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%.

 

What We Can Learn From The Oldest Companies in The World

Shigemitsu Kongo, a Japanese Buddhist temple builder, formed his construction company Kongo Gumi in in 578 AD. His company built relationships with their customers that lasted for 1,400 years, surviving through many wars and natural disasters,  just like their temples.

It wasn’t technology that nearly killed the company, but cashflow. The oldest company in the world became a subsidiary of Takamatsu Construction in 2006.

There’s a very good chance you will outlive the company you work for. Whilst our life expectancy is increasing, the lifespan of organisations appears to be in decline.

The average age of a company listed on the S&P 500 has fallen from almost 60 years in the 1950s to less than 20 years today. Only 30 of the original companies still exist in 2019, the 35th anniversary of the FTSE 100.

Disruptive technology is killing off older established companies at a much faster rate than ever before.

This is why when you go to conferences you’ll see presentations selling the virtues of Uber, Amazon, Netflix and Google.

Be like them the wisdom goes. Be agile. Only by doing as they do may you survive.

This is only half the story though.

Rarely , if ever, do we look at the companies that are bucking this trend. The companies who have been around forever and are still doing business.

A look at the oldest companies operating today is fascinating.

Worldwide there are over 5,500 companies that are over 200 years old. However the distribution of these is heavily weighted to just a few. Japan dominates the list (3,146), followed by Germany (837), then the Netherlands (222), and France (196).

I started this week staying in Düsseldorf, Germany, in a district known as “Little Tokyo on the Rhine” — one of Europe’s largest Japanese communities. I was there to talk to European students about the opportunities of smart cities , but I concentrated more on the possibilities of building upon the wisdom of communities that have existed for generations.

It’s deeply unfashionable to talk about , let alone revere, older things today. It’s almost like innovation started with the iPhone and disruptive companies began with Uber.

My week ended with a visit by the Disruptive Innovators Network to Bromford, who at 56 years old is barely out its pre-school stage in Japanese or German terms. It was interesting to hear in the talks by Helena Moore and John Wade how there was almost an apology for referring to things we had learned more than five years ago, as if we were becoming embarrassed by the weight of our own history.

We shouldn’t be though. The right culture for innovation is one where there is:

  • Just enough friction – with teams having regular, intense debates
  • The practice of high standards, with a steady supply of high performing people who are committed
  • Permission to be different – a culture where it’s allowable, even encouraged, to push back. 
  • The ability to think and act experimentally with a tolerance for failure through practical experiments

However it’s also a culture that creates a feeling of belonging and a feeling of purpose.

Why have so many Japanese and German businesses lasted so long?

A study by the Bank of Korea found that such companies thrived over the years because they created new demand while sticking to a corporate culture that promoted tradition, attention to detail, and frugal innovation.

Instead of going after short-term results, they pursued longstanding trust with customers and partners. They also pursued growth within their means, rarely borrowing to expand.

In his book The Living Company, Arie De Geus attributed the success of older businesses to four factors:

1. Long-lived companies were sensitive to their environment and remained in harmony with the world around them.

2. Long-lived companies were cohesive, with a strong sense of identity. No matter how widely diversified they were, their employees felt they were all part of one entity.

3. Long-lived companies were tolerant and generally avoided exercising any centralised control over attempts to diversify the company.

4. Long-lived companies were conservative in financing. Frugal even.

However his strongest point is contained in one sentence “Companies die because their managers focus on the economic activity of producing goods and services, and they forget that their organizations’ true nature is that of a community of humans.”

It’s time to stop worshipping the new and the shiny. We need to strike a delicate balance between continuation and innovation, being reliable and disruptive at the same time.

Creating a culture where these two competing sets of values can coexist is difficult – and not always a comfortable place to be.

Clearly though , the innovation potential of us older lumbering giants is vastly under appreciated – and the disruptive power of the younger and hungrier is often overstated.

Continuous Partial Attention: Designing A Less Distracted Future Of Work

Calm, focused, undistracted, the linear mind is being pushed aside by a new kind of mind that wants and needs to take in and dole out information in short, disjointed, often overlapping bursts—the faster, the better – Nicholas Carr , The Shallows

You’d have thought we’d have given up on the physical office by now.

UK workers spend a year of their lives in meetings. If you work in the public sector it’s even worse – with nearly 2 years waste clocked up for every worker.

You spend another year of your life commuting to and from work. At a total cost of about £50,000.

You spend about 60% of your time on email,  about 4 years of your life.

With all this apparent evidence you’d expect to a see a swift migration away from the office but this is exactly what’s NOT happening.

Average commuting time to work is increasing despite research showing that every extra minute spent travelling to and from work reduces job and leisure time satisfaction, increases strain and worsens mental health.

Not that all this effort is achieving much – despite our technological advancements – productivity in the last decade was the worst since the 1820’s.

The problem isn’t just the physical office anymore – our work accompanies us on a variety of screens wherever we go.

A work task can sit in the same queue as an alert about a Netflix series. What we haven’t done is considered how to reshape work in a world of digital technologies and a brutal competition for attention.

Clearly, we haven’t found the balance – we just aren’t using technology to its full potential. We are running against the machines rather than running with them.

Is Microsoft Office A Bigger Productivity Drain Than Candy Crush Saga?

In his latest post, Tim Harford makes an important point – that technology has made generalists of us all. General purpose devices running software such as Microsoft Office has meant anyone can have a go at anything — with “well-paid middle managers with no design skills taking far too long to produce ugly slides that nobody wants to look at”.

In my first job, I was literally not allowed to write a letter to a customer. It was deemed more efficient to be done by a typing pool comprised almost entirely of middle-aged women. Anachronistic for sure, but also error-free.

The point that Tim makes is that this drive to make us all-rounders – self-serving but ultimately average at everything – may lead to a productivity loss we haven’t even considered.

Habitually Distracted Minds

The typical smartphone user touches their phone about 2,500 times each day, meaning we are pretty susceptible to distraction. The problem is that distracted moments can quickly lead to distracted days.

Today we have a number of different sources of notifications in the workplace competing for our attention. I even had an automated reminder at 6am on Christmas Day from a particularly persistent workplace irritant. Robots don’t sleep. Or celebrate Christmas apparently.

This way of working – constant interruption by external stimuli – is termed “continuous partial attention”. Simultaneous attention is given to a number of sources of incoming information, but only at a very superficial level.

This is destructive to achieving any sort of ‘flow’ – the state of consciousness where we feel our best and perform our best.

Steven Kotler writes that in a 10-year study,  executives reported being five times more productive in flow. This means, if you can spend Monday in flow, you’ll get as much done as everyone else does in a week.

The real issue here is how we design the future of work – rather than letting the technology dictate what that looks like through a constant series of app notifications, prompts, and email reminders.

At Bromford we’ve made a start – setting design principles for 30 different service areas, but we need to go much further. With the rise of artificial intelligence and machines that will be capable of an increasingly wide set of tasks, we need to consider the balance between generalists and specialists.

The future of work isn’t a place you go.

It’s better to think of it as a new operating system for creating value and getting things done in environments that limit constant interruption.

Why We Solve The Wrong Problems

untitled-presentation-2Everywhere I look I see organisations and people investing heavily in new initiatives, transformation, and change programmes.  And in almost every case the goals will never be met.

One of the most crucial causes of the failure? The right questions were never asked at the outset.

We default to ideas and plans. Too many of which fail to get exposed to the tough love of effective questioning.  We get wrapped up in solutions.

It’s no surprise: we are conditioned to find solutions rather than define problems from an early age.

  • We start off being very good at it. Kids ask about LOTS. Annoyingly so. We tell them to stop asking so many questions.
  • In school we start to be assessed and graded on the quality of our answers, not the problems we are contemplating.
  • As we enter the workplace we get rewarded for the solutions that we propose, not the questions that we have asked.

Indeed, great performance at work is usually defined as creating and implementing solutions rather than finding the best problems to tackle.

So we become very good at solving problems – even if they happen to be the wrong ones.

Here’s a few things to watch out for when considering if your organisation is leaning towards solution rather than problem. And some questions you could ask.

Management is becoming excited by transformation as an end in itself.

Question: What exactly are we being transformed into and who asked for it in the first place?

People start talking a lot about what Apple would do. Or Netflix. Or Uber.

Question: We aren’t Apple, Netflix, or Uber. How are the problems our customers face similar to theirs and if they are, are we the best people to solve them?

Getting excited about building a new app or website

Question: What’s the unique benefit of your solution compared to what’s already available on the market?

Fancy PowerPoint business case pitches at corporate away days and Board meetings

Question: Before you tell us what Google did  can you explain what the impact of your last project was, what failed, and what you’ll do differently this time?

You see – ideas people are regarded as sexy. They are positive, optimistic and the people you want to be around.

The person who keeps asking the difficult questions is often regarded as an obsessive – a detail person -a procrastinator. A complete pain in the arse.

This is the very problem we face – and why we see so much innovation theatre rather than genuine impact.

  • Initiatives and projects come with an over simplification of the problem statement. If indeed such a statement exists at all.
  • There’s a lack of penetration into the root causes of problems. We don’t understand our world half as well as we think we do.
  • Most of our organisations have a cultural bias for execution over thorough problem definition. We simply want to get the product on the street. Even if it’s the wrong product (or the wrong street).

Not so long back Tom Hartland , our Lab Designer, was sitting evaluating a new concept. A senior leader walked past and asked him what he was working on. Tom told them there was a problem with the data, the impact was inconclusive and it needed lots more work.

The response came back – “Well, don’t spend too much time on it – we’ll probably do it anyway.”

I share that anecdote not to embarrass anyone but to illustrate the point.

We are hardwired to doing things rather than purposeful contemplation and questioning.

Innovation , as Philippa Jones said, is all about getting better at being wrong. However it must be founded in a deep understanding of the problem we are seeking to solve.

To have the most impact, it’s simple. Just ask the right questions.


 

Hey – we have a great job going as Design Lead in the Lab. You need to ask a LOT of questions before you go near designing though. Take a look here or message me if you want a chat. paul.taylor@bromford.co.uk or DM me on Twitter @paulbromford

 

What Uber, Comms Hero and HouseParty tell us about the future of the conference…

(A version of this post originally appeared on 24Dash – go visit them as they’re great!)

Marco Rubio Speech On Innovation At Uber's DC Offices

2pm 11th June: London grinds to a halt.

Cab drivers have downed tools for an hour.

Uber, a smartphone app that offers an easy and cheap taxi booking service, has rolled into the UK. Our taxi drivers, required to do training of between 4-7 years, are understandably outraged at this tech startup rocking up and suggesting services can be delivered in affordable ways that are more tailored to the customer.

The howls of anguish from the striking drivers were heard all across Europe. But far from highlighting the cause of taxi drivers it served only to promote Uber itself- which saw an 850% increase in subscriptions.

The hackney carriage – a tradition dating back to 1654 – faces potential disruption.

Plenty of howls of anguish in Manchester too this week as the annual housing conference rolled into town. This year though the conference had an Uber-like startup to contend with.

HouseParty – an unofficial fringe – had parked its (mini)bus just over the road.

Much like Comms Hero, it would be easy to dismiss HouseParty as a bit of inconsequential fluff. A bunch of malcontents fiddling around with social media and shiny tech whilst Rome burns.

But both formats deserve closer scrutiny. Both have super smart business brains behind them in Asif Choudry and Matt Leach. Both have got the sheer balls to deliver something different in a market starved of original thought. And both show an implicit understanding of their customers.

Comms Hero was developed after speaking to Comms people and asking them what they would design if they could create their ideal event.

HouseParty has evolved through social media connections and captured the imagination of people who would never have thought of attending a housing conference. Additionally it’s been co-designed by Esther Foreman a social entrepreneur who also happens to be – guess what? – a real life housing association tenant.

And they are new and achingly cool. Whereas the annual CIH conference has roots in a tradition starting back in 1931. On that basis it’s unfair to compare and contrast the three. But anyone who has attended them, or followed their social media feeds, will do so.

Let me be clear. This isn’t an attack on the CIH, an organisation I have huge respect for and who employ some inspirational people. Neither is it a ringing endorsement of Comms Hero or HouseParty – concepts that are taking their first awkward baby steps into the world.

But the fact is the annual conference , and public sector conferences like it , have to change.

You can’t blame the CIH. The public gets what the public wants. And, if we’re honest, the UK housing public wants an annual sideshow to the real business of getting together and having a chinwag and a few beers.

The conference this year certainly had a unified message: We need more social housing and we need more money. We need more of the same. Impassioned stuff and I, optimistically, hope it’s heard.

But at £525 for a one day non-member ticket you’d expect passion at the very least.

How attractive would this be to people in the top 5 of the digital Power Players list. People like Anne McCrossan, John Popham or Helen Reynolds? Sole traders who could help the sector be much better than it currently is.

How attractive would this be to a tenant?

Comms Hero has undercut its rivals by a good £100. HouseParty offered an innovative ‘pay what you can afford’ option.

Much like ‘affordable’ rents, our conferences need to consider their purpose, pricing and accessibility.

Thom Bartley has made the brilliant point that it’s now cheaper to fly to Amsterdam to see a 3D printed house than to pay to go to a housing conference and hear someone talk about it. We all know that housing has to revisit its purpose but that also involves a restatement of its values.

This is less an issue for the CIH than it is for the sector itself.

In reality neither Comms Hero nor House Party are competitors to traditional conferences – they offer something different. But just like Uber,  Spotify and Netflix they are bringing the question of customer value into the spotlight.

The annual conference, just like black cabs, will be around for a good while yet. But if nothing else the new kids on the block have made us consider “would we do it this way if we started again?”

And that’s always a pretty good question to ask.