February 10, 2013
Know how you have an experience and some song lyrics pop into your head that seem to have been written especially for it? ”Expert textpert, choking smoker, don’t you think the joker laughs at you?” Parallel process. Happens to me all the time when I’m working. I suddenly notice that what the client is doing, what they act out, is exactly what I’m being drawn into and I respond out of a parallel mindset. I might have thought of “..caught in a trap…I can’t walk out…” but I’m not an Elvis fan. And I’m working with a business that is stuck because of a highly dependent culture. The creativity of the people is not being unleashed as it could be. And how do they relate to me? As the expert: dependent for the “expert advice”. And what do I do? Show off some daft diagram like some kind of expert.
I’ve been stuck on the phenomenon of inertia lately (no pun intended). Fascinated as I am by physics, I have been noticing this phenomenon in the area of how people operate both individually and in teams. Not wanting to teach anyone to suck eggs, inertia states simply that any object that is stationary will remain so unless acted upon by another force and any object that is in motion will remain so unless acted upon by another force. What I see in many situations is people and organisations bound by inertia. Without wanting to place a value judgement on inertia per se, in many of these cases, there is a “stuckness” which is unsatisfying for the person or business concerned and something new is needed to get them out of their rut.
In our work, we apply the concept of a “conserve”. Jakob Moreno set out a cycle of spontaneity, creativity and cultural conserve. Spontaneity sparks creativity which leads to the creation of a conserve. Conserves abound in our world. Handel’s Messiah. The Mona Lisa. Gangnam Style. Bugs Bunny. Antiseptic. The internet. Artefacts and menefacts that come about as a result of a creative act, spurred on by the spontaneity state that arises in us when we warm up to it. This new thing becomes the conserve off of which the next creative act springboards into life, so, for example, Web 1.0 was the jumping-off place for Web 2.0, the iPhone 3 begat 3GS which begat 4 which begat the 5. As long as the conserve is viewed as the starting place for the next thing, it’s all good, but if the conserve becomes too conserved, it can become a rut. Artefacts and mentefacts. Mindsets are just as much a conserve as any creative act.
As I’ve written earlier, I’m on a health kick this year. Moreno believed that one key to health was creativity. When I think about how living systems tend towards entropy, this makes sense to me. If organisations are to counteract the “heat-death of the universe” (thanks to @thinkingpurpose for that expression), they need to add more stuff into the system. Businesses, like each of us individually, can get stuck in ruts, subject to inertia. If we don’t inject something new into our systems, we carry on as we have been. Creativity is a superb way to bring in new stuff. The Morenian method sets out to challenge people to be more creative by developing greater spontaneity, which is the spark that sets creativity alight. Furthermore, the method calls on people to work together to develop new role responses to life’s challenges, rather than remain in isolation and continue to operate out of a limited repertoire of responses.
I mentioned four synchronous conversations with four different clients in a recent article. Synchronous because all four identified some things that they are sick and tired of and ready to shift. One of these things they are trying to grow is a greater sense of WE and, hand in hand with that is a move away from their cultures of dependency. The two are inextricably linked for these four businesses. If we get greater WE and we act out of mutuality and interdependency, rather than silos and dependency, we can unleash something new and mitigate for the inexorable slide towards extinction and ultimate disorder. We need both: WE-ness and mutuality.
What’s wrong with a culture of dependency? From the perspective of those who lead these businesses, this is manifest by the guys at the top saying to me, “If I didn’t look over their shoulder/do it/nag, it wouldn’t get done.” They don’t like this. They relate to me their concern that people aren’t bringing all of their creativity to work. For these businesses, a culture of dependency means that people don’t take initiative. It means that the managers have to cajole, berate or get grumpy. It means that people take up little responsibility, let alone accountability, for in their cultures of dependency, accountability lies with the bosses. In other words, they are left with a mentefact of Industrial Age organisation. “The boss has the answers, the boss knows best, if something went wrong, it wasn’t my fault, it was the boss’s fault .” Blaming and excuse-making reigns in a dependency culture. ”You didn’t get me the right tools.” ”You didn’t tell me the right way to do it.” ”If you’d given me the afternoon off yesterday, I wouldn’t be so tired today.”
To head towards the responsibility-taking, initiative-taking culture of WE, something needs to work on their inertia which keeps them in cultures of dependency. Looking at structure and relationships would help. I’m pondering next steps with one client who, when I simply showed this diagram:
…took up a defensive position, seeming to lecture me on how important structure was, otherwise there would be disorder (failing to see that both pictures illustrate a structure, just that the one on the right was weird and alien). With regards this particular organisation, one thought that popped into mind was, “..and disorder would be a BAD thing??” The second thought that popped into mind was, “…and explain to me how you would class the way things run around here as ‘order’”. When I stopped thinking facetious thoughts, I took a step back and noticed that the response was exactly what the hierarchical system in which they exist would expect them to say. I had a little flash to that awful, car crash of a reality programme, “The Hotel Inspector”. Some poor unfortunate hotelier, whose business is going down the gurgler, calls in an expert, someone who has years of top hotel experience, to help them turn their business around. The expert comes in, berates the unfortunate for doing it all wrong, gives them advice on what they need to do instead and goes away for a few weeks to see if they put it into practice. As I watch, I’m on the side of the expert, purely because for dramatic tension (presumably because TV producers can no longer afford to pay proper dramatic writers and actors for decent TV any more), they choose a hotelier who is utterly hopeless. For added tension, the besieged hotelier proceeds to argue with the expert. So I wonder, “Why on Earth did you ask for expert advice if you just wanted to rebut everything they said?? Why on Earth did you invite them in to your establishment if all you wanted to do was justify why you were right and they were wrong??”
See what I’m getting at? A business calls you in to be the “outside eye” and make some observations about their organisation and its culture and when you make an observation (an observation, mind, not advice), they are stuck in the mindset that defines their current culture (inertia again) to explain why anything outside their normal ken is just fantastical. There are ways and ways to introduce that “something new” into the system, however.
Now, I’ve made mention in previous articles that I write to help me digest and reflect on experiences I have in my work. My thinking is already a little clearer than it was when I started writing this one, and if even one reader is still with me, thank you immensely for bearing with my narcissistic reflections. The way forward with this client is to take a much more softly, softly approach. They are 2D creatures and can’t make sense of this 3D blob that’s appeared before them. There is a process of slowly uncovering what they don’t yet see about themselves. This follows on very nicely (I love synchronicity) from Dan Oestreich’s comments on my previous article: “Genuine learning implies… birthing new consciousness; looking and really seeing…and therein lies a problem….as raw conscious awareness can be painful.” And what do we human animals do when we are in pain? We fight, we flee or we freeze. The CEO who took such exception to my simple diagram (even though I’d indicated no preference, harboured no advice, pointed out no likeness) saw himself and his organisation in the mirror. And it hurt.
His response was a perfect response from someone at the head of a culture infused with dependency. Defer or defy. That’s what you do with an authority figure. Either defer utterly to authority or defend yourself from the authority’s complete idiocy. In this instance, I was the “authority” in his eyes. Someone from outside with some so-called expertise. Dependency: I’ll wait for the leader to tell me what to do, even though I’m a free-thinking, intelligent human animal who manages to run all other aspects of my life without referring to someone else for permission. OR If it goes pear-shaped, it’s because the leader didn’t tell me how to do it, didn’t tell me how to do it properly, didn’t tell me to stop doing what I was already doing.
So I am sitting with this phrase rolling around my head, “Sociatrist, heal thyself.” I care deeply about this particular organisation, they do some amazing, truly life-changing work in their world. I like the CEO immensely, I have known him for over 15 years. If I am to be of any assistance, I need to role reverse much better with him and the others in his senior team. I need to notice my response to his response and observe the parallel process at play. You know the old adages, “You teach best what you most need to learn,” “Your work is your work”, etc etc. In my first facetious thoughts, I am tuning into the dependency in the air and doing what those awful Hotel Inspectors do. If I really care about making a difference, I need to come alongside my client in a way which assists them to gently see themselves better and warms up THEIR spontaneity to a new creative act. If I didn’t care about this client, I could continue to bully them into seeing things they aren’t yet ready to see. I see a dependency culture. If I am to be with them as they shift it, I need to become more aware of myself and what my role is in that. Do I relate to them as some kind of expert? Maybe I did when I flashed that diagram. In their eyes, it might have looked like that. That’s not what a organisation caught in the inertia of dependency needs.
So, I am left to ponder my own warm up, how to I warm up my own spontaneity to my own creativity and meet them quite differently next time. Having said what I’ve said, I do believe that cultures of dependency in organisations are not healthy. I will continue my work with this client for as long as I can. But I need to be more cognisant of myself and how I approach them so I don’t trigger a dependency response in them. It is so easy to fall into the trap of being the expert, exacerbated by a business that is bound by its own inertia and can’t see another way yet.
…..and do you know what the team asked me at the end of this session? ”So, are there some things about us you need to tell us?” Not going to fall into that. I want to companion them, to assist them to observe themselves and not to do the dependent thing. They are highly talented and creative individuals. With a little nudging, they can shift to a place where they make observations of themselves. So easy to give in to the invitation to be “the expert”. It’s not what the world needs now.
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.
January 16, 2013
So the world didn’t end on December 21, surprise, surprise. Here we are in 2013, all systems still intact. I have heard some speak of the Mayan December 21 end-of-all-things-prediction not so much an end of the world, but more of an end of one cycle and the beginning of another. An end of things-as-they-were. Let it be so. Endings can be good and healthy.
I don’t do New Years’ resolutions per se, but I have resolved in myself to focus this year on health, from its broadest perspective. I will endeavour to place attention on the health of those around me, the health of the organisations with which I work and the health of those within them. I will place, firstly, attention on my own health, because leadership is an inside job. We must be healthy ourselves. I view health as an holistic phenomenon: physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, social and relational. This is not merely the absence of dis-ease, but a progressive and thoughtful movement towards greater freedom and happiness. This will come about, I believe, through greater consciousness: a journey, therefore, not a destination. Becoming more aware, in moments, of what is going on for me and others and when it feels unhealthy or unnatural, to seek to do something different. Striving to live this moment freshly and not relying on old default responses.
Often, I suspect, this will involve taking a Cynical approach, though not from the modern understanding of cynicism (disbelief in the sincerity or goodness of human motives and actions), but coming from the ancient Greek philosophy of striving to live a life that is in tune with what it means to be naturally human. It seems the time is right to adopt a Cynical approach to life; it emerged in ancient Greece as a way of offering the possibility of happiness and freedom from suffering in an age of uncertainty. Uncertainty. Sound familiar? While I’m in the process of simplifying my life a little, I’m not about to dispose of all my worldly goods as the original Cynics did, sleep in bathtubs and wander the streets with my dogs on a piece of string, but I take inspiration from the attitude of happiness as being linked to living a life in tune with Nature. The healthy life. Challenging false judgements of what is valuable and worthwhile, questioning customs and conventions of how things are done. I cannot do this without extending consciousness. This is why I do the work I do. This is why clients work with us: they are seeking something different, something that challenges their status quo. Same old, same old (or a pretty repackaging of the “same-old”) won’t create the deep, systemic transformation they require.
Like the Cynics, I believe the world belongs equally to everyone, that opportunity for happiness and freedom is for everyone; not just for those in “power”, those they deem as worthy or those who believe that money = power. Genuine democracy, having a voice, having agency in one’s life, actively participating in making decisions which affect us. In life, in work, all over the place. This is a challenge to current convention. In my experience, the best customer service comes from people who are being authentic and human and have the freedom to do so. In my experience, the best leadership comes from those who take an interest in their own learning and encourage others to do the same. In my experience, the best and most humane workplaces happen when everyone is accepting of everyone else in their same-ness and their difference, living and letting live. It is also my experience that none of these things happen by chance or good luck. They come about with consciousness.
Some of what I believe goes against Nature and humanity is the (largely unconscious) acceptance of and acquiescence to systems which are unhealthy. It comes through in an attitude that humans are resources, that corporations are somehow “people”, that the reason for getting up in the morning is to make more profit (even at the expense of a rainforest, a community, an ecosystem or some other inconvenient obstacle). I know some may find this irksome, but there is nothing I’ve found in any of the teachings of any of the great historical sages, seers, or prophets that advocates or emphasises owning things for oneself at the expense of others. As far as I have understood, I’m not aware of anything written by, attributed to or uttered by the Buddha, the Christ, Martin Luther King, Gandhi, Mandela, Rumi or Lao Tse that delineates capital accumulation as the road to enlightenment and a better life. I know what you’re thinking: I’m some sort of dangerous liberal, commie, socialist, atheist, pinko abortion-loving anarchist out to destroy freedom and democracy. Or I’m one of those well-intentioned, but muddle-headed, hybrid-car-driving, tree-hugging vegans who still say, “Peace and love, man.” Nothing of the sort. I do, however, go along with Hilary Wainwright and Richard Goulding who write in “Co-ops help bring economics back to the people,” that “we live in a time when the economics of profit are facing a profound crisis of legitimacy, while retaining a deathly grip on the apparatus of the state.” Something has to give. Zizek has spoken about getting close to a zero-point; what he terms “soft apocalypse”. Our ecological, social and economic systems are near breaking point and if we wish to retain all the benefits of a humane society, something different is called for. A new game.
This new game must be, if it’s for the good of everyone, co-created by everyone. It’s no good getting a room full of good-hearted people in a room, asking them individually to put forward their plan for a better world and then vote for the most popular. This is the point. This is how we got here. We have to do this together. We have to make these decisions together. Furthermore, we have to do this togetherness thing by bringing the best of ourselves to the party. Patriarchal businesses who still operate out of the “Manager-Knows-Best” mindset perpetuate the disengagement and dissatisfaction in those who work there, no matter how benevolent they may attempt to be and no matter what they try to put in place to mitigate for them. Get out of the way and let people bring their whole selves to work. Give people a bit of credit. AND…..if we are to create a real sense of “WE”, it behoves us all to invest ourselves in growing greater consciousness and our ability to be with each other. My “why”, therefore, is to push for greater self-awareness and consciousness in the world. This will come about with self-discipline, continued learning and a genuine commitment to diversity and engaging others.
Here’s another challenge to current convention: I have no faith that a system of capitalism (conscious or otherwise) will lead to an age of enlightenment. A system operates with a set of rules which maintain its equilibrium. In other words, a system will strive to perpetuate itself. I struggle to see how a system of capital accumulation that operates to ensure its continuation can be for the greater good of Nature and humanity. Fraudulent banksters, tax cheats, self-interested lobbyists and an obscene corporate bonus culture all spring out of a system whose rules say, “This is how you play the game. It’s called capital accumulation.” The ones who pay the price are the ones who haven’t learnt how to play the game well enough. Time for us to play a different game, one that allows everyone to play and demands that the play is fair and equitable. We are not here to serve the economy, it should serve us. Becoming more conscious of what we do that colludes with an inhumane system is a first step in creating something new. Furthermore, becoming conscious of what I do that colludes with my own un-health and that of others and their businesses is a first step to creating something more life-giving.
They say you can’t polish a turd, but you can certainly roll it in glitter. Nowadays we don’t just buy a product, but we buy our redemption from being naughty consumerists because they donate $1 to a starving child in Africa or promise only to use FairTrade commodities. We are no longer just consuming, but we are fulfilling a series of ethical and moral duties, right? I’m not saying this is bad in itself; I am as deeply moved as the next person by images of poverty and injustice and want it to end. I can also understand why some might think I’m being cruel because as Oscar Wilde wrote, it is much easier to have sympathy with suffering than to have sympathy with thought. So for me to take a dim view of built-in philanthropy smacks of mean-ness because I really should just appreciate the good that some of these modern businesses do, shouldn’t I? Why not help a starving child? Why not, indeed? I would much prefer a world where starvation was impossible. My point is that the system which dresses itself up as the provider of charity is the same one that necessitates the need. Oscar Wilde recognised this in his day, too. The remedy is part of the disease. My vision is one where the ills of the world (including the modern workplace) are not merely alleviated, but that they are inconceivable. It is possible. Having centuries ago passed through the age of the aristocracy, we could not now conceive of contemporary serfdom. My view, therefore: capitalism will not save the world, conscious or otherwise. Consciousness will, though. Watch and listen to Zizek.
This is the same thinking out of which spring my beliefs that meaning, mastery and autonomy are keys to generating satisfaction and engagement, that Theory Y is much more than a lovely sounding “theory”, that cooperation is far more effective and humane than competition, that learning how to reverse roles with people is good for them and us, that people are not their behaviours and that performance is a systems issue, not an HR one. We know some things that will make work work better for everyone. We need to be conscious of how we perpetuate the old ways and to be conscious of being different.
If December 21 was indeed the end of things-as-they-were, I believe that consciousness will be the foundation of the new thing. Herein lies our work. It is not good enough to rail against unfair or inhumane systems. While, as a systems thinker, I perceive the interconnectedness of us all, I am also cognisant of the fact that the human family is composed of a number of individual elements. These are each of us. We can make a difference in our lives and the lives of others by growing self-awareness and becoming more conscious of our place in the web of life, how we impact it and how it impacts on us. Who are we? What drives us? What gives us joy? How can we nurture mutually satisfying relationships with others? What are my Achilles’ heels and how can I find out? Who will help me uncover that stuff about me that I am blind to? Growing consciousness, extending self-awareness; these are not easy things, these are not necessarily painless things. They are, however, indispensable if we want a better world. We have a part to play. I have a part to play. Hence my focus on health.
Being a great leader, a great colleague, a great customer service representative, a great whatever starts with consciousness. They are all inside jobs. It is not accidental. It requires a conscious choice to develop greater self-knowing, to be honest and gutsy in our conscious self-reflection and taking conscious steps to learning and developing. If, as Zizek says, the most radical horizon of our imagination is global capitalism with a human face, we have a lot of work to do. Putting out fire with gasoline? Or, together, setting the conditions so that the fire couldn’t start in the first place?
November 25, 2012
Don’t ask a systems thinker for advice on managing performance or staff engagement. They will probably say something pretty fruity and you’ll wind up frustrated by how fervently they trash conventional wisdom on the subject. Of course performance, engagement, recruitment, they’re all connected, so your systems thinking friend will sound like a fruit loop because they’ll see the whole picture and proceed to suggest that you are asking the wrong questions, when all you wanted to know is “how to get people to do stuff”. You go to them as a sounding board because there is something you like about the way they think; when you’ve talked previously, they come up with ideas that seem counter-intuitive at first, but are actually surprisingly on the money. However, when it comes to a sticky situation you are actually dealing with, you don’t want to hear them bang on about the system, the system, the system. Isn’t that just lovely sounding theories that academics spout? (…wouldn’t work in the real world) In an effort to get them to answer your simple question, you keep repeating “Yes, but they are SUPPOSED to fill out their daily task logs,” quietly tearing your hair out while they insist it’s not a behavioural problem; it’s a systems issue.
One of the most important things I learnt from my past life as a therapist is that if you want behaviour change in an individual, you work with them as a whole being and you work with their whole system (family, friends, peers, environment). You don’t focus on their “problem behaviours”. Similarly, if you want behaviour change in an organisation, you work on it as a whole. You don’t focus on the dysfunctional parts or the underperforming individuals. In my present life as a sociatrist, I apply my understanding of systems to organisations and organisational change, not merely the individuals within them.
We can’t blame individuals for doing what the system expects them to do. As disturbing as Milgram’s experiments were, one thing I observed (and I may be entirely off the mark here) is that people behave in ways which surprise themselves and which sometimes go against what they know to be right and true. We do this when our environment, our system, sets up conditions which compel us to behave in particular ways. The system also punishes us for not doing what it wants us to do, just to keep us in line. We do what we’re told.
What we need if we want organisational transformation, if we want more effective organisations, if we want people to find the work they do meaningful: we need to work with the whole system. A buddy of mine in England recently observed that most people seem uninterested in effectiveness. Sad but true, I fear. Still desperately clinging on to “scientific” management mythologies, many folks just seem to want the numbers to add up and people to do what they’re told. A scary prospect if your business has just appointed a new global CEO who is a bean-counter by background and disposition and whose single-minded purpose is to show the shareholders that they are getting richer every quarter. Calling a performance issue a “behavioural problem” comes out of a mechanistic worldview. Yuck.
There is hope, however. Some managers are on the threshold of doing something quite different….if we would just hang in with them. They know in their gut that doing the same old, same old is not going to make a real difference. I’ve been working with a manager and his two off-siders, all three of whom lead their business. I’ve been coaching them to see the bigger picture and assisting them to open their thinking about why things don’t go the way they’d like. This, to me, is phase one of the organisational transformation they are seeking to effect. Phase one: eliminating systems blindness. Our sessions usually begin with each of them discussing what so-and-so hasn’t done yet again or what what’s-his-name is still doing, despite that one-to-one chat urging them to stop it. I let them get some things off their chest and jot down a few salient things that I pick up. As I listen, I make connections in my head and find the patterns they are describing. These patterns are descriptors of the system. After a little while, I might say something like, “Haven’t we heard all this before?” They smile. Then they frown. What they are slowly learning to do, however, is to see the behaviours as indicators of the wider patterns at play.
The patterns I’m observing in how they describe the staff illustrate a workplace culture characterised by:
- things done at the last minute without much fore-thought
- poor self-discipline with regards working practices
- low self-reponsibility
- poor following up of commitments and promises
- getting easily side-tracked
- being reactive, rather than proactive
- a “she’ll be right” mentality (a common expression in New Zealand meaning, it’ll all be fine in the end, don’t worry about it)
- inconsistency in work practices
- an overly laidback attitude towards work
- a “can’t do” attitude
Behaviours at work are tempered by the systemic norms; you could also say it’s the “culture”. You can read this in many places on the interweb: the system is responsible for performance. Don’t blame people for doing what the system asks and similarly, stop rewarding individuals for good performance. The system drives performance.
Reward for good performance may be the same as rewarding the weather forecaster for a pleasant day. Deming
I’m utterly convinced (from my experience) that the organisational changes they want will come about when they focus their attention and their energies on the system and not on the individual behaviours of individual people. So when I share my observations with the three of them, they nod and smile and say, “That’s exactly what they’re like; that absolutely describes the culture.”
I then enquire as to what they’ve tried, in order to put a stop to the things they don’t like. Again, I listen for patterns. With all good intentions (for they are really lovely people), they tell me things like:
- “Well, I was going to schedule another one-to-one meeting and go through their KPIs again, but something urgent came up.”
- “I had it written in my diary but I couldn’t remember which page I’d written it on.”
- “I’ve confronted him about it before but it didn’t make a difference, so I couldn’t see the point of following him up again.”
- “He knows what he’s supposed to do, he’s been here for 10 years, I don’t see why I should have to tell him again and again.”
- “They’re like a bunch of children; you have to keep on at them, otherwise nothing gets done.”
- “Yes, I had a chat with him and said I’d meet again a week later to see how he was getting on, but I let it slip.”
- “He was fine for a week after I talked to him, but he’s slipped back and I don’t know how I can get it across.”
After they report what they’ve tried, I ask them to reflect on how similar their patterns are to the patterns they bemoan in the staff: inconsistent, side-tracked etc etc…. Again, they smile. Again they frown. They (fortunately) find it mildly amusing that they are doing much the same as the staff. Here is when I reinforce the idea of systems. They are part of the same system and that very same system will be exerting itself on them. In our conversations, they are becoming more adept at seeing. I mean really seeing.
Remember, Deming said that a system cannot understand itself. It’s not just true because Deming said it. It’s true because it’s true. It doesn’t matter how frustrating we find it, but the systems to which we belong will be exerting their influences on us. We struggle to know this. We struggle to know how much. We find ourselves at times frustrated with ourselves, as well as others. It takes an outside eye, a disinterested party, an objective mirror, to help us to see what we can’t. They’re called blind spots for a reason. Obvious to me, previously hidden to these three leaders, their system is screwy, not the people within it.
These three lovely, well-intentioned leaders have warmed up to the current phase of their work together. Phase two: creating the vision of what you want. Now they are aware of this thing called “culture”, and that it impacts on them and that no one person is to blame for doing what the system urges them to do, they are excited to create a vision for the culture they want. They are beginning to see the wood for the trees and are more able to make connections to the elements within the system that maintain its status quo. They are excited. I ask them naive questions like, “What is your purpose?” “What does your business exist for?” ”How would you like it to be here?” and they eagerly discuss things that they feel should be so obvious but when asked directly, need to stop and really think about it.
Lately, rather than see themselves as victims to all those awful things the staff do, they are excited to recast their roles as stewards of the system. They get the paradox of systems thinking: they are in it and subject to it, and at the same time, if they can begin to manage their systems blindness with the help of an outside eye, have the power to do something about it. They are seeing themselves less and less as managers-who-need-to-be-in-control and more as leaders-who-guide-the-culture. They are more infused with hope for the future. The things over which they do have control (policy and procedure manuals, resourcing, their own attitudes, their individual relationships with staff members) are the influencers which they can apply to generate the culture they believe will be more effective and, in the long run, more efficient.
Rather than trying to find new ways to get people to do what they want them to do (re-sharpening their sticks or coating their carrots with glitter), they are thrilled to devote more and more time in our sessions to the thing they want, rather than the multitude of things they don’t. They are thinking bigger: about themselves, about the staff and about the business.
Systems thinking, for me, is not merely an academic exercise. It is real world. It changes lives and workplaces.
Next steps for these three? Well, it’s emergent, a work in progress. We’ve had some ups and downs. We’ve had times when they felt a little like they were banging their heads against a brick wall. At this stage, however, they are hopeful, they are positive and they are now talking more about modelling and leading the change they want to see. (Didn’t some famous peace-loving figure from history say something about that?) They are truly interested in being different themselves. They are considering how to steward a culture of self-responsibility, flexibility and “can do”, learning from mistakes and “just enough” structure….and for me, they are approaching phase three: grappling with the “how-to”.
In truth, it is an absolute pleasure.
November 4, 2012
Part III (Going Further)
In Part II of this article, I suggested that if we remain wedded to a mis-placed set of thoughts and beliefs about business, we will end up asking the wrong questions. We cleverly ask these questions from within our old intellectual bubble, coming up with “new-and-improved” solutions to problems, however we only end up doing the (same old) wrong things righter. What happens if we apply bigger thinking to business challenges, though? So there is this thing called systems thinking, so what?
If we think bigger about business problems, we can make a fundamental shift in effectiveness. I often use our shift in thinking from a geocentric to a heliocentric view of the solar system as an example of the difference that a paradigm shift can have on our lives. So Copernicus said the sun was the centre of the solar system, so what? What did that mean in a very practical sense? Copernicus challenged the prevailing orthodoxy of the time, which was central to Church doctrine. Kepler, Galileo and Newton followed on, demonstrating with science that Copernicus was right. So what? Just try and tell me that the scientific revolution that followed on didn’t make much of a difference to the average person’s life. Think of the ripple effects. The scientific revolution…..science gives us the means to challenge the prevailing institutions of governance…science encourages us to think for ourselves….science revolutionises medicine, technology, art and culture, architecture, food production…..
Similarly, systems thinking is revolutionising how we organise work and how business does business. There are examples of how applying systems thinking is making business more responsive to customers, more satisfying and meaningful for people who work there and more effective at what it does.
How do we organise ourselves? Command-and-control hierarchies are so 19th century. They are about controlling the business. As this example from Portsmouth City Council demonstrates, a really effective business will be driven by its customers. Business decisions will be made at the point where it interacts with the customer. Often, important decisions are made by those in a managerial role, distant from the customer. ”Managers know best” is one of those nasty underlying assumptions on which we base the role of a manager and influences how we organise work. If I’m most effective at work, I should be responding to market demand, not management diktat.
Taking a systems thinking perspective on how a business does business can illuminate the need for transformation; for actually doing something radically different. Much as Owen Buckwell did at Portsmouth City Council, asking the right questions from a bigger picture perspective will highlight what lies beneath some of the seemingly intractable “stuckness” in getting to real effectiveness. Government inspectors routinely gave the Council glowing reports, however Owen knew that things weren’t right. How did he know? ”Noise” in the system that didn’t come from the conventional ways of measuring the work. Customers were constantly complaining and Owen was unsettled enough to ignore the positive government reports and instead seek to uncover what his “market” was actually saying. These government inspectors measured customer satisfaction, for example, by asking questions such as, “Did the tradesman smile when you answered the door?” and “Did workmen clean up after their work?” They didn’t ask, “Was the problem completely rectified?” or “How many times did the tradesman have to come back to fix something that wasn’t fixed properly at the first visit?” They were there to provide a service to ratepayers and Owen recognised that this wasn’t happening satisfactorily, so he began to ask the right questions of the customer. They got the big picture of how the business was performing, which they needed in order to radically transform how they did business. Owen also had an inkling that people came to work to a good job and he was right. By handing more operational decisions to those who carried them out, he found that job satisfaction increased. He took action on the system, not on the people, and shifted how they do business from command-and-control (doing what government inspectors want) to a systems approach (what the customer wants). In the end, they meet government targets “by coincidence”, but more important to Owen is that they are providing the most effective service to ratepayers.
How do we approach performance management? Typically, performance management is about asking the wrong questions. In any case, if we think bigger about it, individual performance management is pretty useless, by and large. This next example demonstrates Deming’s 95% rule: the best place to look for improvements is the system, not the individuals within it. Work on the system, not on the people. If we continue to rely on analytical measures of performance and mechanistic means to make it happen, we will not unleash the kind of thinking and creativity (from everyone) that business needs if it is to survive. Once again, do we tend to ask the right questions when it comes to performance management?
Taking a systems thinking approach can uncover root causes of seemingly intractable blockages within a business. It broadens our perspective and can release us from the kind of inertia that keeps us doing the same things again and again with little significant change. Take a client of ours who realised that the problem with performance management was not “performance management”. While consistently figuring highly in “best places to work” surveys, they had a recurring problem with “poor performance”, specifically, that people didn’t feel the organisation dealt with poor performance very well. In many other aspects, the people felt it was a great place to work, but that something had to be done to manage those who underperformed. In some cases, it got so bad that people were “managed out” of the organisation, much to their surprise. Nobody had told them that they were underperforming until it was too late and relationships had sufficiently soured to the point that they were irretrievable. Listening to this “noise” in the system led the HR Manager to take a systems thinking approach and rather than focus on the individual managers who were not dealing with individual underperformers, the root cause was identified as lying within the culture; it was a systemic issue.
A dominant theme in staff surveys was the friendliness of the place. Digging a little deeper, it seemed that most folks thought that “friendliness” and “performance orientation” were mutually exclusive. In other words, we can either have a friendly place to work or a workplace that focusses on effective performance; herein lay the barrier to regular and frequent conversations about performance at work. The systemic belief that addressing work performance would undermine friendly working relationships meant that it didn’t happen often or well enough. Our work was to assist a shift in the culture to one where “friendly and positive working relationships” were inextricably linked with “performance orientation”. Rather than dealing with the “problem” of managers who don’t deal with poor performance, the focus was on shifting the whole system so that by the end of our work, everyone was having robust, strengths-based conversations about performance all over the place without damaging positive working relationships. About half way through our year-long project, we joked with the executive management team, who were grumbling that their staff were now challenging them on their performance, that they would get what they asked for.
In both of these cases, systems thinking forces us to look at the whole, not the individual parts. It is the job of the modern manager to re-vision their function from one of “controller” to one of “steward”. The focus is on purpose, values and meaning. What does this business exist to achieve or create in the world? What values will guide us in doing this? How is this meaningful for the people who work here? It is the role of managers to ensure that the correct conditions exist for these things to be realised, not to tell people what to do.
Julian Wilson, owner of aerospace company Matt Black Systems uses a beautiful analogy in a MIX article on re-designing their business. To rescue a dying species, old thinking tells us that we should invest ourselves in an intensive breeding programme. New thinking says that we should focus our efforts on ensuring the environment in which the species exists is provided proper stewardship so that nature can take its course and allow the species to flourish. Eliminate the things in the environment which endanger the species, nurture those things which allow it to thrive.
If, as Daniel Pink suggests, people are truly motivated by the search for meaning, mastery and autonomy, these will come to us in an environment where the conditions allow these to thrive. Eliminating adminis-trivia and management power games is a start. This does not mean we leave people to do as they please. Leaders need to re-vision their roles as stewards of the culture. It is the culture, or the system, where managers can exert most influence and create the most opportunities for effectiveness, learning and transformation.
A lot of what is currently going on in businesses is not being talked about because it’s not part of the mainstream discourse. Something is no longer working. We feel it and we feel there should be another way. Systems thinking provides us new lenses to see deeper and wider. We must stop ourselves from repeating old mistakes and develop our abilities to think bigger so that we can go further. Hand in hand with this, we need also to develop greater ease with the complexity we will see before us and greater confidence to deal with being a little less certain about things. The effects of the system are there, whether we decide to look or not.
….and if you are someone who appreciates the power of systems thinking when others think you crazy, it can be useful to remember the words that Galileo reputedly uttered when forced by the Inquisition to recant his crazy notion that the Earth moved around the sun: Eppur si muove (and yet it moves).
September 23, 2012
Fresh from running a workshop on responsible leadership, I’m feeling buoyant that the participants entered into the conversation with gusto and were open to the idea that humans engage in their work because they seek out meaning, mastery and autonomy. To a large extent, I was not only preaching to the converted but taking the lead from them. Their work is based on a developmental, strengths-based worldview and they do it because they see the real difference that it makes to their clients. When I proposed that McGregor’s Theory XY and the work of Daniel Pink was providing us with a compelling case for re-visioning how we “do” leadership, there seemed to be general approval. They seemed thrilled that there has been significant theory and research on what makes work work. One person excitedly told the story of her previous workplace that had got to a crisis point, completely revamped its management practice and leadership approach by adopting a Theory Y attitude and turned their business around. Similarly, we at Quantum Shift are working with a client who also views people through a Theory Y lens and is in the middle of a deep transformation of how their business is organised and the light at the end of the transformation tunnel is clear and bright.
Then my heart sinks a little as I read in this morning’s New Zealand Herald, an article entitled “Fear, greed and vanity are excellent staff motivators.” I couldn’t resist reading, it tempted me in, much as those faux science documentaries in which the narrator at some point intones mysteriously, “Was Darwin wrong?” This invariably causes me to exclaim, “NO!” in frustration at the thrall in which ancient myths and fairy stories still grip us. To give the writer of that piece his due, he does start his argument with “in my opinion”, however we are on shaky ground if we base management and leadership of our organisations purely on opinion. Haven’t we learnt that research and study goes a long way to correcting long-held beliefs that get in the way of good practice?
He closes his article by saying, “…all other things being equal, an engaged workforce is more productive than a disengaged one – but the pyramids were built with the whip. We should not forget that.” Reminds me of that quote by Deming, “Beat horses and they will run faster….for a while.” While it may be that the pyramids were built with the whip (although I learnt when I was in Egypt recently that new archaeological discoveries are showing that it was not slave labour that built the pyramids after all), it also used to be the case that children were used as chimney sweeps, women were burnt at the stake for witchcraft and leeches were considered cutting edge medicine. While everyone is entitled to their prejudices (for that’s all Theory X is as far as I’m concerned), it’s more than a little frustrating when someone is given air time in the business column of a national newspaper to reinforce something backed by no evidence, bar his experience as a company liquidator. Theory X is one which is being challenged by contemporary research into what motivates people. If we take as long to update our perspective on this as we did to acknowledge that the sun is the centre of the solar system, I predict that it will take until the year 2110 before we find workplaces everywhere have at last unleashed people’s genuine desire to do something meaningful and that work will have long since ceased to be paid-for slave labour (or that we need gamification to help us pretend otherwise).
In the meantime, we still have conversations about how to motivate employees. Way back in 2006, a piece appeared in the Harvard Management Update entitled “Stop Demotivating your Employees”. It came out of some research that showed that when people join organisations they are initially enthusiastic, but that they very quickly lose motivation due to management behaviours and styles. This research, by the way, was conducted with 1.2 million employees at 52 businesses, so it’s not simply the opinion of the three authors. The question, then, is not about finding ways to motivate and engage people. It’s about letting them get on with it, stopping demotivating them.
Central to this is re-visioning the role of a manager. Much of what a manager does gets in the way and leads to situations where they then ponder how to motivate and engage. As Bob Marshall puts it in “Lay off the Managers”, we need management, but much of what managers do is dysfunctional. If we do away with the old Theory X prejudice and embrace the science behind Theory Y, the flow on from this is that the job of managing will look and feel quite different. Some of the things that go on in some of the businesses to which I consult include:
- Policies and procedures that try to mitigate for every possible contingency and overwhelm people with the sheer scale of information they are required to know before actually doing their jobs.
- Micro-managers who need to oversee not only what people do but how they do it.
- Command-and-control hierarchies that centralise decision-making away from the point at which the decisions could more ably be made.
- Managers who hoard power and operate out of a need to be in control of things (and when they can’t, sabotage the hard work of others).
As Deming states in this short video clip, “one is born with intrinsic motivation, self-esteem, dignity, cooperation, curiosity, a yearning for learning.” These are crushed out by “forces of destruction” throughout our lives. He wonders out loud, “Why crush them out? Why not nurture them?” Indeed. He goes on to say that mere change will not do it. ”We cannot just remodel the prison.” He is talking about transformation, not mere patchwork, not tinkering round the edges.
Backed by research, I believe that Theory Y is in an ascendancy, albeit a slow one (cf. Copernicus). Symptomatic of this, many managers have cottoned on to this new-fangled thing called “engagement”. It seems that some studies have shown that businesses with motivated and engaged staff are far more productive and effective at what they do. That’s pretty compelling. So in the name of creating happier workers, some go through a PR makeover, adopting some kind of newspeak so that people think things have actually changed. That, or they induce people and customers to “like” them by trying to make the same old work seem more fun and interesting. I’m not so sure this is transformation.
Deming talks about transformation as a new kind of reward, but not one that gives you points on a leader board, an extra staff party or an incentive bonus in your pay packet. He talks about restoring the individual. This kind of transformation will unleash the power of human resourcefulness contained in intrinsic motivation and which people are born with. That’s meaning, mastery and autonomy for you Daniel Pink fans. Or self-actualisation for you Maslow fans. Dispensing with extrinsic motivators and transforming business to release people’s intrinsic motivation can lead to less competition and greater cooperation which, in time, will lead to greater innovation, greater service, greater material reward for everyone, joy in work, joy in learning. There is the new kind of reward. Everyone will win in this transformation.
It truly boggles my mind that folks like the author of that NZ Herald article would consider themselves as hardworking and motivated by success yet presume others are inherently lazy, selfish and greedy. Certainly, these are human qualities and ones which we all possess in some measure. We are not slaves to them, however, and in my experience, under the right conditions, we will just as easily bring out the best of ourselves. Under the kind of conditions that model and condone laziness and selfishness, however, I can understand why would people would fail to engage themselves fully. Genuine transformation of business, therefore, is essential; this means a real systemic shift in attitudes and beliefs about people. Getting the “right conditions” for people to flourish is a pre-condition for them to bring their whole selves to work.
In my understanding of McGregor’s Theory Y, those marvellous things he outlines will come to fruition under the right conditions. This is important. The conditions must be right for people to flourish just as soil must be fertile in order for plants to flourish. If you salt the earth, nothing will grow; if you behave like Stalin (while spouting Theory Y newspeak for good PR), your people will disengage or leave or both. As I said, the question to be asking, then, is not “How can I motivate my staff?” but “How do I need to be so that I don’t demotivate people around me?” Some of it is related to transforming how the business organises itself, but this is inextricably linked to transforming ourselves: our beliefs and attitudes about human nature and how we relate to people.
What is required of us then?
Listening to people. Adopt the practice of genuinely listening to people. Acting on what you hear is part of this, too. Come at conversations with the mindset that they will tell you something you don’t already know, something which may challenge your own beliefs or something which may teach you a lesson. Turn off that inner monologue and consider their reality is just as valid as yours.
Enabling them to get on with it. There are a number of enabling behaviours I set out in a previous article, “Leaders: get out of the way”. I would strongly suggest it is more than behaviour change; once again, it is personal transformation that flows out of a meaningful shift in our beliefs and attitudes.
Acknowledging people. This is not about praise. Managers who steal the credit for good work are demotivators. Acknowledging means giving people their due and recognising the contributions they make to the whole. It means noticing when people have been of good service to others. It means assisting people to see that their unique contributions and who they are add something invaluable.
Facilitating the easy flow of information and unimpeded access to the proper resources to do the job. At a very basic level, a manager would do well to see themselves as the one who eases and unblocks information flow. Hoarding information is an act of the power-hungry.
Enrolling people into a vision of something greater than the sum of everyone’s daily tasks. Declaring a clear purpose for the business, apart from increased shareholder return or higher profit. Keep hold of a single-minded purpose and make sure everyone has a clear line of sight to it. What is your business contributing to the well-being of the world?
If the author of that NZ Herald article was moved to write what he did because he has witnessed indolence and selfishness in the workplace, I would suggest that it has as much to do with the kind of cynicism people bring to work when they witness their managers exhibit the same cynical behaviours and attitudes. That Harvard Management Update found that people start a job full of enthusiasm, which, like Deming, I would say is our default setting. The rot sets in when systemic inhumanity within the business infects them and their natural motivation is crushed. I would also suggest it has much to do with organisations which have not put “the right conditions” in place that would allow creativity, autonomy and responsibility to flourish. It’s also to do with managers and leaders who hold on to an obsolete view of human nature. So it’s no surprise to me that a company liquidator would encounter people who do their best to be their worst.
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?
July 18, 2012
In “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof”, Big Daddy bellows in exasperation, “Ain’t nothing more powerful than the odour of mendacity.” Recently diagnosed with cancer and fed up with the secrets and lies of family life, he begins to see that there is nothing lost in airing the truth. Perhaps many of us when faced with the finality of a situation in life realise that there was much left unsaid that, had it been expressed, would have been to everyone’s benefit. Had we acknowledged our trepidation and named the elephants in our various rooms, standing up for integrity and truth, we might have cleared the air of the stench of mistrust and enjoyed a much more honest life. In fact, in a recent article, the number one regret of the dying was identified as: ”I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.”
In light of the many recent revelations of systemic corporate greed and mendacity, I have wavered between despondency, fury and hope. Should I give in and hone my deceptiveness skills: both to myself and others? Should I play the game just because others will be disappointed if I don’t or, at the risk of incurring their wrath, express my misgivings, doubts or hesitation? Should I just give up hope that we will find people worthy of the title “leader”? Should I join those manning the barricades of the Occupy movements? Alternatively, should I remain hopeful that those who fiddle while Rome burns will soon be swept aside in a tide of genuine democracy and that our organisations, businesses, communities will be driven by the people within them rather than some out-of-touch elite? Should I rejoice that, at last, some of those in positions of power are naming corporate greed as systemic and not simply driven by “a few bad apples”. Are people finally getting it? It is a human dilemma: conform or be crushed by a corrupt system.
Furthermore, as Fintan O’Toole suggests, “All the evidence from the many scandals of recent years is that it is not sociopaths who create rotten cultures. It is closed, arrogant, unaccountable cultures that turn ordinary people into sociopaths.” Deming said as much some years ago.
So many times over recent weeks as I read of the fraudulent practices of GlaxoSmithKline, the UK Conservative Party, the New Zealand Immigration Service, Barclays Bank and most recently, HSBC, have I found myself remembering Deming’s comment that 95% of possibilities for improvement sit with the system and only 5% lie with the individual. I also hear myself muttering that a bad system will defeat a good person, every time. EVERY TIME. We are seeing this before our eyes.
I received a subscription email that propounded the notion that we thrive when our ratio of positivity to negativity is high. I have no beef with that notion. However, it went on to link to articles in the press that “demonstrated” how things are looking up and we are back on the road to recovery and everything is alright, if we would only stop feeling negative about things. Made me want to vomit. There is a word for folks like this: Pollyanna. I know people like this, some of them apparently working in the real world of organisational life with a view that if we only just thought lovely things, it would all be OK. The truth is: the world, including the business world, is in a parlous state. No amount of positive thinking can erase the fact that some of the world’s major industries and corporations are systemically sick. No amount of soma will make me blind to the fact that those in positions of power remain inert in the face of corporate malpractice, environmental degradation and growing inequality. No amount of media distraction will divert me from the evidence that our democratically elected “leaders” are in the pay of lobbyists and their corporations who answer to nobody, bar their shareholders. I’m not just having a moan and I’m no Eeyore; I have a good life and count myself exceedingly fortunate that my worries are mostly first world problems. Think you have worries? Enter your annual salary in the global rich list website and see where you place relative to others in the world. If you are reading this, life is probably pretty good for you, on the whole.
However, we are an important juncture in human history. Our institutions have lost the trust of those they purport to serve. Many of our businesses are resorting to gamifying their marketing in an effort to soma-tise potential customers. Many of our workplaces are likewise trying to hypnotise people that their meaningless work is fun fun fun.
I take heart that there are businesses like Morning Star, who base their organisational effectiveness on self-management and not some lumpy hierarchical management structure that insists “it knows best”. I take heart that the Beta Codex Network, of which I’m an associate, is out there, promoting a saner and more humane (and frankly, much more sensible) way of structuring organisations by advocating for radical transformation, rather than tinkering round the edges, to achieve real effectiveness, meaning and joy at work.
I am entirely sure I am not alone in my disdain towards fraudulent business practice. The aptly named Bob Diamond, ex-CEO of Barclays Bank infamously told British Members of Parliament last year, “There was a period of remorse and apology for banks and I think that period needs to be over.” However, as Andrew Rawnsley has written recently, “he was wrong: plenty more remorse and apology would be appropriate, and welcome; but much more importantly, the values, culture and practices of finance, as they have developed since the ‘Big Bang’ reforms of 1986, must be torn down, and a smaller, humbler, simpler world of banking built in their place.”
To be honest, I’m not interested simply in apology and remorse. These things are worthless without some kind of follow up. If someone apologises, I expect an associated change in behaviour and attitude that demonstrates the apology was genuine, heartfelt and indicative of real responsibility-taking. I’m mostly interested in what Rawnsley suggests with regards a tearing down of the values, culture and practice of finance. I’m similarly interested in a transformation of business. I’m interested in businesses selling products and services that are actually worthwhile. I’m interested in businesses that actually provide interesting and meaningful work for people. I’m interested in businesses that run on the premise that people are humans, NOT resources. I’m mostly interested in business that operates with transparency, honesty and humility. Not just a PR job that makes us think these are the values, but that these are the values that are REALLY lived throughout the business; even, if not especially, by those who manage it. Even Bob Diamond, in a BBC lecture last year, said, ”Culture is difficult to define. But for me the evidence of culture is how people behave when no one is watching.” Couldn’t have put it better myself.
Business leaders are not going to changes things simply because they come under fire in the media or are told that it is wrong. They already knew it was wrong and they did it anyway. The structures of how business is managed create the sick cultures in which they operate. Cultures are not transformed by mere criticism nor by symbolic public witch-hunting.
It is clear to me that the fraudulent practices that have recently come to light are systemic. The “few bad apples” defence, as Andrew Rawnsley has written, will not wash. What happened, happened because the system allowed it, condoned it. Those who make the rules not only fell under the thrall of high finance, they were well and truly in its pockets. As he goes on to say, a college student, with no previous convictions, was imprisoned for six months for stealing a £3.50 pack of bottled water during last year’s London riots. Yet there is serious doubt whether it will be possible to prosecute banksters who perpetrated a massive con involving sums which would buy many millions of bottles of water.
Just as “a few bad apples” does not placate those who watch these scandals with disgust, the opposite also does not give comfort. The suggestion that there are individually decent and compassionate people within these rotten systems and that this should give us hope things will change, is just as false. The system is responsible for 95% of what goes on in it. The system must be reformed, transformed, root and branch. Utterly. Totally. Absolutely. It is the system.
Surprised at these revelations of corporate fraud? Not much. The systems which brought the financial crisis and scandalous corporate behaviour to bear have not changed. The same dynamics are in place, the same values intact, the same practices perpetuate. The question that Plato posed in his tale of the Ring of Gyges was whether a moral person would remain moral should they become invisible. To all intents and purposes, the practices of bankers and the nod-and-wink agreements made over lobbyists’ drinkies are invisible and mysterious to most of us. Let loose to do as they please in the 1980′s, what would constrain banksters to behave in a moral fashion? Reliant on corporate donations, what would cause politicians to change the immoral rules which their paymasters rely on?
Public enquiries, the odd sacking, stripping a Fred Goodwin of a public honour or the symbolic prosecution of a Bernard Madoff, while just, are simply public relations band aid solutions to deep seated problems. If the system remains intact, people will continue to act within its rules, treacherous though they may be. Having said that, those who stewarded those rotten cultures must be removed to make way for those who have the nerve to re-boot their systems and establish morality within business and government. Rotten cultures, as Will Hutton has observed, do not emerge from thin air. They emerge from structures which encourage and condone rotten behaviour. Similarly, moral cultures will also not arise out of thin air.
To be truthful, I’m not depressed by recent revelations of this institutionalised fraud and business improprieties. To me, they are the lancing of the boil that needed to happen. It is a wake-up call to actually look at the system and craft new ones for the 21st century. Vince Cable, UK Business Secretary, pointed to the Swedish business bank, Svenska Handelsbanken as a model of how things could be. Like Cable, I am a long-term optimist and a believe that these scandals will eventually lead to better systems.
Trying to apportion responsibility for these scandals on a few rogues ignores the reality that the systems within which these folks operated are broken. News International, Barclays Bank, GlaxoSmithKline, the New Zealand Immigration Service, HSBC. The politicians of all hues whom we elect to represent and stand up for our interests are overly chummy with the financiers, the corporates and the media who are being tagged with the epithets ‘immoral’ and ‘deceitful’. Are we really all in this financial crisis together? I think not.
My hope is that all these dishonest practices will eventually herald the time of the moral business. It is time for the way we do business to be re-booted. It is time to start doing the right things, not the wrong things righter.
What is the moral business?
A moral business orientates itself to its customers, its staff, its environment, its community and its shareholders, not just its shareholders. A moral business orientates itself to doing good, not just for those at the top whose enormous bonuses ensure their collusion with a system that is focussed more on quick profit than innovation-generating benefit for the wider economy. A moral business takes hold of the bigger picture and takes a long-term view of what business success means. In other words, it will see that deifying shareholder return is not how to run an organisation that serves all of its stakeholders, nor contributes to sustainable human development.
I don’t believe that anyone seriously gets into business to do wrong or sets out to be intentionally deceitful or immoral; I have a higher view of humanity. But when we find ourselves in sick systems, we struggle to swim against their tide. If we want our businesses to do the right thing, maybe it’s time we put our foot down and started naming some of those elephants. Let’s also look out for those leaders who have the courage of their convictions to do the ‘hard thing’ and reform capitalism.
Mendacious times, indeed.
June 24, 2012
One of the most satisfying contracts I’ve had involved working with a group of team leaders on a manufacturing line back in 2005. We had an introductory tour of the factory floor before we engaged with them and I saw what you would expect to see on an assembly line. Articles being put together in sequence in order to turn out a finished product. Repetitive, time-pressured, loud and VERY hot. Upon meeting with this group and getting to know them, I was astounded to learn that most of them had been with the company for over 10 years, the longest serving being about 25 years. Much to my shame, I will admit that my astonishment was based on a prejudice I had about repetitive work: that it is personally unrewarding, it provides little room for personal development and offered little real challenge to those who carried it out. I never imagined that in this day and age, people would voluntarily choose to stay in a job that involved doing much the same thing, day in and day out, for mediocre financial reward. How wrong I was and how much I learnt from these folks, and their company, about satisfaction and engagement. We were contracted to do some development work which would assist them to grow, not just as team leaders, but as people. This should have given me a clue that this manufacturing company was different from most workplaces.
My memories of this arose thanks to Bob Marshall’s recent post, The Games People Play. The first line really grabbed me: “Gamification bugs me.” I, too, feel uneasy about gamification. I recalled this factory floor and the people who made it run and remembered that engagement at work is not about making it all fun fun fun. While I’m certainly no puritan and I accept that work is better if it’s fun, I would suggest that trying to dilute the meaningless of some jobs by gamifying it is missing the mark entirely. Sure, people are more productive when they’re having fun, but I contend that fun is not about “silly dress-up day” or paper airplane contests. I googled “how to make work fun” and I was disappointed (but not too surprised) to see it was all stuff aimed at brightening up your day, bringing humour into the workplace and having fun, but I couldn’t see anything that was related to actually changing the business on a deeper level so that the work itself became engaging. I believe that gamification sits within the old mindset of those who ascribe to Theory X: that people are inherently work-shy, unmotivated and uncreative and need to be motivated by the old carrot and stick. In other words, if you reward a behaviour, you get more of it or if you punish a behaviour you get less of it. Trying to turn dull, silo-ed work into a game is just another bright shiny thing, to my mind.
Just as genuine engagement is not about trying to window-dress tedium with toys, neither is engagement about enticing people with pots of money. That manufacturing company did not apply the carrot and stick to get people to stay engaged. They did something bigger. Firstly, to borrow a phrase from Daniel Pink, they paid people enough so that they took money off the table. I’ll add that they don’t earn a fortune, but they earn enough so that it’s not an issue. Once money was dispensed with as a motivator, they applied themselves to growing a workplace where people can achieve something even better, something that Daniel Pink and others assert creates real engagement: meaning, mastery and autonomy (MMA). I recommend watching this compelling ten-minute clip of Daniel Pink discussing motivation at work, where he sets these ideas out.
As Pink states in that clip, the science shows that we humans care about mastery very very deeply. The science shows that we want to be self-directed. THE SCIENCE SHOWS. I don’t think I’m making it up when I say that people want to be successful in their lives. People want to do something they feel is connected to something bigger than themselves. People want to learn and to keep learning to do better. People want to feel in control of what goes on in their lives and to have real input into workplace decisions that affect them. People want all these things from their work and unless businesses change, the gamifying fad will quickly lose its lustre as people wake up and realise that nothing has really changed. And nothing will have really changed for the business either; they’ll have to find the next bright shiny thing……unless they take the courageous path and transform how they do business.
There are no shortcuts and no magic bullets to creating engagement. Now, though, in the mistaken belief that there is, some businesses are trying to divert people’s attention from repetitiveness and routine and make work fun. Everything has to be fun fun fun. Was Huxley right when he foretold how the human race would be kept placid and compliant by a daily dose of soma? For soma, read gamification.
In a lot of cases, when I see some kind of game element embedded in a retention or marketing strategy, what I actually hear is, “What I sell/ask people to do is intrinsically dull so I’ll use a little smoke and mirrors to get you to engage with my product/my service/my company/your job.” If the premise is that people enjoy playing games more than they enjoy work, then trying to gamify boring work is looking at the symptom, not the cause. And if your product or brand is lacklustre and uninspiring, gamifying it will not change its intrinsic dullness.
I don’t want to come across as some old fuddy-duddy. I enjoy games. I have games on my iPhone and I enjoy an boys’ night with beers and PS3. When I’m in the world of Angry Birds or Assassin’s Creed, I find what any good game developer knows makes a good game: autonomy, mastery and meaning. I also find MMA in a cryptic crossword, so it’s not a new phenomenon. But I find these things within the world of the game. It is specious logic to say, then, that just because an engaging game will have these three ingredients, that you can generate these three things in your customers or employees by turning what you do into a game.
When we wake up in the morning, how magnificent if our first thoughts are “I wonder what I can learn today?” or “I wonder how I can enhance someone else’s life today?” or “I wonder what joy I can find in my day today?” or even “I wonder if I will experience some things, good or bad, that stretch me or challenge me today?” NOT ”I can’t wait to get to work so I can earn more badges, points or move up the leaderboard,” or “Oh great! It’s cupcake day.”
We want meaning in our daily lives.
We want to master something in our daily lives.
We want to be self-directed in our daily lives.
Turning routine chores or repetitive tasks into some sort of game may make the hours pass by quicker, but it does not provide meaning to this work. But somehow, that manufacturing company found ways for people to find MMA in their repetitive assembly line work. How did they do it? Short answer: they changed the business. Even back in 2005, what I saw was evidence of a culture of engagement, participation and continuous improvement. They haven’t stopped manufacturing the same product they had manufactured since the 1800s. They changed (and continue to change) how they ran the business. To me, they are a living response to Deming’s quote, “It is not necessary to change. Survival is not mandatory.” They are interested in surviving and thriving, so they have embarked down the path of business transformation. The culture they are careful to steward is one that emphasises effectiveness and ensures that people who work there gain meaning, mastery and autonomy from their work. Any systems thinker would say that these things are all connected.
- People on the factory floor are encouraged to see the bigger picture. Even though they may be responsible for one part of the assembly line, the focus is on the effectiveness of the whole. The focus is kept on the quality of the whole finished product, the customer and the company brand. Because they see that they are contributing to something bigger than the efficiency of their small part, they do this rather old-fashioned thing and take pride in their work. Poor quality work is a concern for the whole business, not just one part. Talking to some of those people from the factory floor back in 2005 and I found they actually cared how effective everyone else was because they knew it affected them too.
- People have the opportunity to challenge themselves. They are encouraged to move to other parts of the assembly line, to learn about other processes that go on and to develop themselves technically. People who show leadership potential are encouraged and supported to extend themselves, take greater responsibility and receive leadership development in the form of mentoring and formal learning. The business provides opportunities for people to learn (and to fail). Even while monitoring high standards, this business views “failure” as an opportunity for the whole business to learn and re-tool itself. The whole of the business, the factory floor included, is infused with the ethic of continuous improvement.
- People are encouraged to participate. Workers’ fora, genuine consultation, devolved decision-making all happen. This business knows that the best problem-solving will happen amongst the people it directly affects, with the input (but not the coercion) of management.
Trying to turn repetitive work into some sort of game in order to increase engagement is just Snake Oil 2.0. It misses the point. It’s trickery to try to get people engaged in something which instrinsically adds nothing to their lives. It sits within the old carrot and stick school of motivation, which sits nicely alongside Theory X.
Gamification, or trying to change behaviour at work by turning everything into a game, is a practice rooted within the Theory X assumption that is just not true, but that most organisations operate under. I’m sticking my neck out, obviously, by using that word “true”. However, when Copernicus challenged the “truth” of an Earth-centric universe, his “heresy” was actually true. It just took a while until it could be proven and then another little while for people to believe it. I am satisfied enough with the work of people such as Douglas McGregor, Martin Seligman and Daniel Pink to say that Theory X is just plain wrong. It is more true to say that people will instead self-motivate under the right conditions. To me, however, the right conditions are not built on flimsy gamification.
Theory X and Theory Y are not polar opposites. They are two different beasts. ”Carrot and stick” and MMA do not sit at opposite ends of a continuum of motivation in the same way that doorknobs and breakfast cereal do not sit at opposite ends of a continuum. They are entirely different things related to entirely different paradigms. As Bob Marshall says, gamification is doing the wrong things righter. It is tinkering with a bad model.
If you think that what you do is essentially un-engaging, stop trying to dope people up with their daily dose of soma and take a good hard look at how you structure your business instead. Great work is fun. We feel good when we do well. We feel good when we are enabled to do well, too.
Why not craft a work culture where MMA is inherent in the company structure? Why not take up real leadership and transform what you do and how you do it so that it is truly something people want to engage with? Why not make your product or service so bloody good that people actually want it?
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.