November 4, 2012
Part III (Going Further)
In Part II of this article, I suggested that if we remain wedded to a mis-placed set of thoughts and beliefs about business, we will end up asking the wrong questions. We cleverly ask these questions from within our old intellectual bubble, coming up with “new-and-improved” solutions to problems, however we only end up doing the (same old) wrong things righter. What happens if we apply bigger thinking to business challenges, though? So there is this thing called systems thinking, so what?
If we think bigger about business problems, we can make a fundamental shift in effectiveness. I often use our shift in thinking from a geocentric to a heliocentric view of the solar system as an example of the difference that a paradigm shift can have on our lives. So Copernicus said the sun was the centre of the solar system, so what? What did that mean in a very practical sense? Copernicus challenged the prevailing orthodoxy of the time, which was central to Church doctrine. Kepler, Galileo and Newton followed on, demonstrating with science that Copernicus was right. So what? Just try and tell me that the scientific revolution that followed on didn’t make much of a difference to the average person’s life. Think of the ripple effects. The scientific revolution…..science gives us the means to challenge the prevailing institutions of governance…science encourages us to think for ourselves….science revolutionises medicine, technology, art and culture, architecture, food production…..
Similarly, systems thinking is revolutionising how we organise work and how business does business. There are examples of how applying systems thinking is making business more responsive to customers, more satisfying and meaningful for people who work there and more effective at what it does.
How do we organise ourselves? Command-and-control hierarchies are so 19th century. They are about controlling the business. As this example from Portsmouth City Council demonstrates, a really effective business will be driven by its customers. Business decisions will be made at the point where it interacts with the customer. Often, important decisions are made by those in a managerial role, distant from the customer. ”Managers know best” is one of those nasty underlying assumptions on which we base the role of a manager and influences how we organise work. If I’m most effective at work, I should be responding to market demand, not management diktat.
Taking a systems thinking perspective on how a business does business can illuminate the need for transformation; for actually doing something radically different. Much as Owen Buckwell did at Portsmouth City Council, asking the right questions from a bigger picture perspective will highlight what lies beneath some of the seemingly intractable “stuckness” in getting to real effectiveness. Government inspectors routinely gave the Council glowing reports, however Owen knew that things weren’t right. How did he know? ”Noise” in the system that didn’t come from the conventional ways of measuring the work. Customers were constantly complaining and Owen was unsettled enough to ignore the positive government reports and instead seek to uncover what his “market” was actually saying. These government inspectors measured customer satisfaction, for example, by asking questions such as, “Did the tradesman smile when you answered the door?” and “Did workmen clean up after their work?” They didn’t ask, “Was the problem completely rectified?” or “How many times did the tradesman have to come back to fix something that wasn’t fixed properly at the first visit?” They were there to provide a service to ratepayers and Owen recognised that this wasn’t happening satisfactorily, so he began to ask the right questions of the customer. They got the big picture of how the business was performing, which they needed in order to radically transform how they did business. Owen also had an inkling that people came to work to a good job and he was right. By handing more operational decisions to those who carried them out, he found that job satisfaction increased. He took action on the system, not on the people, and shifted how they do business from command-and-control (doing what government inspectors want) to a systems approach (what the customer wants). In the end, they meet government targets “by coincidence”, but more important to Owen is that they are providing the most effective service to ratepayers.
How do we approach performance management? Typically, performance management is about asking the wrong questions. In any case, if we think bigger about it, individual performance management is pretty useless, by and large. This next example demonstrates Deming’s 95% rule: the best place to look for improvements is the system, not the individuals within it. Work on the system, not on the people. If we continue to rely on analytical measures of performance and mechanistic means to make it happen, we will not unleash the kind of thinking and creativity (from everyone) that business needs if it is to survive. Once again, do we tend to ask the right questions when it comes to performance management?
Taking a systems thinking approach can uncover root causes of seemingly intractable blockages within a business. It broadens our perspective and can release us from the kind of inertia that keeps us doing the same things again and again with little significant change. Take a client of ours who realised that the problem with performance management was not “performance management”. While consistently figuring highly in “best places to work” surveys, they had a recurring problem with “poor performance”, specifically, that people didn’t feel the organisation dealt with poor performance very well. In many other aspects, the people felt it was a great place to work, but that something had to be done to manage those who underperformed. In some cases, it got so bad that people were “managed out” of the organisation, much to their surprise. Nobody had told them that they were underperforming until it was too late and relationships had sufficiently soured to the point that they were irretrievable. Listening to this “noise” in the system led the HR Manager to take a systems thinking approach and rather than focus on the individual managers who were not dealing with individual underperformers, the root cause was identified as lying within the culture; it was a systemic issue.
A dominant theme in staff surveys was the friendliness of the place. Digging a little deeper, it seemed that most folks thought that “friendliness” and “performance orientation” were mutually exclusive. In other words, we can either have a friendly place to work or a workplace that focusses on effective performance; herein lay the barrier to regular and frequent conversations about performance at work. The systemic belief that addressing work performance would undermine friendly working relationships meant that it didn’t happen often or well enough. Our work was to assist a shift in the culture to one where “friendly and positive working relationships” were inextricably linked with “performance orientation”. Rather than dealing with the “problem” of managers who don’t deal with poor performance, the focus was on shifting the whole system so that by the end of our work, everyone was having robust, strengths-based conversations about performance all over the place without damaging positive working relationships. About half way through our year-long project, we joked with the executive management team, who were grumbling that their staff were now challenging them on their performance, that they would get what they asked for.
In both of these cases, systems thinking forces us to look at the whole, not the individual parts. It is the job of the modern manager to re-vision their function from one of “controller” to one of “steward”. The focus is on purpose, values and meaning. What does this business exist to achieve or create in the world? What values will guide us in doing this? How is this meaningful for the people who work here? It is the role of managers to ensure that the correct conditions exist for these things to be realised, not to tell people what to do.
Julian Wilson, owner of aerospace company Matt Black Systems uses a beautiful analogy in a MIX article on re-designing their business. To rescue a dying species, old thinking tells us that we should invest ourselves in an intensive breeding programme. New thinking says that we should focus our efforts on ensuring the environment in which the species exists is provided proper stewardship so that nature can take its course and allow the species to flourish. Eliminate the things in the environment which endanger the species, nurture those things which allow it to thrive.
If, as Daniel Pink suggests, people are truly motivated by the search for meaning, mastery and autonomy, these will come to us in an environment where the conditions allow these to thrive. Eliminating adminis-trivia and management power games is a start. This does not mean we leave people to do as they please. Leaders need to re-vision their roles as stewards of the culture. It is the culture, or the system, where managers can exert most influence and create the most opportunities for effectiveness, learning and transformation.
A lot of what is currently going on in businesses is not being talked about because it’s not part of the mainstream discourse. Something is no longer working. We feel it and we feel there should be another way. Systems thinking provides us new lenses to see deeper and wider. We must stop ourselves from repeating old mistakes and develop our abilities to think bigger so that we can go further. Hand in hand with this, we need also to develop greater ease with the complexity we will see before us and greater confidence to deal with being a little less certain about things. The effects of the system are there, whether we decide to look or not.
….and if you are someone who appreciates the power of systems thinking when others think you crazy, it can be useful to remember the words that Galileo reputedly uttered when forced by the Inquisition to recant his crazy notion that the Earth moved around the sun: Eppur si muove (and yet it moves).
October 28, 2012
Part II (Thinking Bigger)
I reckon that we cannot truly appreciate Georges Seurat’s painting “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grand Jatte” by examining the individual dots he used to compose this masterpiece. It is not the sum of all its dots; it is the poetic relationships between them all that bring the scene to life.
In Part I of this article, I referred to worldviews: the beliefs and assumptions that shape us and our world. We can consider a worldview, or paradigm, to be a kind of intellectual bubble within which we live. When I said that systems thinking as a worldview is entirely different from analytical thinking, I did that for a reason. Any new paradigm, or worldview, will include and transcend some elements of the old. Some of the what was inside the old bubble will also sit within the new one, but there is still an essential “un-same-ness” between the old bubble and the new bubble. If we are systems thinkers, we don’t lose the ability (or valuing of) analytical thinking; we are, however, extending ourselves in our abilities to apply both when applicable. There may be something of a butterfly’s “essential being” that existed when it was a caterpillar, but I think we’d all agree that “caterpillar” and “butterfly” are two entirely different things. ”Butterfly” is not merely “Caterpillar 2.0″; it is “butterfly”, incorporating some elements of, and transcending “caterpillar”, if you like.
With enough pressure of new knowledge, research, evidence and lived experience, our old paradigms reach the limits of usefulness and we are pushed to transcend our ways of thinking and being. So while analytical thinking and systems thinking are entirely different worldviews, there are, of course, elements of analytical thinking that we can see in the systems thinking bubble. In an effort to emphasise the point that systems thinking is not just a jazzier version of analytical thinking, I may have been a little simplistic in saying they are entirely different animals, but that’s the curious thing about mindsets. To my mind, it’s not about choosing which one we prefer, it’s about evolution. We are here to continually extend ourselves and once we “get” how everything in the cosmos is inextricably linked, we cannot unknow that. When we really feel that in every cell of our beings, our worlds irretrievably change. It’s like Neo in “The Matrix”; he realised he was “The One” once he saw what those green squiggles running down the computer screen meant, he couldn’t go on pretending that it was just a bunch of nonsensical squiggles. They were still squiggles; that hadn’t changed…..but their meaning had changed. After his set of beliefs had changed, he had transformed.
So systems thinking, for those who haven’t had their “Neo moment” yet, may look and sound like analytical thinking 2.0 (but it’s not, I tell you!). For those who have had their “Neo moment”, it’s a way of seeing the world that includes and transcends analytical thinking to take us to a more sophisticated kind of thinking, because linear, analytical thinking is not sophisticated enough to help us to deal with the challenges that face us in the 21st century. It’s time to stop looking at the world and our workplaces from an old mindset.
So why does this matter?
My own view is that growing our ability to be systems thinkers is an imperative: for individuals, for businesses and organisations, for humanity. It is a question of whether we will survive and thrive or atrophy and die away. It might be tempting, while we languish in our prison of “analytic thinking”, to remodel the prison in an effort to make it more comfortable, but it will still be a prison. Our world is in crisis and our workplaces are in crisis and we urgently need to think bigger about how we address these crises because our old ways of looking at things have reached their useful limits.
Simply put, looking at something from an analytical viewpoint, we take it apart in order to understand it (the parts are primary, the whole is secondary). However, when we take an interconnected system apart, it loses its fundamental properties. I like a description Russell Ackoff has used: a car’s essential property is to get us from A to B. We won’t be able to understand how it does that by taking it apart. A car is not the sum of its parts; it is the product of the interactions of the parts. Systems thinking, as Peter Senge writes, “is a discipline for seeing wholes….a framework for seeing inter-relationships rather than things, for seeing patterns of change rather than static ‘snapshots’”. For me, systems thinking is fundamentally about thinking and behaving as if everything in the cosmos is connected to everything else. Applying this to businesses, we can best understand them and surmount our stucknesses if we look at how all the elements interact, not by looking at the individual bits and pieces in isolation. Out of this central belief flow a number of other beliefs and assumptions which make up my worldview about work:
- There are no one-offs; there are patterns of things. If I don’t see a pattern, it just means I haven’t found it yet.
- Because everything is connected to everything else, our workplaces are complex systems, not linear machines. This means that cause-and-effect (linear, analytical thinking) is more useful as a backward-looking descriptor of what happened, than as a forward-looking predictor of what might happen.
- The system is more influential on performance/success/outcomes than individuals.
- Networks, relationships and devolved power are more effective at achieving a business’s purpose than mechanistic command-and-control hierarchies.
- Working on “symptoms” or problems is unlikely to address underlying, systemic origins of the problems.
All of these guide how I approach my work. Rather than take out my microscope and zoom in on a “part of a business”, I look at the whole thing and examine it holistically. In a lot of conversations I have with business leaders, I hear about business “problems”. You know the old saying, “We cannot solve problems with the same thinking that we used when we created them.” Well, it’s not just a cool-sounding thing that Einstein is supposed to have said; it’s a fundamental shift in how we look at business issues and how to find solutions for the challenges businesses face. In quite a lot of what I read on the internet, I see old (analytical) thinking being dressed up as something new and improved, but all the new-and-improved-ness won’t make any difference if the old mental model remains the same. For example, I see people offering up the latest tips and tricks on how to “hire better” and failing to see “hiring” as part of a wider system of peoplecapabilitytalentengagement. It all sounds just lovely, but it’s just a re-wording of what’s already been said and it reduces “hiring” as if it can be isolated from the rest of what is going on in the business. Yet, managers still behave like this. Mao’s fiasco with the sparrows is still being replicated in businesses all over the place. It matters because applying an analytical mindset to concerns which are essentially systemic is like dealing with the liver failure of an obese alcoholic by simply transplanting a new liver into his body and not addressing the wider lifestyle concerns that caused the liver to fail in the first place.
How does systems thinking work?
It’s about working with things as integral wholes. It’s about thinking bigger. Water is inherently wet. We cannot understand water’s wetness by breaking it down into its component parts; oxygen and hydrogen. Neither of those elements has an inherent quality of “wetness”. Similarly, with businesses, we cannot get a truly comprehensive understanding of them simply by breaking them down into their component parts. Everything is connected to everything else and we are limited in our abilities to manage them effectively if we isolate “problem parts”. Making a holistic assessment of the system will give us a bigger picture view that highlights strengths, inter-relationships, tensions, the forces at work (both from within and without the system) and areas of hope (where intervention can be applied).
In my experience of applying systems thinking and making interventions in a whole, integrated system, we make work work from an entirely different viewpoint, not by “fixing” individual issues but by exploring symptoms and phenomena of a whole living entity. The issue of engagement, for example, cannot be properly addressed, in my view, by breaking it down into “hiring and recruitment”, “retention”, “remuneration”, “performance management” and looking at these parts individually. Gamification, for instance, is not an antidote to falling engagement to my mind; it’s like putting a band-aid on a lesion in the hope that the cancer will be cured.
Engagement is part of a system which is a synthesis of how a business hires, how it views human motivation, how it shares knowledge, how it encourages cooperation, how it facilitates learning and development…..everything connected to everything else. When taking a systems thinking approach, the interventions are often surprising, seemingly counter-intuitive and not linear or cause-and-effect.
Systems thinking requires us to be more comfortable with interconnectedness, uncertainty, emergence and dynamism. We need to set ourselves free of the expectations of predictability, cause-and-effect and certainty. I read a slightly tongue-in-cheek definition of systems thinking on Twitter which pretty much sums it up: “resources by which it is possible to become less completely clueless about stuff rather than deludedly certain”. Paradoxically, it will allow us to know more about what is going on, but we may be less certain about it.
Acting as if the business is a whole means we will radically revise how the business does business.
The idea that we can tackle business problems by breaking them down permeates all aspects of the workplace. A more humane, integrated and organic worldview is at our disposal. In the arena of peoplecapabilitytalentengagement, for instance, we can see how it influences what we do. We isolate bits and try to fix them. Here is just one example:
How do we hire people? Hire for competencies? Hire because they look nice? Hire because they interviewed well? Hire because they come out great on all those psychofiddle-faddle tests? For a kick off, examining your hiring practices might be a red herring anyway, because it’s only part of a wider system of “people, capability, talent”. Why focus on “hiring” when Deming’s 95% rule says that the system is where we should place our attention. Think bigger about peoplecapabilitytalentengagement: do you need to see CVs?…do you interview (and how do you do this?)….do you carry out an orientation (or is it more like an initiation?)….how do people grow and learn?…..what is your “exit interview” process like?…why do people stay? There might be things that go on when people are hired to make sure they fit into the culture, but if the culture is sick, in some senses it doesn’t matter who you hire. They’ll eventually get shoe-horned into your sick culture whether they are good or bad (and if they don’t fit in, it says more about your system than the “bad” hire!). The system will affect their ability to work well. What I’m saying is that if there is a pattern of people not performing well, why put hiring practices under the microscope? Think bigger and look at the whole.
If you notice that retention is low, this is just a pattern that points to something bigger and more hidden. To my mind, psychometric quizzes are just another “band-aid on cancer”. If we leap to the conclusion that we are making hiring mistakes, we may not have asked the right questions about performance…or learning….or meaningful work….or….. Hire anyone. Hire people you think are wrong. You might even take Bob Marshall‘s advice, which I quite like, and try hiring without relying on a traditional CV as your safety blanket (the #noCV alternative). I tend to go along with Bob when he says that “job interviews suck”. How you hire doesn’t really matter until and unless you discover that the bigger questions you are asking about the whole of the business are the right ones. In a nutshell, is “How do we hire people?” the right question?
We need to get ourselves unstuck from disabling thought patterns that stifle creativity and re-learn more expansive patterns of thinking. Systems thinking is a fundamental change to business orthodoxy. The assumptions we hold about the business of business mostly orient us to measure things that don’t matter and attack problems that are only really indicators of a systemic pattern. We try to find answers for questions that are often irrelevant. Time to think bigger.
…more to come in Part III.
October 21, 2012
Part one (A Way In)
There are two fish tanks, sitting side by side. The fish in tank #1 glances over and notices tank #2. He shouts across to the fish in tank #2, “Hey, how’s the water?” The fish in tank #2 shouts back, “Wow! Yea…water….I’ve never really noticed it before! It’s great, how’s yours?” Tank #1 fish shouts back, “Much the same!”
Two points about this:
One…much like the fish in tank #2, most folks are mostly unaware of the water in which we swim. I’d go as far as to say that this “unawareness” extends to the fact that we are even in water. However, the water is there, even if we are not aware of it. This “water” is the worldview, or set of assumptions and beliefs, that colours how we live our lives. We are often unaware of these deep assumptions or how influential they have been in determining how we do business, education, economics and so on. They have been our reference points when we crafted schools, businesses, financial systems and so on.
And two…..tank #1 fish looks at tank #2 and for all intents and purposes, believes that life is just the same over there. It looks the same and tank #2 fish speaks the same language and appears to have the same habits and behaviours, so it’d be reasonable to assume it’s just the same. It has a (mostly unconscious) experience of living in water, never really pays it much attention and presumes that water is water is water. What tank #1 fish doesn’t know is that life in tank #2 is entirely different from life in tank #2. That’s because tank #1 is full of fresh water and tank #2 is full of salt water.
Like the fish, we are often blind to both “what is” and “what could be” or “what else is”.
Why bother with systems thinking?
Analytical thinking is hitting the laws of physics and has been found wanting. The analytical mindset is at the foundation of our educational systems, our political systems, our financial systems and the business of business, all of which are reaching the end of their effectiveness in a world characterised by increasing complexity, volatility, uncertainty and ambiguity. This is being felt by many, but the awareness of what underlies it is lagging behind, so in an effort to ameliorate chronically low employee engagement, increasingly low voter turnout at elections, poor customer loyalty, or low attainment at school, we deploy little tricks or try to invent new “tools” or “techniques”. However, all the tools and techniques in the world are useless to really address these issues if they come out of the same old mechanistic, analytical mindset. A more sophisticated mindset is required first. A new kind of thinking, not a new trick devised out of old thinking, is required.
A transition is occurring, however. As analytical thinking has reached its use-by date in many spheres of life, something new is forming. We are in between the old and the new. As Vaclav Havel says it beautifully, “Today, many things indicate that we are going through a transitional period, when it seems that something is on the way out and something else is painfully being born. It is as if something were crumbling, decaying, and exhausting itself–while something else, still indistinct, were arising from the rubble… ” (Thanks to David Holzmer for bringing that quote to my attention.)
When we are in transition from one way of seeing the world to a new one, we are bereft of words to describe the new thing. Sometimes, we don’t even find new descriptors, even if our understanding shifts. We still call it a “sunrise”, even though Copernicus worked out that it’s the Earth, not the sun, that moves. Nobody would reasonably believe in this day and age that the sun is “rising”, but we are stuck with the word. In this transition period, we are being pulled away from an analytic way of viewing the world by the inexorable forces of increasing complexity, ambiguity and uncertainty. We could try, Canute like, to behave as if we can keep them at bay. An analytical mindset would drive us to eliminate complexity and uncertainty, but just because we don’t want to see they’re there, doesn’t make them go away. Just because we believe that things aren’t as ambiguous as they are, doesn’t make it so. Spending more energy to control events doesn’t make the world less volatile, it just makes us more tired.
There is another way to see things
Like the two kinds of water in the fish tanks, systems thinking is not slightly different from analytic thinking; it’s entirely different. The challenge of communicating these differences lies in some part with the fact that we have a finite vocabulary. People who are bound by their analytical mindset hear the words and hang a meaning onto them from an analytical perspective and perceive that systems thinking is a new and improved version of what we’ve already got. We all ascribe a meaning to a word that comes from our own experience, regardless of what another person intends. Ask a person in Scotland what “supper” is and they’ll say it’s a wee snack you eat before bed at about 9 or 10 in the evening. Ask an American and they might say it’s the big meal you eat at 5 or 6 in the evening. Same word, different meanings. I’m sticking my neck out here, but I believe many folks often cannot grasp the fundamental differences between the two, perhaps saying to themselves, “If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it must be a duck, just a prettier one. Duck 2.0.” No. Systems thinking is not simply a re-packaging of long-held assumptions. The fish in tank #1 cannot have any conception at all of what it’s like in tank #2 until he actually inhabits tank #2. So he believes that “life feels like this” for tank #2 fish and he bases this on the fact that “this is what life feels like”.
If you are a systems thinker, you might sometimes feel you are going a little crazy. We still live in command-and-control land and our assumptions haven’t caught up to the realities of the world. If you have begun to act and talk like a systems thinker, you may be treated a little like the court jester. Actually, I’d say it was closer to the boy who declared the emperor wasn’t wearing any clothes. Nonetheless, this is what it’s like being a systems thinker. You see and say things that others think are a little crazy. Alternatively, people hear your words, but you realise after a while that they are processing them with an analytical mindset and so misunderstand the whole thrust of thinking systemically. We are all prisoners of our own flat-earthisms, after all. So you are either side-lined because your ideas seem a little far-fetched (“If there is no hierarchy, how do you control people????”) or what they think they understand is not what you intend.
“I know that you believe you understand what you think I said, but I’m not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant.” Robert McCloskey
I described an experience in a previous article, of watching someone attempt to draw an organisational diagram of their business while also describing it verbally, and it jarred. I was watching someone writing something on the whiteboard that didn’t match what he was describing, much like watching TV with the sound off while listening to music. The difficulty they had, it emerged, was how to depict something for which we haven’t yet got any conventions for depicting. When we haven’t yet got the devices to describe something that is emergent, we will shoehorn it into an outdated model and use words like “productivity” when that’s not what we mean at all. This makes sense; we haven’t caught up with ourselves. The ancient Egyptians drew what we would essentially call “stick figures” and it wasn’t until we discovered “perspective” that our visual depictions began to look more like the actual people we saw.
Gary Hamel said it beautifully: we are prisoners of the familiar. In our efforts to advance to a new way of doing business, it is no good to simply remodel the prison; we need to tear it down. In effect, what that person was describing was a business that functions as an organic system (an emergent and self-organising process) but he was drawing a hierarchical tree diagram (a rigid structure). They have radically transformed their business but our abilities to describe this haven’t caught up yet. It was like drawing a robot while describing a human body. This mirrors how modern management still views their role and their relationship with the businesses they purport to manage.
Unconsciously acting out of the flat-earthism that is an analytical mechanistic worldview, managers approach the business as if it was a machine, rather than as an organic system. One major difference between machines and organic systems is that machines do not operate for their own betterment; they operate for the betterment of their masters. If we continue to view business from this mechanistic perspective, by extension we view the people within them as mere machine parts, there to do the bidding of those in “control”. Isn’t work meant to be for the betterment of everyone: customers, staff, suppliers, shareholders and the community (not just shareholders)? Machines do not (yet) have built-in capacity for continuous learning and improvement of its own functioning, but self-0rganising systems have inherent in them, a drive towards continuous improvement. Managers tend to relate to a business as a thing to control, not a self-organising entity to steward and nurture. Machines are designed with efficiency in mind, but efficiency does not equate with effectiveness. Effectiveness is related to having purpose and robots don’t have a higher purpose. They just do what they’re told.
The fundamental principles of systems thinking seem simple enough. Everything is connected to everything else. Most folks would say that makes sense. The key importance is knowing it and behaving as if it was actually true.
August 30, 2012
I overheard a conversation recently where someone said in all seriousness, “In the new way of doing business, cooperation beats competition.” I was amused by the irony of the statement. We are infused with a competitive mindset from our earliest days on this planet, so it makes sense that the language in that statement would reflect this. In transition from one world view to another, we can sometimes only describe what we mean by using linguistic devices that belong to the old. The sentiment, however, rings true for me. Cooperation is, indeed, the way forward. Competition is often the way to get stuck. We are so embedded in competitive capitalism that it is almost impossible to think outside of it.
With the Olympics and Paralympics fresh in mind, competition in its most obvious form looks like a 100m race. Competition in its least sophisticated form looks like the schoolyard bully. Competition in its nascent form of classroom indoctrination looks like rewards and punishments for behaviour, memorisation ability and conformity or lack thereof. Competition in the “educated”, capitalist form of the workplace looks and sounds like subtle putdowns and power games. It is, as Bob Marshall eloquently put it, “promotion commotion”, it is incentives and bonuses, it is passive-aggressiveness, it is anti-social bosses, it is one-upmanship. We also get it in our political systems. ”Big-willy politics” as Simon Jenkins puts it, is the most dangerous form because it appeals to paranoia and prejudice, not reason and humanity. Popular culture brims with competition as lazy TV producers churn out cheap entertainment, mistaking treasure hunts and cooking programmes overdubbed with suspenseful music for drama. The judges even use language which implies death (pay the ultimate price) if the meringue is not crunchy enough. In saying that, I’m not implying competition per se is bad; I would suggest, however, that we default to a mindset and way of behaving which in many cases is counter-productive.
Unsurprising that such behaviours are unseen, condoned or unchecked because the dominant mode of running business is still hierarchical, command-and-control. Inherent in this mindset is competition. Bigger, better, more. A system based on power accumulation will elicit competitive behaviours. Businesses do this with each other and people within organisations do it at a micro-level. Our capitalist, consumerist social structures lead us to operate as if work is a transaction and humans are resources. It is not and they are not. This mindset facilitates a switch in how we view people, from an I-Thou perspective to I-It. According to Professor Simon Baron Cohen, when we switch from an I-Thou perspective to an I-It perspective, we lose empathy for people. Their only value, then, is as a resource that will help me make more profit, advance my position, make me look good, give me some inside information, connect me with someone else I “need” and so on. My belief is that neither organisations nor the humans of whom they are composed (for the success of both are inextricably linked) will flourish unless we begin to practice greater cooperation.
I’ve seen too many vision statements that aspire only to “be the best blah blah in Australasia” or “the #1 provider of such-and-such in our sector” The all-hallowed “market” seems to operate quaintly like suitors in the 18th century vying for the hand of the lovely maiden. Who has the best prospects? Who has the biggest house? Who has the most well-connected family? Watching a costume drama, how our hearts sink when Lady Penelope chooses the dastardly capitalist or the arrogant fop over the one she truly loves. It draws comment in the 21st century when people choose partners for their “prospects” rather than for love, connection, companionship and trust. Why is the organisational world still playing this rather outdated little game?
From our earliest days at school, we were admonished for “copying” others’ work. The “right” way is to be quiet and “do your own work”. Humans are social animals and are at their best when cooperating with others. Competition is a virus which continues to breed unchecked, despite there not being much in the way of substantiated evidence or research that it is more effective than cooperation; quite the contrary. Research suggests that cooperation leads to higher achievement at school, provides health benefits (calmness and freedom from intense stress) and is correlated with increased creativity and success in the workplace.
Schools are ranked, ostensibly to provide a useful means with which to decide resource allocation, the result being, however, that principals, teachers and PTAs compete to maintain a nonsensical status that sometimes relegates the interests of children in classrooms. This system of ranking is multi-layered. From our earliest days at school, we are caught in this competitive treadmill, receiving rewards for being outstanding; for standing out. It’s an outward focus: how am I better (than them)? How am I different (from them)? The thing is, we are already different by the mere fact that we are who we are. In the business world, it becomes, “What’s my unique selling proposition?” I’ll tell you mine: that I’m me. That’s why I make such a big deal about growing self-awareness. Self-actualising is not a journey to work out what I’m not or to work out what makes me different from others; it’s a journey to work out who I am. Why focus outward and try to find a unique selling proposition? This seems “olde worlde” to me. The focus and locus of control is outside, not within. If our sense of self-worth is dependent on how unlike others we are, it is fragile. USPs, to me, imply a competitive mindset but nobody can really, truly compete with a person or a business that has a really clear idea of who they are, what they do and what they value. We increase satisfaction in life when we grow self-awareness, not when we get stuck in the hamster wheel that is “keeping up with the Joneses”. 21st century business finds success when competition as the prime modus operandi is supplanted with cooperation.
“When you are content to be simply yourself and don’t compare or compete, everybody will respect you.” Lao Tzu
Accentuating a cooperative way of being does not mean sinking into groupthink or losing critical abilities. Team or group conversations in which everyone agrees with everyone else is not cooperation. Business can be a hive of searing conversation if everyone participates with a view to contributing to the whole, building on others’ input. It’s like the “yes game” that actors and improvisors play. Someone makes an opening gambit (an offer) and others play along (accept their offer), bringing creativity and a sense of community. No one person’s contribution is better than another’s and people play, not with the idea of being the best, but of co-creating something purposeful and fresh. Consider the difference between these two scenes:
- “What’s wrong with your foot?”
- “Oh. It’s just that I saw you limping.”
- “My foot is fine. I wasn’t limping, this is how I normally walk.”
- “What’s wrong with your foot?”
- “Caught it in a bear trap.”
- “Really? Have they started laying bear traps in the staff room?”
- “Yea, it’s meant to keep out the bears, they’ve been raiding the staff fridge again.”
- “I wondered who kept eating my yoghurt.”
This is, of course, a light-hearted illustration, but the relationship dynamics are real. In scene one, the person who makes the offers (you have something wrong with your foot, you are limping) struggles to get any traction in the dialogue as both offers are rejected. In scene two, their offers are accepted and the other person builds on to them, with the result being the two create something that neither could have created without cooperation. Workplace conversations often sound like scene one, coming across like the Monty Python argument sketch, people in opposition to one another, getting stuck.
“That wouldn’t work.”
“Thanks for that idea, have a listen to mine now.”
“I think you’re coming at it the wrong way.”
“What you fail to see is….”
What we get with this non-cooperative, or competitive, modus operandi, is missed opportunities, and an overall decrease in human achievement. Cooperating with others stimulates our creativity. Cooperation opens doors to ideas and solutions that we might never have come across on our own, trying to be the star pupil.
As a practitioner of systems thinking, I take note of a highly relevant article which identifies different kinds of systems with reference to their levels of cooperation or competition: eco-, bio- and mechanical. Mechanical systems (machines being the most obvious example) require very high levels of cooperation, otherwise the machine just doesn’t work. Machines, however, are highly predictable, low in complexity and are designed to do exactly what they are designed to do. If a part breaks, you fix it and the machine will carry on functioning. Bio-systems are higher in complexity and rely on very high levels of cooperation. The human body is a perfect example. In order to flex your arm, your triceps and biceps must work in concert. While they are opposing each other in their movement, they are not in competition. Bio-systems might be said to be at just the right balance between order and chaos. They have evolved just enough “in-synch-ness” so that they work as unified systems and meet the challenges of life, however, there is enough plasticity to allow for growth and development in response to a changing environment. The components of a bio-system work in concert until age or disease cause certain components to (appear to) compete in order to preserve the integrity of the whole.
Eco-systems are highly complex and are composed of interactions between multiple bio-systems and mechanical systems. Two types of eco-systems abound on planet Earth: biological and social. Biological eco-systems (flora and fauna, for example) tend to be highly competitive, with species or members of the same species competing for limited resources to survive. Social (or human) eco-systems are just as natural as any coral reef. However, humans have the advantage of being able to overcome the constraints of scarcity that other eco-systems do not. We have no natural predators, save ourselves. The thing that binds our human systems are our evolved cognitive and emotional abilities, which we can deploy as we relate to each other. We have highly evolved relationship capabilities that other eco-systems do not, however we seem to dispense with these at the merest hint of a perceived threat to our existence. We do not have to sleepwalk through time as if we were a coral reef, mindless and thought-less and slave to the natural competitive instincts that go with being an eco-system. I repeat: we have no natural predators, save ourselves. We humans need to become more self-awake and curtail some of our less-evolved competitive ways. Competitive politics is a clumsy way to govern ourselves and and unregulated markets are human disasters.
The workplace is not a jungle. It is not a battlefield. We need to apply ourselves to behaving more like bio-systems: work in concert for the good of the whole. We’ve had competitive practices instilled in us for so long that we need to become conscious of how we work with others. In a complex and networked workplace of the 21st century, we need to learn and stretch our cooperative abilities and to inculcate cooperative practice on a daily basis until it just becomes the way things get done. The fact is that we are interdependent. Why not start acting like it? Why not start acting like this is a world of “we”, not “me”?
Act cooperatively. Let’s play the “yes game” with people at work. When discussing things, let’s become aware of opportunities to listen, to “add in” and to “build on”, rather than simply counter what others have to say.
Learn to transcend self-interest. No quid pro quo. Let’s practice “building on”, sharing and contributing for no other reason than to do it and build community with others.
Cultivate an attitude of conviviality. Con-vivere = live together. Let’s become aware of those moments when we could do something different and behave as if we are happy to share this planet, this town, this industry sector, this office-space with others. Our survival as a species depends on it. Our survival as co-workers depends on it. Business survival depends on it. (….or become a hermit.) In fact, beyond survival, I’d say that we thrive on it.
Build coalitions, not empires. Let’s stop pretending that this is a medieval battle for territory; it’s not. Market competition appeals to our primitive narcissistic paranoia; no-one is out to get us. (We have no natural predators, save ourselves, remember?) Let’s stop pretending that there is such a thing as intellectual property; it’s an illusion. Information and knowledge are for sharing, not hoarding. Status and accolade or synthesis and creativity: which will take us further?
We have no natural predators……
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?
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?
September 12, 2011
If you have ever been for an eye test, you will know that the optician will have you look through a contraption with lots of lenses, and then proceed to add and take away lenses until your vision can see the letters on the chart precisely. They will spend time experimenting with the lenses and asking you to say which of two is clearer: “better number one? or number two?…..number three clearer and smaller? or number four?” By the time they are finished, they are able to say whether you need new glasses or whether the lenses you have been using are still optimal. Because shifts in our eyes occur in such minute increments, it’s not until I have a chance to see the world through a new set of lenses that I know if I’ve actually been seeing what is in front of me or if it’s been a good-enough approximation. I know that when I first walked out of the optician’s office at the age of 16 with my first pair of glasses and saw the world as it actually was, I was overjoyed to be able to see clearly and I was able to respond to my world quite differently. I could no longer, then, imagine the world looked as I used to think it did.
The time has come for us to check whether the way we view our workplaces and organisations is still current or if we need to upgrade our lenses. Since the Industrial Revolution, we have been viewing organisations, and indeed, our whole world, as a machine. This seems reasonable, as the Industrial Revolution was about mechanisation after all, so for its time, a mechanistic view of the world was a leap in our thinking. We have now advanced well into the Knowledge Age, however, and it is time to update our lenses to take account of new knowledge and new research around Complex Adaptive Systems (CAS), as well as our actual experiences which point to ‘mechanism’ being an inadequate world view. Looking at our organisations (and the world) purely as machines has outlived its usefulness. However, we have got so used to seeing the world through these old lenses that it is hard to see it otherwise. This is no excuse to do nothing, though; it is simply learned ignorance. When it became clear that Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo were right and that the sun was, in fact, the centre of the solar system, only the foolish and the stubborn could continue to believe and operate otherwise.
Research and experience are now proving that the old cause-and-effect, mechanistic paradigm of organisations is not entirely accurate nor adequate and that our workplaces are actually organic, dynamic, ever-evolving complex systems.
A new leadership paradigm, however, will not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Paradigm shifts do not simply dispense with the old to make way for the new; they include, incorporate and transcend. The new leadership paradigm will take account of and include the mechanistic, command-and-control perspective, while incorporating new discoveries into how complex adaptive systems actually operate. There will still be times when a mechanistic leadership view holds true. This perspective takes the line that if I tell someone what to do and they do it, then the outcomes will be as I have planned and as I predict. If all the parts of the machine work as they are supposed to and as previously agreed upon, the machine will function smoothly and efficiently. Exhaustive policies and procedures, highly detailed strategic plans, lengthy job descriptions and KPI’s; all of these are artefacts of the Industrial Age. And during times of natural disaster, say, I want civil defence organisations to respond quickly and efficiently, so command-and-control will probably be incredibly beneficial. Similarly, when operating a public transport network, I want my local authority to emphasise order, reliability and consistency over experimentation and autonomy: in contexts such as these, there will be commonly agreed outcomes and end-goals will not be competing, so it seems sensible for an organisation and the people within it to operate with clockwork regularity. The important point is that running like clockwork will only be desired in specific contexts.
For many, many contexts in the Knowledge Age, however, the machine analogy is not so useful.
Leadership in the Knowledge Age is not about trying to simplify the complex so that it fits into an old world view; it is about developing the capability to manage (and manage ourselves) in the complex. We now know enough about CAS that it behoves us and our leaders to adapt to this new understanding. Complexity Leadership Theory tells us that the behaviour of a CAS emerges from the interactions between all its elements, i.e. the people. While management can put plans and hierarchies in place, how optimally an organisation operates will be a function of connectivity, creativity, flexibility and experimentation. When this is the case, the most sustainable leadership strategy is learning. By learning, I mean deep learning; not simply knowledge about. The imperative is for leaders to make a real quantum shift and to transform themselves so that their attitudes and behaviours are meaningfully and authentically changed. The things to learn are:
- Flexibility, adaptability and spontaneity-There must be greater ease and comfort in being in the messiness of the ‘unknown’. Solving complex problems requires divergent and creative thinking; many of our current challenges cannot be met in a linear paradigm. This means that leaders must look inward and grow themselves as people. These are not capabilities you can fake. It takes courage and grit and a willingness to look at your own inner workings.
- Experimentation and reflection-There will be less ‘telling people what to do’ and more openness to innovation and reflection upon what happens when something novel is applied. This means constantly being in a state of readiness to challenge the status quo and to challenge others to do the same. This means being un-attached to old ways of operating. This also means looking at what gets created in the system when something new is tried. An intelligent approach to experimentation underscores reflection, otherwise how can knowledge and information flows, connectivity and authority be tweaked and adjusted as you make your way to optimal outcomes?
- Systems thinking-When it’s less about ‘telling’ and more about ‘influencing’, it is vital to be able to see your wider system, its interconnectedness and its emergent dynamic. Old-style hierarchies do not solely dictate how we get people to do things any more. Being a systems thinker is also not just about being able to see the big picture. It’s about being able to see both the big picture and the finer details. A systems thinker will ‘helicopter’ in and out as needs and context demand, and then synthesise the data from both of these in the quest for answers.
- Creativity-I throw my support behind Dr. Mark Batey’s assertion that creativity is humankind’s ultimate resource. It is the arch-substance. In this YouTube interview, he advocates a more conscious approach to developing and nurturing creativity, leaving space for intelligent failure.
So, to conclude, dear readers, it’s time for an “I” test.
- How comfortable am I with ambiguity and the unknown?
- Am I capable of being both a military commander and an orchestra conductor? How would I know when the context requires each of these?
- When I meet a challenge, what do I assume and how far do I go to ‘unpeel layers of the onion skin’ to find patterns, interconnectedness and hidden meaning?
- What do I actively do to cultivate creativity: my own and others’?