Is it time to bin the idea of “Change Management”?

Moving from the fallacy of planned, predictable change to embracing feedback driven change and the reality of unpredictability and no control.

The term “Change Management” itself has significant limitations and assumptions attached to it. Manage change sounds much like time management. No one can teach you to manage time any more than you can manage change. With time management, you can only control the actions you take and prioritise them to make the best use of the time available, and we all the get the same amount each day.

As with time, you cannot manage change per se, you can only control your actions in relation to change. Your actions will undoubtedly solicit a response and your actions will be interpreted in ways that you cannot with certainty predict in advance.

Many change management tools and frameworks seem to come from a view that all change is a top-down imposed thing that has to be “sold” to employees or it needs “buy-in” from key stakeholders.  Furthering the notion that the parties concerned have little input into the change itself and need convincing or manipulation to get into agreement. Also, there are models that reinforce the notion that this imposed change will trigger an intense feeling of loss akin to that we go through when we’ve lost a loved one. Given the levels of engagement in most workplaces, I doubt that people care that much about changes in the workplace. We’ve been fed this stuff so often and so repeatedly it has become the truth in the domain of change management.

The conventional view of Change Management is based on the assumption that you are already in a steady state and introducing change brings about a level of uncertainty, something that challenges the status quo. In most organisations this is hardly the reality. Initiatives hit business units from every direction all the time. If not internally generated restructures or process improvements then it is initiatives from HR, Safety, or Finance that are imposing changes as supporting functions often do, forgetting that they are there to in fact “support” the primary activities of the business in achieving their purpose. If we’re not dealing with internal change, then we’re dealing with changes in the marketplace or from regulatory bodies. So the steady state that many change management models talk about is more of a myth than anything else.

Many organisations, in line with their command and control mantra, dictate what tools must be used for Change Management, and in what order. Change Management is treated in the same fashion as traditional Project Management and run through various stage gates of approval. This further creates the illusion that we are in control and that projects and change in complex systems can be managed as if you were building a machine. We can design it, build the parts, and put it all together. If we get one part wrong, we can always build another and replace it with a new shiny one.

This view represents a plan-based approach to change; a view that is not very helpful when dealing with human systems, which not conform to a Newtonian-Cartesian view of the world. Change in human systems belongs in the complex domain. Niels Pflaeging suggested in a recent article that change in these systems is like pouring milk into coffee, once it’s done it changes the coffee forever, you cannot take it back and the pattern in unpredictable. This highlights the need for feedback driven change as a more appropriate approach to work with the complexity, rather than plan-driven change that assumes predictable cause and effect.


I believe that we can significantly lift the performance of our organisations changing our approach to Change Management. In fact, I believe that real success means that the term is self, disappears into the history books of management fads as “change” becomes so embedded in our way of working that we don’t need reforms or transformation programs.

In organisations that always change how they do things, they test the value of the change against their purpose as an organisation. In those organisations there is no such thing as “change management”. People are so connected to the purpose that initiatives that are seen to further the organisations purpose emerge and get support without elaborate plans, milestones or blueprints. Which is not to say that selected models from the traditional Change Management library cannot be used, but if they are, they are pulled in as needed and not by top-down decree. My recent post referenced the book “Reinventing Organizations”, which has plenty of examples of organisations that operate this way.

We have a tremendous opportunity to shift our organisations for the better if we only are willing to challenge and critically reassess how we see the world of organisations. To achieve this, we need to shift our focus away from individuals and lift our gaze towards the systems of organisation, the systems that drive the behaviours we experience today. Once there, look further inwards to identify the underlying thinking and beliefs about people and how that has influenced the design of these systems. This is change with an undefined end point as you continuously poke the broader system to see how it responds, you make sense of the ripples you create and take further action, either dampening something or boosting something, and again sense the response.

When we start taking steps to rethink and redesign our organisation let’s engage people in co-creating their environments to set up the conditions for positive change from the start. It is an excellent way to get ownership and people tend to be more ok with things when they have been included in the decision-making process. The process outlined in Sociocracy, for example, is a great start.

Granted, we must take a Theory Y view of people and their capabilities so I guess that is going out on a limb for some. I dare you to take that step and hold the tension – you will be surprised to see what people are capable of when given the chance if you choose to see the world through a different lens. There is a real leadership challenge here for the daring one. Holding the tension when shifting your organisation or business unit from the claws of the Theory X mindset to one designed from a Theory Y perspective will certainly test your leadership capability.

understanding the work part 2

understanding the work part 2

In my last post when I spoke about systems of work, I also made a point that many Managers don’t really understand the system of work that they are accountable for. In this post I want to dig a bit deeper into this topic.

As you move vertically through the management structure of an organisation the work being done is different (or at least it should be). It is important to understand what is different about the work at different levels of management and that it is not just more of the same or more difficult work technically.


So what is it that is different, what do we look for to make this distinction? The answer is – (as it usually is…) it depends. It depends on the level of work, as it is both the focus of the work and the complexity of the work that should shift as you move vertically in the organisation. Gillian Stamp from BIOSS developed a helpful framework to distinguish the difference that makes a difference with respect to the work at different levels of management. The product of this thinking is the idea of Work Domains and it builds on Jaques’ idea of  “levels of work” and I think presents it in a better way. Stamp and Elliot did work together for some time at BIOSS so no surprise that they share this view.


Three Tools of Leadership

Increasing complexity means you as a Manager need a broader set of tools to work with. At lower levels your own behaviour is your main tool to influence the team together with and understanding of team dynamics (i.e. team leadership). Understanding and being aware of how your interpersonal leadership style impacts performance and how your team work together is of course critical at all levels of leadership but a lower levels i.e. supervisor and/or first level team leader the authority and accountability for organisational systems are not there so as leader you can only influence these, not authorise changes to them.

There is a saying that I first came across when working with a global mining company many years ago that had a great impact on me. They used it in the context of safety issues but it is applicable in a broader context:

“The standard you walk past is the standard you accept.”

In other word, your actions or inaction as a leader when unproductive or undesirable behaviours occur within the team sets the tone for what is accepted.

However, as we move up through the hierarchy relying on your interpersonal skills alone is no longer sufficient because you will no longer be able to have a personal relationship with everyone in the organisation.

So what other tools might leaders in more senior positions require?

Systems Leadership suggests that there are three tools; systems, symbols, and behaviour, that successful managers understand and use.

So whilst, role modelling is critical for challenging unproductive behaviours, it is not enough for sustainable change. You also need to align the systems and symbols of the organisation.  Having said that, if you as a leader cannot be bothered to actually live and behave in way that is consistent with what you want staff to do you might as well throw your change initiative in the bin straight away.

When I said earlier that many managers do not understand the system of work they work in or are accountable for this is exactly what I mean. There is lack of understanding of how the system is shaping and driving the behaviour of the people and overall performance. Without a theory for understanding this, changing it becomes a terribly difficult task.

The desire is of course for the authorised systems to be productive. Often they are either not as productive as they could be or they are productive despite of the manifest design. In other words the extant (or real) system is different from the official authorised system, usually became staff develop unauthorised “workarounds” to produce good customer outcomes.


For senior executives it is essential to understand how systems work so that they can design appropriate organisations systems to deliver on the purpose of the organisation. Designing the organisation is the role of senior management; a role that I often see being delegated way down in the HR function to someone with no real authority, often lack the capability to do this level of work, and often with no real understanding of organisational design theories or organisational systems.

A helpful theory for understanding the critical functions in an organisation and the relationships between them is Stafford Beer’s work in Management Cybernetics – The Viable System Model. In a previous post there is a video by Javier Livas explaining the Universal Management System, which is the VSM in less complex language. If you want to watch an in-depth video of the VSM by Javier, you can email him to request access details from his YouTube account. I thoroughly recommend doing so it you can find the time to view the full 2 hour video.

In short, the VSM views an organisation as a system that requires five key functions to remain viable (i.e. maintain its existence). The five systems are recursive (or nested in each other like a Russian doll) so every system one is in turn made up by the five key functions:

System 1 – Operations

System 2 – Coordination

System 3 – Management

System 3* – Audit & Monitoring

System 4 – Development

System 5 – Policy

I will not go on in detail about the VSM as many other better writers and thinkers have done a great job of this already, Beer alone wrote at many books on the topic: The Brain of the Firm, The Heart of Enterprise, Diagnosing the System of Organisation to name a few.

I have found the VSM to be an outstanding theory to work with when diagnosing organisations. It provides immense value and insights and I can discuss the insights with clients without getting into the underlying theory in too much detail. The beauty of the VSM in my view is the recursive nature of the model, which means it is applicable for systems at any levels and Managers across an organisation, can all get value from it. It does require some investment in time to get your head around but it is well worth the investment.

Another “theory” I am a big fan of is the Vanguard Method. Its use in service organisations and it has greatly influenced my thinking and my work. Like any method it is not all-encompassing and I have found the mix of The Vanguard Method, Systems Leadership and The Viable System Model to be very powerful and insightful across multiple levels of organisational complexity.

In a service organisation, one of the quickest ways to make value creating more difficult, is to functionalise the work. This is just one of the many issues that emerge when applying tools and ideas that were designed to solve manufacturing issues in a service or knowledge environment. Functionalization of work is based on the assumption that someone with specialist skills will perform a task faster and to a higher quality. Whilst this seems to make sense it fails to account for the flow of the work and is based on Tayloristic view of the workplace.

If you read up on articles or books by John Seddon you will find that he keeps banging on about the damage from the “economies of scale” mentality that permeates most organisations. His point is that they should shift to understanding demand and design the flow of work accordingly. Seddon is trying to shift ingrained mental models of how organisations operate many of which came about due to Taylor’s theory becoming the mainstream one and the ideas of others such as Mary Parker Follett, were less successful at the time. Only now after the failings of the mechanistic view of organisations are we starting to embrace her ideas employee engagement and power with rather than power over. This is not to say that Taylor’s ideas were useless, they did help the industrialisation of the world. We can only guess how different the world of work might have been if Follett’s more humanistic ideas had been the dominant ones.

In the spirit of economies of scale we tend to measure activity (because being busy and high utilisation of our time is important…seemingly regardless of what we are doing) instead of measuring how well we deliver on what matter to the customer, treat all demand the same. John Seddon made life a bit easier by coining the term “failure demand” as he gave word and enhanced meaning to something I had come across many times but just treated as COPQ (cost of poor quality or rework). Its significance as leverage for improvement quickly became evident through Seddon’s work. For me earliest time I can remember identifying this was at a when doing some work to understand the complaints process in a public housing organisation where we came across an unreasonable amount of plumbing issues in relation to the amount of properties owned by the organisation. The practice was to just log the complaints about poor work, no shows and rescheduled visits as new jobs. This hid away the true volume of value work amongst all of the failure demand – i.e. demand created by a failure of doing the right thing for the customer the first time or failing to do it at all.

What Vanguard does really well is providing a method “Check –Plan – Do” for understanding the flow of the primary activities (System 1 in VSM language) at the level of recursion where the customer interaction occurs. For me the gap with the Vanguard method relates to how to embed constructive leadership behaviours and models to support a new way of thinking (and subsequently a new way of working) such as the decision making model and the task assignment model I outlined in a previous post. At higher levels in the organisations the work is more focussed on how all the other systems across multiple recursions are meant to work together to support value creation for customers.

Usually the feedback systems are in terms of hard numbers such as “productivity measures” or process output measures. More often than not, they are looking at the wrong things and provide little if any understanding of the system of work. Activity measures are in place to measure performance with a complete disregard for the inherent variety in demand that comes in and failure demand is treated as value demand.

Understanding demand, understanding variation, understanding the connections and feedback loops in “your” level of recursion (as part of the VSM), understanding the systems, symbols and behaviours that reinforce or contradict the desired culture are all important aspects for Managers to consider when they grapple with the difficult task of “understanding the work”.

It is not easy, it is a complex task but with some good theories and models it becomes less challenging.

understanding the work part 1

Understanding the Work 

 “We humans are first of all beings in a situation, we cannot be distinguished from our situations, for they form us and decide our possibilities”

My interpretation of Jean-Paul Sartre’s (paraphrased) statement is that the environment shapes the situation and our possible choices are governed by the situation. Kurt Lewin the famous psychologist outlined the following equation to describe this.

Behaviour = ƒ(environment, personality)

When we think about organisation and how they operate the default position for most organisations is to focus solely on the person as if the person needs to be fixed.  Very few organisations understand that working on the people is working on the 5%. There is so much more leverage in working on the system.

Systems Leadership succinctly says, “Systems drive behaviour”.

I often refer to a fish tank analogy to make this point. You can keep polishing the fish when they appear “sick” or perhaps unmotivated, send them on a training course etc,  but unless you fix the water (i.e. environment) that is making the fish sick in the first place, you will at some point end up with fish floating around belly up, or they might make a break for it and jump into another fish tank.


To do a good job as a manager you must understand the system of work that you are accountable for. How else could you improve or transform it? Understanding and knowing how a system operates and why it behaves in the way it does is fundamental for good management. So there is no surprise that the first part of Deming’s System of Profound Knowledge (SoPK) is: appreciation of a system.

With all these assertions that understanding systems is important you might ask why this is and where is the evidence for these outrageous claims?  Why can’t we just keep going as we have been? Surely it is all about getting good people in place?  And what do you actually mean when you say system, another IT “solution”?

One would be foolish enough to think we could start with defining what a system is. This task, however, is bigger than Ben Hur. The fantastic LinkedIn group Systems Thinking World, has a great number of remarkably bright thinkers in the field of systems thinking. Yet they cannot agree on a definition of what constitutes a system. Unfortunately the discourse about this often ends up being a competition of who’s smarter than whom and the language often becomes violent (from a nonviolent communications perspective).

I am of the school of thought that considers systems to be mental constructs; we choose what we define as a system by the boundaries we set and what we choose to include and they can change depending of what we are trying to achieve by doing so.

Having said all that, we still need to understand what it is that we are supposed to appreciate if we are to get a handle of Deming’s first point.  Since we are dealing with organisations we need a definition that is pragmatic for this field.

The definition of a system in Systems Leadership Theory is:

“A specific methodology for organising activities in order to achieve a purpose”

This involves directing flows of work, information, money, people, materials and equipment. The system provides the framework within which these flows take place.  An addition to make here is that we are discussing Organisational Systems not natural systems, so there will be a defined purpose for the system, be it the organisation as a whole, the recruitment system, or an operational system (if the defined purpose it is achieved or not is a different question).

A more general definition of a system:

1. A set of connected things or parts forming a complex whole, in particular.

2. A set of things working together as parts of a mechanism or an interconnecting network.

(a quick point to make about the second definition is that there is a huge difference working on a mechanistic system and a networked system)

For a definition of what systems thinking is about, the host of STW Gene Bellinger makes a very succinct statement and explains it with one word – AND!

There are many reasons why a shift in thinking is required. For one, we now understand that the mechanistic view of organisations, where analysis (without synthesis) and improvement of the parts in isolation, is not a good fit with the reality of organisational life.

Deming demonstrated the importance through the Red Bead experiment. The Red Bead experiment shows that performance (in this case quality of output) is a function of the system rather than the skills or capability of the individual. Deming even went as far as claiming that the variation in performance was to 95% down to the system, hence the 95-5 rule. Even if those numbers should not be taken literally for every single system, they certainly provide some insight to where the greatest leverage for improvement is.


Image Courtesy of Gaping Void

This is obviously a very simple system but it ought to make the point pretty clear and more complex systems have even more complex behaviour. Dave Snowden’s Cynefin framework (pronounced kuh-nev-in) is very helpful for framing your thinking on how to best proceed based on the type of system you are operating in.  We will come back to this later but before we do let’s get some sage advice on what constitutes a system and systems thinking in this video of Russell Ackoff.

Ackoff is an authority on the topic of systems, and systems thinking in particular. He focused mainly on systems thinking in an organisational context so his thinking is very relevant.

To further elaborate on Ackoff’s point about shifting our thinking and the value of this shift. I cannot remember where I came across this equations but I think it is a great way of highlighting the importance of how our mental models influence what we see in organisations and how we think about performance and productivity.

Organisational Performance = ƒ(organisational mindset)

What I hope becomes clear with the function above is the validity of the old (paraphrased) Einstein statement:

“the problems of today cannot be solved by the same level of thinking that created them”

John Seddon from Vanguard Consulting makes the point in the simple model below.


In most of the organisations I work with there is a pretty poor understanding of the work. I don’t mean that people have no idea what customers want or that they lack technical competency in what they are doing. It is more in the sense of why things are happening the way they are.  In my next post we will dig into this a bit deeper as understanding the work is fundamental for all good Managers.

I’m ok, you’re ok – let’s fix the system (borrowed from Michelle Malay Carter)

work as a social process

Work as a social process

Peter Checkland says that human activity systems or work systems can be regarded as a set of activities and a set of relations between the people doing them. This idea is also a central element of Systems Leadership Theory, framed around the notion that “Work is a social process”. By social process I mean the interaction between humans to achieve a purpose.

Work occurs across three different dimensions, Technical, Commercial and Social. The Technical and Commercial aspects often get all the attention and the Social aspect is somewhat ignored. The remarkable failures of countless Mergers & Acquisitions and other change programs are surely a testament to that – it all looked great on paper…

Unfortunately the social dimension of work is often overlooked as it has a profound impact on the output of human undertakings. It is often assumed that it will look after itself. Sometimes it is outsourced to HR or the more fancy labelled “People & Culture” team to deal with the soft people stuff. Reality is that the soft stuff is the hard stuff. It is hard partly because we don’t have the same degree of shared language for the social processes as we have for the technical and commercial processes.  The quote below from Brigadier R Macdonald captures the importance of understanding the social dimensions of work.

“When human beings are part of the solution, a technical solution is no solution at all”

socialising-with-a-purposeImage Courtesy of Gaping Void

The Decision Making model and the Task Assignment model are both designed to support a good social process by providing clarity around context and purpose and clarity around expectations, both in term of behaviour and output/outcomes. Poor communication is often cited as a big issue in many organisations, a remarkable scenario since every resume I have every seen suggests that everyone is a fantastic communicator.

I think that the “poor communication” issue is not so much a personality or people issue, it is more likely to be a system issue. Having shared language and shared models for decision-making and task assignment can support better communication by providing clarity for both sender and receiver about what is intended. This can greatly enhance the two-way flow that is critical for communication to actually occur. Stafford Beer made the point that successful communication is only achieved when the objective of the message has been actualised as intended, not when the message itself has been sent (which tends to be the view of many – “but I sent them an email…”)

Our over reliance on written communication to speed things up often ends up delaying things as misunderstandings and different interpretations are not realised until it is too late. How many emails does it take to organise a meeting when one phone call would have sufficed?

A good written task assignment is therefore only a vehicle to support the social interaction that is often essential for providing full clarity about expectations. The social process might take a few days to complete depending on the complexity of the task and the people involved. Some people need to reflect on the information provided and may need time to do this before accepting the task.

An essential process that I have not made explicit in the decision making model and only hinted at in the task assignment model is the Review process. To enable a learning environment we have to continuously review our work – both successes and failures. A review can happen at any time, however, tasks and decisions should always end with a review.

The purpose of the review is primarily to learn about the social process, what worked well, what did not work well, what led to person x making this decision etc.? The technical output is usually the easy bit to review, did you deliver what you said you would, yes or no? The point here is to review the judgments used to get the results and learn.

managerial leadership part 2

Managers work of role

Systems Leadership Theory defines the role of a Manager as:

“A person in a role who is accountable for their own work, and the work performance of others over time.”

I think the purpose can be shortened a bit and this statement might be controversial, but if you are in a managerial role then in simple terms, your role is there to:

“Maximise performance to purpose.”

Before the systems thinkers out there start jumping up and down saying,

“What about sub-optimisation?” just hold on to your hats and please read on.

Taking a systems view of work and of organisations means you must understand not only your system of work, you must at a minimum understand the purpose of the system “above” (the system that your area is a sub-system of) because that system provides the context for your system’s existence. This means that clarity of purpose is critical, in fact so critical you will see a recurring theme in many of the models clarifying context and purpose.

This could mean that from the perspective of any single unit or division, it may not operate at maximum capacity as performance has to be viewed in the context of the broader system and sub-optimisation is a big no-no. I will get to this topic when I discuss the “understanding the work” element.

Value adding

An important aspect of a well-functioning organisation is the value-adding function of the different roles. Systems Leadership Theory identifies three main types of managerial roles – Operational, Support, and Service. I think it was John Seddon from Vanguard who said that there are only three roles in an organisation: one that creates value directly to the customer, one that enables that value creation to occur, and one that improves how they both occur. If you are not creating value, enabling it or improving it, then what are you doing?

These two ways of articulating types of work focus on the individual rather than the organisation.  To create clarity of the broader focus of a role using different work domains as outlined in Luc Hoebeke’s – Making Work Systems Better is quite helpful for identifying the general theme of the work context. The work domains are  – Value adding for the present – Value adding for the future – Value Systems (value adding for humanity).

There are additional functions required for a viable system from a management cybernetics perspective but we’ll get to that when discussing organisations as systems later on.

Master – apprentice

In many organisations the individual with the most experience or best technical skills gets promoted to a managerial role. We can see it in health care where the best surgeon becomes the administrator; in accounting firms and law firms it is almost standard practice to task senior partners with running the organisation, even though their skills in this area might be very limited.

Often the remuneration system is the culprit as the only way to reward individuals is by increasing the number of people reporting to them and by moving them higher up in the organisation. Even though this means doing less of the technical work they are highly skilled in (and often enjoy more than the additional administrative work). They would probably add more value being in a specialist role focusing on their technical skill and perhaps developing the skills of others.

The e-myth is a great book discussing the idea that just because you are technically good at something does not mean you are good at running a business that provides that technical skill.

For some types of organisations, roles, skills this practice still serves a valuable purpose – to pass on the technical skills that you will only master through experience. So this is not to say that the practice is out-dated, just questioning its usefulness when it comes to appointing Managers based on technical skills or seniority. In fact praxis (theory informed practice) is invaluable even for knowledge workers as a great way to develop true understanding and capability.

In today’s environment with a large proportion of organisations filled with knowledge workers the Manger is unlikely to have higher level of technical skills than the person reporting to them.

“At the beginning of the twentieth century, it has been estimated that 95 % of workers could not do their job as well as their immediate boss. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, it is estimated that this statistic has pretty much reversed, so that 95% of workers can do their job better than their boss.” – The Fractal Organization

So if you are technically more competent than I am in your area, then how do I add value to your work?  I think it is funny how some people have a view that their Manager ought to know more about the technical side of the work than the people working for them. The view does not stack up logically as the CEO by that logic must be the master of everything in the organisation.

This is exactly why we have organisations – because there is too much for any one person to do we need more people with a wide range of skills and capabilities. The question is how to get the best out of all those diverse skills and capabilities.

Levels of work

In many organisations the organisational chart is used to describe the organisation, even though its use for that purpose is desperately limited. I don’t think the organisational chart was ever intended to explain how the work flows, it is just one way of outlining reporting relationships and possibly a helpful way of knowing who’s who in the Zoo.

The organisational chart can easily be used to manipulate the system of organisation into power plays based on role vested authority and drive all sorts of unproductive behaviours but it does not have to be that way.  I think the traditional organisational chart has to be used in conjunction with some other ways of understanding the organisation.

Before I continue to how Managers add value I want to make a short comment on role-vested authority. As a Manager it is critical that you understand that leadership is not something that comes with a role, it is expected, but you have to earn the right to lead people and without personally earned authority you will never be successful as a leader.

According to Elliot Jaques there is natural hierarchy of capability that should be replicated in the managerial hierarchy of organisations for best performance – hence the name, Requisite Organisation. I have in an earlier post linked to a good paper that goes into Levels of Work in greater detail.  It might be worth pointing out that a theory of discontinuous distribution of capability should not be interpreted as elitist in any way. There is nothing inherently better or worst being at any stage of adult development or having higher or lower mental processing ability – it is just a question of best match for the challenge an individual is to undertake.

If the organisation does not have a requisite structure there will potentially be some recurring issues. When there are too many layers in organisations, clarity between roles can become difficult and it will often lead to micro managing.

Micromanaging is often seen as a personality issue with control-freaks but as Patrick Hoverstadt points out in his book “The Fractal Organization” it is more likely the design of the system that is driving “normal” people to behave in this way.

The solution to the Control Dilemma is to design and implement a better system of monitoring which might mean better measures for understanding system performance, improved role clarity, and better task assignments.

When working with organisations and trying work out where there might be too many levels some a quick insight is gained by asking the question: who is your real boss?

The answer people give, usually refers to the person that they feel add real value to their role rather than who is on the official organisational chart. More often than not this will be an individual with a higher level of capability.


The value managers provide is providing clarity about roles and operating context, and most importantly by removing barriers that stand in the way of better ways of doing the work.

There are three fundamental questions about work that all employees need answered and your job as a Manager is to ensure that your staff have answers to them:

1.    What is expected of me in my role?

2.    How am I performing in this role?

3.    What does my future look like (in this organisations)?

Dave Snowden from Cognitive Edge suggests that continuous removal of small barriers is good ways for leaders to earn the authority to lead. Snowden makes the point that this practice will lead to positive stories which will get a life of their own and spreads across the organisation (The Use of Narrative), a far superior way of influencing culture compared with just talking about change. This is very aligned with what Systems Leadership Theory calls mythologies – stories that represent positive or negative value of organisational behaviour. Understanding what the current mythologies are is extremely important for change initiative. I’ll cover mythologies in greater detail in an upcoming post.

Alternatives to hierarchy

Even though I am discussing how to make organisations with a hierarchical structure a better place to work, I am also exploring alternative ways of structuring an organisation. I am deeply fascinated by the concepts of Sociacracy and Holacracy as alternative ways to structure and run organisations. Both concepts have strong links to Management Cybernetics, which is another theory that I work with.

I do, however, have some deeply held mental models around levels of mental processing ability and stages of adult development that neither alternative seems to discuss.

The only references to adult development I’ve come across to date is paper on Holacracy that mentioned a common misunderstanding was to assume that a higher circle required later stages of adult development. The reason Holacracy rejects this was the potential for is to lead to abuse of power. The problem with that assertion is that later stages of adult development are characterised by low ego and highly developed sense of community and social fairness, not quite the characteristics of people who are power-hungry.

For more on adult development theories please have a look at David Rooke and Bill Torbert’s Leadership Development Framework supported by Susanne Cook-Greuter’s article “Making the case for a developmental perspective” or Robert Kegan’s Constructive-Developmental Theory used by Jennifer Garvey-Berger in her great book “Changing on the job”

In the next post I intend to discuss work as a social process, I will outline a model for participative decision-making and a model for task assignment that helps provide clarity around expectations and limits of discretion.

managerial leadership part 1

Management AND Leadership

“Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things.”
Peter F. Drucker, Essential Drucker: Management, the Individual and Society

“It has been fashionable to distinguish leaders from managers…Frankly, I don’t understand what this distinction means in the everyday life of organizations. Sure, we can separate leading and managing conceptually. But can we separate them in practice? Or, more to the point, should we even try?”

Henry Mintzberg, Managing

I am strong advocate of the concept of Managerial Leadership. It is a concept that was introduced to me based on the work of Elliot Jaques and Ian Macdonald. In my view it completely kills the notion that management and leadership should be separated in practice.

The nonsense debate of “are you a manager, or are you a leader” that pops its head up every so often is not helping as it usually hails the leader as some saint like individual with an awe inspiring vision of a future happy place at the end of a rainbow and the manager as some dreadful task master that just commands people around requiring them to follow the rulebook.

Yes they are two different concepts so Drucker might be correct in his view, however, Mintzberg’s point is more important as all managerial roles carry direct leadership accountability with regard to subordinates. A former colleague of mine Rod Barnett put it well when he in a recent LinkedIn discussion about management vs. leadership succinctly said – people deserve better.

I think Rod is absolutely correct – people do deserve better and no wonder there is a growing movement to fundamentally transform organisations and the way they are managed.

Having said that, taking a systems view of the situation – I do wonder how much of the prevailing way of managing is due to pressures from speculative shareholders demanding increased share prices quarter after quarter.  Since most of us are investors at least through superannuation, are we partly to blame?

The continual growth paradigm is in my view partly to “blame” for this situation.

Especially since that view drives boards and Chief Executives to make short-term initiatives the priority, often at the cost of long-term sustainability.

I am not pursing some crazy left wing tree hugging agenda here, nothing wrong investing in a company and getting a fair return on the investment through dividends or other mechanisms. What I do question is the overall societal benefits of short-term speculation since it does not add direct value to companies and seems to drive all the wrong behaviours.

Many of the advocates for change are referencing W. Edwards Deming and his 14 points and 7 deadly diseases as someone we could look to for advice.

I am big fan of Dr Deming’s work so I can only agree. What I have found though is that some help might be useful to put his ideas into practice and becoming a good leader. Deming’s System of Profound Knowledge (SoPK) comprises four parts:

  • Appreciation of a system
  • Knowledge of variation
  • Theory of knowledge
  • Knowledge of psychology

This leadership framework will help translate these four parts (amongst other things). More importantly this framework does not ask if you are a manager or leader? It asks:  You are a Manager, will you be a good or bad leader?

As a side note to SoPK it is worth nothing that understanding variation is of no use when dealing with issues that are in the complex domain, but we will get to that in a later post.

In my next post I will discuss a general-purpose definition of managerial roles and how they add value in a managerial accountability structure.

foundations of good managerial leadership

Over the last year I have with a colleague of mine (Richard Barber), been working on a framework for leadership development built on a strong theoretical base but practical in its application. In this post I will outline the elements of the framework and in subsequent posts I will discuss the parts and how they fit together. The individual parts draw from a number of great organisational thinkers across different disciplines and together I think they provide a great practical guide for leaders at any level. I will try and provide links to the original material to the extent possible and maintain a high standard of referencing.

Some of the material come from a guide a wrote for a client a while back as part of a project designed to build operational leadership capability but as per usual, my thinking has evolved since then and I thought blogging would be a good way to my own thinking fresh. Hopefully these posts will serve a dual purpose; firstly to support my own thinking and development, and secondly, should anyone else happen to stumble upon it and see some value in it well then that fantastic. I would be delighted if you would comment on anything that you think is incorrect or unclear in anyway.

The topics I intend to cover are:

Managerial Leadership

  • Leadership AND Management
  • Decision making
  • Task assignment
  • Performance conversations

Understanding the work

  • Enhancing system performance
  • Enhancing people performance

Leading change

  • Issues with common change management methods
  • Systemic change


  • Understanding the domain (Cynefin)
  • Sensitive risks