Untangle and grow

A blog by Alison Maxwell

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

100 stupid people

I recently had the pleasure of listening to the provocative and insightful Professor Ralph Stacey - prolific writer on the complexity sciences and leadership and management.

He was talking about he experience of lecturing to a class of 100 students  and asking them to write an assignment on what he had just conveyed ... and the frustration of getting 100 very different answers back. "The logical conclusion" he said " is that either I am a very bad teacher or I have 100 very stupid people in my class", neither of which were particularly palatable or likely explanations. Instead of getting frustrated he now thinks this 'failure of communication' should be expected  and maybe even welcomed. After all 100 people will all have their individual ways of making sense depending on their very different experiences and interests - none of us are blank canvasses.

I was thinking about this in terms of communication processes in large organisations and the frustration I meet in leaders who say "I've told them, but they still go off and do their own thing". Stacey's point is that communication is not a simple process of transmission and reception (radio metaphor) but an interaction where both parties make sense together, both influencing and being influenced, the final message emerging out of the exchange. 100 people are bound to hear 100 different messages, particularly when exchange is limited or constrained. Perhaps we would have less compliance issues in organisations if paradoxically there was less dependence on 'tell' and more on 'engage', less reliance on email and more on old fashioned face to face conversation. It will never catch on!

Monday, 26 September 2011

Coaching the team - the 'shared history'

I was recently coaching a team and used an old favourite of mine - the 'shared history' - as a way of catching everyone up with the 'story' of the team. It involves sitting everyone in the order they joined the team and briefly telling the tale of how they came to join and what was going on at time. What usually emerges is a rich picture of the team's back story which gives a sense of the struggles and successes to date as well as the personalities involved.

The exercise had the reaction I often get - the old hands are amazed at how much water has passed under the bridge  - "I'd forgotten about ....I hadn't realised how much we've done!". The new joins are mightily relieved to get a handle on the context they now find themselves operating in and why things are the ways they are - "It all makes a whole lot more sense now!"

The membership and purposes of a team are always shifting yet we often talk and act as if a 'team' is a static entity. How would it be if we considered the team to be new team every time a new member joined? What would it take to pay more attention to their integration and assimilation into the team story?

Monday, 19 September 2011

Elbow room? Do as you would be done by

I spend a lot of time working with managers on their coaching skills and encouraging them to take a coaching approach to their leadership, and have become increasingly fascinated by resistances to coaching in managers. While pretty much every manager I meet want lee way and personal discretion in how they operate .. however... this doesn't necessarily extend to their subordinates. "They just want to be told ..none of this dancing around the handbags asking questions" they report emphatically.

Where is reality in all of this? Do subordinates only want to be told or do managers enjoy telling too much? I know there are times when I need and welcome direction however someone being directive (ie overly controlling) will generally get my hackles up. Mostly I want space to think and act for my self and yes I want someone to consult with just in case my ideas are flawed or too limited. I also know that different people have different needs for elbow room - some folks seem to need acres of personal discretion while others are anxious with anything less than close marking

Part of the issue I think is that it much easier to think about leadership in binary terms - I tell or I coach, I give direction or I consult. What is far tougher ... but vital...is to be choiceful in approach to people management. One style does not fit all situations and reading the situation to make an informed choice of what is required is skill that can be developed.
(Thanks to the work of Emery, Trist et al)

Monday, 12 September 2011

Asking questions in change

I was talking last week with an HR Director who does an exceptional job at managing change in his organisation. "It is simple really" he said, "as soon as you grasp that change means loosing some degree of control then all you have to do is get really creative to help people feel back in the driving seat. Probably the most immediate way of doing this is to help people to ask the question they really want to ask ---then work really hard to get them an answer ".

This is an organisation who takes this sort of process really seriously - they regularly track employee queries and can tell you how they are doing responding to them. Its not that the employee necessarily gets the answer they want to hear, but at least they have the certainty of being heard.

Simple maybe but very effective.

Monday, 5 September 2011

Can you coach a team? Stakeholder management

Much of team development practice pays attention to the internal relationships within a group - we have a vast array of tools, models and processes for helping groups face into how their relationships are inhibiting or enhancing their performance (and peace of mind). All good sensible stuff but often not enough.
Just as with an individual client, I think it is important for teams to consider how they are managing and shaping their external relationships - ie the interfaces with different parts of the wider organisation in which they operate. Teams as well as individuals have stakeholders and all too often these are poorly understood and unsystematically managed. Somehow the conversation about stakeholder management either never makes it to the team agenda or gets squeezed at the end the meeting. However failing to meet stakeholder expectations can be severely career limiting. 

So... do we do teams a disservice if we only teach them how to look in and forget to teach them to look out to the wider world?