24 March 2015

Storytelling for [Creating Common Organizational] Purpose

Last evening, I once again had the pleasure of attending one of Rick Wolfe’s “Kitchen Table Conversations” on Storytelling for a Purpose. The dozen or so people around the table – not in his kitchen, but at the Centre for Social Innovation—Annex in Toronto – shared story snippets, experiences of the power of stories for both personal and business purposes, and various aspects that comprise effective, purposeful stories and storytelling. A light bulb went on for me towards the end of the session; not an earth-shattering light bulb, but one that provided some illumination on what is, retrospectively, sort of an obvious issue.

People tend to hold onto their stories. This shouldn’t be surprising. After all, “we are the stories we tell about ourselves.” In fact, we construct our individual experiences of reality – to which we also hold very tightly – by creating stories that contextualize our experiences in a product comprised of our context at the moment, our prior experiences of similar contexts, and our history. In fact, the effects of many of these constructed stories are to serve the maintenance and sustainability of that constructed reality, irrespective of how objectively absurd it might be. [Note: objective and absurd are in the eye of any particular judgmental beholder.]

If one of our objectives in the process of leadership is to enable some sort of cultural congruence throughout our organizations, that necessarily requires congruence among the stories that pervade the lives of our members. This can be accomplished by edict – the so-called alignment of values, vision, and mission that characterizes 20th-century leadership practices. Alternatively, this can be accomplished through collective storytelling: Creating a series of stories and storytelling venues that can eventually create a congruence among contexts, experiences, and history. The mythic tales of an organization create and have the ability to re-create (as in, “alternate future”) the organization itself.

An organization, like an individual, is the stories it tells about itself. Change the story; change the organization. Change the story; enable the possibility of an alternate future.

12 March 2015

Five Secrets of Effective and Enjoyable Leadership

“I realized that the more fun I had, the better I did.” So says actor Bill Murray in an interview posted on Business Insider. To be sure, for any of us in almost any profession, the more fun we can have, the more enjoyable our daily enterprise, the better – more productive, more effective, more innovative, more engaged – we can be.

It’s not too hard to conceive of having such fun as an actor, especially a comedic actor like Murray. But in other roles, say the role of leader, what does it look like to truly experience fun and enjoyment, not to mention doing better! I’ve heard many people say that they enjoy their role so much that they’re surprised that they’re being paid to do it. (I often feel that way myself when engaged with students.) But strip away the extrinsic trappings of leadership – the material privileges of big office, high salary, expense accounts, and any number of executive perqs – and the sometimes heady exhilaration that accompanies a perception of total control, and we’re left with the question, how many truly enjoy the role of leader? How many are therefore situated to do and be the best they can, as Bill Murray suggests?

Most people who are in leadership roles today came through their leadership training – whether formal or informal – based on the industrial model of the 20th century. Need I say that the contemporary world is radically different (okay—I just did)? What can make the leadership role considerably more enjoyable, more fun, and more effective for all concerned are embedded in five (not-so-secret) secrets:

  1. Contemporary leadership is not about “leading.” It’s about creating a very particular environment.
    Specifically, leadership is about enabling a conducive environment for people to come together and create a shared experience, from which an alternate future becomes possible. Received wisdom, sustained for over a century, that a leader has a vision that translates into a mission with objectives that are disseminated among aligned functional departments, with individual employees given carrot-and-stick incentives to accomplish lists of specific, measurable results—that is a description of industrial management, particularly 20th-century management dating back to Frederick Winslow Taylor in 1911. Ed Catmull, President of Pixar Animation Studios, suggests in his book, Creativity, Inc. that leadership is not about driving the train, it’s about laying the track. In other words, good managers keep the business running and accomplishing the nominal objectives (more about this in a moment). Contemporary leaders, on the other hand, are the ones who conceive of the new destination – an alternate future – for their organization and enable the conditions for that future to be realized.

  2. Contemporary leaders don’t drive for goals. They navigate for intended effects.
    Over a period of several years, I was invited to facilitate the annual strategy retreat for a social justice organization. Each retreat would begin with a session that celebrated the prior year’s accomplishments relative to the goals that were set at the previous retreat. One year, the leaders lamented that for the needs of a particular constituency they had intended to address that year, not one of the set objectives had been accomplished. However, during the review, we discovered that this constituency had indeed become well-engaged through a variety of programs and initiatives. Moreover, their engagement was to an extent that exceeded all prior expectations. Had the group been evaluated on the basis of accomplishing its identified goals and objectives (as is the case for countless individuals in the vast majority of annual performance appraisals), the year would have been considered a dismal failure. However, the group navigated a constantly changing environment so as to enact the intended effects through their programming. The initiatives met the needs of their intention and were therefore tremendously successful. The world has become far too complex, and therefore, far too unpredictable, volatile, and ambiguous for any fixed objectives to remain relevant for long. No one can know whether objectives and goals that seem appropriate at any point in time will in fact be considered to have been appropriate at some future date. Moreover, it is often the case that specific goals (because of the artificiality inherent in setting such goals) don’t actually effect the organization’s overall intentions: Individuals may achieve their goals. The organization fails nonetheless. Or, put more colloquially, the operation was a success, but the patient died.

  3. Contemporary leaders base their organizational culture on individual autonomy and agency, collective responsibility, and mutual accountability.
    Giving someone responsibilities and holding them accountable is a great way to exert control. In a complex environment, however, control is the last thing you want: attempts to control a complex system changes it ways that inevitably produce the infamous “unintended consequences.” It kills initiative and intrinsic motivation. Worse, perhaps, is that control stifles innovation and creativity, precisely what you don’t want to do in today’s hyper-competitive, hyper-connected environment. But think about it: all of those systems of checks, balances, incentives, rank scoring, top-down planning, rolled-up objectives… all of them induce stress for everyone concerned (especially managers) and create specific personal incentives to sandbag goals and “look out for number one” rather than collectively looking out for the enterprise as a whole. Today’s world is nothing if not collaborative. People entering today’s workforce are nothing if not entrepreneurial and enterprising. Giving them licence to have their own autonomy of action and agency to accomplish what matters to them makes them not only happier and more engaged, but vastly more productive. Creating conditions and incentives so that all members are collectively responsible for the success of each ensures an environment of continual interaction that promotes innovation. Having a personal sense of accountability to each other rather than just to a boss enables a person’s intrinsic motivation in favour of collaboration. The three – autonomy/agency, collective responsibility, and mutual accountability – ensures alignment throughout the organization and appropriate navigation without the need for high control. And everyone ends up enjoying their time in the workplace a whole lot more.

  4. Contemporary leadership employs strengths-based, appreciative practices.
    In theory, having employees set development goals that focus on improving areas of weakness will make them more effective as employees. In theory, providing them with “feedback” – especially when things have gone wrong – will enable them to improve their performance so that the wrong thing “will never happen again.” In practice, however, having a person focus on their deficiencies and deficits is a sure-fire path towards disengagement, demotivation, non-reflective dependence, and compliant – rather than committed – behaviours. Besides, unless you’re among the relatively few sociopaths in society, how enjoyable is it to constantly point out someone’s faults to them? Even when things do go sideways – as they are wont to do in an inherently unpredictable, complex environment – wouldn’t it be far better to initiate a reflection beginning with what went right? Which of the individual’s core strengths did they call on during the situation as it was unfolding? What was missing that precluded a more desirable outcome? Rather than measuring annual performance against possibly irrelevant or retrospectively not-useful goals, wouldn’t it be more effective to ask which accomplishments made the person most proud (and why)? Instead of dictating top-down performance objectives, often conceived against an artificial and arbitrary model of “mission pillars” (or some other similarly immovable metaphor), doesn’t true engagement begin with collaboratively creating a common appreciation of what’s possible (see point 1) leading to a common volition to action?

  5. Contemporary leaders recognize that one’s work integrates with, rather than balancing in opposition against, one’s life.
    “Work-life balance” is a baby-boomer construct, defensively countering the puritanical Protestant work ethic construction of corporate capitalism. It sets up a false dichotomy that one’s work and one’s life are two separate, distinct, and antagonistic entities. Ideally, “work” and “life” should ideally be balanced—a notion responding to the rather unfortunate fact that for many people in the last (and to a certain extent, current) century, work dominated – and often ruined – people’s lives. Even the now-hoary admonishment – “nobody on their deathbed ever said they regretted not spending more time at the office” – has been nominally, if cynically, remedied by the office following us home via always-on connectivity. Thanks to the first generation to be born into the internet society entering the work-force, whose apparent lack of a work ethic distressed many a boomer manager, we now are beginning to realize that work must be integrated as but one part of a well-rounded life. This concept shift gives leaders permission to ease up on their expectations of themselves as they reset expectations of others. It also suggests that all sorts of policies, procedures, and control mechanisms can be dispensed with, particularly if the other four recommended guidelines are brought into effect.
By removing a considerable amount of pressure imposed by Industrial Age command-and-control precepts of “good management,” organizational leaders can direct their attention towards creating and enabling the optimal environment for their members to engage with one another, achieve personal and mutual aspirations, and have one heck of a good time doing it.

05 March 2015

Predicting Organizational Dynamics—Empirical Validity of Valence Theory

Good theory does three things:
  1. It explains observed phenomena and behaviours.
  2. It makes (testable) predictions of future behaviour.
  3. It enables one to derive new behaviours and phenomena in response to new circumstances.
(You might ask, what’s the difference between thing 2 and thing 3? The second case predictions are based on situations that one could anticipate or conceive. The third case deals with situations that are completely from out of the blue, which is increasingly what we face in our contemporary world.)

As organizations and intra-organization behaviour have become more complex, academics, organization development practitioners, consultants, and managers seek new models to explain, predict, and derive what happens, will happen, and could happen in organizational contexts. Over the past fifteen years or so, it is increasingly common to use the metaphor of communications networks – roughly modelled on the Internet – to describe organizational dynamics. Information flows within organizations no longer strictly follow the hierarchical chain-of-command first described by Henri Fayol back in 1916 (in French; 1949 when translated into English as General and Industrial Administration). To model the complex, interconnected feedback and feedforward loops that occur throughout most large organizations, and indeed, the social graphs of informal teams or spheres of influence, adopting a network theory of contemporary organizations seems to be a useful thing to do.

As an aside, there are two complementary thoughts on theory: The first says that, although all models (theories) are wrong, some are useful. The second says that all models (theories) are right—until they’re not. It is indeed useful to bear both of these in mind so that one resists the temptation to substitute the model for reality (leading to very problematic “abstract empiricism”), and understands that any model has its limits of applicability (i.e., the trick is to know when to stop).

In particular, a network theory of organization would predict that if a person becomes a blockage or impediment in information flow or effectiveness, the network would “route around” – that is, avoid involving – that person. Indeed, that is what often happens. It follows that if that obstreperous person (and their department, if they are a manager) were eliminated, the adapted flow would simply continue and the organization itself would not be expected to undergo any substantial change. After all, the information flowed before; it can flow afterwards, relatively unchanged and unimpeded, all other things being equal.

Valence Theory predicts something else. Valence Theory defines organization as “that emergent entity resulting from two or more individuals, or two or more organizations, or both, that share multiple valence relationships at particular strengths, with particular pervasiveness, among its component elements at any point in time.” The five Valence relationships are: Economic, Affective (socio-psychological), Knowledge, Identity, and Ecological. There are two forms of each valence – fungible and ba – that respectively account for more traditional, bureaucratic, administratively controlled, and hierarchical organizations, and “connected relationship” organizations that are more consistent with the ubiquitously connected and pervasively proximate reality in which we live.

A Valence Theory conceived organization is potentially always in flux based on the precise nature of the relationships at play at any time (and the relationships themselves interact in ways that are not deterministically predictable). In a practical sense, however, given a more-or-less stable cohort of actors (staff personnel and those external actors with whom they interact), and more-or-less established relationships, the organization would usually exist in a state of stable homeostasis. One of the predictions that Valence Theory makes has to do with changing members: When people arrive or leave the organization, relationships and their interactions necessarily change. Valence Theory predicts that the organization itself necessarily changes, even in the absence of any other change-initiating impetus.

One could see an organization changing if, for example, a relatively (hierarchically) senior person were to change. Conventional thinking would say that a relatively lower-level (again, hierarchically speaking) person coming or going would not be considered as important enough to initiate a substantive organizational change—even though complexity thinking might suggest otherwise (based on the principle that in a complex system, small perturbations can initiate substantial systemic effects). Valence Theory, on the other hand, predicts that any change of members necessarily changes the organization because the nature and quality of (the Valence) relationships necessarily change.

Consider the case of the aforementioned troublesome person around whom information flow re-routes. Valence Theory would predict that if that person were to leave, the relationships would necessarily realign to such an extent (because they had been, colloquially speaking, so bent out of shape that they would have no choice but to realign) that the organization would experience a clearly observable change. That change would occur seemingly of its own volition without the organization having to undergo an explicit change initiative or a formal re-organization (which often changes very little, in actuality—deck chairs, meet Titanic...).

I recently had opportunity to observe this precise phenomenon occurring in a live environment. At the “Fair Contest” company, there was a mid-level manager who was responsible for a support function, nominally acting as an internal supplier to the line business departments. This manager happened to possess characteristics that, taken together, would characterize that person as a “dark triad personality.” For numerous reasons, people in other departments learned, over time, to effectively marginalize that person and avoid using that manager’s department or resources, choosing instead to “route around” that department and obtain their own, usually external, suppliers. Suffice it to say that the department enjoyed very little credibility at Fair Contest.

A network model of organization would predict that the departure of the dark-triad manager should not necessarily result in a substantive change, since the other, relatively autonomous managers would continue to use the services they had come to know and rely upon. (Note that budget was not a determining factor between using internal and external resources.) Valence Theory, on the other hand, would predict a substantive change in organizational trajectory because of the resulting major realignment of relationships, and consequential organizational reconfiguration of valence relationship dynamics.

Last fall, the dark-triad manager was, in fact, fired for cause (apparently not directly related to their narcissism, psychopathy, or Machiavellianism). In the relatively short period between then and now, there has been a significant, beneficial shift in organizational trajectory in both tactical operations and strategic positioning even though none of the many changes which occurred had been specifically planned. In fact, they can be well explained as the result of realigned valence relationships among members that, in turn, reconfigured organizational dynamics. The departed manager – true to their narcissistic character – was heard to say that the Fair Contest Company had made a big mistake in letting them go. Nothing could be further from the truth, even though no one had anticipated the magnitude and positive significance of the ensuing changes. No one, that is, except Valence Theory.

Valence Theory called it.