Friday, 29 January 2010

Kindred spirits

For years I have been ‘banging on’ about a particular approach to improving leadership – in essence, one that is more organisation-centred, compared with the individualistic model. I say: “If you want to find leadership, don’t search for the leader, first look at what is going on inside the organisation” (i.e. manage the fishtank more than the fish).

At times I have found that a lonely furrow to plough (mixing my metaphors). But for the first time at this year’s annual Windsor Leadership Dialogue on 25 January, I sensed that the penny was beginning to drop. When a few people shouted that what I was saying about current leadership surely couldn’t be true, others responded from their own experience saying ‘Yes, it is’. That was so reassuring.

Something else happened on Wednesday to cheer my heart. In the Society section of the Guardian newspaper I found an illuminating article by Esther Cameron of the Integral Change Consultancy saying much the same thing (‘Shifting into a higher gear’). Claiming that a “fresh type of leadership is urgently required …”, Esther argues for six important shifts. Some quotes from her article are:”

“… removing obstacles and unleashing energy, not doing change to people”
“ departmental leaders are still defending their fiefdoms.”
“There is still too much blind faith in management training. Unless it’s precisely targeted, the impact on delivery is small. … .
“Leaders instead need to focus on identifying the deeper obstacles to higher performance …”
“Learn to have tough conversations about what’s not working. This means getting beyond half-hearted performance reviews.” [See most recent post.]

Reading Esther’s article, it would be easy to feel ‘Here’s a rival; a systems approach to leadership is my speciality.’ But I felt ‘Thank God I am not alone in this battle for ideas and common sense. A fresh perspective on leadership needs wide support if organisations as a whole are to be better led.’ Training and expecting managers to be good leaders isn’t enough, especially if they are expected to navigate shark-infested waters.

Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Holding leaders to account

In my talk to the Annual Leadership Dialogue at Windsor Castle two days ago I spoke about the scope in many organisations for improving the process by which leaders are held to account. Both the words and the action are frequently misunderstood and loosely handled. Besides holding responsibility, every senior manager should be accountable to an appropriate authority and in an appropriate way for how well that responsibility is discharged. This is deeper and more challenging than an annual appraisal. It may entail groups being held to account together, or individuals accounting to a board. The focus is usually on a change programme, and its purpose is to ensure success, not to hold a post mortem after some failure.

Early in the contracting process for change programmes there needs to be a discussion on what is the chief executive’s role. This is too easily fudged, with fellow directors then able to shun their responsibility for implementing changes in their departments. It is easy to see such programmes as HR initiatives which will succeed or fail according to how well HR designs and runs the programmes, plus the competence of any consultants. Failure becomes more likely, and it becomes easy to find scapegoats. To avoid this risk, the chief executive must make clear to the top team that he/she will hold that team accountable for the success of the programme and that the process for doing this is spelled out (e.g. they will be called to account, together as a team, in a challenging face-to-face discussion that will be robust, etc, etc.). At the same time, HR’s accountability is clarified; with such clarity, HR’s sense of vulnerability diminishes, and there is less need for them to protect information and hang onto control. A greater trust between the parties develops.

To give a different kind of example, how clear and how discussed in the organisation is the matter of who is responsible for how well the organisation functions as a system? I have in mind questions such as ‘How freely is information enabled to flow unimpeded by rules, protocol, status, hierarchy, etc?, How easily can people gain access to those they feel a need to talk to?, How truthfully can people speak to colleagues and managers?, How are people allowed to participate in decisions that affect them?, What is the focus for performance management discussions?, What attitude is taken towards working across boundaries?, What are the underlying mental models, mindsets and assumptions?’. The responsible executive then needs to be held to account in an appropriate manner.

In organisations plagued with silo-behaving functions, a similar process of holding functional heads to account (in person and acting together) can be used to engineer a dismantling of those silos. But the behaviour of the chief executive, and the form of words used, is critical. These examples are discussed in the book and the toolkit. Or phone for further advice.

One participant at Windsor explained that he was engaged in a major leadership programme with a large city council in NE England. The programme was stuck and failing. On Monday he joyfully said that he had now found the missing ingredient: ‘managing accountability as part of managing change’. It may seem obvious, but it is easily overlooked.

Thursday, 21 January 2010

Who are we to be appraised?

Picking up on yesterday’s post, if we translate that scenario into what goes on inside most organisations, from time to time an individual’s performance is appraised, and almost always in isolation. But performance for the organisation results from what happens in the relationship between people. Yet that space is left outside the appraisal room, outside the interview discussion.

It gets worse. Appraisal assumes that there is a reality to be identified. And it is the appraiser’s job to decide that reality, often for pay purposes. But there can only ever be perceptions of reality, and there will be many of them. We have multiple perceptions of selves by those with whom we interact, including the appraisee’s own self-perception. What I am in the eyes of one person will differ from what I am in the eyes of another. I personally went from being a star and receiving a big bonus with one boss to being a dunce with a much reduced bonus with the next. My performance (as I saw it) hadn’t changed. In terms of yesterday’s post, Blanchflower is a visionary to some, and a nuisance to others.

If performance happens in the spaces, then the same person’s interaction at work with those in other departments may be perceived quite differently. The person being talked about may be a joy to deal with as far as one colleague may be concerned, and a ‘pain in the ….’ to another. The individual may accordingly choose to spend time with those who find the experience a joy, and shun contact with the others. Yet that (im)balance in how time is spent may not be what the organisation needs.

As with Blanchflower’s agenda, it is not just the judgements that may be wrong, but the game being played, and those who are allowed to play it. Not just the rating may differ and suffer, but a much more fundamental perception of who this person really is, who should decide, and why are we doing this anyway.

As it stands, probably without exception, every performance appraisal system fails to consider these dynamics. Rather than embrace double-loop learning, the appraisal discussion settles for a single loop. In place of recognition that organisations are complex adaptive systems, they are treated as machines, and we look for the faulty cogs, and fix them individually rather than the system as a whole. Modern science has yet to supplant out-of-date Newtonian thinking in the workplace. So what can be done?

Since appraisal and performance-related pay appear to be with us for some time, in parallel to individual appraisal you can bring work groups together and discuss questions aimed at improving the organisation’s performance; for example, “What is working well and not working well?. What are the obstacles that are stopping us from doing what we need to do? And what happens when we attempt to use leadership to improve things?”.

Wednesday, 20 January 2010

David ‘Danny’ Blanchflower’s ideas

Blanchflower is the rebellious ex-member of the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee (MPC). His turbulent term came to an end in May 2009, after a frustrating period in which he frequently found his views (and votes) at odds with his fellow members. But his minority view was often proved to have been right in hindsight.

Now speaking from the touchlines (writing in this week’s New Statesman), Blanchflower argues that "the MPC's days are numbered, certainly in terms of its remit and probably its membership. After the election we are going to have to reconsider who sets monetary policy." He adds: "This MPC is not fit for purpose and should be disbanded.” He wants a complete rethink on what should be targeted, whether the MPC is the right place to take these decisions, and who should be party to those decisions.

Blanchflower also appeared on BBC Radio Four’s Today programme this morning. After saying that he was worried by this, that and the other (8 times), Blanchflower was repeatedly challenged by John Humphries to say what his answer was. He wouldn’t or couldn’t provide it. All he could say was that a major rethink was needed and that people needed to give thought to this. This interview pattern is a familiar one on programmes of this kind. Some people might criticise Blanchflower for appearing to duck Humphries’ question. But Blanchflower has a point. It goes like this.

If you involve many individuals to discuss a problem (such as the future of the MPC or an alternative body and its brief), they become a ‘system’. A system has so-called emergent properties; that is, the outcome that emerges is more than the sum of the parts. No one part or party (any individual participant) holds the complete or acceptable answer. In a healthy discussion, the answer emerges from what happens in the interactions and spaces between them. This may be consensus seeking, or it may be more creative.

‘Wicked’ problems like this one cannot be ‘solved’ as such because there is no single right answer. But problem situations may be improved by involving people widely in generating sparks between them in a healthy dialogue. Blanchflower’s ‘answer’ on its own would contribute little in an interview, and he may have understood that.

Monday, 18 January 2010

James Purnell’s vision, but where is the leadership for it?

James Purnell, the Government’s bright, young Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, walked away from his Cabinet position on 4 June 2009, saying to the prime minister “I am therefore calling on you to stand aside to give our party a fighting chance of winning” [the forthcoming general election]. He probably hoped to encourage others to follow and thereby force a coordinated attempt to unseat Gordon Brown and force a leadership contest. But nothing happened.

Purnell now says he did too little to make clear his beliefs for the future of a Labour Government, what it would stand for and try to achieve. He remedied this vacuum by publishing a remarkable vision. As a model of what is meant by vision, this was quite something. But he then undid his good work by backtracking on his earlier action, praising PM Brown as a “remarkable man”. He appeared to think that Brown was less of a problem than was the lack of a clear vision. He was confused about the relationship between what leadership does with how leadership goes about it.

So what is the relationship between what an organisation believes it needs leadership capability to achieve for its stakeholders, and ‘what leadership is like around here’? Can you have one without the other?

This question needs to be approached from both ends. It is possible to have good leadership processes such as good relationships and good communication between leaders, but not deliver very much for the ‘business’. It is more difficult to successfully deliver what the stakeholders need leadership for while also falling apart in ‘how leadership works round here’.

Purnell’s vision is fine (that is, for those who share his political sentiment, of course), but his latest political maneuvering has spotlighted the issue of the Government’s ability to realise this or any other vision it until the right kind of leadership process is in place.

So it is for any business.

Friday, 15 January 2010

Sir Michael Parkinson as the Government’s ‘Dignity Ambassador’

Sir Michael Parkinson is the UK Government’s so-called ‘Dignity Tsar’. He has come up with many suggestions for improving the treatment in care homes for the elderly, much of it based on the experience of his own mother. In parallel to this, Sir Gerry Robinson has been looking into the state of care homes in a television programme and coming up with his own insights and advice.

Those responsible nationally will be hearing of the many views and suggestions for improvement and many will find themselves agreeing with them. This is all very interesting and pertinent. But the serious question is ‘How can this become an agenda that can be operationalised?’. Which brings us, as ever, to leadership and its role in bringing about change.

It was reported that after the Robinson programme, the wife of Phil Hope, the government minister for social care, phoned him to ask: "And what are you going to do about it?" Some commentators offer the familiar formula of an injection of money and training, a re-evaluation of professional caring, and the recruitment and retention of compassionate and dedicated staff. But there is more to leadership than that, beginning with a systemic understanding of what is going on.

There are basically two kinds of possible intervention in a case like this. If you would like to know how these would work in this context, please email

Thursday, 14 January 2010

Matching the job to the person, and matching the person to the changing environment

On the train two days ago I sat next to someone reading a job description. These ritualistic documents continue to look important. Yet they fit with an image of the organisation as a machine, with each jobholder in the role of a reliable cog. The aim is to produce predictable output. Everything and everyone has its correct place. But is this what makes organisations tick any more? Systems thinking, complexity science, and shadow-side dynamics suggest otherwise.

If it is the individual who holds pride of place in an organisation’s success and its productivity, then a formal, detailed, fixed job description that defines what lies at the heart of a job might make some kind of sense. But organisations succeed because of what happens in the spaces between individuals – whether smooth-running or sparky. It is the quality of those relationships that matter.

We live in an organisational economy. Services are successfully supplied to customers by systems, not by individuals. Arguably, what goes on at the periphery of a job and between jobs is more important than what goes on at the heart of a job, but this receives little if any attention in job descriptions. Similarly, it is what goes on between partner organisations that is increasingly significant. Organisations are open systems not closed ones. A job is an open system too.

When Alistair Campbell appeared before the Iraq Inquiry yesterday, he gave a most creditable performance. He seemed to see his job as protecting Tony Blair, protecting his own skin, and laying into the media. Campbell’s successor sees his job very differently. What matters is interpretation, one’s personal gifts, what the boss calls for, and what is changing in the environment.

The machine metaphor fails because it can’t be redesigned quickly enough for fast-moving and unpredictable times. Complex organisations need to be capable of adapting quickly as demands and environments change. Job responsibility needs sharpening while becoming less pinned down – a modern paradox.

The most valuable things people do are often not what is contained within the defined job, but what lies beyond it – in special tasks and projects connected with improvement and change. Appearing before the Iraq Inquiry was surely not in Campbell’s job description, but what he did mattered, couldn’t be ducked, and he made a good fist of it.

The most important question a jobholder can ask is “Why am I continuing to do what I am continuing to do the way I am continuing to do it?” No doubt it is someone’s job to write job descriptions. Perhaps they should be asking themselves this very same question.

Tuesday, 5 January 2010

Chinook Board of Inquiry still grounded after crash landing

The crash of an RAF Chinook Mk2 helicopter on the Mull of Kintyre on 2 June 1994, killing all 29 on board, is again in the news. Controversy continues to surround the verdict of the internal RAF Board of Inquiry conducted at the time. The RAF claimed that the Chinook had been serviceable and airworthy, and that its two experienced pilots were responsible and had been guilty of gross negligence. This outcome was convenient for the RAF, whatever the truth of the matter. But some new documents obtained recently by the BBC raise serious leadership questions, which we comment on below.

The so-called ‘new evidence’ consists of internal correspondence 9 months before the crash. It described the new ‘Fadec’ engine-control software as “positively dangerous” and said “pilots’ control of the engines cannot be assured”. Officials at Boscombe Down, the RAF’s aircraft testing centre, tried to have the Chinook fleet grounded over severe safety concerns with the software. But MoD officials gave the fatal flight permission to proceed. RAF officials today point out that this so-called ‘new’ evidence is old; it was known about at the time of the Inquiry.

Malcolm Rifkind, who was then Secretary of State for Defence, claims that he was not told about this evidence at the time. When the officials were questioned years later they acknowledged the problem with the software but had ruled it out as a possible cause of the crash and had therefore not brought it to the attention of ministers or the wider public. They stated that the documents were available to the Board of Inquiry but were not contained in its report, leaving some confusion over whether members of the Inquiry may have chosen not to consider them.

The way Rifkind describes it, the MoD officials’ communication process denied him and other junior ministers the opportunity to properly consider and question whether the software may have offered a possible explanation for the accident. Rifkind firmly believes that the Inquiry verdict is now in doubt and should be withdrawn on the basis that we simply don’t know whether or not the pilots were negligent.

A second new point to emerge is that when the chief accident investigator was looking into the cause of the crash, knowing that he himself lacked expertise in helicopters, he asked for help from the Chinook’s chief test pilot Squadron Leader Robert Burke. Burke began an unofficial trial to reproduce the control positions before the crash. He then received an order to stop his investigation and not talk about the accident to anyone, officially or unofficially. Burke expected to be called before the Inquiry to offer his expert view, but was not asked to appear. He was given no reasons for these decisions, but added “I’m a serviceman and I accept orders”.

At the time the Chinook was several years late in coming into service. The Army was subjecting the MoD to embarrassing pressure over this. The RAF was keen to demonstrate its confidence in the Chinook to the Army, and laid on this ‘showcase flight’, in the words of Burke. “As a result of the RAF’s assurances, the Northern Ireland office and the Army put on board the most valuable possible group of passengers it could, which was the heads of the security services in Northern Ireland, and it all went horribly wrong”. This passenger complement was a political and needlessly risky strategy, without considering the ‘shadow’ nature of the motives and rivalries between the services. One can easily see how a finding of pilot error was expedient and face saving.

In the intervening years, three further non-RAF inquiries have found the evidence inconclusive. Subsequent Secretaries of State for Defence have re-examined the evidence and have chosen not to reopen the case or modify the verdict. The RAF and MoD have refused to change their mind. But experience from Rifkind onwards raises questions about politicians’ willingness or powerlessness to challenge MoD officials’ opinions on the evidence and the process.

The above description shows the dysfunctional nature of old-fashioned hierarchical power and associated attitudes. It is horribly reminiscent of the Challenger Shuttle disaster in 1986. When I was Head of Management Training in British Airways, a long time ago, I recall frequent discussions about whether it was necessary or useful for managers to offer an explanation behind their decisions. Some believed that to do so undermined their authority, which should not be questioned. The question was asked: was it therefore sufficient for the manager simply to tell the recipient what the decision was and have it obeyed?

No doubt some of this old-fashioned thinking remains. But, by and large, things have moved on considerably since then. These are less deferential times. Nowadays, the talk is of distributed leadership, participation, relationships, challenge, critical followership. So, for how much longer can it be argued that older military officials who are permanently away from front-line theatres of war should be able to remain so firmly attached to their hierarchical and deferential model when it is patently no longer fit for purpose?

Younger MoD officials are faced with a question that needs to become more conscious: ‘What do you want to use your leadership for?’ Each is faced with a degree of personal choice of focus (notwithstanding the weight of the culture). That choice lies between a role that is political, defensive, inter-service competitive, manipulative, bureaucratic and tradition-maintaining. Alternatively, they may use their role to be reforming, collaborative, open, which entails risk-taking with their career.

There is a saying: ‘Never let a crisis go to waste’. Is a reopening of the Chinook Inquiry such an opportunity?

Monday, 4 January 2010

The Blackwater scandal

As the post on 18 December showed, there is a slippery slope when commercial interests and practices are allowed to contaminate the activities of those who act as guardians of the public’s interest.

Currently in the news is a US commercial security firm awarded government contracts to act as armed bodyguards for US State Department diplomats in Baghdad. Five Blackwater employees were accused of opening fire in Nisour Square, on 16 September 2007, killing 17 innocent civilians. The Iraqi government is incensed that legal charges against the bodyguards have been dropped for technical reasons concerning the manner in which prosecution evidence was obtained.

The first question behind what should remain public and what could be privatized is: ‘What is being done in the name of the state?’ A national army is a clear-cut example; mercenary armies are few compared with historical times. The criminal justice system is another example, as is the police. But, controversially, the state does let private companies run prisons. Their contracts reward them for having more prisoners, generating a clear conflict of interest. Imagine if those companies ran the courts and employed the judges who decided who should serve a prison sentence. Firefighters work for the state; though common commercial practice raised its head when New York City decided to reward firefighters for how many fires they put out – something over which the firefighters had no control. Until, that is, some of them realised that they could earn more money if they started fires! Thankfully, the firefighters knew where the fires were and all were put out!

Time and again leadership and management problems turn on matters of individual, team and corporate accountability. To whom were Blackwater bodyguards accountable? And how well equipped was that person or body to carry out the duties of holding the bodyguards to account for their performance? There is also the issue of the distinction between the bodyguards’ responsibility to, and their responsibility for, certain people and things. This is a major leadership issue and one that is much neglected; a whole chapter is devoted to it in The Search for Leadership. This blog will return to this subject in another day’s post.