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Some enduring conflicts in business are caused by structural or systemic issues. Another large source of these enduring conflicts we encounter in our working lives are conflicts caused by a lack of shared context. In both cases, we can do better if we start the next debate by seeking to gain better context.
Understanding can be a Solution
Like everyone, I get frustrated when some arguments just won’t go away. That frustration is never constructive. It can cloud my judgement, cause me to miss issues and never helps resolve the debate. No matter how polite I think are my efforts to explain or convince, that frustration will be in the background and the other party can always sense it. We are finely tuned detectors of the emotional states of others. Anyone who senses frustration in someone with whom they are arguing is highly likely to interpret it as a lack of genuine intent, trust or respect.
Often when one of these conversations has gone on a long while it hits me that I don’t really understand what the other person wants. When I shift my focus from convincing them that I am right to seeking to understand their position, a radical change comes over the discussion. Firstly, I often discover some point of context I am missing or that I have misunderstood their position, concerns or their goals. Secondly, we slowly begin to rebuild the trust and respect that has been damaged by the conflict. Both of these are highly useful in finding a joint path to a solution
Often seeking to understand leads to an even more surprising resolution. When conflicts are caused by a lack of a shared context, some times the other party just wants to be heard. They want you to understand the context that you are missing. There might be nothing to do to fix things other than to listen deeply, actively engage their views and acknowledge what you have learned.
Context can show you the System
Seeking to understand is an important first step in the tricky issue of structural or systemic conflicts. These issues arise when parties are trapped in a system that pushes them into conflict, often without either side realising the issue. Think of your classic clash between organisational silos. Operations are trying to reduce the cost of the process. Sales are trying to increase revenue. Both parties are right in pushing to meet their KPIs. Both feel authorised to fight on, but the answer is that the organisation needs a balance of the two perspectives. In this context, it is easy for minor issues to become enduring proxy fights of the larger structural issue. I’ve seen teams fight repeatedly over whether error rates were driving cycle times or vice versa when the real issue between them was a need to better align their two businesses.
Changing the conversation to explore a wider context, to explore each party’s goals, concerns and views will help show the wider system at play in these debates. Opening up this broader conversation is how leaders can identify often hidden issues like culture clashes, misalignment of incentives or parts of the system working with unintended consequences.
It takes only a few minutes to ask a few questions to ensure you truly understand what the other party is seeking to achieve. The insights from that quest for understand will benefit both of you.
I woke up this Sunday and I had a terrible nostalgia for the days where my morning question was not:
“What have the politicians done to entertain us today?”
All around the world politics has become far too similar to a reality television show. The politicians, the media and our focus is on the daily conflicts, dramas and stupidities. The media environment and the demand of the media audience is far less concerned about leadership (other than the theatre of a leadership contest) than the entertainment of the political show. We have forgotten that the exercise of power for the betterment of society is more important that a following.
Politics is not alone in this confusion. Thought Leadership and other forms of punditry also shows a similar confusion. The accuracy or effectiveness of advice to better society now matters less than the ability to entertain and accumulate an audience. Platitudes and gross simplifications play better than difficult messages or a call to hard work.
Here We Are Now, Entertain Us
Conflict has always entertained humans. Conflict is the key to all our storytelling. Threat based narratives help us understand our tribes and bind together in times of adversity. We can see why politicians and pundits rely on them heavily. Inspirational narratives tend to appeal to our ego, our desire for ease and the uniqueness of our community and suggest the inevitability of our future success as long as we continue to follow the advice of the storyteller. We are suckers for entertainment as the makers of content for our mobile phones are well aware. Politicians, thought leaders, media commentators and even corporate executives are just meeting the market demand.
Increasingly, in the age of mobile devices, entertainment is a solo activity. We have lost much of the collective experience of entertainment that was the standard experience of previous generations. That lack of collective context weakens the foundations of community and hinders collaboration. We need shared context and trust to come together to make change happen. Trust is an outcome of the work and the experiences we share together. If we are each following our own personal entertainment guru, there is a fragmentation of that larger shared community.
As social technology and far better media tools creep into corporate life, we have also seen the rise of the executive as entertainer. Senior management can now engage and cultivate a following internally through collaboration tools and externally through social media and even traditional media roles. For some the dynamic changes from leading to entertaining. Rather than advocating for change and conflict within the organisation, it is easier to demonise an Other, such as a competitor, an external stakeholder or abstraction like errors or waste and demand the attention of a following without pushing people to change themselves. These executives are far less likely to demand challenging change of people themselves for fear that they lose part of their following or that they lose status to someone who promises a more compelling external enemy or an easier life.
We Need Power
We need to do more than meet a market demand for entertainment. We need power to push us beyond the limitations of our own efforts and our own imagination. We need the power to step outside of our individual potential and collaborate with others. The exercise of power in this way is called leadership.
A comment in a recent article on the often hidden role of power in design practice put the issue in a way that helped me see the connection:
The definition of power: the ability to influence an outcome
This quote starkly highlights the connection of power and leadership. We can often confuse power with its past abuses or the privilege that vests it undeservedly or unevenly in others. We can prefer our power to be responsive to the needs of the community. However, as Adam Kahane has pointed out in Power and Love, it is wishful thinking to wish power away or to demand that leaders are only responsive.
Leadership is about influence. Leadership is about achieving outcomes together with and through the work of a community. Without any resulting outcome, all you are doing is entertaining the community with a show. Bringing people together to help address complex social issues is going to take the exercise of power.
We need leadership because we need the action of small self-governing communities of change. That work is the power that matters now. We cannot rely on the politicians, the thought leaders, the senior executives or the experts to deliver us. We will have to do the work of change ourselves.
Yesterday, I had an opportunity to gather with two colleagues to prepare a joint presentation for a future conference. We had put aside 2 hours to work on integrating three distinct approaches to the role of collaboration in digital disruption into one compelling approach. After thirty fire-cracking minutes of sharing, building on each other’s ideas and the odd challenge, we had advanced everyone’s understanding and put together an exciting story that we all passionate believe in. We were so excited by the outcome that we will likely seek to convert the approach to other formats as well. What made the experience is exciting was how quickly 3 diverse perspectives came together when approached with trust, openness, generosity, a focus on practice and a willingness to learn. This conversation was working out loud at its finest.
Working out loud helps me every day to understand and engage with diverse perspectives on my work. I am a middle aged white male who has had many senior executive positions. I am regularly hired as an expert, a consultant and a speaker. I am confident in my opinions and given too much latitude can easily slip into the bad habit of dominating conversation. However, I don’t learn anything when I am speaking. All I do is confirm what I believe to myself.
Working out loud is an opportunity to change that pattern of interaction. When I am open with what is going on, but not yet finished, I invite the contributions and corrections of others. When I am open and generous, I encourage others to trust me more and respect the vulnerability I have shown. As I haven’t concluded the work, I have less to defend. I don’t engage the other people around me as well by expressing conclusions because I am tempted to fight for them. When I haven’t finished, I am much more open to learn and to develop ideas based on the generative inputs of others.
Working out loud has taught me to go seek the voices of the quiet participants in groups and to seek views from further afield than my usual interactions. I have learned to encourage others to share their harshest views of my work. In some of the most brutally unfair criticism, there can be insight to another worldview or a different message that needs to be addressed in my work. Working out loud around the world has also helped me to understand the hidden cultural expectation that shape our work and our behaviour. Effective change and adoption require us to be able to surface and engage with these cultural expectations as well. There is more that I can do to gain additional perspectives but I know that working out loud will be a critical vehicle for me in learning from the views of a diverse community of collaborators.
Leadership is the art of realising potential. That potential is often least tapped where diversity is suppressed or people’s contributions are not being considered. Working out loud as a leader can play an important role in supporting an inclusive environment and gathering new views and contributions. All leaders need to reflect on how they step outside their own experience and opinions and learn from the wider community around their work.
One of the challenges is the modern economy and its new far-flung connectedness is that there can be a tendency to presume trust in relationships. We need to be clear that trust is a vital part of our commercial and social activities. The role of leaders is to help create, sustain and grow trust in their networks and communities.
Trust Arrives on a Tortoise and Leaves on a Horse – Proverb
I start with a high degree of trust in people. I always presume a positive intent and I am willing to be generous with my time and efforts. A recent experience caused me to reflect on how important that trust is in a relationship and how we need to continue to invest in building trust in our relationships.
An social network acquaintance asked me many months ago to help their new product by letting them use some of my content. I laid out some simple terms of that use, in particular that they take some actions to let me approve the content in context. Nothing happened for months. Suddenly, last week I was told that the product was going live. My trust in my acquaintance collapsed and our relationship became very difficult quickly.
Without trust, the interactions took on different colour for both parties and matters became tense. Everything eventually fell apart. What had begun as a good natured collaboration ended up as a frustrating and angry experience in the absence of trust. Did I overreact? My acquaintance seemed to think so. However, the simple step of acting promptly on an agreement could have maintained trust and avoided the issue. Failure on a relatively small issue can often have the biggest impact on trust, because we want to trust those who look treat the small things seriously too. What is a small thing to you, may well be critical to me. Little doubts are warnings of larger concerns.
Trust in the API Economy
We have grown used to the API Economy, extending trust to remote connections and even starting to leverage trustless ways of interacting and working. In this context, we can forget the vital role that trust plays in frictionless commerce and interactions. Without trust, costs and the emotional burden of interactions increase. Those additional costs might be the costs of coordination, management of performance, sharing of information, monitoring or verification. The emotional toll of lack of trust is seen in interactions coloured by doubt, suspicion, self-centred thinking and a raft of negative emotions from fear to anger. We can absolutely execute standardised transactions without trust, particularly when they are supported by a robust API-like platform to help manage the quality, transparency, accountabilities and risks required. However, we cannot achieve our best complex, collaborative or creative work together without trust. The costs of lack of trust are too high and the potential opportunities are lost as people focus on self-interest and self-preservation.
APIs are just like my reaction to a change in the terms. An API rejects anything that doesn’t meet the agreed parameters. APIs are not designed for flexibility, novelty or agility. They are designed for seamless transaction. They don’t rely on trust to bridge gaps as things change.
As we focus more of our economic and social relationships into the API Economy and its network of platforms, it is important to remember that trust always resides in the human brain. Platforms can provide tools to support human trust and they can provide proxies for human trust. They cannot deliver it. The role of network participants and in particular leaders is to create, foster and develop trust. This work is what helps turn a network into a community. Leaders play a critical role in making trust an expectation in a network and their work influencing others can shape behaviours and their consequences across the network.
“It’s like he is a cartoon leader. He’s two-dimensional in a three-dimensional world”
Trust in leadership is declining in many spheres of life. Many leaders look more out of their depth than ever. Clinging to carefully manufactured facades, familiar patterns of power and simple plans, they fail quickly in a complex world. Leaders need to adapt their practices to a changing world. To avoid being a cartoon leader, you need to adapt to the richness of the world as it is, not as you want it to be.
“Wishing doesn’t make it true”
Complexity comes with a real cost. Often we will wish for simpler times and for a return to simpler old fashioned ways. We can learn from that wish but wishing won’t make that an effective strategy. Leaders don’t get to act in the world of their wishes. That only happens in cartoons. Leaders must act and lead action in the world as it is. The world in which leaders must act is irreversibly multi-dimensional:
- Today and into the future
- Power and influence
- Hierarchies and networks
- Local and global
- Expertise and learning
- Massively scaled and personal
- Commercial considerations and human values
Sustainable in Every Dimension
“He was there, he heard it, he says he sees the problem, but I am still not sure that he gets it”
Leadership is about influencing others to act. That influence demands leaders engage with the complexity of the real world.
Ignore a dimension in your leadership actions and you are that cartoon leader who is less rich than the world that they are seeking to influence. Ignore a dimension and you can expect to be judged harshly by those who see the complexity or demand a solution that engages that dimension. Ignore a dimension and you lose influence.
Leaders can find it hard to step out beyond the cartoon simplicity. In many cases their organizations and stakeholders are demanding simple answers and easy change. Working against an expectation that you behave like a cartoon leader takes courage and time.
One of the reasons that leadership tenure is declining in many of our institutions is that leaders ignore complexity. They remain a cartoon that is not adapting to the changes that these additional dimensions demand. Cartoons don’t do complexity. Cartoons don’t last very long. Cartoons are short fast hits until their command on attention expires. Eventually the anvil drops. A leader engaged in the real world is far more enduring.
The challenge for leaders is stepping out of the cartoon and engaging with the world as it is.
When we think about our organisations we often fail to notice the essential role of trust. Trust enables or disables our work, structures, or processes. As we move more into the future of the network economy we need to make trust explicit again.
What We Don’t See
We forget about trust because the process of trust is second nature to us. Trust is deeply engrained in the way we manage relationships, transactions and exchanges. This role of trust makes it critical to the way we organise our work, the way we exchange information and the decisions we make. Any organisation that is not explicitly managing the level of trust in the organisation and with its stakeholders is losing value.
Trust plays an outsized role in my work. Customers pay a premium when they trust an organisation. That customer trust is directly related to the internal trust relationships inside an organisation. They won’t give an organisation greater trust than its own employees. When Change Agents Worldwide wrote its first book, my chapter was on the need for organisations to trust their employees to enable the benefits of the future of work. A critical underpinning of the Value Maturity Model is its ability to develop the mutual trust in organisations that facilitates effective collaboration and supports execution of strategy. Trust is key to any complex and uncertain challenge in leadership, learning or innovation.
What We Work Around
Much of business history back to the beginnings of time has been managing trust. Ancient businesses of the Phonecians and Greeks, operating in the era of an absence of information used family relationships to ensure trust. Over time businesses built processes to enable wider networks of trust in trade, in banking, in record keeping and in management of businesses. Our organisations are built of thousands of individual interventions to manage trust in relationships.
Organisations are often tempted to see the goal as creating a trustless environment. Build the processes & structures such that you no longer care. Blockchain promises a trustless ledger for example. The gig economy promises to make employees fungible units of production where trust in the individual is irrelevant. We trust platforms, not people. We undoubtedly can continue to build more transparency, processes & accountability to extend work relationships further down the curve of trust.
The Cost of Trust
When we engineer trust out of our relationships, it does not go away. We continue to evaluate trust in our work because that instinct is a deeply human one. When we engineer trust out of our relationships, we accept a new set of stresses and new set of demands on performance.
- We worry about the effectiveness of our trust-replacement solutions. We stress about the quality of our human relationships. Absence of trust is a high stress situation for humans.
- We over-invest in these systems and bear an unnecessarily high cost to performance. Look at any compliance regimes where risk avoidance dominates thinking.
- We are reticent to share information which results in suboptimal decision making
- Those who don’t receive trust, don’t give it. Trust is reciprocal and an absence of trust in one direction will result in customers, employees and other stakeholders who don’t trust.
Organisations that want to perform effectively in the future of the work cannot place all their faith in processes, structures and platforms to manage trust for them. They need to remember the human relationships of trust. Create and manage an organisational culture that is rich and generous with its trust.
As we begin to explore the collaborative potential of connection, co-creation is becoming increasingly important solution to problems. Organisations are increasingly looking to employees, partners and suppliers to be a part of efforts to co-create solutions to complex problems. Collaborative co-creation is a key part of the Solve phase of the Value Maturity Model. As we practice co-creation, we discover bigger opportunities to create value.
Most co-creation begins with some kind of crowd-sourcing of ideas to solve problems. Diversifying the sources and inputs into the creation of a solution can enable big steps forward. Often new stakeholders have solutions to hand, see potential to reuse capabilities or bring opportunities to do things in new ways. Crowd-sourcing can be a fast and effective way to gather inputs from a large group of people towards a solution.
Efforts at crowd-sourcing solutions need to plan for two main challenges:
- Lack of Connection: To contribute meaningful solutions, people need to feel connected to the problem and to each other.
- The Volume of ideas overwhelms Execution: ideas are great but the exercise to sift and integrate diverse ideas can be a drain on execution. This is why many efforts at crowd-sourcing turn into a show of ‘engagement’ with no traction on the ideas submitted.
Co-Creating the Work
The next level of co-creation is when people come together to take a solution and execute it. The challenges of a problem don’t stop when you have an idea. People need to solve all the little issues and manage the idea until it is successfully implemented.
Make sure the expectation in you co-creation community is that work will be done to solve the problem. Give the community the autonomy to follow their ideas. People will contribute better ideas if they think that they have to see them through. Co-creation is more meaningful to a community that has been asked to work the problem together. Challenge them to take their ideas and see them through to implementation.
Co-Creating the Problem
The final level of co-creation goes back to the start and looks at the system from a higher view. This level removes the constraint that the problem definition is externally imposed on the community. At this level of co-creation, the community has responsibility to find, create and implement its own solutions. To do this the community is going to need to start to ask questions about Purpose, the scope of the system and what goals they have for the system. Bring a diverse group of stakeholders in to shape the problems and you may discover new problems and that some of your current problems aren’t such a big issue. The third level asks the community to own co-creation from Purpose, through Diagnosis, and then to the Design and Execution of any solutions.