February 10, 2013
Know how you have an experience and some song lyrics pop into your head that seem to have been written especially for it? ”Expert textpert, choking smoker, don’t you think the joker laughs at you?” Parallel process. Happens to me all the time when I’m working. I suddenly notice that what the client is doing, what they act out, is exactly what I’m being drawn into and I respond out of a parallel mindset. I might have thought of “..caught in a trap…I can’t walk out…” but I’m not an Elvis fan. And I’m working with a business that is stuck because of a highly dependent culture. The creativity of the people is not being unleashed as it could be. And how do they relate to me? As the expert: dependent for the “expert advice”. And what do I do? Show off some daft diagram like some kind of expert.
I’ve been stuck on the phenomenon of inertia lately (no pun intended). Fascinated as I am by physics, I have been noticing this phenomenon in the area of how people operate both individually and in teams. Not wanting to teach anyone to suck eggs, inertia states simply that any object that is stationary will remain so unless acted upon by another force and any object that is in motion will remain so unless acted upon by another force. What I see in many situations is people and organisations bound by inertia. Without wanting to place a value judgement on inertia per se, in many of these cases, there is a “stuckness” which is unsatisfying for the person or business concerned and something new is needed to get them out of their rut.
In our work, we apply the concept of a “conserve”. Jakob Moreno set out a cycle of spontaneity, creativity and cultural conserve. Spontaneity sparks creativity which leads to the creation of a conserve. Conserves abound in our world. Handel’s Messiah. The Mona Lisa. Gangnam Style. Bugs Bunny. Antiseptic. The internet. Artefacts and menefacts that come about as a result of a creative act, spurred on by the spontaneity state that arises in us when we warm up to it. This new thing becomes the conserve off of which the next creative act springboards into life, so, for example, Web 1.0 was the jumping-off place for Web 2.0, the iPhone 3 begat 3GS which begat 4 which begat the 5. As long as the conserve is viewed as the starting place for the next thing, it’s all good, but if the conserve becomes too conserved, it can become a rut. Artefacts and mentefacts. Mindsets are just as much a conserve as any creative act.
As I’ve written earlier, I’m on a health kick this year. Moreno believed that one key to health was creativity. When I think about how living systems tend towards entropy, this makes sense to me. If organisations are to counteract the “heat-death of the universe” (thanks to @thinkingpurpose for that expression), they need to add more stuff into the system. Businesses, like each of us individually, can get stuck in ruts, subject to inertia. If we don’t inject something new into our systems, we carry on as we have been. Creativity is a superb way to bring in new stuff. The Morenian method sets out to challenge people to be more creative by developing greater spontaneity, which is the spark that sets creativity alight. Furthermore, the method calls on people to work together to develop new role responses to life’s challenges, rather than remain in isolation and continue to operate out of a limited repertoire of responses.
I mentioned four synchronous conversations with four different clients in a recent article. Synchronous because all four identified some things that they are sick and tired of and ready to shift. One of these things they are trying to grow is a greater sense of WE and, hand in hand with that is a move away from their cultures of dependency. The two are inextricably linked for these four businesses. If we get greater WE and we act out of mutuality and interdependency, rather than silos and dependency, we can unleash something new and mitigate for the inexorable slide towards extinction and ultimate disorder. We need both: WE-ness and mutuality.
What’s wrong with a culture of dependency? From the perspective of those who lead these businesses, this is manifest by the guys at the top saying to me, “If I didn’t look over their shoulder/do it/nag, it wouldn’t get done.” They don’t like this. They relate to me their concern that people aren’t bringing all of their creativity to work. For these businesses, a culture of dependency means that people don’t take initiative. It means that the managers have to cajole, berate or get grumpy. It means that people take up little responsibility, let alone accountability, for in their cultures of dependency, accountability lies with the bosses. In other words, they are left with a mentefact of Industrial Age organisation. “The boss has the answers, the boss knows best, if something went wrong, it wasn’t my fault, it was the boss’s fault .” Blaming and excuse-making reigns in a dependency culture. ”You didn’t get me the right tools.” ”You didn’t tell me the right way to do it.” ”If you’d given me the afternoon off yesterday, I wouldn’t be so tired today.”
To head towards the responsibility-taking, initiative-taking culture of WE, something needs to work on their inertia which keeps them in cultures of dependency. Looking at structure and relationships would help. I’m pondering next steps with one client who, when I simply showed this diagram:
…took up a defensive position, seeming to lecture me on how important structure was, otherwise there would be disorder (failing to see that both pictures illustrate a structure, just that the one on the right was weird and alien). With regards this particular organisation, one thought that popped into mind was, “..and disorder would be a BAD thing??” The second thought that popped into mind was, “…and explain to me how you would class the way things run around here as ‘order’”. When I stopped thinking facetious thoughts, I took a step back and noticed that the response was exactly what the hierarchical system in which they exist would expect them to say. I had a little flash to that awful, car crash of a reality programme, “The Hotel Inspector”. Some poor unfortunate hotelier, whose business is going down the gurgler, calls in an expert, someone who has years of top hotel experience, to help them turn their business around. The expert comes in, berates the unfortunate for doing it all wrong, gives them advice on what they need to do instead and goes away for a few weeks to see if they put it into practice. As I watch, I’m on the side of the expert, purely because for dramatic tension (presumably because TV producers can no longer afford to pay proper dramatic writers and actors for decent TV any more), they choose a hotelier who is utterly hopeless. For added tension, the besieged hotelier proceeds to argue with the expert. So I wonder, “Why on Earth did you ask for expert advice if you just wanted to rebut everything they said?? Why on Earth did you invite them in to your establishment if all you wanted to do was justify why you were right and they were wrong??”
See what I’m getting at? A business calls you in to be the “outside eye” and make some observations about their organisation and its culture and when you make an observation (an observation, mind, not advice), they are stuck in the mindset that defines their current culture (inertia again) to explain why anything outside their normal ken is just fantastical. There are ways and ways to introduce that “something new” into the system, however.
Now, I’ve made mention in previous articles that I write to help me digest and reflect on experiences I have in my work. My thinking is already a little clearer than it was when I started writing this one, and if even one reader is still with me, thank you immensely for bearing with my narcissistic reflections. The way forward with this client is to take a much more softly, softly approach. They are 2D creatures and can’t make sense of this 3D blob that’s appeared before them. There is a process of slowly uncovering what they don’t yet see about themselves. This follows on very nicely (I love synchronicity) from Dan Oestreich’s comments on my previous article: “Genuine learning implies… birthing new consciousness; looking and really seeing…and therein lies a problem….as raw conscious awareness can be painful.” And what do we human animals do when we are in pain? We fight, we flee or we freeze. The CEO who took such exception to my simple diagram (even though I’d indicated no preference, harboured no advice, pointed out no likeness) saw himself and his organisation in the mirror. And it hurt.
His response was a perfect response from someone at the head of a culture infused with dependency. Defer or defy. That’s what you do with an authority figure. Either defer utterly to authority or defend yourself from the authority’s complete idiocy. In this instance, I was the “authority” in his eyes. Someone from outside with some so-called expertise. Dependency: I’ll wait for the leader to tell me what to do, even though I’m a free-thinking, intelligent human animal who manages to run all other aspects of my life without referring to someone else for permission. OR If it goes pear-shaped, it’s because the leader didn’t tell me how to do it, didn’t tell me how to do it properly, didn’t tell me to stop doing what I was already doing.
So I am sitting with this phrase rolling around my head, “Sociatrist, heal thyself.” I care deeply about this particular organisation, they do some amazing, truly life-changing work in their world. I like the CEO immensely, I have known him for over 15 years. If I am to be of any assistance, I need to role reverse much better with him and the others in his senior team. I need to notice my response to his response and observe the parallel process at play. You know the old adages, “You teach best what you most need to learn,” “Your work is your work”, etc etc. In my first facetious thoughts, I am tuning into the dependency in the air and doing what those awful Hotel Inspectors do. If I really care about making a difference, I need to come alongside my client in a way which assists them to gently see themselves better and warms up THEIR spontaneity to a new creative act. If I didn’t care about this client, I could continue to bully them into seeing things they aren’t yet ready to see. I see a dependency culture. If I am to be with them as they shift it, I need to become more aware of myself and what my role is in that. Do I relate to them as some kind of expert? Maybe I did when I flashed that diagram. In their eyes, it might have looked like that. That’s not what a organisation caught in the inertia of dependency needs.
So, I am left to ponder my own warm up, how to I warm up my own spontaneity to my own creativity and meet them quite differently next time. Having said what I’ve said, I do believe that cultures of dependency in organisations are not healthy. I will continue my work with this client for as long as I can. But I need to be more cognisant of myself and how I approach them so I don’t trigger a dependency response in them. It is so easy to fall into the trap of being the expert, exacerbated by a business that is bound by its own inertia and can’t see another way yet.
…..and do you know what the team asked me at the end of this session? ”So, are there some things about us you need to tell us?” Not going to fall into that. I want to companion them, to assist them to observe themselves and not to do the dependent thing. They are highly talented and creative individuals. With a little nudging, they can shift to a place where they make observations of themselves. So easy to give in to the invitation to be “the expert”. It’s not what the world needs now.
February 3, 2013
Why would the whole of the Universe be a complex, self-organising and interdependent system, and a business be a top-down, controlled machine? Why would the entire Universe be subject to the laws of Nature, and business, not? It’s almost as some businesses they think they exist in some bubble, where the laws of nature are turned away by some bouncer: “You can’t come in here with that gravity. Second Law of Thermodynamics? Not in here, sunny Jim.”
My favourite programmes on telly are the ones about the universe and how it came to be. One I was watching recently had a theme of complexity and order: how order arose out of the chaos of the Big Bang and formed some of the most beautiful sights in our solar system, such as Saturn’s rings. The narrator kept describing the wonders of the solar system as complex and marvelled at how it organised itself over many billions of years, subject to the forces of nature. As I watched, I was making connections to life here on Earth. The point he made in the final minutes of the programme was that we are part of the same complex and wonderful solar system and subject to its same laws. I made the link to organisations, to one client in particular and to one particular phenomenon of systems (you can’t tell a systems thinker to stop being a systems thinker in their free time, sorry). I had a moment of thinking how many who “run” businesses think they are immune from laws of nature, or certainly behave like they do, acting out of old myths like some kind of Flat-Earther.
Complexity, ambiguity, dynamic change and uncertainty are not the new normal; they have been around since the Big Bang. They are part of the fabric of the universe. We have just been (unconsciously) shielding ourselves from the forces of nature by pretending we weren’t a part of it. From the days of lords and serfs to the time we set out on the “scientific management” path, we have applied top-down control mechanisms on people to get them to work, like so many bits of a wind-up clock. Many are finally acknowledging that complexity, ambiguity and so on are part of the fabric of organisational life. Accordingly, we must adjust our ways of doing business to take account of these phenomena of Nature.
Just as, 1000 years ago, we “KNEW” that the Sun went around the Earth, just as we “KNEW” the Earth was flat, just as we “KNEW” that trepanation was a good cure for headaches , many organisations seem to “KNOW” that top-down command-and-control mechanistic structures, with a select few pulling the levers, are the best ways to run things. I believe that if we don’t “unknow” some of the nonsense we still unconsciously adhere to, the forces of Nature will present us with some unpleasant surprises. Even if we continue to “KNOW” that our business is a machine, it does not make it any less true that it is a living system, and thus subject to the laws of living systems.
A client who I described in a previous article was reflecting on 2012 recently and observed that they had made some progress in their business over the year. By progress, he meant that
- people were beginning to take up more responsibility and initiative without having to wait for the boss to tell them what to do
- there was more discussion amongst the staff as to how to manage some of the day-to-day challenges they meet and less referring to the boss for the “answer”
- mistakes were being used as entry points to examining business processes and working out how they could be improved
- they had a clearer idea of their collective purpose and how important relationship is to achieving that purpose
- the leaders were devoting more of their time to ensuring the conditions and structures of the business were optimised so that people could get on with their jobs (and less time micro-managing operational tasks).
Thrilling stuff. He also reflected on how shifting the focus away from “behavioural problems” as isolated events and onto the business as a whole living system seemed to have injected some new life (his words, not mine) into the business: that they were actually going somewhere. Here was an example of the practical benefits of applying systems thinking to overcoming business “stuckness”. They started the year stagnating, with things getting worse, they injected some new learning into the system, they are now moving to another level of effectiveness.
Here’s the link to that TV programme and this client’s business: entropy. As a living system, my client’s business is subject to the same laws that pertain to the rest of the universe. One of these is the Second Law of Thermodynamics, a corollary of which is entropy. Entropy, crudely speaking, is the tendency towards death. Social entropy, which applies to organisations, is a ”measure of the natural decay of the structure or of the disappearance of distinctions within a social system.” (Krippendorff) As the whole of the universe tends towards randomness, or death, so do all the elements within it. This is not to take a fatalistic approach and say “Why bother doing anything, then?” There are forces that also act to retard entropy. Like with other living systems, some energy needs to go into the pot in order to counteract it. My cup of hot tea will naturally cool down as heat is transferred away from it, but I can re-heat it by applying energy in the from of a microwave oven.
What does entropy look like in the business world?
How do we counteract entropy?
If a business is succumbing to natural entropy and feels like it’s losing track or going nowhere, how can we reheat it? Let’s look to Nature. How do other living systems in Nature counteract entropy? They bring in more stuff. Living systems find loopholes to counteract entropy. In the context of the natural world, this shows itself as adaptation. In the context of business, this means learning. Closed systems that spend their energy simply on maintaining themselves in survival mode eventually spend themselves out. If a business is spending too much of its time on hunting for food, and not enough on learning new ways to hunt for food, it will succumb to entropy. Vibrant and open living systems naturally tend to greater complexity, experiment often, are driven to what is possible and seek new opportunities which destabilise them until they restablise in a renewed way. They look for more stuff to put into the system to renew it.
“Systems thinking is a response to the failure of mechanistic thinking in the attempt to explain social and biological phenomena.” Lars Skyttner
Purpose, not anatomy
If something is not working, look at the bigger picture: purpose, relationships and interconnectedness of the elements. Because entropy (a phenomenon of living systems) is affecting the business, taking a systems thinking approach will be the path to finding its counter-measures. Merely looking at the anatomy of a business is not going to help us solve 21st century problems. As Skytnner writes, the emergence of a holistic approach came about in an effort to provide us “an outlook to see better, a network to understand better and a platform to act better.” This is something that is dear to my heart. Systems thinking gives us a real-life, practical way to actually craft the way we do things better and more effectively, not simply some intellectual exercise that sounds lovely.
Systems thinking is not a prescription or method, it’s more of a perspective or way of approaching problems. Systems thinking can help us to look for patterns within businesses, to see fundamental structures and their impact on the elements (the people, the departments, the sub-groups) within the business as well as on the relationships between those elements.
When living systems, such as a business, get to a certain point, they begin to entropy. Unless something new is added to the system, it will tend towards death. If we continue to apply the same-old, same-old solutions to address this problem, we are not bringing anything new into the system. ”Something new” requires learning. Learn what is working well. Learn what is not working well. Learn where the connections are within the business. Learn where the disconnects are. Learn from the customer.
A business will not have sustainable life unless it is infused with energy from outside itself. For a business to operate as a closed system, starving itself of innovation and creativity of its own people or ignorant of its customers and environment, entropy takes over. It will tend towards death. A “she’ll be right”, “it’ll sort itself out” attitude will lead to greater mess, greater randomness, and without new energy in the system to help deal with the mess, it will die away. Things do not sort themselves out. If I don’t maintain my house, it’ll eventually crumble over time. This is a real example of how the Second Law of Thermodynamics affects us. A hot cup of coffee will tend, over time, to lose heat. A living system starved of nourishment will eventually cease to exist. A business led by managers who see their role as nothing more than “competent supervision” will tend towards disintegration and eventually have a “Kodak moment” (not the picturesque kind). To be successful, a business must adapt to its ever-changing environment and to its own ever-changing internal dynamics that emerge out of the interactions between all the elements within in. A successful business must gain nourishment from outside its steady state: from innovation and creativity, from market information, from ongoing learning. When a business applies systems thinking, it can find new ways to renew itself.
Businesses that will do well in this networked age will overcome the natural phenomenon of entropy by becoming open to what could be and taking steps to do something different. They will learn to think bigger. They will see learning and renewal of their business processes as part of their new culture of continuous improvement. They will see the business as a living system and not a machine. They will see mistakes as opportunities for learning and renewal, rather than through the old lens as a “disciplinary issue”.
When Harold Jarche says work is learning and learning is the work, I think he’s suggesting that for a business to thrive, it must place learning at the heart of everything it does. Purposeful learning. Learning that is not “training” as we have visioned it up till now. Any training that is disconnected from the people is not sufficient. Learning that is not about the work is not sufficient. Real 21st century learning must change how we think, behave and interact with each other, as well as what we know. It must be relevant to purpose, activity and relationships. Not just one of those: all three. A business, which is a living system, requires relevant learning in order to subvert that thing which happens to all living systems: entropy.
September 8, 2012
“Many people live in the hallucination that they can truly lead other people without being able to lead themselves and this is pure fantasy. It is much easier to try to change other people and not being willing to change ourselves. This exercise of authenticity is very much needed if we truly want to inspire, touch and move the brains and the souls of those around us.” So writes Mario Alonso Puig, Fellow and Doctor, Harvard Medical School in the recent World Economic Forum report, Global Agenda Council on New Models of Leadership.
I’m initially a little hesitant when I read something that uses the word “model” because of the meaning we still tend to attach to that word “model” in our consumerist societies. New models of leadership, huh? (For this, I have been too often disappointed and end up reading some fast food version of what it means to be a leader: barely nutritional, highly addictive and something which passes through the system quickly.) Part of that hallucination to which Puig so eloquently refers is, I believe, related to a world in which we think we can continually “get” and “consume”. Gimme gimme gimme, make it quick, make it punchy, make it easily digestible. Don’t need to really soak it in, it’s just going to come out the other end anyway because, like a lot of fast food, I’m going to be hungry again in a little while and whatever is to hand will do. What’s the next leadership model I need to (rapidly) familiarise myself with, then?
This WEF report, however, sets out more than just a model. It’s a descriptive, and rather compelling, vision of what it could mean to be a leader and also points the way to how we could regard leader development in a VUCA world. When the world we navigate is increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous, how do we respond? As the report states, integral to effective leadership is the inner journey leaders must embark upon. This is not about tips and strategies, rather it is something to which there are no short-cuts. Developing self-knowing can sometimes feel elusive. Just as we get to grips with one thing, it can seem to vanish, unlike technical information, for which there is a manual.
There are concepts and phenomena that are becoming more ubiquitous and mainstream such as “emotional intelligence“, “mirror neurons“, “flourishing” and all those other really interesting things that science and rigorous research are demonstrating have some truth to them. Any leader who wishes to remain relevant and become more effective would do well to familiarise themselves with some of these, however knowing about them and actually applying them to oneself are two different things. There is a world of difference between a seminar that describes emotional intelligence and an experiential workshop in which you immerse yourself in stretching your abilities to relate with people and in which you practice reversing roles with others. You will gain information from the one, but the insights gained may not result in changing who you are. You will become different as a result of the other.
In answer to the question, “What is the best model of leadership?” I would suggest, it depends. Not terribly helpful I know, but it depends on who you are and that question is one to which you are far better placed to answer than me. We will all find various models or tools of more or less use. We will all find different descriptions of leader behaviour of more or less relevance. One thing is sure: learning who we are is essential if we are indeed “to inspire, touch and move the brains and souls of those around us” and the effectiveness of a model is, I suggest, going to be directly correlated to the level of self-knowing that the person attempting to apply it has achieved.
Models are all well and good but I believe the chief question to address is not “What is the best model?” but “How can I become more authentic?” or “Who am I and how do I bring the real me to my role as a leader?” In my time, I’ve encountered people who are not in formally-recognised “leadership” roles, but who exercise themselves with this question daily and exhibit what I would call excellent leader capabilities. This is the kind of thinking I infer from the WEF report: that leader development is not just for those in management roles, but in a social economy, leader capabilities are people capabilities. All kinds of people who bring a kind of authenticity and real human-ness to their work indicate the good stuff that more CEOs would do well to take heed of. There have been the internet provider’s customer service representatives who answer my grumpy phone calls and who manage to both help me solve my technical problems as well as ease my frustrations and keep me as a customer. That’s leadership. There were the hotel reservation staff who actually listened to my concerns and went the extra mile, and before I even check in have provided me an experience of customer service that makes me feel like I’ll be staying there again and again. That’s leadership.
A model of leadership ought, in my view, be descriptive, rather than prescriptive. In a world still dominated by “I want”, “What can I get?” and “Just give me the 10 top tips,” we need to be careful of limiting our development as leaders to descriptions of one aspect of this without also taking on board that the task at hand is self-discovery. Fine to learn a new top tip, but we have to avoid reducing leadership to a set of behaviours or a set of attitudes. Layering these on without also looking inside will be inauthentic. Who are you really, underneath all that make-up? Authentic leadership and being an authentic leader seems to me much more about being the leaders we want to be, not modelling ourselves in accordance with the latest trend, which could be akin to wearing someone else’s clothes which are slightly ill-fitting and in which we never really feel comfortable.
“Real learning gets to the heart of what it means to be human. Through learning we re-create ourselves. Through learning we become able to do something we never were able to do. Through learning we reperceive the world and our relationship to it. Through learning we extend our capacity to create, to be part of the generative process of life. There is within each of us a deep hunger for this type of learning.” Peter Senge
Part of discovering who we want to be as a leader implies doing something that nobody else has done in the entire history of the universe: being you. I sometimes joke that a really useful personality metric would be one that has not four or 16 or 30 types of people, but seven billion. Certainly, we have more that unites us than separates us; certainly we share 99% of our genes with mice, but the chemistry of all the roles we enact in our lives synthesises into one and only one unique living entity.
I have made the point in a couple articles that we humans learn best when in the company of other humans. I have also made the point that it is nonsense to teach children that they must “do their own work”. I am not contradicting myself when I advocate for discovering oneself and being the unique leader you want to be. It is a interesting paradox that humans do learn best with cooperating with others and interacting with others, but that we need to expend our own energy and leave our own comfort zones if we are to learn anything. Doing our own learning, however, does not mean isolating yourself from the input and assistance of others. We do learn by watching what others do and adopting some of their ways of being, adapting them to fit our personal values. Adopt, adapt and improve. We learn by giving and receiving feedback from others.
When Ackoff said, “If each part of a system is made to operate as efficiently as possible, the system as a whole will not operate as effectively as possible. The performance of a system depends more on how its parts interact than on how they act independently of each other,” he could have also been referring to each of us as individual systems within larger systems. Maximising our intellect without doing the work on ourselveswill not make us better leaders. As the WEF report says, part of learning how to manage in a VUCA world is related to growing “head” and “hand” skills. These are given greater impact when growing the “heart” skills. They are inextricably linked. If I was to ask you which was the most important organ in your body, you might struggle to answer. None are more important, all are essential and they all need each other in order to have a healthy and well-functioning body. Same thing applies. No use learning the latest tips for having robust performance conversations if you are shy of real encounter with another human being.
If self-development is a journey you wish to undertake, I would signpost a few things:
It’s divergent. All the answers don’t become apparent all at once. It’s unpredictable. If you are someone who needs to always know “why” before you do the next thing, you will need to learn how to manage your frustration. For myself, I have had to develop greater equanimity in the face of confusion. Breathing helps. I often wish I could show the same patience towards myself that I have with others, but there’s more grist for my mill. Sometimes the “why” is the last thing to come (if at all). Doing something which uses the word “toolbox” is probably not ideal because what you’ll learn about yourself cannot always be listed as an inventory beforehand.
It’s messy. If you are someone who needs to be in control, you will also need to learn how to manage your anxiety. Self-awakeness involves seeing things that we may not always like about ourselves and embracing them as part of who we are. It involves “crossing the threshold of your doubts and fears,” as Puig also says. I’ve had to develop greater balance in myself in order to help with this one. Recently, I received feedback about something and I literally felt wobbly. Nature and walking (or even better, walking in nature) helps me with this one.
It’s developmental. If you need “step 1, step 2, step 3″, you will probably need to let that go. Letting a two-year old take you for a walk would be good training for that. It’s not a linear “from A to B” sort of thing, it’s more like from “EH??” to “Be”: a meander from one interesting thing to another. The “heart” journey is one on which each step builds on the previous ones and each step reveals the next thing to head towards. You can’t plan this journey, but you can set your bearings to head in a direction. Developing more “flow” has helped me to meet this one. Travelling in Uganda, India and Nepal in my late 20s taught me about flow. I remember looking down from my hotel balcony onto a Mumbai street when I first arrived and it literally looked like a river flowing. You dive in and go with it or get exhausted trying to swim upstream.
Because the landscape is uncharted and confusing, this inner journey really can be quite unsettling. I recently challenged someone inadvertently on a belief they have of themselves. They knew that in a social workplace, it is important to be a good listener and empathic towards others. I could hear that they “got it” intellectually. When they said, “Of course I’m really good at empathising with my staff and understanding where they come from,” I naively asked, “How would you know that?” They blushed, the smile turned to worry and something seemed to unsettle them, almost like they had uncovered something they hadn’t encountered in themselves before. Rather than become defensive or brush it off, they boldly decided to dig a little deeper. Brave soul. We need courage to acknowledge our shortcomings (or at least acknowledge that we might have some!).
Using your powers for good? How would you know? Too many folks in business still operate out of an “egosystem” mentality and not an “ecosystem” mentality (thanks to Otto Scharmer of MIT). I still hear managers say to me, “I need to be in control of what happens around here.” Really? If we continue to operate unconsciously out of mindsets that are not conducive to a healthy system, what hope for business? Self-discovery involves becoming awake to our prejudices (Theory X anyone?) and our personally constructed glass ceilings.
Do you believe you are being supportive, empathic and compassionate? How would you know?
Do you think you know yourself? How would you know?
April 29, 2012
Bizarrely, if you went into most school classrooms in the industrialised world, you would still hear teachers say or imply, “Sit down, stop talking, do your own work.” I say bizarrely, because this notion that we will excel in our lives only if we do what we’re told, mind our own business and draw solely on our own thoughts, ideas and knowledge just seems unnatural. It has come from the old days when schools were set up as places to train youngsters for a life of isolating wage slavery. Our education systems were designed, in other words, as mirrors of adult workplaces and apart from reading, writing and arithmetic, the key lesson was “fit in or f**k off”; if you want to get ahead, play the teacher’s game, learn what THEY want you to so you can pass their tests (usually information about stuff, rather than insight about self, life and the world) and don’t challenge authority, i.e. get used to working within rigid and nonsensical hierarchies. I may be generalising, of course; I had the odd teacher at school who encouraged me to actually think, make meaning of what I was learning and formulate my own opinions, but broadly speaking, most of my school lessons were dull as dishwater. I even had one history teacher whose lessons consisted of getting one of the students to write 10 words on the blackboard (yes, it was black, not white) which we then, silently and working on our own, had to find the definitions of in our history books and when we had done, we could just sit and do whatever we liked. That was his idea of teaching history. No word of a lie, that was what my history class was like day in and day out. He never questioned us on what meaning we had made of “The Gettysburg Address” or “appeasement”. He never chaired debates that made us think and question, he never gripped us with stories of life in First World War trenches, he never inspired us to find connections between the Protestant Revolution and the modern world, to my mind, he never actually taught anything of real use to me. However, the school system seemed more than happy with his performance because we all managed to get reasonable scores on the tests he would set us, and year after year, there he was, back in his classroom faced with another group of students. Oddly, his were probably the best lessons to prepare us for the mindless busy work that is expected of people in many businesses.
How much of this sort of thing still goes on in workplaces? Mindless, silo-ed busy work that seems unconnected to anything bigger or meaningful. What’s the alternative? Systems thinking shines some light, I believe. Systems display certain characteristics which are applicable to business. Businesses, after all, are systems. As Deming has said, “A system is a network of interdependent components that work together to try to accomplish the aim of the system”. Businesses are not machines, despite what many manager behaviours would have you believe. They are self-organising, living, breathing, dynamic; not a bunch of separate and isolated parts that can be relied on to do their best in isolation. Albert Low in “Zen and Creative Management” stated, “A company is a multidimensional system capable of growth, expansion, and self-regulation. It is, therefore, not a thing but a set of interacting forces. Any theory of organisation must be capable of reflecting a company’s many facets, its dynamism, and its basic orderliness.”
Deming also said, “A system must have an aim. Without an aim, there is no system. …A system must be managed. The secret is cooperation between components toward the aim of the organisation.” So what is required of leaders in the modern age if they are not to be the controllers? The clue is there in Deming’s quote: when he says the system must be managed, the role of the modern manager is not about rigid plans and KPIs, it’s about nurturing cooperation, fostering connection between all the myriad and diverse elements in the system. The other bit about having an aim is another clue. The manager who wishes to unleash the full potential of their business will ensure that there is a clear line of sight to the purpose of the business. People will know WHY the business is in existence and will feel connected to achieving that purpose. Furthermore, the manager will be less concerned with an individual’s results and more about the value they add to the whole. Hard to KPI that one, though, so it’s left in the too-hard basket.
Systems are naturally self-organising; I do not have to plan and strategise my digestive system to do what it is already organised to do. I also do not have to push or control my digestive system to do its job because it is already set up in a way that leads it to do what it is naturally organised to do. Workplaces, because they are systems, will also self-organise when released of mechanistic and unnatural constraints. In fact, all systems either self-organise or die. If constraints are placed around a system which restrict its natural self-organising tendencies, it will be lifeless. How can leaders expect people to engage in their work if their workplace is dull, lifeless and overly-controlled? Businesses and the people that work within them are not machines, nor parts of machines, that can be shoved into action by external forces, much as Henry Ford would have liked to believe that. It is part of a leader’s role to put the conditions in place which do not hinder the natural self-organising tendencies of the systems in which they operate. What does this actually mean?
This means fostering a culture orientated around values. That means they are not just put in a nice frame and hung in some dusty corner of the building; they are the lifeblood of how people do things at work. They are values which people can tap into and make real meaning of. It is therefore absolutely essential that those who manage the business relate work conversations to the values and that they live them whole-heartedly.
This means fostering a culture of real learning. When a system is open to new information, energy or resources, it will inevitably shift. Being open to learning keeps the system dynamic and vibrant. It will continually re-organise itself, incorporating the new learning. Leaders need to focus their efforts on establishing ways of doing things which help the organisation respond to change by learning and renewing itself. A strong and vigorous system will have a strong orientation to learning and a business that does not open itself to new learning will have a much shortened life-span.
This means fostering conversation and connection. If my history teacher had done this, I might have made more meaning of the things I was reading in my history book. It is counterintuitive in today’s world that you would expressly ask someone NOT to collaborate, NOT to share ideas, NOT to talk. We know enough about how systems operate that it is crazy to let fragmenting silo mentalities reign. Please, do NOT sit still, do NOT stop talking, do NOT do your own work.
This means assisting the business to maintain a coherent sense of identity. Strong businesses are the ones that have a strong sense of identity. The ones that last and navigate more successfully through troubled waters are the ones with a stable value core and the capacity to live their values congruently. Identity is maintained and strengthened at the level of values and purpose, not at the level of tasks. Once again, real leverage is not where old-style managers would have you think (better planning and tighter control) but within the deeper recesses of the system: values and beliefs.
As always, comments that build onto what I’ve written are welcome. I’m always keen to hear from other minds and to expand on the thoughts I set down.
March 21, 2012
Developing ourselves is not about filling in “gaps”. If we are systems thinkers, we don’t see gaps. A gap is an empty space; where nothing is. We are not empty vessels to be filled; we are whole beings, not “hole-y” beings. We do, however, have things about us that need strengthening and enhancing. We have got this far in our lives with the capabilities that we have had at our disposal through a life of learning, but this is not to say that there isn’t more to learn and develop.
Dr. Russell Ackoff said, “Optimising one part of a system always leads to sub-optimisation of the system as a whole.” This is important to remember, not only with reference to an organisation’s development, but also for an individual. Our workplaces are complex social systems, the many people being interconnected and interrelated. Each person has an impact on the wider system and the other people in the system impact on them. Out of the dynamics of these social systems emerges culture and organisational performance. To take Ackoff’s statement, if we take one person out of a system and, for example, provide some coaching without awareness of that person’s place in the system, impact on the system and impact of the system on them, the coaching will be less than effective. Optimising one person in isolation and without attending to the whole system will lead to a skew.
Similarly, when developing capability within individuals, we need to remember that we, too, are systems. We play a myriad of roles in our daily lives, whether you are a customer service representative, a CEO or a project manager. The whole of ourselves is truly greater than the sum of our knowledge, skills, experience and character traits. This matrix of roles that we play is complex and interrelated; each role we enact impacts on other roles we play. Our character and personality arises from the interconnectedness of all these roles and each time we add a new capability, it affects the whole of our being. Sometimes we can easily discern this, sometimes learning something new affects us in more subtle ways. For example, developing greater self-reflective skills will impact positively on our abilities to put ourselves in the shoes of others.
In the realm of leader (or rather, people) development, it sometimes seems that there is always the next big thing: The Key Skill Every Leader Should Grow. It can be a bit like plate spinning, though; that old trick where someone would rush around trying to keep plates spinning on long thin poles. One week you have to develop your ability to manage diversity, the next week it’s about learning how to deal with the unexpected, the next week you are learning how to listen to your inner voice telling you not to listen to what they tell you the week after that. Madly rushing about from one “part” to another “part” of ourselves is a misguided approach to people development. We need to see leader ability as a matrix of interactive roles; the question is then not “What capability do I need to develop?” but “What is the matrix of capabilities I need to develop, and what capabilities am I over-emphasising at the expense of others?” Leader development should be focussed on the behaviour of the inseparable whole and even if there are specific capabilities that a person needs to strengthen, this should be done with a view to optimising the whole person.
Developing ourselves in a piecemeal, mechanistic way can be as exhausting as plate spinning. Taking a reductionist perspective is also counter-productive; it’s utter nonsense to view ourselves as clocks, with bits that you can take out in isolation and fine tune or replace. We need to remain mindful that our abilities to do something may be linked to a collection of other related abilities. In the same vein, our ability to do something may be hampered by over-use of other abilities. Take the story of the recruitment consultant who struggled to achieve his list of daily tasks. It wasn’t related to poor time management skills, which he had said it was. It was a direct result of being so driven and single-minded about achieving his tasks such that his way of interacting with his colleagues rubbed them up the wrong way and caused them to avoid dealing with him. Because he required the collaboration of his co-workers, he was not able to get through his tasks effectively. When we did some work with this person some years ago, we witnessed his manner with others that betrayed some underdeveloped relationship skills. If we had taken him at his word and gone down the “time management skills” track without looking at his whole being, he wouldn’t have come through with the enhanced people skills he actually needed. His improved people skills ended up enhancing his ability to “manage” his time.
When Peter Senge says that real learning gets to the heart of what it is to be human, I believe he is talking about whole person development, not simply “training” in isolated sets of skills that enable someone to do a job more efficiently. When I’m developing people capability, I apply a matrix that we at Quantum Shift developed some years ago. We use it as an illustrative reminder, not a definitive prescription. This image is limited, in that it cannot truly illustrate the deep and complex interconnectedness of all the roles and how they affect each other, however, it gives some indication. Anyone who is in the business of developing people needs to remain cognisant of the interactive nature of these roles and discover how they impact on each other, for each individual that they work with.
Each of these roles is comprised of a number of sub-roles or abilities. For example, the Decisive Achiever is the one that we enact when we want to get things gone. It is the one that manages time, makes decisions, is organised and is the one that is usually most recognised and rewarded in the workplace. This is the role that our recruitment consultant was over-utilising to his detriment, and at the expense of the other roles in his matrix. He operated out of a belief that if he just came into work and achieved, that would be best. He was blind to the fact that an optimal achiever is actually one that deploys the whole of his role matrix in appropriate measure and in response to the appropriate context. When he realised that his Relationship Manager role was the one that was needed in order to go further, and extended this and applied it in tandem with the Decisive Achiever, he actually got more done and with greater satisfaction for himself and his colleagues. In fact, we heard some months later that the atmosphere in the whole office had improved significantly as a result.
Below is a summary of the roles in this matrix and their traits. The list is by no means exhaustive, however it gives a flavour of the roles.
Because our personal role systems are organic and ever-emergent, developing them is not time-bound. There is no end point. We will develop one thing and this will shine a light on other areas to enhance and extend. To quote Senge, “Personal mastery goes beyond competence and skills…it means approaching one’s life as a creative work, living life from a creative as opposed to a reactive viewpoint.” This means we embark on a lifelong journey of learning and development, taking a continual interest in ourselves and holding a perpetual curiosity about the world. One might say that there is a reasonably finite amount one can learn about, say, time management, but if we engage ourselves in role development, we will keep refining our whole selves to applying our time management skills or our performance management skills or our listening skills well and in an integrated fashion. Doing this over our life times will be an adventure, it will be messy and divergent, it will not be without challenges.
Some key points to remember about working with people in a systemic way:
- Our roles are an interactive system, or matrix, of sub-roles. Developing one in isolation will come at the expense of another or others.
- Development is never-ending. You never “arrive”. There is no end point. As we learn one thing and it becomes part of us, we become aware of the next thing to be learnt. Because we are systems, developing one part of the system will impact on the rest of it and will give rise to the next thing to develop.
- Roles are learnt and enacted in response to real life, not hypotheticals. They are not in isolation, making workplace learning is more purposeful. It is ideal to learn in real time, in response to real needs.
- Developing leadership mastery is a messy business, just like life. It is not linear. It requires some experimentation, some reflection and meaning-making, some knowledge, some rehearsal and trial and error.
February 8, 2012
Carbon is intensely heated and pressurised beneath the surface of the Earth to create a diamond; essentially it’s a lump of coal that has been pressure cooked for thousands of years. Dust, smoke and ash scatter evening sunlight and we see a stunning red sunset; so it’s basically air pollution. An oyster takes a piece of microscopic grit and forms a pearl; it’s really an irritant that the oyster is trying to protect itself from.
Far be it from me to shatter the romantic associations we place on sunsets, pearls and diamonds, but they do, in fact, originate from stuff which we would not normally consider to be lovely or desirable. Every magnificent and serene wonder in the universe arose out of the chaos and turbulence of the Big Bang, hardly a peaceful nor benign process. In the realm of human learning, our most prized gems often arise out of the midst of our most difficult or challenging circumstances. It’s not a cliche for nothing: “What doesn’t kill me will make me grow stronger.” At the same time, if we are bereft of personal resources, whether that be internal strengths, strong relational connections with others or a satisfying connection to something ‘higher’, we will find learning and change more threatening than life-giving. It is worth bearing these two points in mind if you manage staff performance: 1) the seed of excellence lies in the heart of inadequate performance; and 2) we cannot drive people to higher performance if they are not aware of what they are already doing well. We do not learn something new out of nothing.
An old supervisor of mine used to use the phrase ‘grist for the mill’ when I would talk about some undesirable behaviour in a client. His reframe of a behaviour or attitude has stood me in good stead for many years. Not only am I trained in a strengths-based methodology, but my outlook on human beings is one that says we are inherently good and that our behaviours are aimed at generating positive outcomes. That said, best intentions do not always result in the best outcomes for everyone concerned, but this is more likely down to human clumsiness, shortsightedness and fallibility than willful nastiness, laziness or under-handedness. The less-than-functional is merely grist for the developmental mill; raw material out of which the treasure can emerge.
Thankfully, for more and more people, it seems entirely sensible that we look at workplace performance through a strengths-based lens. Why performance manage someone purely from a deficit paradigm, i.e. what is not going well? While we do have to address poor performance, there is a paradigm out of which we can learn to operate which is progressive, esteem-enhancing and effective.
Just as counter-productive as the deficit paradigm is the head-in-the-sand paradigm. Many who operate out of this world-view would say that they are optimistic and positive. What this mindset propounds is that you don’t look at the dysfunctional; accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative. While I’m all for emphasising the positive, if we behave like Pollyanna, we miss the whole picture. Taken to an extreme, there are managers who are overly optimistic, believing that, in the end, it’ll all be alright. Being overly positive can lead you to ignore evidence of some ‘grit’ in your system. The head-in-the-sand paradigm says that if you just accentuate the positive, the problems and difficulties will work themselves out. Wrong. ”Things” do not “work themselves out“. I know there are CEOs and other leaders out there who hold a version of this viewpoint. They believe themselves to be positive and optimistic and I’ve no doubt whatsoever that they lead blessed and joyful lives. However, I’ve heard a self-professed optimist say ”Why would I want to put any of my energy into the staff who are causing the most problems? I prefer to spend my time on staff who are really performing.” From here, you are one step away from: ”Why would I want to spend any time or effort on developing the poor performers?” ”Why wouldn’t I get rid of the difficult ones and hire people who are willing to just fit in; there are plenty of people who would be so grateful to work here.” This, to my mind, is not being positive. It is an over-developed desire to see the positives to the extent that you fail to see the whole picture. If you put your head in the sand, you are not only blind to weaknesses, but you are blind to the developmental opportunities and the potential pearls amongst your staff.
So both the deficit paradigm and the head-in-the-sand paradigm are limited: they only look at part of someone’s performance. To view the world from a strengths-based perspective, we look at the whole: what is working well and what is not working well. A strengths-based paradigm is also a systems thinking paradigm. It is one that sees the wholeness and connectedness of people. We are not machines with a bunch of moving parts that can be taken out and replaced when they fail; we are complex systems in which the whole is far greater than the sum of our individual cells. So in a performance conversation with staff, we need to view their failings in light of their whole being. There are some things they do well, there are other things that they don’t excel at, but they are inseparable. Like finding the diamond in the rough, the potential lies hidden.
Even though we know how good it feels to focus on what we do well, drawing attention to others’ weaknesses in workplace performance is not a habit easily unlearnt. Through our early years, many of us have learnt to place too much value judgement on ourselves and to classify many things about us as inherently good and worthwhile or inherently bad and undesirable. However, learning to see the world through a strengths-based lens has some bottom line benefits. A 2002 survey by the Corporate Leadership Council questioned nearly 20,000 employees in 29 countries and found that when their managers emphasised strengths, this resulted in a 36% improvement in performance as opposed to a 27% decline in performance when the emphasis was on weaknesses.
Taking a strengths-based systems view to human performance includes developing a person’s ability to self-reflect so they aware of themselves, what they do well and what needs improvement. Asking a person to reflect on themselves is the starting point for any conversation about performance. Making a performance analysis by using a simple, yet powerful three-fold progression of questions means that the person expands their view of themselves and is more capable of being autonomous, confident and engaged at work. Firstly, ask someone to recall what they do well. Once they have done this, let them know what you observe in them that is excellent. Secondly, ask them to reflect on what they do too much of. Remember I said earlier that I believe all human behaviour is aimed at creating a positive outcome. Sometimes, there is something that we are good at that we apply too much, and this can get in the way of ideal performance. It is not intrinsically bad, yet in great quantity is counter-productive. Salt is a good thing to add to soup but too much will ruin the flavour. Again, let the other person know what you see them do too much or too often. Finally, turn the focus to what the person does too little of. Once they have done this, add more information from your perspective. Keeping this simple and structured will provide the person with a full and manageable picture of themselves. Out of this analysis you will have a distillation of information that shows the way to a development path.
To my mind, in a strengths-based worldview, a performance conversation is not one-sided. Unless a staff member is going through some sort of formal disciplinary process, it seems to me that conversations about performance are just that: conversations. Both parties contribute. Both parties have rights and responsibilities. Both parties have the right to be heard, to be respected and to be believed. Staff are responsible for being fully present in these conversations and participating. Staff are also responsible for developing an open attitude to learning and change. It is no good becoming defensive in the face of uncomfortable feedback or leaving the manager to make all the analysis. A staff member who is not able to reflect on their performance is the staff member begging to be micro-managed and I know of no employee nor manager who truly desires that. A manager is responsible for developing the habit of noticing performance, both good and bad-all the time. It is most useful when both staff and manager are clear about performance standards and achievement throughout the year, not simply at annual performance review time. Keep good performance on track by giving real-time feedback. I have spoken to too many people who are in the dark about their performance because their manager just saves everything for that once a year appointment, if at all. Furthermore, performance conversations should not be scripted or determined solely by the performance review document. It should be a human to human encounter in which both parties are able to contribute.
Finally, do something after performance conversations. If you are a manager who has regular conversations with staff, you are likely to follow up anyway, but particularly after one about work performance, make sure something happens, whether that is a coaching session, a decision to undertake training, another review or whatever seems appropriate. This bit is really important. What arises from performance conversations is that grist for the developmental mill; within the heart of poor performance lie the seeds of excellence. Knowing that you have a culture of performance, where it’s just something that gets talked about regularly, means that people can reasonably expect there to be a professional development path that continues to unfold. Ideally, this will be specific to each person, since each person’s needs will vary. Whatever you do, though, make sure that you do discuss what is not going well and that you do something to ameliorate it. It’s a paradox of strengths-based performance management: you want to change the poor performance but you must start by looking at the good, and when you eventually identify the inadequate, you have the raw material for greater excellence. If we don’t acknowledge what is outstanding, we don’t have the stable platform from which to grow and develop; and if we don’t examine what is poor, we just end up with a touchy feely nicey nice culture where we stagnate. We need to find the grit in order to learn something new. What is the irritant? What is the source of dissatisfaction? What is getting in the way of excellence?
January 18, 2012
I admire people who are good with words. A wordsmith such as Neil Hannon, one of my favourite song writers, deploys words to great effect whether he is making a biting commentary on the financial game-players who were instrumental in causing the 2008 Great Recession, telling a story of a lonely woman of advancing years or sharing his optimism about life with his baby daughter. In their younger years, highly articulate and eloquent people such as Hannon learnt exactly the same letters of the alphabet that I learnt, and over their lifetimes have learnt how to do something quite special with them. There are only 26 letters in the alphabet. Once you’ve learnt those 26 letters, you can’t learn any more. People who are good at expressing themselves through language have developed their capabilities to use it in highly creative, skillful ways. In order to become one of these folks, you don’t need to learn more letters of the alphabet; you learn other things to do this. You don’t see aspiring writers attending courses in order to learn more letters; you see them attending creative writing courses that put them in touch with their human creativity, associating with other writers and applying their innate creativity to the use of a finite set of grammatical and syntactical rules and conventions (while also sometimes challenging or bending these rules in spontaneous ways).
Developing people in the workplace is a little similar. Entry level managers, for example, will need to learn the basic tools of management in order to provide competent supervision of their teams and tasks, however good leadership comes about when this manager applies themselves to growing their personal capabilities so that they can apply management knowledge in inspiring and motivating ways with greater vision, impact and influence.
For many of you in a leadership position, you probably don’t need more top tips or knowledge about your job. You probably don’t need much more information about ‘stuff’; you would probably enjoy developing something else, something deeper that frees you up to apply the knowledge and information you have already acquired with greater ease and finesse. It’s one thing to know about emotional intelligence, for example. It’s quite another thing for you to apply this elegantly in a living, breathing workplace with real life people in real life situations.
I say all this by way of stating one of my wishes for 2012: that more organisations wake up to the idea that, rather than sending people on more training courses that treat them like receptacles for yet more tools, tricks and tips, they should be investing in developing the users of these tools. Rather than trying to fill people up with more information and knowledge, they could look for opportunities for them to learn how to apply what they already know in spades, with greater fluency, creativity and responsiveness to the real needs of their organisations and its stakeholders. I wish that rather than send someone to another seminar about emotional intelligence, that they invest in some kind of learning that allows them to become more aware of themselves, to reflect and to actually rehearse better emotional and people skills. I wish that rather than sending a salesperson on another sales training that tells them yet again how important it is to listen to clients and customers, that they invest in something where these salespeople can develop the “role” of Effective Listener by practicing and reflecting on their abilities to listen well to people. I wish that rather than send customer service staff away to learn lists of things to do when dealing with customers, that they are provided with flexible learning processes that allow them to grow the whole range of human attitudes and behaviours required in order to provide the ultimate customer experience. I wish that rather than send that shy or reticent manager on another course to learn about “difficult conversations” with their staff, that they seek out the opportunities for this manager to develop the “role” of Robust Guide and actually get to the bottom of why he doesn’t do it (even though he knows what he is supposed to be doing) and to break through those inhibitors by rehearsing and refining some new behaviours and attitudes.
All of this is possible, it is not pie in the sky. I see such things happen before my eyes. This is my call for greater emphasis on “role development” and less emphasis on “training” in workplace learning and development. The word “role” is already known to you. However, in my work, I apply a very particular meaning of it with reference to capability development. In the work I do, a role is defined as the living expression of a person in any moment they are alive. A role is a holistic concept and consists of three components: thinking, feeling and behaving. Far too much in the way of workplace training with behaviour change as its end result does not address the whole person. We are whole people and to leave out any of these three components will not necessarily make for genuine and long-lasting shifts in behaviour.
We all amass a vast repertoire of roles in our lifetimes and they arise in response to another person or situation. Many of the roles we enact in our daily lives are ones which we have become quite habituated to enacting. In many cases, these habituated role responses are pretty adequate, but in a number of cases, particularly when the environment is more unpredictable and changeable, we go into a role which does not quite fit the bill. In many of these cases, more information or knowledge will not make a difference to our abilities to respond more adequately; developing our role repertoire, however, will.
To illustrate, complete this sentence: think of X (a person in your workplace, or maybe even yourself) who sometimes struggles with Y (a task or duty at work). X has all the information and knowledge they require in order to Y, but something still gets in the way. When thinking of what X needs to learn, it is helpful to not reduce this simply to “They need to learn how to Y better.” That assessment is too mechanistic and stops well short of the real learning need. Such a simplistic assessment can lead to the wrong prescription.
There will be “roles”, or personal capabilities, that unlock their ability to Y. I have spoken to too many salespeople who keep getting sent on the same old, same old sales courses year after year in order to help them boost their sales figures, and year after year, there is no significant shift in their performance. In many cases, what gets in the way of optimum performance is not the lack of sales knowledge; it is under-developed listening abilities or an under-developed ability to put themselves in the shoes of their clients or under-developed confidence or under-developed something-else. I have spoken with too many managers who get sent on courses to learn about having “difficult” conversations with their staff, but, again, in most of these cases, these courses do not create a shift in behaviour because they already know what they should be doing; what they could do more of is confidence or the ability to set boundaries or even the ability to be calm and centred. Telling someone to be calm and centred will not necessarily make it happen.
A lot of this waste in the L&D budget comes about because what is seen is the failure to perform the task at hand effectively. This, however, is merely the symptom of something deeper that needs addressed. We can only really see behaviours and we really only measure performance that is measurable. What do you do when the thing that needs developing is not so easy to see or measure? The important thing is to make a really thorough assessment of the learning need. It is also important to engage with a process that will allow people to learn holistically, so that the shifts in visible behaviour are real, deep and long-lasting and are related to shifts in the person as a person.
Making better decisions about the L&D budget has other ripple effects. Even in the midst of economic turmoil, I still read about skills shortages in some industries and organisations. Despite high unemployment, some businesses still say they can’t get the right people. If we look at who is already in the business and make better assessments of what they really need to learn in order to boost their performance, we can go some way to improving staff engagement as well as the bottom line. Taking a “role development” perspective on L&D can assist businesses to attract and retain the people they need. Investing in developing people as people, not as resources that do things, shifts the culture and unlocks opportunity, creativity and innovation.
What’s your wish for 2012?
November 1, 2011
I recently saw an #occupy placard which read, “I can’t believe we still have to protest this s**t.” I smiled in recognition and instantly made a connection to the feeling I get when I read yet another article about the dearth of good “leadership” in our institutions and how we need to invest more in leader development. At the same time, I go into a huff when I read articles online that seem to intimate that there is no point in trying to teach leadership because it is not teachable. My huff, however, is not a sour grapes huff, it’s a passionate educator’s huff.
I will side with those who assert that leadership training as it has been delivered is well past its sell-by date, but please let us not throw the baby out with the bath water. It is true that a lot of what our institutions require of leaders cannot be learnt in a training room, however I will also assert that there are still aspects of leadership capability that can be grown within the dynamic of a learning group. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that some of the capabilities a leader requires are best learnt in the context of a learning group. In this category, I would include capabilities (i.e. the doing of, not the knowing about) related to communicating or managing one’s emotions in response to others. It is one of the paradoxes of learning that nobody can learn for us and that we do it out of our own individual efforts, but that we learn best when with others in a group.
There is a revolution required in leader learning and development and it must come on several fronts. Firstly, it must come in the mindset that approaches it. What happens over the whole timeline of a leader’s development and what we consider as important elements of that timeline must shift; a peer group, such as a Vistage group, is just as much a part of a leader’s development, as is a 360 review or executive retreat. To focus more specifically on what happens in the ‘training room’, there must also be a revolution in both content and process. No more chalk and talk. No more using powerpoint as a drunk uses a lamp-post (for support, instead of illumination). No more long-winded presenters who continually announce that “in a moment we’ll get going with the group exercise” only to run out of time in the last 10 minutes and say “shall we just have a quick group Q and A”. As Donald Clark says in this presentation, the right tools for the right job: for example, working on the attitudinal level requires an experiential tool. He identifies simulation in this category of tool; I would also include sociodrama and Morenian action methods. (I would, though, wouldn’t I?)
The content revolution in the ‘training’ room must be in purposefulness, practicality and relevance. Is what goes on there meaningful to the participants? More importantly, are they facilitated to make meaning of what happens in the room? Is it practical and applicable to their real lives? Is it relevant to their actual concerns and does it take account of what they already know, what they need to develop in order to work with greater flexibility and effectiveness and perhaps most importantly, what they want to develop as human beings? Leader learning must bring work into the learning and the learning into work. What purport to be ‘leadership development programmes’ are flawed if they operate as if the only learning that can occur is in the ‘training’ room, but it is equally flawed to think that deep learning cannot happen in this space as well.
On the process side, I struggle to comprehend that with the amount we now know from neuroscience about what makes learning happen, that there are 1) people still out there purporting to deliver leadership development when in fact they are delivering information sessions ABOUT leadership and leader capability and that 2) there are organisations still paying for it in the belief that it will create change.
A lot of what is currently on offer in the realm of ‘leadership development’ is usually half-day (or sometimes even more cheekily, two-day) events with pre-planned agenda which tell you what you will have learnt by when. How do they know what you will learn? Are they time travelling mind-readers? There is no promise that you will be different as a person, but then again, consultants and trainers shy away from such claims because: 1) they don’t want to scare potential clients away with the idea that people will actually change as human beings (heaven forfend); 2) they often (in my experience) do not possess much understanding, training and experience of applying truly transformational deep learning approaches that generate such profound changes in people-they are more often successful entrepreneurs, economists or managers themselves who believe that anyone can teach, which is not the case; and 3) they are terrified that if they use experiential processes in which people meet themselves and others in any meaningful way, they won’t know how to manage the unpredictable interactions this implies. This last one is entirely reasonable; if you haven’t trained (and done the requisite personal development yourself) in processes which call up emotions, why on earth would you invite people to actively participate. I recently attended something which was billed as an ‘interactive workshop’, but was, in fact, the presenter ‘interacting’ with us via his powerpoint and asking a bunch of rhetorical questions. At least, I think they were rhetorical because he got no response from any of the ‘participants’.
I realise that last bit will have upset some people, and I make no apologies for this. For those of you still reading, I make the point because we are well and truly past the time when this revolution in workplace learning should have occurred. This is urgent. This revolution will be impotent unless it is in mindset, content and method of delivery, because process must be congruent with content. We are facing systemic challenges the like of which humanity has not seen in its history. We require leaders (and I don’t just mean those with leadership title) in all walks of life, at all levels of all kinds of organisations, who act with boldness, vision, creativity and the love of other humans. Settling for same old, same old will not do. Pink Floyd make the point beautifully: we don’t need no education, we don’t need no thought control. We need meaningful development which unleashes human potential.
My advice if you are looking to develop yourself or those who lead your organisation: don’t settle for anything less than you want. If you are looking for leadership development, then shop around till you find someone who actually knows what the word ‘development’ means. Development is NOT training. It is not a workshop; although workshops may be one component of a systemic approach. I understand that you are crying out for something new, something radical, something that actually works and generates genuine, significant and long-lasting change in relationships and capability in your organisation, but please, NOT naked Fridays. It is important, with the L&D marketplace full of good and not-so-good providers, to sift out the snake oil salesmen and women promising culture shift after a week of high ropes courses or releasing a live pig into the office. Yes, that live pig clip is a satire, but there are many Lester Becks out there, believe me. I have used it before, but this quote from Drucker is apt: “We are using the word ‘guru’ only because ‘charlatan’ is too long to fit into a headline.”
If you are getting someone external to deliver some kind of leader development, get a practitioner who understands that development happens over time, and that it is not an event. Work with someone who will assist you to make a rigourous analysis of what your organisation and its people actually need. Get a practitioner who understands that it is a suite of interventions,not simply the series of workshops that they offer; they may even have to call on other consultants because they acknowledge that they cannot possibly provide the whole gamut. Get someone whose practice has solid foundation; i.e., it springs out of some kind of philosophical, ethical or pragmatic set of principles or is highly rigourous. Finally, work with someone who does not claim to have all the answers, but who will keep it simple, focussed and will ensure your active involvement all along the way.
August 23, 2011
Do any of these give you a tingle in your gut?
- You walk into an art shop and see the colourful rows of paint tubes begging to be squeezed onto a palette, the soft, alluring brushes displayed from large to small, and canvases of all sizes screaming to be painted upon. You want to handle the materials and begin to imagine what you could create with them.
- You walk into a hardware shop and see the aisles of hammers, screwdrivers and socket sets; solid and chunky and purposeful. You imagine what it feels like to cut wood with that new circular saw on display.
- You walk into an Asian supermarket and see the rows of wonderful sauces, the colourful packages of exotic snacks and tasty treats; you smell spices and marinades and begin to wonder what you would do with some of these tantalising ingredients.
- You walk into a stationer’s shop….or…. a bookshop….or….an automotive shop….or….a camera shop….or….
Feel that tingle? Know what that is? That’s you, warming up to your innate creative genius. You think about going into one of these establishments and, depending on whether you are interested in art or cooking or DIY, you begin to warm up to your creativity.
Now, I know I’ve said before that nothing is innate. I lied.
In case you missed this blogpost from May, I’m coming out of the closet and declaring my fervent and absolute conviction that we are all born creative geniuses. Jakob Moreno saw that the universe is infinite creativity and said that we are creative purely because we were born in the universe; creativity itself therefore resides within us. By creativity, I’m referring to the thing that assists us to problem-solve in our lives; the thing that drives us to innovate and find new and better ways to do things, whether at home at work or anywhere else; the thing that sparks a new strategy; the thing that helps us plan a dinner party or a birthday surprise; and yes, also the thing that artists call on when they are creating. I want to stress, however, that creativity is not the preserve of artists. It is applicable to all people in all areas of life: our work, our relationships, our hobbies and interests, our families, our ‘quotidiana’.
So why do some folks seem to ooze creativity while others struggle to tap into it?
And if we are all so creative, where, then, are all these new leaders? These new artists? These new theorists? These new ….?
They are all around us. Moreno suggested that there are many more Michelangelos than the one who painted in the Sistine Chapel and many more Beethovens than the one who composed all those symphonies. They abound. We are all born creative geniuses, but we must warm up to our spontaneity.
So what’s the difference between people who seem highly creative and those who aren’t?
I just said it. Spontaneity.
Dr. Moreno called creativity the arch-substance in the cosmos, and spontaneity the arch-catalyst. We need spontaneity to set our creativity alight.
At its root, spontaneity means “of the self” or “of the will”. Developing the habit of spontaneity is perhaps equated somewhat with the current flavour of the month, ‘becoming authentic’. It is about being ourselves and bringing all of ourselves to our lives. What it is not, is impulsivity, for spontaneity has built within it, appropriacy and awareness of a wider system. Being spontaneous is coming up with the best possible or most adequate response to a brand new situation in life, or to coming up with a novel response to an old situation. It involves being as truly awake to the present moment as possible. And being response-able.
What gets in the way of our spontaneity?
We do, of course, or rather, it is our fear, our anxiety, our unpreparedness that gets in the way. We are poorly warmed up, we are subject to memories and emotions related to past events, we get afraid of the future and what we might create. We fear our spontaneity. In fact, Moreno goes as far as to say that we humans will fear our spontaneity until we learn how to train it.
Our fear causes us to be at a loss with all our creativity. Because we don’t warm up to our spontaneity well, our creativity is dulled.
Isn’t spontaneity training a contradiction in terms?
Not at all. We can learn to warm up to our spontaneity. It is a state of being. Warming up is the operational expression of spontaneity. This is about learning to know ourselves and learning how to warm up to the unexpected. Many police training and airline cabin crew training programmes see spontaneity training as central to learning how to deal with crises and emergencies.
Learning, even, if not especially, in the workplace, is not just about inducing and consolidating new habits of behaviour; it is about training and developing humans to the habit of spontaneity; to being in the spontaneity state so that they have full command of themselves. This will allow people to be much more resource-full and versatile in the myriad of situations that life presents us with; both the more predictable, repetitive situations as well as the novel, unexpected ones. ’Goose step’ learning, where the learners rehearse and they are meticulously drilled, may result in great precision in carrying out tasks, but a minimum of spontaneity for anything else which might occur unexpectedly.
- Where in your life could you afford to bring greater spontaneity? With your senior leadership team? With your children? With your most challenging staff member?
- Where could you learn to ‘warm up’ differently so that you come up with more creative (and therefore, satisfying) responses to your world? With your staff? With your partner? With your customers?
- Where in your life would you like to apply greater plasticity and innovation? In your workplace relationships? In your personal relationships? In the systems and processes you apply at work? While you are exploring staff retention and engagement strategies?
When we are spontaneous, we are not fear-full, anxious or self-conscious. We are more satisfied. We are freer. Our creativity flows through us with ease.
So whether it’s called ‘Leadership Development’ or it’s helping managers to have challenging conversations more effectively, the work is, in essence, developing spontaneity, and therefore, increased effectiveness, innovativeness, freedom and satisfaction at work.
There. I’ve said it. I’m out.
I’ll leave the final words to Dr. Moreno: ”The fate of a culture is decided by the creativity of its carriers.” If that wasn’t an exhortation for us to train our spontaneity and learn how to warm up more effectively, I don’t know what is.
August 9, 2011
As the old saying goes, if you have only a hammer, you see only nails. Frankly, I’d much rather have the plumber who opens his or her toolbag and has the whole range of tools necessary, rather than the one who brings only a hammer and uses it for everything. It’d be a pretty botched job if they did. Not only that, I’d much rather the plumber who not only has the full tool bag, but also that he or she is proficient at using all of them.
There is a parallel for personal capabilities. We are systems of ‘roles’, that is we have a whole myriad of capabilities at our disposal. They all interact and interconnect with each other. So when you are having a conversation with your staff about their performance, you use not only your ‘clear communicator’ role, but you also call on your ‘relationship manager’ role (you want to ensure that you have a good working relationship after the conversation), your ‘wise change agent’ role (you want to make sure you provide some coaching or mentoring if required) and your ‘lover of people’ role (you want to let your staff know what they are doing well and applaud them for the unique contribution they make to the business). Obvious, I know.
Rarely do we call on just one of our capabilities at any one time. Because we are interconnected systems of roles, it is therefore hard to justify simply ‘playing to your strengths’ and leaving the rest to good luck. I’ve seen many folks in senior positions do just that. Many people use what they’ve got and try to get by. They overuse a role or roles to mask what they haven’t got. Alternatively, they overuse a role at the expense of another which they have, but which is underdeveloped, so this becomes a default setting. Read my earlier post on personal glass ceilings, this is what I’m talking about.
A manager I know struggled to get two teams to work more closely together; not for the sake of it, but because their lack of cooperation was leading to poor outcomes, late delivery on deadlines and dissatisfied clients. She had superb relationship skills and would have endless conversations with each of them, trying to get them to collaborate more. She requested, she coaxed, she enticed, she pleaded. She tried to persuade, she tried to appeal to their better natures, she discussed. All of this was to little avail and she was beginning to feel like a nag. Want to know the thing that got them to work closer together? It wasn’t her communication or relationship skills, both of which she had in spades. It was her ‘big picture thinker’ role. When she set out the big picture of what was happening, each team got more interested in the other. They saw how interconnected they were and that if one fell down, the other followed. Rather than “Could you guys please fill out those client job sheets fully?” it was “When you guys fill out these forms fully, this team over here has a better picture of what they are required to do and won’t have to waste time coming back to you with endless questions and they also will also provide a finished product that is in line with the client’s needs, is on time and will get the client to come back for more.”
Seems simple I know. But it was the quantum (tiniest) shift that made the quantum (biggest) shift, not only in terms of their outputs, but also in terms of inter-team relations (and the manager’s stress levels). She had tried and tried to use the capabilities she was good at, but when she extended herself in an area which was less developed, she got what she was after. No longer would she then have to rely on her hammer, she could use the right tool for the job. She wouldn’t have to just get by on her good relationship skills.
The point here is, there is a danger in resting on your laurels. You will limit your career, your sense of personal satisfaction and yourself if you decide that you’ve learnt enough or that you can just get by on what got you to where you are in your career. I know of one or two people who are a stone’s throw from nabbing a C-suite position, but have made a (probably unconscious) decision that professional development is just for their staff and not for themselves. ”I didn’t get where I am today by learning how to be a more consultative boss.” Fine.
Hope you enjoy the view as your staff member leafrogs you to become your CEO.