Ending Our Obsession With Leadership

Organisations need to completely rethink what it means to lead. It’s not about one person or even those residing at the top anymore. In today’s world, everyone has to adopt a leadership mindset. We have to think of ourselves as members of a leadership community  — Patty McCord, former chief talent officer, Netflix

Leadership worship – the act of mythologizing those near the top of organisations – is holding us back now more than ever.

When we look to others to make decisions, set the rules or uphold the culture we actively disempower ourselves, levying a huge inefficiency tax upon our organisations.

How much inefficiency? It could be 75% or higher.

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According to a recent report –  the vast majority of employees wish their boss or manager would give them more responsibility, with 83%  wishing ‘leaders’ would ask for their opinion or input more often.

Far from shirking, employees are actually crying out to make more of a contribution at work.

Those kind of numbers suggest enormous amounts of talent, ideas and innovation are being squandered – all in the name of supporting a hierarchical approach to leadership by the few, rather than the many.

It’s not as if those leaders appear to have all the answers anyway. According to the World Economic Forum  86% of people agree that ‘we have a leadership crisis in the world today’ with an alarmingly weak correspondence between power and competency.

Additionally, a series of reports from MIT argues that current leaders lack the mindset needed to bring about the strategic and cultural changes required to lead in the new digital economy.

So you have two things going on:

You don’t have to be an expert in innovation to see that’s a busted model.

But is it our own obsession with leadership that is actually supporting this dysfunction?

As Neil Tamplin has written , in today’s world of work people want to be accountable for their own actions and our leaders can’t possibly know the fullness of every decision they make. In our increasingly uncertain operating environments, this model is setting ourselves up to fail because we choose to avoid vulnerability and uncertainty in favour of comfort.

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Fear of Failure

So what’s stopping us? One reason organisations might not want to include their employees in their decision-making involves our focus on outcomes and a fear of failure.

The more people involved in decisions means the greater the risk of screwing things up – or so the conventional thinking goes. Mark Robinson has argued though that it’s often better to have poor outcomes with a great decision-making process than it is to have good outcomes with a poor decision-making process. His reasoning is that “you need a culture where people aren’t to blame for decisions. What your culture should be about is learning from bad decisions.”

Perhaps we need to lose the language of leadership altogether.

A Google search for leadership traits reveals a tiresome focus on visioning, strategizing and feedback loops – the kind of management bullshit we should have left back in the 1990s.

The real traits that matter such as empathy or self awareness, are key attributes for all human beings , not just for those of us who have a couple of line reports.

You will be hard-pressed nowadays to find a business that does not have some sort of a mentorship or development programme geared towards the leaders of tomorrow or emerging or aspiring leaders.

Hardly any of those self-same businesses will have programmes aimed at developing the ideas of tomorrow or creating the organisation of tomorrow.

It’s all about leaders. 

Arguably we are prioritising the perpetuation of existing systems and structures over meaningful change. Unless we address the root of the system, unless we really address how organisations make decisions and engage people, then we are not changing anything materially.

The new world of work requires us to become less fixated on the leader and more focused on leveraging the community at every level of our organisations.

Breeding the idea of the leader as superhero is getting us nowhere fast.

As we begin a new year the most radical thing you could do is rip up your plans for leadership development – and concentrate instead on how you can democratise innovation for the 80% rather than the 20%.

 

Ending The Myth Of Collaboration

The best organisational cultures are tolerant of the loner, the thinker. – John Wade

“If I was you,” said a colleague recently “now would be a very good time to involve customers, to get more people involved”.

No, I thought, right now that would be the worst thing we could do.

Collaboration can kill creativity.

Most people in your office have nothing or very little to do with your work, yet collaboration with them – all the time – has become conventional business wisdom.

It’s partly this that has led to us all being meetinged and emailed to death. The mantra of sharing your work and involving everyone in decisions naturally leads to inviting and copying people into things that add no value to them, or you.

If you’re looking to be brave and do something entirely new, involving more people at the wrong time could kill your idea.

Work at MIT found that collaboration—where a bunch of people put their heads together to try to come up with innovative solutions—generally “reduced creativity due to the tendency to incrementally modify known successful designs rather than explore radically different and potentially superior ones.”

Businesses love the idea of this kind of ‘brainstorming’ as it involves a lot of people, is visible, and is seen as a quick route to solving a problem. There’s precious little evidence though that it produces any results.

meta-analytic review of over 800 teams indicated that individuals are more likely to generate a higher number of original ideas when they don’t interact with others.

As Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic writes ‘brainstorming actually harms creative performance, resulting in a collective performance loss that is the very opposite of synergy.’

Solitude: The Benefits of Being Alone

Few businesses place any value on purposeful thinking – as ‘thinking about stuff’ looks too much like loafing about. We are in a world that places a higher value on being busy than on thinking – but genuinely great companies only obsess over productivity – never busyness.

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Many people are at their most creative during solitary activities like walking, relaxing or bathing, not when stuck in a room with people shouting at them from a whiteboard.

Indeed a study found that “solitude can facilitate creativity–first, by stimulating imaginative involvement in multiple realities and, second, by ‘trying on’ alternative identities, leading, perhaps, to self-transformation.”

Essentially just being around other people can keep creative people from thinking new thoughts.

Solitude is out of fashion – possibly because of its association with the physical and emotional effects of loneliness – but any business that values creativity should be considering how it can get better at keeping people apart.

The Value of Introverts

People who like to spend time alone, or who are less comfortable in group situations, are decidedly at odds with today’s team-based organisational culture.

The danger is that with a focus on all-out collaboration you miss out on the creativity of introverts.

When I started group facilitation I learned two things very quickly:

  1. Introverts have some of the best ideas but often don’t feel very comfortable talking openly about them in a group setting.
  2. Extroverts are only too willing to share their ideas (in fact they rarely shut up about them) but are sometimes reluctant to listen to good ideas proposed by others.

Avoiding Mediocrity by Committee

As Simon Penny and Michelle Butler write knowing when, and when not to, involve customers and colleagues is key.

Once you’ve unearthed radical ideas from people, they need nurturing. They need protecting from group-think meetings and committees who largely express speculated unevidenced opinions based on current preferences from past experiences.

Design thinking has a bias towards action: it resists talking yourself out of trying something radical. Creating prototypes helps you to think about your idea in a concrete manner, and get it to test before it gets dumbed down.

At Bromford Lab, we’ve learned:

Collaboration is useful when you are:

  1. Dealing with complex problems that require multiple ‘expert’ opinions.
  2. Getting buy-in. People are more invested in an idea when they were involved in defining the problem.
  3. Dealing with strategic issues. The more fundamental the issue is to the organisations purpose the more essential collaboration becomes.

Collaboration isn’t useful when:

  1. You need to really think about things. This benefits from solitude and purposeful exploration.
  2. You need to be really radical. Truly disruptive thinking happens in very small deviant groups.
  3. You don’t have time. When you have a burning platform or require an immediate decision you’re better off being autocratic than wasting peoples time through ‘involvement theatre’.

The myth is, you have to collaborate all the time.

Inclusivity has its limits.

More is not always merrier.


Photo by James Pond on Unsplash

How To Become A Disobedient Organisation

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Imagine being given $250,000 for deliberately breaking the rules. No strings attached.

That’s exactly what MIT are doing.

Recognising that societies and institutions lean toward order and away from chaos they have launched an award and cash prize that will go to a person or group engaged in an extraordinary example of disobedience for the benefit of society.

MIT want to see if they can identify creative and principled disobedience.

Perhaps 2017 is a time for not doing what you’re told.

70% of us are not engaged in the work we do with over a third saying our jobs are meaningless.

This lack of engagement with work comes at a time when we need more world changing ideas than ever before.

Maybe the answer lies in a move away from complex and bureaucratic systems.

As Joost Minnaar and Pim de Morree write – organisational complexity has gone up 6 fold since 1955.  The number of procedures & rules to fight the same complexity have seen a 35-fold increase.

In the most complicated organisations managers spend more than 40% of their time writing reports, and between 30 – 60% of their time on meetings.

There could be a very simple reason for the growth of organisational complexity:

We are employing more managers than ever before.  And management is the least efficient activity in your organisation.

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As Gary Hamel has pointed out, the U.S managerial workforce has grown by 90%. In the UK the employment share of managers and supervisors increased to 16% in 2015.

Removing managers is never going to be a popular choice  – not least with managers –  so a better focus might be to encourage people to overtly identify complex or perverse rules.

  • Hootsuite has appointed a  Czar of Bad Systems – with the authority to challenge the rules and fix the things that never get fixed –anywhere in the company.
  • Adrian Cho at Shopify is Director of Getting Shit Done , a role aimed at breaking tradition and accelerating decision-making.
  • Philippa Jones at Bromford encourages colleagues to “Do the right thing, not the rule thing” –  building positive rule breaking into everyday service.

On the latter – it’s interesting to note that some people have interpreted this as a potential route to chaos. It’s perfectly possible to get rid of rules without unleashing anarchy.

Generally getting rid of rules doesn’t bother anyone except managers.  The average colleague sees needless complexity every day.

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Whilst most executives have a very good understanding of collective complexity at a strategic level, relatively few consider the forms of individual complexity that the vast majority of employees face.

I’m deep in the midst of some service redesign work at the moment – helping colleagues detoxify the organisation of needless complexity. I had a long conversation with John Wade yesterday and it reminded me that it’s important not to think of complexity as a bad thing in itself – it can be very good for business too.

Older organisations are often bad at change and innovation for a reason – they are designed that way. They are built to execute on delivery — not to spend time thinking about things or engaging in discovery. That execution is what made them successful in the first place.

However – if we want to be world changing rather than system sustaining we need very different behaviours. That means leaning towards chaos and rewarding positive deviance.

Whilst organisations need to get better at encouraging rule breaking, but they also need to get better at understanding why the rules needed to be broken in the first place.

The answer really lies in replacing rules with values and by leaders encouraging behaviours that challenge the status quo.

It’s a time for disobedience, not acquiescence.

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