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.
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.
January 24, 2013
There is something in the air. Call it my natural human tendency to find patterns in things, but two recent conversations with two different clients in two different cities have reminded me of two other completely different clients in two completely different countries. The parallels are striking. It could be my bias towards systems thinking, but it has reinforced my belief in unus mundus, the underlying unified reality that interconnects all things.
What is the common thread? All four of these businesses are sick and tired of being sick. And tired. Like, really tired. All four are nearing their “breaking point.” That is, they have tried just about everything they know to shift workplace behaviour and engagement. They are running out of options as to how to get people to take up personal responsibility. All four of these clients are right at the threshold of making significant shifts in how they do their business. The scales are falling from their eyes and they are seeing their businesses as whole entities and not viewing symptoms of ineffectiveness as separate from the whole or problems to be solved piecemeal. They are ready to get to grips with new ways of dealing with their problems. The clever onion behind the thinkpurpose blog writes, “When you change what you think about how the work works, then you will begin to change how you act, this will change the way work is set out and happens and how people act in the work place.” These four businesses are right at the place of changing how they think about what works.
Essential to seeing their business as whole entities is being able to see the webs that weave everyone together. Frustrated with old ways of trying to get people to do things, they are beginning to acknowledge that simply dealing with individual performance is futile. They understand that the system impacts too much on individual performance to waste their efforts solely on individuals. They know that the quality of their outcome will be directly correlated to the quality of relationships that they forge. As David Wilson writes in his blog, fitforrandomness ”Imagine assessing the robustness of the electricity grid with data on power stations but not on the power lines connecting them.” In order to assess the strength and fitness of an organisation, we need to examine both the individual elements that make up that systems as well as the relationships between them. To work with only the individuals within a business without also working on their connections is a nonsense. It’s both a delicate and a heroic undertaking.
What’s wrong with what they’ve got now? Not much, it turns out. They have a lot going for them. They have senior teams with an enormous amount of experience and technical ability. They are personable and friendly. They believe in the purpose of their businesses. They are robust and intelligent. Put the senior team in a room together, however, and they aren’t sure how to work truly collectively. Put oxygen and hydrogen in a bucket together and they don’t miraculously coalesce and become water. Some energy needs to go into the bucket to create H2O.
I’ve written before on the power of WE in business. Bringing in the theme of my last article about developing consciousness, there is something that can catalyse this WE-ness for business. Many aspire to it, but we often get stuck when it comes to actually doing it. How do we become a WE? It’s not enough to go away and make commitments to each other. Just like a marriage, it’s not just what happens on the wedding day when you promise some things to each other that makes it a good marriage. The good marriage comes about through a shift in consciousness from “you and me” to WE. A good partnership comes about because each party understands that what you want as an individual and what I want as an individual may not necessarily deepen nor be for the good of our relationship. A good, mutual partnership comes about because effort and energy have been invested in strengthening that web that weaves us together.
A shift in consciousness is required. That is, greater awareness of what we are currently doing in order to move towards the thing we want to be doing. Is how you relate, behave and engage with one another assisting you to create the WE? In working with one senior team, we coached them to become observant of themselves in order to create this new consciousness. This requires them to develop the role of Observant Team-Player. For many of us, we operate out of a “selfish” mindset. In other words, we look at what we do and how we do it with a view to doing our best. We sometimes lose sight of the fact that others are trying to do the same, and sometimes this means that we might be working at cross purposes. I’m doing my best, you’re doing your best, but in our “doing-my-best-ness”, we haven’t worked out how to synthesise this into a “WE are doing our best”. In common parlance, this is operating in silos.
Here’s what it might look like. In our regular team meeting, I contribute to conversations on the agenda, but I do this while wearing one of two hats: my personal hat or my operational hat. I am both trying to be a good person and trying to optimise the work, but from MY perspective. Wearing my personal hat, I am saying (unconsciously, of course):
- “How do I make myself look good?”
- “How can I get people to notice me?”
- “How can I garner praise?”
- “How can I get people to like me?”
- “How can I prove I’m valuable?”
All human things, these.
Wearing my operational hat, I contribute things which demonstrate my technical abilities and knowledge. If I’m a financial guy, I will speak on any of the agenda items from a financial perspective. If I’m a marketing guy, I will speak about things from a marketing perspective. All necessary and important. I may contribute little or nothing to conversations that I believe have “nothing to do with me”. Doing this, however, may not develop the sense of “team-ness” that we all need to synthesise together if we are to achieve our common purpose. If I keep speaking from my operational perspective, I may be reasonably successful in achieving the operational purpose of my silo. Remember, though, that optimising one part of the system will lead to sub-optimisation of the whole, so if I do MY very best and if everyone is doing THEIR very best in their silos, it doesn’t follow that the whole will be doing its very best.
There is something missing.
If I participate in the meeting wearing only my personal or operational hats, I miss the opportunity to develop the life of the whole team. I need to put on my team member hat. When I wear this, I become conscious of myself, I become conscious of when I have an impulse to speak and what I feel moved to say, I observe others’ contributions and I make an assessment as to whether what is going on is furthering the life of the group. Is what I say coming from a “Me” perspective, a “Me-doing-my-work-well” perspective or a “WE” perspective? When each member of a team has developed the ability to observe the dynamics of the team, they will learn how to interrupt someone who is “fighting their corner” if they are doing it to the detriment of the effectiveness of the whole. If they feel that someone is warming up to speak out of their silo, they will challenge people to stop and consider what they are about to contribute: “Is what you are about to say going to progress the life of this team as a whole?”
The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
If I’m operating with my WE hat on, I will see that all of the agenda items pertain to me in some way, because they pertain to the effectiveness of the whole business. Furthermore, if I can’t work out how it pertains to me, there is an opportunity to find out how it does. Because it does. Trust me. If I’m wearing my WE hat, I will see that my technical expertise is best applied when in concert with everyone else’s and vice versa. Having said all this, I bring all my hats to meetings, I can’t simply focus my efforts on developing a good team feeling. The expanded consciousness that gets us to WE incorporates and transcends everything we already know and do.
For one of these businesses, who is more than ready and willing to do this “WE” thing, they have an idea of what they want to become, but don’t know how to do it consistently. This is not unusual, in my experience. They haven’t yet had enough moments of “felt experience” to be able to say they’ve got there, but what they have tasted so far makes the effort worthwhile. While a lot of businesses have talked about teamwork and the team effect for years, the investment required in order to really achieve it has been patchy. Investment in catalysing this team effect is like energy is to the hydrogen and oxygen in the bucket. Sometimes, it seems that we find ourselves in fantastic teams and it feels great, but I would suggest this is sometimes down to good luck. We spot each other, we have each other’s back. Relationships are genuinely mutual and go beyond “what can you do for me and what can I do for you.” Such teams go beyond collaboration. They cooperate. No quid pro quo. We have a consciousness of operating out of a mindset that furthers the life of the whole. Just as an architect may sacrifice the optimisation of one room of a house in order to achieve a more satisfying whole, we may quite easily sacrifice something that is of special interest to us for the benefit of the whole. When we are operating as a WE, we have stopped thinking about people as bodies to do transactions or deals with, we enjoy being with each other and we achieve more as individuals because of the chemistry that is created by the whole.
Getting to WE is not an event, it’s a process. It doesn’t happen in a moment, it happens over many moments. It’s not “step 1, step 2…” Like other mindfulness disciplines, it takes practice, attention and commitment. I find it heartening that it’s finally in the air and that some businesses are taking the steps to get there.
November 25, 2012
Don’t ask a systems thinker for advice on managing performance or staff engagement. They will probably say something pretty fruity and you’ll wind up frustrated by how fervently they trash conventional wisdom on the subject. Of course performance, engagement, recruitment, they’re all connected, so your systems thinking friend will sound like a fruit loop because they’ll see the whole picture and proceed to suggest that you are asking the wrong questions, when all you wanted to know is “how to get people to do stuff”. You go to them as a sounding board because there is something you like about the way they think; when you’ve talked previously, they come up with ideas that seem counter-intuitive at first, but are actually surprisingly on the money. However, when it comes to a sticky situation you are actually dealing with, you don’t want to hear them bang on about the system, the system, the system. Isn’t that just lovely sounding theories that academics spout? (…wouldn’t work in the real world) In an effort to get them to answer your simple question, you keep repeating “Yes, but they are SUPPOSED to fill out their daily task logs,” quietly tearing your hair out while they insist it’s not a behavioural problem; it’s a systems issue.
One of the most important things I learnt from my past life as a therapist is that if you want behaviour change in an individual, you work with them as a whole being and you work with their whole system (family, friends, peers, environment). You don’t focus on their “problem behaviours”. Similarly, if you want behaviour change in an organisation, you work on it as a whole. You don’t focus on the dysfunctional parts or the underperforming individuals. In my present life as a sociatrist, I apply my understanding of systems to organisations and organisational change, not merely the individuals within them.
We can’t blame individuals for doing what the system expects them to do. As disturbing as Milgram’s experiments were, one thing I observed (and I may be entirely off the mark here) is that people behave in ways which surprise themselves and which sometimes go against what they know to be right and true. We do this when our environment, our system, sets up conditions which compel us to behave in particular ways. The system also punishes us for not doing what it wants us to do, just to keep us in line. We do what we’re told.
What we need if we want organisational transformation, if we want more effective organisations, if we want people to find the work they do meaningful: we need to work with the whole system. A buddy of mine in England recently observed that most people seem uninterested in effectiveness. Sad but true, I fear. Still desperately clinging on to “scientific” management mythologies, many folks just seem to want the numbers to add up and people to do what they’re told. A scary prospect if your business has just appointed a new global CEO who is a bean-counter by background and disposition and whose single-minded purpose is to show the shareholders that they are getting richer every quarter. Calling a performance issue a “behavioural problem” comes out of a mechanistic worldview. Yuck.
There is hope, however. Some managers are on the threshold of doing something quite different….if we would just hang in with them. They know in their gut that doing the same old, same old is not going to make a real difference. I’ve been working with a manager and his two off-siders, all three of whom lead their business. I’ve been coaching them to see the bigger picture and assisting them to open their thinking about why things don’t go the way they’d like. This, to me, is phase one of the organisational transformation they are seeking to effect. Phase one: eliminating systems blindness. Our sessions usually begin with each of them discussing what so-and-so hasn’t done yet again or what what’s-his-name is still doing, despite that one-to-one chat urging them to stop it. I let them get some things off their chest and jot down a few salient things that I pick up. As I listen, I make connections in my head and find the patterns they are describing. These patterns are descriptors of the system. After a little while, I might say something like, “Haven’t we heard all this before?” They smile. Then they frown. What they are slowly learning to do, however, is to see the behaviours as indicators of the wider patterns at play.
The patterns I’m observing in how they describe the staff illustrate a workplace culture characterised by:
- things done at the last minute without much fore-thought
- poor self-discipline with regards working practices
- low self-reponsibility
- poor following up of commitments and promises
- getting easily side-tracked
- being reactive, rather than proactive
- a “she’ll be right” mentality (a common expression in New Zealand meaning, it’ll all be fine in the end, don’t worry about it)
- inconsistency in work practices
- an overly laidback attitude towards work
- a “can’t do” attitude
Behaviours at work are tempered by the systemic norms; you could also say it’s the “culture”. You can read this in many places on the interweb: the system is responsible for performance. Don’t blame people for doing what the system asks and similarly, stop rewarding individuals for good performance. The system drives performance.
Reward for good performance may be the same as rewarding the weather forecaster for a pleasant day. Deming
I’m utterly convinced (from my experience) that the organisational changes they want will come about when they focus their attention and their energies on the system and not on the individual behaviours of individual people. So when I share my observations with the three of them, they nod and smile and say, “That’s exactly what they’re like; that absolutely describes the culture.”
I then enquire as to what they’ve tried, in order to put a stop to the things they don’t like. Again, I listen for patterns. With all good intentions (for they are really lovely people), they tell me things like:
- “Well, I was going to schedule another one-to-one meeting and go through their KPIs again, but something urgent came up.”
- “I had it written in my diary but I couldn’t remember which page I’d written it on.”
- “I’ve confronted him about it before but it didn’t make a difference, so I couldn’t see the point of following him up again.”
- “He knows what he’s supposed to do, he’s been here for 10 years, I don’t see why I should have to tell him again and again.”
- “They’re like a bunch of children; you have to keep on at them, otherwise nothing gets done.”
- “Yes, I had a chat with him and said I’d meet again a week later to see how he was getting on, but I let it slip.”
- “He was fine for a week after I talked to him, but he’s slipped back and I don’t know how I can get it across.”
After they report what they’ve tried, I ask them to reflect on how similar their patterns are to the patterns they bemoan in the staff: inconsistent, side-tracked etc etc…. Again, they smile. Again they frown. They (fortunately) find it mildly amusing that they are doing much the same as the staff. Here is when I reinforce the idea of systems. They are part of the same system and that very same system will be exerting itself on them. In our conversations, they are becoming more adept at seeing. I mean really seeing.
Remember, Deming said that a system cannot understand itself. It’s not just true because Deming said it. It’s true because it’s true. It doesn’t matter how frustrating we find it, but the systems to which we belong will be exerting their influences on us. We struggle to know this. We struggle to know how much. We find ourselves at times frustrated with ourselves, as well as others. It takes an outside eye, a disinterested party, an objective mirror, to help us to see what we can’t. They’re called blind spots for a reason. Obvious to me, previously hidden to these three leaders, their system is screwy, not the people within it.
These three lovely, well-intentioned leaders have warmed up to the current phase of their work together. Phase two: creating the vision of what you want. Now they are aware of this thing called “culture”, and that it impacts on them and that no one person is to blame for doing what the system urges them to do, they are excited to create a vision for the culture they want. They are beginning to see the wood for the trees and are more able to make connections to the elements within the system that maintain its status quo. They are excited. I ask them naive questions like, “What is your purpose?” “What does your business exist for?” ”How would you like it to be here?” and they eagerly discuss things that they feel should be so obvious but when asked directly, need to stop and really think about it.
Lately, rather than see themselves as victims to all those awful things the staff do, they are excited to recast their roles as stewards of the system. They get the paradox of systems thinking: they are in it and subject to it, and at the same time, if they can begin to manage their systems blindness with the help of an outside eye, have the power to do something about it. They are seeing themselves less and less as managers-who-need-to-be-in-control and more as leaders-who-guide-the-culture. They are more infused with hope for the future. The things over which they do have control (policy and procedure manuals, resourcing, their own attitudes, their individual relationships with staff members) are the influencers which they can apply to generate the culture they believe will be more effective and, in the long run, more efficient.
Rather than trying to find new ways to get people to do what they want them to do (re-sharpening their sticks or coating their carrots with glitter), they are thrilled to devote more and more time in our sessions to the thing they want, rather than the multitude of things they don’t. They are thinking bigger: about themselves, about the staff and about the business.
Systems thinking, for me, is not merely an academic exercise. It is real world. It changes lives and workplaces.
Next steps for these three? Well, it’s emergent, a work in progress. We’ve had some ups and downs. We’ve had times when they felt a little like they were banging their heads against a brick wall. At this stage, however, they are hopeful, they are positive and they are now talking more about modelling and leading the change they want to see. (Didn’t some famous peace-loving figure from history say something about that?) They are truly interested in being different themselves. They are considering how to steward a culture of self-responsibility, flexibility and “can do”, learning from mistakes and “just enough” structure….and for me, they are approaching phase three: grappling with the “how-to”.
In truth, it is an absolute pleasure.
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.
November 4, 2012
Part III (Going Further)
In Part II of this article, I suggested that if we remain wedded to a mis-placed set of thoughts and beliefs about business, we will end up asking the wrong questions. We cleverly ask these questions from within our old intellectual bubble, coming up with “new-and-improved” solutions to problems, however we only end up doing the (same old) wrong things righter. What happens if we apply bigger thinking to business challenges, though? So there is this thing called systems thinking, so what?
If we think bigger about business problems, we can make a fundamental shift in effectiveness. I often use our shift in thinking from a geocentric to a heliocentric view of the solar system as an example of the difference that a paradigm shift can have on our lives. So Copernicus said the sun was the centre of the solar system, so what? What did that mean in a very practical sense? Copernicus challenged the prevailing orthodoxy of the time, which was central to Church doctrine. Kepler, Galileo and Newton followed on, demonstrating with science that Copernicus was right. So what? Just try and tell me that the scientific revolution that followed on didn’t make much of a difference to the average person’s life. Think of the ripple effects. The scientific revolution…..science gives us the means to challenge the prevailing institutions of governance…science encourages us to think for ourselves….science revolutionises medicine, technology, art and culture, architecture, food production…..
Similarly, systems thinking is revolutionising how we organise work and how business does business. There are examples of how applying systems thinking is making business more responsive to customers, more satisfying and meaningful for people who work there and more effective at what it does.
How do we organise ourselves? Command-and-control hierarchies are so 19th century. They are about controlling the business. As this example from Portsmouth City Council demonstrates, a really effective business will be driven by its customers. Business decisions will be made at the point where it interacts with the customer. Often, important decisions are made by those in a managerial role, distant from the customer. ”Managers know best” is one of those nasty underlying assumptions on which we base the role of a manager and influences how we organise work. If I’m most effective at work, I should be responding to market demand, not management diktat.
Taking a systems thinking perspective on how a business does business can illuminate the need for transformation; for actually doing something radically different. Much as Owen Buckwell did at Portsmouth City Council, asking the right questions from a bigger picture perspective will highlight what lies beneath some of the seemingly intractable “stuckness” in getting to real effectiveness. Government inspectors routinely gave the Council glowing reports, however Owen knew that things weren’t right. How did he know? ”Noise” in the system that didn’t come from the conventional ways of measuring the work. Customers were constantly complaining and Owen was unsettled enough to ignore the positive government reports and instead seek to uncover what his “market” was actually saying. These government inspectors measured customer satisfaction, for example, by asking questions such as, “Did the tradesman smile when you answered the door?” and “Did workmen clean up after their work?” They didn’t ask, “Was the problem completely rectified?” or “How many times did the tradesman have to come back to fix something that wasn’t fixed properly at the first visit?” They were there to provide a service to ratepayers and Owen recognised that this wasn’t happening satisfactorily, so he began to ask the right questions of the customer. They got the big picture of how the business was performing, which they needed in order to radically transform how they did business. Owen also had an inkling that people came to work to a good job and he was right. By handing more operational decisions to those who carried them out, he found that job satisfaction increased. He took action on the system, not on the people, and shifted how they do business from command-and-control (doing what government inspectors want) to a systems approach (what the customer wants). In the end, they meet government targets “by coincidence”, but more important to Owen is that they are providing the most effective service to ratepayers.
How do we approach performance management? Typically, performance management is about asking the wrong questions. In any case, if we think bigger about it, individual performance management is pretty useless, by and large. This next example demonstrates Deming’s 95% rule: the best place to look for improvements is the system, not the individuals within it. Work on the system, not on the people. If we continue to rely on analytical measures of performance and mechanistic means to make it happen, we will not unleash the kind of thinking and creativity (from everyone) that business needs if it is to survive. Once again, do we tend to ask the right questions when it comes to performance management?
Taking a systems thinking approach can uncover root causes of seemingly intractable blockages within a business. It broadens our perspective and can release us from the kind of inertia that keeps us doing the same things again and again with little significant change. Take a client of ours who realised that the problem with performance management was not “performance management”. While consistently figuring highly in “best places to work” surveys, they had a recurring problem with “poor performance”, specifically, that people didn’t feel the organisation dealt with poor performance very well. In many other aspects, the people felt it was a great place to work, but that something had to be done to manage those who underperformed. In some cases, it got so bad that people were “managed out” of the organisation, much to their surprise. Nobody had told them that they were underperforming until it was too late and relationships had sufficiently soured to the point that they were irretrievable. Listening to this “noise” in the system led the HR Manager to take a systems thinking approach and rather than focus on the individual managers who were not dealing with individual underperformers, the root cause was identified as lying within the culture; it was a systemic issue.
A dominant theme in staff surveys was the friendliness of the place. Digging a little deeper, it seemed that most folks thought that “friendliness” and “performance orientation” were mutually exclusive. In other words, we can either have a friendly place to work or a workplace that focusses on effective performance; herein lay the barrier to regular and frequent conversations about performance at work. The systemic belief that addressing work performance would undermine friendly working relationships meant that it didn’t happen often or well enough. Our work was to assist a shift in the culture to one where “friendly and positive working relationships” were inextricably linked with “performance orientation”. Rather than dealing with the “problem” of managers who don’t deal with poor performance, the focus was on shifting the whole system so that by the end of our work, everyone was having robust, strengths-based conversations about performance all over the place without damaging positive working relationships. About half way through our year-long project, we joked with the executive management team, who were grumbling that their staff were now challenging them on their performance, that they would get what they asked for.
In both of these cases, systems thinking forces us to look at the whole, not the individual parts. It is the job of the modern manager to re-vision their function from one of “controller” to one of “steward”. The focus is on purpose, values and meaning. What does this business exist to achieve or create in the world? What values will guide us in doing this? How is this meaningful for the people who work here? It is the role of managers to ensure that the correct conditions exist for these things to be realised, not to tell people what to do.
Julian Wilson, owner of aerospace company Matt Black Systems uses a beautiful analogy in a MIX article on re-designing their business. To rescue a dying species, old thinking tells us that we should invest ourselves in an intensive breeding programme. New thinking says that we should focus our efforts on ensuring the environment in which the species exists is provided proper stewardship so that nature can take its course and allow the species to flourish. Eliminate the things in the environment which endanger the species, nurture those things which allow it to thrive.
If, as Daniel Pink suggests, people are truly motivated by the search for meaning, mastery and autonomy, these will come to us in an environment where the conditions allow these to thrive. Eliminating adminis-trivia and management power games is a start. This does not mean we leave people to do as they please. Leaders need to re-vision their roles as stewards of the culture. It is the culture, or the system, where managers can exert most influence and create the most opportunities for effectiveness, learning and transformation.
A lot of what is currently going on in businesses is not being talked about because it’s not part of the mainstream discourse. Something is no longer working. We feel it and we feel there should be another way. Systems thinking provides us new lenses to see deeper and wider. We must stop ourselves from repeating old mistakes and develop our abilities to think bigger so that we can go further. Hand in hand with this, we need also to develop greater ease with the complexity we will see before us and greater confidence to deal with being a little less certain about things. The effects of the system are there, whether we decide to look or not.
….and if you are someone who appreciates the power of systems thinking when others think you crazy, it can be useful to remember the words that Galileo reputedly uttered when forced by the Inquisition to recant his crazy notion that the Earth moved around the sun: Eppur si muove (and yet it moves).
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?
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?
January 18, 2011
- You deal with performance issues before they become personal.
- You are able to come up with the ‘right words’.
- You deal with challenging situations or people as they arise.
- You say the ‘hard things’ and still maintain good working relationships.
- avoid these performance conversations, or put them off until we just can’t put them off any more
- focus so heavily on making sure we get the ‘message’ across, that we get ‘hard’ or ‘matter of fact’ and forget about the relationship we have with the other
- overcompensate for the relationship and beat about the bush, couching the message in such fuzzy terms we fail to actually say what we meant to
Well, the truth is there is no step 1, step 2 fail-safe method to having these conversations; a relationship is a two–way thing and we can never reliably predict what another will say and do. However there are some things that are useful to know and some capabilities that we can develop that will grow our ability to better achieve the outcomes we are looking for from our conversations.
While it is certainly important to know some guidelines or tips for conducting a performance conversation, when the thing that inhibits us is ourselves and our emotional responses, what is needed is personal development. This will increase our self-awareness and develop our capabilities to manage emotional responses and learn new ways of thriving when we are called upon to do something that challenges us. Programmes such as the one my company offers, which create the opportunity for you to really learn about your inner workings and to get in control of your range of behavioural responses to challenging people and situations, are the ones more likely to create the changes you are looking for. While programmes such as these are not typical and will stretch you beyond your comfort zone, the benefits of committing yourself to this kind of learning will enhance your work and life immeasurably.