March 21, 2013
In working with three senior teams in three entirely different sectors over the past month, I’ve heard someone in each of these teams, during the course of the work, utter these words, “We are a microcosm of what is going on in the rest of the business.” They elaborate, “If we don’t get our house in order, how can we expect the rest of the business to work better together?” The theme is silos at work and making efforts to work more collaboratively and cooperatively. In each of these contexts, I shared one of my favourite analogies for silos; it’s as if the organs within my body are fighting each other for primacy. They are inextricably linked and interdependent, each having their own specialisation and each requiring the other to be at their best, however it’s bizarre to imagine that one organ is more important than the other and that if I had the healthiest heart in the world, the whole of my body would functioning at its optimal level. In the past, I have heard those who interface directly with customers say to folks who don’t, “If it wasn’t for us doing the real work, you wouldn’t have jobs.” Imagine my digestive tract saying to my heart, “If I didn’t take in nourishment, you wouldn’t have a job.” Pshaw.
I believe, from my experience, it’s a shift in consciousness that needs to come to people before they see the connection. A change in their mindsets. A whole new perspective. In many businesses, senior managers grapple with effectiveness and train their gaze on the bits of the business that are dysfunctional, rather than see the whole……rather than see that the health of the parts is directly related to the health of the whole…..rather than see that the health of the whole is directly related to the healthy relatedness between the parts. When one person makes that statement about microcosms and everyone else stares blankly, I reckon the rest of the senior team has an opportunity to learn how to think bigger if they want to go further.
I don’t believe the case needs to be made for the elimination of silos at work. I have met nobody who thinks they are a good idea and multitudes who find them ineffective and frustrating. The question people struggle with is, “How do we get rid of them?” I think part of that lies with shifting the thinking that got us here in the first place. To say that silos are ineffective is not to say that specialisation is ineffective. After all, as we develop into fully-fledged humans in-utero, our cells gradually organise according to their specialisations. However, our various specialised systems do not, over time, develop ways of functioning in isolation to anything else in our bodies. They also do not work out ways to operate more optimally at the expense of other parts of the body. I would not suggest, therefore, that businesses need to throw the specialisation baby out with the silo-ed bath water. To clarify that last statement, I would not suggest that everyone should learn how to do everything and be generalists who excel at every specialisation. I’m not suggesting that people’s jobs are determined by simply drawing a role from a hat, regardless of expertise, passion and talent. Specialisation matters; silos do not. It simply does not follow that just because we need people with special talents and expertise, the best way to bring these out is to corral them into functionally-aligned departments and fit them with blinkers so they only see their departmental targets.
The important point is to view specialisation through systems thinking eyes, not mechanistic eyes. If I’m a departmental manager in an organisation where silo-ed thinking dominates, I will do my best to ensure that those who report to me reach the targets I set. If I see the business this way, I will use the words “my team” to mean the folks I manage.
Silos are not simply how an organisation behaves. If it was that simple, people would have stopped working in silos long ago and started behaving differently. They spring out of a mentality, a set of assumptions. Like everything that goes on, what happens happens because there are some assumptions that underly things. There’s where the work of getting rid of silos begins. As I’ve written before, most of these assumptions are unconscious and unquestioned. In silo-ed organisations, there are some assumptions related to the best way of doing things: work is best organised according to functional specialisation, work is optimised when we have reporting hierarchies that monitor achievement of targets, targets are good. Time to question these assumptions.
If sales are down, it’s the fault of the sales department. If the work of the creative team is sub-standard, it’s the fault of the creative team. If clients are unhappy with the service they are getting, it’s the fault of the account management team. Perhaps. Perhaps. Firstly, though, how about looking at lower sales, poor quality creative work or dissatisfied clients as noise in the wider system. Then the senior team can work together to work out how to act on the whole system, rather than on individual departments. Rather than being the responsibility of an individual department, perhaps it’s related to the lack of interconnectedness and flow, which is determined by the business structure. The structure that comes out of the mindset.
Getting out of a silo-ed mentality is about shifting assumptions and perceptions of how a business’s problems are perceived. I believe this shift is happening when someone in the senior executive team pipes up and says, “We are a microcosm of the whole business and we have to operate better before the whole business will operate better.” They are beginning to perceive the work of the senior team as making decisions collectively, rather than arguing their corner from their departmental specialisation….rather than fighting for better resources for their department….rather than pointing fingers at other people’s departments. They are also beginning to see the senior team as “their team”.
The design of a business is heavily influenced by the mindsets and assumptions we bring to it as to how it works best. When the mindset is that a business is a machine and the job of management is to control it, it is then reasonable that one would design something that is controllable. Functionally-based departments with hierarchical reporting lines. This is why I propose that silos are not simply something that happens despite our desire for it not to; we get silos because our beliefs about how businesses best operate design them into being.
It’s a telling comment when I hear an executive team member talk about “their team” and they mean the folks they manage. I would suggest that for the members of the executive team, “their team” is their peers. The other members of the executive team; not the people they manage. When they hear their staff say “that stuff over there (in that other department) has nothing to do with us”, there is the opportunity to reflect on how that silo-ed attitude might be replicated within their senior team. If they then take it this next step and make the “microcosm” observation, things have begun to change. When the executive team gets to this place, the opportunity for re-working the work is there. ”My team is the rest of you executive team members. We need to flow better together. We need to work together to create value.” Then maybe they can get to: “How do we need to re-organise the system so that it is creating value for our customers, not our managers?”
Drawing on expertise and people’s specialisations, then, can happen when there is a re-organising of the business structure; when people work together, across disciplines. Because if people’s jobs are to respond to customer demand and not management control (another example of a mindset thingy), then perhaps structuring the work to be more responsive to customers is a better way to go. Perhaps. Maybe getting teams to clump together according to what would best serve the customer might be a better way to organise things. Perhaps. Maybe getting teams to consist of, say, a creative specialist, an accounts specialist, a production specialist and a sales specialist could be a better way to organise things at work. Perhaps. Rather than have all the creatives clumped together, all the accounts folks clumped together and so on. In silos.
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.
November 12, 2012
Sometimes you read something that really strikes a chord. I recently saw this quote from Kurt Vonnegut: ”We have to continually be jumping off cliffs and developing our wings on the way down.” In other times, I would read this and it would simply seem like a poetic truism, but I’m currently experiencing a number of shifts in my personal situation which made me read that quote as if it was written just for me. These shifts are creating a fair amount of uncertainty and bringing up all the associated emotions that go with it. In times like this, it is useful for me to remember that trying to control what is going on in my world will not lead to the best outcomes and in fact, that I need to call on the kind of resources that will best keep me going in times of uncertainty. These resources, in my experience, are more related to responsiveness rather than planning, innovation rather than inertia. While some of my uncertainty is environmental, some of it is by choice: I have jumped off a cliff. It would be rather contrarian of me, therefore, to complain about some of my current uncertainty as I am its author, and for good reason, so the thing for me to remember is a lesson from one of my old teachers: “It’s sometimes not so important what you do; it’s what you do NEXT.”
If we are falling from a cliff, either because we’ve jumped or because circumstances have pushed us, what we need is the ability to be in the moment, thus summoning up all our creativity to learn how not to hit the ground. Our brains are hard-wired to cause us to respond to uncertainty in predictable ways. As Thayer et al write, there is “an evolutionary advantage associated with the assumption of threat” and that our “‘default’ response to uncertainty, novelty, and threat is the sympathoexcitatory preparation for action commonly known as the fight or flight response”. Essentially, because we have inherited a certain vigilance to our environment, when faced with uncertainty, we unconsciously prepare for the worst. While useful for survival if we are about to be attacked by a lion, it’s hardly the most progressive state to be in if we want to thrive. This goes for businesses living in uncertain times as well as individuals.
More people are joining the precariat, a new class of people, not in the traditional Marxian sense of “class”, but a section of the populace bound together by the increasing uncertainty in their lives. If, in the face of uncertainty, more people are living their lives in a state of vigilance, fear and worry, how can this not affect business? When more of what is going on in the business world is unprecedented, how can businesses pretend that we will magically go back to “business as usual” once all this financial mayhem goes away. We won’t; things are irrevocably changing. In the fog of transition, the only certainty is uncertainty.
When the business of a business is pretty predictable, as it was in the Industrial era, there is less need to focus on resilience or responsiveness. In the old days, business could undertake planning exercises and be reasonably safe in the knowledge that the functioning of the business would be able to successfully execute its plans and that the environment would not impinge too greatly on those plans. In the modern era where knowledge is “a core commodity and the rapid production of knowledge and innovation is critical to organisational survival” (Bettis and Hitt, 1995, ‘The new competitive landscape’), business needs to get to grips with the reality of uncertainty and decreasing forecastability. Businesses also need to remember that they are living systems within wider living systems. Global environmental, political, economic and financial challenges all impact on a business’s ability to succeed.
There is much out there which indicates that we are living in a VUCA world. Volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. While, for some, this may seem like a relatively recent phenomenon, I would contend that the world has been thus for much longer, but that what we have been learning in recent years is allowing us to see what we previously may not have. Systems thinking, for example, is giving us mental constructs with which to make a little sense of a sometimes confusing world. If dealing with uncertainty requires us to embrace it, as some suggest, the question remains, “How do we do that?” It can seem a little glib to simply say, “the world is uncertain, embrace it!”
If, on the way down from that cliff, I succumb to my anxiety, it is impossible for me to be spontaneous. Anxiety and spontaneity sit at opposite ends of a spectrum. Without my spontaneity, I have no spark for my creativity and it is my human creativity which will assist me to come up with new enabling solutions.
Creativity and innovation at work are not just about coming up with new products and services. They are about how we respond to each other, our customers and the business environment. Creativity, however, is strategically linked with spontaneity. As Dr. J.L. Moreno writes in “Who Shall Survive?” (1953), an “individual may have a high degree of creativity but be entirely without spontaneity, a creator ‘without arms’….Spontaneity can enter the creatively endowed individual and evoke a response.” He goes on to say that there have been many more Michelangelos than the one who painted the Sistine Chapel, but “the thing that separates them is the spontaneity which, in the successful cases, enables the carrier to take full command of his (or her) resources, whereas the failures are at a loss with their treasures.” Furthermore, “spontaneity operates in the present, now and here; it propels the individual towards an adequate response to a new situation or a new response to an old situation.”
How do you respond to something novel?
When we encounter something unexpected, do we push ahead with our plans? Do we assist others to embrace uncertainty or do we attempt to keep things as planned so that we don’t unsettle people? For example, in developing people’s abilities to have workplace conversations about performance, we emphasise that there is no “step 1, step 2″ procedure for carrying these out. This unsettles some folks. For one thing, such conversations can be pretty emotionally charged, especially if someone is calling someone else’s under-performing at work. How will they react? What will I do if they get angry/defensive/start crying? For another thing, no conversation can be scripted unless you are an actor on stage. Even in this situation, actors develop the ability to be responsive to what others say to them and how they say it, otherwise we see a bunch of individuals reciting memorised lines, which is not how good drama unfolds on stage. Even though they know what comes next, a good actor will be alive to the present moment and deliver their lines as if they are hearing what the other has said for the first time. Responsiveness.
We can ready ourselves for a challenging conversation, partly by rehearsing what we want to say, but we also need to be ready to respond to what the other person says to us. We encourage people to think bigger about these conversations as one of many elements in their relationship. They are a process within a bigger process, not a stand-alone event. For this reason, we don’t provide tools and techniques, we offer spontaneity development. As I quoted previously, Dr. J.L. Moreno said spontaneity is the capacity to offer a novel response to an old situation or an adequate (i.e. good enough) response to a new situation. Any workplace conversation or relationship would benefit from developing this capacity. Tools, tricks and tips are not sufficient in order to navigate the complex spaces we inhabit at work. They are useful to a point, but the application of these in a mindful and purposeful manner needs to come from the individual. In order to deploy all the knowledge and skills that this individual at their ready disposal, the individual needs to be in a state of readiness; this is the spontaneity state. When we are warmed up to a spontaneity state, we bring out all we have developed and learnt and sythesise them in an appropriate and effective manner to come up with a novel response to a familiar situation or a “good enough” response to something we have never met before. We don’t struggle to remember useful tips, we don’t get anxious about what we are about to say or do, we don’t fail to bring out what we know we know. We flow in response to uncertainty, sometimes producing something that surprises even ourselves. Creativity.
Progressiveness is more than just coping
In many businesses I encounter, the tried and tested no longer seems as effective. Perhaps the conventional marketing wisdom or sales tactics no longer bring in results like they used to. They’ve tried sweeteners, good cop-bad cop, management directives, staff socials and everything else they can think of, but loyalty and engagement seem to be on the wane. As Andrew Zolli describes, we are being called on to develop capabilities that are about “rolling with the waves, instead of trying to stop them“. Accommodating them rather than building bigger storm walls. I have previously described my experience of first arriving in India and realising while looking down on a Mumbai street that it was a river and that in order to get by, I’d have to go with its flow rather than try to swim upstream.
Politicians concerning themselves with the interests of the precariat talk about building a new progressive agenda. I like that word: progressive. It fits with a model of human functioning that I apply in my work, both for individuals and for businesses. Whether we are the authors of our uncertainty or it is the product of our environment (or a little of both, as I’m currently experiencing), our response to it is key. The enabling solutions lie in finding ways to (re)gain a sense of agency in our lives. Agency, mind; not control. The model I apply comes out of the work of the work of Lynette Clayton and has been refined by Max Clayton: we operate out of Roles which are fragmenting, coping or progressive.
In every living moment, we respond to our world by taking up a Role. We learn Roles from the day we are born until the day we die, as we are constantly meeting new situations. The term “fragmenting” corresponds to “dysfunctional”, reflecting the inner experience of acting in this manner. Fragmenting Role responses are backward-looking, fear-based, stuck, regressive. Coping Role responses are those which have served us well in the past and have become almost habitual but which are more oriented to surviving rather than thriving. Progressive Role responses are those which move us forward. Each of us has a motivating force which takes us forward in our lives and the Roles we enact that take us there are progressive. In times of uncertainty, it seems sensible that we would operate out of our coping or fragmenting Roles; this is related to that hard-wiring. The ones that are most life-giving and useful to us, however, are the progressive.
Once again, we will find it easier to enact out of our progressive Role systems if we can warm up to our spontaneity. Our progressive Roles are the ones which will enable us to thrive in the face of uncertainty. Embracing uncertainty, then, is an exercise in consciousness. Zolli talks about soldiers, ER workers and first-responders training in contemplative practices to assist them to remain resilient. If our hard-wiring is constantly on the alert and tells us that the uncertain is a threat, mindfulness can help us to short circuit that hard-wiring.
What is required is consciousness.
So we don’t like uncertainty? Tough. Just because we don’t like it, doesn’t mean we don’t have to deal with it. The question becomes, “How can I manage myself in the midst of uncertainty?”
So what am I doing about my current uncertainty? Well, after a few particularly challenging days, I’m writing about it. This activity is helping me to be mindful: of myself and of my resources. These are plenty. Some are intrapersonal, some are interpersonal and some are supra-personal. I’m remembering that if I languish in anxiety, I’ll find it harder to keep going. I’m remembering the moments in my life when I have felt spontaneous. I’m remembering my mother’s recent email telling me to trust in my strengths and that I’m a very capable person. I’m remembering to take exercise and eat my greens.
To quote an old friend of mine, worry doesn’t get the cat fed.
September 8, 2012
“Many people live in the hallucination that they can truly lead other people without being able to lead themselves and this is pure fantasy. It is much easier to try to change other people and not being willing to change ourselves. This exercise of authenticity is very much needed if we truly want to inspire, touch and move the brains and the souls of those around us.” So writes Mario Alonso Puig, Fellow and Doctor, Harvard Medical School in the recent World Economic Forum report, Global Agenda Council on New Models of Leadership.
I’m initially a little hesitant when I read something that uses the word “model” because of the meaning we still tend to attach to that word “model” in our consumerist societies. New models of leadership, huh? (For this, I have been too often disappointed and end up reading some fast food version of what it means to be a leader: barely nutritional, highly addictive and something which passes through the system quickly.) Part of that hallucination to which Puig so eloquently refers is, I believe, related to a world in which we think we can continually “get” and “consume”. Gimme gimme gimme, make it quick, make it punchy, make it easily digestible. Don’t need to really soak it in, it’s just going to come out the other end anyway because, like a lot of fast food, I’m going to be hungry again in a little while and whatever is to hand will do. What’s the next leadership model I need to (rapidly) familiarise myself with, then?
This WEF report, however, sets out more than just a model. It’s a descriptive, and rather compelling, vision of what it could mean to be a leader and also points the way to how we could regard leader development in a VUCA world. When the world we navigate is increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous, how do we respond? As the report states, integral to effective leadership is the inner journey leaders must embark upon. This is not about tips and strategies, rather it is something to which there are no short-cuts. Developing self-knowing can sometimes feel elusive. Just as we get to grips with one thing, it can seem to vanish, unlike technical information, for which there is a manual.
There are concepts and phenomena that are becoming more ubiquitous and mainstream such as “emotional intelligence“, “mirror neurons“, “flourishing” and all those other really interesting things that science and rigorous research are demonstrating have some truth to them. Any leader who wishes to remain relevant and become more effective would do well to familiarise themselves with some of these, however knowing about them and actually applying them to oneself are two different things. There is a world of difference between a seminar that describes emotional intelligence and an experiential workshop in which you immerse yourself in stretching your abilities to relate with people and in which you practice reversing roles with others. You will gain information from the one, but the insights gained may not result in changing who you are. You will become different as a result of the other.
In answer to the question, “What is the best model of leadership?” I would suggest, it depends. Not terribly helpful I know, but it depends on who you are and that question is one to which you are far better placed to answer than me. We will all find various models or tools of more or less use. We will all find different descriptions of leader behaviour of more or less relevance. One thing is sure: learning who we are is essential if we are indeed “to inspire, touch and move the brains and souls of those around us” and the effectiveness of a model is, I suggest, going to be directly correlated to the level of self-knowing that the person attempting to apply it has achieved.
Models are all well and good but I believe the chief question to address is not “What is the best model?” but “How can I become more authentic?” or “Who am I and how do I bring the real me to my role as a leader?” In my time, I’ve encountered people who are not in formally-recognised “leadership” roles, but who exercise themselves with this question daily and exhibit what I would call excellent leader capabilities. This is the kind of thinking I infer from the WEF report: that leader development is not just for those in management roles, but in a social economy, leader capabilities are people capabilities. All kinds of people who bring a kind of authenticity and real human-ness to their work indicate the good stuff that more CEOs would do well to take heed of. There have been the internet provider’s customer service representatives who answer my grumpy phone calls and who manage to both help me solve my technical problems as well as ease my frustrations and keep me as a customer. That’s leadership. There were the hotel reservation staff who actually listened to my concerns and went the extra mile, and before I even check in have provided me an experience of customer service that makes me feel like I’ll be staying there again and again. That’s leadership.
A model of leadership ought, in my view, be descriptive, rather than prescriptive. In a world still dominated by “I want”, “What can I get?” and “Just give me the 10 top tips,” we need to be careful of limiting our development as leaders to descriptions of one aspect of this without also taking on board that the task at hand is self-discovery. Fine to learn a new top tip, but we have to avoid reducing leadership to a set of behaviours or a set of attitudes. Layering these on without also looking inside will be inauthentic. Who are you really, underneath all that make-up? Authentic leadership and being an authentic leader seems to me much more about being the leaders we want to be, not modelling ourselves in accordance with the latest trend, which could be akin to wearing someone else’s clothes which are slightly ill-fitting and in which we never really feel comfortable.
“Real learning gets to the heart of what it means to be human. Through learning we re-create ourselves. Through learning we become able to do something we never were able to do. Through learning we reperceive the world and our relationship to it. Through learning we extend our capacity to create, to be part of the generative process of life. There is within each of us a deep hunger for this type of learning.” Peter Senge
Part of discovering who we want to be as a leader implies doing something that nobody else has done in the entire history of the universe: being you. I sometimes joke that a really useful personality metric would be one that has not four or 16 or 30 types of people, but seven billion. Certainly, we have more that unites us than separates us; certainly we share 99% of our genes with mice, but the chemistry of all the roles we enact in our lives synthesises into one and only one unique living entity.
I have made the point in a couple articles that we humans learn best when in the company of other humans. I have also made the point that it is nonsense to teach children that they must “do their own work”. I am not contradicting myself when I advocate for discovering oneself and being the unique leader you want to be. It is a interesting paradox that humans do learn best with cooperating with others and interacting with others, but that we need to expend our own energy and leave our own comfort zones if we are to learn anything. Doing our own learning, however, does not mean isolating yourself from the input and assistance of others. We do learn by watching what others do and adopting some of their ways of being, adapting them to fit our personal values. Adopt, adapt and improve. We learn by giving and receiving feedback from others.
When Ackoff said, “If each part of a system is made to operate as efficiently as possible, the system as a whole will not operate as effectively as possible. The performance of a system depends more on how its parts interact than on how they act independently of each other,” he could have also been referring to each of us as individual systems within larger systems. Maximising our intellect without doing the work on ourselveswill not make us better leaders. As the WEF report says, part of learning how to manage in a VUCA world is related to growing “head” and “hand” skills. These are given greater impact when growing the “heart” skills. They are inextricably linked. If I was to ask you which was the most important organ in your body, you might struggle to answer. None are more important, all are essential and they all need each other in order to have a healthy and well-functioning body. Same thing applies. No use learning the latest tips for having robust performance conversations if you are shy of real encounter with another human being.
If self-development is a journey you wish to undertake, I would signpost a few things:
It’s divergent. All the answers don’t become apparent all at once. It’s unpredictable. If you are someone who needs to always know “why” before you do the next thing, you will need to learn how to manage your frustration. For myself, I have had to develop greater equanimity in the face of confusion. Breathing helps. I often wish I could show the same patience towards myself that I have with others, but there’s more grist for my mill. Sometimes the “why” is the last thing to come (if at all). Doing something which uses the word “toolbox” is probably not ideal because what you’ll learn about yourself cannot always be listed as an inventory beforehand.
It’s messy. If you are someone who needs to be in control, you will also need to learn how to manage your anxiety. Self-awakeness involves seeing things that we may not always like about ourselves and embracing them as part of who we are. It involves “crossing the threshold of your doubts and fears,” as Puig also says. I’ve had to develop greater balance in myself in order to help with this one. Recently, I received feedback about something and I literally felt wobbly. Nature and walking (or even better, walking in nature) helps me with this one.
It’s developmental. If you need “step 1, step 2, step 3″, you will probably need to let that go. Letting a two-year old take you for a walk would be good training for that. It’s not a linear “from A to B” sort of thing, it’s more like from “EH??” to “Be”: a meander from one interesting thing to another. The “heart” journey is one on which each step builds on the previous ones and each step reveals the next thing to head towards. You can’t plan this journey, but you can set your bearings to head in a direction. Developing more “flow” has helped me to meet this one. Travelling in Uganda, India and Nepal in my late 20s taught me about flow. I remember looking down from my hotel balcony onto a Mumbai street when I first arrived and it literally looked like a river flowing. You dive in and go with it or get exhausted trying to swim upstream.
Because the landscape is uncharted and confusing, this inner journey really can be quite unsettling. I recently challenged someone inadvertently on a belief they have of themselves. They knew that in a social workplace, it is important to be a good listener and empathic towards others. I could hear that they “got it” intellectually. When they said, “Of course I’m really good at empathising with my staff and understanding where they come from,” I naively asked, “How would you know that?” They blushed, the smile turned to worry and something seemed to unsettle them, almost like they had uncovered something they hadn’t encountered in themselves before. Rather than become defensive or brush it off, they boldly decided to dig a little deeper. Brave soul. We need courage to acknowledge our shortcomings (or at least acknowledge that we might have some!).
Using your powers for good? How would you know? Too many folks in business still operate out of an “egosystem” mentality and not an “ecosystem” mentality (thanks to Otto Scharmer of MIT). I still hear managers say to me, “I need to be in control of what happens around here.” Really? If we continue to operate unconsciously out of mindsets that are not conducive to a healthy system, what hope for business? Self-discovery involves becoming awake to our prejudices (Theory X anyone?) and our personally constructed glass ceilings.
Do you believe you are being supportive, empathic and compassionate? How would you know?
Do you think you know yourself? How would you know?
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?
April 17, 2012
The last thing a fish notices is the water. I’ve said it before, and once again am reminded of it in my work with clients. How do managers ever effect real change when they are steeped in the same fetid water that holds the rest of the system back from better performance? I’m in the privileged position of being able to come in as an external consultant and see things that those who work there have long since stopped seeing, feeling and smelling. It doesn’t take long when you join an organisation to “go native”, i.e. to become infected by the patterns and behaviours of the culture of the organisation and stop seeing them as ineffective or even bizarre. I wrote an article some time ago that described how organisational cultures replicate themselves and it’s always affirming when I hear a manager tell me the same story in an effort to describe how they ended up in their situation.
Similarly, it’s easy for a culture to lose sight of its strengths. Just as quickly as we stop seeing what is bizarre and take it as normal, we also overlook the capabilities and relationships that already exist and take them for granted, failing to build on them and use them to our best advantage.
One manager and his 2IC have got a pretty good picture of the kind of culture they wish to create, and get a little frustrated when they are stymied in their efforts by people who have been there for many years. The vision they have includes improved customer service, increased initiative-taking on the part of the staff and a workplace orientation to both performance AND friendliness (no, the two are not mutually exclusive) …..in short, it’s a picture that will ensure longevity. There is plenty in it for staff to work in this new way. They will have greater long-term job security, they will have greater autonomy and less micro-management from the boss, they will have more appreciation from more satisfied customers. However, because “it’s always been done this way”, there is resistance. I’m reminded of the old adage, “People don’t resist change; they resist being changed.” Initially, the manager was stuck in confrontation and faced with bloody-minded laziness with some of the staff, who would creatively find ways to avoid doing anything different. I encouraged him to think differently and take a different tack.
Systems thinking focuses on transformational change. This requires being able to see the organisation from a bigger picture perspective. Tiny incremental steps and tinkering around the edges will not effect the changes that many folks are looking for. They don’t shift the culture as effectively because these tiny changes will continue to be overwhelmed by the predominant culture which is working hard to maintain itself. For this manager, this means not fighting the resistance. Rather than go head to head with belligerent staff who don’t like the changes, taking some distance is having more effect. He is behaving in a way which is congruent with how he will behave when the new culture takes hold. In response, staff are having to shift how they respond to him. As the manager ceases to micro-manage and gets on their backs less, the staff are left wondering what is going on. As a result, they are taking a little more initiative and just doing what he has been haranguing them to do for ages. They are realising that if they don’t do the job he is now leaving them to do, there will be a consequence, of which they will have been the author. He is becoming more careful about choosing his fights, as it were, and granting the staff more space to do what they know how to do really well. He then follows up with regular performance conversations where he and staff can reflect on how much work is getting done and how effectively this is happening, always mindful of getting staff to do more of the talking. He is slowly beginning to see the old culture of “manager dependency” shift to one where he has more time to do his job, rather than chase other people to do theirs.
Another group are in the process of re-organising themselves so that they are working more effectively. They have inherited a departmental structure that is not fit to achieve what they wish to achieve. They focus their gaze on what is not working, their detractors and the things which get in their way. I remember when learning to ski being told not to look at the queue of skiers at the bottom of the lift and instead to look at the clear space where I could stop safely. I forget how many times I had to crash into people before I actually learnt to look at where I wanted to go, instead of where I didn’t. Again, as an external consultant, I can see as plain as day how much in the way of strengths and resources this group of highly capable professionals already have, which, if deployed with greater awareness, could actually help them surmount the obstacles they struggle with. I can see how much alignment they have around common values and beliefs. While there is an impatience in some members of this group to just “get on with the work”, the manager and several key others are giving pause. This is so that they, as a whole group, can get a really good picture of what resources they have, where they are headed and what their purpose is. Once this is solidified in people’s minds, they will be better able to carry out the work they are itching to engage in. They will focus their energies on what they do well and what alliances they have, rather than what they don’t have or what the barriers are. They will have greater clarity of purpose. They will have clearer lines of accountability and shared authority. They will have a group which responds to its customers, both internal and external, with greater authenticity and less burnout.
Systems thinking focuses on values, purpose and meaning. It’s important, as a leader, to learn how to see systems and to guide others to see the bigger picture as well. The patterns that occur within a workplace are a reflection of the inner workings of that workplace-its values and beliefs. A leader who wishes to effect change will first get a real grasp of how the system works and encourage others to do likewise. In many cases, a thing observed is a thing changed. Look for patterns; not much that goes on in this world is a one-off. What do these patterns say about the organisation? What are the values and beliefs that are being enacted? What relationships does the system have which are life-giving, not energy-sapping? What, if any, core beliefs or principles does the system live by? Systems thinking leaders, like the manager of this group, will help the system develop and maintain a sense of identity and optimism. Effectiveness comes out of shared values and purpose, shared identity and relationships, shared interests and information; not hierarchical imposition. The focus is not so much on efficient individuals as an effective whole system; a living, breathing entity.
A systems thinking leader will train his or lens on the vision for the future, ensure others have a clear line of sight to this vision and trust that the actors within the system will achieve the kind of collaboration and assembly required in order to achieve the system’s objectives. This requires a shift in how managers view themselves. It requires them to trust the people that work there. It requires them to foster learning, values and relationships, not micro-management and control. It requires managers to stop seeing themselves less as “Doers-in-chief” and more like orchestra conductors or a ship’s navigator. This implies that a manager, if they wish to develop greater leadership, will need to develop personal capabilities that allow them to be in ambiguity with greater ease. They will need to be more comfortable letting go of power and control. They will need to trust people and value difference.
Obviously, there is much more to add to this topic and these are simply the reflections that have been darting about my mind these last few days. I value comments and contributions that build on the thoughts I set out. I look forward to hearing from you.
March 30, 2012
I have been inspired by Paul Slater’s excellent article this week, Getting Teams Working, to reflect on some work I’ve been doing recently with a team. A good chunk of my training and experience has been in group dynamics and there is direct relevance of this body of knowledge to organisational life. In the workplace, there is some growing awareness of group dynamics as a key influencer of organisational effectiveness. Many people are now familiar with Bruce Tuckman’s group development model: Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing and Adjourning; and it is good that people who manage teams of people are opening their eyes to the processes that go on when humans gather together, for whatever purpose. Despite our best efforts, there is something mystifying that seems to get in the way of team effectiveness and it can be useful to look “underneath” at the dynamics and unexpressed assumptions out of which we operate.
Perhaps less well-known in this sphere is the work of Wilfred Bion. Bion trained in medicine and went on to develop an interest in psychoanalysis, eventually immersing himself in the study of groups and group process. He was commissioned into the British Army during World War II, working in military hospitals. Here he devoted himself to finding ways to treat post-traumatic stress and devised ways of working with these patients in a group context. Out of his work in group dynamics, he went on to write “Experiences in Groups” (1961) which became a seminal work in the field of group psychotherapy, providing a basis for the application of group theory in many other fields.
I think it’s important to remember that there are, indeed, many models of group development, Tuckman’s being perhaps the most well-known, and that these are more descriptive than prescriptive. What I mean by this is that these models are not stages we “take groups through” but they are phenomena that groups experience naturally. The various models are simply different lenses through which to observe these group phenomena and once observed, we can begin to make sense of the undercurrents that affect our teams and groups. From here, we can develop some capabilities within ourselves to respond more ably to what goes on in our teams.
All of those models have some validity in my eyes, but for me, the work of Bion seems to have been the one that has most unlocked some of the mystery of what goes on in groups. Anyone who manages teams, whether that be a project team or an ongoing team within a business, will have found that the work of that team sometimes seem to be sabotaged by things seemingly unrelated to its work. This is sometimes put down to “personality clashes”, politicking or competing professional interests. While this sometimes may be the case, there is another lens through which we can see underperformance or ineffectiveness in teams. I am currently working with a team who are embarking on a transformation process which may eventually entail some reorganising of their workloads, responsibilities and lines of authority and accountability. The manager has undertaken to initiate a process involving every member of this team contributing to shaping its form, so that they end up with a team structure that is fit for its purpose, rather than soldiering on with a structure that they have inherited from the past and which is proving to be ineffective and unwieldy. This process is, unsurprisingly, generating a little uncertainty in the team members.
Transition and change naturally provoke feelings of anxiety and uncertainty. Once again, we are dealing with feelings, whether we like it or not. As Louise Altman writes frequently on her excellent blog The Intentional Workplace, emotions are there; it is nonsense to pretend otherwise. Even if we try to hide our heads in the sand and focus purely on work outputs, what goes on underneath will impact on a team or organisation’s ability to be effective. I recommend having a look at Louise’s article, 5 Reasons Business Can’t Afford to Ignore Psychology for Another 100 Years. In it, she suggests that business can no longer afford to dismiss the impact of emotions on our abilities to work well and to be well. To continue treating people as resources and automatons a la Henry Ford (“Why, when I only want to hire a pair of hands, do I get a whole person?”) is very simply, unsustainable.
So if you are willing to peer underneath the functioning of your team, you will be treated to a fascinating display of raw human-ness. Above the surface, what we can see, is what Bion calls the “work group”. This is the stated and overt reason teams form. Groups and organisations come together to pursue sensible and realistic goals and this “work group” is what keeps people on task. Below the surface is what he calls the “basic assumption” groups. They are the unspoken assumptions about how the group operates. Bion asserts that teams sometimes fall into what he calls madness; this is the skewed functioning that arises in response to anxiety and uncertainty.
Bion observed three kinds of “basic assumption” groups: fight-flight, dependency and pairing. The “madness” of which Bion spoke and which he describes with these three “basic assumption” groups, is the anxiety that arises from change, unpredictability and volatility. In response to a VUCA environment, team members will adopt one of these basic assumptions, and the ensuing behaviours will interfere with the team’s ability to achieve its work goals effectively.
If a group is operating from a fight-flight assumption, people behave as if the primary need is self-preservation. Threatened by change, people resort to either fighting something (or someone) or running away from something (or someone). A team leader will observe scapegoating, aggressiveness or unreasonable defensiveness amongst the group or alternatively, avoidance behaviours such as tangential conversations, overuse of humour as a distraction from serious issues, lateness to meetings or anything else that circumvents the work at hand.
If the group is operating out of dependency mode, the primary aim is to achieve certainty or safety. In other words, when things are unclear and changeable, the group strives to regain some sense of security. A dependency basic assumption says that protection will come in the form of one person and they become overly dependent on that one person to “fix” it or make it better. They abdicate responsibility and look to the identified leader, who is of course omniscient and omnipotent, to sort things out. A team leader who observes dependency behaviour will be greeted with acquiescent silence in response to a work-related question, a “just tell me what to do and how to do it” attitude or excessive flattery and “people-pleasing” behaviours. Conversely, the group may “rebel” against the leader; counter-dependency is the flip side of the same coin and the leader may feel like he or she is subject to mass mutiny, with their every decision, suggestion or initiative being rejected.
Pairing derives from the underlying assumption that the group will be saved by the pairing of two of its members, who together will metaphorically create a new messiah. Effective team functioning is frozen in the hope that two people will create the kind of leadership to take them to the promised land of “everything is OK”. This may take the form of a number of pairs emerging within a team or the whole team sitting back while one pair comes to their rescue. Team leaders will observe a pair of allies spending lots of time having private conversations which, unbeknownst to him or her, will be characterised by “S/he doesn’t know what s/he’s doing; if only s/he’d do it our way, things would be ticking along nicely.” During team meetings, the team leader will notice these two folks sharing knowing glances with each other, the unspoken message being, “See? S/he’s doing it again.” ”There you go, that’s what we were talking about earlier.” ”Told you s/he would say that.” It may be that these two do things at work that are outside the remit of the “work group” but they believe they are justified because they actually know best. Something in your gut tells you that these two are undermining you in some way, but it’s hard to put your finger on it.
When a group operates out of one of these basic assumption, it is important to remember that it is doing so unconsciously and is not aware of what is happening. The team becomes subject to the forces of its own dynamics and is immune to the logic and reason of external realities and work expectations.
When we first begin to observe these “basic assumption” behaviours, it can be tempting to resort to labels and become rigid or formulaic in our responses. There is nothing more frustrating than someone armed with a little psychological knowledge and adopting the mantle of Team Psychologist. Unfortunately there is no stock response to a team behaving out of one of these basic assumptions. There are no top tips or easy-to-apply strategies. Apply a lens so that you can make more sense of what is happening, but then go on to reflect. Each team has the right to its own character and its own story. When these underlying, unconscious processes take hold and begin to rope the leader in, and I believe they do inevitably, the trick is to learn how to respond with grace and humanity. Learning to keep going while “under fire” takes practice, resilience and lots of personal reflection on the part of whoever is in a position of leadership. Humans, when gathered together, are subject to deep psychological forces. If we are to keep our heads, we need to become aware of “what is ours” and what is a group phenomenon. Reflection is one of the best practices to help overcome the sense of frustration or overwhelm when we become affected by what goes on in our teams.
Becoming the kind of leader who courageously grapples with the dynamics of groups and teams requires ongoing interest and curiosity, magnanimity and humour. Attending to your team’s dynamics requires you to foster good relationships and open communication, tolerance for difference and collaboration. Therein lies the work of the 21st century leader.
January 27, 2012
W. Edwards Deming is quoted as saying, “Experience by itself teaches nothing.” In a fast-paced world where we are bombarded with more and more stimuli and we are called upon to carry out multiple tasks, this is truer now than ever before. Our lives are filled with more and varied experiences which, by themselves, leave us with nothing more than information. Sometimes we get to the end of our very busy days and the most we have made of it was, “I was run off my feet all day,” and we let go the opportunity to reflect on what it all meant to us and our lives. Are we doing what makes us happy? Are we spending our lives doing something meaningful to us? Are our lives enriched by the myriad of interactions and relationships we hold? Are we making a difference? If we were asked, we could probably recall the things that happen to us daily, but it is not sufficient to merely recollect if these experiences are to have enormous value to us. In our working lives, which are becoming more unpredictable and and revolve less around the carrying out of rote routine tasks, we are exposed to a veritable banquet of new experiences and interactions. Within these experiences lie the building blocks of our transformation.
To build on a previous article, while we certainly need to be open to new information and experiences, we need to do something purposeful with them. Often in my work, I have cause to reflect on the value of reflection. Just as every story has a beginning, a middle and an end, so do life’s little episodes. There is a beginning phase, called the ‘warm up’, the middle phase, where the action occurs, and then there is the last phase, in which meaning is made of the experiences in the action phase. This last phase is where the reflection happens. Reflection is essential in order for the significance of the action to be realised. All too often, we get to the end of the action phase and we hurriedly move on to the next thing. It’s all do, do, do.
I often liken it to digesting. If it weren’t for our digestive system, we would find ourselves either unable to take in any more food or passing food straight through our bodies without the benefit of extracting the nutrients that we need to build and grow. A banquet table filled with food has no significance to us until we take the food into our bodies and let our enzymes go to work. Only when this has occurred and our cells are making use of the nutrients is the food of any real use to us. Experience is much the same; only when we have digested it and made conscious meaning of it does it provide us with sustenance and the building blocks for growth.
One of the most skilled experiential trainers I have ever had the privilege to work with, John Bergman, once said, “I provide people with experiences. I know they’ve had one because I can watch them having it. What I don’t know is what they’ve learnt from it. The reflection afterwards is the most important bit.” Thankfully, I read more people writing about the importance of transfer of learning in the workplace. Whether you are running a training course, carrying out some one-to-one coaching, facilitating a business simulation with a bunch of senior execs or teaching people to apply social media in their work, it behoves you to facilitate and guide some reflection on what you have been asking people to learn. Real learning is integrated into who we are as people. Otherwise, it’s not learnt. Unless we digest and make meaning of something new, it will pass right through us. It’s not an added extra; it’s an integral part of the learning process.
In setting up a learning programme with a new client, I have sometimes been asked, “What will the ‘take home’ be?” If I’m honest, I would say, “I don’t know.” I could tell you what my agenda will be. I could tell you what exercises I will get people to do. I could tell you what I’d like people to learn. I could tell you that I have a great experiential process that will show sales staff the way to providing better customer experiences. However, I think we are well past the time when we can assume that just because someone has sat in a training room that they will have learnt what the trainer or their boss or the HR Manager wants them to learn. Certainly, businesses require people to learn things that will assist them to excel at their jobs and, certainly, businesses want this elusive thing called ROI and certainly, businesses want to spend their L&D budgets on something purposeful that will provide benefits to the people and the business. That said, spending L&D money is no guarantee of learning or development unless the learning programme (whether that’s a series of coaching sessions or an e-learning programme or leadership development programme) has reflection and integration built in to the programme. So what’s the take home? That can depend entirely on how much reflection and integration I ask of people in the session. If there is none, I’m leaving the ‘take home’ to chance; perhaps some of the people are already good at reflecting and meaning-making, perhaps some of them are not.
Developing the role of Astute Reflector, however, is not only applicable in the context of formal learning; far from it. More of what we need to absorb and integrate comes from our daily experiences and interactions at work than from ‘formal’ learning situations. Bringing the learning into work is more than a zeitgeist catch-phrase; it’s about how you view everything that you do, everything that happens to you, every conversation you have. Is your working day just a series of things to ‘get through’ or are you making the most of your daily experiences, pleasant and not so pleasant, as learning fodder? Do you get to the end of a busy week with a sense of indigestion because you haven’t processed and made meaning of the week’s events? We need to shift our thinking so we see that everything that goes on at work is about learning. There are some compelling benefits that can come to us from developing the role of Astute Reflector in our lives.
We become better at learning from mistakes. When our Astute Reflector role is well-developed, we regularly stop and debrief, either by ourselves or with others, to examine what went well and what didn’t go so well. Once we have made this conscious, the chances of us repeating our mistakes begin to fall dramatically.
We distill the ingredients for success. Rather than leaving good performance to chance, becoming conscious of what works well also shows us the way to consistent excellence. This isn’t about finding the one or two things that work well and sticking to them, for ongoing reflection is the thing. However, we can improve our chances of future success if we have actually stopped to reflect.
We see patterns that were previously hidden. When we reflect, we connect the dots with other experiences in our lives. This begins to show up patterns. If you are a systems thinker, you will hold that everything is connected to everything else. Reflection illuminates those connections, from where we become more conscious of values, habits and attitudes which serve us well and those which don’t.
In his excellent article on mastering the art of self-reflection, Adam Chalker lists three kinds of reflection: reflection-on-action, reflection-in-action and critical self-reflection. I believe that all three of these are indispensable abilities of the role of Astute Reflector.
If we inculcate the practice of reflection-on-action, we habituate ourselves to asking questions such as:
- What was I trying to achieve?
- What did my actions and responses create: in myself, in others, in the wider system?
- What did I do well? What did I do too much of (that got in the way of excellence)? What did I do too little of?
- What does that remind me of (from the past)?
Growing the ability to reflect-in-action means that we become more able to notice ourselves while we are doing something and, if necessary, shift our attitudes or actions. It’s a bit like reading a map while we are on a journey, checking to see if we are heading where we want to go. If we wish to develop this habit, we can ask ourselves:
- What am I actually doing right now?
- How are people responding to me?
- How am I feeling right now?
- Am I heading in the right direction? If not, what change of course is required?
I’ve written before on the need to develop more critical self-reflection and self-awareness. This is taking a cold, hard look at ourselves and asking the challenging questions:
- What lies do I tell myself?
- What am I pretending not to see about myself?
- Am I doing something which truly brings meaning and joy to my life?
- How do I enact power? Is it personal potency or power over others?
- Do I like who I am?
Once again, these are not discretionary matters to consider only if we have the luxury of time; the role of Astute Reflector is core to the world of work today. Charles Darwin knew about the value of learning when he said, “It’s not the biggest, the brightest, or the best that will survive, but those who adapt the quickest.” Making it a habit to ask, “So what?” expands our awareness, helps us to fine tune our abilities and increases our sense of potency in the world. Best of all, it costs nothing to grow the role of Astute Reflector and maximise your day-to-day experiences. Cost of training programme that teaches you nothing new: $2000. Becoming more reflective and conscious: priceless.
November 30, 2011
These are, indeed, interesting times. We are bombarded, seemingly daily, with a slew of economic, social and environmental information which paints an ever more complex picture of what is going on in our world, our communities and our workplaces. Depending on the lenses through which we view this data, which data we choose to look at and which we choose to ignore, each of us, individually or in our ‘tribes’, make particular meaning of them. Either the global ice caps are about to melt and our major cities about to be submerged as sea levels rise, or we are simply experiencing the normal pattern of global warming and cooling that has been cycling for time immemorial. Either we are in the grip of the worst financial crisis ever or it is simply that we have run up more debt that we should have and we just need to tighten our belts for a little while until we get back to business-as-usual (whatever that is).
There does seem to be a consensus, however, that the only constant is change. I think it would also be hard to refute that the pace of change is increasing, as new technologies influence how we connect with each other, how we work and how we manage information and knowledge. Sometimes the changes we experience are of our own making because we realise that the status quo is no longer tenable, sometimes the changes are inflicted upon us.
To illustrate, let me introduce you to C1 and C2, two CEO’s of medium-sized knowledge-based organisations. They are both successful in their own right, both have been around for years, both of them know their organisations well. Both of them are big-hearted and have enormous passion for the work they and their organisations carry out. They are both extremely like-able and well-rounded human beings. We might say that both of their organisations are also successful, purely in the sense that they are still around, despite challenging economic times. Both of these organisations also operate in the same industry with very similar challenges. But if we look a little closer at these two CEO’s and their organisations, we might not say that they are equally successful. World-1, the world of C1, while still functioning, suffers from high staff turnover, low job satisfaction amongst the majority of employees and the kind of poor engagement that leads to staff actively bad-mouthing the place. World-2, the domain of C2, has extremely low turnover with people clamouring to work there, high levels of engagement to the point of staff bragging about where they work and excellent standards of performance.
C1 is great at managing. He forecasts, he plans, he commands. He has been around for many years and knows the organisation inside out. He structures, he re-structures, he is a very busy man. He prides himself on an impressive set of policies and procedures which are constantly under revision; when someone does something that he feels sits outside the organisation’s vision, he puts another new policy in place to mitigate it ever happening again. He tells people about the organisation’s business models, which he constantly invents and re-invents at a pace which keeps people just confused enough so that they don’t manage to really grasp them fully. Just as people seem to understand and come on board with the new model, another one appears. He doesn’t set out to bamboozle people, but that is how they experience his constant re-inventions and modifications.
C1 likes to make pronouncements about diversity. To talk to C1 and to read the organisational documents, you would think that they had reached some sort of diversity-nirvana. In practice, what you would see is a diverse micro-cosm of wider society with employees from a range of ethnic backgrounds, creeds and sexual orientations being shoe-horned into C1′s monocultural worldview. Groupthink is the norm and new staff learn quickly to conform. Margaret Mead could have been talking about C1 when she said, “What people say, what people do and what people say they do are entirely different things.”
In C2′s world, there are actually few formal pronouncements, discussions or debates around diversity. What you would see if you went into their domain, however, is a workplace characterised by acceptance of difference, active mutual respect, valuing of diverse contributions from a similar microcosm of the wider society and an organic and evolving culture which is constantly emergent from the interactions and relationships between everyone there. World-2 is messier, in a ‘we-aren’t-the-same-as-each-other’ kind of way, and this seems to create a real hot-house out of which spring genuinely novel and effective responses to clients and other stakeholders. World-2 often surprises itself and delights its external stakeholders with the kind of creativity that emerges from its diverse culture and people are compelled to come to work because it feels good.
In World-1, there is a heavy reliance on policies and procedures to maintain order. This leaves little room for individual creativity, for much of people’s daily work is delineated by the ‘Such-and-Such Manual’ or the ‘So-and-So Handbook’. The fear orientation, out of which this springs, means that the workplace hums to the background music of “Don’t Make Mistakes,” which then means that people default to endless, time-consuming conversations about whether they are doing the ‘right’ thing before making any move. People’s frame of reference is “What will C1 think is correct?” rather than “I feel trusted, along with my colleagues, to come up with the most appropriate course of action,” and there are so many policy documents that nobody could possibly know them all anyway. This over-reliance on codifying means that people’s view of the bigger picture is so obscured by manuals and charts that they have lost their clear line of sight to the organisation’s purpose. The only person to whom this seems clear is C1.
C2 knows that every organisation needs a certain number of policies, procedures and standard processes that provide enough of an agreed-upon structure within which to work. However, World-2 is light on documentation, providing only that which sets out clear, comprehensible guidelines and secures sensible levels of health and safety. World-2′s modus operandi could be called ‘emergent design’, with new ways of working emerging from necessity and the melting pot of staff interactions. There is a thriving culture of experimentation and reflection. People actually look forward to staff meetings because they are mostly filled with idea-generation and robust analysis of ‘what is working and how can we improve?’.
C1 loves hierarchies. C1 loves organisational charts. C1 gets a thrill when he identifies some kind of need for a new level of company structure and can redraw reporting lines. For a medium sized organisation, World-1 has an inordinately complicated structure. C2, who runs a similarly sized organisation, seems to know that the flatter the structure, the more agile it will be in its decision-making and the more responsive its navigation will be through the fast-changing world. C2 appears to keep a gentle hand on the tiller, always aware of what is going on should his intervention be required, but comfortable in the knowledge that their flatter structure is facilitating greater relationship and interactions between staff, thereby unleashing innovation, creative problem-solving and adaptability. C2 spends less of his time on organisational hierarchies and more of his time concerning himself with fostering healthy workplace relationships and ensuring a kind of ‘relational hygiene’ through regular team and individual development, coaching and mentoring. World-1 is struggling to keep up with change by re-jigging its organisational charts and process documentation, by which time the rest of the world has moved on; World-2 is adapting and responding to the environment in real time by drawing on good relationship and robust workplace conversations. World-1 keeps missing the bus; World-2 is driving it.
What could World-1 do to become more like World-2?
1) Grow a practice of reflection: develop the habit of reflecting and integrating. A working week should have time built in for reflecting on the work: what is working well and what needs adjusting. Be conscious of growing this habit or the speed of the world about us can overwhelm. If you sit at a sushi roundabout with food constantly flowing past, it can be tempting to try to grab at everything, without awareness and attention eating more and more quickly. Take time to savour what you are eating and let it digest before eating the next piece. So it is with events at work. Taking the time to digest, integrate and make meaning will lead to less indigestion and greater readiness to deal with the next thing.
2) Learn by doing: develop the habit of trying things out. Modelling and growing a culture of experimentation and what Dr. Mark Batey calls ‘intelligent failure’ will begin to unleash the creativity that each person brings to the workplace. This requires developing personal capabilities related to ‘letting go of control’ and ‘knowing and trusting others’, among others. Support people to make their best contribution to the system, rather than emphasising mechanical measures of individual KPIs.
3) Grow self-awareness: develop the habit of self-reflectiveness. Some of the latest research from the world of neuroscience is telling us, for example, that knowing and naming our feelings leaves us less at their behest and more able to respond appropriately to things around us. Change can bring up scary feelings and if we learn about ourselves and how we feel about change, it can point the way to what we need to learn so that change is something we embrace, rather than something to manage. If you are interested to know more, Louise Altman writes some intelligent articles on emotional literacy, mindfulness and awareness.
4) Grow your spontaneity: develop the habit of improvising. Good actors are also good improvisors, and the good ones have learnt how to do this; it’s no accident. As ‘act-ors’ in our own lives, we can also be better improvisors. Learning to develop our spontaneity, or our readiness state, will allow us to produce good responses to the sort of unpredictability inherent in change.
5) Increase employee contribution: develop the habit of consulting. Treat policies and procedures as living documents. They should be easily understood and relevant. Listen to staff and find out if they provide good guidance or if they are stifling creativity and responsiveness.
6) Grow diversity: develop the habit of love and care. This may seem a little out of place for some, but when people have deep regard for others, when they develop the ability to reverse roles with others and when they grow the kind of self-confidence that doesn’t need to knock others, we are getting closer to diversity. This is important because diversity is one of the fertilisers of innovation and creativity in workplaces; and innovation and creativity are two key ingredients to making your way through change.
None of these things, on their own, will necessarily make change easier to navigate. Taken together, they will catalyse a systemic shift in workplace attitude and behaviour. And, as always, this needs to be led and modelled from the top of the organisation. This can be the hard bit because it its current state, with the current mindset, C1 will feel that these shifts are a danger to World-1 and to be avoided. But then, he’d be right.
That’s my two cents on this for now and as always, I’m keen to hear what you can add on the subject.
September 20, 2011
“Moreno declared that instead of looking at mankind as a fallen being, everyone is a potential genius and like the Supreme Being, co-responsible for all of mankind. It is the genius we should emphasize, not the failings.” So spake Zerka Moreno, Jakob’s widow and co-developer of Morenian action methods.
All too often in our world and in our workplaces, we focus on the failings, the deficits and the gaps; what is not working. Leaders struggle with what the organisation is not achieving, with ‘bad behaviours’ they want changing, with relationships that are dysfunctional. This is, of course, natural. Once again, as I’ve said in my earlier blog posts, we still operate from a mechanistic world view. Even if you have a grasp of systems thinking, our world, by and large, is structured within a mechanistic paradigm and so we are all still infected by its virus; we have been operating this way for so long that it’s hard not to. It’s in grained in us. In other words, if we see things as machines, we treat them like machines. If my car is ticking along nicely, I barely give it a second thought. It’s only when the CV joints start clunking or the tyres are a little flat that I make an intervention. Generally speaking, it doesn’t get much attention unless something is going wrong, and when it goes wrong, I pay it attention. Otherwise, if it ain’t broke, I don’t fix it.
Considering this, many organisations default to such a mechanistic perspective when considering leadership development. If they see signs of ‘brokenness’, they will put some kind of intervention in place to fix what looks like the ‘problem’. This, however, is not leadership development. Knee-jerk responses to ‘problems’ are rarely developmental, nor strengths-based in nature because the approach is about fixing something, rather than growing something.
Your starting point when viewing leadership development from a more systemic, strengths-based perspective, would be, “We aren’t doing as well as we should. How are we going to work out what needs developing?” Naturally, if there are some indications that your organisation is underperforming, some correction is required. But before making any prescriptions, it is necessary to explore the situation as deeply as possible. When approaching this, here are some useful guidelines.
First, don’t prejudge what the intervention will look like. Complex adaptive systems are just that: highly complex. The solution required may not be the one you think it is when you begin to address the situation. The solution required may, in fact, surprise you.
Second, it’s important to point your lenses first to what you are trying to create or achieve and what you’ve already got, rather than what you see as being broken. It’s a subtle, but important shift in gaze. Focus on purpose, not on activity. It is tempting to rush to the problem areas because these are the ones that have your attention. They are the source of your discontent. Just as when you have tension in your shoulders, getting a massage in that area may loosen it up and alleviate it temporarily, but it may not address the real source of the problem which could lie in your lower back. If you dive straight into ‘fixing’ what appears to be the problem, but is more likely a symptom of something awry in your system, you may not get an optimal outcome. Because our workplaces are complex adaptive systems, there will be many hidden interconnections and dynamics at play which lead to the dysfunctions which you can see. Conversely, your system also holds many of the ingredients of the solution, which too remain hidden.
Third, and really importantly, before you put any intervention in place, stop first and take time to get as big a picture of your system as possible. A thorough strengths-based analysis of the wider system is required in order to uncover the ‘unknown unknowns’. When what you see is underperformance and unmet targets, there is naturally a sense of urgency to put something….ANYTHING in place to mitigate for this. Don’t rush into it. Take a comprehensive snapshot of your organisation’s functioning. This will increase the likelihood that you make the correct intervention. So instead of analysing simply what is going wrong, think bigger and seek answers to questions such as these:
- What are we are trying to create here?
- What have we got? i.e. How is the business working right now?
- What are the relationships that we require in order to get the thing we are trying to create?
- What are our relationships like right now?
- What capabilities does the organisation need in order to achieve our purpose?
- How amply do we have a shared understanding of each other’s roles, responsibilities and accountabilities (to each other and to the business)?
- How willing and able are we to make changes in ourselves and in our working relationships in order to get the business to our destination?
- What are the enablers and barriers to making changes in how this organisation operates?