Thursday, 31 December 2009

Unintended consequences go to waste

The Search for Leadership: An Organisational Perspective discusses some of the truths and traps that await powerful CEOs who don’t know what they don’t know. Lacking education in organisational behaviour, such leaders are vulnerable and may push for the wrong thing.

One such trap awaits those who decide to centralise services to save costs. It seems obvious to them that economies of scale are bound to deliver savings. Figures may show that this is so, provided that the boundary of the system being considered is defined in narrow terms. But if all types of cost are taken into account, including those passed onto others who are affected by the change – often inadvertently – then the net cost may increase. There is also the added cost of frustration, delays, more customer complaints and lowered staff morale.

Centralisation is a political game, sometimes with a small ‘p’ and sometimes large, as in the case of government ministers looking for departmental savings. This week the probation union Napo treated the public to a laughable tale of this tragi-comedy in practice. Harry Fletcher, Napo’s assistant general secretary explained that “five years ago the Home Office decided to centralise [on regions] and privatise the maintenance of the probation estate”. Previously, local probation services had sought local solutions to local problems.

The upshot was stories such as “Window cleaners travelling from Preston to Leicester and staying in a hotel overnight. An office with four staff receiving 5000 paper towels each month that had not been ordered. A three-hour drive by an electrician to change a lightbulb. A dishwasher arriving that was too large to fit the available space”. These result from a distant and impersonal service that relies on a written contract rather than a customer and a supplier who know each other. Centralisation damages relationships as much as the balance sheet. No wonder ‘motivational and inspirational consultants’ were then hired to address probation staff. Only they told them that there was no such thing as stress.

Unintended consequences of one form or another are predictable, even without knowing about the natural oscillation between centralisation and decentralisation. When the lesson of the increased cost of centralisation is ultimately learned, these leaders will rediscover the attraction of decentralisation, localism and ‘small is beautiful’. Jack Straw, Justice Secretary, has now ordered a review of the contract. It can also be predicted that apparent weaknesses in subsequent decentralisation will lead to some future leader insisting on centralisation.

The current political vogue is for centralisation, but the political rhetoric is about localism. This is another of those ‘tugs of war’ (see yesterday’s post) that challenge leaders – and these days is talked about as managing ‘polarities’.

Wednesday, 30 December 2009

The Great Tug of War

The writer Beverley Naidoo recently visited Yarl’s Wood Child Detention Centre, where children are detained pending possible deportation. She was there to run a story-telling workshop for the children aged five to 16. On entering through security she passed under a sign saying ‘Serco brings service to life’. Inside she found the teachers wearing guards uniforms. They had bundles of keys dangling from their belts.

Does this remind you of another item in the news last week? By a strange coincidence we heard of a different sign over a different entrance: ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ (‘Work sets you free’). It hung over the entrance to another detention centre - Auschwitz. Perhaps I’m cynical. Perhaps the sign is. Like 'free', the word 'life' can have more than one meaning for people in detention.

Organisations sometimes tell tales about their brand. There can be tension between rhetoric and reality. Leadership is about being authentic and attending to these gaps.

And what book did Naidoo take with her to read from? The Great Tug of War. Just so!

Thursday, 24 December 2009

An event, a dear boy, an event

Paraphrasing Harold Macmillan, when asked about the challenges facing leaders, he nearly said the above. Though he didn’t mean it in this particular way, an event in Bethlehem long ago made them think. And still does.

Happy Christmas!

Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Edgar Schein’s future of culture

Does an organisation’s culture influence individuals’ behaviour? Or does it work the other way round: does the sum of how individuals behave help to define the organisation’s culture?

This question came to mind when, to my surprise, Edgar Schein proposed that we drop words such as ‘culture’, as they have become overworked, overused and misunderstood (he may have a point there) and instead start to focus on behaviours that we seek as the focus of outcomes (report on An Audience with Edgar Schein (IDeA Conference, 19 November).

One small point: I question the “focus of outcomes”, suspecting that it might mean “driver of outcomes” (otherwise it confuses means and ends). But there is something more worrying about Schein’s alternative focus. First, let’s get this post’s opening question out of the way. An organisation’s culture is rather like a fishtank is to fish; it is part of what surrounds people at work, largely taken for granted and unseen. It may contain sustenance and/or toxins, be clear and navigable or opaque. Schein may be correct that we’re confused about it, but I don’t think we should stop talking about it.

The big question is what is the engine that drives the system’s success? Schein appears to take the view that it is individuals and their behaviour. That conventional stance emphasises the role of competency frameworks, personal objectives, individual performance appraisal, and skills training. More radical souls include the likes of OD specialist W Warner Burke, systems thinker Margaret Wheatley, and complexity scientist Ralph Stacey (a school of thought to which I belong). We believe that what matters more is attending to all the gaps, spaces and glue in what surrounds people, what binds them together and what keeps them apart, in their relationships with each other, with the system in which they function, with the organisation’s aims, and with their environment. Individuals are defined by their relationships; they have little organisational power when considered in isolation.

If these radicals are right, then there is a stronger future for OD’s work on the system.

Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Stuff happens!

When questioned about the death of Meredith Kercher, Amanda Knox responded “Shit happens!”. Her response differs little from that of Donald Rumsfeld’s “stuff happens” to the looting in Baghdad. He added that "They're also free to live their lives and do wonderful things. And that's what's going to happen here."

When something bad happens it may be an unintended consequence of some plan or event. But these things are rarely planned and predicted. Indeed, one of managers’ biggest problems is that so little can be predicted. Things come out of the blue, with a dynamic of their own. When asked what represented the greatest challenge for a statesman, Prime Minister Harold Macmillan replied: 'Events, my dear boy, events'.

As explained in The Search for Leadership, Rumsfeld is also known for saying “Reports that say that something hasn't happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don't know we don't know.” He was right, though was widely mocked over this remark.

Given his intelligence and his awareness of the huge knowledge vacuum present when taking shocking and awful decisions about the Iraq invasion, his level of confidence in the expected outcomes seems surprising. He expected the US troops to be welcomed with open arms. And he thought that the west’s gift of democracy would be equally welcome. Given his sayings, we might have expected greater modesty and some recognition of the need for a contingency plan. We now know that he believed none was needed, so sure was he of success. ‘Stuff happens’ is not embedded in his management planning method; it is an excuse when confronted by evidence of failure. Presumably, Fred Goodwin was equally sure of the Royal Bank of Scotland’s disastrous decision to purchase ABN Amro. We can predict that hubris will play a part in leaders’ decisions more easily than we can predict a successful outcome.

The work of Margaret Wheatley, Ralph Stacey and other writers on the complexity sciences reveals and explains the Achilles Heel in management’s claimed justification for their role; i.e. very little in this life can be predicted. So even the need for contingency plans, the usefulness of their diagnosis, or likely outcome cannot be predicted.

Wheatley’s conclusion (see Leadership and the New Science) is to seek to control less, try to manage more simply, be more humble, and allow a greater role for nature to produce order out of chaos. It won’t stop death, but it may happen further from one’s own interventions.

Monday, 21 December 2009

What defeated leaders leave behind

On 17 December on BBC Radio Four, the World Affairs Editor John Simpson recollected the 20th anniversary of the downfall of communist rule in Romania. Simpson had been present during the bloody overthrow of dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. The dictator had banned Christmas and even thought!

This brings to mind other sudden and dramatic downfalls of fiercely strong leaders of various shades and reputation: Robert Maxwell, Margaret Thatcher, Fred Goodwin among them – and what legacy their surprise and shocking departure leaves in its train. In referring to former communist dictators, Simpson remarks: “Getting rid of them was an ugly and highly questionable process, and it isn’t over even now”.

The day after the impromptu executions of Ceausescu and his much-feared wife Elena, Simpson bumped into a sociologist inside the communist central building in Bucharest. This person confided “We Romanians will always suffer as a result of Ceausescu. He’s inside every one of us. That’s his revenge”.

A few years ago the guest conductor Alan Tongue was invited to Romania to conduct a performance by the Bucharest Symphony Orchestra. After the rehearsal he invited any of the players who wished to come back to his hotel and practise their English. He waited, but no one came. He subsequently asked the orchestra’s leader for an explanation. Tongue was told, “No conductor has ever expressed an interest in them, or wanted to listen to them. The only model of leadership they are used to is autocratic. It’s our way: look at Romania’s dictator Nicolae Ceaucescu. Your invitation totally confused them. It was wholly outside their experience. They couldn’t relate to it.”

Friday, 18 December 2009

Councils should become more businesslike but not more like a business

The New Local Government Network thinktank proposes that local authorities should be allowed to engage in commercial trading in order to supplement their income. It suggests that councils could sell insurance and mortgages. The idea is specious, ill thought-through and dangerous. It undermines the public ethos of councils and the importance of maintaining a clear distinction between organisations that trade with the public in order to return a profit, and those that have a guardian status in protecting and serving the public. It risks moral confusion inside the council, as well as with members of the public and other commercially competing organisations.

Under existing legislation, local authorities already have powers to raise revenues from car parking. The London Borough of Hounslow has been accused of sharp commercial practice over this, from which I have personally suffered. Such councils have no interest in charging just for the time used. It suits them if people have to estimate the likely time they need in a pay-and-display car park, then inadvertently overstay, so that they can then ‘fine’ them £50. Showing discretion and tolerating overstaying by a few minutes runs counter to the council's interest in collecting a stiff fine. This commercial mindset can lead to setting targets and incentivising parking attendants.

Darlington Borough Council has been criticised for fining householders over refuse collection infringements, such as a £50 fine for putting their rubbish containers out onto the pavement six hours too early.

The consequence of commercialising a public service is an erosion of trust between councils and members of the public. It overlooks ethos-related questions such as ‘Why are we in business?’, ‘Who are we here to serve?’ and ‘Who is paying our wages?’

Such philosphical issues are, of course, matters of leadership. This subject is explored in The Search for Leadership: An Organisational Perspective. In particular the book examines the important work of Jane Jacobs in Systems of Survival.

Monday, 14 December 2009

The leader's intoxication with power

We hear it time and again: ‘People want strong leaders’. This near universal claim is rarely challenged. But just what is this so-called ‘strength’? Does apparent strength mask weakness? By many measures, and despite his faults and misjudgements, UK ex-prime minister Tony Blair seemed to be a strong leader – clear in his own mind, articulate, confident, persuasive. The call for ‘strength’ is one of the themes explored in my book The Search for Leadership: An Organisational Perspective.

As Blair’s distance from power grows, and spurred by his imminent appearance before the Chilcot Inquiry on the Iraq war, another former establishment figure breaks ranks. Ken Macdonald QC, former Director of Public Prosecutions (2003-2008), claims that UK ex-Prime Minister Tony Blair was a weak leader (‘Intoxicated by power, Blair tricked us into war’, The Times,14 December). Macdonald writes:

“Blair’s fundamental flaw was his sycophancy towards power. Perhaps this seems odd in a man who drank so much of that mind-altering brew at home. But Washington turned his head and he couldn’t resist the stage or the glamour that it gave him. In this sense he was weak … we have frequently heard him repeating the self-regarding mantra that ‘hand on heart, I only did what I thought was right’. But it is a narcissist’s defence, and self-belief is no answer to misjudgement: it is certainly no answer to death.”

My book considers how leaders manipulate opinion to get their way: that a strong leader’s job is assumed to be to decide and then persuade others. (Even recognizing the need to persuade others may be seen as a concession.) Such a role for the leader results in information being edited, timed and manipulated to obtain others’ agreement. This prevents people from marshalling their thoughts, arguments, doubts, and how to plan safe ways of expressing them. The plan is to neutralise potential opposition, making the leader’s chosen role of persuasion that much easier. In this school of thought The Prince is required reading.

In his report of his earlier Iraq Inquiry, Lord Butler (then Cabinet Secretary) commented critically on the use of intelligence to support the decision to go to war with Iraq. He said: ‘Without papers circulated in advance, it remains possible but it is obviously much more difficult for the cabinet outside the small inner circle directly involved to bring their political judgement and experience to bear.’

As an imagined alternative role for a truly strong leader, my book offers Blair the option of behaving literally and constitutionally as a ‘first-among-equals’ prime minister. How might he then have seen his role in relation to his cabinet colleagues when deciding to go to war with Iraq? He might have said to them something like this:

‘My job is to help you to arrive at the conclusion that enables you to look yourself in the mirror, to enable you to face your families and friends, to act consistently with your personal values and beliefs and remain authentic, to speak to me on this matter from your heart, without being concerned how it will affect your remaining in a cabinet post. My role is to ensure that you have all the relevant information you need to arrive at the right decision as you judge it and to express that view freely. I also need to give you time to reflect on this and not feel bounced into taking an immediate decision.’

Such imagined language would be a model of the leader’s role to support and serve others.

Thursday, 10 December 2009

Gerry Robinson at home

This self-styled celebrity TV fixer of business failings has been looking into care homes. What can we learn about leadership in this context?

The two main employers featured in the programme were ‘penny wise, pound foolish’. To save money, the food and services provided by the kitchen staff to residents were not available to the carers. Such staff were not allowed to make themselves a sandwich or a cup of tea. A loaf of bread was even inspected to check for cheating. It was not surprising that Robinson heard that this was a source of considerable ill-feeling.

This little incident loomed large and brought to mind two lessons from my time in the great British Airways turnaround in the mid-1980s. The first was Arlie Hochschild’s research into jobs which constituted ‘emotional labour’; i.e. the need to recognise the special demands placed on staff whose work exposes them to heavy emotional demands. Care work calls for qualities of patience, concern, resilience, and the means of recovering emotional balance in order to return to face the demands of residents suffering from dementia. The employers are paying their emotional labourers, not simply to wash and dress residents, but to show genuine and repeated care, in a highly stressful environment.

The other learning from my British Airways days is research by Benjamin Schneider. This showed that staff’s treatment of their customers is a reflection of how they are themselves treated by their supervisors. In the residential home context, if carers feel poorly treated by their boss, they will ‘take it out’ on the residents.

Gerry Robinson witnessed all this at first hand. He was rightly angry and exasperated at what he encountered – almost lost for words. But I doubt that he understood the psychology behind the nature of what he was witnessing. More to the point, neither did those in charge of the homes. But Robinson knew it was wrong, and the owners didn’t.

Monday, 7 December 2009

When in a tight corner is it a good idea to come out fighting?

Leadership consultant Danny Chesterman recently observed “I am increasingly finding that oppressive types of leader behaviour are becoming commonplace”. Whether it’s actually getting worse is open to question, but there is no shortage of examples. Three in the last few days come to mind. First up was Ed Balls, Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, writing to 12 local authorities with poor-performing primary schools “demanding” that they write action plans by the end of January. Second was Prime Minster Gordon Brown criticizing the “culture of excess” among the senior public-sector ranks (no matter that the pay levels for their jobs are set by others when they want to fill a post). Third was Barbara Young, Chairman of the Care Quality Commission, who resigned after a difficult meeting with Andy Burnham, Secretary of State for Health. It had emerged that investigators were being sent into an Essex hospital (see post on this topic on 30 November) because dozens of patients are thought to have died due to inadequate care. A month earlier, the CQC had rated the quality of care at the hospital as good, leading to a row about the CQC's credibility.

In all three cases, these public leaders had found themselves in a tight corner; their quality, budgetary and PR systems – for schools, civil service and hospitals – were all failing. Barbara Young’s response, it was reported in The Guardian, was to propose a stricter inspection regime. Ball’s response was to turn up the volume control button. Brown’s was to “name and shame”.

In place of seeking to judge and direct, all three overlook the importance of quality relationships and dialogue if one wants to bring about improvement. The author Margaret Wheatley advises: “Hierarchy and defined power are not what is important; what’s critical is the availability of places for the exchange of energy” (Leadership and the New Science, Berrett-Koehler, 1999). Wheatley is a staunch advocate of participatory relationships. Nowadays, we might speak of relationships based on a sense of partnership. Paradoxically, partnerships are all the rage (sic) in the public sector.

Thursday, 3 December 2009

More Socratic dialogue needed

When a man came to converse with Socrates, he usually thought that he had a fair knowledge of what he was talking about. But after half an hour of Socrates' questioning, he discovered that he knew nothing at all – and at that moment, Socrates explained, his philosophical quest could begin.

Socrates maintained that wisdom consisted of the disorienting realisation of the profundity of human ignorance. People must interrogate their most fundamental prejudices or they would live superficial, expedient lives, because "the unexamined life is not worth living". To philosophise was not to bludgeon your opponent into accepting your point of view, but to do battle with yourself.

Furthermore, a truly Socratic dialogue must be conducted with gentleness and without malice. It was a joint effort to obtain new understanding: you expressed yourself clearly as a gift to your debating partners, whose beautifully expressed arguments would, in turn, touch you at a profound level. Socrates once described himself as a midwife whose task was to help his conversation partner engender a new self. By learning to inhabit each other's point of view with honesty and generosity, participants were taken beyond themselves, realised that they lacked wisdom and longed for it, but knew that they were not what they ought to be.

Dialogue is a current buzzword, but despite the vaunted rationalism of our society, there is little genuinely Socratic dialogue going on. All too often in a debate it is not sufficient for us to seek the truth; we also have to defeat and even humiliate our opponents. In a panel discussion it is often evident that participants are not really listening to adversaries but busy thinking up a riposte that will deliver the coup de grace.

And yet if ever there was a time when we needed an appreciation of how little we know, it is surely now. Our financial institutions are in meltdown; we are bound together more closely than ever before – electronically, politically and economically – and yet the world is polarised; we are engaged in destructive wars we seem unable to end or win; and we are facing environmental catastrophe. A joint effort and a Socratic humility and openness to others is required if we are to meet the challenges of our time and create a just and viable world.

(Quoted from Charter with Compassion: At One with our Ignorance, Karen Armstrong, The Guardian, 10 November 2009)

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Emotional book review

A book review of The Search for Leadership: An Organisational Perspective and its associated Systemic Leadership Toolkit, has highlighted the place of emotion in change initiatives. Specifically, the question raised is whether a highly analytical and intellectual approach to the study of leadership improvement is at odds with the messy emotions in organisations, such as loss, fear and anxiety. Eschewing Tom Peters’ ‘wow, bang, wallop’ style of prose, I believe the analytical writing style can be separated from the subject being written about and separately from the emotional motivation that readers then require to take action.

There is no doubt that the book talks openly about highly emotional issues, such as bullying, whistleblowing, hubris, power, and much more besides. The chapter on the shadow side of organisational life explains that the non-rational forces in an organisation, such as greed, ambition and fear, account for what happens far more than the rational forces such as policies, edicts and structures. So the subject-matter is unreservedly emotional.

The toolkit’s process uses analytical roundtable discussions to tease out what managers think about their organisation’s leadership culture and what leadership is used for. When faced with the data, they generate the necessary emotional commitment to do something to improve it.

But another aspect concerning emotion and change emerges in the review: that of deep, unconscious drives; for example, the need to belong, and the need to have an identity. The book doesn’t discuss these, but they are very real nonetheless. If groups were presented with a cool analysis, they may agree with it, while the emotional cost of shifting behaviours may not yet, for them, outweigh the benefits of carrying on as they are. But the toolkit’s process does not give people someone else’s analysis; they generate their own, and then discuss, as leaders, what they want to do.

John Kotter says "People change what they do less because they are given analysis that shifts their thinking than because they are shown a truth that influences their feelings" (Kotter and Cohen, The Heart of Change). Kotter advocates ‘feel-see-change’ not ‘analyse-think-change’. A very interesting point, but less relevant perhaps if leadership has been distributed.

Today, the Home Secretary bemoaned the reluctance of the UK’s 43 police forces to merge, even though they had been given compelling data of the benefits. It is not difficult to imagine how some of the chief constables have not yet overcome the emotional cost of personal change.

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Sufi teaching and systems thinking

Margaret Wheatley, in Leadership and the New Science, says:

One of the differences between new science and Newtonianism is a focus on holism rather than parts. Systems are understood as whole systems, and attention is given to ‘relationships within those networks’. Donella Meadows, an ecologist and author, quotes an ancient Sufi teaching that captures this shift in focus:

“You think [that] because you understand 'one' you must understand 'two', because one and one makes two. But you must also understand 'and'.”

The point, of course, is that the ‘and’ is represented by the system and the way it makes positive connections. Any organisation should be capable of adding two parts together without loss, though in practice many detract value (the book The Search for Leadership identifies all the places and ways in which leadership runs to waste). The trick is to manage the system that surrounds the parts in such a way that the total organisation adds net value so that the whole is more than the sum of the parts. Then we might be able to claim that we truly understand and manage 'and'.