that betrayed some underdeveloped relationship skills. If we had taken him at his word and gone down the “time management skills” track without looking at his whole being, he wouldn’t have come through with the enhanced people skills he actually needed. His improved people skills ended up enhancing his ability to “manage” his time.
When Peter Senge says that real learning gets to the heart of what it is to be human, I believe he is talking about whole person development, not simply “training” in isolated sets of skills that enable someone to do a job more efficiently. When I’m developing people capability, I apply a matrix that we at Quantum Shift developed some years ago. We use it as an illustrative reminder, not a definitive prescription. This image is limited, in that it cannot truly illustrate the deep and complex interconnectedness of all the roles and how they affect each other, however, it gives some indication. Anyone who is in the business of developing people needs to remain cognisant of the interactive nature of these roles and discover how they impact on each other, for each individual that they work with.
Each of these roles is comprised of a number of sub-roles or abilities. For example, the Decisive Achiever is the one that we enact when we want to get things gone. It is the one that manages time, makes decisions, is organised and is the one that is usually most recognised and rewarded in the workplace. This is the role that our recruitment consultant was over-utilising to his detriment, and at the expense of the other roles in his matrix. He operated out of a belief that if he just came into work and achieved, that would be best. He was blind to the fact that an optimal achiever is actually one that deploys the whole of his role matrix in appropriate measure and in response to the appropriate context. When he realised that his Relationship Manager role was the one that was needed in order to go further, and extended this and applied it in tandem with the Decisive Achiever, he actually got more done and with greater satisfaction for himself and his colleagues. In fact, we heard some months later that the atmosphere in the whole office had improved significantly as a result.
Below is a summary of the roles in this matrix and their traits. The list is by no means exhaustive, however it gives a flavour of the roles.
Because our personal role systems are organic and ever-emergent, developing them is not time-bound. There is no end point. We will develop one thing and this will shine a light on other areas to enhance and extend. To quote Senge, “Personal mastery goes beyond competence and skills…it means approaching one’s life as a creative work, living life from a creative as opposed to a reactive viewpoint.” This means we embark on a lifelong journey of learning and development, taking a continual interest in ourselves and holding a perpetual curiosity about the world. One might say that there is a reasonably finite amount one can learn about, say, time management, but if we engage ourselves in role development, we will keep refining our whole selves to applying our time management skills or our performance management skills or our listening skills well and in an integrated fashion. Doing this over our life times will be an adventure, it will be messy and divergent, it will not be without challenges.
Some key points to remember about working with people in a systemic way:
- Our roles are an interactive system, or matrix, of sub-roles. Developing one in isolation will come at the expense of another or others.
- Development is never-ending. You never “arrive”. There is no end point. As we learn one thing and it becomes part of us, we become aware of the next thing to be learnt. Because we are systems, developing one part of the system will impact on the rest of it and will give rise to the next thing to develop.
- Roles are learnt and enacted in response to real life, not hypotheticals. They are not in isolation, making workplace learning is more purposeful. It is ideal to learn in real time, in response to real needs.
- Developing leadership mastery is a messy business, just like life. It is not linear. It requires some experimentation, some reflection and meaning-making, some knowledge, some rehearsal and trial and error.
February 8, 2012
Carbon is intensely heated and pressurised beneath the surface of the Earth to create a diamond; essentially it’s a lump of coal that has been pressure cooked for thousands of years. Dust, smoke and ash scatter evening sunlight and we see a stunning red sunset; so it’s basically air pollution. An oyster takes a piece of microscopic grit and forms a pearl; it’s really an irritant that the oyster is trying to protect itself from.
Far be it from me to shatter the romantic associations we place on sunsets, pearls and diamonds, but they do, in fact, originate from stuff which we would not normally consider to be lovely or desirable. Every magnificent and serene wonder in the universe arose out of the chaos and turbulence of the Big Bang, hardly a peaceful nor benign process. In the realm of human learning, our most prized gems often arise out of the midst of our most difficult or challenging circumstances. It’s not a cliche for nothing: “What doesn’t kill me will make me grow stronger.” At the same time, if we are bereft of personal resources, whether that be internal strengths, strong relational connections with others or a satisfying connection to something ‘higher’, we will find learning and change more threatening than life-giving. It is worth bearing these two points in mind if you manage staff performance: 1) the seed of excellence lies in the heart of inadequate performance; and 2) we cannot drive people to higher performance if they are not aware of what they are already doing well. We do not learn something new out of nothing.
An old supervisor of mine used to use the phrase ‘grist for the mill’ when I would talk about some undesirable behaviour in a client. His reframe of a behaviour or attitude has stood me in good stead for many years. Not only am I trained in a strengths-based methodology, but my outlook on human beings is one that says we are inherently good and that our behaviours are aimed at generating positive outcomes. That said, best intentions do not always result in the best outcomes for everyone concerned, but this is more likely down to human clumsiness, shortsightedness and fallibility than willful nastiness, laziness or under-handedness. The less-than-functional is merely grist for the developmental mill; raw material out of which the treasure can emerge.
Thankfully, for more and more people, it seems entirely sensible that we look at workplace performance through a strengths-based lens. Why performance manage someone purely from a deficit paradigm, i.e. what is not going well? While we do have to address poor performance, there is a paradigm out of which we can learn to operate which is progressive, esteem-enhancing and effective.
Just as counter-productive as the deficit paradigm is the head-in-the-sand paradigm. Many who operate out of this world-view would say that they are optimistic and positive. What this mindset propounds is that you don’t look at the dysfunctional; accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative. While I’m all for emphasising the positive, if we behave like Pollyanna, we miss the whole picture. Taken to an extreme, there are managers who are overly optimistic, believing that, in the end, it’ll all be alright. Being overly positive can lead you to ignore evidence of some ‘grit’ in your system. The head-in-the-sand paradigm says that if you just accentuate the positive, the problems and difficulties will work themselves out. Wrong. ”Things” do not “work themselves out“. I know there are CEOs and other leaders out there who hold a version of this viewpoint. They believe themselves to be positive and optimistic and I’ve no doubt whatsoever that they lead blessed and joyful lives. However, I’ve heard a self-professed optimist say ”Why would I want to put any of my energy into the staff who are causing the most problems? I prefer to spend my time on staff who are really performing.” From here, you are one step away from: ”Why would I want to spend any time or effort on developing the poor performers?” ”Why wouldn’t I get rid of the difficult ones and hire people who are willing to just fit in; there are plenty of people who would be so grateful to work here.” This, to my mind, is not being positive. It is an over-developed desire to see the positives to the extent that you fail to see the whole picture. If you put your head in the sand, you are not only blind to weaknesses, but you are blind to the developmental opportunities and the potential pearls amongst your staff.
So both the deficit paradigm and the head-in-the-sand paradigm are limited: they only look at part of someone’s performance. To view the world from a strengths-based perspective, we look at the whole: what is working well and what is not working well. A strengths-based paradigm is also a systems thinking paradigm. It is one that sees the wholeness and connectedness of people. We are not machines with a bunch of moving parts that can be taken out and replaced when they fail; we are complex systems in which the whole is far greater than the sum of our individual cells. So in a performance conversation with staff, we need to view their failings in light of their whole being. There are some things they do well, there are other things that they don’t excel at, but they are inseparable. Like finding the diamond in the rough, the potential lies hidden.
Even though we know how good it feels to focus on what we do well, drawing attention to others’ weaknesses in workplace performance is not a habit easily unlearnt. Through our early years, many of us have learnt to place too much value judgement on ourselves and to classify many things about us as inherently good and worthwhile or inherently bad and undesirable. However, learning to see the world through a strengths-based lens has some bottom line benefits. A 2002 survey by the Corporate Leadership Council questioned nearly 20,000 employees in 29 countries and found that when their managers emphasised strengths, this resulted in a 36% improvement in performance as opposed to a 27% decline in performance when the emphasis was on weaknesses.
Taking a strengths-based systems view to human performance includes developing a person’s ability to self-reflect so they aware of themselves, what they do well and what needs improvement. Asking a person to reflect on themselves is the starting point for any conversation about performance. Making a performance analysis by using a simple, yet powerful three-fold progression of questions means that the person expands their view of themselves and is more capable of being autonomous, confident and engaged at work. Firstly, ask someone to recall what they do well. Once they have done this, let them know what you observe in them that is excellent. Secondly, ask them to reflect on what they do too much of. Remember I said earlier that I believe all human behaviour is aimed at creating a positive outcome. Sometimes, there is something that we are good at that we apply too much, and this can get in the way of ideal performance. It is not intrinsically bad, yet in great quantity is counter-productive. Salt is a good thing to add to soup but too much will ruin the flavour. Again, let the other person know what you see them do too much or too often. Finally, turn the focus to what the person does too little of. Once they have done this, add more information from your perspective. Keeping this simple and structured will provide the person with a full and manageable picture of themselves. Out of this analysis you will have a distillation of information that shows the way to a development path.
To my mind, in a strengths-based worldview, a performance conversation is not one-sided. Unless a staff member is going through some sort of formal disciplinary process, it seems to me that conversations about performance are just that: conversations. Both parties contribute. Both parties have rights and responsibilities. Both parties have the right to be heard, to be respected and to be believed. Staff are responsible for being fully present in these conversations and participating. Staff are also responsible for developing an open attitude to learning and change. It is no good becoming defensive in the face of uncomfortable feedback or leaving the manager to make all the analysis. A staff member who is not able to reflect on their performance is the staff member begging to be micro-managed and I know of no employee nor manager who truly desires that. A manager is responsible for developing the habit of noticing performance, both good and bad-all the time. It is most useful when both staff and manager are clear about performance standards and achievement throughout the year, not simply at annual performance review time. Keep good performance on track by giving real-time feedback. I have spoken to too many people who are in the dark about their performance because their manager just saves everything for that once a year appointment, if at all. Furthermore, performance conversations should not be scripted or determined solely by the performance review document. It should be a human to human encounter in which both parties are able to contribute.
Finally, do something after performance conversations. If you are a manager who has regular conversations with staff, you are likely to follow up anyway, but particularly after one about work performance, make sure something happens, whether that is a coaching session, a decision to undertake training, another review or whatever seems appropriate. This bit is really important. What arises from performance conversations is that grist for the developmental mill; within the heart of poor performance lie the seeds of excellence. Knowing that you have a culture of performance, where it’s just something that gets talked about regularly, means that people can reasonably expect there to be a professional development path that continues to unfold. Ideally, this will be specific to each person, since each person’s needs will vary. Whatever you do, though, make sure that you do discuss what is not going well and that you do something to ameliorate it. It’s a paradox of strengths-based performance management: you want to change the poor performance but you must start by looking at the good, and when you eventually identify the inadequate, you have the raw material for greater excellence. If we don’t acknowledge what is outstanding, we don’t have the stable platform from which to grow and develop; and if we don’t examine what is poor, we just end up with a touchy feely nicey nice culture where we stagnate. We need to find the grit in order to learn something new. What is the irritant? What is the source of dissatisfaction? What is getting in the way of excellence?
January 27, 2012
W. Edwards Deming is quoted as saying, “Experience by itself teaches nothing.” In a fast-paced world where we are bombarded with more and more stimuli and we are called upon to carry out multiple tasks, this is truer now than ever before. Our lives are filled with more and varied experiences which, by themselves, leave us with nothing more than information. Sometimes we get to the end of our very busy days and the most we have made of it was, “I was run off my feet all day,” and we let go the opportunity to reflect on what it all meant to us and our lives. Are we doing what makes us happy? Are we spending our lives doing something meaningful to us? Are our lives enriched by the myriad of interactions and relationships we hold? Are we making a difference? If we were asked, we could probably recall the things that happen to us daily, but it is not sufficient to merely recollect if these experiences are to have enormous value to us. In our working lives, which are becoming more unpredictable and and revolve less around the carrying out of rote routine tasks, we are exposed to a veritable banquet of new experiences and interactions. Within these experiences lie the building blocks of our transformation.
To build on a previous article, while we certainly need to be open to new information and experiences, we need to do something purposeful with them. Often in my work, I have cause to reflect on the value of reflection. Just as every story has a beginning, a middle and an end, so do life’s little episodes. There is a beginning phase, called the ‘warm up’, the middle phase, where the action occurs, and then there is the last phase, in which meaning is made of the experiences in the action phase. This last phase is where the reflection happens. Reflection is essential in order for the significance of the action to be realised. All too often, we get to the end of the action phase and we hurriedly move on to the next thing. It’s all do, do, do.
I often liken it to digesting. If it weren’t for our digestive system, we would find ourselves either unable to take in any more food or passing food straight through our bodies without the benefit of extracting the nutrients that we need to build and grow. A banquet table filled with food has no significance to us until we take the food into our bodies and let our enzymes go to work. Only when this has occurred and our cells are making use of the nutrients is the food of any real use to us. Experience is much the same; only when we have digested it and made conscious meaning of it does it provide us with sustenance and the building blocks for growth.
One of the most skilled experiential trainers I have ever had the privilege to work with, John Bergman, once said, “I provide people with experiences. I know they’ve had one because I can watch them having it. What I don’t know is what they’ve learnt from it. The reflection afterwards is the most important bit.” Thankfully, I read more people writing about the importance of transfer of learning in the workplace. Whether you are running a training course, carrying out some one-to-one coaching, facilitating a business simulation with a bunch of senior execs or teaching people to apply social media in their work, it behoves you to facilitate and guide some reflection on what you have been asking people to learn. Real learning is integrated into who we are as people. Otherwise, it’s not learnt. Unless we digest and make meaning of something new, it will pass right through us. It’s not an added extra; it’s an integral part of the learning process.
In setting up a learning programme with a new client, I have sometimes been asked, “What will the ‘take home’ be?” If I’m honest, I would say, “I don’t know.” I could tell you what my agenda will be. I could tell you what exercises I will get people to do. I could tell you what I’d like people to learn. I could tell you that I have a great experiential process that will show sales staff the way to providing better customer experiences. However, I think we are well past the time when we can assume that just because someone has sat in a training room that they will have learnt what the trainer or their boss or the HR Manager wants them to learn. Certainly, businesses require people to learn things that will assist them to excel at their jobs and, certainly, businesses want this elusive thing called ROI and certainly, businesses want to spend their L&D budgets on something purposeful that will provide benefits to the people and the business. That said, spending L&D money is no guarantee of learning or development unless the learning programme (whether that’s a series of coaching sessions or an e-learning programme or leadership development programme) has reflection and integration built in to the programme. So what’s the take home? That can depend entirely on how much reflection and integration I ask of people in the session. If there is none, I’m leaving the ‘take home’ to chance; perhaps some of the people are already good at reflecting and meaning-making, perhaps some of them are not.
Developing the role of Astute Reflector, however, is not only applicable in the context of formal learning; far from it. More of what we need to absorb and integrate comes from our daily experiences and interactions at work than from ‘formal’ learning situations. Bringing the learning into work is more than a zeitgeist catch-phrase; it’s about how you view everything that you do, everything that happens to you, every conversation you have. Is your working day just a series of things to ‘get through’ or are you making the most of your daily experiences, pleasant and not so pleasant, as learning fodder? Do you get to the end of a busy week with a sense of indigestion because you haven’t processed and made meaning of the week’s events? We need to shift our thinking so we see that everything that goes on at work is about learning. There are some compelling benefits that can come to us from developing the role of Astute Reflector in our lives.
We become better at learning from mistakes. When our Astute Reflector role is well-developed, we regularly stop and debrief, either by ourselves or with others, to examine what went well and what didn’t go so well. Once we have made this conscious, the chances of us repeating our mistakes begin to fall dramatically.
We distill the ingredients for success. Rather than leaving good performance to chance, becoming conscious of what works well also shows us the way to consistent excellence. This isn’t about finding the one or two things that work well and sticking to them, for ongoing reflection is the thing. However, we can improve our chances of future success if we have actually stopped to reflect.
We see patterns that were previously hidden. When we reflect, we connect the dots with other experiences in our lives. This begins to show up patterns. If you are a systems thinker, you will hold that everything is connected to everything else. Reflection illuminates those connections, from where we become more conscious of values, habits and attitudes which serve us well and those which don’t.
In his excellent article on mastering the art of self-reflection, Adam Chalker lists three kinds of reflection: reflection-on-action, reflection-in-action and critical self-reflection. I believe that all three of these are indispensable abilities of the role of Astute Reflector.
If we inculcate the practice of reflection-on-action, we habituate ourselves to asking questions such as:
- What was I trying to achieve?
- What did my actions and responses create: in myself, in others, in the wider system?
- What did I do well? What did I do too much of (that got in the way of excellence)? What did I do too little of?
- What does that remind me of (from the past)?
Growing the ability to reflect-in-action means that we become more able to notice ourselves while we are doing something and, if necessary, shift our attitudes or actions. It’s a bit like reading a map while we are on a journey, checking to see if we are heading where we want to go. If we wish to develop this habit, we can ask ourselves:
- What am I actually doing right now?
- How are people responding to me?
- How am I feeling right now?
- Am I heading in the right direction? If not, what change of course is required?
I’ve written before on the need to develop more critical self-reflection and self-awareness. This is taking a cold, hard look at ourselves and asking the challenging questions:
- What lies do I tell myself?
- What am I pretending not to see about myself?
- Am I doing something which truly brings meaning and joy to my life?
- How do I enact power? Is it personal potency or power over others?
- Do I like who I am?
Once again, these are not discretionary matters to consider only if we have the luxury of time; the role of Astute Reflector is core to the world of work today. Charles Darwin knew about the value of learning when he said, “It’s not the biggest, the brightest, or the best that will survive, but those who adapt the quickest.” Making it a habit to ask, “So what?” expands our awareness, helps us to fine tune our abilities and increases our sense of potency in the world. Best of all, it costs nothing to grow the role of Astute Reflector and maximise your day-to-day experiences. Cost of training programme that teaches you nothing new: $2000. Becoming more reflective and conscious: priceless.
January 18, 2012
I admire people who are good with words. A wordsmith such as Neil Hannon, one of my favourite song writers, deploys words to great effect whether he is making a biting commentary on the financial game-players who were instrumental in causing the 2008 Great Recession, telling a story of a lonely woman of advancing years or sharing his optimism about life with his baby daughter. In their younger years, highly articulate and eloquent people such as Hannon learnt exactly the same letters of the alphabet that I learnt, and over their lifetimes have learnt how to do something quite special with them. There are only 26 letters in the alphabet. Once you’ve learnt those 26 letters, you can’t learn any more. People who are good at expressing themselves through language have developed their capabilities to use it in highly creative, skillful ways. In order to become one of these folks, you don’t need to learn more letters of the alphabet; you learn other things to do this. You don’t see aspiring writers attending courses in order to learn more letters; you see them attending creative writing courses that put them in touch with their human creativity, associating with other writers and applying their innate creativity to the use of a finite set of grammatical and syntactical rules and conventions (while also sometimes challenging or bending these rules in spontaneous ways).
Developing people in the workplace is a little similar. Entry level managers, for example, will need to learn the basic tools of management in order to provide competent supervision of their teams and tasks, however good leadership comes about when this manager applies themselves to growing their personal capabilities so that they can apply management knowledge in inspiring and motivating ways with greater vision, impact and influence.
For many of you in a leadership position, you probably don’t need more top tips or knowledge about your job. You probably don’t need much more information about ‘stuff’; you would probably enjoy developing something else, something deeper that frees you up to apply the knowledge and information you have already acquired with greater ease and finesse. It’s one thing to know about emotional intelligence, for example. It’s quite another thing for you to apply this elegantly in a living, breathing workplace with real life people in real life situations.
I say all this by way of stating one of my wishes for 2012: that more organisations wake up to the idea that, rather than sending people on more training courses that treat them like receptacles for yet more tools, tricks and tips, they should be investing in developing the users of these tools. Rather than trying to fill people up with more information and knowledge, they could look for opportunities for them to learn how to apply what they already know in spades, with greater fluency, creativity and responsiveness to the real needs of their organisations and its stakeholders. I wish that rather than send someone to another seminar about emotional intelligence, that they invest in some kind of learning that allows them to become more aware of themselves, to reflect and to actually rehearse better emotional and people skills. I wish that rather than sending a salesperson on another sales training that tells them yet again how important it is to listen to clients and customers, that they invest in something where these salespeople can develop the “role” of Effective Listener by practicing and reflecting on their abilities to listen well to people. I wish that rather than send customer service staff away to learn lists of things to do when dealing with customers, that they are provided with flexible learning processes that allow them to grow the whole range of human attitudes and behaviours required in order to provide the ultimate customer experience. I wish that rather than send that shy or reticent manager on another course to learn about “difficult conversations” with their staff, that they seek out the opportunities for this manager to develop the “role” of Robust Guide and actually get to the bottom of why he doesn’t do it (even though he knows what he is supposed to be doing) and to break through those inhibitors by rehearsing and refining some new behaviours and attitudes.
All of this is possible, it is not pie in the sky. I see such things happen before my eyes. This is my call for greater emphasis on “role development” and less emphasis on “training” in workplace learning and development. The word “role” is already known to you. However, in my work, I apply a very particular meaning of it with reference to capability development. In the work I do, a role is defined as the living expression of a person in any moment they are alive. A role is a holistic concept and consists of three components: thinking, feeling and behaving. Far too much in the way of workplace training with behaviour change as its end result does not address the whole person. We are whole people and to leave out any of these three components will not necessarily make for genuine and long-lasting shifts in behaviour.
We all amass a vast repertoire of roles in our lifetimes and they arise in response to another person or situation. Many of the roles we enact in our daily lives are ones which we have become quite habituated to enacting. In many cases, these habituated role responses are pretty adequate, but in a number of cases, particularly when the environment is more unpredictable and changeable, we go into a role which does not quite fit the bill. In many of these cases, more information or knowledge will not make a difference to our abilities to respond more adequately; developing our role repertoire, however, will.
To illustrate, complete this sentence: think of X (a person in your workplace, or maybe even yourself) who sometimes struggles with Y (a task or duty at work). X has all the information and knowledge they require in order to Y, but something still gets in the way. When thinking of what X needs to learn, it is helpful to not reduce this simply to “They need to learn how to Y better.” That assessment is too mechanistic and stops well short of the real learning need. Such a simplistic assessment can lead to the wrong prescription.
There will be “roles”, or personal capabilities, that unlock their ability to Y. I have spoken to too many salespeople who keep getting sent on the same old, same old sales courses year after year in order to help them boost their sales figures, and year after year, there is no significant shift in their performance. In many cases, what gets in the way of optimum performance is not the lack of sales knowledge; it is under-developed listening abilities or an under-developed ability to put themselves in the shoes of their clients or under-developed confidence or under-developed something-else. I have spoken with too many managers who get sent on courses to learn about having “difficult” conversations with their staff, but, again, in most of these cases, these courses do not create a shift in behaviour because they already know what they should be doing; what they could do more of is confidence or the ability to set boundaries or even the ability to be calm and centred. Telling someone to be calm and centred will not necessarily make it happen.
A lot of this waste in the L&D budget comes about because what is seen is the failure to perform the task at hand effectively. This, however, is merely the symptom of something deeper that needs addressed. We can only really see behaviours and we really only measure performance that is measurable. What do you do when the thing that needs developing is not so easy to see or measure? The important thing is to make a really thorough assessment of the learning need. It is also important to engage with a process that will allow people to learn holistically, so that the shifts in visible behaviour are real, deep and long-lasting and are related to shifts in the person as a person.
Making better decisions about the L&D budget has other ripple effects. Even in the midst of economic turmoil, I still read about skills shortages in some industries and organisations. Despite high unemployment, some businesses still say they can’t get the right people. If we look at who is already in the business and make better assessments of what they really need to learn in order to boost their performance, we can go some way to improving staff engagement as well as the bottom line. Taking a “role development” perspective on L&D can assist businesses to attract and retain the people they need. Investing in developing people as people, not as resources that do things, shifts the culture and unlocks opportunity, creativity and innovation.
What’s your wish for 2012?
November 1, 2011
I recently saw an #occupy placard which read, “I can’t believe we still have to protest this s**t.” I smiled in recognition and instantly made a connection to the feeling I get when I read yet another article about the dearth of good “leadership” in our institutions and how we need to invest more in leader development. At the same time, I go into a huff when I read articles online that seem to intimate that there is no point in trying to teach leadership because it is not teachable. My huff, however, is not a sour grapes huff, it’s a passionate educator’s huff.
I will side with those who assert that leadership training as it has been delivered is well past its sell-by date, but please let us not throw the baby out with the bath water. It is true that a lot of what our institutions require of leaders cannot be learnt in a training room, however I will also assert that there are still aspects of leadership capability that can be grown within the dynamic of a learning group. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that some of the capabilities a leader requires are best learnt in the context of a learning group. In this category, I would include capabilities (i.e. the doing of, not the knowing about) related to communicating or managing one’s emotions in response to others. It is one of the paradoxes of learning that nobody can learn for us and that we do it out of our own individual efforts, but that we learn best when with others in a group.
There is a revolution required in leader learning and development and it must come on several fronts. Firstly, it must come in the mindset that approaches it. What happens over the whole timeline of a leader’s development and what we consider as important elements of that timeline must shift; a peer group, such as a Vistage group, is just as much a part of a leader’s development, as is a 360 review or executive retreat. To focus more specifically on what happens in the ‘training room’, there must also be a revolution in both content and process. No more chalk and talk. No more using powerpoint as a drunk uses a lamp-post (for support, instead of illumination). No more long-winded presenters who continually announce that “in a moment we’ll get going with the group exercise” only to run out of time in the last 10 minutes and say “shall we just have a quick group Q and A”. As Donald Clark says in this presentation, the right tools for the right job: for example, working on the attitudinal level requires an experiential tool. He identifies simulation in this category of tool; I would also include sociodrama and Morenian action methods. (I would, though, wouldn’t I?)
The content revolution in the ‘training’ room must be in purposefulness, practicality and relevance. Is what goes on there meaningful to the participants? More importantly, are they facilitated to make meaning of what happens in the room? Is it practical and applicable to their real lives? Is it relevant to their actual concerns and does it take account of what they already know, what they need to develop in order to work with greater flexibility and effectiveness and perhaps most importantly, what they want to develop as human beings? Leader learning must bring work into the learning and the learning into work. What purport to be ‘leadership development programmes’ are flawed if they operate as if the only learning that can occur is in the ‘training’ room, but it is equally flawed to think that deep learning cannot happen in this space as well.
On the process side, I struggle to comprehend that with the amount we now know from neuroscience about what makes learning happen, that there are 1) people still out there purporting to deliver leadership development when in fact they are delivering information sessions ABOUT leadership and leader capability and that 2) there are organisations still paying for it in the belief that it will create change.
A lot of what is currently on offer in the realm of ‘leadership development’ is usually half-day (or sometimes even more cheekily, two-day) events with pre-planned agenda which tell you what you will have learnt by when. How do they know what you will learn? Are they time travelling mind-readers? There is no promise that you will be different as a person, but then again, consultants and trainers shy away from such claims because: 1) they don’t want to scare potential clients away with the idea that people will actually change as human beings (heaven forfend); 2) they often (in my experience) do not possess much understanding, training and experience of applying truly transformational deep learning approaches that generate such profound changes in people-they are more often successful entrepreneurs, economists or managers themselves who believe that anyone can teach, which is not the case; and 3) they are terrified that if they use experiential processes in which people meet themselves and others in any meaningful way, they won’t know how to manage the unpredictable interactions this implies. This last one is entirely reasonable; if you haven’t trained (and done the requisite personal development yourself) in processes which call up emotions, why on earth would you invite people to actively participate. I recently attended something which was billed as an ‘interactive workshop’, but was, in fact, the presenter ‘interacting’ with us via his powerpoint and asking a bunch of rhetorical questions. At least, I think they were rhetorical because he got no response from any of the ‘participants’.
I realise that last bit will have upset some people, and I make no apologies for this. For those of you still reading, I make the point because we are well and truly past the time when this revolution in workplace learning should have occurred. This is urgent. This revolution will be impotent unless it is in mindset, content and method of delivery, because process must be congruent with content. We are facing systemic challenges the like of which humanity has not seen in its history. We require leaders (and I don’t just mean those with leadership title) in all walks of life, at all levels of all kinds of organisations, who act with boldness, vision, creativity and the love of other humans. Settling for same old, same old will not do. Pink Floyd make the point beautifully: we don’t need no education, we don’t need no thought control. We need meaningful development which unleashes human potential.
My advice if you are looking to develop yourself or those who lead your organisation: don’t settle for anything less than you want. If you are looking for leadership development, then shop around till you find someone who actually knows what the word ‘development’ means. Development is NOT training. It is not a workshop; although workshops may be one component of a systemic approach. I understand that you are crying out for something new, something radical, something that actually works and generates genuine, significant and long-lasting change in relationships and capability in your organisation, but please, NOT naked Fridays. It is important, with the L&D marketplace full of good and not-so-good providers, to sift out the snake oil salesmen and women promising culture shift after a week of high ropes courses or releasing a live pig into the office. Yes, that live pig clip is a satire, but there are many Lester Becks out there, believe me. I have used it before, but this quote from Drucker is apt: “We are using the word ‘guru’ only because ‘charlatan’ is too long to fit into a headline.”
If you are getting someone external to deliver some kind of leader development, get a practitioner who understands that development happens over time, and that it is not an event. Work with someone who will assist you to make a rigourous analysis of what your organisation and its people actually need. Get a practitioner who understands that it is a suite of interventions,not simply the series of workshops that they offer; they may even have to call on other consultants because they acknowledge that they cannot possibly provide the whole gamut. Get someone whose practice has solid foundation; i.e., it springs out of some kind of philosophical, ethical or pragmatic set of principles or is highly rigourous. Finally, work with someone who does not claim to have all the answers, but who will keep it simple, focussed and will ensure your active involvement all along the way.
October 18, 2011
Think of one of your best working moments. One of those times when you felt on top of the world, when you were just ‘flowing’ or when you felt the warm glow of success. It could have been when you closed that important deal, when you finally got through to your under-performing staff while at the same time growing positive working relationships or when you overcame your fears to achieve a breakthrough of some sort. You will doubtless have many of these moments; right now, focus on just one of them. Recall what you were doing, who was with you, how you felt, how others responded to you.
Now bring to mind your worst working moment. That time you wanted the earth to open up and swallow you, when you felt so bad that you couldn’t look others in the eyes, that moment you would like to wipe from your memory because the mere thought of it ties your stomach in knots. I won’t ask you to dwell on this for too long, lest it has the power to infect you today.
I will lay good money on two things: 1) the thing that made your peak moment so awesome and your worst moment so dreadful was probably not to do with technical expertise or lack thereof, it was more likely to do with your personal capabilities, and; 2) the thing that made these moments what they were, are unique to you and your makeup.
I want to address these two assertions because they have important implications for leader development. Spoiler alert: some of what follows may incense some readers.
Assertion 1: Technical know-how vs. personal capability: This assertion points to a phenomenon which is already evident, that is, people and organisations are becoming more discerning in how they spend their time, effort and money on workplace training. For one thing, more people are slowly coming to understand the difference between training and development. I said a little more about this in a previous blog article, “Are you Investing in Sticky Learning?”. Neuroscience is now proving what people like Jakob Moreno knew intuitively back in the 1920′s: that we go on learning and developing until the day we die. Neuroscience is also giving us more hard evidence on how learning happens and it behoves us to respond to new facts and information by radically altering how we teach leadership. More organisations are coming round to the idea that what makes us up as humans is pivotal to how we execute our work, even if they don’t know what to do about that. We are living in an age when our personal beliefs and values, our emotions and our motivations must be accorded their due attention when it comes to performance at work. While technical information and job-specific content is, of course, absolutely essential in order to carry out our jobs, they are not sufficient. They are merely the ‘what’.
Who we are, as people, drives how we carry out our jobs, and organisations ignore this at their peril. It is not enough to pay it lip service. A genuine effort must be made to incorporate real and significant personal development into workplace learning. There is a world of difference, for example, between learning about interpersonal skills and developing interpersonal skills. Given the current state of learning and development offerings, if I were to attend a training seminar about Communication Skills, I would expect to come away with not much more than a sheaf of notes and information. As far as I’m concerned, a waste of my time and money. I’ve just done a google search: ‘How can I improve my communication skills?” brought up 74, 700,000 results. We don’t need more information about stuff. If you are still sending your people on an annual sales seminar and your sales figures aren’t changing, I would suggest you try something different. Invest in something which grows capability, not adds information. This is especially true the higher up the food chain you are. If you are managing people, are at C-level or are hovering around C-level, your job is less about technical expertise and more about intra- and inter-personal capability. Capability, mind you; not knowledge.
Assertion 2: The #1 capability that you should learn: The thing that made your worst working moment so horrendous was unique to you. I realise I may upset even more folks with this second point….but give. me. strength. I realise that the rules of engagement on Twitter and other social media dictate some use of hyperbole and superlative, promises of quick enlightenment and feel-good platitudes masquerading as wisdom, in order to draw attention to yourself. Social media ‘gurus’ even tell you this is how to get noticed; and I’m reminded of Peter Drucker’s quote: “We are using the word ‘guru’ only because ‘charlatan’ is too long to fit into a headline.”
Using these linguistic devices is tempting. I succumb to this temptation myself; look at the title of this section. The breathtaking cheek! I also use tweet-scheduling on TweetDeck. Such audacity! However, I tire of the “Ten Top Tips When Having Difficult Conversations at Work” or “The #1 Most Important Food Group Every Leader Should Eat for Breakfast”, when, in the realm of human development, there is truly no such thing. Human development is not one-size-fits-all, nor paint-by-numbers. We are still infected by the old mechanistic, cause-and-effect paradigm of seeing the world, hence we are compelled to read something when it promises enlightenment in five easy steps. I do it all the time. And I’m left wanting. The world is not that simplistic nor black and white, and neither are we humans. There are no shortcuts to anywhere worth going. If you are looking for the #1 capability that will transform you and make your working life 73% more satisfying, read no further. I don’t have the answer.
Well, I do, actually. But I don’t.
The answer is: the one that YOU most require. Training and development courses promise to provide you with learning that is relevant to you, but how many actually work with YOUR real concerns, help you to really overcome the things that catch YOU out, assist you to really face the things that scare YOU? How many of these courses actually leave you a different person when you walk out of the room? I am not suggesting a day of getting naked with your colleagues. A learning programme is tailor-made when it accommodates your learning styles and preferences, when it takes account of your current knowledge and capabilities and builds on those, when what is learnt is directly relevant and applicable in your day-to-day and when the providers tune into you and what transformation you are at the threshold of.
How do you work out what you need to develop? Some of us just know. If you have embarked on a path of self-knowledge, you are likely to have some sense of the areas within yourself that require further growth and development. There will be other areas that are less known to you. We can surround ourselves with trusted friends and associates who don’t shy away from sharing uncomfortable truths with us. We can develop mindfulness: this is not sitting on a yoga mat burning jossticks (although it may include this); it is developing a discipline of non-judgemental self-observance. Just like our communities and workplaces, we are complex systems within systems. The Top Ten Whatevers may be interesting bits of information, but they are unlikely to transform you.
The point again: what is the #1 capability you should be learning? Answer: the one (or ones) that YOU most need; right now in your life, taking account of what you already know and know how to do and your current situation in life.