Friday, 25 September 2009

Process Leadership: The First Discipline

Processes are useful mechanisms for focusing attention on important and complex situations involving chains of activity:
  1. They help leaders and teams manage attention by offering a deliberate sequence of key steps in an appropriate order to reduce failure.
  2. They embody key lessons from the past in an accessible format.
  3. They reduce the need to reinvent the obvious with new groups and new situations.

While we probably believe that we understand what processes do for us, do we understand the necessary psychology of leadership required to make this happen?

"Process leadership" is the ability that great leaders have to manage the day-to-day tactics of getting things done while putting those tactics and tasks within larger, strategic processes that ensure that the right stuff gets done in the right way, at the right time, through adherence to an overarching, logical approach.

Process leadership is about learning how to manage the adrenaline rush that can pull you into taking over other people's jobs and destroying their confidence and capabilities by interventions that diminish them. We've all worked with bosses who were fundamentally happiest on the line taking over their subordinate managers' and leaders' work, but who were unable to step back to mentor and model the kind of behaviors that build leadership and integrity in others.

Process leadership is a form of conscious confidence developed by growing three abilities:

  • The ability to ask great questions at the right time, in the right order;
  • The ability to move into a "helicopter" perspective at the drop of a hat, consciously locating activities and priorities within a larger, process context; and
  • The ability to realize when the current approach is delivering diminishing returns or doesn't match the emerging situation, combined with the courage and confidence to say "stop" and ask for a different approach.

It is a truism that, when organizations find that they can't solve the real problem that determines their future survival, they will find a problem that they can solve without having to smash existing social relationships and change technologies, and they will work on it instead. This is a symptom of what I call "sticky" organizations--organizations with highly evolved "consent and evade" approaches to change (where top leaders agree to change and then return to their business units to block it), organizations with a history of shooting the messenger and announcing victory before the implementation can be measured.

It is not easy to overcome this entrenched behaviour of sticky organisations. We may be fortunate that in General Petraeus in Iraq, we have a recent example of a leader who, at a strategic level, is capable of managing a conscious thinking process on a complex situation; who can apply the three process leadership abilities to balance his attention around a discrete problem-solving process; and who can work this process to arrive at alternative strategies, instead of enforcing fixed solutions to an emerging context like Warner Brothers' Wile E. Coyote in his perpetual and futile pursuit of the Road Runner.

Tuesday, 22 September 2009

Resilient Leaders and Emergent Knowledge

Emergent Knowledge is the knowledge we discover when we ask the right question, in the right way about the right issue at the right time, and we discover something new and potentially powerful at that particular moment in time.

Emergent Knowledge is timely knowledge about the changing nature of reality at one moment in time, where we either act upon it and create a new opportunity, or we ignore it in the name of social stability and pay the price in terms of organisational decay, wasted resources and weakness.

There are two old jokes about consultants and change management.

The first joke asks: how many consultants does it take to change a light-bulb? The answer is: that the number of consultants is immaterial, the light-bulb has got to want to change.

The second joke observes that consultants are people who take your watch and then charge to tell you the time. Whilst there is an element of truth in this observation, it needs to be articulated in a slightly deeper way. What is core to this observation is that when consultants deliver their work in the form of a structured report, it has elements that are very familiar: the story that it tells and its conclusions are recognisable. It is this recognition of report content that that makes the executive summary familiar.

Introducing consultants into the organisation, permitting them to ask questions in terms of purpose, process, position and outcomes makes it possible for them to articulate the potential, emergent knowledge within a shared context, at a particular time, and in asking their questions, they trigger their audience’s thinking along their line of research and prepare their audience to recognise the answers subsequently presented.

This is why testing the Emergent Knowledge underpinning a strategy in participants’ heads is so important, needs to be done quickly (in order to fit the context, and reduce decay) and why having an inflexible model can be a killer with an agile competitors, and increasingly changeable customers.

We live in a changing and dynamic environment. The traditional dichotomy of tacit/ explicit knowledge is insufficient to cope with the need to renew and redefine purpose and strategy. Resilient leaders need to include Emergent Knowledge techniques in their thinking in order to survive as well as grow organisation’s willingness to want to change. Successful, resilient leadership depends on the ability to elicit and articulate the emergent choices organisations face, daily.

Monday, 21 September 2009

Cut out the Middleman

The CBI Higher Education task force, chaired by Sam Laidlaw, Chief Executive of Centrica, said today that “businesses must do more to support the UK’s higher education system with individual funding and increased internships and work placements. Businesses would then have the opportunity to work with universities to develop course syllabi”; also that “Universities and government cannot deliver a world-class service alone. Effective collaboration between the higher education sector, business and government will be critical to the UK’s economic recovery and sustainable international competitiveness”.

At one level, these statements look like an extension of July’s useful HEFCE/CBI report “Stepping Higher: Workforce development through employer-higher education partnerships”.

At another level, this begs several questions at a time that the LibDems are proposing raising the bar on middle-class tuition fees:

Firstly, is it the case that the only way a degree can be useful nowadays is if it is kite-marked as useful by a successful business?

Secondly, does this by inference mean that traditional degree curricula are no longer connected with the real world? (At this point, one remembers the story of the English Literature student at the back of the Oxford University lecture hall being asked why he wasn’t taking notes; and replying that he didn’t need to: he had his father’s).

Thirdly, if both one and two are largely correct, then what about using a classic business strategy to sort this out: disintermediation - cutting out the middleman? One way to integrate collaboration between HE and business would be to remove the Government from the equation, and allow businesses to pay their taxes in lieu directly to fund particular universities and as paymasters, to call the tune and set the necessary standards. We could even scrap tuition fees.

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Time Management Means Something Is Wrong

I was once asked to design a time management course for a global engineering organisation. After interviewing staff for two days I came to the conclusion that I couldn’t continue the exercise because I realised that time management was itself literally a waste of time. I learnt that time-management was no substitute for a clear business focus or strategy within which people could manage themselves.

The next variant of inadvertent leader incompetence is where in effect a leader says to their followers: “I can’t solve this problem alone, I need your help”; and followers in the meantime say: “I can’t get focused until you tell me what the plan is”. And so it goes, round and round. In the meantime the internal stock of confidence in leader and leadership decays with every day that the real problems of the organisation remain untreated. It is as though the fundamental problem that the organisation needs to get to grips with, the linked problems of innovation and power, is like a greasy pig which the leadership of the organisation wants to cook and eat, but is unwilling to allow itself to get dirty and bloody wrestling with in the dirt, when so far all that they have had to deal with is small rodents who like getting trapped.

Leaders must be able to frame the problems around innovating, and lead the process that unpacks the necessary dependencies that must be managed to deliver successful innovating, even if they don't understand the future.

The real problem of innovating is the absence of leaders willing to create a situation where the everyday allocation of power and resources has to be actively considered as though last year or the previous decade never happened, and to consciously share power with those who can innovate for the greater good of the organisation, even if they don't look like us.


1 If you are worried about time-management, then your strategy is weak.
2 If you want to eat the bacon, you’d better plan on getting dirty and,
3 You just might need to involve some other folks, and share the bacon with them.