The walking dead, the cynics, the courageous few, and organisational CPR

My most recent collaborator Dr Richard Claydon wrote another great post the other day on how art (in this case TV shows) reflects the fears of society. In his post, which I encourage you to read, not only because he is a good writer, but this post might make more sense if you do.

I recently heard a story of a former colleague’s exchange with a senior partner from a global consultancy. My colleague asked, in earnest, what underlying theories the company used to inform their practice. The partner looked perplexed by the question, so after some clarification the partner said; oh, we use international best practice.

What on earth does that mean? You copy what others are doing without knowing why, and because many are doing it there must be value in it? Well, there is one born every minute they say, and you can make a lot of money from selling snake oil or success recipes. You clearly will not make a lot of cash offering services that involve telling people inconvenient truths.

Nonetheless, there is nothing like a monumental challenge to get you motivated. Richard and I connected as we are both on a quest to do our bit to shift management practice from pseudo-science, anecdotal evidence or “best practice” to a foundation of sound theory. There is plenty of good stuff out there, both past and present. It is, however, not easy to package it up into a three or five step process that guarantees success.

The reality is that transforming an organisation will be messy, it is unpredictable, we will not have all the answers up front, and it will take a lot of work. It is hard to get people to queue up for that type of show, even more so when they also have to play a part in the performance.

an-inconvenient-truth

Richard and I have both been labelled as highly cynical and pessimistic but nothing is further from the truth, we’re what Richard calls, frustrated enthusiasts. We care deeply about the state of organisations and how the people in them feel about work and subsequently themselves. Richard’s research clearly shows that organisations stand to learn a lot by embracing the cynics and ironists. They are the ones who care enough not to become part of the walking dead. They are the survivors who fight back.

The employee engagement percentage is reportedly at 13% globally. The low engagement levels, however, are self-created, and the cure is not about fixing the people, it’s about working on the environment in which they work. Something we’ve known for a very long time but struggle to put into practice. Instead, we are creating the walking dead in our organisations by the constant dumbing down of work due to rules, policies and other constraints in attempts to standardise and control behaviour.

Healthy_org

The picture above represents a healthy organisation. Think of an ECG monitor and you get the metaphor. There is an abundance of life; people have the freedom to work out how to go about their work within clear boundaries. The goals or objectives can at times be hard to define or might change along the way, which is why it is not a standard shape. In a complex environment, this is situation normal.

Unfortunately most organisations look more like the image below. Through policies, rules, standardised work practices, ERPs, etc., the organisation has flat lined, creating an army of the walking dead. The end state is a defined shape, to represent an assumption that we always can identify the end and work towards it.

Dead_org

So how do you fight off the walking dead without losing your head during the process and without compromising your morals? How do you re-energise an organisation and bring its people back from the land of the walking dead?

Well, that’s the million-dollar question, and this is the point where we should outline a five-step process for success. Please note that any attempt to successfully fight zombies or the walkPogoing dead by attacking individual zombies is doomed to fail. The people on your side that fall in the fight will join the other side; you are fighting a losing battle. Finding the source of the problem and dealing with that is the aim. The realisation of what the source is for many organisations is illustrated well in Walt Kelly’s Pogo cartoon.

Many leaders will only see one way out, which is to copy what others do or what worked in the past (which rarely makes you a leader in any field). Others find themselves where two roads diverge; do what everyone else does, or something different. Few have the courage to take the road less travelled, but for them, it will make all the difference. Travelling on this path takes not only courage but also stamina and openness to unlearn and learn.

We don’t have a five-step success plan for venturing down the road less travelled. What we do have though are some thoughts and considerations on how you could go about this.

  • Identify your cynics and ironists. They will be essential to locate, not only because they sit on a world of knowledge about the many ways in which your organisation trips itself. But they also care enough about the organisation and its people to work with you on changing it. For some, it will be an opportunity to put into action things they have thought about for a long time. This is also an opportunity to map the informal networks of the organisation to get a feel for who is connected to whom and where the key influencers are.
  • Understand the current mythologies of your organisation. You need to know what the current beliefs are in the organisation, concerning the behaviours that are seen as positive or negative on the values continua. I’ve written briefly about the values continua previously; you can find it here. Mythologies are not about individual views; it is about the shared mythologies, the shared beliefs that create social cohesion amongst groups in the organisation. Understanding the present reality for people in your organisation is essential as it is from here, and only from here transformation can begin.values_continua
  • Conduct a Systems & Symbols Audit. You need to lift the covers and look deeper into the fabric of the organisation to identify systems and symbols that reinforce either positive or negative behaviours. The underlying assumption here is that systems drive behaviour, so this provides valuable insights regarding possible intervention points. Questions to consider include:

System Questions

  • To make sure your head stays connected to your neck and to maintain your morals, understand that it is in the social dimension where it is won or lost. The technical elements are usually the easiest aspects and sometimes they are irrelevant on the whole. Good social process is something that will carry you a very long way. People can deal with many things if they feel that they way they are being treated falls on the right-hand side of the values continua. If you are leading transformation and don’t live in the future, you are likely to fall short or your intent. Behave as if your organisation had already transformed, live the behaviour you feel represent the new. That requires self-awareness, self-reflection and a certain level of maturity. Of course, you will fail at times but it is important to role model behaviour as people pay more attention to how you behave than what you say, just like your kids.
  • Engage the whole organisation in an ongoing conversation about what the future can be and how to make this happen. All the answers for how to create a positive future for your organisations are already contained within it. The challenge is how you allow the creativity and ingenuity of your people to get out and get their ideas into action. Successful change is co-created, not implemented by edict from the top. Take the time to develop a connection with people to understand their needs; the ideas and strategies to meet these needs will flow almost as they had a life of their own once the needs are clear. There is a range of helpful techniques for facilitating large groups sessions, for example, World Café or Open Space Technology where good social process is at the centre of the design.
  • Acknowledge that some challenges will be in the complex domain and other will be in the complicated domain. In the context of organisations, these are not words to be used interchangeably, even though in everyday life this might be the case. Think carefully about how you might approach a complex challenge differently to a complicated challenge.

An excellent example of the power of social process is David Marquet’s book Turn The Ship Around. David takes control of a Nuclear Submarine and the story is a classic one – take a bunch of people labelled poor performers and turn them around to become the top team. The interesting thing to reflect on is that David achieved this using the same technology as all other similar class submarines, he did not get some special funding to do this so the only area he worked on, and relentlessly so, was on social process. Essentially the story is one about how good social process can be the difference that makes a difference.

I’ve deliberately stayed away from referencing much theory here but rest assured that there are strong theoretical underpinnings to these thoughts and considerations. When people tell me that they don’t have time for theory or their senior executives don’t have time, they just want something practical, I shake my head and sigh. All our actions are informed by theory, i.e. we hold some view about why this action will or will not be useful in this situation. The difference is if the theory that you are applying is useful or not. We would like to help you make better decisions by grounding your thinking and decisions in theories that truly are useful.

I invite you to get in touch if you are willing to explore how we can enrich the life of the people in your organisation.

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.

Complexity

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.

domainsincolour

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.

Systems_Matrix_2

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.

free_hd_aquarium_screensaver

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.

statistics

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.

Thinking_System_Performance

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.

task assignment model

Task Assignment

Systems Leadership defines a Task as:

An assignment to achieve a specific output within a given time, with given resources and within specified limits.”

In simpler terms a task is a one-off defined piece of work.

A well-developed task assignment provides clarity around expectations and sets the limits of discretion (the boundaries); the path chosen to reach the objective is up to the individual.

Pathway_to_completion

A quote I came across on Twitter articulated the need to allow people discretion when it comes to how the work will be performed.

“Hiring smart people is pointless if they aren’t allowed to make any decisions”

If there is no judgment required what so ever, then a computer is the ideal candidate for performing the task. Furthermore, if no judgment is required it is likely to be a pretty boring mindless task. Dr Deming teaches us that if we want someone to do a good job, then we need to give them a good job to do.

Since the Manager sets the boundaries (not to say this cannot be done collaboratively), the Manager is ultimately accountable for the performance.  The Manager is the one controlling the resources available, the utilisation of these and makes judgements regarding what tasks to assign to which individuals etc.

There is in the agile community (or at least the one I am connected with) much talk about self-organisation and some are questioning of the role of Management altogether. The models provided here are still applicable as a leader can emerge rather than be appointed and whichever way people decide to work together, clarity about is to be achieved.  So, even if teams can self-organise and choose tasks, some constraints are required is essential.

CPQQRT

This was the first Task Assignment model I came across and I stick with it both because I have not come across a better model nor have I developed a better model myself.  I must admit that before this model I had never really given Task Assignments much thought.  I do know how important it is to cover off on all elements of the model. When I was around 10 years old my mother gave me some money to go to the shop and get milk. In today’s money it might be the equivalent to $20. Failing to provide specific instructions in terms of quantity I happily purchased $20 worth of milk and dragged home some 15 litres of milk to a very surprised mum.

CPQQRT might not roll off the tip of your tongue but it is a great mnemonic for understanding and clarifying the required elements of a task, both for the person assigning the task and the person it is assigned to. The task at this point is in the Mind of the Manager and the model is a tool to support the communication of this to someone else. If the Manager cannot write down or articulate what they want from the task – then how can anyone else be expected to deliver on it?

Context

Just as I described in the decision making model, Context aims at setting the scene and provide clarity about what brought about the task, linkages to other tasks, and anything that could in any substantive way influence what we are trying to achieve. Depending on the size of the task at hand the context could vary in length and detail. Sometimes there is already shared understanding of the context but it is a good habit to always check this by assuming it is not.

Purpose

This is the reason for the work – not the work itself. It clarifies why we are we doing this and what do we hope to achieve by doing so?  A common mistake is to confuse the Purpose with the Output.

Quantity (output)

This can be tricky for more complex tasks but it refers to the output in numbers and answers the question: how many? Quantity can be specified or scoped, i.e. no variation from what is set out or quantity can be within a prescribed range.

Quality (output)

Answers the question: What will the output be like?  The quality of the output can also be specified or scoped. Quality can also be described in more general terms e.g. within industry, safety, or environmental standards. Quality can also have a relationship (social) angle as in: achieve xyz and establish a working relationship with stakeholder ABC. 

Resources

Clarifies what I have available to complete the task. These can amongst other things be:

  • Money
  • Equipment
  • People (internal)
  • External support (if applicable)
  • Manager’s availability
  • Central support (e.g. a Project Office)

Time

The time element refers to the latest required completion time. There is nothing preventing the task from being completed at an earlier time. Your obligation as task assignee is to inform the manager as soon as you realise that the time cannot be met, not at or after the deadline has passed.

Remember that Systems Leadership is about clarity, a Time element that says ASAP is NEVER clear enough.

All the basic elements of a task assignment are now covered, however, as a Manager I need to consider the social process holding them all together.

Before assigning a Task I have to decide and plan:

  • Who I am going to assign the task to?
  • How I will communicate it?
  • When will I communicate it?
  • How does it fit in with other priorities?
  • How will I monitor progress, regular meetings, milestone reports etc?

Once the Task is assigned (and accepted) I have to fulfil my obligation as a Manager to:

  • Be disciplined in monitoring results and progress
  • Have continual performance conversations
  • Communicate changes in context
  • Be adaptable to changes to plans
  • Be aware of how the team is working together

For additional information on this topic please read Phillip Bartlett’s paper Task Assignment as a social process.

I will cover more on Work as a Social Process in the next post.

a model for participatory decision making

Decision Making

Let us start with a strong and perhaps bold assertion, based on Richard Barber’s tremendous work on systemic risk management.

“The greatest risk to an organisation is the quality of its decision-making!” 

The standard risk management approach assumes ALL risks can be identified, placed in a matrix, be allocated a pretty colour and by some magical process risks are “managed”.  How many organisations have risk matrices or risk registers where the quality of decision-making is mentioned? I would think only a few. There are a few that I know of, but only because they have worked with Richard and have been made aware of how narrow their view of risk has been.

If the quality of decision-making is the organisations greatest risk, then it is by default the greatest point of leverage for success. So how can an organisation support its leaders in making better decisions? Well for starters, a helpful decision making model will certainly go a long way.

Depending on the domain you are operating in (using the Cynefin framework as reference) there might be multiple plans or approaches  (A, B, or C) that are equally as good. It is the role of the leader to make the decision on which plan to proceed with. I have deliberately used the work leader here, as the Manager might not be the one leading the task. How that plan is developed with the contribution of the team is explained in the decision making model below.

Before I get to the model some assumptions about participative decision-making must be made explicit.  The model is based on the idea that better decisions are made when:

  • We assume that everyone on the team (and others) can add unique insights to the situation.
  • Challenging our assumptions can lead to unique and powerful outcomes and is therefore a valuable contribution.
  • Spending time and effort into really understanding the nature of the problem is critical.
  • Options, ideas and critical issues are explored openly as part of the process.
  • Good use is made of both analysis and intuition.
  • The leader is clear about the final decision and their accountability for it.

SETED  – A participative leadership decision-making model

  • Share Context and Purpose
  • Explore Critical Issues
  • Test Mental Models and Assumptions
  • Explore Options
  • Decide on Option

Share Context and Purpose

Context aims at setting the scene and provide clarity about what brought about the task, linkages to other tasks, and anything that could in any substantive way influence what we are trying to achieve. Depending on the size of the task at hand the context could vary in length and detail. Sometimes there is already shared understanding of the context but it is a good habit to always check this by assuming it is not.

The purpose is the reason for the work – not the work itself. It clarifies why we are we doing this and what do we hope to achieve by doing so?

Effective leadership behaviours at this stage include:

  • Taking the time to brief others properly.
  • Inviting questions and alternate views about the context.  Listening and reflecting.
  • Using dialogue to make sure the purpose makes sense to everyone, in the same way.
  • Avoiding setting filters or limiting exploration.
  • Making sure context and purpose are well understood before moving on to the next stage.

Explore Critical Issues

Critical issues are also known as showstoppers or challenges that unless resolved threatens the purpose.  They are different from constraints, as constraints are already known.  Critical issues are not certain and need be identified so that you can develop actions to address them – contingency planning.

A good way to frame Critical issues is to use the language of “What if…” and “How to…” The reason for this is to depersonalise the issue raised and to objectively analyse it. It is really good practice to develop the skills to identify critical issues as it can push the thinking to a higher level.  It may take a few iterations before you reach clarity of an issue.

Identifying and understanding critical issues a step that differentiates this particular model from many others. It is also the most difficult step to do well.  Part of the problem is that people want to move quickly to solution (ready-fire-aim) and become frustrated when asked to continue exploring critical issues.

This jump to action mentality is often very destructive and can create unintended consequences that due to the delay (see fixes that fail system archetype) are not connected and the hero fire-fighter can come save the day and get promoted even though they might have caused it. Unfortunately for the careful planner, diligent in planning for critical issues and with few or no fires, the reward is little, or no recognition.

Effective leadership at this stage behaviours include:

  • Staying in the “critical issues” stage until certain that there are no more to identify (at this point in time). Remaining disciplined, strong – avoid moving to solution too early.
  • Exploring views, inviting different thinking, challenging assumptions.  Listening, reflecting.
  • Seeking analysis, maverick views, and independent opinions – anything that might open new possibilities.
  • Matching the effort to the complexity and value of the challenge.
  • Ensure that critical issues and associated ideas are documented.

Test Mental Models and Assumptions

Mental models are “rules” we unconsciously apply to make it easy to make rapid decisions in familiar situations.

Assumptions are beliefs we apply without testing.

Effective leadership behaviours at this stage include:

  • Accepting that everyone has limiting mental models and make untested assumptions.
  • Valuing and exploring the perceptions and ideas of others even when they seem to be a ‘misfit’ to what we believe is possible.
  • Explicitly acknowledging and discussing assumptions and mental models and use conversation to try to generate new insights.
  • Reviewing the impact of identified assumptions on critical issues, context and purpose.
  • Actively listening to what everyone is saying and encouraging different views.

Michael Stange, a fellow Sydney Lean Coffee member  mentioned how he had his team view their assumptions from a different perspective. They had all written down the things they took for granted for a specific project. They were then asked to negate all those assumptions to see if that brought about any new critical issues. This could be a simple yet powerful method to get the ball rolling.

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Image courtesy of Gaping Void

There is a possibility that this stage can identify that you are trying to address the wrong issue. This is of course a very powerful insight but often this stage is not even in the back of minds of people.

Edward de Bono’s Six Thinking Hats is another process used to generate deeper insights and better decisions.

  

Explore Options

By Options here I refer to the possible approaches or parts of approaches to dealing with the critical issues and the activities that need to be completed to deliver on the task.

Effective leadership behaviours at this stage include:

  • Getting organised to capture ideas, possibilities, and options
  • Listening to and exploring ideas
  • Probing the views, concerns and ideas of all stakeholders
  • Building an overall approach, strategy or theme and testing it with others
  • Critical review, testing and challenging even of obvious options
  • Continually bringing people back to solving the critical issues
  • Reflecting on and adapting the purpose and critical issues, as new insights come to light

 

Decide on Option

With multiple options or pathways available someone has to make a decision on which option to proceed with. Obviously my view is that the person accountable makes this call and in doing so accepts to be held to account for judgments and behaviours exercised when delivering on the task.

The decision making model is a tool that both leader and team member can refer back to if either is concerned the team is getting off track. Furthermore, not all decisions require participation and input from the team. The leader has to exercise judgement depending on the specific circumstances surrounding the decision.

Before I move on to a Task Assignment model, let me be very clear. The model above does not assume that the leader or Manager makes ALL decisions, far from it in fact, what is can do is support a social process of decision making. It is aligned with a view of organisations that believes that decisions in general should be made at the lowest possible level.

The decision making model is linked to the Task Assignment model as the options or plan will contain tasks that need to be clarified and assigned. When a task has been assigned (and accepted) a decision has to be made on how to deliver on the task.

DM_TA

Systems Leadership Theory consider this the work, i.e. working out the how and work is subsequently defined as “turning intention into reality”.

As this post ended up being longer than anticipated, I will continue with the Task Assignment Model and work as a social process in the next post.

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.

Slide2

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.