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Tag: management theory

Demonstrating healthy leadership through a bad post

flip flop wheels by raiseyourflags via FlickrChris Jones asked for comments on his blog post about his views on Peter Senge’s work and Chris’ aspiration that

Cultures can, over time, be intentionally shaped and directed by visionary and resilient leaders. But the complexity of organizations, markets and other social ecosystems invariably worsens with scale, raising the bar for mitigation ever higher.

My thoughts about leadership are three fold

Leadership is about taking part not imposing

An organization ‘led’ by someone who aspires to impose preconceived ideas is not a healthy place for anyone.

Organizations are not forever

A contextually-sensitive organization also knows when it is time to die.  A healthy organization values purpose and will support other purposes when its own is not the most relevant to the wider ecosystem.

Organizations are healthy when they are dynamic

We don’t need a specific culture.  We need healthy psychology.  Losada’s model works for me

  • Positive to negative ratios of 3:1 or more
  • Context-sensitive slightly enhanced over internal focus
  • Asking questions (sincerely) slightly more frequent than advocating positions.

Testing this simple view of leadership with this post

This post does not live up to those three criteria.

  • Other than the link love at the top, I am rebutting throughout the post.  The Positivity:Negativity ratio is not good.
  • I am talking about management theory to other management theorists.  We need to be talking about the world!  Clay Shirky is a good example of commentators who comment on the world not the commentators!
  • I am advocating, almost exclusively.  Chris, I didn’t pick up from your post who you are (no About page) or your aspirations.  A post please?
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The give-and-take between us as we follow our dreams strengthens us as individuals and as a group

Thoughts on stray cards on my desk

I confess just to tidying up my desk and wanting somewhere to put a sentence I wrote on the back of one my business cards.  Looking at the card, I must have written this 18 months to 2 years ago.

“The give-and-take between us as we follow our dreams strengthens us as individuals and as a group.”

A touchy-feely sentiment perhaps but also a profound statement of the essence of business.

Give-and-take is the heart of business

The heart of any business is the give-and-take between us.  Give-and-take is not something we add as a layer of style or a way of resolving tension. Give-and-take is the heart.  Our business exists only to give-and-take.

We have give-and-take with our customers. We have give-and-take with our suppliers.  We have give-and-take among ourselves.

Too many businesses, though, set the process of give-and-take in stone.  The give-and-take evolves and it is the ability to build a business the grows the give-and-take that is genius.

Losing the give-and-take

Let me give you examples of misunderstandings of give-and-take.

Some Terms & Conditions on the internet put all the responsibility on the user.  Totally back to front.  The Terms & Conditions should phrase the responsibility and limits on the person who offers them.   In plain English, the T&C should state what I bring to the table and how I will honour you.

A standard role play in assessment centers sets up a “customer” as a bit of buffoon.  Managers, particularly those with accounting and legal training, often try to put the customer in the wrong and wring out of them monetary concessions based on the letter of their contract.  The smart manager judges the situation and looks at it as a way to deepen the relationship with the customer and the customer’s reference group.   A bad situation is simply an opportunity to grow the relationship and do more and better business.

How many times do employees tell managers that something is going wrong only to have their “heads bitten off”?   It is usually productive to ask for more details of the “symptoms” and to find out what the employee proposes.  Both are likely to be interesting.

Open-ended interaction is not always right nor is it predictable

It’s tough to interact with people and just to “see what comes of it”.  I don’t want to do that all the time, of course.  I am not really interested in “generative moments” with an immigration officer at the airport.  Beyond being as cheerful as possible, I just want to have my passport stamped quickly.  On a short haul flight, I also have no interest in manufacturing social moments, though I might do it to lessen the pain of standing in those ridiculous queues.

Long haul flights are quite different.  Being cooped up for 12 hours is a recipe for climbing the walls.  But the nature and quality of the interaction depends on my neighbor as much as me.

I’ve moved out my seat to allow someone two seats and the possibility of a nap.  I’ve asked the airline to find me a bank of seats so I can sleep. I’ve baby sat.  I’ve had people help me.

The story unfolds in a an unpredictable way and the flight is always better for flexibility rather than rigidity.  Of course, I hope there has been no vagueness about the fuel or the engineering.  But most of the human side is generative.  And we are more likely to chose an airline again when the interaction went well.

Give-and-take and management theory

Give-and-take is a difficult concept though.  Too often, in the management sciences we treat organizations as if they are the sum of individuals.  It is true that the interactions between individuals depends on the individuals.  I doubt Professor Stephen Hawking would find my thoughts on physics very stimulating, for example.

But after, all if the interaction of physicists wasn’t stimulating, then it wouldn’t really matter who was around him.

As it is much harder to stimulate and manage generative interactions than it is to find and hire people (buy their time), firms who understand interaction are likely to be the winners.  Brilliant people are probably better off in the company of less brilliant people who interact well than with other brilliant people who interact badly.

The practice of give-and-take

This is all theory though.  I didn’t want to lose my pithy little statement and this blog is my filing cabinet.  What I want to keep goes here.

Hope you find it food for thought.

If nothing else treasure the interactions you have with others.  Guided by their dreams, we grow stronger together.


Work in the next 10 years and emergence


I am tidying up and I glanced through a notebook from 2 years ago. I was utterly fascinated by ‘emergence’, the phenomenon where a flock of birds, for example, emerges from simple behaviour of birds.   With three very simple rules – join the flock, keep up and keep a respectable “stopping distance” – birds individually, and probably without thought, create a flock that looks as if someone did think it up.

Emergence, business & management

We are fascinated with “emergence” in a business context because a naturally-forming flock undermines the idea of the all knowing and ominiscent leader.  The planning, leading, organizing & controlling management theory of Fayol goes ‘for a loop’.

At first, I was puzzled that university departments hadn’t taken up this idea more vigorouosly, and more practically.

Including emergence in the theory of management

Two years on, I’ve found my thinking has drifted.  Yes, it is certainly true that the role of managers is probably exaggerated (with their pay).  But the project of changing management is unnecessary.  Overmanaged firms will self-destruct, possibly at great cost to themselves and others, simply because managers have to be paid for and management that is not necessary simply makes a firm unweildy, inefficient and unprofitable.

The real issue is where our better understanding of organization is emerging in business.  The best example that is written up is the motorcycle industry of China. The best example where an industry is trying to use similar processes is the aerospace industry in UK and the production of the Boeing 787.

Moving along to understanding emergence in business

The challenge now is to understand the variations of self-organizing networks.

I think, perhaps, the basic principle is that emergence, by definition, is not willed.

  • We can prevent it happening.
  • We can illustrate the principle.

But in real life, the probably the best we can do is create conditions for it to happen.  What are those conditions?

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Lose weight by weighing less: bad taunt, good science!

Lose weight by weighing less

So said The Atlantic in a side-swipe at Gary Hamel, the management professor.  They meant to damn him  They meant to say he was being tautological – or in plain language – saying black is black.  Unknowingly, they were being profound!  What they don’t realize is that management theory has moved on.  Like modern psychology, it has expanded its horizons.  The mathematical models we use have changed and to say we lose weight by weighing less is sound modelling.

Cause-and-effect was our first question

One hundred years ago, we were captivated by questions of cause-and-effect.  What causes overweight, we might ask. And we came up with models that said the more food went in the more fat on our body.    Food is is food.   Fat is fat.  They are different and one causes the other.

And so it went on.  We said intelligence led to success in later life.  We said that eating well led to intelligence.  On and on.

Actually few of these factors are independent of each other.  Fat is transformed from food.  And intelligence is a make-believable variable that exists only because it is associated with success.

Now we ask how a phenomenon changes over time

That said, we aren’t that interested in these models any more or the general question of what causes what.

These days we are more interested in recursive models.  Lose weight by weighing less is exactly what interests me.  Today I might way 60 kg.  Tomorrow I may weigh 59.9 kg or 60.1 kg.  What is the natural fluctuation in my weight and what leads to the weight getting greater (or less) and then reversing direction.

We know weight is caused by what goes in and what goes out.  And both of those are dependent on each other.  I will eat more more I have skipped meals and I will exercise less when I’ve had too much or too little to eat.    We are interested in all the relevant factors change in time and how they interact with each other in a highly fluctuating yet essentially self-correcting and stable system.

What doesn’t change may well be sick

Illness comes from lack of fluctuation. We should worry about utterly static weight and a completely constant appetite.

How do we shift systems?

Anyone who has tried to shift their typical weight, for vanity or to please their doctor, knows that it is quite hard to do.  There seems to be homeostatic levels which remain fairly constant given any set of circumstances.  Complexity theorists know that systems are self-replicating.  They also know the “shape” of the system matters.    We expect a system to fluctuate a lot but like our weight, in a general range.  When we get no fluctuation, or when our weight rockets or plummets, then we are ill!

Shifting entire systems requires a different form of thinking.  More on that another day.

For now, yes – we can lose weight by weighing less.  It is a weak system of change to look at the scales each day.  But it will work.  Just weigh less every day and you will lose weight.  Perfect mathematical model. Perfect science.

Sorry The Atlantic.  Misguided taunt.  Another one of these areas where the world has changed a lot in the last five years.  Now we do recursive models not cause-and-effect models.

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5 agreed points about happy prosperous work in the new economy

Mavens of work

FOUR loose communities of internet pundits are watching changes in work with great interest –

1 Professors and academics

2 Management consultants who specialize in organizational design

3 Social media gurus who explain developments

4 Marketers and purveyors of social media services who hope to stimulate demand

A FIFTH group, poets, might have a look from time to time but they probably find our prose dull.

What are we all looking for?

  • We know that the world economy is on a cusp. The industries of the 20th century have reached a point of diminishing returns. And we are definitely moving toward a future of new industries underpinned by advances in biotechnology and other sciences.
  • At the same time, we are communicating across countries and industries at the cracking pace made possible by the internet. Work has become quite different. And so has the leadership of organizations.

What are we pretty certain about?

I am yet to get my head around exactly which industries will boom. It is also not clear which activities will need formal organizations and which we will pursue as-and-when using social media tools like Facebook.

What is clear are the psychological “rules” of our new age.

The 5 points of appreciative inquiry originally described by David Cooperrider of Case Western seem to be repeated over and over again in different words with different examples.

As a case in point, a Thai blog quoted an Education Professor at Harvard who identified 5 competencies for the modern age.

What are the core competencies needed in this century? Harvard Graduate School of Education professor Helen Haste has identified five that we should begin teaching our students. We business managers should also consider how to bring these skills to our companies and careers.

Managing Ambiguity. “Managing ambiguity is that tension between rushing to the clear, the concrete, and managing this ambiguous fuzzy area in the middle. And managing ambiguity is something we have to teach. Because we have to counter the story of a single linear solution.”

Agency and Responsibility. “We have to be able to take responsibility and know what that means. Being an effective agent means being able to approach one’s environment, social or physical, with a confidence that one actually will be able to deal with it.”

Finding and Sustaining Community. “Managing community is partly about that multitasking of connecting and interacting. It’s also, of course, about maintaining community, about maintaining links with people, making sure you do remember your best friend’s birthday, that you don’t forget that your grandmother is by herself this weekend, and of course recognizing also that one is part of a larger community, not just one’s own private little world.”

Managing Emotion. “Really it’s about getting away from the idea that emotion and reason are separate… Teaching young people to manage reason and emotion and not to flip to one or the other is an important part of our education process.”

Managing Technological Change. “When we have a new tool, we first use it for what we are already doing, just doing it a bit better. But gradually, the new tool changes the way we do things. It changes our social practices.”

To make my point, how do these well phrased principles relate to the principles of appreciative inquiry?

The positive principle. Instead of assuming we now the solution and finding a plan to fit, begin with where you are now. Take the first step and see what you learn. (Managing Technological Change.) This is also know as rapid prototyping or Ready Fire Aim.

The social constructionist principle. There is no one view of the world which accounts for all our realities. We need to listen to all our points of view and look for the common linkages between us. These are ever changing as our experiences of the world change. (Finding and sustaining community.) Diversity and belonging are key to modern enterprises. If we neglect either, we rip the guts out of our organizations.

The anticipatory principle. We are doers by nature and like nothing better than chasing after a goal. To achieve a goal, we need to understand how things work, and pay attention to the results we achieve. Feedback, though, comes back to us from all angles and to disentangle what we are hearing, we have to learn about the world and our place in it. Our love of Agency and Responsibility is never clearer than in computer games were we pursue quests and test out our competence with others in competition with “forces of nature” and competing interests. We are being chided to take responsibility. We do so naturally. The trick is to figure out what is under our control.

The simultaneity principle. The world exists only in so far as we pay attention to it. This is not an abstract philosophical point. It is also a point in physics. It doesn’t mean we can ignore what we choose or make things up. It means things change their meaning and their essence when we notice them. And we change when we notice ourselves. David Cooperrider put the principle like this. We move in the direction of the questions we ask. To put this concretely, I don’t go to London. When I start asking where is London, I start moving toward London. If I ask the question a different way, how do I drive to London, I will probably do something different, such as not use the train. (Managing Ambiguity).

The poetic principle. The poetic principle is not poetic! But “the good, the true, the better and the possible” is. Most of us had poetic language beaten out of us at school and college Dry, wooden language became a mark legitimacy and is popular with the powerful because it conceals their motives. When we are firmly in charge, we reject the emotions and motivations of our audiences so we don’t have to acknowledge their interests. By using dry language, we can claim that our interests are truths – so convenient! Poetic language engages the interests of others. It is emotional. It is not deliberately emotional. It is explicitly emotion. And we use emotional language to find the common basis of our separate and sometimes conflicting interests. To say emotional language is honest negotiation sounds unpoetic – but that is what it is. Many people in power, including teachers, are disconcerted by the demands of Gen Y to approach issues from their point of view. How can this be organized, they cry? Well I have taught a 850 person class of Gen Y. They do evaluate every lecture with the question : what does this material do for me, right here, right now? They behave like 850 demanding CEO’s. Once we’ve got over our surprise, it works. Stand and deliver! We look at the emotion – their point of view – and the range of their points of view – and deliver the material accordingly. They learn more. They learn the substance. They learn what to do with the content we are teaching. They learn about the range of perspectives in the class. They apply the material. Isn’t that what we are asking for – engagement? To engage we have to come from their point of view – not ours which we concealed in pompous language.

We seem to be on a plateau of understanding

It strikes me that professors, consultants, gurus, geeks and poets have come up different sides of a hill and found themselves on flat piece of ground. We seem to concur, for now, on the essential ingredients of “new work”.

I’m sure these principles will be refined in due course. And it is good for each of us to rephrase them in our own words using our own examples. It helps us understand their nuances and limitations.

They are clear enough for now, and they appear in sufficient sources, though, to teach.

They are also clear enough to try out in practical projects.

The next goal

From now onwards, I am only going to scan theoretical pieces to see if they are saying anything new.

Otherwise, I am looking for examples of collective action and how the principles worked in practice.

I think I am interested in active experimentationhow we learn about these principles, deliberately or accidently.

If you have an example, do let me know.

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Which skills will be valuable in 5 years time?

Day One at Xoozya (cont’d)

Mary, the HR Body put her cheerful face around the door and said “Lunch”.  Yep, I was keen.  There is just so much that I can take in at one time and the Dashboard at Xoozya is pretty comprehensive.

She dangled a key.  “Bring valuables,” she said, “but leave everything else as it is.  We’ll lock the door”.

The canteen wasn’t far and I could hear the buzz as we approached.  It was just as hyped.   Salads, fruit and hot food and the refreshing absence of the cloying smell of old fat and overcooked vegetables.  Sweet.

Mary, ever the professional, asked nimbly whether I ate fish.  I do, and she said, “I’ll get two fish pies – they’re good.  You grab some salads.  I’d like plain lettuce and tomato and pear or some fruit.  Water OK to drink?”  I caught up with her at the cashier where she introduced me as noobe and I put my food on my tab.  We grabbed napkins and cutlery and she led the way to a corner table.  “We’ll join Peter Wainwright, the HR Director.  You remember him, of course?”

As we approached, Peter rose, smiled warmly, and said “Hello, Jo.  Welcome to Xoozya!  Here’s to a prosperous and happy alliance.”

We fumbled around, as one does, arranging trays and getting comfortable and he asked about my morning.  I told him it was clear I have some thinking to do to set up a communication system that leaves me informed but not overwhelmed with information.

He nodded and added: “Well, take your time.  Every minute that you spend in exploration now pays off handsomely in comfort and organization later.  We also want you to base your judgments on what matters. You’ve joined us with your skills, as has everyone else here,” he said, waiving his hand at the crowded canteen.

Future capability and value

“There are skills that are essential to what you do and there are skills that will change with technological change.”

  • “We want you to jot down the skills that are absolutely essential to what you do.  These we will nurture and respect.”
  • “Then there are skills that are going to change significantly over the next five to ten years.  We want those on a separate list because those require significant investment in time and energy”.
  • “And there are skills that we don’t use anymore.  Those we give a respectful burial.” He smiled.  “When we have identified a skill or process that we no longer use, we get an occupational psychologist to document it and we make a display for our skills museum.  Then we have a little wake,” he chuckled, “to see it off.  It’s quite cathartic.”

Nostalgia for skills & practices of the past

“So which skill in the museum is best-loved?” I asked.  “Which grave attracts the most flowers?”

“Ah, we hadn’t thought of doing that.  Good idea.  We should put the skills up on the intranet with the choice of . . . flowers or . . . a good kick . . . or a big ? mark for ‘who was this!’.  And see what we get back!”

My induction so far

Well, I obviously have some thinking to do.  It is only lunchtime and I have to think about


Which skills are utterly essential to your work?

And which will change so fundamentally in the next five years that you will need to retrain?

And which skills deserve a respectful burial?

Which are you happy to see go and which will you miss?

And if you are enjoying this series, please do feel free to join in!

  • Leave your thoughts in the comment section
  • Grab the RSS feeds for posts and comments top right
  • If you comment on this post from your blog, please link back to this post from the words Jo Jordan, flowingmotion, or Xoozya
  • Tweet the post
  • Stumble the post

And PS, if you are new to this blog, Xoozya is an utterly fictitious organization.  This series began on the spur of the moment as I started to explored the principles of games design and Ned Lawrence of Church of Ned mentioned how much time people put into designing their avatars, or online identities.  Xoozya is an attempt to imagine what an organization would look, sound and feel like if it were run along lines recommended by contemporary management theorists.

And PPS Ned is an online writing coach and is available for hire.

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Psychologists, 2009 AD, recessions, life

Ned’s challenge

Ned has solved my dilemma about what to write about this weekend.  Commenting on my post on Hope, he asks:

How do positive psychologists quantify this information if you are no longer studying behavior? In other words, how do you maintain empiricism?

Learning to be systematic

As I said in my post on Hope that during my training as a psychologist, Hope and such moral virtues, were out-of-bounds.  Like most psychology departments at the time, we were behaviourists and positivists.  We studied what we could see, and we looked for the underlying ‘laws’ of behaviour.

Learning to watch carefully

I am still in favour of psychologists being taught in this way.  A lot of psychologists arrive from the ‘Arts’ and the ‘laboratory method’ is a good counter-balance to their prior training.  The first step in developing empathy is to recognize the ‘other’.  And even psychologists (particularly psychologists) struggle with this.  If I have to describe you, and you alone, and if I am given the challenge of describing you in exactly the same way as the next person sees you, I begin the journey of separating what I want, from what you want. And as a result, I will be a lot more effective in everything I undertake.

Practically too, quantitative questionnaire-based studies are heaps easier to do for your dissertation!

Learning to tell a story

The analytical tradition is not, though, the whole story.  When we work as psychologists, we have to learn to synthesize information about a  person.  We have to bring together all the measurements we have gathered, and understand the person as a whole.  Regrettably, even at the post-graduate level where people are training to go into practice (as doctors do in the clinical part of their training) psychologists are given little help in this formative task. They are taught, after all, by people whose university careers depend upon being analytical.

At this juncture in a psychologist’s training, people who came from the ‘Arts’ have a better time.  Our measurements need to be woven together into a coherent narrative and people who studied Literature and History at school are now at an advantage.

The new age is the age of synthesis and morality

Practising psychology has been a journey, for me, towards learning to synthesize information.  I was pleased to see that Mihalyi Cziksentmihalyi, who you probably know for his concept of Flow, has predicted that synthesis is the new science.  And more so, synthesis with a moral edge.

  • It does mattter that we can walk in other people’s shoes.
  • It does matter that we can judge the effects of our actions on others.
  • It does matter that we can understand how our actions hurt others, and how an action that seems essential to us might be repulsive, disgusting and quite repellant to other people.
  • It matters too, that we have the capacity to imagine a narrative, or story line, in which we are not at each others’ throats.  Development and world peace depends on our imagination.

We are part of the contests and conflicts of life

The difficulty with the analytical tradition is that it pretends that we are above the fray.  We are part of the story of this planet.  Thankfully.  And I intend to play my part in making the tough decisions of life.  To raise issues. To look for ways forward.  To press my case and the case of those dear to me  To negotiate. To look for common ground.  To apologize when I have it wrong.  And to go to war when necessary.  But understanding that to do so might put me in a position where I get a heap lot wrong.  I’ll try the diplomatic route first.

But above the fray, No!  Always right?  Good lord.  The only way to be always right is to be in a laboratory.   To lock oneself up and throw away the key.

Rethinking psychology

The world is not like this.  We are giving-and-taking all the time. That is life.  That’s the part I like!  Can psychology cope with it?  We need to learn an expression common in management theory.  A business is path-dependent.  It is completely unique in other words.  From studying other businesses, I can develop a sense of the possible.  I can learn to look at my situation methodically from a variety of perspectives.  But they way things turn out is not predicitable.  The way things turn out is the result of all our actions – yours, mine and people we don’t even know.  All these taken together are far too complicated to predict with any specificity.

Occupational hazards

The unknowability of life may be depressing if you are wedded to the idea that the world is predictable.  But who said that it is?  The analytical tradition asks, only, what can we predict?  Unfortunately, if you spend to much time in a psychology laboratory, being rewarded for finding phenomena that are amenable to analysis, you start to think that everything must be analysed and if it can’t be subjected to experimentation that it is not important.  An occupational hazard of being a research psychologist is that you gradually lose your capacity for synthesis under real life conditions.

Are we up for the fullness of life?

David Whyte, British corporate poet, has a wonderful poem that he calls a Self-Portrait.  It begins:

“It doesn’t interest me if there is one God or many gods”

and ends

“I want to know if you are willing to live, day by day, with the consequence of love and the bitter unwanted passion of your sure defeat.  I have heard, in that fierce embrace, even gods speak of God.”

So while I endorse analytical training for people embarking on a career as a psychologist, training in synthesizing information is also a necessary part of our ‘clinical’ training.  At the same time, we learn to understand that it is not about our clients getting it right, or avoiding the downside of life.  It is about our clients entering the fray.  Of putting their passions at the disposal of the collective.  Of living with glory, and with defeat.  And doing so knowing that a full life for the collective and themselves depends upon they doing their job ,with their special talents, even though sometimes it feels like a ‘cross to bear’, and a ‘cross to bear’ with no certainty that we are even doing the right thing.

One age at a time

That is life.  For most twenty-somethings, this is very hard to understand.  I am happy they take the first step in understanding their personality is different from others, and that to have winners, by definition we must have losers.  Those concepts are hard enough.  They will learn more later, just as our stumbling one years olds delighted us by running like gazelles in their teenage years.

What’s next?

2009 promises to be a hard year.  The financial crisis is even worse than most people understand.  My analytical training helps me here and I am collecting visual explanations on the page Financial Crisis Visually.

This month has also been a horrible month with out-and-out conflict breaking out in Gaza (hence some of the fiercer imagery, perhaps).

But it is our year.  It is our time. And our life, in 2010, depends entirely on what we do together, now.

Come with me,

life is contested, but it is ours.

P.S.  Ned has persuaded me to re-orient this blog more to non-psychologists.  Please let me know if I am on the right path and what you think I should be doing!

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