26 August 2010

Salsa, and the Art of Organization Effectiveness and Leadership Development

Among other things, I am a salsa instructor—a passion that is completely in tune with everything else I perform professionally, and the values that pervade my life. The key to becoming a great salsa dancer is the same as creating a great organization (and, not coincidentally, the foundation of great, contemporary education): connection, context, complexity, and connotation. Leads and follows must, first and foremost, be connected and in touch with each other. They must learn to clearly signal and read the next move, the next pattern, and the changes in direction and momentum that flow throughout the dance. Advanced dancers know that, while the lead directs the movements, the follow sets the style, and both must complement each other, dancing collaboratively to create a beautiful, flowing, and passionate dance.

Regardless of their relative skill, the partners must respond to the context provided by the music. They must follow not only the tempo, but the mood, theme, and sometimes lyrics should also be reflected in the grace and passion of the shared movement. Rather than simply responding to the external context of the music, the dancers must allow the music to flow through them, enabling meaning-rich connection to emerge as they combine their connected interaction with the environment of the music. This necessarily means that the dance is complex: a number of simple elements that interact among connected, but otherwise independent, autonomous agents, resulting in the emergence of patterns that cannot precisely be predicted beforehand from the starting conditions.

Finally, the fourth “C,” connotation, or the creation of meaning. When I dance in the role of instructor-with-student, we create a certain and very particular meaning, irrespective of my partner's gender or our relative dance roles (that is, me in either the lead or follow role). That meaning emerges from the other three “Cs”: the connection in our roles; the context of both the music and the instructor-student relationship; and the complexity of the learning process. On the other hand, when I dance with one among some of my favourite partners, the connotation or meaning is completely different, particularly with a passionate song.

Reinforcing and augmenting the foundation of the four “Cs” is one simple idea—what it is that I do, whether in my role as dance instructor or as lead with a partner:

I create a great environment of engagement.

When I perform in the role of Organizational Therapist, when I’m invited as a Leadership Coach, when I’m asked to facilitate processes of Organization Transformation and Change, the same principles apply: I create a great environment of engagement that enables organizations and their leaders perform like advanced dancers.

Organizational leaders must, first and foremost, be connected and in tune with the other members of their organization—and those members extend beyond those who might merely be on the payroll or attend at one or more particular offices. There must be clear and consistent signals indicating the next move, the next pattern, and the changes in direction and momentum for the organization. And although the leader might direct the movement, it is the other members – all the participating constituencies who are affected by the organization’s motion – who set the style of interactions. All members and constituencies must mutually complement the collective organization, and “dance” collaboratively in accomplishing the organization’s goals and aspirations. Most important, this collaboration is responsible for creating the desired effects in the total organizational environment, and enacting the organization’s emergent and collective values.

Healthy organizations are thus informed by the 4 Cs: connection, context, complexity, and connotation. They are connected among their members and constituencies through valence relationships. Because of these connections, each constituency introduces an often unique context that flows through and is incorporated into the organization and affects its emergent behaviours. In this sense, the organization does not instrumentally respond to an external context like a beginner dancer counting out the rhythm, but rather becomes part of the overall environment, allowing the “music” – the environmental stimuli – to flow through it and provide organizational impetus. This, in turn, means that simple, deterministic analyses (such as those provided by the more instrumentally focused structural contingency theories) are not entirely helpful; a more appropriate analysis is based in complexity. And that means that leaders must learn to be cognizant of emergent meaning, or connotation, as they consider both more immediate tactics, and strategies to address longer-term objectives.

More than all of this, healthy organizations are passionate. They are passionate about being present in the environment of their connected constituencies. They are passionate about engaging with their various partners. They are passionate about creating a beautiful and elegant flow of desired and intended effects throughout the metaphorical ballroom floor of their industry, or market, or community, or other social environment on which they dance and enact their collective organizational aspirations.

In my role as therapist, coach, and facilitator, I help organizations, their leaders, and all their constituent members collaboratively create this passion through authentic connection, appreciation of diverse contexts, understanding organizational complexity, and enabling emergent connotation or meaning.

Most of all, I do one, consistent thing: I create great environments of engagement.

(For those who might be a little more left-brain-oriented, here is a detailed, specific exposition of what I do.

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13 August 2010

"You Will Be Charged! Ignorance is No Excuse!"

How's that for a nice, friendly introduction to Toronto-the-(once)-good? This was how a Japanese visitor to our fair city was greeted late last evening (after midnight) by one of our uniformed city ambassadors, otherwise known as a TTC fare collector at Spadina station. TTC Customer Service Advisory Panel, please take note.

A young Japanese man, Toronto guide book and tourist map in hand, had erroneously walked in through the bus driveway into the station. Somewhat confused by the non-obvious (to his eye) design of the station, he exited through the turnstile, and came around to show his weekly transit pass to the collector. (Yes, of course there is the "no entry" sign, but, hey: foreign visitor, rudimentary knowledge of conversational tourist English, and how well would you do against signs in Kanji?).

The collector was suitably incensed at the effrontery of the young man, and proceeded to give him a suitable dressing down, accusing him of a crime, informing him that he could be charged, and repeating these in that way some people have of dealing with those whose English is not up to scratch: louder and more insistent means that it becomes more understandable. The young man replied that (a) he had valid transport media (the weekly pass); (b) he was a foreigner and was unfamiliar with the particular ritual with respect to open driveways into a subway station (I'm paraphrasing); and (c) he understands and won't do it again. The collector wouldn't take (c) for an answer and continued with threats to have the young man arrested and charged, repeating, "Ignorance is no excuse!"

The collector is right: ignorance is no excuse. But, of course, I'm referring to the ignorance of the collector himself. Ignorance of customer service is no excuse for rudeness. Ignorance of your role as a goodwill ambassador of Toronto is no excuse for reading a visitor the riot act, especially if he's not rioting. Ignorance of the black eye our transit system has been wearing these past months over fare-collector rudeness (among many other things) is no excuse to add to the blackness regularly demonstrated by the good - and I used that adjective advisedly - members of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 113.

As for me, I helped diffuse the situation as I paid my fare, and ushered the young man towards the correct subway platform. His comment to me was that he could not believe the rudeness - it was, after all, a simple mistake, and he was not trying to avoid paying a fare. I expressed my agreement, apologized to him on behalf of the truly good citizens of this city, ensured he knew how to get to where he was going, and wished him a much better and more enjoyable stay in what is normally a great place to visit.

Hello TTC? Hello Gary Webster? Hello Bob Kinnear? Is anybody home? Is anyone there really serious about your business? And, far more important (notice what I do as a professional practice - second item, and check out "The Messages" - up there in the top right corner of the webpage), does anyone realize that such front-line behaviour is indicative of some very serious, systemic issues that still infect your organizational culture?

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11 August 2010

Hiring Strategy - Experience or Education? Wrong and wrong...

Friend Larry Lyon pointed me to a post entitled, Don't Hire Experience, Hire Learners. The gist of the post is a response to an article in the Australian Financial Review which suggests, “most employers say that if you have to choose between getting an MBA or getting two more years of experience, you’re much better off with the experience.” The post goes on to respond with a quote from the book Rework, which says, “Of course, requiring some baseline level of experience can be a good idea when hiring. ... There’s surprisingly little difference between a candidate with six months of experience and one with six years. The real difference comes from the individual’s dedication, personality, and intelligence.” The post concludes that demonstrated ability to learn - like hiring an MBA - is a better indicator of success than mere experience.

Not exactly. This reasoning is an example of a false dichotomy, missing the essence of what's really going on in terms of effects and causes (in that order!).

My recommendation in response to all of this? Hire learners, yes. Hire MBAs? This is a dubious decision at best, because they don't necessarily know how to learn; rather, they know very well how to play a very particular game. To paraphrase a highly recommended radio documentary from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation: MBA - Mostly Bloody Awful (also, Mediocre But Arrogant, and Management By Accident).

Learning requires one to be comfortable with admitting what you don't know - MBA grads typically don't qualify. Learning requires having an open mind and not sticking to the "trite and true." Most people who have been in the work force for years in a BAH organization where they're supposed to shut up and do their job don't qualify.

Instead, hire the radical. Hire the iconoclast (I'm looking for work, by the way - I can actually help with these sorts of issues). Hire the person who dissents with virtuous subversion. Hire the curious. Hire the person who lives a culture of inquiry.But first, ensure that you are a leader who truly welcomes diverse voices that provide radical worldviews, and introduce virtuous subversion. Ensure that you encourage a culture of inquiry throughout your enterprise, and that you, yourself are truly a reflective practitioner. Be a learner among learners.

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08 August 2010

On Values, Vision, Tactility, and Mission in Contemporary Organizations

I had the good fortune to meet Ellen Hayakawa recently, and share a brief conversation (as well as a couple of blues dances). Ellen’s work is complementary to mine—she focuses on spirituality in a corporate setting, and “exploring the relationship between spirituality in the workplace and sustainability.” The conversation we shared enabled me to reflect on the relationship among tactility, vision, and values, and how several distinct ideas often become conflated, and therefore, confused in many people’s minds.

In the conversation, Ellen mentioned using a ground of personal and collective spirituality to enable an appropriate focus on “mission, vision, and values.” I had several comments in response—predictable comments for those who know me. First, I observed that the order of these aspects of individual and collective guidance were in the wrong order, exactly backwards as far as I was concerned. For me, values must come first, then an appropriate sensory metaphor (more on this in a moment), and finally the so-called mission, objectives, goals, tasks, and direct action towards accomplishment. Second, as I discovered in my research, vision as the dominant sensory metaphor for organizations, has pretty much run its course through the Gutenberg-inspired epoch that ended with modernity. In a world that is ubiquitously connected and therefore pervasively proximate (UCaPP), tactility is a far more appropriate – not to mention useful and socially cognizant – sensory metaphor.

Ellen argued her defence of both the order and sensory metaphor admirably. In doing so, she helped me to sort out some of the connections between the individual and the collective, and the relationship between one’s own sense of place and purpose in the world and that emergent sense characteristic of UCaPP organizations, namely the “place of organization,” or organization-ba.

The idea that mission is central to an organization comes from the modernist conception of what I call the “primary-purposeful organization.” Essentially, this means that an organization’s purpose – its mission – is primary above any other consideration. That purpose is imposed on everyone who joins the organization so that all are contributing to accomplishing the mission, goals, and objectives towards a common end. Fair enough, as far as it goes. But, what becomes quite fascinating to me is that, in a primary-purposeful organization, vision often seems to be an adjunct that is almost reverse-engineered to justify the mission. I have seen too many organizations engage in so-called visioning sessions that are actually attempts to align a conception of vision – often merely a future projection of goals and outcomes – to back-justify the mission at hand. And that mission is inevitably and directly tied to some sort of fungible Economic (tradable exchange of value, whether money is involved or not) connection with well-identified constituencies. So, as Ellen indeed describes it, the order of “mission, vision, values” is the way it’s done in most organizations. Understand the primary purpose – mission – reverse-engineer a consistent future for the organization’s direction – vision – and then ensure that the espoused values align with both. In a sense, this order hearkens to Argyris and Schön’s single-loop learning in which what is espoused becomes well-aligned with what is actually done, all in the name of consistency (yet another hangover from the Enlightenment). That Ellen can help organizations inject a spiritual sensibility and sense of wellbeing, enabling its members to connect with their own spiritual centres, is unquestionably admirable and worthwhile, because doing so in an instrumentalist, primary-purposeful ground is such a tough road to hoe.

Ellen’s insistence on the importance of vision is not the usual argument that I hear from other, more-conventional and traditionally socialized OD consultants (like, “you can’t know where you’re going unless you have vision”). Rather, Ellen directly connects one’s individual vision with one’s personal values and therefore, sense of direction in the world. Here is where I think traditional vocabulary becomes both limited and limiting. Values, as one of my friends likes to remind me, are those aspects, characteristics, behaviours, and attributes that one wants to promote, preserve, and protect. They indeed speak to how one locates oneself in the world, and creates connections that reflect the ba-aspects of connecting, binding, or valence relationships. As one understands one’s own values, and collectively and collaboratively joins with others of like-mind to promote, preserve, and protect those aspects, the process of organizational emergence begins to occur (even within extant primary-purposeful organizations) in a way that is intrinsically consistent with values, and indeed, the potential of human spirit and spirituality as Ellen so elegantly puts it.

From collective values, the nascent valence-conceived organization can then begin to understand what effects it aspires to create in the world. These effects – distinctly different from outcomes, goals, and mission – can be expressed among the five valence relationships (Economic, Socio-psychological, Identity, Knowledge, and Ecological), and represent the organization’s tactility, answering the question, whom do we want to touch, and how do we want to touch them today. For someone coming from a ground of spirituality in the workplace, this idea of touch and enabling effects in one’s wider social, emotional, material, and spiritual environment provides far better guidance for actually doing things than beginning with striving to accomplish an arbitrary goal somewhere in the future. Consistent with pervasive proximity in a UCaPP world, tactility is immediate and sustains; vision can be (and often is) illusory, transitory, and always in the distance (think, “mirage”).

If you, like Ellen, construct your organization based on mission, vision, and values, then welcome to the world of modernity. I’m sure you would do really well in the 20th century, and create great opportunities, and a strong sense of doing what is right for spiritual sustenance. However, if you truly want your organization to be consistent with the world as it is today – firmly located in the UCaPP world of the 21st century – it may be time to reorder your fundamental organizational priorities and retire that old chestnut of vision as the dominant, guiding sensory metaphor—an artefact, after all, of post-Enlightenment thinking. In other words, it may be time to consider transforming your vision of organization itself into one that is valence-conceived, and therefore organic, alive, and vital.

In my practice, transforming organizations and leadership today begins with articulating individual and collective values. The process of transformation proceeds by translating those values into mutual tactility, thereby enabling the organization to create its place – organization-ba – among the various diverse constituencies it touches. From this place of fundamental guidance, the organization can then determine what it must accomplish – its goals and objectives – to enact the effects that manifest its values. Not only does this process enable a far healthier organization, it sets up the organization for its own sustainability, and as a contributor to collaboratively sustaining our world.

Values. Tactility. Accomplish. Sounds like appropriate and useful guidance to me.

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05 August 2010

Tomorrow: Online with the Globe on Narcissistic Leaders

I've been invited to participate in an online conversation at the Globe and Mail site on the topic of their recent article, Narcissistic Bosses and Why You Should Love Them. I'll be joined by Eric Cousineau, the person about whose presentation at the Toronto OD Network I wrote a couple of years ago. It will be interesting to see what he has to say (I'm guessing that we won't necessarily see eye-to-eye on this one). The article cites author and academic Michael Maccoby, who:
...views narcissism as being largely beneficial, if not inevitable, in entrepreneurs and chief executives – beneficial because narcissists are innovators, inevitable because narcissists, being ambitious, are the most likely to rise to the top.
Really. I can't say that I agree with him about narcissists being innovators necessarily, but certainly about them rising - or perhaps stomping on people below - to realize their ambition of being at the top and in charge. His key thesis, that good leaders have an "interrelated set of skills - foresight, systems thinking, visioning, motivating, and partnering - that he terms 'strategic intelligence'" is generally unassailable. However, suggesting that these are exclusive traits of narcissists - even so-called productive ones - is nonsense. And putting up the strawman that the opposite of someone with "strategic intelligence" is a "consensus-building bureaucrat" offensively ignores the reality of collaborative leadership in a contemporary context.

The online conversation is here, and runs from 10 to 11 a.m. EDT, tomorrow, Friday, August 6. If you're available, please hop online and join the conversation. 

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01 August 2010

PBS Frontline: College Inc.

Catching up on some old blog reading, I came across this exposé - or should I say, "investigation" - done by PBS's Frontline on for-profit, higher education corporations in the United States. The short version of the story is pretty straight-forward: Many regionally-accredited colleges in the US (and elsewhere) face significant financial pressure. Regional accreditation is the key criterion through which a college's programs qualify for US Federal Government student loans programs. For students who do not qualify for, or cannot afford, admission to either a state college or private, not-for-profit university, these for-profit institutions provide a way of obtaining at least a nominal, accredited qualification that may enable them to compete in a job market that increasingly demands formal qualifications. Put all of these factors together and you get the recipe for a perfect business: high demand among an under-serviced market, with immediate funding provided by the federal government, and those on-the-deferred-hook being promised that the value of their asset (the over-priced house... err... degree) will cover the future repayment of a loan they maybe shouldn't have qualified for in the first place.

Enter the private investors. There is considerable profit to be made by siphoning money from the federal purse now, to be repaid by anonymous individuals in the future, via investing in these down-at-the-heels colleges whose primary asset is not the quality of their research or, more importantly, the quality of their instruction, but rather the fact that their programs qualify for federal student loans. Hence, the astounding rise in market capitalization and economic valuation of such businesses as Grand Canyon University, Argosy University, Education Management Corporation, DeVry University, Chancellor University whose own claim to fame is the marketing potential of the Jack Welch Management Institute (ironically, among the close-up shots is a listing for a course in Business Communications and Ethics taught at that Institute), and the granddaddy of them all, University of Phoenix. The fact that the resulting average student debt load from these schools is almost double that of private (i.e., expensive) not-for-profit universities, and the employability of its graduates is apparently a fraction of that of traditional, higher-education institutions should not come as a surprise. The issue for the traditional business mind (hello, Mr. Welch!) is profit, so long as it violates no laws. The long-term effects, actual suitability for purpose, and consequences for any other constituency whom the business touches - those are apparently not part of "business ethics" in many traditional constructs.

The video is 55 minutes, but worthwhile viewing by anyone concerned with the state, and future, of higher education. What is considerably troubling to me as an Adult Educator is that many traditional, well-respected universities are beginning to follow the supposed economic imperative to be run more like a business, especially when it comes to the factory-model of undergraduate education (hello, University of Toronto!).

I should note that the program did not examine "hybrids": those traditional universities that have out-sourced the management and technical logistics of their distance-education programs to for-profit education corporations, while retaining control of their academic standards, faculty, and admissions.

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