I have been interested in the furore that has followed Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer banning workers from working from home. I’ve also read that Hubert Joly, the new chief at struggling retailer Best Buy has also just scrapped their Results Only Work Environment (ROWE) for their corporate employees. Corporate staff who, until now, have been allowed to telecommute, as long as they got their results, will now be required to work at the corporate headquarters, though some managers will still have discretion to accommodate some workers. Joly’s intention is to shift the culture to one of greater accountability. A Best Buy spokesman said, “It makes sense to consider not just what the results are but how the work gets done.”
Think about it for a minute.
Like many, the initial assumption I leapt to was that here were those awful authoritarians: new in the job, trying to make their mark, trying desperately to cling to hierarchical power and going about it rather clumsily. Isn’t the modern thing to show respect to workers and give them autonomy? As long as they achieve their outputs, we don’t have to regulate their movements, right? On further reflection and having read about the possible motivation behind the Yahoo ban, I can see it might make some sense. What if, say, she was looking at Yahoo as a systems thinker and taking action on the system? What if, say, she wasn’t trying to do the old-fashioned thing of managing the people? I enjoyed the sub-heading of an article in the Guardian about Mayer’s decision: “Marissa Mayer shows she knows little about managing people with this offensive memo to Yahoo employees.” Perhaps. Perhaps she actually knows a lot about managing people and knows that it’s a waste of time. Perhaps she knows that in order to get greater effectiveness in an organisation, you actually don’t spend your energies on managing the people, but you work on the system. Maybe, as another Guardian article sets out, she is focussing on what matters for Yahoo at this moment in time and space.
Think about it.
HR consultants and originators of ROWE Cali Ressler and Jody Thompson wrote in an open letter to Mayer, “We don’t think you deliberately meant to send a message to Yahoo employees that you are an Industrial Age dictator that prefers to be a baby sitter versus a 21st century CEO that can lead a company into the future. Or did you?” Good question. Again, let’s suspend judgement and consider the shift in policy. Could be that Mayer is one of those Industrial Age clock-watchers. Might be that she is looking to make a change to Yahoo’s ecosystem in order to get more creativity and innovation going.
I don’t have any special insights into what Mayer was thinking, but I watch what she is doing and am reminded that in a world still dominated by the command-and-control, someone who is acting like a systems thinker might sometimes look as if they are doing the old thing. That is because we haven’t enough “systems thinking stuff” going on to know what that actually looks like. How, for example, would we know if a manager’s tantrum comes out control-freakery or quality-freakery? Looks like the same tantrum, might use some of the same shouty words, but might actually come from a “we are doing crap work” mindset, not a “you are an idiot and I need to whip you into place” mindset. I’m also not suggesting that Mayer is some kind of enlightened goddess; she is as flawed as the rest of us and perhaps her way of going about the shift in working practices was a little graceless. I only want to say, let’s suspend our judgements until we examine a little more closely what might be behind her bold move, and observe if the shift in policy does, indeed, generate greater innovation and collaboration at Yahoo.
Interestingly, in a recent interview, Zappos’ Tony Hsieh said:
“Research has shown that companies with strong cultures outperform those without in the long-term financially. So we’re big, big believers in building strong company cultures. And I think that’s hard to do remotely.
We don’t really telecommute at Zappos. We want employees to be interacting with each other, building those personal relationships and relationships outside of work as well.
What we found is when they have those personal connections that productivity increases because there’s higher levels of trust. Employees are willing to do favours for each others because they’re not just co-workers, but also friends, and communication is better. So we’re big believers in in-person interactions.”
So am I. I know from experience that I get a real buzz from real-life interactions and that in most cases, I find a lost mojo when I’m doing my thing in the room with someone who’s available to me and we are giving each other our attention.
One of the things to be mindful of is that a one-size-fits-all approach is not the way to go. Just because whatever it is that works for Zappo’s and Google is good for them, it doesn’t mean that other businesses should necessarily follow suit. A good systems thinker will become intimately familiar with their system and do what works for that system. One of the exceptions that Guardian writer takes is that having to work in the office is inconvenient. She describes how she manages her time and gets her articles written. All good, I say. Once again, it’s important to look at the details of what is happening. In the case of a solo journalist, perhaps it would seem madness to compel her to sit at a desk in an office when she could produce quality journalism sitting at home. If the job was to co-write an article, however, I wonder if being side-by-side with the co-writer might produce even better quality work than each one working remotely, emailing the work back and forth. Just an idea. The point is that we need to know what the work is…..and to consider how best to get it done.
Think about it….
Google’s workplaces are famously enviable, but I would suggest that it’s the smart thing to do to focus on the purpose, not simply on making a “fun place to work”. How did Google’s offices happen? Someone designs them. Someone engineers the physical spaces and what is in them. To make it a fun place to work? Well, yes and no. I would suggest that that someone did not simply design something that is “fun” for fun’s sake. That kind of workplace is often mocked in the popular press or programmes like The Simpsons as funky and cool, but there is a hint of “…but they probably don’t do much work there”. I would suggest that some good thought has been given over to the design of the system at Google: the working processes as well as the community that will carry them out. What does a business like Google require? Creativity and innovation. “The philosophy is very simple,” Craig Nevill-Manning, Google’s Manhattan engineering director said. “Google’s success depends on innovation and collaboration. Everything we did was geared toward making it easy to talk.” In order to get this, what would be the optimal way of engineering these things? Draw on nature, be conscious that systems are self-organising and thrive on variety, and that, at the same time, they can be nurtured. The ecosystem within which such fruits could flourish can be designed. Google started with a philosophy. They have a purpose and a way of thinking as to how to make that purpose come to life. They are enviable because they have been designed with the work in mind, not on fun; I believe the “fun” is, in one sense, a by-product. In any case, as Teresa Amabile, a business administration professor at Harvard Business School says, “I’ve found that people do their most creative work when they’re motivated by the work itself.”
According to John Sullivan, a professor of management at San Francisco State University, studies show that people who work at home are significantly more productive but less innovative. He says “If you want innovation, then you need interaction,” he said. “If you want productivity, then you want people working from home.” That, to me, seems slightly simplistic, but I get the point. Also, Tony Hsieh seems to find that productivity and working together in a shared workspace are linked, so there you go. In any case, you don’t simply institute a ROWE because it’s what people want and seems to be one of those lovely perks that makes people happy. You do something like that if it helps to create the ecosystem that best nurtures the work. You craft a system that is best designed to meet the purpose of the business.
All of this speaks to me because at the heart of the work I do is sociometry. The term was coined by Dr. J.L. Moreno and its basic tenet is that “the quality of an outcome is directly related to the quality of relationship between the people trying to achieve that outcome.” The sociometry, or quality of relationships, within a business, affects the system and the system affects the sociometry. It’s a reflexive relationship. Sociometry and systems thinking are intertwined. I encourage managers to see their role as supportive of those they purport to manage, rather than as controllers. I encourage them to see their role as ensuring people have the resources, information and relationships they need to get on with their work. That last bit sometimes challenges managers because as John Seddon describes, we train managers (if at all) to be good people managers. When I say “ensure people have the relationships they require”, I don’t intend they manage people or try to keep them happy. Odd, huh? I intend the kind of picture that Google have: to engineer and nurture a system which facilitates people interacting with each other. In an older article, I suggested that a good leader is a good sociometrist. Yes, leaders (people) need to develop their relationship capabilities. They also need to develop the bigger picture abilities that facilitate productive and purposeful working relationships to flourish all over the place.
Some have misinterpreted sociometry as “developing skills to get on better with people so I can get them to do what I want them to.” No. Sociometry is an active exploration of the inter-relationships that exist and an uncovering of what is not seen between people, so that they can, together, create new patterns of behaviour with each other. The result is that people work better together. I believe that working on the sociometry is part of working on the system. One of the insights that came to a client of ours recently, as a result of our work with their sociometry, was that they need to redesign their physical space so that they get more of the interactions that lead to the kind of innovation that sits at the heart of their business. In their commitments to action, I see a mirror of the kind of community that Google have created.
In the modern economy, where much of the work that we do is knowledge based, relationships and networks are core. Google’s approach is to engineer serendipity. I enjoy oxymorons. Like spontaneity training. How can you possibly engineer happy accidents? Well, we can’t make happy accidents happen, but we can nurture the ecosystem within which they are more likely to happen.
Attending to the interpersonal also cannot be underestimated. Part of this is examining how people relate to each other and what “elephants” might sit in the room between them. Dealing with these “elephants” is at the heart of sociometry. People learn about themselves and the dynamic of the groups to which they belong. They cooperatively learn how to grapple with the complexity and uncertainty of modern business life. This occurs when a skillful sociometry practitioner assists them to discover what is happening between them and work out new structures of relating.
If creativity and collaboration are core to the business, we can craft workplaces where people are drawn together and interact about the work they are doing. We can design spaces and ways of working where people are more likely to be stimulated to innovate together. Maz Iqbal, in a comment on a recent article of mine wrote, “The pragmatist changes the structure of the system so that the desired behaviour is called forth.” Yes. He also provided a link to the work of Jeppe Hein, an artist who has created some wacky park benches which he designed to encourage more exchange between users and passers-by, giving them a much more social quality. As well as engineering the physical environment, we can also “engineer” the interpersonal by attending to the sociometry. Both of these are conscious systems interventions, both add value and set a business towards achieving its purpose.
February 10, 2013
Know how you have an experience and some song lyrics pop into your head that seem to have been written especially for it? ”Expert textpert, choking smoker, don’t you think the joker laughs at you?” Parallel process. Happens to me all the time when I’m working. I suddenly notice that what the client is doing, what they act out, is exactly what I’m being drawn into and I respond out of a parallel mindset. I might have thought of “..caught in a trap…I can’t walk out…” but I’m not an Elvis fan. And I’m working with a business that is stuck because of a highly dependent culture. The creativity of the people is not being unleashed as it could be. And how do they relate to me? As the expert: dependent for the “expert advice”. And what do I do? Show off some daft diagram like some kind of expert.
I’ve been stuck on the phenomenon of inertia lately (no pun intended). Fascinated as I am by physics, I have been noticing this phenomenon in the area of how people operate both individually and in teams. Not wanting to teach anyone to suck eggs, inertia states simply that any object that is stationary will remain so unless acted upon by another force and any object that is in motion will remain so unless acted upon by another force. What I see in many situations is people and organisations bound by inertia. Without wanting to place a value judgement on inertia per se, in many of these cases, there is a “stuckness” which is unsatisfying for the person or business concerned and something new is needed to get them out of their rut.
In our work, we apply the concept of a “conserve”. Jakob Moreno set out a cycle of spontaneity, creativity and cultural conserve. Spontaneity sparks creativity which leads to the creation of a conserve. Conserves abound in our world. Handel’s Messiah. The Mona Lisa. Gangnam Style. Bugs Bunny. Antiseptic. The internet. Artefacts and menefacts that come about as a result of a creative act, spurred on by the spontaneity state that arises in us when we warm up to it. This new thing becomes the conserve off of which the next creative act springboards into life, so, for example, Web 1.0 was the jumping-off place for Web 2.0, the iPhone 3 begat 3GS which begat 4 which begat the 5. As long as the conserve is viewed as the starting place for the next thing, it’s all good, but if the conserve becomes too conserved, it can become a rut. Artefacts and mentefacts. Mindsets are just as much a conserve as any creative act.
As I’ve written earlier, I’m on a health kick this year. Moreno believed that one key to health was creativity. When I think about how living systems tend towards entropy, this makes sense to me. If organisations are to counteract the “heat-death of the universe” (thanks to @thinkingpurpose for that expression), they need to add more stuff into the system. Businesses, like each of us individually, can get stuck in ruts, subject to inertia. If we don’t inject something new into our systems, we carry on as we have been. Creativity is a superb way to bring in new stuff. The Morenian method sets out to challenge people to be more creative by developing greater spontaneity, which is the spark that sets creativity alight. Furthermore, the method calls on people to work together to develop new role responses to life’s challenges, rather than remain in isolation and continue to operate out of a limited repertoire of responses.
I mentioned four synchronous conversations with four different clients in a recent article. Synchronous because all four identified some things that they are sick and tired of and ready to shift. One of these things they are trying to grow is a greater sense of WE and, hand in hand with that is a move away from their cultures of dependency. The two are inextricably linked for these four businesses. If we get greater WE and we act out of mutuality and interdependency, rather than silos and dependency, we can unleash something new and mitigate for the inexorable slide towards extinction and ultimate disorder. We need both: WE-ness and mutuality.
What’s wrong with a culture of dependency? From the perspective of those who lead these businesses, this is manifest by the guys at the top saying to me, “If I didn’t look over their shoulder/do it/nag, it wouldn’t get done.” They don’t like this. They relate to me their concern that people aren’t bringing all of their creativity to work. For these businesses, a culture of dependency means that people don’t take initiative. It means that the managers have to cajole, berate or get grumpy. It means that people take up little responsibility, let alone accountability, for in their cultures of dependency, accountability lies with the bosses. In other words, they are left with a mentefact of Industrial Age organisation. “The boss has the answers, the boss knows best, if something went wrong, it wasn’t my fault, it was the boss’s fault .” Blaming and excuse-making reigns in a dependency culture. ”You didn’t get me the right tools.” ”You didn’t tell me the right way to do it.” ”If you’d given me the afternoon off yesterday, I wouldn’t be so tired today.”
To head towards the responsibility-taking, initiative-taking culture of WE, something needs to work on their inertia which keeps them in cultures of dependency. Looking at structure and relationships would help. I’m pondering next steps with one client who, when I simply showed this diagram:
…took up a defensive position, seeming to lecture me on how important structure was, otherwise there would be disorder (failing to see that both pictures illustrate a structure, just that the one on the right was weird and alien). With regards this particular organisation, one thought that popped into mind was, “..and disorder would be a BAD thing??” The second thought that popped into mind was, “…and explain to me how you would class the way things run around here as ‘order’”. When I stopped thinking facetious thoughts, I took a step back and noticed that the response was exactly what the hierarchical system in which they exist would expect them to say. I had a little flash to that awful, car crash of a reality programme, “The Hotel Inspector”. Some poor unfortunate hotelier, whose business is going down the gurgler, calls in an expert, someone who has years of top hotel experience, to help them turn their business around. The expert comes in, berates the unfortunate for doing it all wrong, gives them advice on what they need to do instead and goes away for a few weeks to see if they put it into practice. As I watch, I’m on the side of the expert, purely because for dramatic tension (presumably because TV producers can no longer afford to pay proper dramatic writers and actors for decent TV any more), they choose a hotelier who is utterly hopeless. For added tension, the besieged hotelier proceeds to argue with the expert. So I wonder, “Why on Earth did you ask for expert advice if you just wanted to rebut everything they said?? Why on Earth did you invite them in to your establishment if all you wanted to do was justify why you were right and they were wrong??”
See what I’m getting at? A business calls you in to be the “outside eye” and make some observations about their organisation and its culture and when you make an observation (an observation, mind, not advice), they are stuck in the mindset that defines their current culture (inertia again) to explain why anything outside their normal ken is just fantastical. There are ways and ways to introduce that “something new” into the system, however.
Now, I’ve made mention in previous articles that I write to help me digest and reflect on experiences I have in my work. My thinking is already a little clearer than it was when I started writing this one, and if even one reader is still with me, thank you immensely for bearing with my narcissistic reflections. The way forward with this client is to take a much more softly, softly approach. They are 2D creatures and can’t make sense of this 3D blob that’s appeared before them. There is a process of slowly uncovering what they don’t yet see about themselves. This follows on very nicely (I love synchronicity) from Dan Oestreich’s comments on my previous article: “Genuine learning implies… birthing new consciousness; looking and really seeing…and therein lies a problem….as raw conscious awareness can be painful.” And what do we human animals do when we are in pain? We fight, we flee or we freeze. The CEO who took such exception to my simple diagram (even though I’d indicated no preference, harboured no advice, pointed out no likeness) saw himself and his organisation in the mirror. And it hurt.
His response was a perfect response from someone at the head of a culture infused with dependency. Defer or defy. That’s what you do with an authority figure. Either defer utterly to authority or defend yourself from the authority’s complete idiocy. In this instance, I was the “authority” in his eyes. Someone from outside with some so-called expertise. Dependency: I’ll wait for the leader to tell me what to do, even though I’m a free-thinking, intelligent human animal who manages to run all other aspects of my life without referring to someone else for permission. OR If it goes pear-shaped, it’s because the leader didn’t tell me how to do it, didn’t tell me how to do it properly, didn’t tell me to stop doing what I was already doing.
So I am sitting with this phrase rolling around my head, “Sociatrist, heal thyself.” I care deeply about this particular organisation, they do some amazing, truly life-changing work in their world. I like the CEO immensely, I have known him for over 15 years. If I am to be of any assistance, I need to role reverse much better with him and the others in his senior team. I need to notice my response to his response and observe the parallel process at play. You know the old adages, “You teach best what you most need to learn,” “Your work is your work”, etc etc. In my first facetious thoughts, I am tuning into the dependency in the air and doing what those awful Hotel Inspectors do. If I really care about making a difference, I need to come alongside my client in a way which assists them to gently see themselves better and warms up THEIR spontaneity to a new creative act. If I didn’t care about this client, I could continue to bully them into seeing things they aren’t yet ready to see. I see a dependency culture. If I am to be with them as they shift it, I need to become more aware of myself and what my role is in that. Do I relate to them as some kind of expert? Maybe I did when I flashed that diagram. In their eyes, it might have looked like that. That’s not what a organisation caught in the inertia of dependency needs.
So, I am left to ponder my own warm up, how to I warm up my own spontaneity to my own creativity and meet them quite differently next time. Having said what I’ve said, I do believe that cultures of dependency in organisations are not healthy. I will continue my work with this client for as long as I can. But I need to be more cognisant of myself and how I approach them so I don’t trigger a dependency response in them. It is so easy to fall into the trap of being the expert, exacerbated by a business that is bound by its own inertia and can’t see another way yet.
…..and do you know what the team asked me at the end of this session? ”So, are there some things about us you need to tell us?” Not going to fall into that. I want to companion them, to assist them to observe themselves and not to do the dependent thing. They are highly talented and creative individuals. With a little nudging, they can shift to a place where they make observations of themselves. So easy to give in to the invitation to be “the expert”. It’s not what the world needs now.
February 3, 2013
Why would the whole of the Universe be a complex, self-organising and interdependent system, and a business be a top-down, controlled machine? Why would the entire Universe be subject to the laws of Nature, and business, not? It’s almost as some businesses they think they exist in some bubble, where the laws of nature are turned away by some bouncer: “You can’t come in here with that gravity. Second Law of Thermodynamics? Not in here, sunny Jim.”
My favourite programmes on telly are the ones about the universe and how it came to be. One I was watching recently had a theme of complexity and order: how order arose out of the chaos of the Big Bang and formed some of the most beautiful sights in our solar system, such as Saturn’s rings. The narrator kept describing the wonders of the solar system as complex and marvelled at how it organised itself over many billions of years, subject to the forces of nature. As I watched, I was making connections to life here on Earth. The point he made in the final minutes of the programme was that we are part of the same complex and wonderful solar system and subject to its same laws. I made the link to organisations, to one client in particular and to one particular phenomenon of systems (you can’t tell a systems thinker to stop being a systems thinker in their free time, sorry). I had a moment of thinking how many who “run” businesses think they are immune from laws of nature, or certainly behave like they do, acting out of old myths like some kind of Flat-Earther.
Complexity, ambiguity, dynamic change and uncertainty are not the new normal; they have been around since the Big Bang. They are part of the fabric of the universe. We have just been (unconsciously) shielding ourselves from the forces of nature by pretending we weren’t a part of it. From the days of lords and serfs to the time we set out on the “scientific management” path, we have applied top-down control mechanisms on people to get them to work, like so many bits of a wind-up clock. Many are finally acknowledging that complexity, ambiguity and so on are part of the fabric of organisational life. Accordingly, we must adjust our ways of doing business to take account of these phenomena of Nature.
Just as, 1000 years ago, we “KNEW” that the Sun went around the Earth, just as we “KNEW” the Earth was flat, just as we “KNEW” that trepanation was a good cure for headaches , many organisations seem to “KNOW” that top-down command-and-control mechanistic structures, with a select few pulling the levers, are the best ways to run things. I believe that if we don’t “unknow” some of the nonsense we still unconsciously adhere to, the forces of Nature will present us with some unpleasant surprises. Even if we continue to “KNOW” that our business is a machine, it does not make it any less true that it is a living system, and thus subject to the laws of living systems.
A client who I described in a previous article was reflecting on 2012 recently and observed that they had made some progress in their business over the year. By progress, he meant that
- people were beginning to take up more responsibility and initiative without having to wait for the boss to tell them what to do
- there was more discussion amongst the staff as to how to manage some of the day-to-day challenges they meet and less referring to the boss for the “answer”
- mistakes were being used as entry points to examining business processes and working out how they could be improved
- they had a clearer idea of their collective purpose and how important relationship is to achieving that purpose
- the leaders were devoting more of their time to ensuring the conditions and structures of the business were optimised so that people could get on with their jobs (and less time micro-managing operational tasks).
Thrilling stuff. He also reflected on how shifting the focus away from “behavioural problems” as isolated events and onto the business as a whole living system seemed to have injected some new life (his words, not mine) into the business: that they were actually going somewhere. Here was an example of the practical benefits of applying systems thinking to overcoming business “stuckness”. They started the year stagnating, with things getting worse, they injected some new learning into the system, they are now moving to another level of effectiveness.
Here’s the link to that TV programme and this client’s business: entropy. As a living system, my client’s business is subject to the same laws that pertain to the rest of the universe. One of these is the Second Law of Thermodynamics, a corollary of which is entropy. Entropy, crudely speaking, is the tendency towards death. Social entropy, which applies to organisations, is a ”measure of the natural decay of the structure or of the disappearance of distinctions within a social system.” (Krippendorff) As the whole of the universe tends towards randomness, or death, so do all the elements within it. This is not to take a fatalistic approach and say “Why bother doing anything, then?” There are forces that also act to retard entropy. Like with other living systems, some energy needs to go into the pot in order to counteract it. My cup of hot tea will naturally cool down as heat is transferred away from it, but I can re-heat it by applying energy in the from of a microwave oven.
What does entropy look like in the business world?
How do we counteract entropy?
If a business is succumbing to natural entropy and feels like it’s losing track or going nowhere, how can we reheat it? Let’s look to Nature. How do other living systems in Nature counteract entropy? They bring in more stuff. Living systems find loopholes to counteract entropy. In the context of the natural world, this shows itself as adaptation. In the context of business, this means learning. Closed systems that spend their energy simply on maintaining themselves in survival mode eventually spend themselves out. If a business is spending too much of its time on hunting for food, and not enough on learning new ways to hunt for food, it will succumb to entropy. Vibrant and open living systems naturally tend to greater complexity, experiment often, are driven to what is possible and seek new opportunities which destabilise them until they restablise in a renewed way. They look for more stuff to put into the system to renew it.
“Systems thinking is a response to the failure of mechanistic thinking in the attempt to explain social and biological phenomena.” Lars Skyttner
Purpose, not anatomy
If something is not working, look at the bigger picture: purpose, relationships and interconnectedness of the elements. Because entropy (a phenomenon of living systems) is affecting the business, taking a systems thinking approach will be the path to finding its counter-measures. Merely looking at the anatomy of a business is not going to help us solve 21st century problems. As Skytnner writes, the emergence of a holistic approach came about in an effort to provide us “an outlook to see better, a network to understand better and a platform to act better.” This is something that is dear to my heart. Systems thinking gives us a real-life, practical way to actually craft the way we do things better and more effectively, not simply some intellectual exercise that sounds lovely.
Systems thinking is not a prescription or method, it’s more of a perspective or way of approaching problems. Systems thinking can help us to look for patterns within businesses, to see fundamental structures and their impact on the elements (the people, the departments, the sub-groups) within the business as well as on the relationships between those elements.
When living systems, such as a business, get to a certain point, they begin to entropy. Unless something new is added to the system, it will tend towards death. If we continue to apply the same-old, same-old solutions to address this problem, we are not bringing anything new into the system. ”Something new” requires learning. Learn what is working well. Learn what is not working well. Learn where the connections are within the business. Learn where the disconnects are. Learn from the customer.
A business will not have sustainable life unless it is infused with energy from outside itself. For a business to operate as a closed system, starving itself of innovation and creativity of its own people or ignorant of its customers and environment, entropy takes over. It will tend towards death. A “she’ll be right”, “it’ll sort itself out” attitude will lead to greater mess, greater randomness, and without new energy in the system to help deal with the mess, it will die away. Things do not sort themselves out. If I don’t maintain my house, it’ll eventually crumble over time. This is a real example of how the Second Law of Thermodynamics affects us. A hot cup of coffee will tend, over time, to lose heat. A living system starved of nourishment will eventually cease to exist. A business led by managers who see their role as nothing more than “competent supervision” will tend towards disintegration and eventually have a “Kodak moment” (not the picturesque kind). To be successful, a business must adapt to its ever-changing environment and to its own ever-changing internal dynamics that emerge out of the interactions between all the elements within in. A successful business must gain nourishment from outside its steady state: from innovation and creativity, from market information, from ongoing learning. When a business applies systems thinking, it can find new ways to renew itself.
Businesses that will do well in this networked age will overcome the natural phenomenon of entropy by becoming open to what could be and taking steps to do something different. They will learn to think bigger. They will see learning and renewal of their business processes as part of their new culture of continuous improvement. They will see the business as a living system and not a machine. They will see mistakes as opportunities for learning and renewal, rather than through the old lens as a “disciplinary issue”.
When Harold Jarche says work is learning and learning is the work, I think he’s suggesting that for a business to thrive, it must place learning at the heart of everything it does. Purposeful learning. Learning that is not “training” as we have visioned it up till now. Any training that is disconnected from the people is not sufficient. Learning that is not about the work is not sufficient. Real 21st century learning must change how we think, behave and interact with each other, as well as what we know. It must be relevant to purpose, activity and relationships. Not just one of those: all three. A business, which is a living system, requires relevant learning in order to subvert that thing which happens to all living systems: entropy.
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.
October 16, 2012
As a sociatrist, I’m passionate about people in business developing greater ability to stand in each others’ shoes. It’s one of the cornerstones of the work we do at Quantum Shift and is central to nurturing greater health in organisations. This is often given the name “empathy”. I bristle a little, however, when I hear someone say, “I can have empathy for them, but…..” What’s that expression? Everything before the “but” is bulls**t. I go along with Professor Simon Baron Cohen’s idea that empathy sits along a spectrum. I also go along with Martin Buber’s suggestion that the point on the spectrum at which we start treating people as objects is when we are capable of cruelty. At the same time, I would extend this to say that we can go beyond empathy and develop the ability to role reverse with others. There is an embodied knowing that comes via the act of role reversal, beyond mere thought and cognitive understanding, which facilitates a deeper ability to live in someone else’s skin. Getting this at a head, heart and gut level changes our world beyond what we thought possible. It becomes harder to switch off our empathy and behave as if people are mere resources when we have a full experience of what it’s like for them. Personally, I also find that I am more able to stop myself mid-sentence when I hear myself saying, “I understand where they’re coming from, but….” and upon reflection, widen my perspective on the other person a little more. Role reversal helps to unshackle us from the (mostly unconscious) chains we keep ourselves in, with regards our views of other people.
In some circles, it is increasingly accepted that empathy is a key capability of a leader. Even in the face of research, some still ignore this. However, there is a growing tide of evidence that empathy is a core skill for the modern workplace. Empathic ability is positively correlated to better performance as a leader. It facilitates much improved working relationships and in the modern workplace, we often don’t get to choose who we work with. An increasingly diverse workforce creates challenges for us and in order for us to get things done, we need to learn how to get on with a greater variety of working styles, viewpoints and personalities. Getting a deep, felt sense of what it’s like for someone else grants us greater ability to make decisions, be inclusive, resolve conflicts and share responsibility.
I was deeply touched to read of a young man, conservative, self-confessed homophobe and Christian, who decided to live his life for one year as a gay man. He was moved by a Christian friend’s experience of being kicked out of home when she came out as a lesbian and decided that he really wanted to understand what it was like to be gay. This was no mere thought experiment; he was determined to truly walk in the shoes of a homosexual man. By immersing himself in the experience, which included coming out to his family, he developed a profound understanding of what it was like to actually be a gay man. He came out of the year with his faith reaffirmed, along with the belief that gay people need equal rights. I would attribute his insights to the fact that for one year of his life, he gave up his position and fully took up the role of another.
“The challenge of understanding another person and what it takes to truly feel understood by another is at the hub of human social existence”, according to Dr. Dani Yaniv at the University of Haifa, in his 2012 paper, “Dynamics of Creativity and Empathy in Role Reversal: Contributions from Neuroscience.” We are utterly and inextricably linked to all human life. That goes for business, too. Yet how easy it is to dispense with another’s viewpoint if it doesn’t match ours or disregard another’s experience if it’s too far from our ken or to dispose of someone’s creative contributions if they come from a value or belief system we think is irrelevant. I will put my hand up and say I am guilty of these things at times; there are moments when I wish I could have shown more equanimity, generosity of spirit and caring. I’m flawed; there, I’ve said it. Send me back to the factory to be re-programmed.
While it is an interesting paradox that we can never really know what someone else is experiencing, we can develop the ability to role reverse, thus allowing our knowing of others to deepen and unfold. We generate in ourselves a creative empathy that brings new ways of being with people. When we role reverse, we are wholly someone else just for a moment and left to learn from what we discover. Having had a mind-body experience of another’s world, our lives and the lives of others are changed forever, sometimes subtly or, in the case of that young Christian man, quite dramatically. Like that young man, our view of others is expanded, with our own selves intact. We are able to transcend ourselves through the act of role reversal.
Role reversal leads us outside our own experience and world view and into those of another. We cannot unlearn what we have learnt when it’s a visceral, whole person experience. We can, if we really apply ourselves, pretend not to know what it’s like from another’s point of view, but having truly given ourselves to the experience of another’s existence, this would require in us to take up a role of particularly selfish and uncaring dimension. What would be the use of that?
When it comes to empathy, it’s often easier to find it for people with whom we share some values or beliefs. As I referred to in my interview with Dan Oestreich, role reversal takes us beyond empathy, however. When we really get stuck with someone, when they “push our buttons”, it can be hard to find a way to understand that person. Their behaviours and attitudes mystify us and, left unaddressed, we can begin to characterise them by what we see as their faults. We do ourselves and others a disservice when we reduce someone to a bunch of “bad” behaviours. Doing this leaves the salesperson or customer service rep, for example, in a poorer position when they are not able to understand another person’s circumstances accurately. When we see another person’s behaviours as coming from a real and value-based place, we become freer to meet their concerns.
A manager we once worked with in the course of a leader development process described an employee she referred to as a “bad egg”. This manager, I’ll call her Stacey, had the wherewithal to know that this employee, whom I’ll call Emily, was not an intrinsically bad person, but that some of their behaviours at work made it particularly challenging to work alongside. What Stacey wanted to learn was a greater ability in herself to work with Emily. That was the first step: engaging her will. Stacey had made a conscious decision to bring her relationship with Emily into the domain of this workshop and declare that she wanted things to be better. She also recognised that there was something she could do differently in herself that would shine a light on how to approach her relationship with Emily. So, with Stacey, we set up a scenario between her and Emily. This was the second step: mustering the courage to examine the situation. As we began the re-enactment of the scenario, there was a moment when I directed Stacey to reverse roles with Emily. That is, she physically sat in Emily’s chair and adopted Emily’s role. For a moment, Stacey gave up herself and behaved as if she was Emily. This was the third step: giving up herself and becoming the other. There was no acting involved; she was being Emily. When she reversed roles and returned to her primary self, she looked at me and quietly said, “It’s gone.” When I asked her what she meant, she said that she longer viewed Emily as a “bad egg”. She became quite reflective at this point and I could see that she had had a sea-change in her attitude towards Emily. Some weeks later, at a subsequent session, I asked her how she was going with Emily and for a moment, she had to pause to recollect that she had had some issues with her, then said, “Oh, it’s fine now.” She had worked out, from her own creativity, how she could relate to Emily differently, having had the experience of being Emily. This, again, was no thought experiment. Stacey had immersed herself in the role of Emily, giving up her own values and beliefs, knowing that for the purposes of learning something new, she could safely give herself up momentarily and then to return to being herself, her awareness expanded.
This interpersonal process of role reversal facilitates a deep understanding of others that we struggle to achieve via a cognitive thought experiment. Once known, it cannot be unknown. It reveals the bigger picture (the wider system) to us in ways an intellectual exercise cannot. Once seen, it cannot be unseen. Once developed, the ability to role reverse also cannot be faked. It is a whole body capability which takes us beyond empathy.
Developing the ability to role reverse helps to free us to truly serve others; not as “dry” acts of duty, but as genuine service. How much easier it is to be the kind of leader that people need us to be when we are doing it out of an act of our will, not out of obligation. How much more effective we are as customer service officers if our default setting is applying our abilities to really “getting” the person we are dealing with. How much more satisfying it is as a salesperson to engage with another and know intimately what they are looking for.
Understanding others at work is not discretionary.
To my mind, role reversal is not a “tool”; it is not used selectively. It is something which is integrated into who we are and how we express ourselves in relation to others around us. It colours all our interactions and is not a thing to be switched on and off as it suits us. Even rhesus monkeys operate empathically. In an experiment, they were taught to pull a chain to obtain food. When they were shown another monkey receiving an electric shock every time they pulled the chain, they stopped pulling it. One monkey went without food for 12 days. I wonder what Milgram would say about that?
What do you say about that?
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……
February 29, 2012
“Empower” is a word that is coming into greater usage by many who manage people. I like to think this is a sign of how much the modern manager is acknowledging the importance of authority and accountability being more diffuse in the workplace and that old-style hierarchies have outlived their effectiveness. I have noticed sometimes, however, that when I hear someone use the word in particular contexts, I bristle slightly, so I have done some thinking as to what that’s about. Without wanting to get into a whole semantic debate about what it means exactly (because like many words, it is tinged with our own subjectivity), I think there is a mindset to which the word alludes. Naturally, I also bring my own experiences and understandings to the word, so I am not presuming to set out the definitive meaning.
When I hear someone talking about empowering staff or their team and they describe what they mean, the word that springs to my mind is “enable”. The two terms are often used in dictionary definitions of each other and sometimes listed as synonyms. While they are closely related and sometimes interchangeable, I see a subtle but very important difference between the two when it comes to workplace authority and accountability. I think there are some nuanced differences that illustrate different types of leader behaviour in a workplace that is becoming increasingly “democratic” and where power is shifting from the top to become more spread throughout teams and organisations.
In a world of networks and interconnectivity, I believe that nobody can empower us; we do that ourselves. Nobody who took part in the January 25 movement in Tahrir Square was empowered by Mubarak and his cronies, they took it upon themselves to take to the streets and demand something different. In the world of work we can also empower ourselves, not in a “let’s man the barricades and overthrow the dictator” kind of way, but more in a “I’m bringing all of myself, my creativity and my initiative to work” kind of way. I believe this is a call for leaders to get out of the way. We hire people for their expertise and capabilities so please, let them bring their whole selves to work and let’s get out of their way. If some managers didn’t play the kind of power games that demotivated people, they could spend less time wondering how to increase motivation and engagement and more time with a gentle hand on the tiller, keeping an eye on the big picture, providing the means and opportunity for people to work well and letting people get on with what they hired them for. This is not to say that leaders should ditch their responsibilities and just let people do whatever they want, but that the activities of a leader should be more focussed on ensuring that everyone who works for the organisation has a clear line of sight to the vision and that they are provided the means with which to contribute to this big picture. A leader should develop the capability to tune into people and work out which ones need more guidance and coaching, which ones need a lighter touch, which ones work best with frequent encouragement and which ones need clearer structure and discipline, which ones thrive on autonomy and initiative-taking and which ones work best when given more direction; in other words, find out how you can best be of service to the individuals and teams who you lead and don’t take a cookie cutter approach with everyone. This, for me, is not about empowering though.
I bring my understanding of the word “empower” from my days as a therapist when I was working with clients whose lives were characterised by a deeply felt lack of power, or potency, in their lives. They were not the star of their own life stories, in other words. They were subject to decisions made by child protection authorities or social service authorities or parental authority or some other kind of powerful person or statutory body which held sway over important aspects of their day-to-day lives. While it is true that so many people in their lives were the agents of disempowerment, it seemed to me that to presume that I could empower them was just the opposite side of the same coin. For many people, bosses at work also hold this position. In my role as a therapist and in my current role as a change facilitator, it seems a little paradoxical to me that I would be in a position to empower anyone. Empower, to me, presumes that the one who empowers has the power to begin with and grants it to the other; it reinforces a paradigm of power and control to which the other person is subject. If I am the granter of power, there is still a power imbalance. This relationship presumes that I hold some kind of hierarchical authority over you and that, only by my good grace, are you exercising any authority. While I am in the position of granting power, I remain in the position of taking it back. I came to see myself as more of an enabler and facilitator, so that the other person could develop the resources within themselves to take up greater potency in their lives. For someone to gain authentic power, it was important that they were the agents of their own empowerment and that I get out of the way of them doing that.
In that world of therapy and personal growth, the term “enable” has come to take on a pejorative meaning. It is often used to describe those who permit unhealthy behaviours to carry on. For example, someone who enables an alcoholic is someone who doesn’t confront them or provides the means for them to carry on abusing alcohol. An enabler is considered someone who provides the means or opportunity for someone to engage in their addiction and thus carry on with their destructive behaviours or attitudes. While I agree that it means to provide the means and opportunity to do something, I see it from its etymological meaning of to “put in ability”. Rather than call it enabling, I would classify those manager behaviours that inhibit each person taking responsibility for themselves as colluding. If you are rescuing, lecturing, shaming, controlling, punishing, needlessly micromanaging or living in denial about what staff do, you are probably not enabling nor empowering in my book.
Even though the two words, empower and enable, are often used interchangeably, it is important for me to be clear in my mind of the subtle differences that make a big difference to how we relate to people. The one, empower, emphasising power and a world view that hierarchies hold greater sway than relationships and interactivity between nodes on a network; the other, enable, emphasising capability development and a world view that, when fully able, people can put their abilities to good use.
Empower seems limited to the granting of authority, which can be rescinded when it suits the holder of power, while enable seems much broader to me. It encompasses what someone does to ensure that others have the requisite capabilities and skills to carry out a job well, to take up their own power (potency) and when necessary, showing them the door to gaining new capabilities and skills. It seems to be more akin to equipping and supplying than conferring power. Once equipped, the enabler can then get out of the way and let the person access their own power to get on with it.
I would say the following activities count as enabling, or “getting out of the way” behaviours:
Setting boundaries: clarifying limits of authority and accountability so that people know what they are responsible for and what they are not. It may be necessary for a leader to delineate where various bucks stop, but once boundaries are set, people can be freed up to exercise initiative. Set boundaries too tight and you end up micro-managing. Set boundaries too loose and you get confusion and anxiety. Like Goldilocks’ porridge, they should be just right.
Managing team dynamics: shining a light on relationships and networks and encouraging their connection and interaction. The enabling manager knows that teams sometimes need a watchful eye to assist them with potential conflict or difference. The enabling manager will not, however, need to be an interloper, speaking on behalf of people or protecting people from each other.
Showing trust and belief: behaving in ways that let people know you trust them to get on with it. It is true that for some folks, work is just a thing to earn money and is not a source of personal satisfaction or meaning. However, for those folks who are looking for a sense of achievement, trust them to work things out for themselves. It is important to set out the parameters of what needs to be achieved, but trust folks to do it in their own way. If you want to tell someone what to do and exactly how to do it, why not just get a robot? Let people prove themselves and stretch their initiative muscles.
Being available: for advice, guidance, information, as a sounding board. Letting people get on with it does not mean abdicating your interest or your involvement in what goes on from day-to-day. Having an open door also does not mean being there to solve every operational problem to the extent that you never get your own work done.
Communicating respectfully: communication should be open and mutual. This includes being authentic with people and letting them know how their actions affect you and others, being humble and encouraging them to do the same with you, keeping open lines of mutual feedback.
Coaching people to learn from mistakes: when someone makes a mistake, an enabling manager will work with the person to work out what went wrong, why it went wrong and ensure that they have the capability and awareness to prevent a repeat. Punishing or blaming may not teach someone what they need to learn so it doesn’t happen again. A plan for professional development, however, will.
Encouraging problem-solving: letting people bring their creativity to work. None of us is smarter than all of us, goes the adage. Given the means and opportunity, people and teams will apply themselves to solving the problems that affect them, rather than default to a chain of command that doesn’t have all the answers. Encourage a culture of creativity, collaborative problem-solving and engagement in the issues that affect everyone’s working lives.
Don’t get between people and their work. Let work be a place where people can extend themselves, be themselves and learn for themselves. Get out of the way please.
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.
October 25, 2011
Sad to say, but there are still many managers like that. They say they want real engagement from staff and customers, yet their behaviours convey quite the opposite: that they just want automatons, warm bodies that do what they’re told and take what they’re given. After all, automatons are less ‘messy’ than people, they are less unpredictable and more reliable, aren’t they?
So which is it? Do you want people, with all their foibles and flaws, or well-behaved automatons?
You may be the boss but you can’t have it both ways. What this means is that you cannot say that you want my creativity, my sharp thinking, my feedback and my participation and at the same time, infer by your actions towards me that, actually, you are not interested; that you’d rather I just did as I was told and kept my mouth shut. You cannot say you want me to be innovative and turn me on and off like some kind of light switch as it suits you. You cannot tell me that my contributions are valuable and then behave in a manner that demonstrates contempt for me when I contribute. These things you say you want are not “skills”; they are part of my make-up. They are woven into the fabric of my being. You want them or you don’t. You cannot tell me you want all of me at work, but then place conditions and caveats around that. You want me or you don’t.
It may shock you to know this, but your response to me is all about you. It is about your unconscious default position when you feel threatened, scared, inconvenienced, anxious or overwhelmed. I know you want the best for me and the organisation, but how you go about that sometimes betrays your own lack of development and self-awareness. So my message to you is: be very careful what you wish for.
- Do you really want creativity and a culture of innovation? Be prepared for others to have ideas that you have not already had; that is the point. Be prepared for me to say things that you might find counter-intuitive, but please do not shut me down. Please do not tell me you don’t want to discuss my ideas. They are only ideas and will not hurt you. Please don’t feel threatened by new ideas or the people that brought them. If you do, this is a leadership issue and you should probably have a word with yourself and develop some capabilities. In yourself.
- Do you truly want my engagement and alignment with the wider organisation? You will get my full engagement and attention when I know you are constantly listening to me. By listening, I mean you shut off your internal voices and prejudices and open both of your ears, all of your heart and mind and actually listen to what I have to say. I will know you have been listening when you make references to things I have told you or when I am visibly acknowledged. This will generate trust, which will cause me, quite naturally, to engage with you and your vision. It’s not rocket science, but if this seems hard, do something about your ability to really listen to others; it’s another leadership issue.
- Do you really want teamwork and collaboration throughout the business? If you want me to work well with others, to value their contributions and to build on what others bring, model this yourself. While it’s hard to measure, most of us have had experiences in our lives where we were part of something bigger than ourselves; where the whole was greater than the sum of the parts, as the old cliche goes. It’s a cliche for a reason; because it’s a human truth. Even grumpy old Henry Ford said, ”Coming together is a beginning. Keeping together is progress. Working together is success.” And if you find managing the divergence and unpredictability of teams and their personalities overwhelming, this is another leadership issue. Immerse yourself in some development (NOT training) around dealing with surprise and team dynamics.
- Do you truly want feedback; from your customers, from your suppliers, from your associates and from your staff? Opportunities for feedback are continual and limitless. The thing about getting information back is that it then behoves you to do something about it. It can be a little scary to see and hear how others truly perceive you because it may clash wildly with your self-perception. In fact, chances are there will be something that jars, so be prepared for this. I will know you genuinely value my feedback when things change as a result of what I tell you, so be prepared to act upon the information. If you care enough about me, you will at least give my feedback the respect and consideration it is due and, if you hear it as if it is the truth, it may shine a light on something of enormous value to yourself and your business. If you experience feedback as white noise, this is a leadership issue and you should probably develop some capability around standing in others’ shoes.
If you have answered ‘yes’ to those four questions, where do you suppose these things will come from? They will emerge and develop out of the dynamics of people, not the dynamics of machines. Poor old Henry Ford didn’t quite understand this, but he was of a different age. If managers are to learn anything in the Knowledge Age, it is how to manage themselves in unpredictable, complex systems. Henry Ford thought he really only needed hands, but if he was running a business today, he would see that successful organisations are the ones that deploy whole people.
Furthermore, if you ask for these things, if you invest in developing these things, be prepared to get them. Be also prepared for the messiness that comes with them. When working with a client to catalyse a culture shift around having more robust conversations about performance throughout the business, we warned them at the outset that they would get what they asked for; and lo, when these conversations became more prevalent, there were some on the senior executive team who were less than pleased to be on the receiving end of some powerful feedback themselves. If innovation, engagement, teamwork and feedback (and all that comes with them) are inconveniences or they threaten your sense of control, do some work on yourself.
That last bit is really important: while you are growing and nurturing a culture where these things come to life, while you are actively providing opportunities for people to develop their own capabilities, you must continue to develop yourself. Notice your own responses to people as they bring their ideas, their passions and their ‘messiness’ to work. If you find, for example, that your default response when people propose ideas contrary to your own is to shut them down and pull rank, you probably require further capability development.
Remember, that of a leader’s behaviours, it is the unconscious and informal that people watch and derive most meaning from. If your words say one thing, but your actions say another, people will lose trust in you and realise quickly that you are not truly interested in the whole contribution they make to the organisation. Down goes engagement when staff understand that you just want their hands and not the rest of them. Similarly, if you tell your customers that you want to hear their feedback, but nothing changes as a result, you lose the trust of your customers. Down goes the customer experience when they understand that you just want their money and not their hearts and minds.
So which is it? Do you want me? Or do you just want my obedience?
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’?