Mind the gaps

26 04 2011

Spent a very profitable evening listening to Prof Peter Hawkins speak to “Coaching Leadership Teams” at the Civil Service College the other evening. Crystallised all kinds of things for me, with a mixture of experience, wisdom and useful models.

One recurrent theme was the notion of learning to lead in, and to manage, the gaps: the gaps between team members; the gaps between units within an organisation; the gaps between board and executive directors and unit management; and so on.

Why does this matter? For the same reason that sending people on endless individual training sessions doesn’t help them be better team contributors; and why buying team-building by the yard is unlikely to impact team performance. In other words, understanding that team performance can only be understood in relation to the gap between the team and the interests and ambitions of the team’s stakeholders; and that it is the transactions and purposeful interactions between people on the team – not whether they treat each other more thoughtfully or like each other better – that impact the ability of the team to satisfy its stakeholders.

If that sounds a little instrumental, think from the perspective of the manager. Most people become managers because of their expertise in solving stand-alone problems, not complex interactions. So when they manage individuals, they do just that; they treat each individual as a distinct performance issue. The problem is of course that when they go for their own appraisal they may well find that having a team of high performers is not the same as having a high performing team. If they then buy in a metric tonne of team-building, all that happens is that their collection of high performing people now communicate better, trust each other more, invite each other’s input and so on. Unfortunately, until they learn to take collective responsibility for what their stakeholders want, they still won’t be a team, let alone a high performing one.

In this context, understanding the impact of individual and collective perspectives and perceptions is critical. Whether you manage the gaps by a lowest-common-denominator approach – finding ways of aligning disparate selfish interests – or by a more inspirational “great common endeavour” approach, understanding what “the gaps” model really means in your situation requires that you can identify fully with the perspectives involved. You can convince yourself that a more appreciative mode of communication makes a difference in your weekly team meeting but it doesn’t cut the mustard when you are explaining to your stakeholders that the plan is going to have to change. In fact, it doesn’t really cut the mustard in most team meetings either, even if people are too polite to say so. (In this respect Birkman is once again solid gold; equipping leaders and managers with objective data on what actually matters to people, how they will frame goals as well as success itself, etc etc)

I am probably overstating a perspective to make it stick, and I absolutely believe that treating people without respect disqualifies a leader; but behaving well isn’t enough. A leader has a responsibility to lead “us” on a shared endeavour to a place where we can know that we have succeeded; and that is what makes a leader responsible for understanding what that means for each player and leveraging the interplay of those ambitions.

Mind the gaps!

No, it isn’t “just the same as…”

18 04 2011

Some phrases stay with you a lifetime; Merrick L. Jones was supervising my Masters Dissertation at the Graduate School of Business at NTU (now Charles Darwin) years ago, when I came across one of his articles on development in which he said something to the effect that “one hears people confront a novel situation so often by saying, ‘Oh, that is just the same as…’ that I take this to be a normal human coping mechanism.”

In other words, many of us, when faced with novelty, aim to reduce it to ‘the familiar’ as fast as possible. The objective of course is that once it is reduced to ‘the familiar’, it can be dismissed. At heart this seems to be a change avoidance routine.

Not, of course, to suggest that novelty and change should always be embraced uncritically. On the one hand, denial (in the face of real novelty) often leads to being caught unprepared; but simply embracing novelty (in the absence of any known bearings) can lead to paralysis. If everything has changed and nothing familiar, then who can even begin to respond?

So the point of Merrick’s comment, or at least as I received it, is to learn to catch yourself playing this novelty-denying card and to think twice. Better to say “this appears to be something new; we had better try to work out what is genuinely new and what only seems novel, in order to understand the better how to process this and respond to the situation.” It is about preserving the challenge of the new while leveraging like mad, everything we already know.

Everybody is upset

14 04 2011

Low-key organisations need to learn to confront issues openly. When they fail to do so, they follow myths and lose touch with reality.

There are at least three parts to this equation, but first, what on earth am I talking about when I say “low-key organisations”?

If you are looking at a Birkman Group Grid for your team or organisation, this is easy to work out. Turn to the page for Need, and estimate what proportion of the group is in the bottom half of the Grid. The higher the proportion, the more Low-Key the Organisation. This will only be partially moderated by a Usual page that has more people higher up the Grid. Double whammy if it is not just bottom half of the Grid, but the south-east (Blue) corner. Absent Birkman data, then this is the question: in the organisation generally, do people speak up or clam up when they see situations arise? Low-Key = clam up. Clam up because a) they don’t like being verbally assertive and b) (in the case of the double-whammy)because they really feel these things, and that makes them even less readily articulate.

Part One of the Low-Key story I got from that doyenne of Birkman Consultants, Claire Carrison. It is “the dead goat under the table” syndrome. In a low-key organisation, everybody gathers in the board room for a meeting. Under the table there is a dead goat, and it is starting to rot. Are these people aware there is a dead goat under the table? Absolutely – they are far more sensitive than most to atmosphere, so they have long-sinced identified the source of the choking vapours. Is anyone mentioning it? Not openly. Maybe someone makes an oblique aside; perhaps they talk forcefully about it in other contexts (e.g. to their spouse). But in a low-key organisation, no one wants to be the first person to raise the issue; and the more they feel it, the less they want to raise it. In Claire’s version of the story, in walks someone who isn’t Low-Key. They immediately say, “hey guys, there’s a dead goat under the table. Anybody mind if I drag it outside?” Low-Key people all breathe a) again and b) a sigh of relief.

Part  Two of the Low-Key story is that unfortunately it doesn’t always work out like that. My theory, for what it is worth, is that Low-Key people who have been living with the stench of dead goat start believing that there must be some virtue in breathing in the miasma; of course there must be, because the alternative is to accept that they have all been silly enough to put up with an obvious and easily solved problem without moving a finger to deal with it. So – in my observation of a number of extremely Low-Key organisations – when the cheerful non-Low-Key person offers to drag the goat outside, they get mugged. “Tactless!” “This issue is far too sensitive to be mentioned!” “We are taking this discussion offline right now…” (which equals “if you dare to mention this again you will wish you hadn’t”). And the killer: “Everybody is extremely upset that you have raised this. It will take months of work to get things back on track…” In the real world, i.e. outside my caprine story, of course it isn’t always a cheerful top-of-the-Grid person who mentions the problem; it may well be a Low-Key person who nonetheless feels (key word) that the time has come for this issue to be confronted. That means they are doubly devastated when, having paid a price already to simply speak up in the first place, they then get slapped down for their effort. I wish it was as simple as “we are all relieved when someone finally mentions the problem”; but it too often turns into a toxic form of groupthink.

“I mentioned the war,” says Basil Fawlty, “but I think I got away with it.”

The scene is now set for Part Three of the Low-Key story. We move from an implicit assumption that “there must be a really good reason why the dead goat is still there, so touch it not”; to explicit myth making. “That goat has made and saved us more money than any 10 employees combined.” “Other people would be handicapped by having a dead goat under the table, but we are made wittier and smarter by its effusions.” “You will never be truly one of us until you learn to inhale.” The narrative only needs to appear coherent and connected to insiders, not those outside; history now belongs to the first person who can weave a compelling narrative that leaves the goat where it is, probably as the strong (sic) centre of things. So now, who would ever dare to challenge the dead goat?

All of this is fundamentally a crisis of leadership. There are, as far as I can see, only two ways of solving this issue, and both happen in Part One of the story. Route 1 is that a leader, however Low-Key or otherwise they may be, decides that she or he is going to build a culture in which the norm is that we always identify and openly discuss issues when they are first seen / felt ( / smelled?). It can be done. Jim Collins talks about the Stockdale Paradox – confront the brutal facts AND retain faith that you will ultimately prevail. That is a course open to any organisation, including Low-Key ones.

Route 2 has a less good prognosis. “Let’s not confront this issue directly; it will sort itself out in the end”. That is a leadership decision as well; this way we will progress to Part Two and Part Three (where nothing positive can generally be accomplished). The issue does in fact sort itself out in the end; but generally only when the organisation blows apart.

The higher, the simpler

4 04 2011

Granted myself a day off today, after what has been a rather hectic 5 or 6 weeks.  Made a large pot of green tea, read John Adair’s Inspirational Leadership in a single sitting (Socratic dialogue lives; profundity without density) and then walked about 12 km through the jungle to Bukit Timah in the noon-day sun. As Dilbert’s friend Wally once said, “It turns out I am insane, but apparently I am one of the happy kind…”

Lots of very interesting encounters to process in the last few weeks, but here is the one of the emerging themes: the closer to the top of any organisation you get, the less technical the real issues are. Or, put another way: the higher you go, the simpler it gets.

Simpler, not simplistic. Fred in Customer Relations may be deciding between 3 IT vendors and their competing platforms, and doing so on the basis of immensely detailed technical specs; Carol the CEO meanwhile is deciding between black and white. The difference is that Fred’s decision – by no means insignificant – has at best a 3-5 year horizon. Carol’s decision will affect the destiny of the company for the next 25 years. And behind Carol’s seemingly simple choice lie multiverses – diverse possible futures, at least half of which will collapse and disappear when she makes her call. Think Lou Gerstner calling IBM back to its core: Servers and Services. Goodbye Printers and Laptops (and, of course, hello Lexmark and Lenovo).

This is hardly a new thought, but the aspect of this simplicity that has been striking me most forcibly is that it means that problems at the top of an organisation often reduce to one thing: unrecognised, unacknowledged differences of perspective and perception.

Down where Fred dwells, there will be “wars of religion” – open source versus proprietary, off the shelf versus customised or bespoke – and so on. Many of these disagreements will also be ultimately driven by differences of perception, but there is room for people to be right or wrong about technical issues. Up where Carol operates, where vision of credible and possible futures is pretty much all there is to work with, perception is pretty much everything; and unrecognised, uncategorised differences of perception will impact not just a single issue or question, but the whole landscape. When Carol calls “black” and two of her three C-level reports agree with her, is that because she has understood and found wanting the reasons the third person had for keeping “white” in play? Or are they – unknowingly – seeing the future from such different perspectives, that what each means by “black” or “white” is quite different.

A couple of concrete examples, slightly disguised. Global player in its field, formed by a series of well-spaced mergers and acquisitions over the last 25 years. Scratch this organisation anywhere and find that the sum of the whole is much less than the sum of its parts (in other words, the merged organisation underperforms pretty much any of the original constituent organisations); and yet in every one of those areas it has long-time industry experts enough and to spare. They don’t need smarter people or more technical know-how; how could they, they wrote all the reference books. So what? Well, they might need some objective help to understand just how differently they (and their original organisations) were and are seeing the world.

Other end of the scale. Entrepreneurial team of 5 (still the top of the organisation; the mountain is just a lot lower). All have huge track record in their field (in fact the leader comes from a dynasty in that field, and definitely brings more than just his genes to the part; he has done it all). All except for one member of the team, that is. This person is the lightning rod for all disagreements, and guess what – comes from an entirely different business background. The team mostly see the issue as how to get this fifth person onboard with the vision and plan; impartial external advisers see the real issue as how to get these industry experts to listen to the one person who sees what they don’t, and could therefore save them all from the impending train wreck when their lopsided perception takes them off the rails.

All of which means that finding an objective means by which  to synchronise or calibrate perception, and differences of perspective, is potentially priceless at the upper echelons of any enterprise.

Thank you, Dr Birkman…