dinsdag 23 april 2013

When We Cross That River

Imagine two individuals standing on the same side of the same river but with some distance in between them. And one is standing at a point where the river is calm and gentle whereas the other is standing at a point where the river is wild and fast. Now what will happen when the two will call each other only to consult one another how to cross this river? Do you think they will agree on the way to get across? Probably not. Yet I see this happening every day in organisations. Individuals and groups in direct opposition when discussing solutions whilst they are facing a different problem. They share the same goal: reaching the other side. But they are looking at different parts of the river, requiring them to think differently. Now some would argue that it's simply a matter of reaching agreement on what the problem is. But sometimes we think we agree but we don't. Or we can't agree. Why is that?

First there are a couple of constraints that need to be understood by both. Recognizing these five may increase your options to reach that shared goal:

1. The premature solution
We try so hard to focus on solutions that often we forget to analyze the problem sufficiently, causing us to limit our data gathering, use familiar ways that we know how to solve, and finally, narrow too soon. This can also be 'the single-solution dogma'. We have found a solution to the problem as we see it. Can we accept that there might be several solutions instead of one?

2. The forgotten principle
Problems often reoccur. While this doesn't call for repeating a solution, it's not uncommon that organisations have thought of a principle to guide them each time a problem of similar nature occurs. But principles tend to be forgotten or understood differently over time, whilst they can help us agree that multiple solutions could fit.

3. The policy straitjacket
Organisations often seek efficiency and control by standardisation. If similar problems are addressed in the same way, policies are in place, then people know how to act and we can predict the outcome. But while standardizing manufacturing processes makes perfectly sense, it doesn't make any sense in problem-solving. It limits the use of common sense and may deny us better solutions for different contexts in which the same problem can occur.

4. The improbable testimony
You are looking at the problem but you fail to see it as the other does. Of course! You are looking at it from a different angle. Denying someone's perception of the problem is more harmful than the problem itself. It causes distrust and closes doors for further dialogue and collaboration.

5. The Babylon effect
Christian or not, we all know the story. In ancient Babylon, the Babylonians were building a tower to reach to heaven to sit next to God and rule the world. In the biblical story, God placed confusion of speech upon the builders so they could no longer communicate and complete their work. Are we really speaking the same language?

In fact, there are many more constraints to mention that can cause us to disagree on a solution, or worse, make us settle for a less optimal consensus. But the ones mentioned here are some within your direct span of control. Recognize these and you are half way there!

woensdag 13 februari 2013

Is There Value in Ballyhoo and Hysteria?

Anyone in the HR business can relate to this, having been assigned to a project that, as it turns out, everyone has an opinion about, from the janitor to the board rooms. In one of my previous posts (When Good Turns Bad) I have discussed handling good intended but bad advice based on uninformed reasoning. But what if others start voicing their opinions, in full disregard of a careful alignment process, in a manner that can only be described as ballyhoo and hysteria?

Big HR projects have that tendency of evoking very heated, emotional discussions. They often touch the core identity of an organisation, reaffirming or challenging existing principles and values which are deeply rooted in the organisational culture. Some principles may have been forgotten, but once contested they can arise as a phoenix to inspire and guide as before.

These kind of projects prove a challenge for leaders to channel opinions towards a meaningful result. No doubt, every single comment has value. Question is, how much value should you give it? Or isn't that the key question?

I have learnt that opinions come in different shapes and depths. It is quite tempting to judge them on their value and dismiss them if they do not seem to bring you any. More than once have I been frustrated by people who have shared their opinion not hindered by any lack of knowledge, and wrapped with a fair share of value judgments. My default reaction has been until recently to educate the uninformed, militantly separating fact from fiction. Little did I understand that I was missing the point entirely.

Very few people are truly evil but many people partake in mindless behaviour. Uninformed or unsubstantiated opinions are easily read as inconsiderate, impolite or even narcissistic. As true as this often may be, it stands to reason that the underlying motives are those of disengagement. People feel they lose control. And when things change in an organisation, everyone has their own pace of understanding and acceptance. Such a development comes with emotions, silent or expressed. Those leading the change need to recognize and embrace it.

I have just read an article (The Missing Link of Change: Suspension) by a contemporary thought-leader, Lolly Daskal, discussing the stages of grief as a model for understanding emotional responses to organisational change. What I seem to have been missing all these years is to actually comprehend how people process change, to understand the process of emotional development. Addressing that process with tongue instead of ears, trying to knock out the critics with arguments instead of truly listening will strangle any re-engagement at birth. So the key question is: How to create space for people to re-engage?

How do you deal with ballyhoo and hysteria?

vrijdag 1 februari 2013

May The Leadership Be With You!

If you think the title of this post sounds familiar, you're right. It makes reference to one of the most famous quotes from the sci-fi motion picture Star Wars. "But what does that have to do with leadership?” you might wonder. You will find out in a minute.

It is not uncommon in larger organisations to have leadership turnover, leaders come and go. Some have had more impact during their term than others. And while some have pushed the organisation to a new level, others have been an obstacle for growth. Quite more interesting though is that during all these leadership - and perhaps course - changes, you will find that employees, followers, often remain a constant factor, true to the cause. Hard working, dedicated people who were at some point led by one and the next day by another leader, yet continuing to deliver what is needed, despite of. In my previous post (The Key Component in Leadership Communication) I have already raised the question whether people commit to the visionary or the vision. That post has got me thinking that one might find true leadership in more places within an organisation. Places where one would least expect it.

Don't get me wrong, I will not start to down talk the importance of a traditional leadership position nor the value people bring to it. Assuming a leadership role says a lot about a person. It is about taking responsibility to make things better. However, as important as it is to have true leaders in positions that can empower others to succeed in their tasks, it is equally important to have people who can allow those leadership positions to succeed their vision. This suggests an omnipresent leadership, which actually reminds me of The Force in Star Wars. The Force was thought to be present in most living beings, surrounding and penetrating them, thus making all living things connected by it. I would like to believe that leadership works in a similar way. Sure, not everyone can be a Jedi. But The Force can only grow stronger in them when being more attuned with other living beings around them.

Leadership is everywhere around us. I have seen leadership in many different types of position throughout the organisation I work for, from front-office to back-office jobs. People who may not have answered any leadership calling, but show such a passion and drive in what they do that they unintentionally and sometimes even without knowing, positively affect others around them. People who may have deliberately chosen to stay 'hands-on' and not sign up for a leadership position, but nevertheless are followed by others in how they master their job. These people are the organisation's beacons by which it sails its course, regardless of who is captain on the ship. I once read an article with interviews of Assistants to CEO's in major companies. The fact that they often are the gate to the CEO's office makes them almost more leader than the CEO. They influence what the CEO needs to know and decide on.

Smart leaders already know that they should surround themselves with people who are smarter. The best ones have come to understand that leadership is in fact universal and all around them. It is only a matter of creating sensitivity to it in order to use its strength. Just like with The Force. May it be with you!

maandag 21 januari 2013

The Key Component in Leadership Communication

Let's face it, I am no brilliant spokesman. Would you put me in front of a crowd, unprepared, with ten minutes to express my inner thoughts, you will likely find me stuttering and stumbling over words. I do not use clever phrases or catchy buzzwords. I do not have a radio voice, gentle and pleasant. I lack charisma, let alone radiate any level of seniority with my presence.

Being raised in an environment of debate, my rhetoric excels in defensive, absolute statements but seldom succeeds to express understanding and compassion. I often catch myself using words that enlarge differences rather than bring people together. But what if I had a dream to share, one that people would want to share and follow? A vision of a better world, so compelling, that it requires hundreds, thousands or maybe even millions of people to achieve? Will they be inspired by it or distracted by the clumsy way how I would tell them the story?

I have always believed a leader needs to be able to communicate, and communicate well. But when I say 'communicate', I actually mean to connect and resonate ideas. Has the message been well-received? Was the other party understood? To this day, I have been indecisive about whether a leader has to be good with words as well. I know that it is about making things understandable and relevant, but does that involve persuasive speech? Are people following a vision or the visionary? Or always both?

History has given us a fair share of charismatic leaders. Political, ideological, religious, artistic or business leaders with the power to persuade. Some of them had brilliant ideas beyond their own desires, others were clearly more narcissistic and self-serving though equally praised. But history has also proven that many would follow the dreams and directions of visionaries who would not say much and did not enjoy public presence to the point of being shy. And then there is the phenomenon of critical mass, people following an idea because so many others have already went before them, basically trusting other people's judgement. So what is the key component of leadership communication?

I will probably disappoint a lot of readers now when I say I do not have a straightforward answer for you. What I do know is that what has touched me in many of these communications: PASSION. A leader could wrap up words in gold for that matter, but if the words fail to show any true passion it would certainly fail to capture me, regardless how eloquently phrased. Over the years with my employer, I have had the privilege to give lectures about several HR topics in our internal management trainings. What I have noticed is that my own interest in the topic was a measure for the appreciation the participants would give to me. I could even see myself real-time losing connection with a group of students over subjects that lack my interest.

Knowing that passion is the key to connect with people, you may want to rethink your own passion for the ideas that you need to communicate as a leader to your community. It could very well be that you do not find great passion for every idea within. But as your wider vision probably thrives on an assembly of smaller ideas, find that other passionate person in your environment who can get people energized about that specific one. And give that person ownership over that part of the story.

Leadership communication is for me not about the wrapping, but the gift within. What say you?

donderdag 10 januari 2013

Bullshit Management

Today I would like to share my book review of Bullshit Management: Return to the essence of organisations by Jos Verveen (The Hague, Academic Service, 2011). Why more than a year after publishing? Well, the simple answer is that I have just recently started this blog, but I really feel this book deserves your attention.

Bullshit Management busts the ubiquitous myth that investing in management pays off. It reads unfettered criticism, disputing any proof of a scientific blue print for success, even questioning well-established theories of Taylor and Mayo. Moreover: due to all these models, methods and terminologies, more and more organisation are losing sight of their essence. This book calls for abandonment of management and urges organisations to take matters into own hands again. While products and services prove distinctive quality of organisations, the best way to organize is unprecedented for as well. According to Verveen, you would anyhow not need a management book for that.

Paradoxically, whereas the writer critically questions the usefulness of models, theories, systems, structures and terminologies, his book went management book besteller in The Netherlands. To my knowledge there is no English edition yet, so my Anglo-Saxon followers unfortunately have to settle for this post, for now.

The Essence of an Organisation
I recently came across the following Tweets:
"Business is about creating value. Making money is just a pleasant sideproduct."
"Most of what we call management consists of making it difficult for people to get their work done."

These are just two posts of many that I have seen and read, instigating critical review of management as a concept. Verveen builds his case around experiences he has gathered during his former career as business consultant. In his book, he claims that business management is characterised by continuous efficiency reviews whilst overlooking the essence of an organisation, which does not equal 'managing'.

"The essence of an organisation stands far from the goal of business management which is profit maximisation by increasing the productivity. The essence has therefore also nothing to do with finding an optimal strategy to obtain high productivity. Neither does the essence equal the effort of designing the organisation in the most efficient way to implement that strategy. An organisation has not originated, grown and survived due to management, but only by holding on to its core essence. Each step away from this essence opens the door for building an organisational 'house of cards' which needs management, a lot of management, to keep it straight. A house increasingly filled with people questioning themselves what it exactly is they are doing there."

A Vicious Circle
Recent U.S. gun control debates somewhat got me drawing a parallel between gun lobbyists and management disciples. They both claim to have the solution for a problem what according to others is the root problem in itself. And both advocate for even more of it when the soup hits the fan. Of course the impact of guns cannot be compared with that of management, though in the wrong hands, both can have dramatic social consequences.

If not already by the title of this post, then surely at this point in the text I must have upset some business school graduates. For some, management is a religion. But let me just ask those readers the following then:

According to you, what motivates people to work?
Certainly not management, right?

And according to you, what makes people engage to dreams bigger than their own?
I suspect few would answer 'management' here as well.

Lastly, according to you, what keeps people focused on creating value?

Yet with any sign that motivation, purpose or focus is lacking, we immediately seek to gain control by management. The irony is that management distracts people further from what should give them motivation, purpose or focus, perpetually clouding the essence of the organisation. A vicious circle indeed.

Return to The Essence
The solution this book offers to break the circle is quite obviously to seek that essence again. To stop organising work around peripherals and to start organising it around that what truly matters, what we feel will create value. His case continues even deeper by arguing that management and its goals, productivity and profitability, have poisoned our economies, and some businesses may find that there is actually no value in what they produce.

Verveen envisions a society that revolves around an economy with equal distribution of scarce resources in which true enterpreneurs and professionals bring genuine value while following their actual talents (see also The War for Talent Hoax). A Dutch politician has recently disputed that the current crisis could be solved with economical growth, arguing that economical growth is in fact the cause of this crisis. Maybe the crisis will lead us to a world closer to Verveen's vision...

My lessons learnt from this book: There is no blue print for success, but hard work, common sense and the ambition to bring genuine value will likely give you a head start on your competition.

For those (Dutch readers) who have read it, feel free to leave your review in the comments below. For the others, you can find Jos Verveen (@josverveen) on Twitter and ask him personally to publish an English translation.

vrijdag 4 januari 2013

When Good Turns Bad

What do you say to a friend who is helping you move furniture and accidentally breaks your late grandfather's self-constructed wooden chair? Or to your dad who 'knows how to fix the plumbing' but causes water damage to your kitchen?

The noble helpers
This is more commonly occurring than one would think. You will find people in many different occasions and settings in your private or professional life who are willing to take on more than called for. They either volunteer to the task or feel obliged for any given reason. Though their intentions are ninety-nine per cent of the time good, the outcome of their efforts are not always. Sometimes to the extent that these have even caused more harm in the end. But what do you say to these noble helpers? Do you confront them with their poor performance? Or do you thank them and silently regret having accepted their help?

I remember an incident, back when I was fifteen. Our family had just moved to a new area where our newly built house shared a front yard with our next-door neighbours. When the neighbour offered to build a pergola in it that would cover both halves, my parents accepted his offer, feeling somewhat relieved for having one decoration worry less. Shortly after the man finished, my dad walked over to his place to borrow his tools to tilt one of the posts that he considered off plumb. You can guess what happened next. Exactly. The neighbour was offended and felt unrecognised for the hard work he had done. And although they made peace shortly after, they never became close friends in the years following. But what was my dad supposed to do? Leave the post tilted as it was?

The institutionally empowered
Leaders can run into similar situations in professional life with people volunteering for worker's representation or supervisory boards. They may have been chosen for a particular expertise such as HR, Finance or IT, but eventually confronted with, or better yet, responsible for making decisions on a broader scope. It requires them to have an opinion about issues in a field, far from their expertise and without any business acumen. And before you know it your front yard is full with tilted posts. Only this time tilting them plumb is going to cost money, a lot of money.

Since they have been mandated to hold leadership accountable, leaders will find themselves often in a catch twenty-two. They have made a deliberate choice with ample thought, by cross-organisational collaboration and with support of various professionals, whilst having carefully weighted pros and cons. Relaying these to an institutionally empowered group to rebalance, may cause them to emphasize some pros or cons over others in order to 'tilt' to what was already considered as best outcome. An outcome they are eventually held accountable for by other stakeholders.

A propos, you obviously do not need to master something to have an opinion about it. Think of the thousands of coaches in a sports stadium each Sunday. Or millions of voters in election period. And who has never seen a TV talent show without having cast a vote on their favourite talent? Having an opinion is easy. Making a difference with it however, proves quite tough.

The ones driven by fear
This dilemma has really been puzzling me for a while now. You will find plenty of books, blogs and whatsoever to guide the advice-giver, but what about the advice-taker? How should he or she deal with good intended, but bad advice? In particular when such advice is binding.

When I find myself confronted with a limited sphere of information processing around me, my response is to question it. When someone makes a statement which seems to be proceeding along the crystallized lines of post assumptive thought, I ask “why?” or “what is really being said here?” I try to understand their thinking process and present them with mine. Explain to them in a non-judgmental way why I think their perspective is ‘tilted’. Evidence that this helps break through impasse is not inconclusive, but it at least gives me a better understanding of people’s motivation, quite often driven by fear.

Smart advice-givers will ask questions and listen first. Those who do not, are likely trapped in thinking they have to present you with the final answer. Though procedural-wise this may be true, I bet they are not waiting for a front yard full of tilted posts in the end.

As I am in it to learn, I would really like to hear from you how you deal with good intended bad advice.