Sunday, 29 November 2009

The Necessary Conditions for Innovation

There is little doubt that public service, whether statutory or voluntary has entered those ‘interesting times’!

Those at the higher end of the food chain now know their budget settlements for next year, those that are not, have or certainly should have, a pretty good understanding of where things are heading.

Whilst many settlements are not quite as scary as many had anticipated, there is little doubt that 2010/11 will be a year of preparing for unprecedented cuts to come.

So, how should organisations respond?

David Snowden, Founder and Chief Scientific Officer of Cognitive Edge offers a useful perspective.

I find David’s argument about ‘The Necessary Conditions for Innovation’ is particularly interesting right now - because it seems to me that those conditions are arising in abundance in public services, in Wales, in the UK, in Europe and across much of the World.

Take a look at this You-Tube clip and decide for yourself:

In summary, the argument is that there are three necessary conditions which promote an innovative approach amongst individuals and groups:

Starvation, - a substantial reduction of resources,

Pressure of Time, - the realisation that we really can’t carry on like this much longer,

Perspective Shift, - the realisation that what was critical yesterday is incidental today, - and there’s a whole new order of Critical we’ve just discovered!

“Necessary, but not sufficient…..”

Just one thing, David’s word of warning:

These three conditions do not guarantee innovation – they just make it possible. If organisations are to benefit from a new appetite to innovate, just reminding people that “we’re broke, it’s going to get worse and the stuff we went on about last year has no bearing anymore,” is possibly not quite enough!

Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Where has September gone?

Well what an incredibly busy September it's been!

- I'm not complaining, I need to earn a living and in the current economic conditions 'making hay whilst the sun shines' has got to be a good thing.

What I've been reminded of however, is how easy it is to get so into hay making that you forget all the lessons you taught yourself when things were a little quieter along with all the life priorities that you know make absoluterly sense!

I've been lucky enough to have been working with a number for fantastic clients in September, - and that's been very affirming and rewarding. I've also been doing a whole load of desk-work culminating last week in three nights in a row working until 2.30am.

The result of this was that I did the absolute minimum necessary to keep home & family ticking over (the most important life priority for me, yet I did the minimum!); I stopped my 'me time' completely (usually allow myself a half hour morning and evening for relaxation/recovery & re-focussing), and I survived on coffee to keep me awake and red wine to get me to sleep!

Is it any wonder that my body took took over the self management for me, - I stooped to get my son's pizza out of the oven & my back gave out. - couldn't move and had no choice but to have a complete 'system shutdown'.

Why do I, and so many other people, refuse to notice the signs and carry on as if we're some kind of super hero? Of course there are some disasters that are genuinely unpredictable, but how many times has a major catastrophe in your work or life been followed by some bright spark saying, "well, you could have seen thast coming a mile off"?!

Friday, 21 August 2009

What is 'Corporate Instinct'? - Part 2

We're kind of familiar with the concept of 'flow', that wonderful state when we become so deeply and wholly engaged in what we're doing that our subconscious seems to take over and the most challenging task starts to feel effortless. We seem to do things twice as efficiently, the quality of our actions and their consequences seem outstanding and we find ourselves using skills, talents or instincts we didn’t know we had.

That feeling of ‘flow’ has been with me, albeit fleetingly, several times in my working life. It seems to happen to me quite a bit when I’m deeply engrossed in coaching or facilitating action learning, sometimes too when I’m delivering training activities. Professionally, one’s reaction might well be to ‘snap out of it’. We are taught that switching to autopilot can be dangerous; how do we know we’re noticing all the signs? Can we be sure we’re 100% engaged? But somehow you know the difference between the ‘flow’ state and the ‘not quite there’ state, and you know that this is the former.

Now, I can think of a few occasions where I found myself ‘flowing’ with a group of colleagues. It happens at those times of extreme creativity or problem solving. You find your group acting and apparently thinking as one being rather than as separate individuals. I emphasise the word ‘creativity’ as I don’t want to confuse this state with the strict adherence to a drilled routine, - maybe I’m wrong, but synchronised swimming feels to me to be about strict compliance rather than about ‘flow’ – and it only works in highly controlled environments, - not so good if there are unpredictable tides, currents or waves which impact variably on each team member.

It’s just a wonderful feeling when a group of Humans create this collective flow together, - fabulous too of we could use the ability to avoid conflict amongst us.

As Daisaku Ikeda, President of Soka Gakkai International expresses it:

“Birds fly about high in the sky. Yet it does not happen that two birds collide with one another. Again, many fish live in the sea. Yet it is unheard of for two fish to bump into each other. In the immense breadth of the sky and the sea, birds and fish live and move about freely because of their instinctive knowledge of the routes of the sky and the sea as well as the principles that govern the processes of flight and swimming.

In the same way, when living in accordance with the Law [he refers here to the fundamental laws of humanity and nature]….human beings will not uselessly collide with one another. They will not come into conflict with each other on account of minor negative feelings such as jealousy, hatred and arrogance, thus creating unhappiness and misfortune for themselves”

Thursday, 30 July 2009

What is 'Corporate Instinct'? - Part 1

I think I'm about ready to try and share some clarity about the nature of this concept of 'corporate instinct'. Please bear with me, - I'm thinking as I'm doing so won't always get it right first time!

Some words will follow, but I want to start with some images. Take a look at the school of fish and the flock of birds. What messages do the images present when you think about human organisations?


In both of these clips there's the immediate 'how do they co-ordinate so effectively?' I'm interested in reflecting on this later. But for now, I was particularly interested in the fish clip, - because we are closer to the action, we see more detail:

  • How is it that different groups of fish simultaneously take the lead (and former leaders allow themselves to be followers)?
  • Which fish decides on a change? ...or is 'decides' the wrong word?
  • How and why do subgroups emerge creating harmonious yet contrary motions?
  • ...and how do they re-unite?

Part 2 to follow soon, - but please feel free to comment.

Tuesday, 7 July 2009

What a great waste of human potential

I attended the Welsh Human Rights Summit yesterday.

This was a day event organised jointly by The Equality & Human Rights Commission and Public Service Management Wales. It was hugely stimulating, providing both good and bad news stories and critically, generating a powerful 'call to action' for us all.

I left the event, however, feeling unsettled, - frustrated that we were still having the same debates and are, to an extent at least, still stuck in the same place.

You see to me, the concept of unconditional human rights for all is just part of the journey. On Maslow's Heirarchy of Needs, I'd place Human Rights pretty near the bottom, not far above food and shelter. In an organisational context, Human rights are very much part of Hertzberg's 'Hygiene Factors', - the basics that must be in place rather than providing any sustained motivational driver.

I suppose I see human rights as a necessary, but not very exciting starting point. I'm much more interested in the human conditions that are liberated when we enable people to exercise their basic human rights:

What about Human Excitement, Human Creativity, Human Imagination?

What could an organisation that is full of Human Compassion, Human Inspiration and Human Vision achieve?

What could possible stop an organisation that was piled high with Human Commitment, Human Motivation and Human Understanding?

These are the human qualities that will best see us through the current recession, and that will create long-lasting and sustainable transformation. Why is our society, - let's face it, why is our planet, still struggling with the basic conditions that are needed to release this amazing and transforming capability?

Perhaps the good news is that, in the current global economic climate, the organisation that takes on the Human Rights agenda in a genuine and holistic way and recognises the value of unlocking its latent human potential will fly, - and act as a beacon for others!

Monday, 29 June 2009

If you try to borrow someone else’s flow you’re asking for trouble!

I’m noticing coincidences at the moment.

I’ve been talking about Nick Smith and Flow quite a bit. In his Little Book of Flow which is downloadable for free at Nick tells a story about a trip to Silverstone race track and an experience of ‘flow’ whilst racing a single seater racing car.

My story won’t be nearly as good if you haven’t read Nick’s account first, but to summarise, Nick describes an experience where he became ill and was on the edge of passing out as he raced a very powerful single seater race car round the circuit. Perhaps because his judgement was impaired by his illness, rather than stop the car and spoil the experience for his family, he continues to race and, in this strange state of body and mind, allows his inner self, unrestricted by his conscious mind to take control of the car. Nick not only wins the race, but beats the lap record!

Whilst I was reading this account, my wife, who had not read it, was booking me a single seater racing experience at Silverstone! The same cars, the same track, the same experience as Nick.

She booked it for last weekend, 3 days after I had met Nick for the first time and heard him tell the same story at the Welsh Public Service Summer School.

Anyway, the Journey to Silverstone was lovely. Beautiful weather and scenery, - and I was very excited; about to do something I’d never done before – and something that was completely different from a normal me-type activity, - yet it had a real fit with my current reading and learning!

Well, I felt fine. I went through my basic training and got myself strapped into the car. The engine started with a roar and, getting to grips with an unforgiving clutch, I made a jerky and hesitant start. However, a few laps behind the safety car was enough to overcome this and to get to grips with 0 to 60 in less than 4 seconds. Then, as the safety car peeled off into the pits I was racing – and in the lead! (That's me in the photo above). Within a couple of laps two cars had shot passed me and I realised I was doing OK, but not really ‘pushing the envelope’. I started to relax, I eased my grip on the wheel and the gear shift, - I went faster. I allowed my conscious mind to take a back seat and to observe rather than control. I lapped the back-markers. I noticed myself breaking later into the corners and accelerating earlier out of them. I felt totally in control and totally out of control at the same time. I felt no fear, but a real sense of calm and happiness. I was going fast. I was working my way past the other cars to the front. Ahead of me, as the race drew towards a close, I saw the car I had first lapped. Of course I would get passed it again, and that would give me a clear run to the chequered flag. With no worry, no strain – and no particular thought, I felt my car accelerate underneath me and I shot passed – even though he was accelerating hard too. I prepared for the next corner without worrying my conscious mind with the details. Breaking hard, I locked the wheels and squealing and screeching (the car not me) I spun through the safety cones, off the track and out of the race!

So, the moral of this story is to make sure to go with your own flow – don’t try to borrow someone else’s!

Thursday, 25 June 2009

The most astounding leader of all

Yesterday I was fortunate enough to join the Wales Public Service Summer School for the day. This is a week long festival of leadership learning organised by Public Service Management Wales, the public service organisation with which I’ve had the privilege to work over the past three years.

Summer School really is a feast, a glutton’s paradise of learning opportunities for senior and developing leaders. The 200+ learners are exposed to often controversial thinking from across the world, are challenged to convert learning into action and are fed to bursting point with stimulating conversation and calls to action. It’s exhausting and exhilarating at the same time!

Whilst there, I caught up with old friends, was re-inspired by an old acquaintance, Baroness Rennie Frichie, and met, Nick Smith, - the ‘flow’ man and author of the Life 2.0 blog which I have referred to previously and admire enormously. I was also able to support the delivery of a workshop which introduced the powerful action learning methodology to a group of leaders. During this workshop I was disturbed by two members of the group who described how all this contact with great thinkers and leadership theory was leading them to believe that they were really not cut out for leadership. They seemed to have a sense that it was all alien to them, that they didn’t have the way of thinking nor the knowledge that was exhibited by others so weren’t worthy to be in the leadership club.

Lets be clear about what’s important here.

Leadership theories can be great. They can challenge us and stretch us. A decent leadership tool box is a real asset. It gives me more choice and helps me think creatively and communicate effectively. But it’s all just icing on the cake.

Leadership, like any other art form comes from within. It comes from the values we hold, our belief system, our vision, our drive and excitement to make things better, the absolute conviction that there’s something important to be done and the sense of personal responsibility that leads us not to pass the buck!

Only then are the theories and tools useful.

I worry that sometimes we stifle real talent by not recognising and celebrating the fantastic leader within all of us. It's instinctive and intuitive, 100% honest and therefore hugely powerful. Yes it needs nurturing and refining, but it’s the cornerstone of our success and the most genuine and powerful tool at our disposal!

Friday, 12 June 2009

You can be too fantastic you know!

It’s a funny thing about leadership:

The stereotypical ‘great’ leader, the leader we all (allegedly) want to serve under is strong, decisive, determined, clever, insightful, sensitive, charismatic, full of energy etc. etc. (He or she probably also has perfect teeth, a great tan, fantastic dress sense and is drop-dead gorgeous too, but these are the optional extras not the key attributes!)

But if this leader is so perfect, as a follower I’m presented with a couple of problems:

Firstly, how can I possibly aspire to be such a paragon of virtue? I tell rubbish jokes, am more than a little shy, have to battle against laziness and (here’s a confession) sometimes get things very wrong! (I’m not going to make any comparison in relation to personal appearance, - read into that what you will!)

This image of great leadership is so removed from me that he or she may as well be from a different planet. I’m never going to be like that, so I may as well stop trying and crawl back to where I belong!

Secondly, even if I choose to stay working hard for my fantastic leader, what is it that I can contribute? S/he’s better than me at everything, doesn’t need my advice or support, doesn’t need me to take up the running when s/he’s plain tired or fed-up. What is there to motivate me in just doing what I’m told? Where’s my autonomy? Where’s my creativity? Where’s my sense that I’m contributing something special?

Any decent leader must give time to thinking about the followers. Whether you’re thinking about Anita Roddick, Alex Ferguson, Diasaku Ikeda or Superman, the same applies:

  • How do I retain the enthusiasm and active commitment of my people?
  • How do I ensure I don’t inadvertently create an over-dependence?
  • How do I nurture leaders at all levels in my organisation?
  • How do I ensure the organisation will survive and thrive after I’m gone?

Oh and another thing, - please lets not pretend to be the perfect leader. If we succeed we alienate everyone and if we fail we look foolish - and still alienate everyone!

Tuesday, 26 May 2009

Ah Ha!!! - caught myself out!!!

The deadly trap of the un-noticed ego!!!

Blogging's new to me. I've been getting myself going but not entirely happy with the product. I say what I want to, but it doesn't seem quite genuine.

It dawned on me the other day, - then got confirmed by my friend Mary Hughes (thanks Mary) . As I've been writing, I've been wanting to sound clever, - profound, - and a whole load of things which get in the way of honesty & integrety. Just like every activity, blogging benefits from mindfulness, from being able to separate out the 'real me' from the egoic mask that I and just about everyone else wears most of the time.

This is what we struggle with so much of the time, - and what lies at the heart of my beliefs around leadership and organisational development. We spend most of our time playing the part of ourselves, - presenting ourselves in the way we think we should, being "profound", or "tough" or "caring" or whatever role our ego feels most protected by. This creates a falsehood that others see, and that reduces our ability to add value to our lives. our colleagues and our organisations.

The challenge is to find a way of leaving our egos on the hanger with out coat when we get in in the morning so they can't stop us saying and doing what is right for the circumstance we find ourselves in!

Do take a look at Nick Smith's blog Life2point0 - and in particular, download "The little Book of Flow"

Saturday, 23 May 2009

Small Creative Ideas

Jon Harvey has set up a great blog dedicated to colleacing & sharing ideas for change and improvement. I know that many of my contacts from the Welsh public service would have a lot to offer this initiative (and a lot to show off about!) Do have a look and subscribe to his blog - or even better, share some of the great things we've been doing!

Sunday, 17 May 2009

Make the most of who you are!

"You do not become good by trying to be good, but by finding the goodness that is already within you, and allowing that goodness to emerge."
Eckhart Tolle - A New Earth. Penguin 2005.

We can become truely happy through recognising and manifesting our inner reality, our true-self, our un-restricted insight. Personally, I hold this to be a fundamental truth.

Yet we spend so much time trying to be the person we think others want us to be, - and trying to create in others what we desire of them that we can loose sight of the real creative talent in ourselves and in our co-workers.

This has big implications for the way we design organisations and position people to be the cogs in our corporate machines. Do I have the answer? - Mmm, I think I'll have to reflect on this a bit more!

Can anyone help me out?

Saturday, 16 May 2009

Human Infection

The other day I was doing the daily lunchtime sandwich ritual with a few dozen other office workers at Marks & Spencer’s. The ritual involves choosing your sandwich, sushi, drink or whatever without saying anything to fellow shoppers, - without even making any eye contact – (keep your eyes down for fear that you might have a human interaction by accident!). Skilled lunchtime shoppers develop extra long, very flexible arms so they can reach round others to the back of the bottom shelf without running the risk of any human engagement!

As this solitary dance was being performed a mother came round the corner followed by her children. A young lad of 4 or so was holding the hand of his toddler brother who in the other hand was carrying (but only just managing) an empty shopping basket.

The toddler was having so much fun, revelling in the experience of shopping, having his own basket and walking with his very own feet! He was laughing and laughing and laughing and laughing! Great big out of control belly laughs! Barely up to my knee, this little one filled the store with his uncontrolled all-encompassing joy!

As he walked past the sandwich counter and along to the far end of the shop his laughter followed him, - and rippling out behind him, so did a very visible human wake. Those introverted office workers lifted their eyes from the floor and smiled. They caught each other’s gaze and smiled. They made ‘how wonderful’ noises to each other, they relaxed, they became human.

A little toddler, living in his moment and experiencing the wonder of life made a difference to the life experience of 30 or 40 people who had just popped out for a sandwich!

I wonder how long it lasted. I’d like to think that this contact with humanity walked back to the various offices with those people. Did they have a better afternoon? Did something rub off on their colleagues? Were they more productive? Of course I don’t know and perhaps I’m just being fanciful, but I can’t believe that an experience so obviously powerful had no impact.

I was left with a reminder of just how powerful happiness can be; how it can change things in an instant. I wonder what difference it would make if we spent as much time working on happiness as we do monitoring performance targets!

Friday, 15 May 2009

Morals, values and learning from politicians!

In the UK right now we have a huge row about our politicians claiming for all sorts of inappropriate things on their parliamentary expenses. As I remember, it started with the revelation of a claim for purchase of pornography, but has moved on to newspaper allegations about, vast sums for decorating, mortgage expenses, luxury items and so on.

What’s really interesting to me is how so many of them use the “I was complying with the rules, my conscience is clear” defence with absolute confidence and apparently with no understanding that there are other benchmarks for behaviour that are more powerful than rule compliance. Now these guys were all elected on tickets that are value derived. They understand principles, they understand values, they understand ethics; and I truly believe that they genuinely believe in the values they stand for (or at least most of them!)

It’s extraordinary therefore that so many of them seem to have missed the point that it’s not compliance with rules that’s important, it’s doing the right thing, behaving in the value-based ethical way that they would ordinarily expect of themselves and others.

Isn't it easy just to get swept away?

In my view, there’s some powerful learning for all sorts of organisations in this. If people employed for their ability to communicate and enthuse others with their values and moral beliefs can, almost without realising it, drift into morally redundant behaviours, how easy is that drift for all employees, - and for all leaders? Whether we’re talking about politicians, bankers, teenage gangs or the foot soldiers of genocide, we have plenty of evidence that people can so easily fall in to “following the rules” of the society they find themselves in.

To me, this emphasises how vital it is that organisations keep reminding their people of the values that are held dear, and that they need to generate new and innovative way of keeping the message fresh. I feel that the danger to an organisation of staff sleep walking into a moral and ethical vacuum is far greater than the relatively small number of the deliberately and intentionally corrupt.

So lets think of ways we can remind our staff (and ourselves) of what’s really important about how we do our business in ways that retain freshness and avoid preaching!