Thursday, 25 February 2010

The system’s performance matters more than that of individuals.

It is said that the world divides into two types: those who see the big picture and work down to the details, and those who notice the details and work up from there. Leaders in the latter category may get swamped and never sufficiently raise their gaze. Gordon Brown may be the latter type – lost in the detail. Either way, concern for the big picture lies at the heart of the systems perspective. Diagnosis may start with the details (finding out what is currently happening), but the aim is to optimise the whole, not to optimise the parts. Optimising the parts sub-optimises the whole.

Take performance management. Whatever its claims, in practice it attempts to optimize the parts. I am bombarded with brochures about performance management. They usually mean individual appraisal. In some cases, by working from the bottom up – from the individual parts to the whole – an attempt is made to establish a link between an individual’s performance/goals and those of the organisation, but this is often perfunctory and tokenistic. It is, in any case, the wrong place to start.

See what happens if you take a genuine systems perspective. The organisation’s performance matters more than that of the individuals, and it comes about when the parts work well together as a system. That is why writers like Margaret Wheatley argue that the prime unit of an organisation’s performance is its quality of relationships, not individual talent. For a network to work well, maximise the connections and not the nodes.

An individual’s appraisal reinforces a management hierarchy’s natural controlling tendency, and may even be viewed as its raison d’etre. But, whereas individuals can be controlled to some degree, networks cannot. External forces are also undermining the significance of individual appraisal. When it comes to doing one’s job well, learning from the world is taking over from learning from one’s boss. Increasing complexity, plus changing technology (the internet and social media) and reduced deference accounts for this.

Conclusion: Individuals’ performance still matters, of course, but not as much as that of the organisation as a whole. So instead of being obsessed with getting 100% of individuals’ appraisals completed, put energy into appraising how well the organisation works as a system. When getting together with people to discuss performance, ask them how the organisation can improve. Leadership’s purpose is to liberate performance rather than to control it.

Wednesday, 24 February 2010

Near misses in the dark

Public and media misgivings over whether Gordon Brown is a bully causes his defenders to counter ‘He is very good at coming up with the right policies’. It is as though the question of what is a good leader can be answered through these limited dimensions. But there is another little-discussed issue: ‘How well does the leader look after his colleagues?’ Take two examples.

James Purnell comes and goes, rises and falls. In office he changed from being free thinking to being a constrained thinker. His cabinet resignation letter takes the leader by surprise, as does his decision to stand down as an MP. This is all treated as if it is to be expected – that ships are supposed to look after themselves and pass in the night without support and without anyone knowing where they are and where they are going - that political life and death at this level are matters for the individual alone.

Then comes revelations from Alistair Darling that Gordon Brown’s henchmen were ‘briefing’ against him, undermining him for warning that the world faced the worst downturn in 60 years. Claiming that the ‘forces of hell’ were unleashed on him, Darling graphically answers the Downing Street question that we posed in yesterday’s post on this blog: ‘How does leadership work round here? Is it functional or dysfunctional?'

Chatting to Piers Morgan reveals some of Brown’s human qualities, but where is the nurturing of companionship, talent and the sense of a shared endeavour? This too is the leader’s role.

Tuesday, 23 February 2010

The leaders have to want to change

There is a frequently noted paradox in organisations: to change the culture you have work within the present culture. That culture might itself be the barrier to change. There are few ways round this other than sacking the whole board, which Lord King did in British Airways in July 1983, since he deemed the board the barrier to change. HR advisers and ‘change agents’ lack that luxury.

The same paradox arises with more specific leadership change interventions. When trying to move a business towards accepting a less individualistic and more organisational model of leadership, you have to work with and persuade a top leadership team that knows only a strongly individualistic model.

When faced with novel concepts and proposals – such as distributing leadership more widely – the traditional form of executive leadership typically displays high levels of scepticism, a fondness for personal advocacy (telling) rather than enquiry (questioning and listening), a competitive rather than collaborative streak in relation to colleague relationships, and a low interest in personal learning.

Who can blame them: the old ways have served their personal careers well? They know the individual model and how to use it to their advantage. They know all about deciding who to trust, who to favour, who to form alliances with, and who to gang up against. Politics wins at this level every time.

That is why two questions are so important – if you can get the questions accepted as valid and worth discussing. They are:

1. What is the leadership culture (‘how does leadership work round here?’), and how functional/dysfunctional is it?

2. Who is formally accepted as the responsible official in the company (who may not be a board member but may be accountable to a board member) whose job responsibilities include:

• monitoring and advising on the health, design, functioning and improvement of the organisation as a system? and

• advising on and ensuring that a proper accountability system is in place (i.e. one that is understood, practised and respected) in terms of how well leadership works?

And by what process is that official formally held to account for the discharge of these responsibilities?

Wednesday, 17 February 2010

Do we need weaker leadership?

Tongue-in-cheek, the entertaining columnist Marina Hyde argued the case for weaker government (‘Keep your Blairs or Caligulas. Better a line of puny Cleggs’, The Guardian, 12 February 2010). She had a point: “Caligula wouldn’t have been nearly such an arse if he’d have had to make an alliance with Nick Clegg every time he wanted to bump off a consul”. The issue isn’t necessarily one of strength per se, or hobbling it, but rather what ‘strength’ means and who should have it.

In my own county of Surrey, a chief constable unilaterally put a stop to the restorative justice programme and controversially introduced ‘Staying Ahead’, leading to resignations of colleagues in disgust. In another county, David Blunkett as Home Secretary pressurised the local police authority not to renew their chief constable’s contract. Reason? The chief constable had disagreed with him on how to deal with two particular policing issues, over which, in hindsight, the chief constable was shown to have been right. So much for strong leadership.

Wartime, it is claimed, calls for strong leadership. In going to war in Iraq, George Bush was a strong leader. Or was he? Was he actually a weak leader clothed in the strong powers available under the ‘unitary executive theory’ available in the US constitution? The same case might be made for Tony Blair.

What is the alternative? Do we want/need weak leadership? The problem is that we are trapped by our mental models, especially the one that says that strong leadership means a strong personality – until we don’t like what the leader decides or he becomes a bully.

However, instead of wanting to weaken strong leaders’ power we should want to spread the power so that the system is able to act, and to act wisely. Those counties and their policing authorities needed the strength to be able to stand up to autocratic leaders.

With a general election not far away, it seems like we’re due another bout of strong leaders making their mark. Watch out!

Wednesday, 10 February 2010

More training. But what does it mean?

Leaders both use and misuse training. Leaders are adept at agreeing to big expenditure on training. Some are equally adept at curtailing the training budget when the pinch comes. But what is training? What is masquerading as training?

In a roundtable discussion on ‘extended services’ with the Training and Development Agency for Schools, the Guardian (9 February) ironically reported ‘As well as a common language (sic), the other unifying factor is training. As one participant said: “The school workforce, in all its complexities, needs training. … We need to plan ahead with training …”. A speaker added, “We need training to understand what it is that different agencies can actually add to the child package for children to reach their full potential”.’

Clearly, some of these people have a need for more information. The call may be for simple, old-fashioned briefing. Perhaps they need to be called together to hear, and possibly discuss, this, even be consulted. But they may not need training. They need to hear, be informed and know. They may need to meet. But they may not need to learn, in the proper use of that term. Do they need to learn about something, or learn how to something? Or do they need to agree to something?

Dr Peter Critten at Middlesex University holds concern over misuse of the term ‘training’, and tries to avoid using it, preferring to talk about learning (where that is the intended outcome). But he points out that “training can result in no learning at all”, … adding that “training is needed for airplane pilots, for example”.

This theme is picked up by Stephen Fry in Paperweight (1992), where he draws a distinction between training and education: “Education means freedom, it means truth. “Training is what you give to an airline pilot or a computer operator or a barrister or a radio producer. Education is what you give to children to enable them to be free from the prejudices and moral bankruptcies of their elders.”

In The Search for Leadership I describe how training can be misapplied. I cite examples where ‘Leaders sometimes invoke training either naively or as a strategic ploy to point the finger elsewhere or to try to reassure the market and investors, as in the pensions mis-selling scandal’. In Developing Corporate Competence (Tate, 1995), I analyse the use of ‘training’ as propaganda.

As Alice says (in Alice in Wonderland): "The question is whether you can make words mean so many different things."

Organisations do – and need to do – most of these things. But, please, let’s not call a spade an obfuscation.

Monday, 8 February 2010

Give Theory Y a chance

It is 50 years since Douglas McGregor wrote The Human Side of Enterprise in which he put forward his Theory X and Theory Y view of assumptions that underpin managers’ motivational behaviour in relation to other employees. I hoped - no doubt along with many others - that organisation cultures based on Theory X (‘you cannot trust people’ etc.) would gradually wither, and the bright uplands of Theory Y would come to dominate the employment landscape. But Theory X never went away, particularly in hard times when the call is for higher productivity.

We had a taste of this last week. A report on public-sector people management from the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) was covered in the Guardian (‘Will the message sink in this time?’, 03 February 2010). It said ‘Line managers and supervisors in particular lack the people management skills that will be necessary to get more out of their staff …’ The formula sounds horribly dated. Workers are not working hard enough. It is managers’ job to make them work harder. But the managers (who may be working hard enough) lack people-management skills. The answer is to provide them with more training. Hands up everyone who shares this analysis. ‘Them and us’ refuses to die. The easy appeal for more training is wheeled out again, but it never solves the problem and never can, as any systems thinker will tell you.

What is the root problem in this analytical morass? Answer: the assumption that the organisation is the same as the people. Hence, better ‘people management’ is assumed to equate with a better-run organisation. But you cannot turn an organisation on by turning the people on. If the fishtank is no longer the fine attraction it once was, clean up what surrounds the fish rather than polishing the fish in the same old dirty water. ‘People management’ keeps taking our gaze back to the fish. If they are sluggish, management’s job is to improve their system. Give Theory Y a chance!

Thursday, 4 February 2010

Managing waste takes leadership

By a strange coincidence, twice this week I have received settlement cheques, only to be told subsequently to tear them up and that they will be replaced by ones that take account of Vat. What was going on? And what has this to do with systems thinking and leadership?

In both cases the settlement system was flawed but could have easily been remedied by managers accepting responsibility for inspecting, measuring and improving the system rather than inspecting, measuring and improving the workers.

In my latest book I discuss the various forms of waste in organisations that result from this misplaced focus. When I am required to phone or write to a call centre about a mistake I am wasting not just my own time but theirs too. When managers have to come to the phone to help the agents out, they have their managing hat on. But when they are learning from this and improving the system so that the mistake doesn’t keep recurring (entailing more waste), then that is a different kind of activity, arguably one that calls on some motives and qualities of leadership (making tomorrow fitter than today).

In case you are interested in the more egregious of these two cases, my car had been written off when a large oak branch fell on it under the weight of snow. I received a cheque in settlement of the ‘market value’. As I am Vat registered (they knew this), I needed to ask whether the amount was inclusive or exclusive of Vat, and whether I should treat the amount as vatable income and hand over Vat on the amount to HM Revenue & Customs. So, had they added Vat; or had they deducted it, entitling me to reclaim the amount? (The latter turned out to be the case, though they had forgotten to make the deduction when writing out the cheque – hence the instruction to me to tear it up - once I had alerted them by my call!). The insurer did not provide their Vat registration number on their letterhead to back up their position. All this took time at both ends to sort out.

As John Seddon never ceases to point out (see yesterday’s post) if managers spent time listening to the range of callers’ queries, they would learn all they needed to about the ‘failure demand’ (calls which happen only because something didn’t go smoothly first time), to work out what aspects are predictable and therefore preventable, and thus be able to see where to improve the system. Monitoring call centre workers’ activity rate misses the point.

The main act of leadership here is that required by organisations to question the role of managers.

Wednesday, 3 February 2010

What should leaders focus on – the people or the system?

Systems thinkers confidently respond to that question with ‘the system’. John Seddon, a well known exponent on such matters, argues that management’s role is to ‘continue to work with the system, solving problems beyond the control of the workers’. In my book The Search for Leadership I claim that a manager is in leadership mode when improving the system ‘to make tomorrow better than today’. I say: Get the system right and workers’ behaviour will improve: the need for prodding, training, external motivation, targets and incentives will lessen. Don’t manage the people while neglecting their system.

But a possible challenge to this systems way of thinking appears in the shape of positive psychology. This school of thought focuses on people management. Manage people positively and their performance will improve. It is claimed, for example, that if a doctor has a positive encounter just before being required to make a diagnosis, that diagnosis will be more accurate. I can believe it. Different sections of the brain can be turned on and off by positive and negative experiences. Being fearful, for example, induces simplistic thinking such as “if you’re not with us you’re against us.” It is easier to make a smoother presentation in front of an audience if they are smiling than if they are glowering. Strength is a state of mind.

So managing the people (using positive psychology) works. But does this negate the systems perspective? Seddon abandoned his earlier career as a culture-change consultant in favour of systems thinking. He associates culture change with managing the people, and it doesn’t improve performance, he says. But it is possible to see work aimed at improving the culture and the climate (though not the sheep-dip mass training version) as systems related and part of managing the fishtank rather than the fish – i.e. what surrounds people. You can limit the definition of the system to hard things like the work flow, job roles, measures, etc., or you can include softer things like the culture and climate. I favour the latter. People’s personal fishtank contains them all.

Is it possible to see the use of positive psychology with people not as an alternative to improving the system, but a case of ‘both/and’ rather than ‘either/or’? Many flawed systems are a direct result of their designers’ negative beliefs in Douglas McGregor’s ‘Theory X’ (‘people cannot be trusted’, etc.). And if the resultant system is flawed and you do nothing about it, positive psychology will take you only so far. People will see through an organisation’s use of positive psychology if it still requires them to work in a badly designed system. As an example of managing the people rather than the system, in one well-known company’s call centre operation, when workers feel exhausted they can blow a whistle and throw a large ball about the room. They are then ready to return to the fray. But what fray? How about making the work fun, not the time spent away from it?

Monday, 1 February 2010

Winning at the expense of learning

After Tony Blair’s bravura performance in front of the Chilcot Inquiry into the Iraq war, it seems unlikely that the Inquiry will achieve its aim: “to learn the lessons of the Iraq conflict”. Who now believes any new lessons will be learned, given the standard of questioning? Who even believes lessons could be learned, given the inquiry format? If Tony Blair’s cabinet government was broken, so too is the public inquiry as a means of learning lessons. Maybe a different structure is needed.

As a public spectacle, an inquiry may show leaders being held to account. With forensic questioning the process may reveal a few things we didn’t already know. But as a means of learning, forget it. As for Blair’s own learning, he now seems to be arguing for doing to Iran what he did to Iraq. A further problem is that inquiries take years to set up, hear evidence and publish a report; meanwhile energy has dissipated and people’s interest has moved on, as have most of the players.

The inquisitorial process only serves to endorse a leader’s natural game: that is to win, whatever the context. They are not there to learn, as they see it, even though leadership and learning should be bedfellows. In an inquiry, responsibility for learning is delegated to its members, how they write their report, who reads it, and why and how they read it. Learning is left to chance, is not to the fore or overtly happening in the public space.

Few leaders are seriously interested in learning. When Sir Fred Goodwin was determined to take over ABN Amro, or Irene Rosenfeld was fighting to take over Cadbury, they were simply trying to win. Any subsequent examination of whether these deals were good news – for shareholders (of both companies), customers, employees and communities – would simply cause them to defend their judgment, not assist anyone’s learning, whether that of their questioners, their successors or colleagues.

So, in a different format, what questions might an Inquiry ask if its purpose was for all the parties to learn; that is, inquiry members, interviewees themselves, politicians at large, media, the military and victims?

Here are some alternative questions to prompt reflection:

How else might you have proceeded?
What other options did you have?
Was there anything that prevented you from … ?
What stories were you telling yourself about … ?
How might it have seemed from …’s standpoint?

That would be a very different and reflective learning process – for everyone. It might lack the voyeuristic appeal of a gladiatorial chamber, but it might help save future lives.