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Posts Tagged ‘learning’

Five signs of an effective leadership team

May 9th, 2017 No comments

Five signs of an effective leadership team

a leadership conversation

How do you know when a leadership team is effective? What are the signs of a healthy executive team?

I’ve just begun working with an executive leadership team. The eight team members are collectively responsible for an organisation that generates £900m in turnover a year. And it’s early days – we are still in the ‘ritual sniffing’ stage, as one of my first line managers memorably called it. We’re getting to know each other.

What I am paying attention to

I’ve been reflecting on what I am paying attention to as I meet them one-to-one, and as I see them at work as a team. Here are some of the things that seem significant to me:

What happens when a team member says something odd, unexpected or controversial? Is there a pause and a silence, and does the conversation then carry on as if nothing has been said? Is that view squashed or dismissed, or do other team members show curiosity: inquiring into the reasons behind the unusual comments?

Why this matters: leaders working in complex, fast-changing environments (and who is not these days?) need to keep their ‘antennae’ open to signals from the outside world that all may not be as it seems. Leadership teams can easily filter out information that does not fit with their assumptions and plans. Team members who say something that sounds ‘odd’ may be noticing one of these signs. In drawing it to their colleagues’ attention, they are doing a service to the team as a whole, and improving the evidence base on which it makes its decisions. But if no one else notices, their service has no impact.

Would an outsider walking into the room know immediately where the power and authority lies? This shows itself by where people sit, who people look at before they speak, the order in which people tend to speak, or who they defer to when they have spoken.

Why this matters: by itself this is neither good nor bad: it depends on the purpose of the team. If the team exists to bring key information from across the organisation to the attention of the Chief Executive, then it is clear where authority needs to lie. But if the purpose of the team is to collectively shape strategic decisions and lead the whole organisation, then authority will need to be more fluid.

To what extent do team members challenge each other? In particular, to what extent do team members challenge the Chief Executive?
Is conflict openly expressed? Or once the Chief Executive has spoken, is that the end of a discussion?

Why this matters: questions about the strategy of an organisation are never black and white – there will not be just one right answer, but several answers each of which will be partly right and partly wrong. For this reason, teams need to explore and test the range of possible answers; they can’t do that if some of those possibilities are never named or thoroughly explored.

Does anyone admit they don’t know the answer to a question? Or express vulnerability or uncertainty, or ask for help?

Why this matters: the foundation of all effective teamwork is trust. And trust comes about when a team member makes themselves vulnerable, and then discovers that their colleagues do not use that vulnerability as an opportunity to hurt them. If team members struggle to be vulnerable with each other, they will have low levels of trust.

Does the team spend any time at all reflecting together on how well they are doing as a team, and what they are learning? Do they make decisions, or do the same issues come back to the table? Are they too busy fighting fires one by one to prevent the fires starting in the first place? Finally, what ‘stuck patterns’ might they be stuck in?

Why this matters: this is what makes the difference between a team that is coping at best, and a team that is raising its game. Teams can only improve by investing time in the present to improve their performance in the the future.

What am I missing?

We see what we look for, and I’m no different. I wonder what I am not paying attention to? What signs and indicators might I be missing? If you know of other signs of an effective leadership team, please let me know by emailing me, or if you are reading this on my blog, please leave a comment below.

Scouting for strategy

September 30th, 2016 No comments

Scouting for strategy

“When faced with the choice to change his mind or find the proof not to do so, the conventional man always gets busy looking for proof.”
J K Galbraith

Developing an effective strategy for your organisation depends on your willingness to confront inconvenient truths, and your ability to see the world as it is, rather than how you wish it were.

The Dreyfus affair

In 1894, a member of the French army’s general staff discovered a torn-up note in a waste-paper bin. When they pieced the note back together, they found that an officer had been selling military secrets to Germany. The hunt began to find the traitor.

photo of Alfred Dreyfus

Alfred Dreyfus

Suspicion quickly fell on Alfred Dreyfus: it was no coincidence that Dreyfus was the only Jewish officer of his rank in the entire army. It was at this point that confirmation bias kicked in. Every piece of evidence the investigators gathered was interpreted in a way that confirmed the conclusion they had already reached: that Dreyfus was the traitor. The investigators:

  • compared Dreyfus’ handwriting to that on the memo, and concluded that they matched (even though professional handwriting experts were much less confident);
  • searched Dreyfus’ apartment and found nothing at all to incriminate him (which just went to show what a clever and well-trained spy he was);
  • talked to his school-teachers and learned he had been interested in learning foreign languages (useful for betraying secrets to foreign powers); and
  • learned from his teachers that Dreyfus had an excellent memory (very useful for a spy, who has to memorise a lot of information).

Dreyfus was found guilty, publicly humiliated and imprisoned for life on Devil’s Island, a barren land off the coast of South America.

Mad, bad or wrong?

So were the investigators mad, bad or wrong to conclude that Dreyfus was guilty on such flimsy evidence? Did they know he was innocent but just not care? Was he framed to protect someone else?

Researcher Julia Galef argues that we don’t have to assume any madness or badness on the part of the investigators. What they did was all too human and predictable: we are all guilty at times of the confirmation bias to which they fell prey.

The soldier and scout mindsets

In an illuminating TED talk, Galef contrasts two different mindsets, which she calls the ‘soldier’ and the ‘scout’.

Imagine a soldier in the heat of battle, with adrenalin pumping and heart pounding. The soldier’s actions all stem from deeply-ingrained reflexes: instincts aimed at protecting their own side and defeating the enemy. They are swept along by this over-riding purpose.

By contrast, a scout’s job is not to attack or defend: the scout’s job is to understand how things really are. They may hope to learn there is a safe place to make camp just over the next ridge, but if what they find is an exposed plain with no good shelter, that is just what they will report back to their commanding officer.

These roles are also metaphors for different mind-sets. When the French high command were investigating Dreyfus, they were almost certainly in a soldier mindset. Their country was under threat, military secrets were being sold to a foreign power. It was an ‘us’ and ‘them’ situation. And Dreyfus may well have stood out at first because he was Jewish – for the investigators he was not one of ‘us’, so he must have been ‘one of them’.

Enter the scout

A high-ranking French officer began to suspect that the case against Dreyfus was flawed. Colonel Picquart had reason to believe that the spying had continued after Dreyfus was in prison. But it took 10 years for him to finally have the case against Dreyfus over-turned.

Picquart demonstrated a ‘scout’ mindset. He was interested in confronting the truth, even when that was inconvenient for him personally (during his campaign to free Dreyfus, he himself spent time in prison for his disloyalty to the army). He was curious enough to investigate why Dreyfus might not be guilty, even when his organisation was convinced otherwise.

Scouting for strategy

In developing an effective organisational strategy, you need to follow a process that forces you to confront the world as it actually is, not how you would like it to be. The scout mindset – curiosity, a willingness to look for evidence that disproves what you believe, and an ability feel proud rather than ashamed when we discover our errors – is your friend when facing an uncertain future.

What you can say about this

  • Are we being soldiers or scouts here?
  • What evidence could we find to show this isn’t true?
  • Who am I not listening to right now, because they see things differently to me?

Want to know how to see the world as it actually is when developing your organisation’s strategy? Drop me a line at stuart@stuartreid.org.uk.

Why is change so hard, even when we want to change?

May 1st, 2015 No comments

Why is change so hard, even when we want to change?

 

I have a masters degree in organisational change from one of the top business schools. I advise leaders on how to navigate change in their organisations. I regularly read books and blog posts and attend seminars on change. So why do I find it so hard to change myself, even when I’m fully committed to doing so?
change cartoon

Image courtesy of Shutterstock

This question came up for me recently, when I reviewed how often I manage to meditate. I know how good meditation is for me, and I am committed to meditating every day – but I discovered that whole weeks can go by without me doing any meditation. I love walking, and aim to walk at least 10,000 steps 5 days a week – but for the past two months I haven’t achieved this goal.

If it is this hard to build a habit when I am keen to do so, how much harder is it for a leader to influence change in their organisation when they are facing active resistance?

A personal inquiry

So I’m kicking off a one-year personal action inquiry into change. My intention is to deepen my understanding of change: what it is and how it happens. And also to develop my practice as someone who helps leaders to navigate change in their organisations. My intention is to deepen my own thinking and understanding of my role in change, and to identify what practices make change easier.

personal inquiry means it’s not just an academic review of what other people think about change: I need to have some ‘skin in the game’. So part of my inquiry will be reflecting on my own experience of change during the year.

And it will be an action inquiry because as well as thinking, reading and talking to others, I’ll be taking other kinds of action too. I’ll be doing some experiments to try to deliberately bring about change. And some noticing and observing change as it naturally takes place around me.

These are some of the questions that interest me right now:

  • Are the processes of change the same for individuals, organisations and cultures? Do the methods that help form new personal habits also help in transforming organisations?
  • What metaphors for change are helpful?
  • What illusions do we commonly suffer from when we are trying to make change happen? (Illusions of control, of permanence, etc)
  • What paradoxes are involved in change?
  • What other ways are there of understanding change? For example, I’m interested in what we might learn from Buddhist ideas about being ‘unattached to outcomes’.

Join me

I intend to open up my inquiry and share what I’m learning with others. And I’d love to hear from and collaborate with you if you are also interested in inquiring into change. I’m going to experiment with ways of opening up that conversation online, virtually and face-to-face as part of my inquiry.

If you would like to be involved in that do please let me know in the comments below, or contact me directly. 

Learning fast

July 3rd, 2013 No comments

Today I came across a seductively simple 5-step approach to learning a new skill fast.

In a video interview with Jonathan Fields of The Good Life Project, author Josh Kaufman describes how to get ‘good enough’ at a new skill within 20 hours of practice. The five steps, as set out in his book The First 20 Hours: how to learn anything…fast are:

  1. State the level of performance you want to achieve with the new skill. What is it you want to be able to do? So not just ‘learn French’ but instead ‘go to a restaurant where the waiters speak only French, and spend the entire meal speaking only French’.
  2. Deconstruct the sub-skills you need to achieve that level of performance. It’s really hard to practice ‘being a good golfer’. But you can practice ‘driving the ball 100 yards from the tee’.
  3. To help you do step 2, do some research to find out what those sub-skills are (eg skim-read between  3 and 5 ‘how to’ books, identifying the key skills those books identify). Josh warns against over-researching and getting stuck at this stage: this step is about taking a quick overview of the subject area so you can focus in on the key sub-skills.
  4. Make it as easy as possible to actually start practicing – eliminate as many barriers to practice as you can. So if you’re going to learn some chords on the guitar, keep your guitar out of its case on a stand where you can easily reach it in your practice place – not buried at the back of a cupboard.
  5. Pre-commit to practising those sub-skills for at least 20 hours. Then do the practice.

‘Accelerated Learning: how to get good at anything in 20 hours’ on YouTube

I find the first step really appealing – it makes the goal much more achievable: rather than boiling the ocean you are encouraged to think of a very concrete goal. And this step also guarantees that what you are learning is something you can actually use – you only learn the skills you need, rather than mastering the whole field.

Josh Kaufman is happy to agree that taking this approach doesn’t make the practice itself any easier – the first few hours are still going to be tough and discouragain, and all learners will make mistakes. And it’s only when you get to the end of step 5 that the practice actually begins – I know from my own experience that I can spend a long time in steps 1-4, avoiding starting on step 5…

There’s a lovely little moment at the end of the video interview where the interviewer Jonathan Fields is visibly excited by this approach and keen to try it out. But he resists naming what he is going to try to learn, because he realises that he has not fully committed to actually putting in the 20 hours of initial practice. Until he’s ready to make that commitment he won’t be going public.

Early in the video Josh explains how his approach fits with the often-quoted figure of 10,000 hours of practice needed to master a skill. Really mastering a skill – for example, being able to play golf against Tiger Woods and have a chance of beating him – would indeed take around 10,000 hours of focused, deliberate practice. That’s what it takes to be one of the best in the world. But you can get surprisingly good at a new skill – according to Josh – in only 20 hours (that’s 40 minutes a day for about a month).

I’m very interested in giving this a go, and have already thought of a skill I’d like to get better at. But I think I’ll do some practice first before I go public on my commitment… just to see if I can get beyond step 5.

Categories: Change, Coaching, Training Tags:

Change in organisations

January 3rd, 2013 5 comments
Skimming stone

Skimming stone

I was enjoyably provoked or nudged today by a blog post from Rob Poynton. Rob writes about how large scale change seems to need systems and programmes that get ‘rolled out’, but which almost always fail, falter or produce unintended consequences.

It seems to Rob that changes often happen in unplanned, unintended ways – like a stone skipping across water. The path can’t be planned, and we may not even know where the stone has come from. That’s the kind of change that Rob chooses to be involved in.

I intellectually and emotionally agree with Rob’s analysis. It seems right. For example, I think that organisations are best understood as something like conversations – an interactive, creative process that occurs between people, in which we make gestures and offers to each other, which can be received and replied to in unexpected ways that we can’t control. So no one can control what happens in an organisation – they can only make an offer and see how people respond, and in turn respond to those responses.

This is very different to a view of organisations that sees them as being like machines. The machine view leads us to try to change organisations by re-engineering them, changing the wiring, drawing up blueprints etc. It is a view that believes that top-down control is not only possible but also the desirable way to bring about change. A small number of people at the ‘top’ of an organisation make some decisions (which might be written up in a document called a strategy), which are then ‘implemented’ or ‘executed’ by more junior people who can be ‘aligned’ so they face the right way. The cleverer and more skilful the people at the top, the more effectively the strategy can be implemented.

So here’s the thing. Most of my work is with large, public-sector organisations. And I am often invited in by one or more of those senior people who are trying to do this top-down change thing, and my job is to help them. And their job is to do the strategy-implementation thing – if they fail then they could lose their job.

And I do have some sympathy with the people I work with. They want to make things better in particular ways – they want to get their team members working better together with less conflict, they want their organisations to be more productive, they want new types of work to be done to better meet the needs of the people who use their services. They feel they do not have a lot of room to manoeuvre, with pressure from their own bosses, from politicians and from the public to achieve great things in a short time.

These intentions to make things better in particular ways are legitimate, it seems to me. And I want to help the managers to achieve them (they are my clients, and my purpose is to help them achieve theirs). And when I start working with these managers I quickly get seduced by the tools of the machine view: I ask to see structure charts and to read the latest strategy, in the belief that they are important. I start to help the manager to develop a step-by-step change plan, with phases and milestones and structural change, because that is what the machine view tells us we need in order to achieve X change by Y date – because how else do you bring about change? I assume that the objectives are given and not negotiable: that we have to achieve X by Y date with Z resources, and that planned change is the only way to do this.

What would happen if my client had a conversation with her boss pointing out the flaws in the machine model, arguing that we can’t control change only make offers, and that she can’t guarantee that X will happen by Y date? I imagine that this would not be acceptable, she would be told to get on with it or fired and replaced if she refused. And imagining this conversation also stops me having the same conversation with my client – I imagine that if I explained my view then she would fire me and find someone else who would promise to achieve X by Y. And I do want to work to earn my living.

So the machine view has great power. As long as enough of us act as if it’s true, particularly if those with power do so, then it is hard to break out of it (at least, if we want to work it is). And it traps us in a cycle of large-scale, programmed change that doesn’t work (if Rob is right about that).

So how to break out of this? I could start by having the conversations I avoid with my clients, instead of avoiding them. The chances are some of them don’t believe the machine view either. (I can imagine some of them saying “I know this won’t work but I’ve got to do it anyway”). And I’d like to work with these managers to find a new and more effective way for them to pursue their legitimate aims within their organisations, which needs a different understanding of their role as leaders and managers, a different understanding of change, and a different view of what organisations actually are. And it needs a different understanding of what my role is in supporting change. I’m not very sure what that ‘different’ understanding is – particularly what someone actually does who wants change to happen but acknowledges they can’t control it. But I am interested in finding out by trying it.

* The photograph at the top is from Flickr.com, reproduced under a Creative Commons Licence.

Categories: Change Tags: , , ,

Are you an 18 second manager?

August 4th, 2011 No comments

Are you an 18 second manager?

This is a nice provocative video from Tom Peters on listening:

Tom refers to research into the length of time taken by doctors before they interrupt a patient describing their symptoms. He recommends that managers and leaders (and in fact everyone in every organisation) develop their ability to listen to their customers, employees and colleagues. It is something that be learned.

Are you an 18-second manager, or an 18-second leader?

Come with me to Istanbul!

June 23rd, 2011 No comments

Come with me to Istanbul!

ImprovI’m running a workshop on ‘Improvisation for facilitators’, as part of the  International Association of Facilitators Europe Conference 2011. The workshop will run from 9:30am – 4:30pm on Thursday 13 October 2011, in a conference venue in central Istanbul.

The skills that improvisers use to create scenes and stories can also be used by facilitators to bring their work to life. This workshop uses improvisation games from the world of theatre to help you relax more when working in the moment with your clients, connect more quickly with the groups you work with, and actually enjoy re-writing your plans on the spur of the moment!

You need no performance skills for this workshop – it is suitable for absolute beginners. You can relax as you are guided through a selection of specially chosen improvisation games and exercises.

The workshop will be limited to a maximum of 12 participants, so book now to guarantee your place. An early bird rate of €165 is available for bookings made before 31 July 2011. Bookings after that date will be at the rate of €200. Further details – and a booking form to secure your place – are available on a dedicated page on my website [edit: link removed as closing date has passed].

Sharing lessons learned between projects

May 24th, 2010 No comments

Agenda for post-project reviewI frequently run ‘post-project reviews’ or ‘after-action reviews’. These events bring together teams who have recently completed a project, so that they can learn lessons for the future. The lessons could be ones that the participants will personally take forward with them into their future work, and can also be lessons that colleagues elsewhere in their organisation or partnership need to learn.

I have developed my own approach to running these events, drawing a lot on the ideas of Chris Collison and Geoff Parcell in their excellent book Learning to Fly, and also influenced by Nick Milton. I am quite pleased with the process I have developed, and at the same time I am dissatisfied with how effective it is overall – I think it is effective in helping individuals to learn their own lessons, but not very effective in sharing lessons across projects.

Reading a recent blog post by Nancy Dixon helped me to see where and why my current approach is falling short.

Nancy identifies three stages in the process of learning lessons across projects:

1. Sensemaking: The members of the project team jointly make sense of what they have learned.
2. Formatting: Designers assemble, translate, aggregate, and mine projects lessons in such a way that they are useful to different groups in the organization
3. Moving: KM professionals create both pull and push mechanism so that lessons are accessible to those who need them.

My post-project reviews focus on the first stage, and I feel that they have become effective in helping team members to identify the real issues, discuss openly what went well and not so well and why. But they could be more effective in stages 2 and 3.

The typical output from a post-project review that I run is a set of PowerPoint slides, which include photos I have taken of all the outputs from the review – these are usually a picture of the project timeline, with comments hand-written by the team; boards with hand-written cards showing what the team thought went well and not so well; and more detailed boards probing the key things that went well/not so well, identifying why and pulling out lessons learned. By including photos of the materials produced by the participants, rather than typing up their outputs, I reduce the amount of interpreting or processing of their thoughts – the idea is that the participants will recognise the outputs as their own.

What happens to these sets of PowerPoint slides? They may be read by the participants after the review (or just filed). They may also be discussed by the management team of the organisation that commissioned me to carry out the review (or more likely, the team may look at a formal paper based on the slides I produced). But there may be no other ‘formatting’ (stage 2 in Nancy’s process), and possibly no ‘moving’ at all (stage 3). The likelihood is that most of the learning will stay in the heads of the people who took part in the review.

While it is true that

If knowledge transfer went no farther than sensemaking, a considerable amount of transfer across the organization would have been achieved.

I still have a sense of missed opportunities – that more could be achieved.

What are the implications for me as a facilitator?

I do not think that I want to take on responsibility for stages 2 and 3. My skills as a facilitator are in helping the project team have the conversation during which they identify the learning. I have produced learning materials in the past, but instructional design is not my main area of expertise (nor is it where I want to spend my time). And I do not work within organisations as a KM professional to create systems to push and pull knowledge around.

I do think I have a responsibility when contracting with a client to raise these issues and ask how they think the lessons can and should be taken forward and shared – how do they see it happening? And I could share what I have learned from Nancy’s blog post.

There may also be some learning for me about the lessons learned process. When the team has identified a lesson, I could ask them to identify specifically who that lesson may be useful for – it could be a named individual or individuals, it could be people in a particular role (eg project managers). This would at least help to target the lesson more effectively.

And I could also ask the team to review all the lessons they have identified in a particular post-project review, and identify the top 2 or 3 they think have most value for other people.

What else could I do while still remaining in what Nancy refers to as the ‘sensemaking’ stage of transferring lessons learned?

* The image at the top of the post is from a post-project review that I ran in 2009

Job/career/purpose

May 9th, 2010 2 comments

I got a couple of really good points from the TED video that I have embedded below. The video is a recording of Stefan Sagmeister, who runs a New York design agency. Every 7 years he takes a sabbatical year off, to recharge his batteries and to generate some new ideas.

At 1:30 Stefan describes how he sees his sabbaticals as effectively ‘bringing forward’ some of the retirement he hopes to enjoy at the en of his working life (he has a really nice animated graphic that makes his point very clearly). This is how I have been thinking of my own part-time working over the past five years. Except that I am bringing forward some of my retirement into every week – I am able to do now some of the things that earlier in my life I had been putting off until retirement. But the idea of a year-long sabbatical is even more attractive…

At 2:25 Stefan develops an idea from an earlier TED talk by Jonathan Haidt. He distinguishes between a job, a career and a calling:

  • Jobs: we do them for money, 9-5
  • Careers: we do them for promotion
  • Calling: we would do this even if we weren’t paid to do it

Apart from preferring the word ‘purpose’ where Stefan uses the word ‘calling’, this is also how I think of my own work. I am overjoyed each time I find myself doing work that I would happily do unpaid: playing games with groups of adults; sharing skills and knowledge that I find useful and interesting with new people; coaching people to achieve their goals; mediating between people in conflict. This is great work, and I want to spend more of my time doing it.

Hat tip to Alexander Kjerulf for linking to the TED video.

“Yes, and” not “Yes, but”

January 21st, 2010 No comments

Drilling a well

Drilling a well

This post concludes my summary of chapter 1 of Susan Scott’s book Fierce Conversations, and covers two new techniques.

“Yes, and” not “Yes, but”

Scott describes a very simple technique which makes a noticeable difference to the quality of conversation. She recommends whenever we find ourselves about to say “yes, but”, replacing those words with “yes, and”.

“I need your help with this project.”

“Yes, but I’m very busy right now.”

The ‘yes’ here does acknowledge the need, the ‘but’ says ‘but I’m not going to meet that need’.

“I need your help with this project.”

“Yes, and I’m very busy right now.”

There’s a bit more wriggle room here – the second response doesn’t quite have the air of finality. There’s some room for discussion.

How does this work? Because saying “yes, but” acknowledges that there are competing needs, and asks us to choose between them – we can only have one or the other. Saying “yes, and” acknowledges that both realities or sets of needs can be valid, and allows us to look for ways in which everyone’s needs can be met. There’s more potential in the second response.

Mineral rights conversations

A ‘mineral rights conversation’ is one that has a clear focus, and drills down deep. The name comes from the idea that if you are drilling for water, it’s better to drill a single hundred-foot well, than one hundred one-foot wells.

A mineral rights conversation has seven steps:

  1. Identify your most pressing issue.
  2. Clarify the issue.
  3. Determine the current impact.
  4. Determine the future implications.
  5. Examine your personal contribution to this issue.
  6. Describe the ideal outcome.
  7. Commit to action.

This is a structure that could be used effectively in a coaching conversation. Scott gives a long example of a mineral rights conversation in the form of a transcript of a conversation she had with John Tompkins, the owner of a fishing company that was in trouble.  In the conversation Scott uses powerful, focused questions that lead the company owner through these steps. The conversation ends with a clear commitment on John’s part to take specific actions. And at no point does Scott offer advice or tell John what to do – he generates his own solutions. Her main strategy is just to ask good questions.

* The photograph at the top is from Flickr.com, reproduced under a Creative Commons Licence.