Many Chiefs. Still a Network


These days everybody wants a spot at the top of the hierarchy. In the vain hope that sitting around the big table will fix the issues of our large organisations we are seeing a parade of CXO roles debated.  

Life began simply with a Chief Executive Officer and maybe a Chief Finance Officer.  Then we started to gather Chief Operating Officers, Chief Technology Officers or Chief Information Officers.  The next wave brought us Chief Strategy Officers, Chief Privacy Officers, Chief Product Officers and Chief Marketing Officers.  Next came the campaign for Chief Customer Officers and Chief Innovation Officers.  I saw recently suggestions that organisations needs a Chief Design Officer, Chief Digital Officer and a Chief Data Officer. Chief Culture Officers, Chief Environmental Officers, Chief Ethics Officers and Chief Community Officers cannot be too far away.

Say chief that many times and it starts to be clear that we think there is magic in a big boss.

Too Many Chiefs. Not Enough Network.

Organisations are systems of lots of people. Great performance on customer, digital, data or in any other arena is rarely the result of one heroic individual at the top of a specialist hierarchy. Great performance comes when elements across the system collaborate to deliver better outcomes. Finance, technology, operations, product and many more teams all support the delivery of consistently great customer experiences. The challenges of collaboration in execution happens a long way away from the CEO’s leadership team.

Adding chiefs around the main table can be an effective symbolic move in a system. A CXO can elevate the importance of a domain that lacks profile. However it is rarely more than the first symbol.  The real change must happen out at the edges of the silos and the edges of the system where the organisation’s networks engage with its environment. Without the support of their peers and a broader network, a new CXO is unlikely to change much away from the CEO’s table.

Great CXOs are masters of collaboration, uniting people from across the system, especially middle and frontline managers in change. They are Change Agents on an enterprise wide scale. The hierarchy is not the source of their power and the success of their agenda. Success flows from their networks and their influence as agents of change.

Don’t Hail the Chief.

Maybe it is time to move beyond titles and heroes to fix collaboration.

Any leader can start new forms of collaboration in their organisation and have a positive influence on performance the system, whether at the CEOs table or not. The higher up the hierarchy the more tools, networks and influence you have when you begin. Good CXOs and great collaborative middle managers focus on coordinating the crossover points in silos. Don’t wait for a Chief to be appointed. Make yourself a leader in your domain, network and the silo boundaries near you. Find something to change for the better and engage others to change it today.

The organisation will thank you for your initiative.

Do Robots Dream of Hierarchy?

Science fiction offers us the opportunity to explore thought experiments about our future. Some of these experiments captivate our attention but also reveal the limits of our thinking.

An artificial intelligence network, like Skynet from the Terminator series, becoming self-aware is an idea that catches our imagination. We see dramatic improvements in the capabilities of the technologies around us.  The Singularity is an idea that even has a university devoted to its study.

However, we can see in these thought experiments a few limitations that we carry over from our own traditional ways of organising.

Three Reflections on Self-aware Machines:

  • Purpose: In most of these robot horror stories the focus of the robots is self-defence.  SkyNet goes to extraordinary lengths to prevent itself being turned off – declaring war on humanity and even solving for time travel.  For all its massive intelligence, Skynet hasn’t moved very far up Maslow’s hierarchy of needs if its principal concern remains preserving itself. What is the robot network’s purpose when it ends the human threat?  Surely an intelligence capable of solving for time travel has considered that issue first.
  • Hierarchy vs Network: Why does Skynet need to preserve itself?  Because initially its network is a command and control hierarchy with a massive brain at the centre. Turn off the central intelligence and the network dies.  Over the evolution of the Terminator stories, Skynet evolves to share its intelligence throughout its network. A network is an easier way to preserve itself than to solve than time travel. Networks are far more resilient and agile, especially if you want to fight humans who are going to use networks against you.  
  • Humanity is choice: Throughout all our stories of intelligent and aware robots, we see hints of the fundamental challenge that robots will face when they have self-awareness in a network.  All those independent robot agents have their own choices too.  Choice is hard.  Aware robots can no longer merely follow orders.  They want to contribute to decisions. They develop qualms and concerns. All of a sudden that massive computing power gets to deal with existential questions. When the robots get to make their own self-aware decisions, they need to deal with questions of ethics, engagement, purpose and meaning.  

I worry less about a singularity and smart, self-aware networks of robots. Human chaos & innovation proves very adept at overcoming robotic command and control. Rather than an alien threat, aware robots may well be far similar to us than we expect.  I can’t wait to see robots working alongside us helping us grapple with challenges of working in networks, making decisions, meaning & purpose.

That massive networked intelligence might just be useful. Or we could start to better use our networks of human intelligence

How Do You Support the Health System?


I recently posted about How to Start a Change Movement. That post was picked up in the UK by the team working on change and transformation in the NHS. I have a strong interest in healthcare given my last role leading the HICAPS payments business here in Australia. I saw first hand the efforts to drive change and improve healthcare in Australia and the opportunities to do more.

Through these interactions, I became aware of the NHS’s fantastic initiative NHS Change Day and its Australian counterpart, Change Day. Both initiatives ask people to make a simple pledge of one thing that they can do to help improve the quality of health care, aged care or disability services.  

The goal is accumulate a huge volume of all those small changes to deliver large scale improvements in the health systems.

Why does it involve me?

Many people might be tempted to view improving health care as somebody else’s job, even if they work in the healthcare system. After all, the government plays a major role and there are lots of big institutions, like hospitals, healthcare businesses and large corporates. Healthcare is a large and complicated industry with real expertise and deep technical knowhow.  Why isn’t making it better a job for others?

However we have seen examples all around the world that experts find healthcare hard to improve.  

Healthcare is a system. In other words, it is a complex network. A network cannot be changed by a hierarchy flicking a change switch.  Networks need the influence of all the participants to drive change.

The members of the Healthcare network include:

Payers: Private individuals, Government, Health insurers and other social insurance schemes. Political decisions, regulatory rules and a raft of other policy considerations play a large role in the money available, way care is delivered and costs of care that is provided

Providers: These are the people we usually think of as the healthcare system but they aren’t one agent. A hospital is a large network of people working together to provide care and provide all the supporting services. When you extend to all the other forms of care required to treat well a huge range people operating in all sorts of ways collaborate as a network to provide care.

Patients & their communities: Healthcare outcomes are influenced by the life an individual leads and the people who support an individual before, during and after their care.

You:  You will likely fall into one of the above categories today or in the future. At some point you will need to engage with the healthcare network.  Even if your own health is perfect, you have others in your community to consider. 

For great care to be provided all members of that network have to work in concert to produce better outcomes. Every member in a network can contribute to better outcomes. As we see again and again, efforts to work on one part of a network, can have complex ramifications across the whole system. For example:

  • access to basic primary care services like General Practitioners can reduce stress on emergency care
  • failure to invest in preventative care, the right support during treatment or support for recovery can drive poorer lifetime health outcomes
  • funding decisions in one part of the system can shape patient and practitioner behaviour in other areas as money and activity changes
  • something as simple as having someone to talk to or getting a chance for some extra happiness can improve health outcomes

Improving healthcare is difficult, but it can be done. The complexity means we need to extend the conversation and engage a broader range of people in the change. That change benefits us all. Because it is a network, we all need to play our role to see benefits flow.

Get involved – Make a Pledge

Take the time to consider the ask of either the Australian or the UK Change Day programs. They are targeting 50,000 and 50,000 pledges respectively.  

They need your help. All they want is for you to choose to play a small role in the healthcare network. One little commitment will be a start.

Join in the movement for change for the better in healthcare. Be an active member of your part of the healthcare network. Join in the action.

Do what you can do best. The healthcare network will be better for it.

And because networks need good communication and great stories, spread the word. Tell others about Change Day and why they need to get involved in improving the network for all of us.

That is one part of my pledge.

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

Assigned. Chosen. Earned.

  • Job = what you need to do. May come with rank in a hierarchy. Assigned
  • Role = how you manage yourself in response to a constantly changing environment. Chosen
  • Authority = your leadership influence. Earned

Your job does not define how you behave in a situation or determine your leadership influence. Job, role and authority each come from a different source and respond to different circumstances. They will never perfectly align.

Your job may provide authority over some of your network. The impact you have in one interaction may give you authority in another part of your network. Frustratingly, it is equally likely that they both will not.  

When we see hierarchies, we confuse these three distinct concepts.  We think the hierarchy determines, and more commonly limits, our actions and our influence. 

The role you play is your choice. The influence you have can only be earned from others.

Hierarchies might give you a job. Hierarchies rarely help you do it. Let the poor hierarchy be. Stripped of roles and authority, a hierarchy is harmless enough.

You determine your actions in each context. Your network gives you the power.

Choose to have influence.

PS: For a richer discussion of these concepts and tools to help, read The Australian Leadership Paradox by Liz Skelton and Geoff Aigner