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).
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