Simon Terry

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From Safety to Safer: Middle Management’s Dangerous Transition

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Safety is a common conversation, explicitly or implicitly, in the halls of middle management. Change agents among the ranks of middle managers experience conversations about the need for safety and the dangers of change on a daily basis. Safety is the focus because there are many for whom safety means the preservation of status, roles and resources. We need to move from safety to making our organisations safer for a world of rapid networked change.

The Wrong Kind of Safety

Ask enough middle managers and you will find that there are definitions of safety which involve elements of the following:

  • Ownership: a clearly defined area of responsibility and resources that can be controlled tightly
  • Knowledge is Power: a set of skills, capabilities or knowledge that is closely guarded and relatively unique in the organisation
  • Hierarchical Power: relationships of dependence with management above dependent on the department’s functional expertise and the team below dependent on sponsorship of their careers in the domain
  • Comfortable Accountabilities: Accountabilities should be designed with reference to achievable measures, preferably internal measures related to the discipline.
  • Limited Stakeholders: A few internal stakeholders often from similar functions with similar ideas and ideally few customer or community stakeholders who may introduce different perspectives and diverse issues. 
  • Few Dependencies: Trusting others reduces control and introduces risks, so collaboration and cooperation are avoided by controlling as much of processes and projects as possible 
  • Limited Transparency:  With utmost politeness, share little and participate little in the concerns of the rest of the organisation to preserve the comfort of your domain.
  • Stability: Ensure there is minimum change in business environment, even if this includes refusing to acknowledge market changes.
  • Minimum Risk: Avoid any change that offers risk. Why jeopardise an environment under close control?

The core of these definitions of safety is the idea that the threats to middle managers are internal. The biggest threats comes from other managers or senior management. The external world is not a cause for concern. Safety comes from building an walled fortress within the organisation and focusing internally.

Unsafe at any Speed

In the rapid change of our current business environment, the greatest risk to middle management is not internal. The need for change, the pace of change and its impacts are being driven in the networks around the organisation. Middle management has much more to fear from changing consumer and social behaviour, disruptive technologies and networked ways of working. 

The classic middle management definition of safety makes nobody safer. By turning inward, by resisting accountabilities, stretch and change, these managers guarantee that their organisations are exposed to much more wrenching changes than need be the case. Each of these elements of safety stand in the way of an open, agile and responsive organisation. When middle managers choose to act as barriers to change, the forces of change risk sweeping whole layers and organisations of managers away.

By focusing on a misguided view of individual safety, these managers make the organisation more unsafe as a collective.

Leaders who do not challenge a culture of safety in their organisation are putting their whole organisation at risk. Leaders need to be working to make the organisation more responsive. The safer organisation adapts.

From Safety to Safer

Leaders, change agents and forward thinking middle managers need to disrupt this misguided culture of safety in organisations. The conversation must not be about safety but how to make the organisation safer through adaption. This disruption must involve conflict with traditional views. However, that disruption will help the organisation adapt to a safer culture that opens the organisation up to its internal and external networks.

Here are some simple steps that any leader in an organisation can take to drive a responsive culture:

  • Push for external accountabilities: Raise the bar on performance. Measure customer outcomes. Consider end-to-end process performance to cut across siloed walls. Look externally for measures of success (and not just in the same industry).
  • Bring in external stakeholders: If customers, community, employees and other partners are not stakeholders in the organisations decisions then gather their perspectives and bring them into discussions across the organisation.  There is enormous power in real external views of the organisation, its purposes and performance.
  • Network the organisation: Focus on increasing the flow of information and knowledge within the organisation. Demonstrate the value of collaboration and cooperation in greater efficiency, innovation and engagement in the way work is done. Foster diverse perspectives on the way forward. Most importantly of all delegate outcomes and enable people to make change to adapt without reference to the hierarchy.
  • Experiment: The new definition of safety needs to be a well-run experiment to improve performance. The absence of well-run experiments is a sign of major concern. If you are not testing the way forward in changing times, then you are taking big risks.

You don’t need to be CEO to drive these changes to make a more responsive organisation. (Undoubtedly, it helps). You will need to effectively manage your role & influence in the organisation. However, effective change agents and middle managers can begin to ask the questions and start new conversations leveraging external perspectives. Most importantly of all they can build a network of others frustrated by the culture of safety and work together for change.

From Safety to Safer: Middle Management’s Dangerous Transition

image

Safety is a common conversation, explicitly or implicitly, in the halls of middle management. Change agents among the ranks of middle managers experience conversations about the need for safety and the dangers of change on a daily basis. Safety is the focus because there are many for whom safety means the preservation of status, roles and resources. We need to move from safety to making our organisations safer for a world of rapid networked change.

The Wrong Kind of Safety

Ask enough middle managers and you will find that there are definitions of safety which involve elements of the following:

  • Ownership: a clearly defined area of responsibility and resources that can be controlled tightly
  • Knowledge is Power: a set of skills, capabilities or knowledge that is closely guarded and relatively unique in the organisation
  • Hierarchical Power: relationships of dependence with management above dependent on the department’s functional expertise and the team below dependent on sponsorship of their careers in the domain
  • Comfortable Accountabilities: Accountabilities should be designed with reference to achievable measures, preferably internal measures related to the discipline.
  • Limited Stakeholders: A few internal stakeholders often from similar functions with similar ideas and ideally few customer or community stakeholders who may introduce different perspectives and diverse issues. 
  • Few Dependencies: Trusting others reduces control and introduces risks, so collaboration and cooperation are avoided by controlling as much of processes and projects as possible 
  • Limited Transparency:  With utmost politeness, share little and participate little in the concerns of the rest of the organisation to preserve the comfort of your domain.
  • Stability: Ensure there is minimum change in business environment, even if this includes refusing to acknowledge market changes.
  • Minimum Risk: Avoid any change that offers risk. Why jeopardise an environment under close control?

The core of these definitions of safety is the idea that the threats to middle managers are internal. The biggest threats comes from other managers or senior management. The external world is not a cause for concern. Safety comes from building an walled fortress within the organisation and focusing internally.

Unsafe at any Speed

In the rapid change of our current business environment, the greatest risk to middle management is not internal. The need for change, the pace of change and its impacts are being driven in the networks around the organisation. Middle management has much more to fear from changing consumer and social behaviour, disruptive technologies and networked ways of working. 

The classic middle management definition of safety makes nobody safer. By turning inward, by resisting accountabilities, stretch and change, these managers guarantee that their organisations are exposed to much more wrenching changes than need be the case. Each of these elements of safety stand in the way of an open, agile and responsive organisation. When middle managers choose to act as barriers to change, the forces of change risk sweeping whole layers and organisations of managers away.

By focusing on a misguided view of individual safety, these managers make the organisation more unsafe as a collective.

Leaders who do not challenge a culture of safety in their organisation are putting their whole organisation at risk. Leaders need to be working to make the organisation more responsive. The safer organisation adapts.

From Safety to Safer

Leaders, change agents and forward thinking middle managers need to disrupt this misguided culture of safety in organisations. The conversation must not be about safety but how to make the organisation safer through adaption. This disruption must involve conflict with traditional views. However, that disruption will help the organisation adapt to a safer culture that opens the organisation up to its internal and external networks.

Here are some simple steps that any leader in an organisation can take to drive a responsive culture:

  • Push for external accountabilities: Raise the bar on performance. Measure customer outcomes. Consider end-to-end process performance to cut across siloed walls. Look externally for measures of success (and not just in the same industry).
  • Bring in external stakeholders: If customers, community, employees and other partners are not stakeholders in the organisations decisions then gather their perspectives and bring them into discussions across the organisation.  There is enormous power in real external views of the organisation, its purposes and performance.
  • Network the organisation: Focus on increasing the flow of information and knowledge within the organisation. Demonstrate the value of collaboration and cooperation in greater efficiency, innovation and engagement in the way work is done. Foster diverse perspectives on the way forward. Most importantly of all delegate outcomes and enable people to make change to adapt without reference to the hierarchy.
  • Experiment: The new definition of safety needs to be a well-run experiment to improve performance. The absence of well-run experiments is a sign of major concern. If you are not testing the way forward in changing times, then you are taking big risks.

You don’t need to be CEO to drive these changes to make a more responsive organisation. (Undoubtedly, it helps). You will need to effectively manage your role & influence in the organisation. However, effective change agents and middle managers can begin to ask the questions and start new conversations leveraging external perspectives. Most importantly of all they can build a network of others frustrated by the culture of safety and work together for change.

Management Practice Lags Culture

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Management practice is influenced heavily by hierarchy, tradition and risk aversion. As a result our practice as managers lags the changes in culture in the society around us. Leaders need to work to close the gap between management practice and social expectations.

Management Practice is a Lagging Indicator

The way we manage our organisations is defined by practices that often trace back to the industrial era. The consequences of this are evident in many ways:

  • the diversity of our organisations does not reflect the diversity of our communities. Gender is just one diversity dimension in which management practices lag that the practices and views of society as a whole.
  • organising activity using networks and leveraging the potential of people to contribute is another way in which organisations are only beginning to address opportunities that communities, our personal relationships and the innovative organisations have already embraced
  • resistance to give up hierarchy, planning and demands for predictability and certainty when even the political structures based in these models have surrendered to approaches that operate far more adaptively and responsively.

Art is a Leading Indicator of Changing Society

Our cultural products adapt far more quickly to changes in society than our management practices.  Film, television, music and other forms of entertainment rapidly embrace changes in the way society operate and reflect that in the protagonists of the stories, songs and other art forms.

An example can be seen in the role of the detective in arts like novels, film and television.  In the birth of the industrial era, the detective was a logician, like Sherlock Holmes unravelling facts and relying on expertise in predictable processes, By the early 20th century the detective was a master of the human elements of relationships, like Simenon’s Maigret.  The uncertain times of the mid century introduced the detective in a much more ambiguous role. Richard Martin has documented how the changing nature of the detective film reflects our changing society.

Cultural products appeal to our need to be entertained, connect and engage with each other. Therefore they must be relevant to our society as it is today. Art is an experimental market where failure is common and success is usually defined only by audience acceptance. Someone is always seeking a better way to express the zeitgeist.

Why does management practice lag changes in the culture of society?

Management practice lacks these same pressures. Too much of our management practice is assumed to be canonical and confirmed only by inward looking assessment:

  • Focus on best practice: Best practice is historical and often particularly contextual. However, managers are often reluctant to move beyond accepted best practice.  As Harold Jarche has argued we should look instead to practice to be best and look to be more social leaders.
  • Risk Aversion: Avoidance of failure is a core tenet of management practice. Managers stick with practices that have worked safely for them, often in face of evidence that newer practice is better. Safety is valued.  There are real costs to this risk aversion.
  • Hierarchical & Internal: Managers who are more hierarchically senior set the bounds of acceptable management practice and control the HR processes that reinforce acceptable practice. Without an external & learning mindset, these leaders can inadvertently reflect management views and mindsets of a previous generation that were handed down to them during their early career.

Change

Responsive Organisations will have a culture and a set of management practices that reflect the needs of our society now. These organisations will experiment, test and measure the effectiveness of their practices in the marketplace and in their organisation. They will not rely on canon, hierarchy or accepted opinion.

The benefits of organisations using management practices that better reflect the changing culture of our communities are clear. These organisations will be more human and better able to realise the potential of all people.

Bringing this change about is the work of leaders and change agents. 

Middle Managers need to use their Networks and Authority

Middle managers like to complain about being squeezed by pressures from above and below. Their organisations love to blame them for all the ills in the place.

Middle managers have two great advantages that they can use to drive change:

  • They can place themselves in the heart of the network of their organisations.
  • They have authority to make things happen.

Without use, these opportunities whither. Middle managers need to take advantage of them when they can.

Networking in the middle

Frontline employees have very full lives juggling customer expectations. In my experience, they have limited opportunities to engage in networking across the organisation. Enterprise social networks do assist to connect frontline people with the rest of the organisation but the pressures of direct customer engagement often means time is limited and is often focused on better meeting customer needs.

Senior management are often removed from the day-to-day interactions in the organisation because of the scale of their jobs and the greater exposure to external stakeholders. Nobody wants a hierarchy where messages need to go to the top to spread because it is a terribly inefficient way to share information.

If middle management is to have any meaningful role, middle managers needs to play a role networking the organisation across the middle.  Middle manager jobs should give them enough perspective and exposure to their peers to seek and share information widely across the silos and beyond. As nodes in the network of the organisation, managers can dramatically increase their influence sharing information, connecting people, reducing duplication and guiding action. Build a reputation as a generous middle manager who is happy to collaborate, share information and advise and you will find people beating a path to your door.  Your authority increases when you want to act.

Authority to act

When everyone around you assumes authority depends on hierarchical position, having any hierarchical power is an advantage to action. You don’t need to be at the top, you just need the respect of others. Yet many middle managers wait assuming further endorsement is required.

What middle managemers needs to do is leverage their network position and their hierarchical opportunity. Organisations often give way to people who have hierarchical power who are prepared to act, especially where the activity is beneficial and well aligned to strategy and purpose.

When I was a mid-level manager in NAB, a group of graduates came to me wanting to know whose authority they needed to set up a TEDX style speaking program in NAB.  I told them they needed no authority.  It was a great idea, there was a demand and there was no obvious sponsor in the organisational hierarchy.  Finding one would be more work than organising the first event.

I suggested that they could do it themselves and start straight away.  For safety’s sake, I told them that if they were challenged on their authority they should say I approved it.  When they did get a challenge, that answer was more than enough because the people who worry about permission rarely have the courage to check its source. A TEDX style event sat well with the culture that NAB was building and the strategy of being more open and aligned to customers and the community. The first TEDX event had over 200 internal attendees and the events which were run by volunteer graduates for 2 more years were huge successes.

Network and Use Authority

If you are a middle manager and want that role to continue in your organisation, don’t fall for the blame game.  Network yourself to increase your authority and use whatever authority you have to add value in line with the organisation’s purpose and strategy.

Susan Scrupski, Harold Jarche and I will be discussing the role of networks in organisations in the first Change Agents Worldwide webinar, in partnership with Socialcast VMware

Leadership in Transformation

A common topic of debate in the Responsive Organization movement is whether an organization can become responsive or it must be born that way.

Undoubtedly many of the leading case studies of future of work organizations are organizations created or rebirthed from near death by charismatic founders. Some use this as evidence that the elements of a responsive organization must be present from the beginning. In a previous post, I pointed out that we cannot rely on transparency alone to make change occur for us. The power structures in a traditional organisation will prevent most radical change.

I am unambiguously in the optimist camp. I am not alone and the company in the optimist camp inspires me. I have seen organizations change enough to not recognise their former selves. Change to more responsive ways of working is possible. The question is how.

What gets in the way

Chris Argyris’ classic article Teaching Smart People to Learn is a rich source of observations of what gets in the way of a Responsive Organization transformation.  In particular, Argyris notes that:

… There seems to be a universal human tendency to design one’s actions consistently according to four basic values:

1. To remain in unilateral control;

2. To maximize “winning” and minimize “losing”;

3. To suppress negative feelings; and

4. To be as “rational” as possible—by which people mean defining clear objectives and evaluating their behavior in terms of whether or not they have achieved them.

The purpose of all these values is to avoid embarrassment or threat, feeling vulnerable or incompetent. In this respect, the master program that most people use is profoundly defensive. Defensive reasoning encourages individuals to keep private the premises, inferences, and conclusions that shape their behavior and to avoid testing them in a truly independent, objective fashion.

These hidden values in most organisation get in the way of the transparency-led transformation that many hope to see. The Responsive Organization poses a threat to control, a threat of losing and negative feelings. Importantly the delegation of authority in a Responsive Organization may cause people anxiety as to objectives and rationale for action.

The role of leadership is to act as a counterbalance these natural human values and shift the behaviours to that of a Responsive Organization. We need to create rationales for action more powerful than embarrassment. We need to create community to generate trust, support and connection. We need to enable learning through conflict and experimentation. 

Purpose:

Leaders must create a strong rationale for the transformation. In cases of crisis, startup or near death of organizations, this rationale can often be imposed by a charismatic individual. The external circumstances enable a threat based narrative to bind people together in a defensive rationale for change.

However, most organizations are successful to their own terms. As Argyris notes, we want to feel successful even if our results don’t pass external muster.  

Leaders need to leverage two elements to create a strong rationale for change in this context:  

  • The Purpose of the organization: a purpose is the ultimate rationale for why people come together in an endeavour. It defines the common impact the group of people wish to have on the world.  As a higher agenda, it is the perfect rationale for change for even the most successful organisations.  Purpose is a mastery quest. Very few organizations have the capability to completely fulfil their purpose. They can however strive to better realise it.
  • External orientation: No closed system will find a rationale for change. External orientation is where organizations find the challenges and opportunities that define the purpose into specific improvement opportunities. Leaders need to relentlessly focus the organization on its customers and community to see transparently the challenges and opportunities that exist for change. Well defined external impacts in this community will be what can drive the autonomy of teams in the organization.  Using customer and community data in line with Purpose, also enables change agents to overcome embarrassment-based resistance in the organization.

Community:

Individuals will need support to take on the risks of a Responsive Organization. The role of leaders is to create the sense of community that will support an individual through that change. At the heart of that community will be engagement with others and a growing sense of mutual trust.  Leaders set the tone for any community. They must also work hard to reinforce these key community behaviours

  • Engagement: Engagement begins with transparency and connection. I cannot truly care about the others in my community until I know who they are and understand their purposes, concerns and circumstances. Leaders need to create the conditions to enable people to be more social, to connect, to solve and to share their work challenges together.
  • Trust: Engagement will build trust as it builds understanding. Transparency will reinforce trust. However, leaders need to take on the role of fostering responsibility and accountability as engines of growing trust in the organization.  When people see that individuals and teams are accountable for driving change then they will have greater trust in the change agenda.

Learning:

This post is deliberately not titled like a listicle e.g. ’The 3 or 6 things to transform an organisation’. Even a basic familiarity with change highlights that formulas will work only up to a point. Leadership needs to be adaptive to enable any system to change in a sustainable way.

To be true to their purpose and stakeholders, to leverage the potential of their community, each organization will take an unique path through change.  The role of leaders is facilitate the individual and organizational learning required:

  • Experimentation: creating a culture of rapid iteration to address challenges and opportunities will accelerate the cycle of learning in the organization. Leaders must help this experimentation culture to overcome the resistance identified by Argyris and also to spread and have a wider influence in the organization. Lessons learned must become new truths which will take a sense-making role for leaders in the wider organization and mean leaders must champion new ways of working when they arise, whatever the personal costs.
  • Conflict: The biggest reason that organizational transformations fail is an unwillingness of the leadership of the organisation to allow uncertainty and conflict. Conflict will happen. The uncertainty associated with conflict is inevitable. Efforts to suppress this will either undermine transparency, the rationale for change, engagement or learning. Failure to embrace conflict takes many names: politeness, bureaucracy, politics, corporate speak, history, culture, etc. Failure to embrace conflict is an unwillingness to learn and improve. There will always be resistance when change comes and it must be addressed. Leaders need to create and sustain the right kinds of constructive conflict – driven by purpose, based in facts from an external orientation & experimentation, mediated through an engaged community. 

Change is Coming. Lead.

I have seen the potential of purpose, external orientation, engagement, trust experimentation and conflict to drive change. Supported by leadership these are the elements of each organization’s transformation. These elements are critical to a Responsive Organization.

Throughout this post I have referred to leaders and leadership. This need not be hierarchical leadership. Clearly it helps if leadership and power are aligned in an organization in reinforcing the need for change. However, the changes described above are not capable of being implemented by top-down edicts. These changes must come as individuals and groups discover their power and are influenced as a result, This kind of leadership relies on influence and can begin bottom up or even from the middle management so often scorned in organizations.

Change is possible. Change is coming. Smart people can learn. Your people and your organisation can better realise their potential and their purpose. A Responsive Organization transformation will occur if you are prepared to lead the change.

Lead.

The Last Thing We Need is an Enterprise Social Network

Dear CEO

Re: The Last Thing We Need is an Enterprise Social Network

The purpose of this email is to explain why the last thing we need is an enterprise social network.

This email is in response to the conversation about enterprise social networking in the executive leadership meeting yesterday. We thought it best to summarise the position of the leadership team, because yesterday’s conversation got derailed by anecdotes about social media, technology terminology, fear of change and discussion of abstractions like collaboration, future of work and new organisational structures. Before you left the meeting, you remarked “Based on this discussion, I think an enterprise social network is the last thing we need”. We agree.

We don’t want faddish technology. We need execution of strategy.

As CEO, you’ve been rightly suspicious of all this discussion of social inside the organisation. It is bad enough that your teenage children never look up from using social media on their phones. Whatever that involves, it can’t be needed activity in our organisation. We are a place of work.

What made this country great was well-run organisations, hard work and increasing effectiveness in creating value for customers. That takes focused strategy, disciplined execution and a willingness to do the hard yards. Great organisations aren’t built by chasing technology whims. They come from executing strategy to create better value. When we need to create better execution on strategy, the latest fashionable technology is the last thing you need.

We need better strategic value creation

Times are tough. Industry is more competitive than ever and change keeps increasing. We know customer and shareholder value needs to go up and costs need to come down. We have a strategy that is about meeting these new customer & stakeholder expectations, improving the organisational efficiency and delivering the returns that shareholders demand. We all wonder from time to time whether everyone in the organisation gets the imperative of the new strategy and whether they are all working hard enough to find new ways to create value. We know that we perform better when we have better conversations to make sure that our employees are aligned to the strategy. What we don’t need are distractions when there’s doubt that people even understand the strategy.

When we need strategically aligned value creation, the last thing you need is an enterprise social network.

We need new more effective ways of working

To fulfil the strategy of the organisation, we know as a management team that we will have to start to work in new more effective ways. There has been too much wasteful duplication of work in the organisation. Too many of our processes & policies don’t line up across the silos, aren’t agile enough for the environment and don’t meet customer needs. Both our customers and our employees complain about how badly we do this. We need to start working in new and different ways to identify, solve and improve this on a continuing basis. We have to focus everyone on find and using better work approaches that help us to fulfil the strategy.

When we need working in new and more effective ways, the last thing we need is an enterprise social network.

We need to change management and leadership in every role

Working in more effective ways will likely require us to change the way management works. We are going to need to push decisions down to people closer to the customer and give our people the ability to fix problems. We will need our managers to move from command and control to a coaching and enabling role. We need to ensure that all our people are realising their potential and able to work to create new sources of value. Of course in this new role, middle management will need to be trimmed and the new flatter organisation will need to change more often as we respond to further changes driven by our customers. Employees will need to step up into a leadership role in these changes and with customers, the community and the organisation.

When we need to change the culture of management and asking every employee to play a bigger role in leadership, the last thing we need is an enterprise social network.

We need different conversations

Changing the culture of management is going to demand very different conversations in our organisation. We are going to have to find ways to make sure that conversations are efficient and effective. We need to leverage the contributions of more people from across the organisation. We won’t be able to rely on long meetings, workshops, speeches, video and emails. Did you see the budgets for communications, off sites & roadshows in the forecast for next year? We have to do something different. We will need to involve our people more in making decisions. If that’s going to happen our people will need to be better informed and better able to channel their contributions. Our people will need ways to inform themselves, learn by pulling what they need, share ideas of how to work better and collaborate to solve work problems. We are going to need to encourage our people to join conversations that use their capabilities to innovate, to create value for customers and create new forms of working.

When you need to change the conversations, collaboration and culture of an organisation, the last thing you need is an enterprise social network.

We need more from our people

We wrapped up the last executive leadership meeting reflecting on how big these demands will be on our people. We will be asking for a lot of change in them, their work and the way the organisation exists around them. We will be asking our people to play an increasing role in the success of the organisation. We will want them to lead new conversations to create the future for this organisation. We need our people to be more engaged because we will need much more from our people.

Conclusion: What we need

After you left the executive leadership meeting to catch up with the board, we realised that we are clear what we need as an organisation:

  1. we need to succeed by fulfilling our strategy to create greater value in a rapidly changing market; and to do that
  2. we need to be able to work in new & better ways that create a more effective, agile and responsive organisation; and to do that
  3. we need a new culture in management and more leadership from our people; and to do that
  4. we need new conversations that enable our people to discuss and act on creating better strategic value; and to do that 
  5. we need more engagement and a better ability to leverage the potential of our people to contribute to and lead this change; and to do that
  6. we need an enterprise social network to support the first 5 steps.

If you are surprised by point 6, think back through the needs again. After all you were the first to say that an enterprise social network is the last thing we need. We don’t want an enterprise social network because it is new technology or because it is good for some abstract goal. We need one to help our people to execute on the changes necessary to achieve the goals of our strategy. Enterprise technology only makes sense when it enables us to work in new ways that deliver strategic value. As your management team we can see that the value creation opportunity is compelling. We couldn’t see it when you made your remark, but we have come around to your perspective.

The paperwork required by our old process is already on your desk, but a number of our people have started experimenting with solutions to see what value we can create. (Interestingly, their first suggestion is a better procurement process.) When you get back from the board, your assistant will show you how to log-in and join us discussing how we implement in the new enterprise social network.

Thanks for challenging us to come up with a better way of working.

Please think of the environment and don’t print this email. We’d encourage you to discuss it on our new enterprise social network instead.

If this post sounds familiar or if you would like to create greater value in your enterprise social network or discuss how the Value Maturity Model applies to assist your organisation to create strategic value through enterprise social networking and collaboration, please get in contact. I am available through @simongterry or Linkedin or www.simonterry.com

The Dread Pirate Roberts Problem

Man in Black: I can’t afford to make exceptions. Once word leaks out that a pirate has gone soft, people begin to disobey you, and then it’s nothing but work, work, work all the time.  

– From the film ‘The Princess Bride’

Many middle managers have the Dread Pirate Roberts Problem. Changing our organisations will require them to break from moulds of leadership that they have inherited with their roles. Middle managers need to invent the new path forward to more responsive organisations or disappear in the disruption of digital networks.

The Dread Pirate Roberts Problem of Middle Management

Man in Black: The name was the important thing for inspiring the necessary fear. No one would surrender to the Dread Pirate Wesley.

In the film ‘The Princess Bride” we discover that the Dread Pirate Roberts that has been terrorising the seas for 20 years is not a person, it is a role. The title Dread Pirate Roberts has been handed down from one player of that role to the next. Each player carries on the traditions and techniques of the role to maintain their effectiveness. When they tire of the role, they retire passing it on to the next person to play Dread Pirate Roberts with terror, ruthless efficiency and no exceptions.

Middle managers can experience the same challenge as the successors of the Dread Pirate Roberts. The role that they take on as managers in a hierarchy comes with cultural expectations that have been built up over years by their predecessors. Culture is an expectation as to patterns of interactions between people. The culture creates expectations of how managers will act, use their power and demonstrate leadership. In many cases those expectations can be no less fearsome than those of the Dread Pirate Roberts.

Many middle managers have not seen or been trained in any other models of management and leadership than those that have prevailed in the role or organisation. Asking or expecting these managers to break from these deep cultural expectations on their own is a vain hope. Even if they are given the skills to act differently, they will find their teams and stakeholders are disappointed that they no longer behave as the Dread Pirate Roberts should.  

The system pressure to return to type in this situation can be strong. Performance management & talent systems reward ‘strong leadership’, usually defined culturally by the existing role of manager. The risk of adopting another model is that any volatility of performance will be seen as failure of the new practice. Personal influence in the networks of ‘strong leaders’ can erode. Struggling to come to grips with new practices managers find management and leadership becomes ‘work, work, work all the time’. It hard not to see why many choose to just continue the traditions, enjoy the rewards and hang out for their chance to retire and pass on the role.

Why does Middle Management Need to Change its Approach?

Digital disruption and networked ways of working are threatening organisations and putting pressure on the traditional function of middle management roles. The role of middle managers as creators and filters of knowledge disappears as knowledge becomes a flow in networks and technology automates the functions.

Middle managers are increasingly facing a need to realise people’s potential in collaboration and create more responsive organisations. More and more organisations are focused on the fact that the poor engagement of people in traditional command and control models is a massive waste of human potential. Every disengaged employee is someone not helping to push the organising forward. More knowledge work demands better use of people’s purpose, passion, creativity and intelligence. Organisations increasingly want leadership in every role, a direct threat to command and control models. Managers need to leverage new mindsets, new questions and gather new knowledge & expertise from networks.

Embedding a New Model

However, when these changes require new management and leadership models, the Dread Pirate Roberts problem arises. A middle manager who is expected to manage by control and power will find a shift to the role of an engaging leader, let alone a network navigator, challenging and confronting. They are going to need to give up their traditional models of influence, perceptions of how they create value and ‘work, work, work’ to influence teams and stakeholders that a new approach works.

Middle managers need to accept the work & the risks. Leadership is work. In the new era of network disruption, leadership can’t be safe. Managers need to accept that they are the change management. Influence is critical and middle level managers need to use their networks and authority to lead that change collectively.

Senior organisational leaders can authorise and support these changes. Senior leaders can help reduce the work and risk of change. However, they cannot make change easier for middle managers. Senior leaders can’t order a change in culture. It will take a new shared story of leadership in the organisation, new capabilities & practices, new systems, and consistent role modelling for a new model of leadership to embed. Social collaboration inside organisations can help managers to accelerate this cultural change by acting as infrastructure of culture magnifying the change in culture and role modelling effective behaviours.

Middle managers need to embrace the opportunities to be leaders, culture change agents and to explore the network navigator role, particularly in networks in and around their organisation. These roles may well be the only functions of a middle manager in a future organisation. By experimenting and working collaboratively with their teams and leaders in this way they will discover the right path forward for their organisation & build critical capabilities for the years ahead.

Perhaps then all the managers playing the role of Dread Pirate Roberts in organisations can happily retire and hang up their boots.

From CMeO to CUsO

A lot of magic is ascribed to CXO titles. Often there is more real influence in other parts of the network, like middle management.

No matter what you think of the CXO roles, one CXO role is critical: The Chief Me Officer.

The functions of a Chief Me Officer are as follows:

  • Discover your personal purpose
  • Understand your own strengths and opportunities (others will be happy to volunteer your weaknesses and threats)
  • Set some longer term strategic goals for yourself and a few immediate short term experiments
  • Engage your personal networks to align to your own plans
  • Build your own capabilities by developing your own personal knowledge management approaches
  • Lead the work to deliver on your personal plan

A successful Chief Me Officer recognises the ‘buck stops with the CMeO’ on all matters relating to you, your life and your career. Like a good organisation leader they don’t just focus on one part of their business, you need a whole of life and community view of the impacts of you.  With this kind of accountability, this is not a role you can outsource. Family, friends, mentors, organisations, colleagues and people leaders can all help, but they won’t deliver on the plans you need to be successful.

Once you build your plan to become a successful Chief Me Officer, you will be well placed to lead others, engaging in collaboration in the new networked ways of working. The future of networked working needs capable leaders in every role.  How can you start your leadership journey better than by leading yourself?

Once you know how to become a CMeO, you can graduate to being a Chief Us Officer. That’s when the leadership journey gets really interesting…

Work Ahead for 2017: Foundations, Personal & Organisational Work

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As the end of November approaches, that time has come again when we must consider whether we have the right initiatives in place for ourselves and our organisations as we get ready for 2017.  How are you transforming the capabilities and work practices in your organisation to make sure that your teams are more effective in their work?

Why is Work Changing?

The way we work is fundamentally changing under the influence of five main drivers:

  • Pervasive Global connection: As internet connectivity has gone mobile, we now have the ability to connect with, to converse with and to see the whole system of our stakeholders any time anywhere.
  • Automation: Digital technology has enabled us to automate simple tasks and string together increasingly complex processes and systems.
  • Data and Analytics: As digital connection and digital automation expands so does our ability to gather data and analyse that data to provide insight and run complex algorithmic processes.
  • Changing Consumer Expectations: As consumers are exposed to the potential of digital through consumer technology and consumer services, the businesses must meet disruptive and exacting standards for convenience, service, value and speed.
  • Accelerating Pace of Change: Disruption, greater responsiveness to change and ever-shortening cycles of feedback are the new norm for business and our work practices must adapt to enable our businesses to keep up.

We have already seen great change in digital transformation.

Further dramatic changes in the nature of work are here but ‘not yet widely distributed’ to borrow the phrase of William Gibson..

2017 Future of Work Recommendations

With these pressures on the way we work, every business should have a focus on how it is changing the way its people work and the practices that will support ongoing transformation of work. Here are my recommendations on what work you should have on your backlog for the new year:

Foundations:

These five are in place in your organisation today. However, they may not be well understood, managed or serving your purpose.  As you look to 2017 it is always worthwhile to ensure that the foundations are sound and well aligned.

2017-foundations

Purpose: Be clear on your personal purpose. Look for that purpose in the work you do. Clarify the shared purpose in your organisation. Don’t impose a purpose designed around the leadership table. Discover the purpose through the stories and the work that bring your organisation together.

Strategic Value: What value are you trying to create to fulfil your purpose? What kinds of value matter most to your stakeholders? When do they know you are creating value? What measures tell you that you are achieving your goals?

Networks: To compete in the network era, your organisation must be networked. How are you bringing people together to connect, to share, to solve problems and to respond to the networks around your organisation? The technology matters less than the connection, the behaviours and the shared purpose. Are you clear on the strategic value of your communities, are they well supported with sponsorship, investment and community management so as to accelerate their value creation?

Culture: Move beyond words on a poster. Move beyond generic platitudes. Move beyond an agglomeration of individual team cultures. What specific values are shared across your organisation? Why do these help fulfil your purpose? How do those values translate to expectations about behaviours in and across your teams? Is the culture in your organisation effective for your purpose and the value you are seeking to create? How do you personal role model the behaviours you expect from others?

Employee Experience: Are you working somewhere that values the employee experience and is adapting it to changing work and changing roles in the organisation? How have you aligned your employee experience to your desired customer experience? Does your workplace create rich value for employees and enable them to express their potential in fulfilment of purpose? Does your employee experience work as well for the one-hour temporary contract worker as the long term employee? Does it work equally well for all levels of the hierarchy and all corners of your network?

Personal Effectiveness:  Four Key Future of Work Practices

These four personal practices are enablers of the future of work. They enable an individual employee to deliver greater value in their work by responding to the opportunities and information in their environment. Agile and adaptive they empower employees to continuously improve and innovate.

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Working Out Loud: Sharing work in progress in a purposeful way with relevant communities will accelerate learning, sharing and feedback cycles. Start working out loud now.

Personal Knowledge Management: Learn how to turn the personal information flood into effective sense making, learning and sharing. A critical skill to make sense of complexity and to leverage networks for learning.

Adaptive Leadership: Enabling the rebel and the change agent to lead more effectively in any system. Improving understanding, influence and the increasing the breadth of leadership techniques to create collective change in any system.

Experimentation: Move beyond the limits of your expertise. Learn by doing. Resolve uncertainty through action. Shorten cycles of decision making and feedback to increase personal effectiveness.

Organisational Effectiveness: Scaling & Accelerating Change

Organisations are made up individuals. These four practices of organisational effectiveness scale and accelerate the personal practices through a focus on design of systems for connection, learning and adaptation.

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Open Collaborative Management: Middle managers are often those who find a change to digital ways of working most threatening and disrupting. Open up the work of management. Move management from planning, allocation and control to facilitation, alignment and coaching. Shorten cycles and improve the performance value of feedback. Foster the role of managers as network navigators and brokers. Management can be a critical point of leverage in achieving more open, more collaborative and more effective work.

Scalable Capability Development: Turn each employee’s learning into a contribution to scalable system for delivering strategic value. Create Big Learning systems that scale learning around strategic capabilities for the organisation’s success. Coordinate your learning agenda as an agile change program. Curate the capability building of your teams, leveraging learning from peer communities and leverage social learning to bring 70:20:10 and a performance-oriented approach to learning to life at scale and in the workplace.

Effective Networked Organisations: Take advantage of the networks in and around your organisation to rethink your business model and organisational design choices. Break the centralised/decentralised binary and move beyond hierarchy. Enable autonomy, foster alignment and improve effectiveness for purpose. Skill your teams to achieve effectiveness in the wirearchy. You don’t need to purchase a new management system. You need to adapt your approach to managing knowledge, trust, credibility and results to your purpose, culture and community.

Agile Innovation & Change: Adapt to the changing needs of the environment and stakeholders to deliver new value. Accelerate innovation and change through new approaches and by putting in place the systemic support for employee-led innovation, change and transformation to a more responsive organisation.

Simon Terry provides consulting, advice, speaking and thought leadership to global clients through his own consulting practice, and as a Charter Member of Change Agents Worldwide, a network of progressive and passionate professionals, specializing in Future of Work technologies and practices.  The focus of Simon’s practice is assisting organizations to transform innovation, collaboration, learning and leadership. 

The Choice: Two Roads or Promises?

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Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
Robert Frost

At times, we can reduce the challenges in leading organisations to a greeting card: There are two paths in management, a traditional one and now a better one. Pick the wrong one and your organisation will fail. The reality of modern leadership is more complex.

However, the glorification of the ‘road less travelled by’ is not the meaning of Frost’s poem. ‘The road less travelled by’ is hardly an appealing option for managers who must make decisions every moment of every day about how to lead their organisations and respond to the challenges before them. “The road less travelled by” is usually a road out of the organisation.

Frost’s subtle poem reminds us that many choices are obscure and evenly balanced when made. That obscurity is rarely resolved. We are left to define ourselves by the choices we have made and see the outcomes as results when the connection between choice and outcome is often remarkably complex.

Two Roads

Faced with the challenges of a rapidly changing networked economy many managers choose the path of efficiency. In a time of crisis, they redouble their efforts to deliver certainty, control and secrecy. Seeing threats in a digital economy these manager seek to take greater control and shore up the traditional defences that seem to offer certainty. Rather than deal with complexity, it is easy to declare a new simplicity.

Others are increasingly experimenting with experimentation, autonomy and transparency. They are seeking to create new forms of organisation from responsiveness and adaptation. However, as the use of new models increases there are real challenges to be resolved and new cultures and practices to be built.  It is a brave middle manager who chooses to introduce this approach into an existing organisation of any size. At times, the Responsive Organisation can feel more discussed than delivered.

Some times the two approaches are mixed and we don’t even realise. Our traditional ways can be so deeply ingrained that we can’t see the irony of ordering autonomy and experimentation. For a manager considering how to respond to a situation in the moment, considering new ways of working can seem like a luxury. After all, wasn’t the point of all our experience and training to give us tacit knowledge on which to rely when things get challenging?

Not Simple, Complex

Managers don’t struggle with organisation and choice in the simple or even the complicated domains of choices.  In these cases, traditional approaches work with some predictable degree of success. Recommending a responsive strategy in these examples is as wasteful as managers embedded in traditional management mindsets would see it.

However, the challenge of the modern organisation is rarely bringing complexity to simple choice. Bureaucracy may make simple management choices feel complex to implement, but the choice remains straightforward. The challenge for organisations is pretending there are simple choices when the domain becomes increasingly complex.

Complex choices are where we need learning, experimentation and new ways of working. This is the where we need to sense and respond. This is the domain in which managers see the networks around us change the nature of our traditional considerations.

Promises to keep

The nature of the complex environment in which we operate as managers is that we rarely know in advance what path will be the best choice. This can be a tough pitch to sell to your executive committee.  Worse as Roger L Martin has argued even a ultimately superseded business model may be successful long enough to make you look stupid.

We are trained as managers to define our journeys by their outcomes, just like the narrator of Frost’s Two Roads poem. This consequentialist logic is often used to justify the triumph of abstract organisational goals over personal, human or community outcomes in the process.

Perhaps instead we should define our journeys by the path.  Focusing on the process of walking the path changes our questions:

  • What management path values our personal purpose and delivers the greatest personal rewards?
  • What management path values the potential of others and seeks to maximise that potential?
  • What management path delivers on the promise to customers and the community inherent in our organisation and its people?
  • What management path maximises the net positive impact and contribution from all in the organisation?

Asking new questions is an act of leadership. The answers to these questions will help define better ways of working and new models of social leadership that can carry us through the management journeys ahead.

When we cannot know the journey’s destination, perhaps the better challenge is to walk the road well. We can run our organisations to deliver better answers to these questions.  A first step is freeing our people to contribute to their potential to these answers. We may yet find that all our roads lead to the same place, but we will arrive in better shape as managers, organisations, communities and as a planet, if we do so.

This reflection brings to mind another equally beautiful Robert Frost poem, “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening”.  As we go forward into the dark and cold challenges ahead, this reflection challenges us as managers to consider the miles to go and the promises we must keep:

He gives his harness bells a shake 
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep, 
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
– Robert Frost

Picture credit: http://pixabay.com/en/tree-stump-forest-environment-283218/