Sunday, 29 March 2009

The "secret" to leadership in uncertain times (3)

In uncertain times like these, anxiety and uncertainty abound because what we thought were the answers, what we thought was logical and reliable, has failed. People we trusted to know clearly don’t know. Things we thought were sensible clearly don’t make sense any more.

The climate of uncertainty is ripe for the soothsayers, snake-oil salesmen and quack doctors who are out in force - this time let loose in the virtual communication space of the internet as well as in the usual success-secret shelves of the bookstore.

As the cacophony of chatter and advice in virtual communication space reaches a seeming white-noise crescendo, it all seems to me increasingly unlikely to yield transformation. All manner of self-proclaimed, self-promoting experts are in there looking to make a killing in the confusion: peddling their various solution lists; tools and levers without engines; re-packaged, re-positioned versions of failed recipes of the last 30 years.

I find it difficult to find anything new, any significant discussion even. The twittering social networking phenomenon looks to me increasingly hysterical: like a throng mesmerised in a Matrix-Reloaded-like stream of often uncritically repeated information, misnamed “knowledge”.

My experience is that the knowledge that enables and feeds collaboration exists only between people in relationship – as interactively generated shared-meaning. At its best, in a high performing team, it is dynamic, changing, growing through the robustly shared experiences of diverse team members - in an open, supportive communication climate where people have learnt to trust each other enough to tell, listen to and face the brutal facts as they see them.

An effective leader helps the team learn new things by reflecting on practice in the light of new perspectives; encourages the team members to discover new perspectives, bring them to the team and use them to make new, rich sense together of what they’re doing.

There is no band aid – no quick fix. The healing process is richly systemic. The result is the miracle of a “team on fire”: doing good things together.

It’s like Irish singer Bono says (quoted by writer Bob Gass): "I would be terrified to be on my own as a solo singer… I surround myself with… a band, a family of very spunky kids, and a wife who's smarter than anyone… you're only as good as the arguments you get. So maybe the reason why the band hasn't split up is that people might get this: even though I'm only one quarter of U2, I'm more than I could be if I was one whole of something else."

Wednesday, 25 March 2009

The “secret” to leadership in uncertain times (2)

The secret to effective leadership in uncertain times is a relationship-based rather than performance-based climate: where you don’t rely primarily on an external system of rules to 'keep people in line' but on deeply shared purpose, generated and implemented through gutsy, open relationships between people; powered by the shared heartfelt desire to do good stuff together.

That’s the spirit of community and of high performance teams; where leadership is endemic, not restricted to 'a leader'; relationship is the driver; performance is an outcome; performance measurement provides data about the effectiveness of collaboration.

As writer Bob Gass puts it: effective teams share a “sense of belonging. Members extend trust to one another. Initially it's a risk because trust can be violated and you can get hurt. At the same time as each team member gives trust, each must conduct themselves in a way that earns the trust of others by holding themselves to a high standard.

When everyone gives freely and bonds of trust develop and are tested over time, they begin to have faith in one another. They believe that the people next to them will act with consistency, keep commitments, maintain confidences and support each other. The stronger their sense of belonging becomes, the greater their potential to work together.

All teams have disagreements. The mark of community is not the absence of conflict; it's the presence of a spirit of reconciliation. It’s not about people hiding their concerns to protect a false notion of unity. It’s about the ability to have a rough-and-tumble meeting with someone, but because we're committed to each other in shared purpose we can leave, slapping each other on the back, saying, 'I'm glad we're still on the same team'."

The leader’s role in a community like that is to lead by example (be 1st at):
  • risking emotion and intimacy in leader/follower relationships;
  • risking robust, open communication;
  • risking walking into a meeting without already knowing the answer;
  • risking sharing performance data;
  • risking following;
  • risking apologising;
  • risking letting the team decide the performance standards and manage the accountabilities;
  • risking performance appraisal by followers.

Tip: use the performance appraisal for feedback on the observed frequency of that risk-taking.

Sunday, 22 March 2009

The “secret” to leadership in uncertain times (1)

There’s a lot of talk these days about customer experience such as airline crews who sing to their passengers; thoughtfulness in interpersonal relationships; and business success that stems from an inside advantage (Robert Bloom ) where everyone in the organisation is fully engaged (Markus Buckingham).

It’s all very interesting, sensible and even exciting but actually getting it to happen in your organisation is another story: a leadership story (Steve Denning). Leadership isn’t so much about planning and control as it is about communication: what you communicate, who you communicate it to and, most importantly, how you communicate it.

We don't see much in popular Management about that. Maybe because communication is complex and variable and difficult to learn and change by conventional analytical process. Maybe that’s why it doesn’t figure in most business education aside maybe from a bit of 1960s theory applied to a case study or two and stuff on meetings.

One important reason why Bob Bloom’s process for developing the inside advantage is so effective is that its done by brainstorming. Brainstorming requires and generates a relationship and leadership climate that’s ideal in uncertain times.

The spirit of that leadership climate is captured for me by writer Bob Gass: “Have you ever watched someone walking a dog on a leash when the dog doesn't want to go where its owner is going? The owner is constantly tugging on the leash, pulling the dog from here and there, telling it to "stop that" and "come back here". . . . That's the way a lot of us live.

Our lives consist of "Stop that; come back here; don't do that". . . . . . What a difference when you see a dog and its owner that have a strong relationship. The dog doesn't need a leash to go for a walk. Its owner can just speak a word and the dog responds.

We're not comparing ourselves to dogs and dog owners. We're comparing performance-based living to relationship-based living. Big, big difference!”

Genuine Bob-Bloom-style brainstorming to generate shared purpose is an excellent way to grow a relationship-based climate that’s exciting, satisfying and profitable. (More on this next blog)

Friday, 13 March 2009

How to get a breakthrough idea and make it happen

Want to stand up and stand out with an offering that’s special and rare?

Want the energy and focus of people keenly doing really excellent, standout stuff together?

Had it with a work climate that’s impersonal, dispassionate, routine and closely structured; where there’s little real pride and people aren’t really doing it together?

You need to breakthrough to a new passionate, personal, exciting, shared understanding of what you collectively are and do, who you do that for, and how you do it. You need transformation: collective breakthrough understanding of the uniquely special aspects of what you can do and of doing it together.

And the same time you need to imbue the whole organisation with the new understanding so that everyone eagerly learns to live it normally, naturally.

That’s a tough call for most organisations because they aren’t set up for transformation. They’re set up to efficiently replicate a product or service; where managers know the answers, hold the power and authority, use it to gain compliance, and people do jobs rather than live roles.

Even incremental change is hard to achieve in a climate like that – let alone breakthrough. An ideas competition won’t produce do it. A management think tank won’t do it. A consultant won’t do it. Brainstorming won’t work either, because the managers will want to control it and the rest will expect them to.

Nevertheless brainstorming is the key because it can allow the unspeakable, the outrageous, the boring, the weird, and the stupid – the new ‘answers’ - to be spoken and heard along with the ‘right answers’. It can enable people to get to know each other deeper: to strengthen the relationships that will be crucial to implementation. It can lead to a widely supported “best answer”.

To brainstorm your way out of mediocrity and get run over in the rush to do really excellent, standout stuff together, try this:

  1. Get an outside facilitator to lead the brainstorm
  2. Make a team competition of getting the most unique ideas on the board.
    Give each team its own colour pad of post-it labels to stick its ideas on the board. No duplicates
  3. Make a time limit.
    The effect is a chaotic environment where new ideas can emerge through word association and lack of boundaries. Managers should risk looking stupid early as runners rather than writers or thinkers.
  4. Together, move the post-its into emergent clusters.
    In this process the meanings of words, ideas and concepts are discovered and explored.
  5. In teams generate sentences and paragraphs that express the concepts, ideas and sentiments of the clusters.
  6. Share the teams’ ideas and reach consensus on single outcomes.

Run separate brainstorms to achieve breakthrough, in your own words, on “who we do it for”, “what we do” and “how we do it”; look for the unique, special aspects that your customers will love you, and no one else, for; then get specialist copywriters to translate into marketing speak.

You’ll get better with each brainstorm; as people risk trusting the process.

The process itself is the transformation.

Wednesday, 11 March 2009

Do we really want to know?

I'm thinking on what role the virtual networking explosion of the last several years might have in transformation to the post global-economic-&-financial-crisis (call it GEFC) world.

The social networking phenomenon seems in many ways to be superficial and egotistical: Look at me: I am; I have friends; I am respected, recommended.

It seems kind of desperate in its extreme with individuals’ networks too big to sustain significant depth: almost like a web of shorthand relationships; more about connection than deep change or collaboration.

In New Zealand the TXT phenomenon is huge amongst young people who continually TXT each other. With an iPhone they can be constantly connected to their virtual world.

I wonder if this phenomenon will wither or flourish with GEFC. Wither with a realisation that depth is essential to productive relationships, or flourish with increased need to talk; to relate in crisis.

I ‘m reflecting on why I began this blog; why I’m on Facebook and LinkedIn: what am I trying to achieve? Am I and others fundamentally seeking connectedness in a deeply disconnected world?

Maybe we can discover new organisational modes, themes, tunes, rhythms and harmonies in the possibility-rich, apparent-noise of transmission and interconnection.

Through my sometime association with Computer Clubhouse in New Zealand ( ) I can appreciate how connectedness is fundamental to community and individual health and creativity: opportunity for empathy, relationship, learning, growth and innovation.

Problem is, I have way more information coming at me than I can productively utilise; way more opportunity to connect than I can respond to, let alone develop into productive relationships.

I have to decide which to attend to; which to pursue; to somehow achieve a balance of confirming and disconfirming influence so that I am challenged but not destroyed; to leave room for serendipity rather than attempt to control it all myself. . . . . . . . . . . I also need silence . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Monday, 9 March 2009

How to communicate more effectively

If this relationships and communication stuff really is a breakthrough key to future success in commerce, leadership, organisation, change and learning then you better get on to it.

Diary note: “find a communication course for my people to do”.

WRONG. Two reasons:

1. A course or three in communication won’t do it.

Most courses focus on understanding why and how to communicate. But understanding doesn’t affect behaviour. For instance, noticed that University Business Schools can’t actually do Business?

Communication’s similar. Understanding doesn’t change behaviour because the way we communicate is mainly determined by reflex and habit: unconscious norms and untested assumptions.

We can “put on a good show”, but when tired, under pressure or in familiar contexts we typically quickly revert to habit and reflex behaviour.

Another thing: we usually aren’t conscious of our communication behaviour. Others typically don’t want to upset us by telling us, unless they are upset themselves. That’s called a fight. Fights don’t fix communication behaviour. They make it worse.

2. It starts with you. Not them.

The only communication behaviour you can change is yours. You have to risk changing first. The leader risks first.

If you stop blaming, shaming and justifying; start communicating in ways least likely to provoke a defensive reaction, then you and those you relate to can begin to learn: new perspectives, insights, new shared purpose, new relationships, new organisation.

Try this:

1. Give 5-10 of the people you relate to (choose from above, below and along-side you in the hierarchy plus suppliers and customers) a chance to give you feedback, anonymous to begin with, on the way you communicate.

2. Ask them to identify three of your helpful communicating behaviours (strengths) and two corresponding unhelpful ones (weaknesses).

3. Pick a couple of strengths and one weakness and ask those 10 people to observe how often you do the helpful stuff and how often the unhelpful stuff.

4. Try to do the helpful stuff more often and the unhelpful stuff less often. Share your progress with your ten “coaches”.

5. When you’ve substantially improved (it may take 3 months or more) pick the next three.

6. Suggest to your 10 that they do the same, making you one of their ten.

This can turn into an administrative nightmare that outweighs the benefits, so consider an on-line feedback system to make regular (quarterly) feedback do-able.

Friday, 6 March 2009

The end of the Age of Alignment?

Yesterday on New Zealand National Radio, Jerry L. Jordan, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland from March 1992 to January 2003, described the current global financial and economic crisis as “The falling off of a cliff: a disconnect with what has happened before”.
(Audio: “Economic and financial crisis - how long will it last?”)

Does the crisis herald a major sea change; a transformation of the economic landscape; of the way things are; the end of the Age of Alignment: the reign of the language, logic and values of Management?

“Alignment”, epitome of Management: the objective, scientific, one dimensional power and simplicity of a vector; pure direction.

Management by alignment: all on track; aligned in thinking, acting, and speaking; suppressing and ejecting out-of-line views 'till they cease to exist; moving forward, driving, leveraging in a one-track, rigid pattern of thought and action; into a slow motion train wreck.

Maybe the new model is leadership, unity: shared purpose amidst diverse thinking, seeing and speaking; moving tentatively into strange awsome landscape, learning and discovering, in intimate relationship.

Are we off-track for change?