We must believe so deeply in those we lead and serve that we want them to be at our side in the heat of enemy fire.

Art Kleiner

I haven’t read any of Art Kleiner’s books.  How did I miss him?  Well, I seem to have missed him and it is time to make good.

Managers & the Core Group

I am taken with the idea that every organization has a core group. The group could be corrupt, of course, but every organization does have a core who are part of the value chain.

I joined a university early in my career for that reason.  As an academic, I was part of the core, while as a psychologist in HR, I was not.

The perils of neglecting the core

Many of the tensions in modern organizations arise because ‘managers’ have tried to dominate the core – the academics in universities or the doctors in the health service.  It doesn’t work.  Trying to dominate the core, or heart, eats away at its vitality.

Nurture the core

We, managers and administrators are here to serve.  When we understand the core, or heart, and help it function as it should, our organizations flourish.

Managers & the Influencers

And of course, within the organization are groups who are very important because they influence the process in a critical way.  Radar in MASH is much more powerful than the Colonel.  And Hawkeye, a Captain, dominates the Majors with his wit and grasp of the essence of war.

Social dynamics

Kleiner points out that when we first start working with an organization, that we must read the social dynamics. Who has undue influence?  Who has privilege. Formal rank may not matter very much.  When does it, and when does it not?

On the periphery

When we are on the periphery, irritating as it may be, it is worth acknowledging how the system really works. Then we can influence the system, even if we will never be part of the core.

Supporting the core

When we are managing an organization, we can acknowledge who is the core ~ not to give them further privileges, they have those already and will defend them to the last ~ but to subtly influence their acknowledgment and influence of other stakeholders who may not be core, but who they cannot do without.

In the university world, there is a cute poem that begins with students who splash through puddles, then associate professors who can jump over puddles, and Professors who are so magnificent that they can jump over the University Library, the Vice Chancellor who can speak to god and the Departmental Secretary ~ she is god.

Managing organizations

Helping an organization maintain its vitality doesn’t take a lot of heavy-handing action.  Indeed, the opposite.  It takes a little system thinking.  A gentle nudge here and a tactful reminder there.  Sometimes a good humored reminder of reality when we stand aside and stop protecting people from their own arrogance.  When the harm will not be permanent, a lesson in cause-and-effect can be salutary.

The core will always be there.  We destroy value when we deny it. And we risk corruption when we sweep relations between stakeholders under the carpet.

Relationships matter. Interests matter.  We need to get real.

Look harder for an organization whose core you respect

Art Kleiner makes an important point.  There are many organizations whose core is rotten ~ who are evil at heart.  We may be in that core, or we may be fretting about our lower status on the periphery.  What counts is whether we essentially believe that the interests of the core group are good for the organization and our community.  If we believe that, then we stay.

Otherwise, we need to look harder for an organization whose core we respect.  It’s best to be part of the core.  If not, we can serve it.  Gracefully.  Thankfully.  With a little reverance, but with understanding that the core needs others too and that we should help them manage their relationships with others.

Remember power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.  We should never let something we respect become so isolated from reality that it corrupts itself with meglamania.

But to change an organization, to nurture its vitality, we must believe that the interests of the core are the organization’s interests.  We need that deep down belief to respect the core and to help it confront issues about its relationships with others.

Am I rambling?  I like the acknowledgment of the core or heart of an organization.  Remember in the words of Colin Powell, leadership is follow me.  We must believe so deeply in those we lead and serve that we want them to be at our side in the heat of enemy fire.

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Thinking about modern careers in the words of Khalil Gibran

Fill each other’s cup but not drink from one cup

I am reading Khalil Gibran’s The Prophet.  His words on marriage might well be a manifesto for modern day careers and organization.

“Fill each other’s cup but not drink from one cup.”

Careers & work of the future

Switching to contemporary times, if you want to skate to where the puck will be rather than where it is now, find opportunities to work in exchange with others, “to replenish their cup”, rather than subsumine yourself to the goal of a larger institution or one boss or teacher.

Careers & sustainability

But also remember, Khalil Gibran’s words

“When you love you should not say, “God is in my heart,” but rather, “I am in the heart of God.”

In prosaic contemporary terms, think about a wider system that provides enough to drink for everyone.  We don’t need to share one cup except when there is only one.  When we make many cups and fill each other’s cups, then we we are in a healthy place and we want to strive to make that so.

  • Take your cup, allow others to fill it.
  • Take your cup, and fill those of others.
  • Ponder those who have no cup and no one to fill it.

Using the old wisdom of Khalil Gibran to extend management theory

All this is obvious though not so if you teach management theory.  Old management theory charges us with drinking from our line manager’s cup and ultimately from the company’s cup.  There are legal reasons (and mainly legal reasons) for this.

We could also train young people to understand the company as a mega-system that must benefit all stakeholders ~ all stakeholders ~ if it is to sustain itself.

We can train young people to understand power, its use and misuse, and how to work thinkingly yet safely with people who deny others their own cup.  But never to give up their own cup.

I want to see young people exploring the whole system in their online portfolios.  I would like to see youth support systems put youngsters in situations where they must sort out which cup is which, who is filling which cup, and how they can act in small & gentle ways to drink from their own cup, to fill the cups of others, and to influence the wider econ-system.  It’s an important skill to learn and many of us lose it along the way.

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Now that I am 45

When I was 25

When I was a young and brash 25 year old, I often dismissed people as ’45 and going nowhere”.

I expect the young of today to be equally as intolerant. And I forgive them. Our twenties are heady time.  We achieve autonomy and we reassure ourselves that we are able to take our place in the adult world.

Now I am 45

I want to honor the promise of my 25 year old self.  I think

  • We have a responsibility to the young to make opportunities for them and to allow them to make their mistakes but in non-career threatening ways.
  • We have a responsibility to create institutions where they can progressively take on larger and larger projects.
  • We have a responsibility to ensure that the young have access to information about what is worth doing and what is not. We should not allow them to spend time on speculative work that will be career-breaker and undermine their confidence for ever after.
  • We have a responsibility to espouse a vision and work towards it systematically.
  • We have a responsibility not to sulk. We are not 25 any more. We can not longer start projects with only the thought “I can, I can.”

It is our job now to bring together all the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle. The people. The money. The processes. The customers. The parties. The comfort when things don’t go our way.

We are 45 now. The 25 year olds are right. We aren’t going anywhere. We are gathering together all the resources we need for larger works.

The greatest leaders spark curiosity about the system

Our goal had gone walkabout

On my travels, I found myself teaching systems thinking in a university which broke a large course into 25 student groups. A few people determined the curriculum and an army of people taught students who wrote a common examination.

I was shocked by the examination papers. Students rambled on tossing in whatever thoughts came to mind.

We sensibly had an interim examiners meeting and I voiced my concerns. Well, it seems that I was the one to have misunderstood the curriculum.  The curriculum designers were trying to convey the idea that there are many perspectives on any issue. They didn’t see a common goal or direction as an essential part of any system.

I am cursed with an “open mind” so I hastened to the internet to double-check and the idea has hung around my mind ever since as unfinished business does.

3 misunderstandings about system goals

I’m afraid that systems do have common goals. That is entirely the point. But it seems that this is a point that is often misunderstood.

Some people think the system’s goal is their goal

No! There are still multiple perspectives. We can add the system as a virtual person and ask what is the system’s goal! We have the boss’ goal, we have the system, goal and we have each of our goals.

Some people think there is no common goal

It is true that the organization does not have a goal. An organization cannot think! When we say that the organization’s goal is X, we must ask who says that?

But we not only want to understand the multiplicity of goals but we also want to understand how the many goals come together and how the system goal morphs in response. We cannot ignore the system goal ~ or we do as a sailor might ignore the weather ~ at our peril.

Some people think goals are constant

They are ~ for a second. Goals morph as situations change. When we ignore the dynamic quality of goals, then we get mission creep. Conditions change and if we don’t stop to think about what we want, what we all want, we find ourselves doing too much of one thing and too little of another. A mess in other words. Goals are infinitely variable.

Articulating the morphing of goals in any group is what makes a leader

A leader understand the multiplicity of goals in a community and sees how are contradictions and conflicts, agreements and alliances come together to make us what we are – how the whole comes from the parts and affects them in turn.

A leader is a person who is able to articulate this dynamic mix so that we feel supported by the whole and essential to its well being. This is a tough call when a group is determined to quarrel or terrified by its destiny. The hall mark of a leader is that he or she looks for the common ground where we all belong and keeps looking.

Facilitating the agreement is the hallmark of the greatest leaders

Helping us find that common ground is the hallmark of the greatest leaders. We often doff our caps to leaders who were in the right place at the right time. They represent what is the best about ourselves and we throw them into the limelight to remind us of who we are and where we are going. In time, we choose a new leader because our direction has changed and we need new icon on our bows.

We remember these leaders because these were times that we felt great. The greatest leaders, though, help us identify the right questions. They know how to “bound” the group. They know how to focus our attention on the question that we must answer if we are to find the way forward and the place where we feel great.

That’s why it seems as if great leaders set goals. They set a boundary which focuses our attention on question-asking.

It is not the goal that is important, but our compulsion to find out how we should reach the goal.

Colin Powell once said “Leadership is about ‘Follow Me!. Even if it is only out of curiosity.”

Leadership is the art of engaging the imagination in the search for collective answers.

The system is important. With good leadership, we accept the system as a virtual person ~ a popular virtual person who we all want to look after and please.

Management is developing people through work

Management in the 21st century

He died under a cloud but Agha Hasan Abedi said something sensible:

The conventional definition of management is getting work done through people, but real management is developing people through work.

Do you agree?

Real management is understanding how people will grow through our work so that our collective value grows and we all benefit.

 


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To be a good manager, teacher or psychologist, I must believe in you fully

I know that learning is social

I teach.  I know that people learn dramatically more when they feel part of a common venture.

We understand a little about social learning

Social learning has barely been researched but we know a little.

  • We know we can stop people learning very effectively by excluding them – even inadvertently ~by loss of eye contact and they way we tell stories.
  • We know the Pymaglion effect is a powerful self-fulfilling prophecy.   My students will be as good as I think they are.

But the process of learnin begins when I show deep respect for who my students are and what they bring to my life.

E E Cummings on recognition

American poet E. E. Cummings puts it well:

“We do not believe in ourselves until someone reveals that deep inside us something is valuable, worth listening to, worthy of our trust, sacred to our touch. Once we believe in ourselves we can risk curiosity, wonder, spontaneous delight or any experience that reveals the human spirit.”

To be an effective teacher, to be an effective manager, to be an effective psychologist ~ I must believe in you, 100%, without reservation.



3 steps to manage global systems successfully

What do we know about our ability to manage global systems?

After Umair Haque wrote on our tendency to create bubbles from sub-prime assets, or toxic junk, I set myself to work reading and thinking about the more esoteric academic work on big organizations and disasters.

Karl Weick on Highly Reliable Organizations

Karl Weick, who is not widely quoted, mainly because he is a difficult read, has studied a range of organizations such as nuclear power stations, orchestras and forest fire fighters. Much of what we know about running large organizations, we have learned from him.

The disaster of the banking system, and the very high likelihood that it will sink UK if not the USA, should send us running to Karl Weick’s books for explanations.

This is what I have gleaned:

  • When our world gets turned upside down, we go into shock

In the current financial crisis,  Zimbabweans, for example, who have seen a financial meltdown in their recent past, go about saying: yup, seen that before.  They know what to do.  Everyone else is thrown. Nothing makes sense.

  • We get into these situations not so much because we are dumb, but because we are lazy

Complicated situations, like nuclear power plants, derivative markets and hedge funds, and for that matter an English roundabout, require our full attention.  We have to be ‘neurotic’ about ‘weak signals’.   We need to notice when little things are wrong and check them out.  We need to listen to each other because we all bring different expertise.

When we start sweeping rubbish under the carpet and deferring to the great and the good, then we are headed for trouble.

This aspect of organizational life is difficult to manage.  Being neurotic about weak signals can just make us opinionated and boorish.  The point about weak signals is attend to those on your own patch.   I’ll give you an example.  In mines and in hotels, when a manager sees a scrap of paper on the floor, they stop to pick it up.  Then they find out how it got there and why it was left there.  We don’t let it go because small things are indicative of system failure.  As a psychologist, I always make a mental note when someone in an organization is agitated. There are dozens of possible causes.  They may simply have remembered they forgot to get the milk and be making a mental plan of what to give the kids for breakfast – not earth shattering.  But they could also be very uncomfortable about a decision at work or have a real crisis outside work and need some space to sort it out.  I only cross them off my list of weak signals when I am sure they are OK.

  • We get out of confusing situations by acting.

We bring all our training, past experience and understanding to bear, but the truth is that we may not have experienced anything like this before or what worked in the past may be misleading.

Moreover the situation is evolving as we think and plan.

So we begin to act, we watch the consequences of our actions.  We leap so that we can look.

Acting without knowing is terrifying.  So wise organizations prepare people.  We get them to rehearse likely scenarios.  We also put them in situations where they don’t know everything.   That’s why gap years and study abroad is so valuable.  We learn to cope with our emotions when we don’t know what is happening!

What’s clear for a manager is that we must get people to act.  Some act easily – perhaps too easily.  Many are over cautious.  The trick is to give people little things to do.  When we administer psychological tests, for example, we don’t give a long explanation.  We want people to act within 20 to 30 seconds.  Wkeep things brief. Hello, I am  .  .  .  We will be here all morning doing some exercises.  I’ll guide you through everything.  Would you like to sit down here and write your name on the first bit of paper?  And then we got straight into a 2 minute exercise which is designed to be easy, burn off some adrenaline, and give them a practical overview of what will follow.  Their subsequent scores are much higher for reducing endless cogitation and allowing them to learn from action.  Weick even cites a situation where an army unit in the mountains got “unlost” by following a map of another mountain range.  A manger’s job is to get people to collect relevant information, act on it, collect more, act on it, etc.

Collective mindfulness

I like the term collective mindfulness because it refers to a culture where all three points are incorporated.

  • We respond to weak signals and we build our attention to weak signals into the culture by modeling mindfulness and listening to every one.
  • We accept that surprises shock us and reduce our ability to act.
  • We get everyone up and about finding relevant information and sharing it.

Collective mindfulness increases belonging

What Weick doesn’t seem to say, but might have done, is that the feeling of inclusion and shared purpose will also release cognitive capacity.  Just as we should never ignore weak signals, when we are in a good mood, it is easier to spot what does work and do more of it.   When we belong, we don’t have to worry about finding a group which will be loyal to us.

In a complicated system, freeing up that cognitive space and doing more of what works might preempt disaster.

That’s me done for this Sunday.

I am relieved. We can manage our collective affairs.  We can work effectively in a globalized, internet-connected world.

  • Attention to detail no matter its source!
  • Manage shock with action
  • Act to reveal information relevant to the common and valued purpose

P.S.  As I looked for a mnenomic, I noticed that these are the same three factors modelled by Marcial Losada in business teams:

  • Inquiry-Advocacy>1  [Ask questions; summarize; ask questions]
  • Positive:Negative speech > 5:1 [Ask what needs to be done; don’t wallow in negative emotion]
  • Reference to the world outside the group – Reference to the world inside the group >1 [Find out what matters!  Don’t just theorize]

Ah, social scientists are repetitive – why don’t we just do this stuff?

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Where are the system specialists in UK? The amber light for UK today

EPS

If you are an accountant or financier, EPS means earnings per share. If you are a staff manager or systems designer, EPS means events, patterns, systems.

Events, patterns, systems

Here we are in November 2009, a good year after the collapse of Lehman Brothers and two years after the run on Northern Rock.

Events

Each of those is an event. People on the front line had to respond. They stood in the queue to get their money out of Northern Rock. They carried their belongings in a forlorn cardboard box out of the Lehman building.

Events are about doing. What we do brings them about. What we do deals with their consequences, good or bad.

Patterns

Two banks going under (and later more) may or may not be part of a pattern. In this case, we have a pattern.

As soon as people made a “run” on Northern Rock, many of us will have asked, is the ea pattern? And if so, what shall we do about it?

Many of us sat down immediately to review the stability of our own banks. We checked out all the rules and moved our money about so all our eggs weren’t in one basket.

Patterns are about asking questions. Is a pattern emerging? If so, what are the forces behind the pattern? How will the pattern effect us? What does knowledge of the pattern allow us to turn it into an event ~ to do.

Systems

And as soon as we had moved our own assets to safety, we asked the next question: why? Why and how did we run our affairs so they led us to this peril? How was it that we missed earlier patterns and did not take evasive action earlier?

For ordinary people, systems are about pondering. And for some ranting and raving. Professional systems designers and staff managers review the information systems alert the people who “do” that something needs “doing”. We review the information systems that trigger, or failed to trigger, question. And we review the information we used to look for patterns.

Events, patterns and systems correspond to the three circles of managers.

Do-ers

On the front line are those that do. They need information to warn them of events and to manage events as they unfold.

Managers

One step back are managers. Their job is not to ask whether the doing is getting done ~ that is the job of doers. Their job is to look at patterns.

They might compile the information on whether the job is getting done and feed it to the frontline. But if the job is not getting done, they should ask whether the right information is being delivered at the right time.

System designers

A second step back are system designers ~ managers of managers. They neither control events nor deliver information directly.

They ask another question: will the system of doing, pattern detection and information give us the patten of events that we are able to manage?

Many people start to glaze over at this point.

What kind of work do you like to do?

Doing is busy and immediate

Most people work on the front line. They like it there. It is busy, active, sociable and very very immediate.

Good management works ahead of the action using information from days gone by

The old saying, though, is that without good governance, life is nasty, brutish and short.

Let me illustrate in everyday terms with the smallest act of good management. An irritation shared is usually quartered. When someone is carrying a heavy load, we stop to help. It takes us a few seconds and it makes a huge difference to easing their day.

When we have the right information at the right time and the right place, everyone is able to do more, more quickly. Manager might not carry the heavy loads themselves, but they will have alerted people that someone needs help, or found out whether the heavy load could have been broken into parts, or worked out whether it would be cost effective to get in some machinery.

Managers work ahead of the action by using information from days gone by. They still see what is happening. They see results and often dramatic results. But they are not doers.

Managers miss doing

In many organizations, managers come from the ranks of doers and they resent not being part of the old team. And they resent no longer having the thrill of immediacy. In some organizations, like universities, they resent the sharp loss of status because doers – those who do research – know that managers are unable to do.

In most organizations, managers also have the power to order, rather than advise, doers. Managers are also paid more.

Higher status & greater authority makes sense when we are unable to manage without first having been doers.

Increasingly though, it makes no sense at all for managers to be paid more than the people they manage. Take air traffic controllers, for example. They are unlikely to have been jet pilots. Air traffic controlling and flying planes are two different career paths which are learned and maintained separately. For very limited periods, air traffic controllers are able to give orders to pilots, but this is only a pragmatic arrangement. A system has been worked out where you “take a number and wait your turn”. Air traffic controllers are announcing the pilot’s turn ~ not telling them how to do their jobs.

We see instantly from this example that more people prefer to do ~ fly the plane ~ than control. That is how it should be. Nonetheless controlling is an important job for those who have the temperament to do it.

System designers are removed from the action but think up the system

And now you walk away, a little bored but satisfied that you understand it all. You’ve forgotten the system designers. Who thought up the system of air traffic control? Who investigates when something goes wrong?

Well, the third tier are widely despised! We don’t do. We don’t control. We are rarely seen until after the action and then only when things have gone wrong. We are the system designers and we come in two forms: the forensic – the after the event crew ~ and the designers.

Either way, our job is look at the system and ask whether it delivers a range of situations that are doable and controllable.

Obviously there are few of us. We aren’t needed every day.

The ongoing work of systems designers is seen more obviously in process plants. Highly qualified engineers design the plant and are on hand to advise when the process limps. When the system becomes luggable, or otherwise incomprehensible, the engineers are called in to reveal the more obscure ways of getting things to run smoothly again.

Design work is even more interesting because it is done ahead of time. Design work in human systems often attracts people who have a lot to say about the world. They don’t necessarily fit in well to systems work simply because the world rarely obliges us by doing what it is told!

Good systems designers are savvy. They leave plenty of room for the system to wrap itself round people and the way they do things. System designers have a good sense of side-effects, they have a sense of how long things take, and they understand the stop-and-go nature of human affairs.

But note, systems designers exist!  They’ve designed every thing you use. Banks. Post offices. Roads.

They check everything you use. There are engineers out there right now checking that the bridges are safe. There are doctors running medical “seeing ahead” to possibilities you cannot imagine. There are auditors checking businesses and banks to make sure your money is safe.

Where are the people who designed our systems?

What has puzzled me during the scandals of the last two years is that we haven’t heard much about the system designers – both designers and forensic investigators. I am not sure why we have this silence.

We are left with the impression that system specialists have been taken out of the system and the top level managers who are responsible for overseeing them haven’t being doing their job.

An amber light for the great system of the UK

For me, that is the greatest “system” amber light in UK today.

Why aren’t the system designers more visible?

Why don’t we point clearly to work units, to degree courses, to professions whose very job is to make sure life is doable and controllable?

Isn’t the lack of trust that people have in UK politicians precisely because they cannot see where decisions are made?

Who designs the system? Who checks that it is running? Point me to their offices!

Are we doomed to repeat subprime crises – or could we manage better?

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Subprime crises ~ again?

Umair Haque‘s article in the Harvard Business blog of yesterday nudged me to think through Donella Meadows 12 levers to change a system.

Umair thinks a lot of activity in Web2.0, or social media, is little more than a “sub-prime crisis”.  And implicitly, he argues that we will continue to have sub-prime crises until we improve our moral and ethic act.

I think we will continue to have sub-prime crises because it is possible for sub-prime crises to happen. What is possible is possible. We don’t control everything!

But we also don’t have to lurch from crisis to crisis.

Managing systems is a little more than just managing

My argument though is that we have to think more clearly.

  • We can think about systems as systems.
  • We can watch that we don’t confuse our individual behavior with system behavior.
  • We can understand the linkages between our individual behavior and system behavior ~ and work clearly on the linkages without confusing these with our emotional reactions to changes in system behavior.

Sadly, few of us are educated in systems thinking. Even fewer are fluent.

In the management world, we have long separated the work of the line (the people who do work) – from managers (the people who make the system) – from staff (the people who manage the managers).

  • It is very necessary for managers to think clearly about systems without  muddle the overall effect with what any one of us does. The art of management is also leveraging without exaggerating or underestimating any of levers.
  • And the staff – the managers of the managers – have their role in training managers and holding up a mirror of their behavior so they have accurate and timely feedback.

Next step in clarifying my thinking about systems

My next step is to review my current think with what Donella Meadows wrote on managing systems.

The subprime crisis is a good impetus to check the quality of our systems thinking!

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