Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Good Bastards & the Spirit of Christmas

The Christmas message of joy in discovering new life and new hope came together surprisingly for me last week in a business meeting of diverse minds, perspectives and strengths in a common purpose.

I opportunistically (for that is my way) introduced my friends and clients at Challenge Trust (Mental Health Service providers) to my friends and former colleagues at The Social & Community Health Section of the University of Auckland (UoA) School of Population Health (SoPH). My hope and expectation was of new and exciting collaboration.

My role with Challenge Trust is about achieving business growth & development. My connection with SoPH stems from collaborating with them as a faculty member of UoA Business School when it had a division on the same Tamaki campus as SoPH. That collaboration grew out of a sense that the issues in social and community health are congruent with those in businesses and institutions and a passion to do something with that.

The meeting confirmed the expected and discovered unexpected potential for new, exciting collaboration and relationships in common purpose and passion: to make social and business communities healthy and therefore sustainably more productive places to live and work.

We got to talking about Challenge Trust’s dramatically successful model for recovery that they apply to themselves and their professional interrelationships as well as to their clients and their client communities. Their model has six essential elements that must be addressed together:

1. Clinical Health

2. Emotional Health

3. Spiritual/Cultural Health

4. Environmental Health

5. Physical Health

6. Economic Health

We got to talking about how organisations are inherently fundamentally dysfunctional and how through a recovery approach they can become “high functioning”. We got to talking about how individual and organisational recovery relates to resilience and “human resource” sustainability.

This brought to my mind a story that I told them to illustrate how a firm without specific knowledge of Recovery, but seeking to sustainably engage it’s employees and delight its customers, had begun to implement what in many ways amounts to the Recovery model:

A labour hire firm were seeking to identify an inspiring, engaging common purpose or goal; one that would profitably differentiate them from their competition. They tried typical business goals like being the preferred supplier to the top/largest/best operators in the construction industry with decade-spanning interpersonal customer relationships. But it didn’t catch on. Too much bicycle, not enough frog?

So back to the drawing board they went and realised that what they would really like to be is “Good Bastards who do business with Good Bastards”. A good bastard is NZ vernacular for a rugged individual with a good heart, who looks out for his mates and, all said and done, loves them, has their welfare at heart and would do anything for them.

They then imagined what a firm of good bastards would be proud to look like in 10 years if it was a raging success. They decided that they would be proud to be in the news for having flown an A320 full of their people (150) into a disaster zone for a week long recovery mission where their people volunteered their time and the firm paid the rest of the costs. That would require them to be a successful business, largish and most importantly be a community of really good bastards. This big hairy audacious goal (Jim Collins) caught on fast.

Building the capability to respond at the drop of a hat to such a disaster clearly required long term action that started right away. So they began by collaborating with their banker’s employees to clean up three local beaches and have a BBQ together.

To begin recognising good bastard behaviour they implemented a quarterly Good Bastard Award for clients and one for employees.

They decided that good bastards are safe bastards: they look out for their workmates; an important behaviour in construction site safety. So they began a programme of sponsored safety promotion events on client sites and included aspects of safety and safety awareness in their quarterly surveys of employees and clients.

This firm is The Labour Exchange and to me that’s the spirit of Christmas in action in business.

The meeting of minds and purpose where I told that story is also the spirit of Christmas in action: joy in discovering new life and new hope.

Best wishes for Christmas: peace & goodwill, new life and new hope.



Saturday, 19 December 2009

Bicycle or Frog? Kiss . . . . .

Did the pricess kiss a frog to get her prince, or was it a bicycle?

To borrow Alistair Mant’s bicycle/frog analogy: we continue to treat organisations as if they are bicycles when these days they are more likely frogs.

You can take a bicycle apart, lay out and polish all the bits, modify and replace them, and when you put it back together and oil it, you have a bicycle. If you do that to a frog, when you put it back together you don’t have a frog. There’s something missing: life. A bicycle is a machine. A frog is a living thing.

Ever come out of a management team meeting feeling disappointed, flat; not excited, but can’t quite put your finger on why. Sure the usual personalities were there, the usual predictable behaviours and perspectives, but you know you can rise above that if there’s something really worth doing together, everyone’s working to their strengths, and the results are blowing you and your clients away.

It’s not that you were intentionally being negative or difficult. You actually wanted to be energised and inspired; to energise and inspire. But the usually effective process of reviewing progress and performance against the various KPIs, reviewing priorities then agreeing who, what and when for the next period somehow lacked life.

Ever felt like that? I have.

Maybe you’re tired and depressed by energy sapping stuff happening in the rest of your life. Maybe some wandering virus is having a go at you. Maybe you lost your sense of purpose. Maybe its just been a long hard year. Whatever, life seems to have gone out of work. It seems mechanical; a job.

Work’s like this for about 55% of the workforce (Marcus Buckingham): The Disengaged. They’d much rather be in high performing teams (if they could imagine what it’d be like). They and/or their managers may even be into the paraphernalia, tactics and techniques of “high performing teams”: but it’s just not sparking.

There’s a good chance that’s because the paraphernalia is little more than a set of managerial tools used mechanically and dutifully in the belief that tools magically transform disengaged workers into engaged ones; even into high performing teams.

I won’t work. Partly because “everyone knows” that these tools are just more management bullshit: for over a century managers have been using systems and structures to get things done as expected; "to control people and play on their fears; systems and processes that suppress rather than reveal and ignite the emotions that energise and inspire" (Steve Denning, see below); that achieve machine like predictability and reliability.

With a frog approach we would use those same tools differently. As the saying goes: it's not what you do, it's the way that you do it. So instead of using the tools to increase predictability and mechanical reliability we could use them to delightfully surprise ourselves and our clients: to energise and inspire continual, iterative learning to delight; with each delight revealing new possibilities. Kiss the frog to get a transformation.

If you want the real oil on achieving such a radically different approach to management; such delightfully inspiring and energising workplaces and people, be sure to grab a copy of Steve Denning’s new book when it comes out around November 2010. I’ve had a peek. It’s good! Radical, with it’s roots in his previous work.


Saturday, 12 December 2009

How to fix a “mental” organisation.

It’s not that hard to understand how to transform a "mental" organisation (see Is your firm “mental”? Probably) into an engaged, innovative, exciting, satisfying one. But the evidence shows that it’s clearly hard to actually do it. Harder even than changing a golf swing.

That’s because its usually a manager who’s “fixing” the managed. Trying to “get buy-in”: to argue, sweet talk, trick or command the managed to change their “swing”: their dysfunctional habits. It doesn’t work! That manager behaviour is perhaps the main barrier to recovery. Recovery isn’t a “fix”. It’s a way of life (for managers particularly).

Leading edge practitioners and their fortunate patients in the field of mental health – recovery from psychiatric dysfunction - know this and have developed an effective approach to achieving recovery.

You don’t have to be a psychologist to “do recovery”. It’s “common sense”. Communities and ordinary people can do it. In deed, they are the ones who do it. Perhaps the biggest impediment to recovery in the mental health field is the “mental” organisations that practitioners and patients are obliged to inhabit and deal with and the pervasive “industrial” management assumptions and habits that “drive” those organisations.

In Is your firm “mental”? Probably and Organisational Therapy I observe that organisations are normally “mental” and point out how the Recovery Approach to treating psychiatric dysfunction can be adapted to treating “mental” organisations.

In It’s OK we’re not OK . . . . I address the 1st of the 14 facilitating environmental factors for recovery : “promoting accurate and positive portrayals of [interpersonal dysfunction]”:

I outline some simple group activities that initiate recovery process. The activities facilitate participants’ surfacing, recognising and discussing different interactive styles and the consequences of different styles, and then productively portraying them to transform interpersonal and organisational dysfunction into engagement, innovation and satisfaction.

Surprisingly perhaps, that simple set of activities (that teams intrinsically enjoy) actually address all the remaining 13 environmental factors too. Here they are again:

  • Focusing on strengths
  • Using language of hope and possibility
  • Developing and pursuing individually defined . . . . goals
  • Offering a range of “wellness strategies”, options for treatment, rehabilitation and support
  • Supporting risk-taking even when failure is a possibility
  • Actively involving [customers], family members, and other natural support in interventions planning and implementation
  • Providing individually-tailored services taking one’s culture and interests into consideration
  • Encouraging users participation in advocacy activities
  • Helping to develop connections with community
  • Systematically addressing illness-related factors that impede recovery
  • Promoting valued [organisational &] social roles, and interests
  • Enabling participation in meaningful activities
  • Building supportive relationships
  • Here’s the thing: that simple set of activities is just a beginning. The key to success is in the ongoing execution of the plan: rhythmic daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly and annually meeting to share change stories, acknowledge contribution and celebrate success, identify blockages then review and agree who will do what tomorrow and through the week, month, quarter, and year to continue the progress; and review and agree how individual and team contribution and progress will be measured .


    Saturday, 5 December 2009

    It’s OK we’re not OK . . . . . . .

    What a relief it’s OK that we’re not OK: to discover, experience and learn that we are deeply different from each other and that that’s OK; that it’s good that we perceive, interpret and react “the world” fundamentally differently; that mobilising those differences to achieve something good together, something we couldn’t do on our own, is deeply satisfying and miraculously effective.

    I see this relief when a team realises that we are each ‘slack’ (de-energised) about some aspects of our work and ‘keen’ (energised) about other aspects; that that’s not only OK but excellent provided we recognise and get clear about those differences then make room where we can, for them to flourish and complement each other.

    It’s not a competition to excel at everything, not a race to be the most OK, but a quest to learn together to continually delight others and ourselves by what we accomplish together.

    This realisation can be powerfully achieved when team member’s together disclose their personality profiles and openly discuss how their attributes relate to the roles they play in the team.

    I’ve found that a good way to kick-off this process is for the team to map members’ personality profiles on a big sheet of paper between them on a table. (Extended DISC profiles work very well).

    Then share stories of personal attributes at play in their respective role behaviours, in what they enjoy and want to develop about those roles, and what they get nagged and badgered about. Relate this new awareness to the purpose, responsibilities and performance measures of their roles.

    Next discuss what they could begin to change in their roles and behaviours to mitigate dysfunction within the team (Patrick Lencioni’s “Five Dysfunctions of a Team” are a useful framework here).

    Finally agree a plan, beginning with who will do what tomorrow and through the week, month, quarter, and year. Be sure to also agree how progress and change will be measured and to commit to a meeting rhythm for review and sharing change-stories.

    Friday, 4 December 2009

    Organisational therapy

    Diversity in teams is arguably essential for innovation and change, but tends to be a nightmare for interpersonal relationships. Misunderstanding and conflict are probable, even desirable when diverse perspectives and personalities interact for change. You could say then, that teams and organisations of diverse individuals are probably intrinsically interpersonally dysfunctional: can never be truly “sane” but can, with support, be “high functioning”.

    I used this mental health analogy in my post “Is your firm mental? Probably.” Though the concept was first published a year ago* I was reminded of it in a conversation with a client mental-health NGO about the possibility of offering organisational therapy service to firms wanting to generate high-performing teams.

    To get a feel for the applicability of the recovery approach, consider the following list titled “Recovery as a process: Environmental factors facilitating recovery”*. Notice how, with a few minor [edits] to shift the tenor from psychiatric to interpersonal dysfunction, the list seems eerily familiar . . . . . . and applicable to treating interpersonal dysfunction in an organisation.

    • Promoting accurate and positive portrayals of [interpersonal dysfunction].
    • Focusing on strengths
    • Using language of hope and possibility
    • Developing and pursuing individually defined . . . . goals
    • Offering a range of “wellness strategies”, options for treatment, rehabilitation and support
    • Supporting risk-taking even when failure is a possibility
    • Actively involving [customers], family members, and other natural support in interventions planning and implementation
    • Providing individually-tailored services taking one’s culture and interests into consideration
    • Encouraging users participation in advocacy activities
    • Helping to develop connections with community
    • Systematically addressing illness-related factors that impede recovery
    • Promoting valued [organisational &] social roles, and interests
    • Enabling participation in meaningful activities
    • Building supportive relationships

    * Tse, S. & Barnett S. Recovery Oriented Services. Clinical Management in Mental Health Services. December 2008. Blackwell: London. Figure 8.3. Recovery as a process and outcomes (adapted from: Mancini et al., 2005; O’Connell et al., 2005; Roe et al., 2007)

    Monday, 23 November 2009

    Is your firm “mental”? Probably.

    Have you ever noticed how dysfunctional relationships between the people in organisations commonly are?

    Have you noticed the apparently endemic scheming, manipulating, back-biting, bullying, blaming and shaming, personality clashes and communication breakdowns? Have you ever felt angry or depressed about that? No? Then maybe you work in an exceptional organisation, or in splendid isolation, or you are on “happy pills”.

    After “quite a few” years in corporate, institutional and business life I’ve come to the view that the average firm is “mental”; meaning it is dysfunctional: a psychologically unhealthy place to be.

    Dysfunctionality isn’t OK but it is normal, so it’s what’s expected and tolerated. We can effectively deny it’s an issue until the competition pays attention to it and begins to overcome it. Then, if we are to survive, we too must seek to become a “high functioning organisation”.

    Several years ago I got to work with academics and practitioners in the mental health sector and became acquainted with the Recovery Approach to individual and community mental health. Out of that interaction I co-wrote chapter 7 in Clinical Management in Mental Health Services. December 2008. Blackwell: London.

    There Samson Tse and I outlined for clip_image002mental health practitioners how they could relate and apply their clinical knowledge and methodology, the Recovery Approach, to their dysfunctional mental health service organisations.

    When I recently began working with an NGO in the mental health sector this piece of work once again became prominent for me. So much so perhaps that when I was recently asked “What is your profession?” I replied, “Organisational Therapist”! The ensuing conversation inspired my previous blog post “What to do about bullying.”

    Check out the Recovery Approach. You may find, as I have, that although it’s designed as a treatment for people who are ill, it’s broadly speaking an interpersonal-relationship and community-based way to keep people well and foster creativity, collaboration and engagement in shared purpose. That’s what contemporary organisations need to compete by continuous innovation in the world today.

    Monday, 16 November 2009

    What to do about workplace bullying

    The other day a prospective business-owner client asked me what to do about workplace bullying. My advice: act immediately to change the culture and isolate the bully. Bullies kill engagement, big time. They cost you heaps in diverted energy and focus and unnecessary staff turnover. They drive their victims, potentially your most promising people out, or mad, or both. Though they may seem competent and nice as pie they are typically operating well beyond their competence and their influence is effectively evil.  You can’t fix a bully. They have to go. Here’s a strategy that works:

    Start MBWA (Managing By Walking About)immediately .

    Bullies thrive in bureaucratic hierarchies where they can control the flow of information both upward and downward. Bureaucratic hierarchies aren’t the preserve of large organisations. They are common in organisations of all sizes and kinds. Open up communication and loosen up the hierarchy by establishing direct, focused conversation with a range of individuals at different levels in the organisation. Share your knowledge with them. They’ll return the trust.

    Establish purposeful responsibility.

    Bullies manipulate roles and expectations to their personal advantage, typically to obscure their own incompetence. To counter that, execute a strategy to clarify the organisation’s values, purpose and long term goals. Within that framework, work with individuals and teams to clarify responsibilities, accountabilities  and action priorities. Make them widely known (including yours).

    Establish a widespread habit of regular, frequent meetings to openly discuss individual and team progress and blockages in executing those priorities. People thrive on shared purposeful responsibility plus frequent open discussion of progress foils a bully’s manipulative strategy. Expect the bully to resist and attempt to subvert this regular, open reflection and review process.

    Isolate the bully.

    Regular, frequent open review of progress on personal and team accountabilities will isolate the bully’s performance and break the bully’s hold on information flow. Better informed, other team members will become more bold, convincing and successful in their arguments and actions. The bully will become clearly and contrastingly less competent and isolated.

    You may be surprised who the bully turns out to be. After all they’ve been making a career of ingratiating themselves with you: agreeing with you, bolstering your ego and maybe even dealing with a few of your tough HR issues, while creating an engagement-killing climate of fear and favour to isolate and silence their critics. Bullies are experts at hiding their incompetence and bad behaviour. Victim’s attempts to draw attention to the bullying  will likely be cast by the bully as whinging justification for poor performance.

    Openly confront the bully.

    When you have plenty of solid evidence of the bully’s incompetence and lies,  personally confront the bully.  Be  ready for  angry denial and counter attack.  They will attempt to bypass you and ingratiate themselves with a higher authority. The bully will be very reluctant to admit their bad behaviour and incompetence even to themselves, even though it is by now widely and openly known.

    If the bully doesn’t leave on his/her own accord then you already have clear justification and support to dismiss them for unsatisfactory performance in their specific role.

    Wednesday, 4 November 2009

    FREEDOM = purposeful responsibility

    “People are unique. Combinations are even more unique. The successful companies tend [to] communicate and apply [“the 7 habits”] in unique manners that match their unique dreams and goals and strengths. That's when earth-shattering experiences are created, delivered, experienced.”

    Zane Safrit makes this interesting observation in a on Linkedin discussion about David G. Thomson’s Business Week article The Seven Essentials of High Growth Companies.

    I add that not only are combinations of people unique but combinations of opportunities are too. The effects of these unique combinations are always more or less unexpected. Organisations that thrive on the unexpected are those that thrive today.

    So perhaps it would be useful to consider how communicating the “7 habits” might enable organisations to encounter, recognise, take and profit from unexpected opportunities.

    One quality that seems to pervade the “7 habits” is diversity of people at all levels in and around the organisation. Not just having the diversity but recognising it and utilising it within a unifying sense of cohesive purpose and shared vision. Effective interpersonal communication is the key to that.

    At a practical level, I find that a major blockage in that communication process is the common sense that a job is a series of tasks. That’s an industrial concept founded in people as machine parts in a process. My role frequently includes helping people to re-conceive their job as a purposeful role in a collaborative project; a role defined by mutually interdependent responsibilities and indicative accountabilities rather than tasks. Almost invariably this is scary and confusing for them.

    It’s rather like having been in prison for years then being released to “freedom” and unable to cope with the responsibility. It’s not that people don’t want responsibility or cannot be responsible. Responsibility is something that most people desire. Being given responsibility is an indication of trust, competency, standing, worth, esteem, regard.

    Here’s the thing: people can’t re-conceive their jobs as roles by themselves any more that they can pull themselves up by their own boot laces. They need the help of an “outsider’s” perspective to generate the new imagery.

    As the “outsider” I walk people through the process of defining their role in 120 words or less beginning with a fresh descriptive title, then the purpose of the role within the greater scheme; a summary responsibility in a sentence and up to five specific responsibilities; their overall accountability in a sentence and up to five specific indicative responsibilities with goals (KPIs).

    Once they’ve described their own role with me I encourage them to attempt the process with their reports and so on. It’s got a high probability of being effective, purposeful interpersonal communication between unique individuals.

    Thursday, 29 October 2009

    What are you racing for? Why?

    Last weekend we had perhaps the best Coastal Classic Yacht Race ever: fine, 20-28 knots SW; we averaged 7.3 knots peaking at 12.2 surfing the following sea towards the Hen and Chicks, dropping to zero at Cape Brett around midnight.

    12.2 knots (22.5 km/hr) may seem kind of slow. But for a 29’ (8.8m) Wagstaff designed, GRP skinned timber sloop High Spirits, that’s a cracking pace with her gear loaded to the max: her gennaker sheet so tight it’s plinking at the winch like ukulele string; the helmsman pumping for 1.5 minute rides on following waves.

    After dark, still doing 8 knots, cans of Red Bull keep us awake and slugs of Old Brown sherry straight from the bottle stave off the pre-dawn cold; the coastal skyline silhouetted by sickle moon in cloudless sky.

    16 hrs 22 minutes without sleep to cover that 118 nm, finishing mid-fleet (16th) in Division 4; equivalent to 6th amongst our peers in Division 5.

    At 4am, anchored and snacked, we fall asleep on the sails below in our full wet weather gear and boots, waking at 7 to thaw out in the morning sun.

    Did we achieve our goal? Damn right we did. We pushed little High Spirits to her limits; adapting rapidly to the unexpected, without injury other than bruises, without damage other than a few near shredded lines, to achieve a respectable result amongst her peers.

    Best of all, we were in it together relishing the feel of that little boat straining and surging in the stiff breeze, and silently slipping in light airs, finally savouring completion and sweet reunion with shore-crew partners and friends at beautiful Russell in the Bay of Islands.

    IMG_0113Sailing & shore crews enjoy sunset BBQ at an early settler cottage Russell, Bay of Islands NZ

    It was a race for friendship, courage, for companionship, collaboration and community; a race to live: a race against complacency, predictability, and the ordinary.

    What are you racing for? Why?

    Monday, 19 October 2009

    The power of really being in it together

    Why would anyone choose the most uncomfortable sleepless way to travel?

    I ought to know because that’s what I and maybe a thousand others are doing this weekend in the Coastal Classic (an overnight coastal sailboat race from Auckland to Russell in the Bay of Islands  New Zealand).

    I’m crewing on the precocious 29 foot sloop High Spirits. We’ll be awake for between 16 and 20 hours sailing hard all day and through the night, sleeping tethered on the rail to add our weight to windward.

    The last couple of times I sailed this race on a 50 footer in three watches – actually slept in a bunk for four hours. Last year the weather was atrocious and half the fleet of a couple of hundred craft turned back. Everyone was seasick.

    Nevertheless this year I turned down a berth of the 50 footer for more  risk and more discomfort!

    It just goes to show what some people will do for a challenge: together pitting themselves against the elements; the chance of winning (even with a tough handicap).

    The crew have been sailing together all winter and invested in extra safety equipment and gear. We each have our roles and they overlap. We’re dependent on each other for our safety and for success. 

    Yet many business managers persistently assume that money is the main motivator and people do nothing unless pushed.

    Never underestimate the human imperative to do  good things together.

    Sunday, 11 October 2009

    Wonky-shots and staplers of the mind

    Henry my architect friend, in exploring my iPhone camera, inadvertently captures two partially obscured, wonky images of himself. Then ‘working with what he got’ he abstracts the images with provocative effect.

    It occurs to me that his using these “accidental” images is thinking entrepreneurially: trying out new things for unexpected effect. Then taking the effect to another level by imaginatively working with what he’s got.

    This is so different to what's taught and assessed in schools: beginning with the specified result figure out causative chain that produced it; understand, document, standardise and learn it then organise a linear process to reliably replicate it.

    The latter approach (linear causal thinking) is the world of the stapler, the folder and the file. For more on that try Your Stapler is Making Assumptions: about how the objects and designs around us represent and determine our logic.

    In most of the business contexts that I work in, the stapler reigns. Especially amongst the educated. In contrast the entrepreneurs probably succeeded at being ejected from school: avoiding being conventionally schooled. 

    No wonder it’s so difficult to get employees to think like businesspeople: way more fundamental than “getting buy-in”. It’s about food for thought: a diet of wonky-shots instead of staplers for the mind.

    That prompts a little spur-of-the-moment poem:

    Staple diet.

    I feel so much better

    When I’ve followed to the letter

    The procedures that I learned

    At school


    When the information

    Is properly tabulated

    The pages neatly stapled

    And filed


    When I’ve aligned my goals

    With my grandest aspirations

    Stapled them in A3 to

    The wall


    Then all I need’s a job

    With the incumbent tasks prescribed

    And a clear secure route to

    The top.

    Sunday, 4 October 2009

    Learn fast: things aren’t (ever) returning to “normal”.

    New Zealand business managers and educators have got to transform their thinking and practice or NZ can say goodbye to “high” living standards: already down to 23rd in the OECD and in imminent danger of being overtaken by Czechoslovakia.

    That was the main message I took from National Bank (NZ) Chief Economist Cameron Bagrey’s lunchtime address last Tuesday to the national conference of New Zealand Applied Business educators. They’re tertiary (but not university) educators on undergraduate Applied Business diploma and Applied Business degree programmes. I sneaked in on the coattails of my wife Sandra Barnett, an innovator and author in Applied Business education (Communication).

    Bagrey confessed he’s embarrassed that his profession’s consistently got it wrong: failed to predict the current recession and doesn’t have a clue how to fix.

    He says only one thing’s for certain: we can’t go back to the way it was. Anyone who thinks that things will return to “normal” is stupid. The policy makers are determined it won’t; determined we figure out new ways to do, manage and teach business and the economy. Previous answers are wrong.

    He didn’t have new answers except to say that boiled down, it’s the responsibility of individuals to generate and implement new ways. He didn’t have any special advice for business educators.

    I agree with Bagrey that the solution lies with individuals, though I add: individuals in collaboration not isolation, generating and learning new ways together.

    I seriously doubt NZ Business Education can change from its prescriptive right-answer model any time soon, hobbled as it is by administrators and their anti-professional, centralised rules and controls, and know-no-better student and employer market.

    I’m sceptical too that NZ business managers can abandon their manager-knows-best, right-answer approach any time soon: go deeper than recite the superficial lists of “secrets” peddled in popular business management literature.

    Actually the answers have been there for more than 20 years (e.g. Drucker and Senge), effectively ignored: except perhaps in Business student essays and Management band-aids, quick fixes, and fads.

    Here’s the guts: (really) involve everyone; confess ignorance (starting at the top); spend time together generating a long term goal that everyone’s passionate about but not sure how to achieve; get very clear on the medium term strategy and short term goals that stand to take you towards the long term; openly generate and agree clear individual and collective accountabilities in achieving the change; openly measure progress to keep individuals and groups (at all levels) openly accountable for their contribution; continually review and revise in the light of individual and collective experience; take every opportunity to talk about the long term goal and the actual action and progress towards it.

    And another thing: get long-term (2 yr) outside help from experienced change execution specialists. Be sure that they too are accountable for progress.

    Sunday, 20 September 2009

    Will provincial values count in the new virtual community?

    In provincial New Zealand markets, provincial brand still carries weight . Will the new social media erode or reinforce that differentiator?

    I’m a country boy – New Zealand “cow cocky” stock: breaking in the land. Genuine folk – what you saw was what you got. It had to be that way, struggling together; #8 wire, good-enough, ingenuity and resourcefulness.

    That’s the roots of provincial New Zealand; still relevant in provincial commerce today where folks have probably become more suspicious and wary of increasingly individualistic “big-city” folks.

    For example, a provincial professional firm (my client) recently negotiated to acquire a business in Wellington. Although the capital city of New Zealand, Wellington has many characteristics of a provincial town. Being clearly provincial contributed to my client winning preferred purchaser status and to acceptance by existing staff.

    Here’s a prediction: the new social media will magnify the “provincial” brand differentiators because despite the apparent anonymity of the web the new social media, like village community anywhere, lives on genuineness and authenticity: deep interpersonal connection and reputation.

    I reckon my provincial clients can do well in this new environment, and they are. Although it may become virtual, “local” will still be the web of relationships between people who are well known to, in continual contact with, and of value to each other, one way or another.

    Bad news for the fakes, cons, bullies and manipulators. So watch out for identity theft. Your identity, in the broadest, deepest sense may be even more valuable than now. What will your identity be? Who are you and what will you be?

    Brings to mind Polonius’ advice to his son Laertes who’s in a rush to catch the next boat to Paris:

    This above all: to thine own self be true,
    And it must follow, as the night the day,
    Thou canst not then be false to any man.
    William Shakespeare. Hamlet Act 1, scene 3, 78–82

    Polonius has in mind something much more Elizabethan than the New Age self-knowledge that the phrase now suggests. (Macrone, Michael. "To thine own self be true." Brush Up Your Shakespeare. Cader Company, 1990. 2007. 19 Sep, 2009)

    Thursday, 17 September 2009

    Goals for Change

    Sign of the times?: Missed achieving the quarterly goals again. Individuals’ performance on supporting actions weak again?

    The goal’s good – revenue; profit; prospects in sales pipeline. The supporting priority actions are logical.

    So what’s wrong? Lack of focus? Lack of accountability? Lack of leadership? Unrealistic goals? Lack of buy-in?

    Could have been any or all of those. Or it could be that the world’s changed and the assumptions that used to apply, the relationships that used to work, the habits that used to be effective aren’t/don’t any more.

    The reflex response is typically to increase the focus and accountability; increase “buy-in” by consultation; do it harder! WRONG.

    If your firm’s past the 1st flush of pioneer passion and settled into routine with a dollop of cynicism born of frustrated aspirations and broken promises, and on top of that the world has changed, doing it harder won’t work.

    It’s not what you do, it’s the way that you do it: you have to change the way you do it; do things in new, unfamiliar ways that feel as strange as a new golf swing. How do you achieve that when you don’t have a clue what those new ways feel like!? Even understanding those new ways won’t do it. You have to know them (deeply)

    You need to experience new ways of behaving; to surface and examine assumptions; to develop and experience new ways of interrelating and repeat them until they are new habits.

    It’s not buy-in you need, its engagement.You need a change-project: NOT simply a sequence of agreed tasks with time/quality/cost KPIs. You need a project where the learning is achieved by the whole team; to together develop and practice new ways of achieving those same simple goals.

    You need a project with scope that’s wide enough to provide real, strength-fitting action for each team member and a compelling shared purpose that increases your capability to adapt to change and achieve your simple goals at the same time.

    If it feels strange then you’re probably on the right track. Most managers, including project managers have never experienced an organisational change project. That’s OK. Don’t pretend. Bullshit kills learning.

    Friday, 11 September 2009

    Business Friday: Grand Brand Bang.

    Instead of dressing down on Fridays the creatives at a large successful advertising agency amuse themselves by dressing up and behaving as Business people: they call it Business Friday. An essential element of Business Friday is PowerPoint presentations with bullets, words flying in, fades, sound effects: the whole palaver.

    It’s true! PowerPoint is absurd Business uniform!

    Since I last blogged, conversation streams about Brand; Ideas that Stick; and Targeting the Message were brought into comic relief by a single PowerPointed seminar failure.

    Mark Gallagher’s compilation “Brand is . . . .”

    Verne Harnish quoting his Uncle Wally and Chip Heath on Ideas That Stick.

    Stephen Lynch quoting Bob Eckert, featured in Fortune magazine, on Targeting the Message.

    The seminar, about business planning and implementation, packaged in PowerPoint to standardise delivery in various locations by various presenters, was a tool for building relationships with prospective clients to help sell professional service.

    This particular seminar failed because the ideas that stuck - the impression communicated were predominantly though not overwhelmingly negative. It failed to achieve purpose. Yet the seminar had worked fine for the guy who produced the slides.

    I’d experienced similar failed attempts to control seminar quality while teaching General Management at the University of Auckland: the course, part of a new innovative degree in Business and Information Management, was delivered on 3 different campuses. The course seminars were packaged as PowerPoint presentations and printed copies of the slides were included in course-books for students.

    The presenters and students believed that the knowledge was the PowerPoint slides: linear, hierarchical, shallow, un-provocative, boring. Learning was stumped not stimulated. Read Edward Tufte The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint (now in 2nd edition) to learn how PowerPoint regiments and limits thought, kills presentations and stops learning.

    The thing is, content doesn’t make a seminar and regimenting content, especially by PowerPoint, reduces seminar quality. The message, which is bigger than the content, and hence the brand is blunted and distorted by the medium. It becomes Business-like, boring, uniform, more of the same.

    Jack Daly doesn’t use PowerPoint in his seminars. People complain about Tom Peters’ slides because they can’t understand them: nothing boring, uniform about those guys.

    Never be upstaged by your slides or your other props.

    Monday, 31 August 2009

    Social media: hype or hope?

    Call me slow but I’m kind of puzzled by the hype, especially in marketing circles, around “social media”. A provocative discussion “Does social media work, or is it just a time drain?” (in group on LinkedIn) got me thinking.

    To me FaceBook was like just another step along from email, group discussion forums, and Chat rooms: another way to “stay in touch”; a new place for conversation; a place to exchange ideas, think, express, be, grow, get to know, belong, hang-out; a place with Face; a place for community in a world of failing community, disconnection and alienation.

    So it didn’t surprise me that people found it and began using it; that the more who found it, the more wanted to find it, intrigued, not wanting to miss out; that it became the place to be, to be seen - a global fashion phenomenon. Most seem to use it to talk to people they personally know; to make friends through people they know; to engage; to belong, be useful, known, valued; to be.

    “Social media” is kind of like the new grapevine and village meeting place rolled into one – the new virtual market square of community “on speed”: community apparently offering new scope to be; for new beyond-the-village identity. No wonder people are flocking there.

    But fundamentally we’re village people and the commerce of the market square is natural, integral to our community. So why the hype and hoopla? Seems to maybe come from folks who want to make a quid as experts on the new market square; to somehow claim it for their own.

    For all that, it’s about people, relationships, and trust. The communication rules haven’t changed, though literacy is an advantage in what’s currently still mainly textual media. Old skills really, maybe needing a little reinterpretation and a lot of re-learning.

    In my work I’ve found that people who for whatever reason aren’t confident at talking with others, prefer a textual medium. It gives them time to digest what’s been said, to compose a response. And the internet has an added power-levelling effect: as an English-as-second-language student once said of me, “When Steve enters the chat room he gives up his power.”

    It levels the playing field and they get to try being themselves, to communicate with new others. Pretty soon they are demanding to speak, to know who they’re talking to, and be known; demanding order in the chaos of random conversation.

    It’s my hope that beyond the hype and hoopla, with winnowing of wheat from the chaff, the new social media will help release and connect diverse talent; help release entrepreneurial spirit from the psychic prison (Gareth Morgan. 1986. Images of Organization) of conventional organisation.

    PS I’m a mature extrovert: a Rational Inventor (Myers Briggs); an Influencer (EDISC)

    Saturday, 29 August 2009

    Can you get knowledge off the web?

    It’s really cool living the communication media revolution: no packaged answers. Experimenting is everything. Good for entrepreneurs. Not so good for causal thinkers (the rest).

    Information’s free - heaps of it. Some enlightened universities even publish their courses free on the web. So, indeed, why physically attend a university to get knowledge when information’s free online?

    Because information isn’t knowledge, that’s why. It’s just “stuff” until a person or people make sense of it for and between themselves. The most effective way to communicate knowledge; to transfer it between people, is interactively. (The universities spent a fortune on failed “distance learning” over the last decade or so to begin to realise that.)

    An organisation’s knowledge exists in the web of relationships between its people not in the nodes ( the hard drives and experts). It is evident in interpersonal behaviour. It exists as organisational knowledge only in as much as it is communicated.

    Learning is a complex interactive process. Rich interaction produces deep (behaviour changing) learning. Rich organisational knowledge exists and develops in rich interrelationships.

    So what can we learn over the internet? What organisational knowledge can exist in the internet? Answer: it depends on the richness and depth of interrelationship.

    I don’t know about you but for me nothing beats real person 2 person communication on that score. And whatever virtual communication medium best approximates P2P is the next best thing.

    So until the internet can fully reproduce a meeting virtually, I’ll go to university, fly to conferences, visit my clients, go home to my wife and kids, go to church, go out to the pub, the theatre and to parties.

    In between those real meetings I’ll maintain conversation by phone, Skype, email, blog, LinkedIn, FaceBook, YouTube, Twitter, whatever. But I’ll go easy on it and try to make my communication relevant and meaningful to my connections or they’ll get sick of my intrusions and I’ll get sick of theirs.

    How am I doing? How are you doing? How rich is your personal and organisational communication? Are you leading learning?

    Saturday, 22 August 2009

    A Tasteful Fable of Leading Change

    Thanks to the leadership of Penfolds employee Max Schubert, Penfolds Grange survived for me and my wine-aficionado friends to taste the 20 year old 1989 vintage last week, along with seven other reputable 6-11 yr old South Australian reds.

    Even though 1989 wasn’t an exceptional year for Grange, and this bottle had been cellared roughly, the wine had all the colour and fruit of its youth plus the richness and subtlety of advancing age. The younger (1998-99) worthy competitors in the line-up had, comparatively prematurely, lost their youthful qualities.

    What do they do at Grange, I wonder, that gives their wine such outstanding, durable qualities?

    Clearly there is more to it than a recipe; more than process control; more than operations management. There is a long established culture of leadership that survived the machinations of Management.

    Grange was born of the vision, passion, skill, and persistence of an employee of Penfolds wines: winemaker Max Schubert. A bottle of his original vintage sold at auction in 2004 for just over A$50,000. However back in the 50’s, when Aussies thought wine was port or sherry, this powerful still wine was panned by the wine critics and in 1957 Penfolds management forbid Schubert from producing it.

    But Schubert persisted in secret through 1959 and as the initial vintages aged, their true value came to be appreciated. In 1960 the management instructed Schubert to re-start production, oblivious to the fact that he had not missed a vintage.

    Unlike most expensive Old World wines, which are from single vineyards or even blocks within vineyards, Grange is made from grapes harvested over a wide area. Yet despite the vagaries of grape sourcing and vintage variation due to growing conditions, there is arguably a consistent and recognisable "Penfolds Grange" style and quality.

    The renowned Penfolds Grange brand is the result of Max Shubert’s passionate, visionary and persistent leadership as an employee.

    This story brings to my mind Peter Senge’s comments in The Dance of Change (p. 15):

    “In business today, the word “leader” has become synonymous for top manager. . . . Those who are not in top management positions . . . . . . don’t become leaders until they reach a senior management position of authority.”

    Senge’s links this view of leadership to change-failure. He prefers to view leadership as:

    “the capacity of a human community to shape its future, and specifically to sustain the significant processes of change required to do so.”

    Max Shubert was clearly a leader in the Penfolds community.

    Reference for history of Penfolds Grange: 22-08-2009

    Sunday, 16 August 2009

    Sugar Party Hangover

    I’ve had it with the barrage of packaged advice from business gurus, icons and stars – axioms and aphorisms on how to be successful: summary lists that pretend to make simple the complexities of human collaboration. It clearly sells business books, newspapers, seminars and fills the e-waves. But to little tangible effect that I’ve seen.

    It’s not that the advice is bad. It’s more the way it’s communicated and consumed like candy for sugar hungry kid’s at a party: a lolly scramble, a sugar rush, a burst of high excitement, energy and frantic bonhomie, then back to normal.

    The main learning’s how to scramble to win the most lollies; that the most lollies equals the most fun.

    This was highlighted for me over the last couple of weeks beginning with a whole day of Jack Daly, the sales phenomenon extraordinaire (see my last week’s blog ). Then there was my colleague Stephen Lynch’s Business Growth Tip summarising New York Times 4th April “Corner Office” interview with John Donahoe, president and chief executive of eBay .

    For me the key learning to be had from Jack Daly and John Donahoe isn’t in how they made themselves successful but in how others enabled them to be successful and how they in turn enabled others.

    For instance, half of jack Daly’s seminar was about how to create a climate in which others can excel.

    The main theme of John Donahoe’s reflection and the key to his leadership is what he communicates and the way he communicates it so that others can learn, and how he learned to do that.

    He says that feedback from six monthly performance reviews was powerfully effective in his formation and development. He espouses and practices candid communication. He enables people to discover and play to their strengths and passions.

    Jack and John didn’t make themselves, overnight. They didn’t just swallow the magic lollies that their audiences crave. Sure, they had a big hand in their own development but they were hugely fortunate to have wise others who guided, enabled and facilitated that slow learning process.

    John Donahoe recalls that every six months or so he’d get a rigorous performance review (in latter years 20 pages thick) that included everything he could possibly do better. He came to regard the feedback as liberating; a gift, and wasn’t afraid of it.

    He found that a third of the feedback would be no surprise: for his long-term attention and change - still an issue the next year and the year after.

    A third of it would be insight into his blind spots for himself and others – new awareness of areas for change .

    A third of it he would ignore ignore and keep doing what he wanted to do.

    From that experience he learned to “try to do the same for the people around me, and give them open, objective feedback offered in a constructive way.”

    The focus here is on manager/leader communication behaviour. There is no magic pill. These guys learned to communicate the hard way. Yet how many firms who heard Tom Peters’ fervent exhortation six months ago in Auckland to implement communication training, if nothing else, have done that? I’ll wager <3%. The audience craved sugar pills.

    Sunday, 9 August 2009

    Got culture?

    How does your culture smell? Honestly. Is your culture able to change? Do you have the radical transparency needed to change: to produce high performing sales teams, production teams, design teams, management teams . . . . . . .  or are you still stuck in the age of bullsh*t; still demanding engagement.

    Last week I spent a day at a seminar by the super sales guy Jack Daly: story teller, successful ironman, richman, golfer, husband, grandfather, not-gardener.   Jack super energetically dealt with “how to sell more” then  he (just as energetically but more seriously) got down to “how to get others to sell more”. His focus was “culture”.

    Jack quoted John Kotter’s (Corporate Culture and Performance. 1992) 10 yr study of 12 firms  showing the massive difference in revenue, stock price, net income and job growth that attention to culture produces.

    As Jack observes culture normally gets overlooked in the usual business rush because it’s not urgent. I’d add that it’s also because managers and the managed are typically blind to culture and anyway, culture change is too slow to achieve inside an annual plan.

    Every organisation has a culture. Even a new organisation has one. It came with the people who joined the organisation.  Culture is unconscious reflex assumptions, beliefs and attitudes.  Culture is self-sealing. What we see and experience tends to confirm what we already “know”: our assumptions, beliefs and attitudes.

    How hard is it to change culture? Consider changing the culture of Samoa for instance. Well the early Christian missionaries did it. It took a magnetic, compelling vision; the right people in the right place; and their collective purpose and conviction (strong organisational culture): their passion to make a particular difference.

    The aftermath of a crisis is a great opportunity to initiate a culture change. The window doesn’t last long (see The emperor has no clothes). It’s not long before people shut up because they “know what’s good for them”(see Learning for change feels risky).  If you don’t have a crisis, then create one to engender a sense of urgency (John Kotter. A Sense of Urgency. 2008).

    Friday, 31 July 2009

    Mindful simplification

    Today on Radio New Zealand National Sir Howard Davies, Director of the London School of Economics was asked “How do we recover from the recession?” Especially interesting to me was that he pointed to the blindness (astounding in hindsight) of banks and government advisors that got us into it. They were blind because they didn’t see the signals of impending “brutal audit”. Their KPIs effectively blinkered their vision.

    I see this happening to one degree or another in pretty much every organisation I’ve owned, worked for or worked with.

    I’m very critical of many KPI/performance measurement systems because they frequently erode collaboration, promote and perpetuate bad management behaviour, and blinker perception. On the other hand I’m also an enthusiast for intimacy with valid, relevant data.

    I’m am enthusiast for simplification for focused action. On the other hand I’m also very critical of mindless compliance and groupthink that’s frequently the consequence of simplistic analysis, rules, procedures, and expectations.

    Not surprisingly perhaps, some find it hard to figure “whose side I’m on”.

    I’m an Edwards-Deming fan (kind of like being a member of a dead poets’ society). Deming’s lifelong passion was collaboration to achieve quality. Not in a fuzzy, feel-good sense but in a logical, objective sense: informed by valid, relevant data. A statistician, he understood how quality is determined by systems of thought, practice and organisation. Not individuals. He was very successful in Japan. His countrymen in USA have been very slow learners.

    KPI systems are inevitably simplistic and biased: a selective abstract of reality based on a particular set of assumptions. So they inevitably distort or leave out potentially crucial aspects of complex reality.

    The problem is how to collectively commit to a set of goals and performance measures yet remain mindful that that very commitment will blinker us to potentially crucial information.

    This may not matter much in a predictable environment. But in an uncertain, fast-changing environment its a big issue. That’s because fast adaptation and innovation are triggered and driven by information from outside our normal frame of reference – our established KPIs.

    Nimble organisations maintain clear purpose and operate simple strategies to achieve that, continually reviewing their KPIs for validity and relevance to that purpose. Statistically significant exceptions and failures are seized as opportunities for learning. Mindful, collaborative experimentation is a valued source of innovation.

    Monday, 27 July 2009

    The Emperor Has No Clothes!

    This last week, while I experimented at applying my reading of Weick and Sutcliffe’s Managing the Unexpected to my own current organisational experiences, Steve Denning surprised and impressed me with his piece: Radical transparency vs The age of bullsh*t . He damns Management, as epitomised by the career behaviours of recently late Robert McNamara, with causing the current recession.

    Coming on top of the similarly critical series of articles in the June HBR (mentioned in my blog last week) it was like a triple whammy.

    What sprang to mind for me was Weick and Sutcliffe’s quote from Charles O’Reilly’s 1989 California Management Review article “Corporations, Culture , and Commitment” :

    In the chaos of the battlefield there is a tendency of all ranks to combine and recast the story of their achievements into a shape which will satisfy the susceptibilities of national and regimental vain-glory . . . . . On the actual day of battle naked truths may be picked up for the asking. But by the following morning they have already begun to get into their uniforms.

    Denning’s piece seems to me like a naked truth, spoken in the wake of battle.

    Half expecting some to be clothing that truth already, I hasten to point out that this isn’t a cloth-cap Marxist rant against Management. I’m not arguing against management (small m) and I don’t think any of the writers mentioned here are. The argument is against a set of pervasive assumptions about how organisations should be managed: against the “ism” managerialism.

    For instance, though I may rant and rail against stupidly simplistic (mindless) obsession with goals and KPIs, I am a passionate advocate for mindful, statistically sound use of valid, reliable objective and subjective data in controlling operations. I’m firmly with Edwards-Deming on that.

    The argument is that we must seize this opportunity to learn from what Weick and Sutcliffe would call the “brutal audit “ of the last year. We must seize this opportunity to learn to be sensitive to signals of impending failure that contradict our convenient, simplistic assumptions about cause–and-effect and relevance. We must learn to incorporate that mindfulness into our organisational infrastructure.

    I reckon that perhaps the best place to pick up and act on those naked truths is in entrepreneur owned and led, small to medium sized enterprises (SMEs). There the boss is more able, more likely to engage directly with high performing teams in a marriage of strategic simplicity and operational complexity through radically transparent interrelationships.

    If you want a how-to list on recognising and picking up those naked truths then take the above link to Steve Denning’s article. Don’t expect bullet points. He’s into stories.

    Wednesday, 15 July 2009

    Keep it complex stupid!

    I just returned from a brief break in a quiet corner (Naqalia Lodge) of Waya Lailai island in the Yasawa islands, Fiji. Expecting to do a little reading I took Weick and Sutcliffe’s Managing the Unexpected 2nd edition (2007) with me.

    Serendipitously the June HBR caught my eye in the airport bookstore (along with The New Scientist and Scientific American). HBR’s June focus was Rebuilding Trust. I was interested that interpersonal communication was the key common element.

    O’Toole and Bennis argue that “What’s Needed Next [is] A Culture of Candour”, arguing that “we won’t be able to rebuild trust in institutions until leaders learn how to communicate honestly – and create organizations where that’s the norm”.

    Then I got into my hammock with Weick and Sutcliffe.


    After I adjusted of their denser writing style, I appreciated the depth and complexity compared to the popular HBR style. When I finished I enjoyed the new cohering sense it gave to the HBR articles about building trust, not trusting too much, achieving innovation, being a good boss, and the deep failure of business schools.

    Interestingly, between the 2001 1st edition and the 2007 2nd edition the subtitle changed from “Assuring High Performance in an Age of Complexity” to “Resilient Performance in an Age of Uncertainty” reflecting the continuing Richter 5+ seismic shifts in organisational environment. What’s impressive is that their thesis seems more powerful in the light of recent events.

    Of course Weick and Sutcliffe write about communication too but unlike the HBR articles they have room to go beyond description and exhortation to update and further demonstrate their 2001 thesis about mindful action.

    They provide excellent argument against fashionable simplification, focus and strategising being the ways to achieve success in this day and age. This is particularly true for businesses operating complex technical systems in dynamic, ambiguous contexts. They argue for mindful infrastructure. They contrast this with mindless infrastructure, which typically attends to success, simplicities, strategy, planning and status. They argue very convincingly that attention to success confirms the status quo; simplification rules out crucial information and diverse perspectives; attention to strategy and planning ignores operational reality and attention to status erodes and ignores expertise.

    They argue that the keys to success today are attention to failure, context, operations, resilience, and expertise. They recommend managers lead change by opportunistically demonstrating changed communication behaviour: candidly reporting and discussing failure; including and rewarding diverse perspectives; being intimate with actual operational experience rather than ideas and generalisations; pushing analysis and decision-making downwards; deferring to expertise (which exists between people) not authority, so that others can begin to see what mindful work looks and feels like. Out of that experience emerges changed values, attitudes, and beliefs – changed culture.

    Very convincing. Though I guess that one reason I find it so is because it confirms my own analyses and makes useful sense of my own experience in and with organisations over that last decade or so.

    I can see this providing me with a rich resource for thought, analysis, action and blogging . . . . . . .

    Sunday, 5 July 2009

    You can’t demand engagement, only court it.

    A tweet and email from my colleague Stephen Lynch about a 26 June article in Forbes on employee engagement triggered this post. The story’s about Douglas Conant turning Campbell Soup Co around by engaging the employees!

    Successfully turning the organisation around is news in itself, but it’s the way he did it that grabs me. He did it by seeking engagement, not alignment! Maybe this means that “engagement” is superseding “alignment”. Alleluia!

    To me it’s no surprise that Conant’s engagement-focused leadership achieved amazing results. What particularly interests me is that he apparently had to get rid of 300 out of 350 Campbell’s managers to do it. I wonder why?

    My guess is that that was the quickest way to interrupt the established patterns of communication: to create room for changed organisational communication. That would generate enough organisational uncertainty and anxiety for the long-believed unspeakable to be spoken and heard; for people to discover that their opinions matter and for them to experience, perhaps for the 1st time ever, the spirit of doing good things together– to experience release from the psychic prison of defensive manipulation.

    But what’s the difference between Conant’s approach and conventional restructuring, which almost always fails to improve productivity? Was he just a lucky bastard? Or is there magic in this engagement thing?

    I reckon there’s much more to it than luck. I reckon that Conant somehow had the sense to break the Managerial spell to free employees to begin to figure out together how to do Campbell Soup Co better. I reckon he had faith that Campbell’s employees could do great things together if only they could get a chance to begin to really experience collaboration.

    That contrasts with most restructures which are effectively exercises in defensive manipulation based on the assumption that, if allowed, employees will hijack any freedom for their selfish, ignorant, if not downright destructive purposes. Managers know this from hard-won experience of trying to get inevitably reluctant employees to do what managers want (know best). Result: “plus la change” (more of the same).

    Actual organisational change begins in crisis so if there is no crisis, create one. Then it’s not so much what you do with the crisis, but the way that you do it.

    Conant restructured, but the way that he did it was inspired. Effectively his purpose in restructuring and in the attendant uncertainty was to enable new communication, new interrelationships, and attendant insight. In short: engagement. You can’t demand engagement - only court it.

    Marcus Buckingham gave “engagement” wings with the Gallup research that defined it and identified 12 reliable indicators and drivers of it. That led Buckingham on to his work in strengths-focused education and management: the complete opposite of conventional weakness-focused education and management.

    To gauge whether your organisation is engaging or not ask your employees to rate these 12 statements (1, low – 5, high). If the mean score is better than 4 you’re getting close.

    Saturday, 27 June 2009

    Bullet points kill learning for change

    Glowing, PowerPoint-projected in light-dimmed rooms, bullet-point-prompts cue presenters to elaborate with yet more bullet points. Bullet points dominate executive presentations and university lectures. Executives, managers, the managed and students insist on them, make decisions based on them, and demonstrate knowledge by repeating them.

    Bullet points have come to represent knowledge laid bare: high impact: stripped of the flannel and waffle; complexity distilled; quick, no-nonsense, unequivocal, definitive; knowledge in a second; the preferred “learning style” of many managers and their managed.

    But a bullet point is a summary: a skeletally brief abstract; often cliché or jargon; (wrongly) assumed to effectively represent (communicate) complex intellectual and emotional meaning forged in the messy dynamics of interactive conversation, discussion and debate.

    There’s slim chance of those few words effectively communicating rich new meaning to anyone who wasn’t part of the formative interactive process; slim chance that those bullets will effectively communicate any more than trivial, mechanical or mundane meaning, even to the in-crowd.

    There’s even less chance of achieving richly shared meaning if the meaning is new: outside or on the edges of the experience of the listener. Bullet points reinforce groupthink.

    To a story teller, a bullet point is a symbol of the meaning of the process that conceived it: the candid discussion, debate, conversation and winnowing that produced a consensus. A consensus based on the shared understanding of what was left out and what was given prominence; of what’s behind the brief words: the story they represent.

    That story must be told. Told well, with passion; capturing of the tension and relief, sadness and elation, conflict and reconciliation of its conception.

    Without that story, the bullet point could mean almost anything. Like: “They don’t listen.” “My opinions don’t count.” “That’s simple.” “That’s right.” “I won.” “I lost.” “Yeah, right!” “I know.” “This is great.” “This is crap.” “This is so profound” “This is inane.” “Blah, blah.” “More slogans” “In a nutshell.”

    Effective communication creates shared meaning. Bullet points are at least very unreliable at that especially if the meaning is new as it inevitably is in learning for organisational change.

    Tuesday, 23 June 2009

    What a difference a place makes

    Last weekend I was in a team of seven, leading a weekend retreat of around 40 guys. It was an inspirational weekend of new, deeper friendships, insight and change. The place was ‘magic’.

    It took five months of part-time robust communication for the leading team to co-generate a plan for the weekend: a deeply shared concept of purpose and process. During that time we got to know each other quite well. We prepared deeply but held our plans lightly, ready to follow unexpected opportunities. There were plenty.

    The place we chose for the retreat was deliberately remote: a coastal wilderness - only 42km from downtown Auckland but separated from the city by rugged bush-covered hills penetrated by the narrow hill-clinging gravel road that ends at the lodge in earshot of the black sanded wilderness west coast surf.

    Clustered insignificantly in a corner of a vast expanse of dune and marsh, beneath high conglomerate-rock remnants of an ancient, massive caldera rim – are the historic wooden buildings that are the lodge. They once housed an early settler timber milling family and workers as they stripped the land of its mighty coastal forests (now regenerated somewhat). The spaces are basic living spaces, wilderness spaces, and ocean spaces.

    Twice before I’d stayed at the lodge and been amazed at the depth, breadth and openness of conversation that the place seemed to produce. This weekend was no exception.

    The place itself breaks the rules, breaks down the walls: presents new possibilities, new perspectives within architecture and landscape that are both disturbing and comforting, both challenging and confirming, intimate and lonely. People have to figure afresh how to relate. Out of that come new conversations, insight and change.

    We can easily overlook the pervasive determining influence of the meeting place. Its nature and design can deeply determine the results: hinder or help learning and change. University lecture theatres, conventional classrooms, and similar spaces evoke assumptions, behaviours and expectations that are good for achieving compliance and qualifications but counter-productive for organisational learning and change: counterproductive for experiencing and learning new ways of interrelating; of transformed, more effective organisational relationships.

    What’s your place good for? What are you trying to achieve?

    Sunday, 14 June 2009

    Leading learning for change feels risky.

    You may understand, even know how destructive defensive communication (blaming, shaming and justifying) is for learning to behave differently as an organisation. If you do and you’re an enlightened manager, you may exhort others to cease blaming, shaming and justifying; to express perspectives openly; to have the courage to tell the truth as they see it. But that doesn’t work.

    Someone, a leader, has to noticeably; outrageously do it: dare to openly speak the unspoken, discuss the un-discussable; be deliberately, robustly candid; and genuinely encourage others to be the same by actively listening and acknowledging their perspectives.

    Usually this doesn’t happen until there’s some sort of crisis: the stock answers and standard procedures clearly aren’t effective; apparently no-one really knows. Then individuals are more likely to speak out. And they are more likely to be heard.

    Last week, for perhaps the 1st time in several years, I dared do it in my “own” organisation: the one that’s my main employer. Believe me; it’s very different from advising or coaching someone else to do it, or doing it in someone else’s organisation.

    It was with some trepidation that I published my frustration at a recent incident. Once I’d published in the group discussion forum there was nothing I could do to influence the response. I had given away control. That’s scary! I waited anxiously.

    I suspected that some would be pleased I’d spoken; some would take it as personal criticism; some would wonder what I was trying to say and some would think I was an idiot.

    I guessed that some would respond to me privately; a few publically, but that most, if they responded at all, would limit their response to off-line private conversations within their various groups.

    At one point after some personal off-line response from senior managers, I was considering killing the initiative. But it was too late. The “cat was out of the bag and amongst the pigeons”.

    On reflection I remembered my purpose and my previous experiences and observations of how the best learning opportunities can be found in critical incidents and the heightened emotions that follow; when norms are disturbed; when individuals are perturbed.

    So I girded my loins and continued with my communication strategy. I framed my frustration as the opening phase of a story: the brutal facts; the bad news. Then I painted the vision: the glorious envisaged future. Finally I pointed to our strengths and opportunities and proposed my strategy to get there: by risking open communication; speaking the unspoken, discussing the un-discussable; participating in robust, candid conversations about the guts of what we do.

    I used our real-time actual shared experience as the basis for learning and change; I risked open communication; I encouraged others to candidly contribute their perspectives and acknowledged them when they did. I’ll look for more opportunities to continue the story, new incidents, new feedback, and new perspectives.

    That, in my knowledge and experience is leading learning for change.

    Friday, 5 June 2009

    It’s all about interpersonal and organisational communication

    Have you read any of Steve Denning’s books? More particularly are you following his latest campaign towards his forthcoming book on High Performance Teams? I bought and read his previous most recent book The Secret Language of Leadership. I have to say the word “secret” in the title put me off, but it sells books. . . . . . .

    I’m drawn to Denning because of his communication-based perspective on leadership and change. I don’t think he has all the answers though he perhaps pretends to because that’s what the Business book market wants.

    To me it’s the communication angle that’s the key. Denning’s big thing is deliberate, designed story telling. I have coached clients in his basic story telling process and they almost always find that it’s very effective. I use it myself with success.

    I like Denning’s confronting conventional Management wisdom such as when he states outright that
    Richard Hackman is wrong in asserting (in a May 2009 HBR interview) that leaders can’t guarantee to produce a high performance team. Denning admits that it’s hard and a radically different way of acting from the way most organizations are run today. Interactive communication is an essential ingredient and so is not-Management.

    He sums up “[It’s about] creating exhilaration in the workplace, igniting lots of shining eyes and delight, and in the end inspiring people to reinvent themselves. Because of the results it is producing, a radical new way of managing work is emerging. It involves a different way of thinking about work, a different way of managing work, and a different way of participating in work. It isn’t a quick fix. It isn’t an incremental change or a shift at the periphery. When fully implemented, it affects everything in the organization. It entails fundamental change.”

    Denning to me is one of the current applied versions of the seminal 1970s and following work of Chris Argyris, further developed by the likes of Peter Senge in the 1990s. It clearly takes a long while for a new good idea to get traction! Maybe GM’s bankruptcy will add weight the sea-change in Management thinking and practice. I hope so but I'm sceptical.

    I’m re-reading Senge and Co’s “The Fifth Discipline Field Book” and subsequent “The Dance of Change” - good "how to" in there but not a pop read for the busy executive (the one who needs to change first).

    For heavy-weight logic and argument I like
    Karl Weick. His latest book (2007) is Managing the Unexpected. I like the way Weick is comfortable with "un-organisation". That, to me, is real project life: real business life; especially small business life.

    Monday, 1 June 2009

    The inherent unkindness of organisations

    In his May 27 blog Word-of-Mouth Starts with Kindness Zane Safrit states unequivocally that

    Kindness is inherent in all of us. Unfortunately, we encounter too many obstacles, of our individual and collective making.”

    I think I agree with Zane though I’d put it like this: The attribute most ignored, even denied in organisations is our passionate desire to do good things together.

    Most people just LOVE to do good things together. They’ll even do it for free if the vision is “good” enough and process “together” enough.

    That love is kind of like the
    Higgs Boson of community: the force that gives substance to community; that brings community into being.

    Community materialises out of interpersonal space through communication relationships. The quality of community is dependent on the quality of communication.

    Viewed that way the obstacles to achieving good things together are the bad communication habits and the associated assumptions that we first learned at school, developed at university, and now typically unconsciously perpetuate at work as managers and subordinates:

    Success is essentially individualistic and competitive; collaboration is a burden; the manager knows the right answers; communication is from the manager; work is tasks; knowledge is information and information is power; and individuals are to blame for their own success and failure.

    In truth, vital community and vital business depend on kindness, thoughtfulness, helpfulness, openness, and forgiveness; and on collaboration to generate good data, to interpret it into information, to comprehend it into knowledge and to practice it wisely and imaginatively.

    So the challenge is to unlearn the communication habits and the assumptions about organisation that first imprinted us at school where industrial-mode education determines that we are organised in rows, facing and obediently receiving our training from the authority at the front who demands that we produce our ‘own work’ to the specified nature and standard.

    Then, as managers and subordinates we perpetuate that model of unkindness and wonder why our organisations lack community (call it lack of engagement if you like).
    . . . . . . . . .

    Saturday, 30 May 2009

    It’s no secret: mantras, slogans and recipes don’t work!

    In his May 28 Business Growth Tip , COO Stephen Lynch says that he’s “become a bit jaded” with the many business books he reads. “Gimmicky book titles that promise much but deliver no actionable value, empty platitudes presented as if they were profound and original ideas, the so-called “secrets” of celebrity leaders. . . . . . . ”

    I’m with Stephen. To me the popular literature on business, leadership, and management seems to pander to the gullible market for success-magic. It has little effect on actual organisational behaviour; on business execution; on actually doing things differently to get a different result.

    The academic literature isn’t helpful either: typically descriptive with narrow causal analysis, it may be fine for increasing understanding (amongst academics at least) but if there was any direct link between understanding and changed behaviour then university Business Schools would rule the business world.

    Even the best of the popular Business Management literature seems to bang away monotonously at the KPI mantra –repackaged management-by-objectives (MBO).

    Mantras, slogans and recipes don’t work! There is no short list of steps that will actually change your business. That’s because change is opportunistic: the opportunities are in the chaotic, ambiguous reality that surges and flows around and under the apparently orderly surface of conventional business practice. That’s the world of interpersonal communication.

    In a recent professional coaching conversation we discovered, once we got beneath the stock answers and platitudes, that the keys to business coaching success are in insight and transformation (discontinuous shifts in perception and behaviour). These phenomena are serendipitous, not the product of hard-grind managerial planning and control systems.

    That’s not to dismiss planning and control. It’s to say that if business success lies in change then the key is in whatever enables us to swim gracefully and purposefully in comparative chaos and ambiguity.

    And that’s where the management literature, popular or otherwise, doesn’t seem to go. It’s stuck in a simplistic model of science: of laws and formulae, of controlled, deductive, causal reasoning. That’s not sufficient in the dynamic, complex world of interpersonal relationships that are at the heart of business and change. It’s interpersonally that people actually make new sense of chaos and ambiguity.

    But how often in “Business” books do you see any mention of interpersonal communication strategy? Seldom, I reckon. There’s plenty of attention to ‘positioned’ communication in sales and marketing, but scant attention to interpersonal communication at home except perhaps in putting policies-and-procedures-in-place.

    Here are a few tips: pay attention to the verbatim detail of communication behaviour. Reflect together on the detail of what people said compared to what they thought. Learn to communicate assertively. It’s an art that's not normal in Management. Assertive communication behaviours can be learned but the process is slow and determined and you'll need all the help you can get from your work-mates.

    Friday, 22 May 2009

    Effective “people-skills” are not the same as “being-nice skills”.

    It seems that Verne Harnish, like many, may equate people-skills with being nice. If so, then he's mistaken. Effective people-skills are about effective communication – skills that many managers and subordinates don’t have regardless of whether they are nice or not.

    In his Insights newsletter this morning Verne Harnish quotes NY Times columnist David Brooks' article on some recent research on CEO effectiveness that apparently indicates that people skills are overrated and execution/persistence more important.

    Verne seems to take that to mean that effective CEO’s are not-nice. For instance he cautions that the data is about “big company CEOs" whereas owners of “smaller firms often have to be nicer to people in order to attract and keep top talent” he says.

    Does that mean that people are so keen to work for big firms that they put up with and are unaffected by bad behaviour that they wouldn’t tolerate in a smaller firm? I doubt it.

    Effective “people skills” are about effective communication and effective communication isn’t “being nice”. In fact it can be so tough that “nice people” can’t bring themselves to communicate effectively. Instead they skirt around the real issues, manoeuvre and manipulate, expecting others to somehow “get it”.

    Being an effective communicator is about being assertive; being not-manipulative; it’s about persistence and execution. Unfortunately most communication in work organisations is way less effective than it could be. The result is dissatisfaction, distress, disengagement.

    Learn how to communicate more effectively. Don’t be nice. Be effective: be purposeful; know your audience; persistently interact to establish shared understanding; identify and check all assumptions; listen.