Thursday, April 30, 2009

Leading in an Interconnected World: Black and White is Out, Wild Cards and Probabilities are In

The “revolutionary physics” of our world can’t be managed by thinking in black and white. Are we convinced yet?

The relentless onslaught of “surprises”, such as the Mexican swine flu, underscores that big brains are needed. Not just among leaders and managers. All of us. Whether we like it or not, we are being forced to anticipate, adapt and act speedily in the face of surprises and work harder and smarter on the anticipation part.

Educators have long recognized that the world is in dire need of and has a severe deficit of adaptive learners. The May-June 2009 Futurist has devoted almost the entire issue to anticipating and preparing for “wild cards”. As a backdrop, it reports that the Association of American Colleges and Universities is highlighting more than ever that critical reasoning and integrative thinking must be at the top of the skills list for all graduating students. While always an important goal, the drumbeat is getting louder.

Putting this into the context of leading and managing, we need a rapid escalation in the numbers of leaders and managers who are “adaptive”. These are men and women who can function well when conditions are not optimal or when situations are unpredictable. They can get on with the task demands when the problems are messy and require “thinking out of the box”, improvising and negotiating with others to seek out shared interests.

These capabilities are inherent requirements in high risk jobs in societies around the world. Military personnel, firefighters, police, airline pilots and paramedics, for example, know they must “think on their feet”, value the team and loosen up on hierarchy. Now, the rest of us must get on with adding “adaptive leadership” to our tool kit.

Where does one start? Based on what we know from leaders who succeed in the long run, the first step is to be open to this way of being. Not all of us have “open personalities”. Barack Obama does. George Bush did not to the degree necessary given the situations he faced. Openness is correlated with curiosity, creativity and love of learning. These can be cultivated. Messy situations provide perfect places in which to practice.

The dynamic forces of our world societies today better suit a leader like Barack Obama. He’s an outsider. He embraces “geeks”. He doesn’t separate the world into winners and losers. He’s on the lookout for what works. He’s ready to listen and learn. He knows he will be held accountable for mistakes that occur on his watch. He doesn’t fight unpredictability, he embraces it. He understands and works with probabilities.

Joshua Cooper Ramo expresses this way as a “quantum view” coined by the famous physicist Niels Bohr. In his book, The Age of the Unthinkable, Ramo describes the signal for activating the quantum view when you face something strange and “mad” in your environment such that your mind says, “Are you kidding?”

Ramo likes the gardening analogy for leadership used by Friedrich von Hayek in his acceptance speech for the 1974 Nobel Prize in economics. Hayek was quite disconcerted with our simple treatment of complex phenomena. He urged us not to try to bend history as “the craftsman shapes his handiwork, but rather to cultivate growth by providing the right environment, in the manner a gardener does for his plants.” To do so requires a revolution, letting go of our view as architects or builders controlling a system to gardeners cultivating a living ecosystem.

From a leader-manager vantage point as well as a citizen of the world, “wild cards”, surprises, messy situations and probabilities become the welcome drivers of change.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The Gold That Lies Beneath: A Reminder From Susan Boyle

The warming of hearts and the shouts of joy from Susan Boyle’s extraordinary appearance on Britain's Got Talent reality TV show over the Easter weekend happened at just the right time. In a world searching for its moral compass, she symbolizes all that we must do to open up opportunities for each and every person on this planet.

The gold that lies beneath is everywhere. It has been buried too long by neglect, judgment and relationship illiteracy. The industrial revolution and information age which made the gold difficult to see have reached their limits of growth. Susan Boyle reminds us of the legitimacy of our hearts and the compelling need to return civil and organizational life to ordinary folks.

We know little of Susan Boyle right now. Her story will unfold for better or worse. No doubt we will learn even more from it as we struggle to re-calibrate the world for the greater good.

In our places of work, one group holds the key to the next age of the heart and opportunity: middle managers. Study after study points to a compelling fact that as middle managers go, so do people around them. The organization follows accordingly.

For leaders of organizations, this means—invest in middle managers. It might seem counterintuitive in these trying times. But, history has demonstrated that hollowing out the middle management group when times are tough and neglecting their leadership growth leads to declines in both the top and bottom lines.

It’s time to get conventional wisdom right. The soft stuff works. But, only when driven by universal tenets which truly run deep---attitudes and values that cause us to reach toward people not away from them.

If you haven’t seen Susan already, here’s the link:

Monday, April 06, 2009

Optimism and Pessimism are Good Buddies in Times of Crisis

The economic crisis we’re facing is not at root the result of too much fear but too little.

---Thomas Homer-Dixon, (April 4, 2009), The Globe and Mail

Hope versus fear, optimism versus pessimism. Two styles of oratory. What should a leader do?

Some like Homer-Dixon say we need to strike up the fear band to new noisy levels so that we can see more clearly (reduce our delusional side). Others talk of leaders having to walk a tightrope between cautious optimism and realism. Certainly Franklin Roosevelt preferred optimism to accompany his “New Deal”. Barack Obama is known more for “hope” and “Yes, we can”, than fear and pessimism.

Instead of arguing one versus another, if we layer on a strategic planning framework, we need both—the creative tension between the desired future and the hard truths of the present. It is the tension between the two that propels today toward tomorrow. The resolution of the big issues cannot occur without the two “ends” and line of sight trajectories between the two (strategies and priorities).

If we simply remain in the muck of fear, we literally cannot move. Only inspiration can ignite our hearts and minds in the direction of collective action. The dose of reality is meaningless and onerous without some good reason to get out of bed. That’s why optimism and hope must always be within our midst.