As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, at the moment I’m reading eight books on repeat every morning. One of these is Peter Drucker’s magnificent Managing Oneself. I’ve actually gifted it to a couple of Critical Friend clients as it’s so good.
There’s some great insights in there, and some sections in particular I’d like to share here. First off, it’s worth defining terms. Thomas Davenport, in his book Thinking for a Living defines knowledge workers in the following way:
Knowledge workers have high degrees of expertise, education, or experience, and the primary purpose of their jobs involves the creation, distribution or application of knowledge.
So I’m guessing that almost everyone reading this fits into the category ‘knowledge worker’. I certainly identify as one, as my hands are much better suited touch-typing the thoughts that come out of my head, sparked by the things that I’m reading, than building walls and moving things around!
Drucker says that we knowledge workers are in a unique position in history:
Knowledge workers in particular have to learn to ask a question that has not been asked before: What should my contribution be? To answer it, they must address three distinct elements: What does the situation require? Given my strengths, my way of performing, and my values, how can I make the greatest contribution to what needs to be done? And finally, What results have to be achieved to make a difference?
This is a difficult thing to do and, to my mind, one that hierarchies are not great at solving. Every time I’m re-immersed in an organisation with a strict hierarchy, I’m always struck by how much time is wasted by the friction and griping that they cause. You have to be much more of a ‘grown-up’ to flourish in a non-paternalistic culture.
Drucker explains that knowledge workers who much ‘manage themselves’ need to take control of their relationships. This has two elements:
The first is to accept the fact that other people are as much individuals as you yourself are. They perversely insist on behaving like human beings. This means that they too have their strengths; they too have their ways of getting things done; they too have their values. To be effective, therefore, you have to know the strengths, the performance modes, and the values of your coworkers.
The second part of relationship responsibility is taking responsibility for communication. Whenever I, or any other consultant, start to work with an organization, the first thing I hear about are all the personality conflicts. Most of these arise from the fact that people do not know what other people are doing and how they do their work, or what contribution the other people are concentrating on and what results they expect. And the reason they do not know is that they have not asked and therefore have not been told.
The answer, of course, is to become a much more transparent organisation. Although The Open Organization is a book I’d happily recommend to everyone, I do feel that it conflates the notion of ‘transparency’ (which I’d define as something internal to the organisation) and ‘openness’ (which I see as the approach it takes externally). For me, every organisation can and should become more transparent — and most will find that openness lends significant business advantages.
Transparency means that you can see the ‘audit trail’ for decisions, that there’s a way of plugging your ideas into others, that there’s a place where you can, as an individual ‘pull’ information down (rather than have it ‘pushed’ upon you). In short, transparency means nowhere to hide, and a ruthless, determined focus on the core mission of the organisation.
Hierarchies are the default way in which we organise people, but that doesn’t mean that they’re the best way of doing so. Part of the reason I’m so excited to be part of a co-operative is that, for the first time in history, I can work as effectively with colleagues I consider my equals, without a defined hierarchy, and across continents and timezones. It’s incredible.
What this does mean, of course, is that you have to know what it is that you do, where your strengths lie, and how you best interact with others. Just as not everyone is a ‘morning person’, so some people prefer talking on the phone to a video conference, or via instant message than by email.
Even people who understand the importance of taking responsibility for relationships often do not communicate sufficiently with their associates. They are afraid of being thought presumptuous or inquisitive or stupid. They are wrong. Whenever someone goes to his or her associates and says, “This is what I am good at. This is how I work. These are my values. This is the contribution I plan to concentrate on and the results I should be expected to deliver,” the response is always, “This is most helpful. But why didn’t you tell me earlier?”
Organizations are no longer built on force but on trust. The existence of trust between people does not necessarily mean that they like one another. It means that they understand one another. Taking responsibility for relationships is therefore an absolute necessity. It is a duty. Whether one is a member of the organization, a consultant to it, a supplier, or a distributor, one owes that responsibility to all one’s coworkers: those whose work one depends on as well as those who depend on one’s own work.
Reflecting on the way you work best means that you can deal confidently with others who may have a different style to you. It means it won’t take them weeks, months, or even years to figure out that you really aren’t going to read an email longer than a couple of paragraphs.
[This] enables a person to say to an opportunity, an offer, or an assignment, “Yes, I will do that. But this is the way I should be doing it. This is the way it should be structured. This is the way the relationships should be. These are the kind of results you should expect from me, and in this time frame, because this is who I am.”
It’s a great book and, reading it at the same time as The Concise Mastery by Robert Greene is, I have to say, a revelation.
I tried recently to count the number of organisations of which I’ve been part over the years. I attempted to list everything from junior football teams through to my current employers. I began to lose count.
We’re part of many organisations in both our working and personal lives. I began to wonder how many of the organisations to which I’ve belonged would be considered successful. This then led me to consider what I meant by ‘success’…
What follows is a list of five characteristics I believe to be common to every successful organisation.
By ‘successful’ I mean demonstrably achieved what the organisation was set up to do. For a swimming club that’s teaching people to swim, being successful in galas, and training-up lifeguards. For schools it’s not only achieving good value-added but striking an achievable work-life balance for staff and preparing young people for the wider world.
Each of the following is additive: an organisation needs to get the first one sorted before moving onto the next. Skipping straight to 5 is a waste of time if 1-4 aren’t in place!
Every successful organisation needs a story. Often this is the mission statement based on the founders’ wishes. An independent school often has a strong story and a proud history which is often reflected both in the events calendar and positions within the staff and student body. A business that sells a product might have a story on how the company was founded or the ‘lightbulb moment’ – such as the Dyson story that’s printed on the side of all Dyson vacuum cleaner boxes.
The story not only lends the organisation legitimacy, but gives its members a common shared interest and direction in which to point. It sets the parameters, the tone. Sometimes the story is summed up in the organisation’s slogan, such as Google’s ‘Don’t be evil’ and Nike’s ‘Just Do It’.
More than anything, the story tells the world why the organisation exists. And that’s an important thing to communicate, especially in these testing times.
2. Call to action
Every organisation needs a story, a mission, a raison d’être. But it also needs a call to action – a reason why people should care – or, perhaps more importantly, a reason why people should join in.
A church, for example, is unlikely to get new members by providing bland, inoffensive services that allow people to forget the main messages soon afterwards. Public bodies such as the National Health Service need to not only go through the motions to improve the nation’s health but capture the public’s imagination and give them a reason to change their habits.
The call to action is difficult, especially if it requires demonstrable change in lifestyle or belief system. And, of course, the most successful organisations are the ones that maximise (and capitalise) upon these changes.
3. Growth mindsets
It’s fully possible to have a successful organisation without charismatic leaders. But I’ve yet to come across a successful organisation without leaders who have growth mindsets. Carol Dweck’s work has revolutionised not only my approach to education and business, but interactions with my son:
According to Dweck, individuals can be placed on a continuum according to their implicit views of where ability comes from. Some believe their success is based on innate ability; these are said to have a “fixed” theory of intelligence. Others, who believe their success is based on hard work and learning, are said to have a “growth” or an “incremental” theory of intelligence… Fixed-mindset individuals dread failure because it is a negative statement on their basic abilities, while growth mindset individuals don’t mind failure as much because they realize their performance can be improved. Dweck argues that the growth mindset will allow a person to live a less stressful and more successful life. (Wikipedia)
I’m fortunate enough to be surrounded by people with growth mindsets most of the time – at home, at work and online. However, I was recently in a position where I was surrounded by people with fixed mindsets. It was soul-destroying. 🙁
Seek out a growth mindset for yourself and foster it in others for your organisation to be successful and to flourish!
Once the story, call to action and charismatic leader are in place, commitment should be a fairly easy win for an organisation. Give staff a reason to work their socks off and give all they can to the organisation and the organisation will reap dividends.
The example often cited is Google. Having recently been to their London headquarters I saw some of what has been written in action. I saw happy, motivated staff working past 9pm on a weekday night, the legendary free food, micro-kitchens and off-the-wall accessories. I didn’t ‘see’ the 20% time that Google staff are given to work on their own projects, but it’s a well-known fact that many of their most innovative offerings were borne from this.
As a leader, I’d much rather have one person giving 100% than two people giving 50%. Not only because it’s cheaper, but it creates a palpable ‘buzz’ around the place. It energises other people. Create a culture of commitment and people not only thrive but flourish.
You can have the story sorted, a call to action prepared, the leaders with growth mindsets in place, and committed staff, but still fail to have a successful organisation. Why? Friction.
Friction occurs where there are bottlenecks, frustrations and indecisiveness. These almost always are the result of poor workflows. A workflow is merely a way of doing something. I can remember one school at which I work, a high-achieving specialist school. I remember being surprised at the number of flow charts in the staff room, up on the walls in classrooms and reproduced in the staff handbook. At first, this felt quite constraining. “Is this the only way we’re allowed to do things around here?”, I thought.
But then it dawned on me that effective workflows freed up people in that school to be creative, to focus on more important things, such as learning, their life outside school and adding value to the lives of young people. In other words, it allowed staff to achieve the mission of the school and be part of a successful organisation.
Workflows are crucial to the running of any organisation. At our most recent planning meeting, we mapped our current and future workflows. It was an interesting and enlightening experience. I can honestly say we’re becoming more efficient, more aware and, yes, more successful as a result.
The above constitutes my overview of what I believe organisations – both educational and otherwise – need to work on to become successful. I’d be very interested to hear whether you agree. What would you add? What would you remove? What would you change? 🙂
The third chapter of Owen’s book, and the last in the ‘foundations of leadership’ section is entitled Being Professional. Owen explains what he means by professionalism as follows:
Professionalism encompasses the core skills and values that define the character and potential of the organisation and the individual. It is central to the success of leadership.
He adds that professionalism should never be taken for granted and that it comprises four main elements:
Learning to learn leadership
Learning the local rules of the game: understanding professionalism in the context of the organisation
Learning some universal lessons of professionalism
Learning business survival etiquette.
The rest of this post uses these elements as section headings.
Learning to learn leadership
Formal education systems, says Owen, teaches people exactly the wrong lessons about leadership. In fact, this is probably why Richard Branson and Bill Gates – both ‘drop-outs’ of formal education systems – have prospered. Formal education teaches people to work in highly structured environments in an individual way looking for logical answers. Instead, it is the ‘tacit’ knowledge that is important, embodied in Japanese education and culture, for example.
According to Owen, leaders develop their capabilities in ‘two and a half ways’:
Learning from role models
Learning from experience
Learning from structured observation and discussion (sometimes)
If you want to accelerate your path to leadership, the two best ways of doing so are:
Set up your own organization. You will have to learn very quickly and even if it fails you will learn a lot.
Structured observation and discovery – actively looking, listening and learning.
Owen suggests creating your own worksheets for reflection using headings such as ‘interpersonal skills’, ‘management skills’, ‘personal behaviours’ and ‘commuication skills.’
Learning the local rules of the game
Dress codes are a trivial but higly visible sign of the local rules of the game. They can fluctutate and be highly political. You need to learn the local rules fast, but no-one will tell you and will look at you as if you have asked a weird question if you ask. Instead, you need to pick up clues and hints. The most direct question you could ask to get a useful question would be How could I really mess up?
Learning some universal lessons of professionalism
When Owen interviewed 700 top leaders and asked them about their expectations of emerging leaders, the following came out top:
Energy (incorporating stamina, commitment, resilience, optimism, etc.)
These are all closely linked traits and tend to go together in people.
Turning to the most common complaints co-workers make about their colleagues in 360° feedback, Owen lists them as being:
public, not private, arguments
game playing and politicking
bad habits (turning up late, poor dress, etc.)
personalising feedback and comments
Finally for this part, Owen makes the Prisoners’ Dilemma relevant to business. If you’re not familiar with this, read about it at Wikipedia, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, or play the Open University’s game. It turns out that tit-for-tat teaches people a lesson. If they offer conflict, offer conflict back, but always then go back to an ‘offering cooperation’ model. This teaches them appropriate behaviours. :-p
Learning business survival etiquette
Owen begins the section by stressing the importance of etiquette and what it means in practice:
Etiquette is fundamentally about putting the other person at ease and making them feel valued, respected and important.
Basic etiquette therefore involves
Promptness – respecting the other person’s time (you don’t lose friends or clients by arriving early!)
Focus – good leaders have the habit of making you feel like you are the most important thing in their lives at that moment. How?
no interruptions from calls
mobile phone off
no playing with PDAs in meeting
Courtesy – say ‘thank you’ a lot. And smile. :-
Responsiveness – things like answering the phone within three rings, replying to email quickly and following up on commitments promptly shows you are in control and minimises effort.
The Personal Touch – for example:
escorting people out yourself (perfect for that Columbo ‘one more question’ moment)
handwritten notes (valuable in an email culture)
learning names and using them.
I thought that the most valuable insights for this section were ‘learning the local rules of the game’ and the important of ‘the personal touch’. Of course, in a new Academy, the ‘local rules of the game’ will be in flux and it will be up to me, in part, to help set them! 😉
You cannot step twice into the same river. (Heraclitus)
The above quotation was on the wall of my classroom at my previous school. Heraclitus is also attributed as saying, “The road up and the road down is one and the same” (also on my wall). Heraclitus recognised that whilst there is nothing fundamentally new under the sun, nevertheless the whole universe is in a constant state of flux with nothing fixed. Heraclitus believed the secrets of the unvierse could be found in finding patterns in the changes that take place.
David Bohm was a quantum physicist who, in the 20th century, developed a theory that ‘invites us to understand the universe as a flowing and unbroken wholeness.’ (Morgan, 1998:214) A useful metaphor that Morgan uses pace Bohm is that of the whirlpool in a river. Whilst such a whirlpool has a relatively constant form, it does not exist separately from the movement of the river.
Four ‘logics of change’
Morgan addresses four ‘logics of change’ in his chapter Unfolding Logics of Change, namely:
Chaos & complexity
Traditional organization theories frame organizations in reference to their external environment. A new approach to systems theory was developed by Maturana and Varela which they termed Autopoiesis (from the Greek auto – for self- and poiesis for creation or production, literally ‘auto self production’). They argue that all living systems are ‘organizationally closed’ and make reference only to themselves. The idea, therefore, that such a system is open to an environment is the product of an external observer trying to make sense of it.
Maturana and Varela believe living systems to be characterized by autonomy, circularity and self-reference. These three features allow the system to self-create or self-renew. The aim of autopoietic systems is to produce themselves and therefore their own organization and identity is paramount.
In order to back up their theory, Maturana and Varela point to the brain as a ‘living system’. The brain, they contend, is ‘closed, autonomous, circular and self-referential.’ (Morgan, 1998:216) Although it seems obvious to us that the brain processes information from the external environment, Maturana and Varela point to the impossibility of the brain having an external point of reference:
If one thinks about it, the idea that the brain can make true representations of its environment presumes some external point of reference form which it is possible to judge the degree of correspondence between the representation and reality. This implicitly presumes that the brain must have a capacity to see and understand its world from a point outside itself. Clearly, this cannot be so. (Morgan, 1998:216)
Taken as a metaphor for organizations, the theory of Autopoiesis has three main implications:
Organizations are always attempting to achieve ‘self-referential closure… enacting their environments as extensions of their own identity.’
Many of the problems that organizations encounter are a result of their attempt to maintain a particular identity.
Explanations of organizational evolution, change and development must give attention to the factors that shape patterns affecting organizations.
Morgan contrasts what he calls ‘egocentric organizations’ with ‘systemic wisdom’. The former have a fixed notion of who or what they are and are determined to sustain this at all costs. ‘This leads them to overemphasize the importance of themselves while underplaying the significance of the wider system of relations in which they exist.’ (Morgan, 1998:219) The example Morgan gives is of ‘watchmakers’ and ‘typewriter firms’ failing to take account of developments in microprocessing and digital technologies. Their identity as producing a certain kind of equipment led to their downfall.
Contrasted with this is the idea of ‘systemic wisdom’ where organizations have an ‘evolving identity.’ Morgan believes that organizations can never survive being against their environment:
In the long run, survival can only be survival with, never survival against, the environment or context in which one is operating. (Morgan, 1998:221)
To be successful, therefore, organizations must be willing and able to transform themselves along with their environment in an evolutionary manner.
2. Chaos & complexity
Although it is usual to draw a clear distinction between ‘chaos’ and ‘complexity,’ Morgan (1998:222) states, it makes more sense in terms of organizations and their environments to consider them to be parts of the same interconnected (evolving) pattern. Using evolutionary theory as a touchstone, Morgan talks about the ‘random disturbances [that] can produce unpredictable events and relationships.’ However, ‘coherent order always emerges out of the randomness and surface chaos.’ (ibid.)
Rather than internal complexity, randomness and diversity being organizationally-threatening, Morgan argues, they can actually become resources for change. Random systems develop an (albeit temporary) equilibrium as tension between two or more ‘attractor’ elements. These tensions will, every so often, lead to ‘bifurcation points’ due to changes in one or more of the attractor elements making the system unstable. Such ‘forks in the road’ lead to different futures and ways of operating for organizations.
Small changes can lead to huge consequences. The most famous example of this is the ‘butterfly effect’ where a small and insignificant event such as a butterfly flapping its wings in China can influence weather patterns on the other side of the world. The butterfly doesn’t cause in any meaningful sense the hurricane, but the tiny change it causes in its environment leads to another change and another change, and so on…
How can managers and leaders cope in the face of such chaos and complexity? Morgan suggests five key ideas:
Rethinking what we mean by ‘organization’ – especially in terms of hierarchy and control
Learning the art of managing and changing contexts
Learning how to use small changes to create large effects
Living with continuous transformation and emergent order as a natural state of affairs
Being open to new metaphors that can facilitiate processes of self-organization (Morgan, 1998:226)
What do we mean by ‘organization’?
Although somewhat frightening, chaos and complexity theory stresses that there is no ‘grand design’ or central organizing principle at work in such systems. Instead, ‘patterns have to emerge’ without being imposed. Hierarchy and control are temporary conditions or outcomes of the system, mere ‘snapshot points’ on a self-organizing journey (as Morgan puts it).
The fundamental role of managers is to shape and create “contexts” in which appropriate forms of self-organization can occur. (Morgan, 1998:227)
This is an extremely insightful point, and one that resonates with me. Take setting up a new online community, which I’ve done (and attempted to do) a few times. An authoritarian, top-down approach is guaranteed not to work in this arena. Instead, as I’ve attempted to do with EdTechRoundUp, procedures, norms and contexts are negotiated that allow the organization to evolve successfully.
Sometimes, if a particular system is inappropriate within an organization – for example a school or hospital is ‘failing’ and not reaching external targets, then the role of managers and leaders is to cause instability that causes the system to change. The aim of such instability would be to cause those within the organization to re-assess their role and day-to-day practice to change the system for the better. ‘The important point,’ says Morgan, ‘is that the manager helps to create the conditions under which the new context can emerge.’ (1998:230) Without creating these conditions, organizations ‘end up trying to do the new in old ways.’ (ibid.)
Small changes -> large effects
If systems are conceived as involving several ‘attractors’ that are in tension, it follows that changes in context are achieved by either introducing new attractors or changing the influence each attractor possesses. Doing this will generate ‘bifurcation points’ that affect future development – often by creating ‘tensions between the status quo and alternative future states.’ (Morgan, 1998:231)
Creating a paradox leads to system instability, and therefore a need for a ‘reframing’ of the situation which would resolve this paradox. Managers and leaders need to help change the system incrementally so fundamental change occurs. Such incremental changes can create a ‘critical mass’ effect which leads to an overwhelming force for change.
Emergence as ‘natural’
Leaders and managers cannot force complex systems into lasting comprehensive changes. They can merely nudge and push a system in the desired direction. They should be aware of feedback loops and provide room for experimentation with ‘new realities’. Introducing new images and metaphors of the roles of individuals within the organization can help
3. Mutual causality
Change, according to the theories outlined above, does not unfold in a linear fashion but via circular patterns (loops not lines). A does not cause B under such a system. Instead both A and B ‘are co-defined as a consequence of belonging to the same system of circular relations.’ (Morgan, 1998:234) Magorah Maruyama has shown how positive feedback loops can lead to complex systems:
[A] large homogenous plan attracts a farmer, who settles on a given spot. Other farmers follow, and one of them opens a tool shop. The shop becomes a meeting place, and a food stand is established next to the shop. Gradually, a village grows as merchants, suppliers, farmhands, and others are attracted to it… [T]he homogenous plan has been transformed by a series of positive feedback loops that amplify the effects of the initial differentiation. (Morgan, 1998:235)
Often, human nature makes us want to explain and analyze situations in terms of finding a specific ’cause’. However, phenomena actually reside within overall patterns of positive and negative feedback.
Peter Senge, leadership guru and author of The Fifth Discipline believes that many systems are unstable because of delayed feedback between elements. This leads to people within organizations either underplaying or exaggerating their behaviours.
Morgan comes across as a great believer in loop analysis and presents some of his reasons for thinking so. Here are three of them:
It cultivates ‘systemic wisdom’ – the approaching of organizational problems from a mindset that respects patterns of mutual causality.
It provides insights on how small changes can have large effects.
It invites us to understand the patterns that lock the system into vicious circles because of positive feedback loops.
4. Dialectical change
It is a truism that we cannot fully understand something without knowing its opposite. You cannot truly know the meaning of ‘hot’ unless you understand what ‘cold’ means. You cannot conceive of ‘day’ without knowing ‘night’. And so on. Such dialectical philosophy has a long history and tradition, chiefly through Taoist philosophy which originated in ancient China. This philosophy understands the universe to be subject to the dynamic interplay of yin and yang, creative and destructive powers.
Taoist philosophy influenced the work of both Hegel and Marx who developed some of its principles into theories of social change. Morgan uses a neo-Marxian perspective in this section to settle upon three main principles:
Principle 1 – Whenever one person attempts to control another a process of resistance undermines that attempt. ‘The act of control itself sets up consequences that work against its effectiveness.’ (Morgan, 1998:245)
Principle 2 – Negations of negations retain something from that form, leading to an evolution in patterns of control.
Principle 3 – Changes in quantity lead to changes in quality. Water absorbs increases in temperature up to the boiling point. Camels can be loaded until the straw that breaks its back. ‘A process of control and countercontrol may continue until control is no longer possible, leading to a new phase of collaborative or destructive activity.’ (Morgan, 1998:245)
Putting these three principles together we can see that organizational arrangements set up contradictions and opposition by their very nature. This leads to a Hegelian process of negation and counter-negation. This process continues until a limit is reached and the qualitative state of the organization must change or be destroyed.
Dialectic analysis has two main implications for management, believes Morgan:
Restructuring is not a solution to a problem as it is itself a manifestation of a deeper problem. Instead, they should be dealt with through ‘social and political initiatives.’ (Morgan, 1998:248) Contradictions can only be tacked through an appreciation of what is creating the context in which they are able to flourish.
Managers and leaders cannot wait for ‘macro-problems’ to present themselves. They must deal with ‘microflux’ in order to keep an organization running smoothly and understand ‘creative destruction.’
If not managed properly, new initiatives or directions instituted to cause positive organizational change can become ‘mired in paradoxical tensions that undermine the desired change.’ (Morgan, 1998:249):
Although there may we ways of resolving the paradoxes, the fact that the tensions are experienced as contradictory may in itself be sufficient to negate transformational change. For example, if people feel that the new demands for “more innovation,” “improved morale,” “more collaboration,” “increased decentralization,” and so on, are inconsistent with what seems reasonable or possible, inertia is the most likely outcome. (Morgan, 1998:250)
To my mind, this seems almost as though leaders and managers, although being explicit about the organizational vision, should keep the purpose of other changes and maneuvers ‘hidden’ as this could prejudice their outcome?
‘Paradox,’ says Morgan (pace Kurt Lewin, whom he cites), ‘cannot be resolved by eliminating one side.’ (Morgan, 1998:251) The task of the manager or leader is to find a way to integrate competing elements. They must create new contexts that reframe the key contradictions in a positive way. For example, Japanese manufacturers have transformed a traditional paradox by showing how improving quality (by elimating waste, simplying processes, etc.) can lead to lower costs.
Dialectical processes directly affect innovation. New innovations lead to the destruction of established practice and displace old innovations. In turn, the solutions the innovations provide create a new set of problems, which require new innovations. And so the cycle continues. As Morgan notes, this leads to important implications – not least that innovations create the basis for their own downfall. :-p
Many companies embrace the above and succeed in chaotic and turbulent environments because they ‘systematically destroy the breakthroughs created by their own products and initiatives by coming up with better ones.’ (Morgan, 1998:253)
Although so-called ‘creative destruction’ can be a powerful tool, it leaders must take care that it is not over-emphasized. Destruction should be a by-product of evolution, not a conscious aim.
Morgan outlines what he believes to be the three main strengths and the one major limitation of the ‘flux and transformation’ metaphor.
Offers new understandings of the nature and source of change.
Offers new horizons of thought that can be used to enrich our understanding of management and leadership.
Offers to leaders and managers a powerful new perspective on their role in facilitating emergent change.
Is ‘powerless power’ a message that managers and leaders really want to hear?
I’m a bit more cautious about embracing a ‘chaos and complexity’ model of organizational change. I’m much more comfortable with the ‘brain’ metaphor that I blogged about recently. However, I can see that if an organization is striving to become the ‘best of the best’ a decentralized anti-structure as proposed here would perhaps be the best method to achieve this.
As part of my Ed.D. course through the University of Durham I had to take some taught modules. One of them that I took back in 2006 was entitled Management, Leadership & Change. It was an excellent course from which I gained a lot. Unfortunately, unlike many of my classmates, I wasn’t then at a time where I could use this knowledge being then only just finished my second year of teaching. Now that I’m in a position that carries more responsibility, management responsbilities and leadership opportunities, it’s time to revisit that course and related reading.
One of the books I read for the Management, Leadership & Change module was Gareth Morgan’s Images of Organization. I found it a revelation, especially being so fond as I am of metaphor. Morgan uses eight metaphors as a lens through which to view organizations:
Organizations as Machines
Organizations as Organisms
Organizations as Brains
Organizations as Cultures
Organizations as Political Systems
Organizations as Psychic Prisons
Organizations as Flux and Transformation
Organizations as Instruments of Domination
Each of these perspectives teaches the reader something about organizations; it’s a very clever and interesting way of presenting insights.
Having just come across this neat overview of Daniel Goleman‘s idea of the various leadership styles, I wonder how much overlap/synergy there is between the two?
I’m especially interested in the idea of organizations as ‘organisms’, ‘brains’ or ‘cultures’ as I believe these lenses to be the most powerful for effecting positive change. The remainder of this post will look at organizations as ‘brains’.
Organizations as brains
Morgan starts off the chapter comparing brains to holographs where ‘everything is enfolded in everything else’, there is not centre or point of control and, most importantly,
Pattern and order emerge from the process – it is not imposed. (Morgan, 1998:73)
The philosopher Daniel Dennett, someone who I read fairly widely at university during my undergraduate degree in Philosophy, suggests that our highly-ordered stream of consciousness is actually the result of ‘a more chaotic process where multiple possibilities are generated as a result of activity distributed throughout the brain.’ (ibid.) Competing parallel activities can make complementary and competing contributions into a coherent pattern.
‘Just In Time’ and perceived chaos
Morgan gives the example of ‘Just In Time’ (JIT) manufacturing as being a process that is highly organized yet without ‘boundaries and patterns of membership’:
To an outsider, it may be impossible to distinguish who is working for whom. The fundamental organization really rests int eh complex informaiton system that coordinates the activites of all the people and firms involves rather then the discrete organizations contributing different elements to the process. (Morgan, 1998:75)
The above leads Morgan to wonder whether it is better to refer to a ‘system of intelligence’ rather than an ‘organization’ when describing such states of affairs. These systems break what Herbert Simon, Nobel laureate, called the ‘bounded rationality’ of human beings. To my mind it’s Morgan picking up on the start of what Clay Shirky has shown to be completely revolutionary in his excellent Here Comes Everybody (which I’m currently reading).
Understanding how organizations can become capable of learning in a brain-like way is similar to understanding how robots and other objects in the study of Cybernetics are able to ‘learn’. The latter discipline involves negative feedback. That is to say error-detection and correction happens automatically to maintain a course towards a desired goal. In order to be able to self-regulate, systems must be able to:
Sense, monitor, and scan significant aspects of their environment.
Relate this information to the operating norms that guide system behavior.
Detect significant deviations form these norms, and
Initiate corrective action when discrepancies are detected. (Morgan, 1998:77)
This negative feedback system is only as good as the procedures and standards that underlie it. So long as the action defined by these procedures and standards is appropriate dealing with the changes encountered, everything is fine. The ‘intelligence’ of the system breaks down, however, when these are not adequate leading to negative feedback attempting to maintain an inappropriate pattern of behaviour.
In order to prevent the above happening (so called ‘single-loop learning’) the model of ‘double-loop learning’ has been promoted by Donald Schön and Chris Argyris. This builds in a self-review ‘loop’ to the learning process:
There are three major barriers to double-loop learning: budgets, bureaucracy and accountability. One of the most famous examples of double-loop learning and organization being thwarted by these three barriers came with the US Challenger space shuttle explosion.
So, how are ‘learning organizations’ created? Insights from cybernetics would suggest the following:
Scanning and anticipating change in the wider environment
Developing an ability to question, challenge and change operating norms and assumptions
Allow appropriate directions and patterns of organization to emerge (Morgan, 1998:82)
Morgan follows this with stressing the importance of ‘framing and reframing’ which reminds me of Lord Bilimoria’s discussion of the value of regular SWOT analyses (see this post). ‘Many organizations,’ says Morgan, ‘become myopic, accepting their current reality as the reality.’ (Morgan, 1998:84)
Organizations that embrace double-loop learning sound like the type of places I want to be part of:
For successful double-loop learning to occur, organizations much develop cultures that support change and risk taking; embrace the idea that in rapidly changing circumstances with high degrees of uncertainty, problems and errors are inevitable; promote an openness that encourages dialogue and the expression of conflicting points of view; recognize that legitimate error, which arises from the uncertainty and lack of control in a situation, can be used as a resource for new learning; recognize that since genuine learning is usually action based, organizations must find ways of helping to create experiments and probes so that they lear through doing in a productive way. (Morgan, 1998:85)
Coming back to the metaphor of brains, the intelligence of the brain is not predetermined. It is not centrally driven. It is emergent. A top-down approach to management leads to single-loop learning and therefore is the opposite of such a model of emergence. To prevent chaos and incoherence targets should take the form of vision and value-sharing.
Morgan continues on to articulate a vision of ‘holographic organization’ based on five principles:
Build the ‘whole’ into the ‘parts’ (i.e. ‘networked intelligence’)
The importance of redundancy
Requisite variety (i.e. ‘internal complexity must match that of the environment’)
Minimum Specs (i.e. don’t define more that is absolutely necesssary)
Learn to learn (i.e. ‘double-loop learning’)
After fleshing out these princples, Morgan concludes this chapter with listing the strengths and limitations of the brain metaphor.
Gives clear guidelines for creating learning organizations
Shows how IT can support the evolution of organizations
Gives a new theory of management based on the principles of self-organization
Addresses the importance of dealing with paradox
There could be conflict between the requirements of organizational learning and the realities of power and control
Learning for the sake of learning can become just another ideology
I can live with these limitations. I think the ‘organization as brain’ metaphor has a lot going for it. What do YOU think? 😀
Lord Bilimoria is the founder of Cobra Beer, having previously worked in audit, tax, training, and accounting at various organizations.
I took away the following points from watching Bilimoria’s ten 4-minute videos on the 50 Lessons website.
Starting from nothing always ‘against all odds’
Every time you start from nothing there will always be big sacrifices to make and involve frustrations. The key thing is that during hard times you don’t give up. Have faith in both your ideas and yourself. Long-term goals are important – as is instilling the belief that as an organization you are going to reach those goals.
Never take forward ideas without checking them out with consumers or end-users. Bilimoria gives the example of his beer being called Panther until last-minute informal customer surveys showed that they didn’t like the name. Instead of ignoring this research, the organization changed the name of the beer (after feedback) and it was a success.
The lesson from this is that you come up with the ideas, but you should always check these with the end-users before going ahead. You may not be able to have large, formal research programmes, but you can always carry out informal research.
Dissatisfaction leads to innovation
Channeling dissatisfaction can lead to the generation of new ideas. Every time a good idea comes along, people always ask, ‘why didn’t someone do that before.’ This is usually because you have to ‘make the leap’ to cross the ‘credibility gap’ (which is that nobody knows you or your ideas). People will only let you close that gap if you have confidence and passion – and leads to same on their part. Trust your own judgement as many ideas overlooked as seeming too straightforward.
Contant innovation is a must
It is important to be innovating constantly as other people will always copy what you do. In order to do this you need not only have right environment within your organization but work with the best advisers; this gives you the edge. In addition, the ways in which you work with these advisers, making them part of your team, is important. Always move on and innovate – even if what you think you’ve got is great!
Having a long-term vision for the organization is vital so everybody knows where you’re headed. In addition, you need smaller, achievable bite-sized targets in line with the vision. Look ahead, but have to have ‘finger on the pulse’ r.e. what’s happening right now.
‘Mission’ is the ‘what’ of the organization. It is measurable, permanent, and something you can go back to time and time again. You need a role-model in business that can help you understand where you want to go and how you are going to get there. Everything you do should be carried out with integrity – even if you are working against all odds.
Turn obstacles into advantages
Any organization or individual within it is going to come across obstacles. These must be surmounted in some way – by going around them, through them, under them – however. These obstacles can be turned into advantages. Bilimoria gives the example of Cobra Beer being limited by the bottlers to a 660ml bottle instead of a more traditional (in the UK) 330ml. They thought around the problem and now every major brewer has a 330ml opton. Consider how to turn every negative into a positive before dismissing the idea altogether.
Go for ‘will rather than skill’
What makes organizations successful is people. There are two halves to this: getting the right people and then creating environment in which they can flourish. When you recruit, go for ‘will rather than skill.’ Bilimoria gives the example of refugee who spoke very poor English who was desperate to be one of their first door-to-door sellers. They took him on, despite appearances and he is today a member of the board.
Whilst it’s ideal to have both the will and the skills, always go for the former if it comes down to a choice. To allow people to flourish, have to create ‘limitless’ opportunities – if you have too many rules and barriers that can limit opportunities available to individuals and therefore the organization.
Create a culture of idea-generation
Organizations need entrpreneurial spirit and innovative spirit that is pervasive and not just limited to the senior leadership team. People need to feel in control of their own work and this can be done by putting people’s ideas into action. Leaders need to ‘let go’, giving trust and respect to people. Allowing employees to be flexible comes back as trust and respect for organization.
It’s not about employees ‘earning’ respect, it’s about giving it away so that it comes back. If you ‘let go’ and allow people ‘get on’ with it this leads to a ‘buzz’ around the organization. Create an atmosphere where there’s no fear to come up with ideas. For example at Cobra, people encouraged to put ideas into ‘ideas box’. The top ones are selected each month and prizes are given.
Turn threats into opportunities
It’s useful to go away from the office to carry out blue-sky brainstorming sessions that include SWOT analyses (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats). Bilimoria gives the example of someone identifying at such a session that increasingly, people are drinking wine with their meal. Cobra investigated the wine business and then entered it.
David Brandon is CEO of Domino’s Pizza. He’s one of the contributors to the 50 Lessons website. This website incorporates is a series of 4-minute videos from inspirational leaders of organizations. Brandon was a successful American Football player at college, an experience he looks back to often when thinking about leadership issues.
The following is what I took away from viewing his five videos on the 50 Lessons website:
Treat people the way they want to be treated
Leaders need to be able to adapt the way they deal with people to individual circumstances. The wrong approach is to take the same leadership style and apply it to all your dealings with staff in your organization. Find out the way people want to be treated and treat them that way. Brandon says this is the best piece of advice his father (who himself had no formal leadership experience) gave him early in his career.
Looking back to his college American Football days, Brandon talks about how his coaches trained the team to recognise sudden change within a game and to respond to it in a positive way. Transferring this to organizations, it’s importance to instill the idea that ‘change is good’ whilst recognizing that many will approach it will trepidation and indeed may resist that change.
Brandon talks about when he was unveiled as CEO of Domino’s Pizza and kept his message simple. He contrasted ‘sitting around talking about the good old days’ with embracing change to make a good organization even better.
Brandon’s comments on things ‘never staying the same’ reminded me of a saying I had on my wall in my old classroom, attributed to Oliver Cromwell. It read, ‘He who stops being better stops being good.’ It’s a phrase I saw every day and spurred me on.
Brandon believes that when things are going well for an organization or team – sales are up, the team is winning every game, academic results are getting better every year – then it’s easy to fall into the mindset of ‘just turning up.’ To counter this, he says, coaches when he played American Football drummed into them the belief that ‘things either get better or they get worse, but things never stay the same.’ Fostering this mentality in your organization leads to constant striving towards improvement.
Don’t rely on internal benchmarks
It’s all very well hitting or even surpassing benchmarks and targets set internally within your organization. However, if no attention is paid to others in the field, then you can be left behind. Brandon talks about finding the best in the field and becoming as good or better than them.
With schools, this is less of an issue of competition and more one of keeping up with best practice, I believe. Of course, there’s local competition in terms of persuading parents to send their children to your school, but in the bigger picture it’s about raising standards across the board.
Deal with minor issues quickly
The time to deal with minor issues is as quickly as you can and when things are going well. Restructuring, procedural issues and suchlike are much better done at times of stability rather than when your organization is on ‘the edge of a cliff’. Making changes when things are going well means the organization is more resilient and can be more focused on those changes rather than on the survival of the organization.
Pivotal moments & decision-making
As a leader there will be ‘pivotal moments’ when going one way could lead to great rewards, whereas going the other way could lead to disastrous consequences. It’s the easiest thing in the world to make a decision when you and 100% of the people around you agree on what should be done. The tough decisions come when there is a 50/50 split.
When such a decision has to be made, make it and then act with ‘confidence, passion and a true sense of calm.’ Leaders, after all, must lead. Your actions after the decision has been taken are almost more important than the decision itself as you can energise the workforce into taking action for the organization to succeed. You need to explain your decisions and then stand by them.
Before I start, I must point out that this is not a dig at all the members of the Senior Leadership Team at my current school. Not at all. Rather, it’s a tongue-in-cheek look at the practices that traps people in management positions – at all levels – sometimes fall into. They’re therefore traps I’m going to do my best to avoid when I become part of the Senior Leadership Team at my next school!
I’ve seen two awful presentations in the past couple of weeks. One was just monumentally bad – the presenter couldn’t find files, sat us through ages of short video clips and sprang questions at us to fill in time – and the other was just rambling and poorly thought-out. What was common to both approaches, however, was the assumption “I’m using technology therefore this must be a good presentation.” Gah.
I take the above Dilbert cartoon in the way that I think it’s meant to be read – i.e. as an extremely sarcastic and ironic look at how easily people are impressed by things that look good. That, to some extent is true. But it’s only true when accompanied by at least some level of competence in presenting information in an interesting and engaging way. Technology does not do the presentation for you!
On a slightly tangential note, I’m also concerned about the uncritical and all-too-credulous nature of otherwise intelligent people when presented with graphics that represent statistics. It’s critical literacy and a basic understanding of statistics. A grasp of these should be a pre-requisite for a career in any professional occupation…
Surfing the status quo
Hiding behind desks is something that people in management in the world over are particularly good at. In schools its especially straightforward to seem good at your job if you get the data right. Schools only have to be seen to be doing things correctly – they aren’t inspected very often, parents are often (sometimes voluntarily) left out of the everyday loop concerning their child’s interactions at school, and the status quo suits most people very well.
So if you can engineer a situation where you or your institution seem to be doing everything right, the weight of conservative opinion and social inertia are on your side. As a manager you just need to jump through the oft-renamed hoops.
What am I planning to do? Aim to be an expert. Of course, I’ll never actually achieve my goal for, in a Socratic manner, the more you know the more you realize you don’t know. Still, it’s the process that’s important – as Kathy Sierra pointed out back in the day on her much-missed blog:
Most managers are ‘amateurs’ on this graph. They find a way that works for them and then keep on doing it. Over time, this means inconveniencing others and distorting things to make things fit into their system.
Those who choose the ‘expert’ path and challenge themselves to keep learning become – perhaps inadvertently – leaders, as the enthusiasm for continuous learning and their own professional development attracts others like a magnet!
One of the results of being an ‘average’ manager (see above) is that, by not challenging yourself to learn new things, you will have spare time. Feeling guilty about this, managers then want to make sure they look like they’re doing their job and have authority. They therefore make things up for people to do, are awkward just for the sake of it, or ‘drop-in’ on people and point out irrelevancies.
I’m going to take as a fundamental maxim that people should be trusted to be professionals and get on with their job. Yes, there should be as much appropriate communication as possible, but attempts to micro-manage and meddle usually backfire. I suppose you could say that’s a fairly laid-back approach. Fair enough, but I’ll be demanding results! I think people will respect that. 🙂
What do YOU find wrong with management in education? Share your opinions in the comments section below!
My friend Paul Lewis, he of the infrequent blogging, very kindly let me have his Dilbert omnibus last year. I’ve been reading it again recently and it’s got me thinking about conformity and creativity. The omnibus brings together 3 Dilbert books into one volume. Joy! 😀
In The Dilbert Principle, Scott Adams outlines the ‘Out At Five’ business model. Enshrined within it are not only some comic gems, but some great pieces of advice. If we stuck to some of these in education, we’d go a long way to reforming the whole system.
He divides his principles into two subcategories:
Staying out of the way
Scott Adams advocates letting the ’employees dress any way they want, decorate their work spaces any way they want, format memos any way they want’. This is because that there is no proof that any of these impact productivity. Instead, they create a message that conformity is valued above efficiency or creativity. Whilst I would still advocate some form of school uniform to prevent undue focus on students’ clothes, I do think schools in general could be a bit more laid-back about the ways both students and staff express themselves. I’m certainly not saying profanity, drugs and alcohol should be imported to create some type of dystopian educational system. Instead, I’m saying that we should value difference and (that abused word) diversity over conformity and standardization.
Eliminate artificial processes. In businesses these are obvious, but in education they can still be seen. For example ‘Every Child Matters‘ and ‘Personalising Learning’ agendas. They’ve got titles no-one can disagree with, but lead to bureaucracy and a loss of focus on the actual students themselves. It’s my belief that every educator has, at their core, the well-being and interests of students in their charge. As Scott Adams puts it:
If you have a good e-mail system, a stable organization chart, and an unstressed workplace the good ideas will get to the right person without any help The main thing is to let people know that creativity is okay and get out of the way.
What does an OA5 manager do?
Eliminate the assholes. Quite blunt, but you know exactly what he means. There’s people who put a downer on the whole enterprise of education. They’re quick to blame students rather than themselves, they’re more interested in internal politics than student wellbeing and achievement, they like being controversial for the sake of it. Let’s get rid of them. In fact, I’m all for moves to make it easier to remove teachers from their posts. Why should we get, in effect, ‘immediate tenure’?
The second is my favourite: make sure employees (i.e. teachers) learn something new every day. As Scott Adams remarks:
The more you know, the more connections form in your brain, and the easier every task becomes. Learning creates job satisfaction and suports and person’s ego and energy level.
But more than that, as teachers, we should be good role-models as everday and curious learners! 🙂
Cultivate all the little things that support curiosity and learning. Questions such as ‘What did you learn?’ when you make mistakes are more powerful than, ‘What the hell were you thinking?’
Teach employees how to be efficient. Lead by example – keep meetings short, refuse to take part or go along with low-priority activities because it’s ‘polite’, and (my favourite) respectfully interrupt people who talk too long without getting to the point. I’d force everyone to read blogs such as Lifehacker, Zen Habits and Unclutterer every day. But that’s just me… 😉
What do YOU think? Besides the name (Out At 5) is there anything with which you’d disagree?
The biggest problem in education is political interference in the work of classroom teachers. This post has been brewing for a while. One long-term influence is dissatisfaction with the current education system. This dissatisfaction is one of the reasons I entered the teaching profession in the first place, and also a reason I’m in favour of the Conservatives’ idea of independent state schools under the Swedish model. More short-term influences include Vicki Davis’ excellent blog post Administration Should Be Like The ‘Pit Crew’ and a meeting/confrontation I had today. As usual on this blog, I’m not going to mention where I work nor individual names there.
Although with the recent financial turmoil this is turning into a less illustrative example, the delegation of responsibility by the UK government to the Bank of England for some financial matters I see to be a great idea. It puts those with the greatest knowledge and experience in charge of something very important. Education, on the other hand, is a very party political matter with endless tinkering of the system to attempt to win the support of middle-class voters. I’m a believer in government being as small as possible: whilst the state needs to intervene in the ‘big picture’ of education, I think there are other organizations and bodies eminently more suitable to deal with assessment and examinations, for example.
Ever since the Conservatives introduced a free market into UK education in 1990, schools have become more and more like businesses. I’ve seen the good and bad side of this system. In 1990, the new rules allowed my parents to take me out of the local, very poor, middle school (at my request) and install me at a much better school. I’m not against parental choice, per se, but I’m certainly against the endless analogies and comparisons of schools to businesses. Educating children is not like making products to sell at a profit. Instead, I think a better model is schools as charities.
If schools were seen as charities they would be:
Able to raise money from various other organizations
Focused on process as well as results
Diverse in nature
The type of leaders needed in charities and NGOs are different from those required by business. I’m generalising monumentally here, but those at the helm of the former tend to have inspiration and drive quite unlike those in the latter group.
So those in charge in schools shouldn’t be good managers, they should be great leaders. Instead of flaunting their power within the ‘corporate hierarchy’ they should, as Vicki Davis states, support teachers – those on the front line:
To me, times are lean and mean. The classroom should be like a well maintained car and administration should be like the pit crew. They should give the classroom the tools they need, encouragement, a mission, and quick “pit stops” to improve and keep them going…
If you’re not helping the cause of education, you’re hurting it. And with times being tough, those who count themselves leaders need to take a hard look at their own rolls when asking teachers to make cuts. For, to ask teachers to make sacrifices when you aren’t willing is unfair and breeds contempt.
Although I’ve been accused of it for the first time today, I’m not one for manipulating others and playing politics within my organization. Not at all: I’m there to make things better for the system – locally, nationally and internationally. The problem with a strictly hierarchical system is that it is nothing like a meritocracy. I’m certainly not questioning the overall ability of the senior management at my school, but I have felt, at times, and in my career overall, times when my ability as a professional to make decisions and put forward opinions has been undermined somewhat.
I’d like, as Vicki again mentions, school hierarchies to be as ‘flat’ as possible. Obviously, there’s a need for management. But now, more than ever, teachers need to be given freedom and be shown trust to exercise their professional judgement over issues affecting them. Not to do so would be to play politics for politics’ sake and to undermine potential educational experiences for a great number of children.