Wednesday, May 01, 2013

Everything changes - including this blog.

Everything is in flux, or flow and so is this blog. I am moving it to my website at See you over there.


Thursday, September 06, 2012

Hermetic Learning and what we didn't let the Romans do for us

What we didn't let the Romans do for us.

A few weeks ago I took my ten year old son Joe to Vindolanda, the Roman fort situated next to Hadrians Wall. The remains of the fort are complete with sewerage systems, fresh running water served to almost every brick built multistory building on the site, hot baths, pubs, shops, weapons factories, farriers, everything in fact we take for granted these days minus electricity and gas really. 

Vindolanda was build c AD 300, 1712 years ago and was one of a series of such forts. Each fort was connected to a network of proper all weather roads complete with drainage and a complete set of traffic regulations. 

'So what happened when the Romans left 'my son asked?
I had to think.

What happened when the Romans did pull out was that we the indigenous Britons  not only ignored the technology left behind but dismantled their buildings and roads to build huts! It took us over a thousand years to get back to similar levels of sanitation and general living standards.

This is a wonderful example of a hermetic or non-permeable learning system whereby learning available outside of the current system and set of constructs is ignored and not even recognised as something to learn from. This isn't so much a case of reinventing the wheel, it's more like throwing the wheels away because we are too busy developing new ways of dragging things around.

I travel a lot and last month I drove through Africa. 11,000 km from Durban to Capetown, up through Namibia, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Malawi, Mozambique, Swaziland and back into South Africa. Each country was as different as it was possible to be. You crossed the border and it was like stepping into another world. The distance of less than one hundred yards could make all the difference between home made brick built houses with windows, fire places and sanitation or poorly constructed mud huts. People sitting at the side of the road begging, to productive small businesses sprouting up everywhere. Desolate bush to productive and well managed farms. Squalor to well decorated and organised villages all within a few hundred yards of each other and this isn't down to national poverty rates. The transition from Zambia to Malawi for example couldn't have been more stark. In terms of GDP Zambia ranks as the 139th highest in the world according to the latest figures from the IMF. Malawi is 4th from the bottom of the list at 180th and yet you would not know it looking at the difference between the countries. Zambia is largely run down, pothole strewn and has all the hallmarks of a failed state. Malawi is neat, clean and everyone is an entrepreneur, with smart roadside shops and amazingly organised villages. 

I also travel a lot from organisation to organisation and government to government. Each one is different, and like the early Britons and the populations of the countries I visit, I see and experience the same hermetic learning systems where people fail to walk next door and learn. I marvel when I get appalling service in a restaurant, or end up in a poorly managed hotel for example. Do these people not visit other restraunts and hotels? Do they not see what would transform their business? No, would appear to be the answer. it would appear the Romans did sod all for us. Not because of them, but because we didn't get it. The system was too advanced for us to make the leap and think, 'clean water direct to the house and sewerage systems' are neat ideas lets copy. Nope our response was to dismantle the technology so we could chuck the stones at each other, go to a well for our water and poo in the river. We only learn things that are in our system or close enough to it for us to grasp, even if it is given or left to us on a plate. 
Now about the current economic and political situation....

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Internal Tension: Compliance v Entrepreneurialism

I was talking to a CEO the other day who wanted his people, particularly his senior managers to 'stand on their own two feet' as he put it. In short he wanted his people to become more entrepreneurial, creative, innovative and to be better critical thinkers. This is probably one of the more common requests I get in terms of senior management development and is a core activity of mine as it has at it's heart the ability to deal with ambiguity.

Successful acts of innovation, creativity and entrepreneurialism in particular are defined by the individual's ability to hold, cope and be persistent in situations that are highly ambiguous. Few true entrepreneurs create businesses using a step-by-step 'it's all mapped out' approach. Rather they feel their way forwards, frequently changing direction, often changing their business to meet prevailing conditions and succeed.

For example an indian restaurant set up in an out-of-town cinema complex just outside Oxford about five years ago. It was designed as a high end, sophisticated and elegant eatery. The business struggled for years. The problem is the restaurant is in a concrete cinema complex right next door to a very popular 'eat-as-much-as-you-want' fixed price chinese buffet. The chinese buffet would have queues outside whilst the indian was empty. A quick look in the vast car park outside was all the data you needed about the socio-economic profile of the typical customer to the complex, these are certainly not high end vehicles. As they say, necessity is the mother of invention. After struggling for years the business changed tack and is now an eat-as-much-as-you-want fixed price indian buffet. It is now a popular business with a reasonable turnover. They changed their business strategy, (eventually) and appeared to have saved they day.

The problem, in many organisations and companies is that most managers grow up and are promoted for compliance and regulating people, not for being maverick agents of innovation and change. Most organisations require layers of agreement (and meetings) for any change to occur. Being a creative and innovative entrepreneur, in many organisations is a bit like trying to melt an iceberg with the aid of a soggy box of matches.

So, can you change someone from being an agent of compliance into an entrepreneurial being. The short answer is yes, in many (not all) cases. However if the organisational systems promote compliance and regulation this is very hard to achieve and will certainly create 'drag' in the entrepreneurial aspirations of the company.

Monday, April 23, 2012

The Psychology of Ambiguity 3: Availability cascades

One of the issues most people face when they have to deal with an ambiguous situation is separating out new world facts and beliefs from old world facts and beliefs.

A new world fact is a new truth that has come about because of a change.
An old world fact is a truth that was considered to be true before the change, but is no longer true as a result of that change.

When a change occurs it takes time

  1. for the change to be noticed, and
  2. for the new rules or facts / beliefs to become obvious.
As a result of this lag many people continue to believe in the old world rules and facts even though they no longer apply. 

As these old rules and facts usually still have popular currency they can grow in strength in times of change even though they have now been replaced or changed. 

An availability cascase is a psychological phenomena whereby a belief gains increasing credibility the more popular it becomes and the more we hear about it. If we start to hear about something from a number of different sources we are much more likely to believe it even if it is no longer true. In effect the facts become self-reinforcing. 

Some common popular misbeliefs brought on by an availability cascade would include things like:

  • Shaving causes hair to grow back thicker and stronger. It doesn't.
  • Men think about sex every seven second. It has never been measured.
  • Sugar causes hyperactivity in children. There is no scientific evidence for this. In fact double blind experiments have shown no change in behaviour.
Have a look at the wikipedia list of common misconceptions most of which have been brought about by availability cascases. This effect is even more pronounced in ambiguous situations.  

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Motivate or Manipulate?

I was running a workshop for managers last week and as often happens in leadership and management courses, a discussion ensued about how to motivate people. As the discussion developed it became increasingly clear that some of the managers, whilst using the term 'motivate others' they actually meant 'manipulate others' into doing things they don't want to do through some form of systematic reward and punishment protocol. The real question was "How do I get people to do what I want them to do".  This often also means "How do I force people to do what I want them to do?"

So I thought I would do a short blog on 'motivation' to highlight the difference between motivation, manipulation and using force of any nature, including rewards and punishments.

My first question is: "What does it feel like to be genuinely motivated to do something?"
Yes that feeling; the excitement and drive. The sense that you really want to do this, often regardless of some extrinsic (external) reward.

My next question is: "What does it feel like to be forced or manipulated into doing something?". Quite a difference my guess is.

It turns out that there are some core factors that create a motivated state:

The main contributing factor to becoming motivated is that the task has to be meaningful to the individual. So what makes something meaningful?

  1. External Validity. Firstly the task has to make sense to the individual on the level that they know how it fits into or contributes to the advancement of some goal. they actually agree with. This may of course include a personal goal such as promotion or inclusion in a CV for example.
  2. Global Validity. If the task passes the individual's external validity test, the task then has to have global validity in that the individual has to believe that this is a good and valid thing to do to. In other words is a worthy cause or goal? Is what they are about to contribute to valued by them.
  3. Internal Validity. Thirdly the individual has to understand what to do and how to it, and feel that their skills and knowledge (expertise) is being utilised correctly and are valued. Basically that they are not being used.
  4. Enjoyment. Lastly will they either enjoy doing it, or enjoy having completed the task, or enjoy the kudos of having been part of the process?

Friday, April 06, 2012

The Psychology of Ambiguity 2: Ambiguity Bias

You have a choice. You are at work and you have to make a business decision between 3 options each of which will take the same effort:
Business Option 1 will almost certainly make you $10,000. It is quite likely (over 80% probability) this option will work and you will make the money.
Business Option 2 could make you $20,000. However you no idea what the probability of this option working is.
Business Option 3 could make you anything. You don't know how much it might make or what the probability is that it will work.

You have to make a decision right now or option 1 will disappear. Which option would you take and why?

The Ambiguity Bias or Ambiguity Effect is a bias where people are affected by the lack of information or the amount of ambiguity inherent in a situation. In other words most people tend to prefer known situations even though they might not be the most advantageous. People tend to prefer certainty over ambiguity.


Baron, J. (2000). Thinking and deciding (3d ed.). New York: Cambridge University Press.
Ellsberg, D. (1961). Risk, ambiguity, and the Savage axioms. Quarterly Journal of Economics, 75, 643–699.Frisch, D., & Baron, J. (1988). Ambiguity and rationality. Journal of Behavioral Decision Making, 1, 149-157.Ritov, I., & Baron, J. (1990). Reluctance to vaccinate: omission bias and ambiguity. Journal of Behavioral Decision Making, 3, 263-277.Wilkinson, D.J. (2006). The Ambiguity Advantage: what great leaders are great at. London: Palgrave Macmillian.

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

The psychology of Ambiguity 1: Cognitive Dissonance

How do you react when faced with something that you don't understand and appears to conflict with what you already believe or understand to be the case? 

I was recently working alongside some emergency service leaders during a live incident (live coaching). One leader (Silver) was faced with a sudden and unexpected crowd of people moving into an enclosed area within which an operation was was taking place. As far as everyone had been informed this area was secure and no one, let alone a crowd should have been able to access it.  The commander on the ground (Bronze) informed Silver (our leader) that approximately 40-50 youths had entered area without warning and the officers on the operation were facing public order situation on top of the existing operation that they were trying to execute. The Bronze commander asked Silver if they should abort the operation as they were heavily outnumbered. 
The Silver commander, who had planned the operation realised that if they withdrew they were unlikely to be able to go back at a later date and execute the operation. In short the operation would fail. 
He decided to order that the officers on the ground should continue as planned. 

This is a classic case of the psychological phenomenon of cognitive dissonance occurring in an unexpected ambiguous situation.  

Cognitive dissonance occurs when there is a discrepancy between what a person believes, knows and or values and external evidence that is contrary or calls into question their internal beliefs, knowledge, experience or values.

This discrepancy between the internal and external state creates psychological and emotional discomfort, or dissonance. The mind then works to adjusts inorder to reduce the discrepancy and create order out of ambiguity. In many cases it does this by ignoring or reducing the importance of the external data and going with their existing beliefs, knowledge, experience or values as occurred in this situation. 

Such a reaction maintains the principal known as cognitive consistency and reduces the cognitive dissonance. This is a typical reaction to ambiguity, especially under stress. 

The outcome of the above situation is that the Bronze commander followed orders, the incident got out of hand, the operation failed badly and a number of officers and youths were injured, 4 seriously. 

Friday, March 30, 2012

Are they making 'efficiencies' in your organisation?

'Do more with less'. 
'Making efficiencies'. 
'Being more effective'. 
'More businesslike and professional'. 

Sound familiar?

This is the story in many many companies, organisations and services around the world. Certainly, in just about every organisation I step foot in at the moment I meet people who's work has 'streamlined' or 'rationalised'. The effect for most workers is that they have no 'spare' time. They are largely moving from one task to another, “back to back without the time,” as one employee told me this week “to even draw breath”. 

As ‘spare time’ is eased out of the working day in the name of efficiency so does the ability to stand back and see what is really happening, to take stock of what is working and what isn’t, to get creative and dream (yes dream) up new ideas and have new thoughts and find better ways of doing things. To notice which tasks are really a waste of time and innovate. The very things an organisation under pressure needs the most. Odd that.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The principle of reciprocity between managers

One of the principles I often bang on about in organisations or situations containing significant levels of ambiguity or uncertainty (see the earlier discussion about the difference between ambiguity and uncertainty) is the principle of reciprocity between managers.
The relationships and levels of communication between managers is critical if an organisation or team is going to successfully profit from an uncertain or ambiguous situation.

Fostering positive and professional working relationships between managers, looking for communication blockages and dealing with them and making sure there are active communications up and down the line are all part of this principle.

The number of times I go into an organisation which needs help to deal with an uncertain or ambiguous situation to find that the managers, whilst often well trained as individuals, are dysfunctional as a group and certainly aren't a close knit team in themselves. Petty infighting, managers going it alone, lack of trust and less than helpful relationships within the management team will often de-rail any efforts to get them to navigate and get creative with ambiguity. My team frequently have to get the managers aligned and communicating before we can really get to work. In fact quite a bit of the internal ambiguity and uncertainty is actually created by the management of the organisation in many cases. Too little emphasis is placed on this principle in organisations. More should be made of this in appraisals and competency frameworks where they exist, and it should certainly be a topic of conversation with managers of all grades. 

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The 6 + 2 Psychological Factors of a Good Leader

There are a number of closely correlating studies examining the psychological factors which contribute to a successful leader. I have just completed a short meta-analysis research review for a client. I thought I would share an outline of the findings of the factors which correlate across most of the studies with a couple of trends in more recent studies.

The 6 Psychological Factors of a Good Leader:

  1. Decisiveness. The ability to make frequent and consistant decisions. This includes the sub-factors of taking responsibility for their decisions, knowing and sticking to the principles and ethics driving their  decision making. Decisiveness is often seen as providing clarity in uncertain situations.
  2. Overall competence. Good leaders are all seen as competent, not just as leaders but also within the realm they making decisions in. They are not just managing any situation but have competence in dealing with such situations and are perceived as having that level of competence. 
  3. Integrity or honest intent. People follow and trust leaders who they believe have the best intent or purpose. Integrity and others trust are usually seen by people as part of the same factor. 
  4. Vision. Often trotted out as a core leadership activity, vision in this case is the ability of the leader to project / articulate a clear, coherent and comprehensible path towards a meaningful goal.
  5. Persistance. Not only are good leaders clear about their goals they keep going and don't give up. This does not mean that they keep on regardless and there is a sub-factor of adaptability especially if a better way is found or the context/situation changes.
  6. Modesty. This is an interesting and surprising factor. Leaders who blow their own trumpet / feel the need to tell others how good they are are frequently associated with being a bad leader. Good leaders are seen as those who praise the right people and give credit to the team rather than themselves.
Current emerging trends

Two additional emerging psychological factors which are cropping up more frequently in recent research are:

  1. Adaptability / agility. This is the ability to deal flexibly with rapidly changing situations and has the sub-factors of the ability to see change as it happens, the ability to hold competing perspectives and deal with ambiguity and rapid change.
  2. Autonomy. This is the ability to stand alone when needed and make their own mind up as opposed to following trends without critical appraisal. 

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

What is the difference between uncertainty and ambiguity?

I am often asked this question, so in the interests clarity about ambiguity and uncertainty...

Something is ambiguous if it can be interpreted or seen in more than one way. So for example a sentence in a job reference "you will be very fortunate to get this person to work for you" has a couple of different interpretations. Either the subject of this reference is very good or very lazy.

Uncertainty on the other hand is any situation in which an individual has or finds doubt. So a situation could be uncertain but not ambiguous. People can have doubt about the most certain of situations and no doubt about an ambiguous situation. Uncertainty is then also a perception and an individual experience.


Tuesday, August 02, 2011

On failing, learning and ambiguity

Different people I come across or coach have very different relationships with the concepts of failing, learning and ambiguity. It appears there is a relationship between a person's ability to deal with all three. 

On failing: 

  1. The range appears to be from people who in certain situations beat themselves up because they failed or something they were attempting failed. They have a negative emotional reaction to the failure which usually gets them down, for a period at least. This  is the 'failure is a disaster / problem' attitude.
  2. At the other end of the spectrum is the 'failure is important feedback' attitude which we tend to find in successful entrepreneurs for example. This is often a sign of high levels of emotional resilience as long as it is real and not just "I'm saying because thats what I've been told is the value here" rhetoric, found in many organisations. You can tell the difference by the individuals longer term emotional reaction to failure. This end is encapsulated by the Thomas Edison quote “I didn’t fail. I just found ten thousand ways that didn’t work.”.
  3. The position in the middle of the range is the 'sh*t happens' attitude. Whilst this attitude often enables someone to move on, the learning is often minimal.

An individuals reactions are often situational, so a fail in one context or situation can be treated differently to a failure in a different situation (what's known as 'low emotional inertia' - more on this in a later blog), however we do notice trends. So a person who employs a genuine 'failure is feedback' mindset is much more likely to do so in a wider range of situations.

On dealing with ambiguity:

There are is a similar range of reactions to ambiguity and uncertainty (they are not the same thing). Again these can be situational, however people who tend to deal well with ambiguity in one situation will often use similar strategies in other situations, but not always.

  1. At one end of the range we have people who don't even recognise ambiguities and uncertainties and when they do, spend a lot of time trying to make them go away or pretending and hoping they will go away. If the situation can not be escaped from these individuals will become highly stressed and will often have very negative reactions to the situation.
  2. In the middle are a set of reactions which can be summed up by shrugged shoulders and the attitude "well it may be ambiguous but hey what can you do about it?"
  3. At the other end of the spectrum are the individuals who expect ambiguity and uncertainly. Their belief is everything, and I mean everything is uncertain. They tend not to get stressed by ambiguity, in fact prefer to work in ambiguous situations and jobs. It makes them happy. Why because its a licence to experiment, play and learn.
On learning:
Similarly when we look at the range of the ability of people to learn, change their thinking and behaviour (called characterisation - a stable change) from situations we find:
  1. Psychological inertia - where people keep going with the same beliefs, values and behaviour even though the situation strongly suggests that doing something differently would be advantageous. Usually at this end of the spectrum there is a considerable amount of change blindness, where an individual believes things are just the same as before, they don't notice to cues that change has or is occurring.
  2. The middle ground where the change is noticed but this results in little or no change in thinking, beliefs or behaviour. Often referred to as stupidity.
  3. At the other end of the spectrum is a group of individuals who can learn readily, change rapidly in the face of change and adapt their beliefs to the situation, searching out what the reality of the situation is rather than imposing their reality on the situation. This is psychological agility. 
An attitude of the 'excitement of discovery' (the emotion is important) coupled with the intellectual capability to be able to abstract or discern patterns or logical conflicts is the key to learning, dealing with failure, ambiguity and psychological and emotional agility. 

Saturday, January 29, 2011

The Ambiguity Advantage - Audio from Cranfield School of Management

Cranfield have published an audio about The Ambiguity Advantage: What great leaders are great at and leaders dealing with ambiguity. Listen to it here, or download it.
They mix modes and types / styles of leadership. They are not the same. See an earlier blog about modes here.

Friday, January 28, 2011

There is feeback and then there is FEEDBACK

So leading on from the previous blog. What I was really interested in was the quality of the feedback given to an individual through the four conditions mentioned in my last blog.
Just to remind you of the four conditions of the test:

1. An online automated product which gets respondents to to fill in a series of 40 questions about the individual and included free text feedback items as well. The individual then gets an aggregated document with the feedback split into sections. They do not know who submitted what feedback.

2. The pen and paper system was operated in two different conditions:

a. The first where the forms were sent direct from the respondent to the individual getting the feedback.

b. In the second condition the forms were sent to a third party (the individuals coach) who then aggregated and anonamised the feedback.

3. The respondents were interviewed face-to-face or over the phone by the individuals coach who then aggregated the feedback and gave it to the individual.

I then had the individual receiving and the respondents giving the feedback all rate (5 point scalar) the feedback in terms of:
  1. Usefulness
  2. Accuracy
  3. Honesty
In reverse order the results are (drum role)...

2a where the forms were sent direct to the individual
  • The Receiver of the feedback: Usefulness average 2.1, Accuracy 2.0, Honesty 4.2
  • The Respondents: Usefulness 2.9, Accuracy, 2.9, Honesty 1.8

1. Online automated system

  • The Receiver of the feedback: Usefulness average 3.1, Accuracy 2.9, Honesty 3.7
  • The Respondents: Usefulness 2.8, Accuracy 3.3, Honesty 1.5

2b Where the forms went to the coach
  • The Receiver of the feedback: Usefulness average 3.2, Accuracy 3.5, Honesty 4.0
  • The Respondents: Usefulness 4.2, Accuracy 4.1, Honesty 4.1
3. Fact to Face interview with the coach

  • The Receiver of the feedback: Usefulness average 4.6, Accuracy 4.7, Honesty 4.6
  • The Respondents: Usefulness 4.2, Accuracy 5.0, Honesty 4.9
I have all the tabulated data (sample size, conditions, frequencies, ranges, levels of significance etc) which I will post later.

So just looking at these figures there appears to be a clear difference between the way the feedback is
  1. Collected
  2. Given
  3. Fed back to the individual
  4. Received
In my next post I will discuss these results in greater detail. I'm off for a few days trying to get the next book in some semblance of order. Until then...

Monday, January 24, 2011

Split test of 360 degree feedback. Not all feedback is equal.

I had the opportunity to test three versions of 360 degree feedback, using four different conditions in the last couple of weeks with some interesting results. The three versions were:
1. An automated online system
2. A pen and paper system, and
3. Interviews with respondents

1. The automated product gets respondents to to fill in a series of 40 questions about the individual to get the feedback and includes free text feedback items as well. The individual then gets an aggregated document with the feedback split into sections. They do not know who submitted what feedback.

2. The pen and paper system was operated in two different conditions.
a. The first where the forms were sent direct to the individual getting the feedback.
b. In the second condition the forms were sent to a third party (the individuals coach).

3. The respondents were interviewed face-to-face or over the phone by the individuals coach.

The respondents were told in all conditions that the feedback was in confidence and that the individual getting the feedback would not know who gave any particular feedback.

The respondents were then interviewed after they had completed the feedback and asked how honest they had been, if they had mediated their feedback in any way and what considerations they made whilst answering the questions.
We then interviewed the individuals to get their view of the feedback they received.

Results tomorrow...

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Problem Solving and Mood

A couple of clients last week poked me and said. You must be busy because we haven't seen much from your blog recently. I have been working on a number of projects including the next book and a new academic post, however I will get back to this - now.

There have been a couple of interesting and interconnected pieces of research published recently about problem solving and emotion. Readers of The Ambiguity Advantage and clients I coach will know that one premise I work from is that every decision we make is emotionally based. There are a number of prices of research (especially current work using MRi and fMRi) that shows emotional parts of the brain kick in before the decision and the rational-logical areas get to work after the decision is formed. In other words we appear to make decisions based on emotion and then engage in post-decision rationalisation.

A paper actually published in 2009(1) has just hit the headlines (NY Times) in which it was found that positive mood and in particular enjoying comedy just before having to solve a problem increased insight problem solving ( just getting the answer as opposed to methodically working through the problem). Not reported but in the original paper was that the researchers found that anxiety depressed insight problem solving, so that individuals were significantly less likely to be able to just intuitively get the answer.

There are quite a number of research papers showing similar findings, however what Is different here is that the researchers used fMRi to see the process happening.

The second article (2) (awaiting publication), looks at using emotion regulation (the stuff I teach about emotional resilience) strategies when making risk decisions. They discovered that the use of such strategies not only helped the participants to make better decisions but they were also better able to workout which decisions were the riskier choices more accurately and mediate their response in the light of this. This meant that they were able to avoid the decisions that could have more negative effects when engaging in emotional regulation activity then when not, especially under stress.

So what does all this mean? Firstly we are less likely to be able to solve problems with insight problem solving when anxious. Secondly when under stress we are not that good at discerning the levels of risk of a problem or ambiguous situation and are therefore likely to make a more risky decision without knowing we are doing so.

The ability to regulate our emotions is important in both cases. To 'up-regulate' for insight and regulate and therefore mediate the effects of anxiety and stress in any situation that contains ambiguity (I would argue all situations contain ambiguity) so we can better perceive the risks involved and reduce the negative effects that risk and anxiety have on our decision making capability.

1. Subramaniam K, Kounios J, Parrish TB, & Jung-Beeman, M. (2009) A brain mechanism for facilitation of insight by positive affect. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience. 2009 Mar;21(3):415- 432

2. Martin, L.N. & Delgado, M.R. (2011) The influence of Emotion Regulation on Decision Making Under Risk. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience. Yet to be published - 2011 poss May/June.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Only one route?

Decisions and results

Everything we do is a decision, whether it is a conscious decison or not it is still a decision. Doing nothing or doing something else is also a decision.
Every decision we make whether it is conscious or by default, changes what is going to happen next and therefore is going to have an impact on whatever the outcome will be.
Complex? We have only just got started.
Now think about everybody else making decisions and how they interact and create emergent properties and situations. The current financial situation is one such emergent situation. No one (I hope) planned for this to be the outcome and yet it occurred - as a result of a complex matrix of decisions and actions people made.
What ever happens next will likewise emerge as a result of the complex interconnected web of decisions and actions we are all making right now.

The problem with most strategies

As you can imagine with this level of complexity it is impossible to really predict what is going to happen in three weeks time let alone three years time. Most strategies are made based on history and our current understandings of not only what is happening but how things work.
As we are finding out, how things work now is not how they used to work, just like what is happening now is not the same as what happened before. Sure we can see the similarities, but it is different.
And yet, most strategies are singular. This is what we want, this is how we will get there and this is likely what we need. One goal, one route, one strategy.

When I am working with clients I insist they do at least 5 strategies. One for the worst possible outcome and set of decisions/events. One for the best. One for average and two either side of the average, Quite good and quite poor.

It is amazing how more inclusive the strategies become. However much more importantly, people can see how day-to-day decisions and emergent and unforeseen events are tied to emergent futures. How one decision can set a business or enterprise off on a particular road. This starts to help businesses do three things that are the mantra of Special Forces around the world:
  1. Adapt,
  2. Improvise, and
  3. Overcome.
Who really knows what is around the corner? It is the most adaptable, creative and resilient organisations and people that win in ambiguous times. Having a flexible and living strategy that allows people to improvise, innovate and make good decisions is vital.

Monday, November 08, 2010

A quote

"Ambiguity, risk and uncertainty scream out for their bedfellows; innovation, experimentation and play."

David Wilkinson

Author of 'The Ambiguity Advantage: What great leaders are great at.' Palgrave Macmillian

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Strategic Planning: How far out? Are you serious???

I have been doing some work with a couple of clients around building a strategic plan. Usually what they want is a business / corporate / organizational strategy for the next 3 - 5 years. I highlighted the word a above for a very good reason, which I will explain in a second.
However firstly I want to make comment about the concept of a 3-5 year plan, which is dear to my heart as my bank has just asked for one as part of our business plan. It's fascinating that organizations are still thinking like this.

Two days ago I took a client to the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. We went into the Egyptian section of the museum where the smaller exhibits are all laid out in chronological order. So as you progress around the room in one direction you find yourself going further back in time, or go the other way and you walk forward in time to more modern times. What we noticed was that from about 4000 - 3000 BC, so for over 1000 years there was little change in artifacts found. Most tended to be practical artifacts. Around about 3100 years BC saw the start of hieroglyphics and then things start to change. Much more art and religious objects start turning up. But again they stay fairly similar for hundreds and hundreds of years. Around 2700 BC saw the start of pyramid building. Again there were hundreds of years between real changes, but the changes were starting to occur quicker - a few hundred years as opposed to 7-800 years.
A nice example is the development of glass and the colour blue happen around 3500 and doesn't really start to change until 1500 when glass makers started to dip a mould into molten glass and start to turn it to produce vessels. Then developments start to move at a faster pace. Around about 1400BC they start glass blowing. As you stand in the room you can actually see technologies, thinking and development speeding up and the timelines between innovations and events getting shorter and shorter.
And so back to our strategic plans. 5 years ago everyone did 1,2,3,5 and even 10 year plans.

The question I often ask now is "Tell me what is going to happen in your market / business in one years time?" I usually have the question answered with shrugs - "No idea".
"And you want a strategy for the next three years??" Most of us have a hard enough time understanding what is going to happen in 3 weeks time in our business let alone 3 years.
When I asked my bank manager what the markets will be like and what the bank would be doing in 3 years time a look of panic crossed her face.
What I have learnt is what I wanted or thought I wanted 3 years ago looks naive now, and given what has happened globally feels way out.

The other point - going back to the red a above. Most organisations develop a strategy, singular. One. Does one strategy really give you enough vision to make really good decisions in ambiguous times? More on this next....

Monday, June 21, 2010

Emotional Resilience: with emotion

One of the areas I have been focussing on both in terms of work and research (there is another book on the way) is emotional resilience (we run The Fear Course in many UK universities). One of the most common misperception about emotional resilience is that it means people are able to do things like make decisions, deal with situations without emotion.
Cutting off from your emotions is not a useful trait, in fact it can cause many problems especially in leadership and management situations. Our perception of situations is as much the ability to be able to feel a situation as well as think about it. Our emotions and thinking operate together to give us a fuller sense of a situation and importantly for managers and leaders operate with empathy as well as ethically and morally in any situation.
Additionally an individual without emotion would have a sever problem with logic or reason. Reasoning requires a level of understanding of emotions.

More on this soon.

Saturday, June 19, 2010


Whilst coaching a client in the city this week, he made a comment that made me think. He was trying to solve an ambiguous dilemma, so I did what I thought all good coaches would do. Get the client to look at the problem from a whole series of different perspectives and to unpack their current problem solving approach on a non-agenda driven basis (from me).
Anyway at the end of the session the client said he had never had such a thought provoking 'workout'.
Now I don't say this for purposes of self-aggrandizement or self promotion. The issue is that the client has a regular coach (I coach for ambiguous and high emotional impact situations). It would appear that his regular coach moves him into a solution in what sounds like an 'I know best, this is what you should be doing', mentoring style approach.
So I did some checking with other clients who have coaches and it would appear that this is a very frequent approach taken by a number of performance coaches. One client sounded a little surprised at my questioning and said "Of course my coach facilitates me to the right solution, we pay them to give us good advice".

I have seen similar approaches in workshops where participants are 'facilitated' to the 'right' answer according to the trainers.

"Facipulation (v) - Using the tools and techniques of facilitation to manipulate a pre-existing and known outcome or solution in the mind of the 'facipulator' in a way that makes it look and feel like the 'facipulated' constructed their own answer."

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

The 10 most predominant attributes of Mode II people

In terms of population distribution by far the most frequent group of people are mode two or co-operative people. Approximately 55% of the population have a tendency towards a co-operative thinking system (What is a mode?).
So what are the attributes of a mode two logic system?
1. The first thing of note about mode two or cooperative people is that they see value in other people. There is a realisation here that two heads are better than one and you need to work with people, a) to get things done, and b) to make things better. What underpins this largely is the mediation of risk. There is safety in teams. "If I make a decision on my own and it is wrong there is only one person at fault. If I make a decision based on a collection of others ideas that they agree with and 'we' are wrong, then that is less of a personal risk to me.
2. Democracy is the usual method of decision making here. Everyone has a vote and the majority win - except when they don't! Co-operative leaders / managers will usually reserve the right to make the final decision. This will in all likely hood be similar to the majority view but not always.
3. There is usually a collective wish / need to reduce risks as much as possible. So you find lots of structures like competencies etc. in mode two organisations as well as other risk reduction behaviours / thinking.
4. There is a distinct focus on task here. In mode two organisations the task is the focus. There is a little emphasis in modal mode two on process in as far as it effects the task. What I mean by this is that things like 'team building' and the reduction of conflict are highlighted activities in mode two environments. This is to ensure as far as is possible that the task gets done with the minimum of friction.
5. Friction is usually defined in this logic system as being anything or anyone that is percieved to get in the way of or slow down the completion of the task.
6. Cooperative problem solving approaches are the big feature here. Two or more people working together to solve a problem. It does not matter what the people involved believe, indeed people in this system are largely expected to work regardless of their beliefs. The prevailing thinking is, you are paid to work so work. If the people working together don't believe in the task they are just expected to get on with it, unlike as you will see mode three systems.
7. Using others as resources is really the name of the game - cooperate to get the job done.
8. As mentioned above mode two people really don't like conflict. In the workplace great effort is taken to reduce interpersonal conflict or better still to stop it happening. Conflict is seen as unproductive and an unnessessary distraction. It also (importantly) doesn't feel good.
9. Emotional resilience in mode two is pretty low to average to say the least. More about this in a later post.
10. Ambiguity and uncertainty is to be reduced. A lot of effort and money is used (often unsuccessfully) to make things simple and clear especially in mode II organisations. Ambiguity is seen as the nemasis of productivity.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Mode one as followers and leaders - relationships

As followership and leadership rely on relationships in this blog I will look at mode one relationships from both a leadership and a followers perspective.

Mode One Leaders
The key here is that mode one people do not like uncertainty or risk and that their reaction is to block it out in some way.

Mode 1 leader - Mode 1 follower
So if a mode one leader has a mode one follower or followers, in terms of relationships then the union is usually mutually happy - for a while. Both sides of this pairing are risk averse and will happily collude to make up their own versions of reality that exclude uncertainty (lots of structures and systems just to make sure) and reduce risk. If you need stability then a mode one leader will give you it - in bucket loads.
Problems, usually in the form of stress and blaming usually occur in this relationship when things start to go wrong (as they often will). Problems usually arise out of the fact that together mode one leaders and followers are the least likely to spot external changes and the most likely to keep doing the same thing regardless. In other words a mode one leader or manager with mode one followers are the most likely combination to fool themselves about what is going on. This is exacerbated by the fact that mode one leaders are very likely to recruit mode one people - diversity is seen as a risk.
On the other hand mode one leaders with mode one followers are most likely to have stable relationships with each other with little if any friction or conflict. In stable times, as long as nothing goes wrong and risk is low, then this is a happy and productive pairing.

However if a mode one leader has followers from other modes things will become problematic, with the paradoxical pairing of a mode one leader with a mode four 'follower'. I will look at these pairing in future postings as and when we get to the exploration of that mode.

Mode one followers

Mode one followers are largely passive and they want explicit direction which works well with mode one leaders who want to reduce risk and therefore give very detailed instructions. Problems arise when a situation moves away from the formulaic and require creativity and critical thinking. Their form of creativity is step-by-step slow and incremental change. Their form of logic and therefore critical thinking is control and risk reduction. They will work nicely in structured well defined situations. If you change this and ask for fundamental change quickly, denial will be the most likely initial response. Force it and stress and illness is likely to occur. This is a similar response if you ask a mode one follower to do anything that is ambiguous and not well defined.
They appreciate the structure of mode one leaders and suffer under mode two and three leaders. They can freak out under a immature mode four leader but work well under a mature mode four leader. I will go into these in greater details shortly as we get to each mode description.

In the next blog I will have a look at mode two people.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Mode one people - attributes

The first group of people I will look at as part of this series on followership and leadership are what is known as mode one or technical people.
The term technical leadership or followership comes from the thinking and subsequent approaches to problem solving that underpin and define this system.
Mode one individuals largely see the world as a series of technical issues that all have an answer. If you don't know the answer to a problem then someone else will. This is a world of experts and consultants, you just need to find the right expert to solve any problem. The view here is that everything has a well defined answer, you just need to find it. This approach is usually illustrated by 'flowchart decision making' with no shades of grey.
Mode one individuals (followers and leaders) tend not to entertain ambiguity and uncertainty easily if at all. The most frequent mode one reactions to ambiguity and uncertainty include:
  • outright denial of the situation,
  • create their own (usually imaginary) certainty / reality,
  • displacement behaviour aka do something else (normally something comforting).
Mode one individuals (both followers and leaders) do not tolerate uncertainty and risk very well and operate to reduce these as much as possible, usually by resorting to methods of control.

Mode one leaders are autocrats. Mode one followers are largely passive and dependent people who want to be told what to do and they tend not vary from the script. Mode one leaders and followers go together well. However if a mode one follower is under a mode two, three or four leader, the leaders would do well to be very explicit about what is required of them. They will see people from other modes as increasingly unstructured and dangerous or a least unsafe. These are not great people in times of change as they will fight to get back to the old certainty or fool themselves that things have not or are not changing.

Mode one leaders in charge of organisations in times of change (like the current situation) are the number one candidates for loosing their business.

Mode one followers are the most difficult (but not impossible) to get to embrace change. Both mode one leaders and followers can embrace change if handled correctly.

A nice summary of mode one people:

Good at
  • Following ‘characterised’ procedures
  • Making incremental changes
  • Postponing reward
  • Staying safe
  • Standardising procedures
  • Leading from the front
  • Detail
Struggles with
  • Risk & Ambiguity
  • Innovation
  • Diversity
  • Non standard thinking
  • Empathy and emotional intelligence / resilience (they can appear very resilient but this is only due to denial and displacement)
  • Co-operation and collaboration
  • Strategic concepts (big picture)
Here is a video example of mode one behaviour when faced with something different from a previous blog.

Here are the distributions of modes in the leadership population.

Next I will look at mode two leaders and followers.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

A note about systems of logic or Modes

I have been asked for a little more info about the concept of a mode.


From this work it became apparent that the system of logic or perspective being used by any individual bounds and gives direction to their response. This includes how people respond in terms of their:
  • Cognitions
  • Emotions
  • Attitudes
  • Behaviour
  • Resilience
  • Perceptions
which are all guided and given direction by the system of thinking being used. Part of the thesis here is that the mode being used is created as a response to ambiguity, perceptions of risk or threat. I know this sounds negative, however threat (fear) is the primal driver no matter how much we like it or not.
So a mode is a whole system of logic, thinking, perception, emotion etc. It is impossible to separate these out especially in terms of which is causal and which is an effect, which is why I describe them as a system involving all these elements rather than a style.

Next, I will look at the system of Mode one or technical (dualist) individuals. It's nice to be back!

Friday, December 12, 2008

I'm back with some modes

Firstly sorry about the pause in the blog. I have been setting up a new venture which has taken up more time than I expected, and we have been a little busy helping people deal with risk, ambiguity and emotional resilience. I have a sneeking feeling that I am in a minority in enjoying the current times and finding them very exciting. Things are starting to settle down now so normal service will be resumed. I am going to start off where I left off - talking about followership and leadership using the modes of leadership from my own research around how people deal with ambiguity.

Before I commence just a quick word about modes v styles.
A mode is a system of logic, or of constructing our thinking and therefore a system of perceiving the world around us. It affects everything we do, think and feel. They are not styles or preferences in the strict sense that they do not describe behaviours as such however discernible behaviours are apparent as a result of the mode an individual is in.

Modes are usually semi-perminant in that people will operate from a mode and tend not to move between them unless a) they have learnt about the other systems and are onciously doing so, or b) are in transition between two modes in response to some change or other.

In the next few articles I will explore each of the four modes and how people in them see the world. I will then have a look at the interactions between the modes in terms of leadership and followership, and a few other things. You can get a good overview in the book The Ambiguity Advantage.
These are quite likely to be interspersed with comment on current topics as well as there is a lot to think about at the moment.

In the next blog we will look at mode one or technical leadership.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Ira Chaleff's follower typology - his response

I wouldn't normally do this, however Ira has responded to the last blog about his work. His response is very useful and adds to the short description I gave of his work so I will quote it at length here as it deserves a more prominent place than in the comments bucket.

Hi. This is Ira Chaleff responding to your description of my work on Followership.

First, thank you for a fair description and for alerting readers to the existence of our Followership Exchange WIKI that is becoming a posting ground for research and current activities on the topic of followership.

I think it would be useful for your readers to know that the two dimensions that create my "followership styles" typology are the degree of support given to the leader and the willingness to question or challenge (admittedly a bit of a strong word) a leader's actions that are counterproductive.

To answer your question "Are the styles fixed?" the answer is unequivocally "no." In workshops I have participants complete a self assessment questionnaire that places them in one of the four styles, or occasionally on the cusp between two styles. We then examine the growth direction for each style. Generally speaking, for those in the Resource or Individualist style the growth direction is giving the leader more support. For those in the Implementer style it is pushing beyong their comfort zone to vocalize questions or discomfort they are harboring about a leader's plans or actions. For those in the Partner quadrant, growth may be in either direction, continually working to serve the organization and leader better while being more willing to be an important source of candor for the leader. In my model, Follower is a role, not a personality type, and people can develop in a role.

My own view on these typologies is that their primary value is to begin giving people some language to think about the follower role, how they do it, and how they might do it differently. They typically haven't thought much about it, as there was an absence of language with which to do so.

To some degree you can view my typology as dynamically linked to Hersey/Blanchard's Situational Leadership typology. As the follower's "task maturity" increases there ideally would be a movement from Resource to Implementer to Partner. However, several factors can keep this from happening including internalized rule sets regarding authority relationships, organization culture, socio-economic stressors, etc. The aim of "Courageous Followership" is to lower the self-imposed barriers to acting as a fully responsible Partner for leaders, whether or not the leader invites this. Of course, doing this requires both courage and skill. The Courageous Follower book is a resource for an individual to develop in both dimensions. By contrast, The Art of Followership is a compendium of academic research into followership, and practitioner experiences with implementing followership development programs, in a variety of organizations.

The most fundamental point of Courageous Followership is that those who are not in the Leader role, can and should help the leader use his or her power well to achieve the organization's mission, and keep the leader from squandering or abusing power through courageous and skilfull support, feedback and, when necessary, moral stands.

Thank you again for this very valuable series which we will point Followership Exchange WIKI visitors to as well.

Thanks for the response. The link to Followership Exchange is here.

The interesting thing for me is the notion that even in the partner quadrant growth can be in either direction. Interesting because the emphasis appears to be on what is good for the organisation, or to put it another way, on the primacy of the goals of the organisation. This is where conflict for these people can arise.
Sometimes good partners who are intelligent (critical thinkers), courageous and challenging will also be using these skills on the ethics and morals (different things) of the aims of the organisation. As this is often profit before everything else (they can see through 'ethical' dressing up to make their goods or services more attractive / profitable), this then places a partner in a dilemma and thence into an ambiguous place where they have strong loyalty to the individual leaders but a weakening connection with the aims of the organisation. How they will deal with such a dilemma will depend on their 'mode' of thinking, which is what the modes of leadership are...

Monday, July 21, 2008

Ira Chaleff's follower typology

The next followership model, another typology, comes from Ira Chaleff who I believe is part of the Followership Exchange a rather useful wiki devoted to followership. Chaleff published 'The Couagous Follower; Standing up and for our leaders.' initially in 1995 and earlier this year (2008) published (with Ronald E. Riggio, and Jean Lipman-Blumen) 'The Art of Followership: How Great Followers Create Great Leaders and Organizations'.
Chaleff's original work on followership proposed an interesting typology which emphasises the relationship between leaders and followers. Importantly this work recognises the positive role of follower challenge to leadership thinking and as the title of the second book suggests the role followers can play in developing and maturing leaders. Chaleff (et al) blur the lines between follower and leader, seeing rather the dance between the two in influencing and developing each other. The focus here is on the skills of the follower rather than their personality. Skills can be developed and updated and appear less set. There is a downside to skills based arguments however. They often led to indoctrinational types of instrumental training programmes to ensure compliance, which when you look at the typology will work with only a few types of follower. This is not a fault of the model, rather of the interpretation and abstraction of the model by people who misunderstand how such models can be used.
Blind obedience in this model is not seen as a positive attribute, hence the emphasis on bravery (both of the leader and the follower) to tackle the things that need to tackled.

Chaleff's typology:

Implementers. These are the majority of most organisations workers. They do most of the work and busy themselves doing and completing tasks. However they tend not to question the leaders, preferring instead to 'just get on with the job'

Partners. These people want (and often need) to be seen as equal to the leader, especially in terms of their skills and thinking. If this state is allowed to exist in the relationship the partner-follower will respect the leaders position and support the leader strongly. They will also provide the intellectual challenge needed by the leader. With the right leader a strong and positive partnership will develop. If however the leader won't allow these people to partner them (often out of fear that their position/status will be diminished) then they can create powerful enemies.

Individualists. Individualists are independent and will think for themselves. This does not mean that they are selfish, they just don't tend to follow 'group think'. They also like to do as they see fit and do not make great followers in the traditional sense. the wise leader however will use the attributes of the individualist wisely. These people, as long as you keep contact with them, will often provide new ideas and ways of thinking that can be used.

Recourses. These people will do what they have been asked to do and no more. They tend to lack the requisite intellect, imagination and courage needed to do more (I do find the label 'Resources' somewhat depreciating, however I do understand the sentiment behind it!).

As can be seen the focus here is more of a partnership and therefore the relationship between leader and follower. The blurring of the lines between leader and follower in the partner scenario is useful. However as noted before it does depend on the maturity of the leader for it to work. What I do like about this work is the call for courage and therefore emotional maturity / resilience.

As with most typologies (which models of followership tend to be) there is the question as to the nature of the types. Are the types, personality based, fixed and you just need to accept them?
Are they skill based and all you need to do is increase the skills by training, which is an often alluring proposition?
Are they intelligence or even maturity based?
Or a mix maybe? Issues rarely tackled by the models.
Other questions include:
Can people move between the types? Most models appear not to discuss this and accept the position people play. The way around this is often seen as training people to be a particular (more useful) type.
Why are they all 2x2 models? Can the reality (whatever that is) of followership (whatever that is!) really just fall neatly into a world of two dimensions?
Notwithstanding these questions, Chaleff's work requires close scrutiny as the emphasis on relationships and courage is a very profitable (useful and practical) line of thinking which many leaders and employees would do well to think about.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Zaleznik's Follower Typology

Today we travel back to 1965, to one of the earliest contemporary models of followership. Abraham Zaleznik, a professor at Havard, proposed the model in an article titled The Dynamics of Subordinacy in the HBR. The title itself speaks volumes about the thinking of the time. The concept of the subordinate is not something that is entertained easily these days and any leader that referred to their followers / employees as 'subordinates' would likely be seen as 'old hat' at the charitable end of reactions.

This model owes much to a freudian view of the world which itself is also somewhat out of fashion these days and as a result the model is now rarely seen as credible. It tends to be included in curricula as an exercise in academic criticism.

Ahead of it's time however, this is an early 2 x 2 model, which is again indicative of the type thinking being used by Zaleznik at the time. On a personal note I do find my self a little suspicious of models that fit neatly into a 2 x 2 matrix, as many models do. My question is:
Is it likely that (and this is a challenge to all of these 'neat' models) the data really determined the model? Or has the data has been somehow squished into a matrix and made to fit, or were they filtered (either during collection or analysis) through bi-dimensional (x vs y) thinking? If my suspicions have any foundation then the validity of these type of models should be questioned.
As a side note I find Zaleznik's later leadership writings simlarly interesting in that he describes leaders as 'charismatics' and managers as 'non-charismatics'.

However regardless of these issues the model introduces interesting dimensions worthy of consideration. Zaleznik makes a comparison based on the dimensions of activity and control.
The four quadrants of this model are:

  1. Impulsive followers (High Dominance / Actitive) who's defining characteristic is that they try to lead or influence others and their leader whilst being a follower them self. These are active and controlling people who try to dominate others and frequently (as the name suggests) act impulsively tending to move into areas that others wouldn't, sometimes seen as courageous and sometimes ill advised.
  2. Compulsive followers (High Dominance / Passive) are more passive than their impulsive colleagues. The rationale here is that these people would like to dominate their leaders and others but hold back out of guilt (Freudian).
  3. Masochistic followers (Submissive / Active) on the other hand want to submit and be controlled by authority. These people get pleasure from the pain of active submission. They submit (follow) willingly and enthusiastically, blindly following.
  4. Withdrawn followers are passive submissives. They will do the minimum required but will not engage actively in the direction of the the organisation or make any decisions. They tend to care little for their work or workplace.
You can see the Freudian basis of the model which often makes it uncomfortable for contemporary scholars, which is one reason why Zaleznik's work is popularly criticised. However when viewed in terms of behaviour, rather than the level of psychological or motivational explanation, this model is worthy of consideration.

Zaleznik, A. (1965), The Dynamics of Subordinacy, Harvard Business Review, May-Jun 1965