“Moreno declared that instead of looking at mankind as a fallen being, everyone is a potential genius and like the Supreme Being, co-responsible for all of mankind. It is the genius we should emphasize, not the failings.” So spake Zerka Moreno, Jakob’s widow and co-developer of Morenian action methods.
All too often in our world and in our workplaces, we focus on the failings, the deficits and the gaps; what is not working. Leaders struggle with what the organisation is not achieving, with ‘bad behaviours’ they want changing, with relationships that are dysfunctional. This is, of course, natural. Once again, as I’ve said in my earlier blog posts, we still operate from a mechanistic world view. Even if you have a grasp of systems thinking, our world, by and large, is structured within a mechanistic paradigm and so we are all still infected by its virus; we have been operating this way for so long that it’s hard not to. It’s in grained in us. In other words, if we see things as machines, we treat them like machines. If my car is ticking along nicely, I barely give it a second thought. It’s only when the CV joints start clunking or the tyres are a little flat that I make an intervention. Generally speaking, it doesn’t get much attention unless something is going wrong, and when it goes wrong, I pay it attention. Otherwise, if it ain’t broke, I don’t fix it.
Considering this, many organisations default to such a mechanistic perspective when considering leadership development. If they see signs of ‘brokenness’, they will put some kind of intervention in place to fix what looks like the ‘problem’. This, however, is not leadership development. Knee-jerk responses to ‘problems’ are rarely developmental, nor strengths-based in nature because the approach is about fixing something, rather than growing something.
Your starting point when viewing leadership development from a more systemic, strengths-based perspective, would be, “We aren’t doing as well as we should. How are we going to work out what needs developing?” Naturally, if there are some indications that your organisation is underperforming, some correction is required. But before making any prescriptions, it is necessary to explore the situation as deeply as possible. When approaching this, here are some useful guidelines.
First, don’t prejudge what the intervention will look like. Complex adaptive systems are just that: highly complex. The solution required may not be the one you think it is when you begin to address the situation. The solution required may, in fact, surprise you.
Second, it’s important to point your lenses first to what you are trying to create or achieve and what you’ve already got, rather than what you see as being broken. It’s a subtle, but important shift in gaze. Focus on purpose, not on activity. It is tempting to rush to the problem areas because these are the ones that have your attention. They are the source of your discontent. Just as when you have tension in your shoulders, getting a massage in that area may loosen it up and alleviate it temporarily, but it may not address the real source of the problem which could lie in your lower back. If you dive straight into ‘fixing’ what appears to be the problem, but is more likely a symptom of something awry in your system, you may not get an optimal outcome. Because our workplaces are complex adaptive systems, there will be many hidden interconnections and dynamics at play which lead to the dysfunctions which you can see. Conversely, your system also holds many of the ingredients of the solution, which too remain hidden.
Third, and really importantly, before you put any intervention in place, stop first and take time to get as big a picture of your system as possible. A thorough strengths-based analysis of the wider system is required in order to uncover the ‘unknown unknowns’. When what you see is underperformance and unmet targets, there is naturally a sense of urgency to put something….ANYTHING in place to mitigate for this. Don’t rush into it. Take a comprehensive snapshot of your organisation’s functioning. This will increase the likelihood that you make the correct intervention. So instead of analysing simply what is going wrong, think bigger and seek answers to questions such as these:
- What are we are trying to create here?
- What have we got? i.e. How is the business working right now?
- What are the relationships that we require in order to get the thing we are trying to create?
- What are our relationships like right now?
- What capabilities does the organisation need in order to achieve our purpose?
- How amply do we have a shared understanding of each other’s roles, responsibilities and accountabilities (to each other and to the business)?
- How willing and able are we to make changes in ourselves and in our working relationships in order to get the business to our destination?
- What are the enablers and barriers to making changes in how this organisation operates?