Work Out Loud on Priorities

The changing nature of work accelerates the demands on everyone. Both employees and managers are coping with busier schedules, more messages, more decisions and more challenges on a daily basis. If you are helping a manager focus on letting them do what they do best – set priorities. Don’t dumb down the decisions or you risk disempowering yourself.

This week I spoke to a client who was working for a busy senior manager. In an effort to make life easier for the manager, the client was breaking decisions down into small parts and getting quick sign-off one step a time. Despite how easy this process seemed, the relationship was growing difficult and the manager wasn’t always happy with the process.

As we explored this situation it became apparent that what the manager liked to do most of all was set priorities across the whole sweep of my client’s work.  The manager had hired someone that had the skills and experience to succeed. He expected small decisions to be made quickly and the work executed well.  The manager was looking to shape the work and ensure that it was on track and delivered in the right way. He didn’t want to make decisions all the time, even easy ones and especially not ones that were so carefully packaged there was no way to say anything other than yes.

In our efforts to make matters easier for senior managers, it can be easy to make the process too simple. Managers don’t want to be managed. They want to do what they do best which is tackle complex challenges, manage multiple priorities and shape the deliver of work. If we simplify the decisions too much we are depriving them of this opportunity and also depriving ourselves of the chance to make the simple clear cut decisions.

Working out loud on the priorities in your work with a senior manager can be a way to satisfy their need to understand the whole context, help with complexity and manage priorities. It also empowers you to get on with the obvious work. Focus on the priority calls and ask managers to assist you with these. Little straightforward decisions are best made by the person with most knowledge, which will always be you.

Do You Want Power or Entertainment?

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.

Trust is Precious

Trust

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.

 

Tall Poppy Podcast with Tathra Street

I recently did a podcast with Tathra Street on making leadership safe for humans.  Tathra has an series of interviews on the idea of Human Centred Leadership. In our 30 minute conversation, we discussed my leadership lessons, how work is changing, the demands of digital culture, working out loud and more.

The discussion was great but sadly the audio quality did not hold up to the content of the discussion.

Coaching Creates Time to Reflect

office-336368_1920We don’t need to be told that work is busy. Pressures are everywhere. Finish one task or one meeting and there is a good chance that the next few challenges are piled up ready to go. We rarely get the time to reflect as we power through our work, unless we allocate time or are forced into reflection by the questions of others.

Without reflection, we all struggle to focus and question our priorities, our relationships and our performance. The value of coaching is that it can create this space in our work week and help make our work far more effective. The power of questions from others is that they force us to reflect, to consider a wider perspective on our work and can break the patterns that form in our busy thinking.

Great leaders coach. They know how to ask simple questions of their teams that foster reflection on goals, priorities, alignment of work and the effectiveness of work. Creating a supportive coaching environment in a team enables people to reflect on how to improve more often and more effectively. Great leaders encourage peer coaching too.

Peer coaching is a powerful technique and one that can happen in the flow of work. Taking the time to ask each other “How did we do? What can we do better or different next time?” is all that it takes to create more reflection in our work. We don’t work alone the insights and observations of others can help us become more effective. Working out loud, purposefully sharing our work with our peers, invites our peers into our work and facilitates this reflection.

In the coaching work that I do, I find asking the simple questions clarifying goals, the situation and opportunities to do things differently creates a space for a new and powerful conversation. The time invested can have dramatic returns by clearing blockages, building new collaborative networks and focusing the effort of work. Often the improvement opportunities are obvious when someone has time to reflect on how they can do things differently.

An added benefit of the time to reflect through coaching conversations is an increase in accountability in organisations. Regular coaching conversations with a leader, a coach or peers, create personal accountability to translate improvement opportunities into action. Knowing that someone will ask “what have you done differently?” helps us reflect continuously on how well we are delivering on our plans.

Reflecting with the support of others is the heart of learning and performance improvement. How are you fostering a coaching culture to benefit your performance and the performance of the teams around you?

Simon Terry is a coach and consultant who helps individuals and organisations to make work more effective. Reach out to discuss how more coaching can foster reflection for you and your organisation. 

Safety

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere – Martin Luther King Jr

I don’t fear for safety
From the simplicity of evil
or complex works of good.

Beyond the neat edge
of my experience,
security is a privilege.

Fears that I don’t share
are still unendurable,
life-draining, life-ending.

My enclosed experience hints
at other works and wheels,
a shared system of society.

All that produces this world,
the light and dark, actors, victims
and passive accomplices.

We are interconnected –
This condition, this system,
this change is mine too.

Command and Control Won’t Cut It #futureofwork #leadership

As your organisation adapts to the future of work, your models of leadership need to change. Leadership needs to be as adaptive as the the organisation you are seeking to create. Otherwise the potential of your people and the business will be lost.

You can’t command experiments. You can’t control networks. You can’t command customer collaborations. You can’t command engagement or purpose. You can’t control transparency. You can’t command autonomy.

Organisations that implement new agile ways of working need new leadership models. Activity based working, digital workplace tools, collaboration solutions, innovation hubs, agile projects and product management and lean continuous improvement all require leaders to work in ways that build the capability of people, manage the whole system and value the contributions of others over a leader’s rank and expertise.

As you change to the future of work, change what leadership means in your organisation. Build the leadership capabilities in leaders and the whole team to prosper in new ways of working. Make your leadership as adaptive as your organisation.

Five Daily Reflections of the Change Agent

Reading Seeds for a Boundless Life, a book on Zen Buddhism by Zenkei Blanch Hartman, I came across a reference to the Upajjhatthana Sutra’s Five Daily Reflections. The Sutra recommends daily reflections to help Buddhists to focus less on their attachments to ego & desires and more upon their actions.

Reflecting on these, I saw a parallel to common challenges for each change agent’s practice of bringing about a better world. Change agents are taking on difficult work, not for the benefits of ego or any personal desire. Change agents act out of a purpose to make an impact that helps others.  At the same time what surprises many who take on change is that the road is harder and more difficult than they ever expected.

Every change agent lives with these five daily reflections:

  • I can’t go back. There is no way to go back.
  • I can’t avoid obstacles. Obstacles are the work.
  • I don’t have forever. Time is limited.
  • Everything changes. Loss is part of that change.
  • My actions and my interactions are how I make the change work.

Once a change agent sees the need to make a change in the world, it becomes impossible to ignore. They can’t wish it away or pretend things are as they were. They can’t undo their commitment to purpose. 

Embracing that commitment means accepting that there will be obstacles to be overcome. The obstacles aren’t inconveniences or distractions. They are the work to be done to bring about the change. 

Time is always a constraint. Time demands we make the most of every opportunities to create change. Time means we must start now. Time means we must involve others.

Just as we must embrace the obstacles we encounter in our work, we must accept that there will be loss in bringing about change. Some things we lose will be important to us and to others. Part of a change agent’s role is to help others understand and manage that loss. 

We have only our actions and our interactions. That is how we bring about change. That is how our change will be judged. Ends don’t justify means. The means are a key part of the change.

Change agents can and do wish it were different. Keeping reflections like these ever in mind helps us to avoid the disillusionment that comes along with unmet expectations and unfulfilled wishes. Change agents are pragmatic and realise that little changes without the hard work to make change happen.

Who is that exactly?

One of the most important questions to ask in any leadership conversation is “Who is that exactly?” Getting beneath the opaque references to people is important to bring real human impacts to the foreground in decision making. Human behaviour is richer and more complex than segmentation and averages can show. Importantly, a specific conversation about people can also surface other impacts, alternative approaches and bias hidden in decisions. 

The Opaque Other

Politicians love opaque phrases to refer to their opponents: ‘the 1%’, ‘big business’, ‘immigrants’, ‘refugees’, ‘special interests’, ‘leaners’, ‘those people’, and so on.  The value of an opaque phrase is that avoids the risk of conflict with the current audience and builds a sense of conflict with an Other that they use to unite that audience. Demagogues have been threatening audiences with an Other since politics began. In an age when sexism, racism and overt discrimination have become less acceptable, the Other needs to take on a more opaque form. Usually when confronted with specific examples or challenged to name who exactly they mean, politicians duck and weave to avoid being more specific. Who they actually mean can be quite surprising to the audience. 

The Opaque Other at Work

The same opaque conversations have drifted into business and social conversations too. It is not unusual to hear that a particular decision will have an adverse impact on ‘retention’, ‘a small segment of customers’, ‘stakeholders’, ‘some performance indicators’, ‘poor performers’ or even just ‘employees’. Behind each of those opaque phrases are real human impacts often on a scale that is far larger and far more important than the phrase indicates.

Asking “who is that exactly?” lifts the curtain on that obscurity and enables a better quality decision. Understanding specific individuals impacted can reveal unintended consequences beneath the averages. Percentages and other statistics are driven by real human decisions by specific customers. I have seen examples where organisations have approved decisions like changes to customer loyalty programs that have a forecast of a minor uptick in customer churn, only to discover later that it adverse impacted the most loyal and most profitable customers. The business impact was far worse than expected. 

Equally changes to organisational structures, processes, performance management, leave, flexible working and other HR policies rarely impact employees equally. While they may looks so in the data used for business decisions, real human employees are rarely fungible. To consider one example, a decision to ‘spill and fill’ a management role in a restructure had a devastating consequence on the business because of the experience that was lost as employees took their talents to market and the market lacked of talent to fill a sudden large demand for lost experience. Had people considered individuals in both the roles and the market first a better decision could have been made.

If you want greater collaboration and innovation at work then you need to get beneath consideration of the opaque bucket called ‘our employees’. Innovation and collaboration are different for specific employee.  They have different meanings, benefits and costs to different people. A successful strategy focuses on real individual employee needs to achieve the organisational outcome.

Turning your conversation to consider the specific people impacted and ensuring that you understand them well before making a decision is important in any conversation. Importantly this is also a key step to make sure the decision is inclusive and not divisive. The consideration may not change the decision but it will make everyone more aware of the risks and impacts. The consideration will also improve the quality of any engagement you have with impacted people as discussions move into implementation.

Asking the simple question “who is that exactly?” will help you to consider the complexity of real people.

The Leverage of the Change Agent

Give me a lever and a place to stand and I shall move the earth – Archimedes

There’s a tiny thing on the edge of a rudder called a trim tab. Just moving that little trim tab creates a low pressure that pulls the rudder around. It takes almost no effort at all – Buckminster Fuller

Change Agents move the world to change because they understand the importance of leverage. Small actions can be leveraged into larger outcomes through their work.

The Leverage of Purpose

Change agents take grievances, disappointments and frustrations and turn them into purposeful action. Crowds can easily share a grievance. However someone needs to help the group to turn abstract frustration into a shared purpose. Discovering that shared purpose in a group is a lever of influence and motivation that scales rapidly.

The Leverage of Networks

Change agents understand that networks are extraordinary ways to scale their influence. They can connect with likeminded individuals, share information, solve challenges and develop new ways of working. The network expands the influence of the change agent across their organisation and across the world.

The Leverage of Role Modelling

Change agents do. Change agents understand that the most effective way to lead change is to show others change is possible through action. For every role model there are thousands of eyes in networks who can be influenced to magnify the scale of the change.

The Leverage of Experimentation

Change agents take advantage of the leverage that comes with experimentation. If you do more often, you have had a greater impact. Rather than wait for the perfect information, change agents experiment to learn and create an example for others.  Experimentation enables networks to scale beyond individual expertise and accelerate learning and change.

The Leverage of Tension

Change agents create tension. For many organisations, the existence of people pushing for change creates tension that focuses new attention on the need to change. Creating and shaping tensions in the organisation is a role that change agents play to create the ‘low pressure’ pull through the resulting focus, discomfort and action.

The Leverage of Generosity

Change agents give because a culture of giving expands influence. Working out loud with a generous intent, giving of their time and effort to help others or focusing on the needs of others are highly effective ways to move change forward and set an example that encourages others to do the same.