April 17, 2013
One of these counter-intuitive truths is that “when you manage costs, your costs go up. When you learn to manage value, your costs come down.” There is the business case for systems thinking, if one was needed.
Thanks go to David Wilson through his fitforrandomness blog for bringing a presentation by Seddon to my attention. Makes great watching and listening. There is so much to learn from this talk on so many levels, but when I was watching the video, I kept making the link to management, leadership and new thinking. New thinking to me means a new set of assumptions about organisations and how they get things done.
I think Seddon accurately describes quite a lot of what happens in organisations today; doing the wrong things righter. We have managers who set targets for activity, who then focus people on meeting activity targets. Managers approach their work as target setters, people inspectors, people managers; when targets aren’t met, the managers try to manage individual performance. As he says, modern managers are trained (if at all) to do one-to-one, which he calls a therapy model. I would say he’s not far off the mark. If we are teaching people to be good people managers, we are training their gaze to the 5%, rather than the 95%. This is not to say there is no place for more empathy, respect and humanity in the workplace, far from it. However, in terms of getting things done, in terms of being more effective, treating people well is not the answer on its own. If the system is still set up for people to meet targets rather than work towards achieving purpose, we may just have a lot of lovely workplaces where people are still meaninglessly ticking boxes and shuffling bits of paper. If the system is still command-and-control, commanding and controlling with a smile will not make much difference to organisational effectiveness and betterment. Command-and-control with a smile is like putting a cherry on a turd. Yes, we still need control in organisations, but not as we have understood it up till now. Not managers controlling people, but, as Seddon says, people having control over their work. We need management that focuses on systems, not the people.
Loathe as I am to isolate just three of Deming’s 14 points (because he meant for all 14 to be taken on board together, not as a pick-n-choose menu), when he said:
Eliminate work standards (quotas). Substitute leadership.
Eliminate management by objective. Substitute leadership.
Eliminate management by numbers, numerical goals. Substitute leadership.
…… I believe he means substitute. Put something in place of another. Put leadership in place of targets, quotas and numerical goals, individual performance management, inspection and supervision of people. I understand it to mean that we stop doing targets, individual performance management and all that other stuff that aims to control what people do. As Deming also says, management by objective ensures mediocrity and stifles innovation. There you go, another counter-intuitive truth that Seddon speaks of, and a modern-day heresy. I think it’s important to really consider what kind of management would actually serve organisations better, and we need to get clearer on what leadership means, too. I will add that I don’t think it’s making it a semantic exercise, calling managers “leaders” and getting them to keep doing the same old stuff. The picture I have is that managers start doing management differently AND they start doing leadership as well.
My understanding is that when people like Deming and Seddon advocate for the elimination of targets and performance appraisals, they are not suggesting that we eliminate management. It can be confusing sometimes because so much is written about management and leadership and, as John Kotter and others have already observed, the two terms are often used interchangeably when they mean different things. For example, when Deming says in his 14 points, “substitute leadership”, one could easily misinterpret that to mean he is pooh-poohing management. He is not; he is pooh-poohing management by numbers. Organisations still require management. Deming himself said, ”A system must be managed. It will not manage itself.” In our current paradigm, however, we misconstrue management to mean managing people: getting people to work to targets, inspecting them and chastising them when they miss a target. Old-style management focuses mostly on the people, Deming’s 5%. The 95% is the system; I’ve seen managers who manage the system and it’s far more effective at making the work work for everyone. I see management as the set of tools and processes that people apply in their work that allow them to provide the services or make the products that the market is asking for. Every organisation will have these tools and processes, but I think the point that Seddon and other systems thinkers try to impress upon people is that, by and large, those tools and approaches to managing are oriented to managing the wrong things. I see this in my work, too. So trying to integrate Seddon’s talk and Deming’s work and my own experiences, I would say that we do away with old-style management practice and replace it with the kind of management that works on the system….AND institute leadership. Management and leadership, different things. Both necessary. Complementary. Both/and, not either/or.
So what would a manager’s work look like if they were doing system-y management things, rather than control-y, target-y management things? How would someone in a senior management role occupy themselves, then, if they didn’t have all those “HR issues” to deal with? I feel privileged to say I used to work in a place many years ago, where the senior managers did this system-y stuff, rather than the controlling stuff. I say privileged because it’s more than just a lovely thought experiment for me, and at the same time, I still need to sit and think about how to approach the work I do. I want to be careful that I don’t come across to clients that I’m inferring they should drop the “management” ball and focus solely on developing their leadership.
Interestingly, when the two senior managers of my old workplace moved on, they were replaced with people who didn’t get systems thinking. Even more interestingly, the reputation of this organisation has gone downhill, they are struggling to survive, they are struggling to attract contracts, they are seriously struggling to retain good staff. The place has turned into a paper-shuffling nightmare with little room for autonomy, innovation or real learning. People feel stifled and it’s not a nice place to be anymore. Still….as far as the new managers are concerned, it’s working MUCH better than before; after all, they have everything under control, they have the people under control (…if they only knew) and everything that can be counted is being counted.
So, it’s not about getting rid of management in favour of leadership; organisations need both. The role of someone in a management position, however, is to provide the kind of support that people need in order to do their jobs well, not to keep tabs on them while they do it. Taking away targets does not mean living in lovely fluffy, cloud-land. It doesn’t mean, for example, that people stop having fierce conversations with one another. It’s just that they stop being fierce about which numerical targets people haven’t reached yet and which behaviours they need to stop and, instead, are fierce about quality. Quality freakery, not control freakery.
If we get managers to take up that system-y support role (making sure everyone has what they need blah blah blah), we can get rid of the target-y stuff. I like the roundabout/traffic light analogy. If the traffic people build a roundabout, they are implying, “We trust that drivers have all the information, experience and training they need to make the right decisions about who goes next.” The role of the traffic mangers, then, is to ensure that the system is built and maintained that promotes good flow and that people have learnt what they need to about responsible driving etiquette. Their job is not to keep tabs on individual drivers. Traffic lights, however, infer that drivers don’t need to do anything but what they’re told. Red means stop, green means go and amber means speed up or else you’ll have to wait for the next green. They then set up cameras to inspect whether or not people are breaking the rules and if they do, they get a fine in the post.
So management is about making sure people have all the knowledge, information, learning, resources and relationships necessary to get the job done and that the system is designed to make the stuff or provide the services that the market actually wants. If you haven’t yet, watch that Seddon video to hear some good examples of what shouldn’t be happening and what is starting to happen differently, illustrating how costs come down as the work gets done better for the benefit of the “market”.
So what is the leadership stuff? In my old workplace, the senior managers managed like systems thinkers (working on the system, not on the people) and they also role modelled leadership stuff. Leadership is often associated with providing a vision. Once again, the assumption is often that the few people “at the top” will craft that vision and then apply a bunch of management techniques (individual performance management, targets, standards) to get people to do stuff. I believe there is a disconnect. Why should the senior managers have the joy of working to achieve a grander purpose while all the workers get to see is their activity targets? Even if those “at the top” put together a vision, it will not necessarily come to fruition just because we tell people, “This is what you have to do.” I believe it comes to fruition when everyone in the business is a part of it, when everyone connects with it, when everyone is enlisted into it. I will do something really well if my will is engaged in it, not just because I have to. Best way of engaging my will? Include me in something bigger and bolder than a numerical target. In any case, if I’m a good boy, I may just try to meet my target and go no further or I may try to find creative ways to play with the numbers so it looks like I’ve met my targets.
To get leadership, I believe we need to emphasise purpose: what are we here to achieve for our “market”? Depending on the organisation,the market is someone buying our products and services or a social housing tenant who needs repairs done or a patient who needs good treatment. If targets are set, then, as Seddon suggests, the people work as if their purpose is to meet the targets. I believe organisations have other, more useful things as their purpose. I’ve used the example before of grave-diggers. The activity they engage in is digging and tending graves. However, I believe they are part of a wider system whose purpose is to assist families through bereavement. It is not just semantics; it makes a difference to how they carry out their work. It also makes a difference if they are connected to that purpose because rather than have to be carrotted or sticked to do their jobs well, they can see how they add value to the purpose, how they add value to those they are there to serve. The purpose, then, is not about meeting targets for how many graves they have to dig or tend. They already know how to do that well and don’t need beaten to make it happen. If the managers spend their time working on the system to make sure the grave-diggers have everything they need to do their jobs and the processes are clear, they can let them get on with it, and if there is leadership, everyone will be connected to purpose: making a difference to families in distress.
As Gregory Gull says, leadership must transcend self-interest. That, to me, seems self-evident. If someone is “doing leadership”, they are cognisant of those around them and the wider system. Operating purely out of self-interest is self-defeating in the long run. Good leadership is about seeing possibility; having the vision of how things could be. It’s about making a difference to others; having a deeper sense of why everyone really comes to work. Gull also says that leadership is related to one’s personhood, not one’s position. I believe the same. Good leadership development is good personal development.
I agree with John Kotter, that there are very very few organisations that have sufficient leadership. They may have managers who have re-styled themselves as “leaders” because it’s just what you call yourself these days. Without a shift in thinking, however, what we end up with a bunch of “leaders” still applying old management tools and looking for the people to blame when things don’t get any better.
Am I adding anything to the wider conversation? Not sure, but pondering and reflecting on all these things has helped me to get clearer in myself. As I’ve said before, I primarily write for myself; to help me integrate and seek to be of some use to clients. I do, however, welcome comments that build on this conversation and which may give me pause for further thought.
March 21, 2013
In working with three senior teams in three entirely different sectors over the past month, I’ve heard someone in each of these teams, during the course of the work, utter these words, “We are a microcosm of what is going on in the rest of the business.” They elaborate, “If we don’t get our house in order, how can we expect the rest of the business to work better together?” The theme is silos at work and making efforts to work more collaboratively and cooperatively. In each of these contexts, I shared one of my favourite analogies for silos; it’s as if the organs within my body are fighting each other for primacy. They are inextricably linked and interdependent, each having their own specialisation and each requiring the other to be at their best, however it’s bizarre to imagine that one organ is more important than the other and that if I had the healthiest heart in the world, the whole of my body would functioning at its optimal level. In the past, I have heard those who interface directly with customers say to folks who don’t, “If it wasn’t for us doing the real work, you wouldn’t have jobs.” Imagine my digestive tract saying to my heart, “If I didn’t take in nourishment, you wouldn’t have a job.” Pshaw.
I believe, from my experience, it’s a shift in consciousness that needs to come to people before they see the connection. A change in their mindsets. A whole new perspective. In many businesses, senior managers grapple with effectiveness and train their gaze on the bits of the business that are dysfunctional, rather than see the whole……rather than see that the health of the parts is directly related to the health of the whole…..rather than see that the health of the whole is directly related to the healthy relatedness between the parts. When one person makes that statement about microcosms and everyone else stares blankly, I reckon the rest of the senior team has an opportunity to learn how to think bigger if they want to go further.
I don’t believe the case needs to be made for the elimination of silos at work. I have met nobody who thinks they are a good idea and multitudes who find them ineffective and frustrating. The question people struggle with is, “How do we get rid of them?” I think part of that lies with shifting the thinking that got us here in the first place. To say that silos are ineffective is not to say that specialisation is ineffective. After all, as we develop into fully-fledged humans in-utero, our cells gradually organise according to their specialisations. However, our various specialised systems do not, over time, develop ways of functioning in isolation to anything else in our bodies. They also do not work out ways to operate more optimally at the expense of other parts of the body. I would not suggest, therefore, that businesses need to throw the specialisation baby out with the silo-ed bath water. To clarify that last statement, I would not suggest that everyone should learn how to do everything and be generalists who excel at every specialisation. I’m not suggesting that people’s jobs are determined by simply drawing a role from a hat, regardless of expertise, passion and talent. Specialisation matters; silos do not. It simply does not follow that just because we need people with special talents and expertise, the best way to bring these out is to corral them into functionally-aligned departments and fit them with blinkers so they only see their departmental targets.
The important point is to view specialisation through systems thinking eyes, not mechanistic eyes. If I’m a departmental manager in an organisation where silo-ed thinking dominates, I will do my best to ensure that those who report to me reach the targets I set. If I see the business this way, I will use the words “my team” to mean the folks I manage.
Silos are not simply how an organisation behaves. If it was that simple, people would have stopped working in silos long ago and started behaving differently. They spring out of a mentality, a set of assumptions. Like everything that goes on, what happens happens because there are some assumptions that underly things. There’s where the work of getting rid of silos begins. As I’ve written before, most of these assumptions are unconscious and unquestioned. In silo-ed organisations, there are some assumptions related to the best way of doing things: work is best organised according to functional specialisation, work is optimised when we have reporting hierarchies that monitor achievement of targets, targets are good. Time to question these assumptions.
If sales are down, it’s the fault of the sales department. If the work of the creative team is sub-standard, it’s the fault of the creative team. If clients are unhappy with the service they are getting, it’s the fault of the account management team. Perhaps. Perhaps. Firstly, though, how about looking at lower sales, poor quality creative work or dissatisfied clients as noise in the wider system. Then the senior team can work together to work out how to act on the whole system, rather than on individual departments. Rather than being the responsibility of an individual department, perhaps it’s related to the lack of interconnectedness and flow, which is determined by the business structure. The structure that comes out of the mindset.
Getting out of a silo-ed mentality is about shifting assumptions and perceptions of how a business’s problems are perceived. I believe this shift is happening when someone in the senior executive team pipes up and says, “We are a microcosm of the whole business and we have to operate better before the whole business will operate better.” They are beginning to perceive the work of the senior team as making decisions collectively, rather than arguing their corner from their departmental specialisation….rather than fighting for better resources for their department….rather than pointing fingers at other people’s departments. They are also beginning to see the senior team as “their team”.
The design of a business is heavily influenced by the mindsets and assumptions we bring to it as to how it works best. When the mindset is that a business is a machine and the job of management is to control it, it is then reasonable that one would design something that is controllable. Functionally-based departments with hierarchical reporting lines. This is why I propose that silos are not simply something that happens despite our desire for it not to; we get silos because our beliefs about how businesses best operate design them into being.
It’s a telling comment when I hear an executive team member talk about “their team” and they mean the folks they manage. I would suggest that for the members of the executive team, “their team” is their peers. The other members of the executive team; not the people they manage. When they hear their staff say “that stuff over there (in that other department) has nothing to do with us”, there is the opportunity to reflect on how that silo-ed attitude might be replicated within their senior team. If they then take it this next step and make the “microcosm” observation, things have begun to change. When the executive team gets to this place, the opportunity for re-working the work is there. ”My team is the rest of you executive team members. We need to flow better together. We need to work together to create value.” Then maybe they can get to: “How do we need to re-organise the system so that it is creating value for our customers, not our managers?”
Drawing on expertise and people’s specialisations, then, can happen when there is a re-organising of the business structure; when people work together, across disciplines. Because if people’s jobs are to respond to customer demand and not management control (another example of a mindset thingy), then perhaps structuring the work to be more responsive to customers is a better way to go. Perhaps. Maybe getting teams to clump together according to what would best serve the customer might be a better way to organise things. Perhaps. Maybe getting teams to consist of, say, a creative specialist, an accounts specialist, a production specialist and a sales specialist could be a better way to organise things at work. Perhaps. Rather than have all the creatives clumped together, all the accounts folks clumped together and so on. In silos.
February 21, 2013
Individual performance management is rubbish. Not only that, it’s patronising and disabling. I’ve said it before. When people aren’t performing, it’s extremely probable that it’s not a behavioural problem; it’s the system. It’s not that performance management as a concept has been sullied because it’s been ineptly carried out. It’s just that it’s pointless and in some cases counter-productive to actually getting good performance. Deming’s 95% percent rule.
Sure, some people are not performing well enough. They aren’t doing their tasks. They are not meeting targets. Targets. That’s another, connected conversation. Stop looking at the individuals and look at the whole.
There is a mindset that says, “an individual’s performance must be monitored/managed/reviewed”. What’s a mindset? I like Bob Marshall’s treatment of this: “a set of ideas, assumptions, beliefs, heuristics, etc. (e.g. memes) which interact to reinforce each other.” In most cases, we are unconscious of the mindsets out of which we operate and see the world. We just behave out of them. So there are a whole set of these (mostly) unconscious things that coalesce in our minds. It’s a reflexive thing, too. We have a set of beliefs and assumptions, we then have a bunch of experiences. We give meaning to these experiences out of the beliefs and assumptions that we bring, which in turn reinforces those assumptions. An example of a self-preserving, self-reinforcing mindset:
“Why do you keep that rabbit’s foot?”
“Because it keeps the elephants away.”
“But there are no elephants anywhere near here.”
“See? It works.”
Like Bob, I believe that “attempting to simply swap out selected memes, one for another, on an incremental basis appears infeasible.” Granted, this also comes out of my own mindset and I could be shooting myself in the foot by saying this. At the same time, I have come from “individual-performance-management-land” and it was found wanting. Back in the old days when all this was fields, I also used to assume that someone had to monitor and manage my performance because that’s just what happens in the workplace. Then I grew up and realised I don’t like being “told off”; it’s demoralising, it’s disrespectful, it’s limiting. Counter-productive to being productive because it often leads people to withhold any kind of effort beyond what they are instructed to do by the all-knowing, all-seeing bossman (though in one case for me it was a woman).
The “individual performance management” meme was also blown out of the water by experience. Many years ago, I had first hand experience of “effectiveness-land” and it worked. By this I mean that the work was far more satisfying for everyone, we were incredibly effective at what we did and we all brought our creativity to the table, making for a culture of genuine continuous improvement. We knew we were effective, not because our managers told us we were or that we achieved X% of our KPIs. We knew we were effective because our stakeholders told us so. They included the clients we worked with directly, the statutory government agencies to whom the agency reported, the media and our peers in other agencies. And if the quality of our work was substandard, we had good feedback systems in place and were told about it, and because we already had in place a culture of learning, we sought to adjust our working practices….
…..and we talked about our performance all the time.
In recent years, with growing awareness of the need to humanise workplaces, some have advocated for a more humanised performance management process. This means, in many cases, that managers have been trained to structure performance reviews as more of a mutual conversation than a top-down, Manager-driven assessment of performance against a pre-determined set of targets. Often, though,the mindset has still not changed. Forms are filled out, the conversation revolves around targets and KPIs, only the employee is invited to speak first and evaluate themselves against the same old criteria. The assumption that monitoring individual performance is essential still underlies what goes on, it’s just done in a friendlier way. I’ve used the expression before: you can’t polish a turd, but you can roll it in glitter.
You don’t get a flower to grow by pulling on it. You create the conditions within which it will flourish and do what comes naturally to it. If we hold to a Theory X mindset, then we will be oriented towards a carrot and stick approach to getting better performance. If we hold to a Theory Y mindset, then we will be oriented to crafting a structure within which people will flourish and do well. I read a very short but very delightful article this week by systemthinkingforgirls entitled, “The only question a manager should ask in an appraisal.” That question is, “What stops you from doing a good job?” Behind this question sits the mindset that it is the system which stops people from doing well at work, not their individual skills, knowledge and attitudes. Performance appraisals as we currently understand them focus on people’s individual stuff. Tarting them up so that they aren’t as scary or rejigging them so they are “two-way conversations” still doesn’t address the underlying assumption that they are useful.
This notwithstanding, I am not suggesting that managers suddenly stop talking to anyone about anything they do at work. I’m also not suggesting that people just stop having conversations about performance. I’m suggesting that conversations that presume managing and monitoring an individual’s performance is essential will not necessarily lead to effectiveness or a high-performing organisation. It’s specious logic to say that we’ve always done it, look at that business there, they do it and they are successful, therefore…. That’s Monty Python logic: we’ll throw her in the pond and if she floats, she must be made of wood and therefore, a witch.
Perhaps a more useful performance conversation is done with a view to offer coaching and support or to detect noise in the wider system. ”What stops you from doing a good job?” Lack of knowledge or technical expertise? Poor relationships with peers? Inadequate or impenetrable policies and procedures? Outdated or insufficient information? Poor resourcing? Lack of experience in the organisation? Breakdowns in communication between different parts of the organisation? All of these questions point to the clues as to where we would find the barriers to high performance, and it’s more than likely it’s not an individual’s inadequacies. Deming’s 95% rule.
By poo-pooing individual performance management, is the inference that I’m anti-performance, anti-effectiveness, pro-lovey-dovey-nicey-nicey? You might as well say I’m pro-crime because I think our current criminal justice system is broken. I realise it’s heresy to suggest that managing individual performance is useless. To reference Bob again, he wrote a great list of invalid premises that businesses would do well to jettison, one of which is that an individual’s productivity and performance is down to the individual. Related, yes, for if you have someone in a job who doesn’t have the technical skills necessary to carry it out, they are likely to do poorly. ”Related”, but not “down to”. If the system is screwy, it will be hard for any individual to excel.
A bad system will beat a good person….every time. Deming
Let’s get good performance, yes. Let’s also look at how we get it and examine the assumptions we make about how it happens. Are we doing the wrong thing righter? Or are we establishing the fertile ground from which high performance will spring? Let’s have performance conversations, yes. Let’s look for the systemic causes of poor performance in the organisation. Let’s talk about the organisation’s performance, not that of individuals.
What do we do if individual performance management is abolished?
What would we find in a high-performing organisation, then? A 2007 AMA study, “How to Build a High-Performance Organisation”, sets out five domains they observed in their survey of businesses that excel. It acknowledges that external factors impact on performance and looks at what they do to navigate an environment which is volatile, uncertain, ambiguous and complex. The five drivers that most heavily influence performance are:
- Strategic approach: clear vision supported by flexible plans
- Customer approach: clear focus on engaging and maintaining good customer relationships
- Leadership approach: clear goal-setting, coaching and mentoring when necessary and appropriate, ensuring people have a clear line of sight that that vision stuff
- Processes and structure: ”good enough” policies and procedures that facilitate the work, not create busy work that takes people away from their real work. Structure that eases information flow and good relationships across businesses
- Values and beliefs: easily understood set of values that are lived by everyone, not laminated
If we default to old mindsets, some might read in there that we still need to manage individual performance, otherwise, how would we achieve that stuff? I believe it’s more about creating the conditions within which let people do well. If we could substitute leadership for performance management, perhaps we would get there. If those who lead the business did some reflection and committed themselves to adopting Theory Y as their touchstone, perhaps energy would be spent on making sure people had all they need to do their jobs well and then getting out of their way.
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.
December 2, 2012
Interesting what can spark an idea and create insight. Staring at the full moon the other night, I found myself marvelling, yet again, that we’ve been there. That led me to consider the languaging: “We’ve been to the moon.” We? We’ve been there? In fact, from Armstrong to Cernan, only 12 white American men have actually set foot on the moon, yet we often include ourselves in this achievement. It is notable that this landmark is considered to be a milestone in human achievement and so we talk about it in collective terms. It came about after JFK set a vision and “we” went along with him. A vision.
There are other achievements that you’ll hear people include themselves in. We defeated Nazism. We eradicated smallpox. We developed penicillin. How did we manage this?
So what happens to us when we go to work and lose this ability to see the “we”? Folks who, in their ordinary lives, are motivated, thoughtful, generous to their fellow human, energised and enthusiastic about life in general seem to leave all that at the door. What is in the air conditioning that infects folks when they come to work and causes them to narrow their gaze and lower their expectations of what is possible? Many workplaces still operate in silos, effectively causing the various departments to compete with one another. It’s like your heart competing with your liver to see which is the best or most important organ in your body. Utter nonsense.
We did some work with the leadership team of a finance company some years ago. Half of them managed the sales side of business and the other half the administrative side of the business. I witnessed them openly expressing sentiments like: “If only your admin people would understand this: they wouldn’t have a job if it wasn’t for us salespeople,” and “If only your salespeople would understand this: they wouldn’t be able to do their jobs if our admin folks weren’t in the back room doing all this really important work.” Our work was cut out for us. I’ve heard similar things echoed in other businesses….and the silos stay grumpy and resentful of each other, losing sight of the bigger picture. I wonder, however, if they have got hold of the bigger picture.
Hierarchical, command-and-control structures draw out the competitor in us. We effectively have businesses running internal competitions, hoarding information, playing politics, who’s the best in the company. Divided by lack of a clear common vision, we miss what is right in front of our noses: the other people here are potentially on the same side.
I’ve previously mentioned our work in a manufacturing firm, assisting team leaders to reduce silos and develop greater confidence in themselves. They developed two key things during the course of our work: improved relationships and the bigger picture of what they were all there to achieve together. When they reduced the isolation they felt from each other, they stopped seeing others as “out to get them”. When they developed the ability to think bigger, to see their “part” of the manufacturing line as integral to the whole, they began to perceive one team’s difficulties, one person’s difficulties, as their own. These two together were the sparks that catalysed shared problem-solving, shared decision-making, shared achievement and they started to celebrate the success of each “part” as essential for the achievement of the whole.
Martin Luther King declared, “I have a dream,” not “I have a plan.” Surely, for business, too, the starting point is the vision. We wouldn’t have got to the moon without JFK’s bold vision. He uttered some simple words that caused hearts to swell. Businesses, likewise, can set out compelling visions that cause people to think, “I’m up for that.” When there is a compelling vision, we have something around which we can gather together. We can feel part of something bigger than ourselves; something meaningful.
Sociometric principles and practices point to a way of creating something shared in business. One of the tenets of sociometry is that we have more in common with each other than divides us; however, much of those things that bind us lie hidden and unspoken. Action sociometry aims to make the covert, overt, so that we discover how connected we actually are. This reduces isolation and gives us confidence that we can together resolve our shared challenges and common difficulties. Another thing that sociometry teaches us is that the quality of an outcome is directly related to the quality of relationships between the people who are attempting to generate that outcome. It is the work, therefore, of leaders and those who consult to businesses to break down the isolation of modern work and to develop the sociometry to grow greater cooperation and collaboration.
“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” African proverb
Is “maximising shareholder return” the best that businesses can come up with? If we now know that humans seek meaning from their work, what could possibly drive someone towards a vision as narrow as that? I would hardly call “maximising shareholder return” what Sinan Si Alhir named as a history-making effort: intrinsic meaningfulness for universal benefit. Where is the higher purpose in that? Where is the universal benefit in that?
Working with the three senior leaders of a cemetery, I asked them, “What is your purpose?” and they paused. As if I was asking them an exam question to which I knew the right answer, one of them hesitantly responded, “To provide good customer service?” I half-jokingly said, “Why don’t you all go work in the local hardware shop then?” They looked at me quizzically. Eventually, after a little discussion between them, they decided that their purpose was to assist families going through a bereavement. At this point, they all three got excited. Grim work, I know, running a cemetery, however, they had finally hit the nail on the head. It was as if they had suddenly realised why they come to work and they had hit upon their real purpose. It wasn’t just scheduling burials or organising graves to be dug. They were providing an essential service to others, one that nobody else could carry out. From here, the conversation flowed. They spoke with each other as if they were on the same team, rather than trying to manage what used to look like competing demands and interests. Also, they began to see a clearer way to delineating the kinds of behaviours and attitudes they wanted to see in their workplace. If everything was about achieving that higher purpose, they could see how to enlist everyone into achieving it. They have found their “We”.
As Louise Altman has written, “WE focussed workplaces bring out the best in their employees–at every level.” Maz Iqbal also described the success story that is John Lewis in the UK. Masterful at employee engagement, customer experience and organisational effectiveness. The collective spirit on which Lewis’s was founded is the driver of its continued success, even in the depths of recession. Collectively, they exist to create happiness for its 81,000 partners (every employee is a part-owner of the business) and to serve customers with flair and fairness. You feel it if you shop there. While I’m not a fan of shopping, I find it a pleasure to shop at John Lewis.
It is this sense of “we” that John Lewis has achieved over 148 years that we need to develop in the world and in more of our workplaces. It starts with the vision. Something bigger than shareholder return, though, please. Drill down and find out: What is it that we are all here to achieve? What is our purpose in coming together and how can we all contribute to that? And it happens with good sociometry–deeper relatedness at work. When people know who others are, how they belong and how much they have in common with others, as humans, it becomes easier to know we are “WE” and not just “you” and “I”.
Go on…..call me a hippy.
….or just see it as good business. Want robust employee engagement, organisational effectiveness and customers that love you? Find your purpose and strive for good relationships.
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 28, 2012
Part II (Thinking Bigger)
I reckon that we cannot truly appreciate Georges Seurat’s painting “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grand Jatte” by examining the individual dots he used to compose this masterpiece. It is not the sum of all its dots; it is the poetic relationships between them all that bring the scene to life.
In Part I of this article, I referred to worldviews: the beliefs and assumptions that shape us and our world. We can consider a worldview, or paradigm, to be a kind of intellectual bubble within which we live. When I said that systems thinking as a worldview is entirely different from analytical thinking, I did that for a reason. Any new paradigm, or worldview, will include and transcend some elements of the old. Some of the what was inside the old bubble will also sit within the new one, but there is still an essential “un-same-ness” between the old bubble and the new bubble. If we are systems thinkers, we don’t lose the ability (or valuing of) analytical thinking; we are, however, extending ourselves in our abilities to apply both when applicable. There may be something of a butterfly’s “essential being” that existed when it was a caterpillar, but I think we’d all agree that “caterpillar” and “butterfly” are two entirely different things. ”Butterfly” is not merely “Caterpillar 2.0″; it is “butterfly”, incorporating some elements of, and transcending “caterpillar”, if you like.
With enough pressure of new knowledge, research, evidence and lived experience, our old paradigms reach the limits of usefulness and we are pushed to transcend our ways of thinking and being. So while analytical thinking and systems thinking are entirely different worldviews, there are, of course, elements of analytical thinking that we can see in the systems thinking bubble. In an effort to emphasise the point that systems thinking is not just a jazzier version of analytical thinking, I may have been a little simplistic in saying they are entirely different animals, but that’s the curious thing about mindsets. To my mind, it’s not about choosing which one we prefer, it’s about evolution. We are here to continually extend ourselves and once we “get” how everything in the cosmos is inextricably linked, we cannot unknow that. When we really feel that in every cell of our beings, our worlds irretrievably change. It’s like Neo in “The Matrix”; he realised he was “The One” once he saw what those green squiggles running down the computer screen meant, he couldn’t go on pretending that it was just a bunch of nonsensical squiggles. They were still squiggles; that hadn’t changed…..but their meaning had changed. After his set of beliefs had changed, he had transformed.
So systems thinking, for those who haven’t had their “Neo moment” yet, may look and sound like analytical thinking 2.0 (but it’s not, I tell you!). For those who have had their “Neo moment”, it’s a way of seeing the world that includes and transcends analytical thinking to take us to a more sophisticated kind of thinking, because linear, analytical thinking is not sophisticated enough to help us to deal with the challenges that face us in the 21st century. It’s time to stop looking at the world and our workplaces from an old mindset.
So why does this matter?
My own view is that growing our ability to be systems thinkers is an imperative: for individuals, for businesses and organisations, for humanity. It is a question of whether we will survive and thrive or atrophy and die away. It might be tempting, while we languish in our prison of “analytic thinking”, to remodel the prison in an effort to make it more comfortable, but it will still be a prison. Our world is in crisis and our workplaces are in crisis and we urgently need to think bigger about how we address these crises because our old ways of looking at things have reached their useful limits.
Simply put, looking at something from an analytical viewpoint, we take it apart in order to understand it (the parts are primary, the whole is secondary). However, when we take an interconnected system apart, it loses its fundamental properties. I like a description Russell Ackoff has used: a car’s essential property is to get us from A to B. We won’t be able to understand how it does that by taking it apart. A car is not the sum of its parts; it is the product of the interactions of the parts. Systems thinking, as Peter Senge writes, “is a discipline for seeing wholes….a framework for seeing inter-relationships rather than things, for seeing patterns of change rather than static ‘snapshots’”. For me, systems thinking is fundamentally about thinking and behaving as if everything in the cosmos is connected to everything else. Applying this to businesses, we can best understand them and surmount our stucknesses if we look at how all the elements interact, not by looking at the individual bits and pieces in isolation. Out of this central belief flow a number of other beliefs and assumptions which make up my worldview about work:
- There are no one-offs; there are patterns of things. If I don’t see a pattern, it just means I haven’t found it yet.
- Because everything is connected to everything else, our workplaces are complex systems, not linear machines. This means that cause-and-effect (linear, analytical thinking) is more useful as a backward-looking descriptor of what happened, than as a forward-looking predictor of what might happen.
- The system is more influential on performance/success/outcomes than individuals.
- Networks, relationships and devolved power are more effective at achieving a business’s purpose than mechanistic command-and-control hierarchies.
- Working on “symptoms” or problems is unlikely to address underlying, systemic origins of the problems.
All of these guide how I approach my work. Rather than take out my microscope and zoom in on a “part of a business”, I look at the whole thing and examine it holistically. In a lot of conversations I have with business leaders, I hear about business “problems”. You know the old saying, “We cannot solve problems with the same thinking that we used when we created them.” Well, it’s not just a cool-sounding thing that Einstein is supposed to have said; it’s a fundamental shift in how we look at business issues and how to find solutions for the challenges businesses face. In quite a lot of what I read on the internet, I see old (analytical) thinking being dressed up as something new and improved, but all the new-and-improved-ness won’t make any difference if the old mental model remains the same. For example, I see people offering up the latest tips and tricks on how to “hire better” and failing to see “hiring” as part of a wider system of peoplecapabilitytalentengagement. It all sounds just lovely, but it’s just a re-wording of what’s already been said and it reduces “hiring” as if it can be isolated from the rest of what is going on in the business. Yet, managers still behave like this. Mao’s fiasco with the sparrows is still being replicated in businesses all over the place. It matters because applying an analytical mindset to concerns which are essentially systemic is like dealing with the liver failure of an obese alcoholic by simply transplanting a new liver into his body and not addressing the wider lifestyle concerns that caused the liver to fail in the first place.
How does systems thinking work?
It’s about working with things as integral wholes. It’s about thinking bigger. Water is inherently wet. We cannot understand water’s wetness by breaking it down into its component parts; oxygen and hydrogen. Neither of those elements has an inherent quality of “wetness”. Similarly, with businesses, we cannot get a truly comprehensive understanding of them simply by breaking them down into their component parts. Everything is connected to everything else and we are limited in our abilities to manage them effectively if we isolate “problem parts”. Making a holistic assessment of the system will give us a bigger picture view that highlights strengths, inter-relationships, tensions, the forces at work (both from within and without the system) and areas of hope (where intervention can be applied).
In my experience of applying systems thinking and making interventions in a whole, integrated system, we make work work from an entirely different viewpoint, not by “fixing” individual issues but by exploring symptoms and phenomena of a whole living entity. The issue of engagement, for example, cannot be properly addressed, in my view, by breaking it down into “hiring and recruitment”, “retention”, “remuneration”, “performance management” and looking at these parts individually. Gamification, for instance, is not an antidote to falling engagement to my mind; it’s like putting a band-aid on a lesion in the hope that the cancer will be cured.
Engagement is part of a system which is a synthesis of how a business hires, how it views human motivation, how it shares knowledge, how it encourages cooperation, how it facilitates learning and development…..everything connected to everything else. When taking a systems thinking approach, the interventions are often surprising, seemingly counter-intuitive and not linear or cause-and-effect.
Systems thinking requires us to be more comfortable with interconnectedness, uncertainty, emergence and dynamism. We need to set ourselves free of the expectations of predictability, cause-and-effect and certainty. I read a slightly tongue-in-cheek definition of systems thinking on Twitter which pretty much sums it up: “resources by which it is possible to become less completely clueless about stuff rather than deludedly certain”. Paradoxically, it will allow us to know more about what is going on, but we may be less certain about it.
Acting as if the business is a whole means we will radically revise how the business does business.
The idea that we can tackle business problems by breaking them down permeates all aspects of the workplace. A more humane, integrated and organic worldview is at our disposal. In the arena of peoplecapabilitytalentengagement, for instance, we can see how it influences what we do. We isolate bits and try to fix them. Here is just one example:
How do we hire people? Hire for competencies? Hire because they look nice? Hire because they interviewed well? Hire because they come out great on all those psychofiddle-faddle tests? For a kick off, examining your hiring practices might be a red herring anyway, because it’s only part of a wider system of “people, capability, talent”. Why focus on “hiring” when Deming’s 95% rule says that the system is where we should place our attention. Think bigger about peoplecapabilitytalentengagement: do you need to see CVs?…do you interview (and how do you do this?)….do you carry out an orientation (or is it more like an initiation?)….how do people grow and learn?…..what is your “exit interview” process like?…why do people stay? There might be things that go on when people are hired to make sure they fit into the culture, but if the culture is sick, in some senses it doesn’t matter who you hire. They’ll eventually get shoe-horned into your sick culture whether they are good or bad (and if they don’t fit in, it says more about your system than the “bad” hire!). The system will affect their ability to work well. What I’m saying is that if there is a pattern of people not performing well, why put hiring practices under the microscope? Think bigger and look at the whole.
If you notice that retention is low, this is just a pattern that points to something bigger and more hidden. To my mind, psychometric quizzes are just another “band-aid on cancer”. If we leap to the conclusion that we are making hiring mistakes, we may not have asked the right questions about performance…or learning….or meaningful work….or….. Hire anyone. Hire people you think are wrong. You might even take Bob Marshall‘s advice, which I quite like, and try hiring without relying on a traditional CV as your safety blanket (the #noCV alternative). I tend to go along with Bob when he says that “job interviews suck”. How you hire doesn’t really matter until and unless you discover that the bigger questions you are asking about the whole of the business are the right ones. In a nutshell, is “How do we hire people?” the right question?
We need to get ourselves unstuck from disabling thought patterns that stifle creativity and re-learn more expansive patterns of thinking. Systems thinking is a fundamental change to business orthodoxy. The assumptions we hold about the business of business mostly orient us to measure things that don’t matter and attack problems that are only really indicators of a systemic pattern. We try to find answers for questions that are often irrelevant. Time to think bigger.
…more to come in Part III.
October 21, 2012
Part one (A Way In)
There are two fish tanks, sitting side by side. The fish in tank #1 glances over and notices tank #2. He shouts across to the fish in tank #2, “Hey, how’s the water?” The fish in tank #2 shouts back, “Wow! Yea…water….I’ve never really noticed it before! It’s great, how’s yours?” Tank #1 fish shouts back, “Much the same!”
Two points about this:
One…much like the fish in tank #2, most folks are mostly unaware of the water in which we swim. I’d go as far as to say that this “unawareness” extends to the fact that we are even in water. However, the water is there, even if we are not aware of it. This “water” is the worldview, or set of assumptions and beliefs, that colours how we live our lives. We are often unaware of these deep assumptions or how influential they have been in determining how we do business, education, economics and so on. They have been our reference points when we crafted schools, businesses, financial systems and so on.
And two…..tank #1 fish looks at tank #2 and for all intents and purposes, believes that life is just the same over there. It looks the same and tank #2 fish speaks the same language and appears to have the same habits and behaviours, so it’d be reasonable to assume it’s just the same. It has a (mostly unconscious) experience of living in water, never really pays it much attention and presumes that water is water is water. What tank #1 fish doesn’t know is that life in tank #2 is entirely different from life in tank #2. That’s because tank #1 is full of fresh water and tank #2 is full of salt water.
Like the fish, we are often blind to both “what is” and “what could be” or “what else is”.
Why bother with systems thinking?
Analytical thinking is hitting the laws of physics and has been found wanting. The analytical mindset is at the foundation of our educational systems, our political systems, our financial systems and the business of business, all of which are reaching the end of their effectiveness in a world characterised by increasing complexity, volatility, uncertainty and ambiguity. This is being felt by many, but the awareness of what underlies it is lagging behind, so in an effort to ameliorate chronically low employee engagement, increasingly low voter turnout at elections, poor customer loyalty, or low attainment at school, we deploy little tricks or try to invent new “tools” or “techniques”. However, all the tools and techniques in the world are useless to really address these issues if they come out of the same old mechanistic, analytical mindset. A more sophisticated mindset is required first. A new kind of thinking, not a new trick devised out of old thinking, is required.
A transition is occurring, however. As analytical thinking has reached its use-by date in many spheres of life, something new is forming. We are in between the old and the new. As Vaclav Havel says it beautifully, “Today, many things indicate that we are going through a transitional period, when it seems that something is on the way out and something else is painfully being born. It is as if something were crumbling, decaying, and exhausting itself–while something else, still indistinct, were arising from the rubble… ” (Thanks to David Holzmer for bringing that quote to my attention.)
When we are in transition from one way of seeing the world to a new one, we are bereft of words to describe the new thing. Sometimes, we don’t even find new descriptors, even if our understanding shifts. We still call it a “sunrise”, even though Copernicus worked out that it’s the Earth, not the sun, that moves. Nobody would reasonably believe in this day and age that the sun is “rising”, but we are stuck with the word. In this transition period, we are being pulled away from an analytic way of viewing the world by the inexorable forces of increasing complexity, ambiguity and uncertainty. We could try, Canute like, to behave as if we can keep them at bay. An analytical mindset would drive us to eliminate complexity and uncertainty, but just because we don’t want to see they’re there, doesn’t make them go away. Just because we believe that things aren’t as ambiguous as they are, doesn’t make it so. Spending more energy to control events doesn’t make the world less volatile, it just makes us more tired.
There is another way to see things
Like the two kinds of water in the fish tanks, systems thinking is not slightly different from analytic thinking; it’s entirely different. The challenge of communicating these differences lies in some part with the fact that we have a finite vocabulary. People who are bound by their analytical mindset hear the words and hang a meaning onto them from an analytical perspective and perceive that systems thinking is a new and improved version of what we’ve already got. We all ascribe a meaning to a word that comes from our own experience, regardless of what another person intends. Ask a person in Scotland what “supper” is and they’ll say it’s a wee snack you eat before bed at about 9 or 10 in the evening. Ask an American and they might say it’s the big meal you eat at 5 or 6 in the evening. Same word, different meanings. I’m sticking my neck out here, but I believe many folks often cannot grasp the fundamental differences between the two, perhaps saying to themselves, “If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it must be a duck, just a prettier one. Duck 2.0.” No. Systems thinking is not simply a re-packaging of long-held assumptions. The fish in tank #1 cannot have any conception at all of what it’s like in tank #2 until he actually inhabits tank #2. So he believes that “life feels like this” for tank #2 fish and he bases this on the fact that “this is what life feels like”.
If you are a systems thinker, you might sometimes feel you are going a little crazy. We still live in command-and-control land and our assumptions haven’t caught up to the realities of the world. If you have begun to act and talk like a systems thinker, you may be treated a little like the court jester. Actually, I’d say it was closer to the boy who declared the emperor wasn’t wearing any clothes. Nonetheless, this is what it’s like being a systems thinker. You see and say things that others think are a little crazy. Alternatively, people hear your words, but you realise after a while that they are processing them with an analytical mindset and so misunderstand the whole thrust of thinking systemically. We are all prisoners of our own flat-earthisms, after all. So you are either side-lined because your ideas seem a little far-fetched (“If there is no hierarchy, how do you control people????”) or what they think they understand is not what you intend.
“I know that you believe you understand what you think I said, but I’m not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant.” Robert McCloskey
I described an experience in a previous article, of watching someone attempt to draw an organisational diagram of their business while also describing it verbally, and it jarred. I was watching someone writing something on the whiteboard that didn’t match what he was describing, much like watching TV with the sound off while listening to music. The difficulty they had, it emerged, was how to depict something for which we haven’t yet got any conventions for depicting. When we haven’t yet got the devices to describe something that is emergent, we will shoehorn it into an outdated model and use words like “productivity” when that’s not what we mean at all. This makes sense; we haven’t caught up with ourselves. The ancient Egyptians drew what we would essentially call “stick figures” and it wasn’t until we discovered “perspective” that our visual depictions began to look more like the actual people we saw.
Gary Hamel said it beautifully: we are prisoners of the familiar. In our efforts to advance to a new way of doing business, it is no good to simply remodel the prison; we need to tear it down. In effect, what that person was describing was a business that functions as an organic system (an emergent and self-organising process) but he was drawing a hierarchical tree diagram (a rigid structure). They have radically transformed their business but our abilities to describe this haven’t caught up yet. It was like drawing a robot while describing a human body. This mirrors how modern management still views their role and their relationship with the businesses they purport to manage.
Unconsciously acting out of the flat-earthism that is an analytical mechanistic worldview, managers approach the business as if it was a machine, rather than as an organic system. One major difference between machines and organic systems is that machines do not operate for their own betterment; they operate for the betterment of their masters. If we continue to view business from this mechanistic perspective, by extension we view the people within them as mere machine parts, there to do the bidding of those in “control”. Isn’t work meant to be for the betterment of everyone: customers, staff, suppliers, shareholders and the community (not just shareholders)? Machines do not (yet) have built-in capacity for continuous learning and improvement of its own functioning, but self-0rganising systems have inherent in them, a drive towards continuous improvement. Managers tend to relate to a business as a thing to control, not a self-organising entity to steward and nurture. Machines are designed with efficiency in mind, but efficiency does not equate with effectiveness. Effectiveness is related to having purpose and robots don’t have a higher purpose. They just do what they’re told.
The fundamental principles of systems thinking seem simple enough. Everything is connected to everything else. Most folks would say that makes sense. The key importance is knowing it and behaving as if it was actually true.
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?
October 10, 2012
Absolutely, undoubtedly, unequivocally, yes! Such a leader is a vanguard leader. We were recently in conversation with a CEO who wondered aloud if there is a place for someone like him; someone who, in my estimation, expresses how he feels, lets other know how they impact on him, curiously seeks feedback on his own performance (with a view to acting on it) and strives to do what needs to be done in a way that is aligned with a personal value system orientated to fairness, meaningful work and concern for the well-being of others. This man is, in my view, in the vanguard of how a CEO should be. (He’s also a real person!) I can understand why he might occasionally doubt himself because he likely looks around at other people called “CEO” and doesn’t see himself mirrored back. The times, however, they are a-changing.
Lots is written about the kind of leaders we require for the 21st century. I have no desire to replicate what is out there, however what I see in this man who “wears his heart on his sleeve” is an amalgam of responsible leadership, authentic leadership and congruent leadership and I believe it is worth setting these out. I believe the three are essential in order to surmount the challenges with which the current age presents us. The terrain the modern leader needs to navigate is volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA). How can we best develop ourselves as leaders to navigate this well, so that we leave our workplaces, the people within them and the world in a better place than when we found it?
Responsible leadership, to my mind, is about being responsive to what is around you; thinking about the wider system. As Christopher Avery sets out, being responsible goes further than being accountable. Being accountable, as Christopher says, is backward-looking, in that we can account for our actions. Being responsible is forward-looking, in that we seek to take account of a wider system. When we read about responsible leadership or corporate responsibility, we think of triple bottom lines or sustainability: how will our actions affect others now and into the future? In other words, we are responding to an assessment of the bigger picture; what ripples will our actions (and non-actions) create. This is vital if we intend to bequeath a planet worth inhabiting for future generations. While I’m a little loathe to throw morals into the mix, I’d say that a responsible leader is one who would align themselves with a “Do no harm” kind of morality into their work. Extending this, a responsible, vanguard leader is a systems steward. A vanguard leader understands that a truly effective business will come about when the organisation (the system) is healthy. Sick cultures enact sick behaviours. The systems steward will be responsible for ensuring that there are healthy policies and procedures, a healthy flow of information, a healthy openness to innovation, healthy relationships, a healthy culture of learning, development and continuous improvement. Being responsible for the hygiene of the wider system will ensure longevity and ‘good growth’.
Being a vanguard leader is absolutely about being responsible. It is absolutely about being a systems thinker; taking action when the wider system is taken into account and stewarding their business towards health.
Authentic leadership, for me, is bringing your whole self to work. As Bill George and others say in Discovering your Authentic Leadership, you need to be who you are, not emulate someone else. Authentic leaders know who they are because they are on a lifetime journey of self-discovery. Discovering our authentic leadership requires a commitment to discovering who we are.
Being a vanguard leader is absolutely about being authentic. It is absolutely about knowing who we are, letting people know who we are and not simply being the angry, unhappy guy or gal who gets s**t done.
Congruent leadership is based on personal values, beliefs and principles. Congruent leaders also place a high value on building and maintaining good relationships with others. Congruent leaders are guided by a higher purpose. They become conscious of the value systems out of which they operate and work to align these with their words and their actions. Such folks are also open to discovering their blind spots, areas where their values, actions and words are not aligned, and to making the appropriate adjustments so that they can operate in a principled manner.
Being a vanguard leader is absolutely about being congruent. It is absolutely being aware of our values and principles, communicating those and behaving in ways which are aligned with them.
Vanguard leadership is the confluence of responsible leadership, authentic leadership and congruent leadership. This is the promised land. We are on the way, but in our wider society we are not there yet. Some leaders, like that CEO I mentioned, are well on the way, however. For folks like this, it can be a little isolating.
When we look around and find ourselves a little alone, how can we sustain ourselves?
If we are in the vanguard, we are at the forefront of a movement. As I said, the times, they are a-changing and I confidently predict that 100 years from now, this kind of leader will be ubiquitous. If, in our current era, however, we are striking out into new territory, this means we may have times when we doubt ourselves, feel isolated or wonder if we are deluding ourselves. If you are a leader who enacts responsibility, authenticity and congruence in your working life, what would be useful in order to sustain yourself if there are relatively few living and breathing models of vanguard leadership? In the world we have inherited from the Industrial Age, we are conditioned to look for gaps, rather than strengths. That conditioning starts early on at school. The workplaces we enter reinforce this deficit mentality through the performance management systems we apply to ourselves and others. Even if we don’t want to focus our energies on what is dysfunctional, we are seemingly compelled to look at what’s not working, rather than what is. If we unconsciously take this approach with ourselves, especially when we look around and find few people like us, it can dent our confidence. We can begin to assume we are less capable and less effective than we actually are. We may distrust or disbelieve positive feedback or fail to see the positive impact we have on others and the wider system. We can also devalue ourselves; finding ourselves attributing less value to the qualities inherent in a vanguard leader than to those qualities in what we might believe a “real CEO” to possess. This seems quite natural to me, given our conditioning. We need to develop a self consciousness in order to remain strong.
As Daniel Goleman writes in “The New Leaders” (2002), emphasis on our gaps often arouses the right prefrontal cortex of our brains. This gives rise to feelings of anxiety and defensiveness which typically demotivate and interrupt self-directed learning and the likelihood of change and development. The effect of this is that the very qualities that identify a vanguard leader get lost in the process.
So it is essential that if we are in the vanguard, we develop a strong self-companion Role. One of my favourite expressions comes from a friend in Scotland. If I was doing something silly, she’d joke, “Have a word with yourself.” Even though she was teasing me, she probably has no idea how useful I have found this advice over the years. From a Role Theory perspective, developing a good self-companion means just that, having an intimate relationship with ourselves; being able to have a conversation with the aspect of ourselves that says, “Keep going, you’re on the right track. Others don’t get it yet, but you are really onto something here.” Now, once again, I’m loathe to bring morals into the conversation, but I think it’s important to place a caveat on this. I’m pretty sure Hitler and Stalin had a similar Role within them. An truly effective self-companion, however, will not urge us to barbarity. Bear in mind, we are a complex system of inter-related and inter-connected Roles. The self-companion will be the one that interacts with the rest of us and spurs us on. By the “rest of us”, I mean the other roles I saw present in that CEO I mentioned at the beginning of this article: strongly orientated to thinking bigger, strongly orientated to the well-being of others, strongly orientated to leaving a legacy of health, roles I can hardly imagine Hitler or Stalin possessing in any great measure. I’m fascinated by those two despots and how they did what they did, but in all the documentaries I’ve watched, I’ve never observed anything remotely like humility, openness to feedback or care for humanity in their Role systems.
We can consciously warm ourselves up to the thinking, feeling and behaving necessary to fully integrate a strong sense of self-worth. If this Role is embryonic in us, we need to be quite conscious of growing it, much the same way we needed to be conscious of learning to drive until it became second nature. We had to actively think, “Clutch, gear, release clutch while depressing accelerator…..” Similarly, we may have to be awake to growing the habit of being a good self-companion. What self-talk or affirmation would be useful to build ourselves up? What emotional state would be most useful to warm up to? Think of a time when you were full of self-confidence; how can you transfer some of that goodness to your current situation?
“The world has the habit of making room for the man whose words and actions show that he knows where he is going.”
It is just as vital to find peers. In your head, heart and gut, you know you are doing right by yourself and others, but sometimes we also need to see ourselves mirrored by our peers. If you are at the forefront, you are, by definition, ahead of the pack. In one sense, you are peerless. Not entirely, though. There are others out there. We need to apply ourselves to finding these folk. When we do something that seems a little different or we feel that we don’t quite measure up to what a “real CEO” is, we need to find others who are similarly “weird”. Seek out others who are supportive, encouraging, caring and interested.
Referencing Goleman again, study after study has demonstrated that positive groups make positive change. Senior executives reported feeling that many people around them had an investment in them staying the same, not growing and developing. Finding a trusted peer group of other vanguard leaders, whether that is through a local Vistage group that is resonant with our desire to cultivate new leadership styles or a virtual peer group of leaders interested in being responsible, authentic and congruent, will keep us on track and reduce the isolation of being a little “weird”. A peer group is a powerful motivator.
Any thoughts on this? Comments, insights and conversation most welcome.