Leadership plus good management?

I’ve recently been working with two groups from the same organisation, and there was a huge contrast between them. One group was outspoken, enjoyed active learning and working in groups, the other group was almost silent, expected to sit and listen, and resented the “wasted time” of working on exercises in groups.

This was a surprise to me – I had expected to work with both groups in the same way, but it simply didn’t play out that way.

This led to a lot of soul searching – what was the critical difference between the groups, and why did the difference result in such different responses?

The conclusion I arrived at was that the first group was primarily composed of leaders, in a wide range from very junior to very senior; they were prepared to voice their concerns and make the most of the situation when it wasn’t what they expected. The second group, though in management roles, were more operational, mature and, apparently, less willing to make the most of things. Expecting a dull workshop, that is what they wanted; they were unwilling to engage in something more interesting and productive.

This highlighted a lesson I have learned throughout my career – leadership is a characteristic that is not strongly correlated to seniority.  There are many middle and even senior managers that lack leadership drivers and motivations. Conversely, there are many young, energetic people that are active leaders.

Management is a skill that usually improves with experience, but the same is not necessarily true of leadership, which demand energy and stamina. The best business leaders are also good managers, because they need to deliver results through others, but they have the energy and stamina to create the vision and inspire their team through the rough patches.

When an organisation engages in major change, it faces many challenges, both foreseen and unforeseen, and dealing with these requires skilled management, but it needs more. Leadership, with clear vision and the energy and discipline to address the issues that arise and “keep the wheels on the wagon”, is essential through the project/programme.

Leadership is more than pointing at the map and sending off the wagon train – it’s scouting, riding shot-gun and fighting off the bandits to make sure it gets there.

A lot of change initiatives fail because the executive “leadership” start it off then lose interest, moving onto the next idea, leaving managers to deal with the problems without the leadership that is essential for success. Fewer ideas, fewer initiatives and sustained leadership  transform the success rate of business projects.

Simple or complex? The dilemma

Lysanne Currie’s editorial in the April 2016 issue of “The Director”, entitled “Keeping it Simple”, cites a TED talk by Harvard’s Professor George Whitesides, highlighting that the vast majority of people crave simplicity, and it’s mainly academics who relish complexity and emergence.

The article goes on to promote strategic simplification as a strategy to achieve great results, pointing to Sacha Romanovitch of Grant Thornton as a leading example of its success. My personal experience of this was at Centrica, where they executed a complete U-turn from acquiring multiple brands and business to divesting the AA, Goldfish and One.Tel UK to focus on British Gas.

This doesn’t mean being simplistic in your thinking, though. Churchill famously apologised for writing a long letter as he had no time to write a shorter one, and Lysanne quotes Steve Jobs; “Simple can be harder than complex. You have  to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple”.

Problems are often complex, and the reality only emerges with time and progressive analysis. The whole of Chaos Theory is about understanding how simplicity generates apparent complexity. When people are involved,  we need to add emotion, contrariness and sheer malice into the equation too.

Solutions are where the benefits of simplification really come in – solutions must be “sold” to, and applied by, many and so must be easy to communicate. Given most people’s need for simplicity, it becomes essential to present the solution as simple, even if it is complex.

There is a process here:

  • probe complexity and emergence during the investigation of the problem, to ensure you get your understanding right
  • invest time end effort to simplify the solution, making it robust
  • If the simple solution doesn’t match “the way we do things”, seriously consider changing the way things are done too

Trying to keep it simple throughout by simplifying the investigation and analysis of a problem creates a grave risk of getting it wrong. There is a sad trail of government initiatives that have had diametrically the opposite effect to that desired, not least government borrowing going UP under the last government.

Embrace complexity, but make it sound simple :o)



What Really Makes Change Fail?

This post by Steve Barlow intrigued me: I think he has some great insights, and the idea that we are not “change fit” is a new idea for me.

I agree completely that people are usually delighted with change they see as an improvement e.g. mobile phones, the Internet, on-line shopping, Sunday shopping etc (though you will find people who hate all of these things). Forcing change on people, when they don’t see the benefit, fear they will be worse off and don’t see why it should happen, quite naturally falls far short of a no-brainer!

I like the idea, though, that even desirable change fails because of mental flabbiness!

Looking at the metaphor Steve offers; I know why my New Year’s resolutions fail – the pain of changing my lifestyle in the short term outweighs the long-term benefit (no pain, no gain). It never ceases to amaze me the obsessional self-sacrifice it takes to become an Olympic athlete – how do they do it?

I think there are 2 key factors:

  • They invariably have a coach who eggs them on and sets just-achievable goals
  • They are able to visualize success in a very realistic way – what it will feel like to mount the podium and collect their gold medal – and how they will win – every move, muscle twitch, metre of track etc

Coming back to business change, what can we draw from the parallel?

  • I believe that project leaders need to act like coaches, encouraging the team and setting challenging but achievable goals
  • I believe that project leaders must support all stakeholders in understanding and feeling the benefits of the objective, explaining how they will get there and soothing fears of the unknown

These are 2 very different skills sets – planning and communication, but both are clearly essential for success in my experience.

Good News – a learning organisation!

I posted back in April about how few organisations seem to learn from their mistakes, with the same errors happening time and time again as people rush into starting the next project.

I was delighted to meet the head of a business unit in a global organization who was not only fed up as well, but has done something about it.

He has introduced a step at the start of setting up a new project that requires the project team to research similar projects and read their “lessons learned” reports!  This is fairly recent, so he’s promised to keep me posted on how successful it is.

I may well have commented before that “Lessons Learned Report” is a misnomer, as very few of these lessons have been learned – they are more correctly labelled “Lessons identified and forgotten” reports.

I have had this discussion with many people over the years, and what I now advocate for the “learning organisation” is that they work out who needs to learn what, from whom, and incentivise people to do the relevant teaching and learning. This needs recognition that learning lessons takes time and effort, but saves far more time and money squandered on expensive mistakes.

The vision – key to success

Many years ago, I learned that building a shared vision and working towards it was vital in married life. I’ve also found the same to be true of business change.

Reading this article on documenting a clear vision reminded me of two discussions with prospective clients; both had decided what they wanted to do without having a clear vision of where they wanted to get to. When I started to investigate their vision, I ended up with the reaction “you’re too strategic”.

I speak from bitter personal experience that it is very easy to get busy doing tactical things that take you in the wrong direction if you don’t have a clear vision of where you’re trying to get to. Losing stakeholder support is even easier if you can’t share a clear definition of what you’re trying to achieve.

I’ve found you can’t be too strategic when it comes to being clear about where you want to get to, and it really helps to take stakeholders with you if they can see what it will be like when you get there.

Rule 10 – Never rush the planning!

Fail to plan – plan to fail!

A bit of a truism, I know, but valuable none the less. I don’t mean “take forever over the planning”, just don’t skimp it.

There is usually pressure to do things as quickly as possible, and to many executives, this means “start work now!”. This creates a dynamic tension between the need to report progress and the need to work out how to achieve the right progress.

Everyday English is full of sayings offering advice on this:

  • Look before you leap
  • More haste, less speed
  • Measure twice, cut once
  • A stitch in time saves 9
  • Nine women can’t make a baby in one month (Brooks)

and so on.

So why, in business, is this ignored? I wish I knew! I can only attribute it to said executives being out of touch with the reality of the situation at the coal face – what I call the “Excel Effect”.

As part of my teaching, I read many assignments about projects that have failed because the basic thinking-through of the problem was skipped at the beginning, and fundamental (and easily avoidable) errors were made that cost millions to fix. The build of Dungeness B nuclear power station was started well before the design was complete – unlike the other AGRs, it was 17 years in construction (10 years late) and way over budget. In a similar but smaller-scale project, a building was erected that proved too small to contain the plant intended to go inside!

How do I deal with this?

  • Insist on the irreducible minimum of planning time at the beginning
  • Get the design substantially complete before committing to build, then building the right thing quickly
  • Identify long-lead critical path items that we must start – this shows progress –  but continue planning in parallel
  • Log all planning assumptions as risks, and manage the hell out of them!

I’ve found this works well (unless the sponsor is unwilling to listen, and has committed to impossible deadlines!)

Case studies are NHS Direct website and THUS billing migration

Management styles revisited – “The Seagull Manager”

I love this post by Corporate Life 101 on the The Seagull Manager!

I’ve come across several of these disruptive individuals in my career, and the chaos they wreak is huge.

The worst case example was the technical specialist who tried to maintain that they were indispensable.  To do this every time a project neared completion, he would change the technical specification to prove that he knew more than anyone else.  The consequence of this was that no project was ever completed!

This was inevitably recognised; as this indispensable individual took more and more liberties, and to delayed projects more and more, he eventually got to the point where his services were seen as undesirable rather than indispensable.

I was surprised how long it took, though!  This individual had been standing in the way of progress for over two years before the penny dropped.

This idea of change for change’s sake, simply to prove the authority of the individual to cause change, I suspect is a massive source of waste within industry.

We don’t have a culture in the UK of mindless subservience to authority – so the challenge we face is how to manage the seagull managers of this world and work smarter not harder!

The Seagull Manager

This post on The Seagull Manager made me laugh – I’ve come across a good few in my time and never ceased to be amazed that they get away with it – activity is used as the measure of performance, not results.

A good friend, who is a great believer in working smarter not harder, was kicked out by a major telco because they had a culture of long hours doing pointless work, and he just didn’t fit.

Working harder not smarter is the British corporate way – people are praised for digging MORE holes in the wrong place then filling them in again QUICKER.

What we need is to think and dig them in the right place at the start. This means being one step ahead of the seagull manager, and having validated options and robust defences ready!

One small step for a man …

I got a “Thank you” card yesterday from my daughter’s house-mate I had helped. I put him in contact with a company that then offered him an internship for his year in industry (in event management).

As it’s a prestigious company in London, he’s pretty happy (though when he faces the joys of living and working in London, he may be less so) with the prospects it offers. I hope it’s a giant leap for him.

So what was in it for me?

Nothing tangible, nothing financial – just the warm feeling of having helped someone who benefited from it.

There is a downside to trying to help others – they may not want it or appreciate it. Why might that be?

  • Clinical Depression is a real condition that needs treatment
  • Whingeing is the national participation sport of the UK – just read the papers.
  • It’s much easier to feel sad and hard done by than to change your life – change is really hard work and needs help and support

In business, one can try to “pull rank” to insist on some changes, but only if the culture is positive – most of the time it requires deep empathy and influencing skills. Most of all, it requires patience – people sunk in the Slough of Despond are short of the drive, energy and traction needed to get out – you have to help them little by little.

If you have enough money, improve your own life by helping others!

Measuring performance

On Friday I listened at the BCN to someone with a much more prestigious career (thanks, Duncan Ashurst) echoing my own thoughts on the huge difference between efficiency and effectiveness.

Seeing this article on the challenges of performance management where it’s not simple or easy to quantify output led me to think back to setting the performance measurement strategy at Willis and Centrica, and how that led to driving another project around something as subjective as customer experience.

There is a sad tendency towards measuring what is easy to measure, not what is truly needed.

In the case of driving through a major billing migration project, we could measure complaints and churn, but that would have been too late – the customer would have walked away already.We had to work pre-emptively with the customer services manager and use her skills and judgement to predict our performance qualitatively, and fine tune very quickly in the light of feedback.

There are many key parameters for success, and often a large fraction can’t be quantified easily  – you still have to assess them if you want to succeed!

P.S. Just saw this article on customer service cooking the books. This is a lovely analysis of why poor performance measures damage business performance by distorting business intelligence information!