Strategic Leadership

for Leaders in an Uncertain World

Follow up on Harvard Business Publishing Voices Blog on Effectiveness and Focus

Following a Twitter posted link yesterday, I found the blog post entitled The Key to Effectiveness-Focus. This is what Norman wrote about the

classic questions of focus and bandwidth

by way of a comment on the same site:

The late Stafford Beer, who did brilliant work on governing with Viable System Models, wrote that “Ethos was the ultimate variety reducer”.

The governing paradox is that policy makers must regularly enlarge variety to absorb vital new ideas; whilst then reducing variety to focus on what to manage; and how; and when. It seems that failures occur regularly in each direction.

Both tasks require abstract thinking skills, concept creation, relevance testing, understanding of multiple communications’ trajectories and persuasion time constants. These must be linked to critical path planning, causality analysis of a high order, input-output analysis, and strategic awareness of present and alternative demand possibilities and their future impacts.

Ethos – defined as the characteristic spirit and genius of a society, culture, policy, system or idea – or an amalgam of them – embraces the summation of what we stand for today; it is also tomorrow’s vision of what we want to stand for then. Stafford Beer called these two distinct positions “the inside and now” and the “outside and then”. Thinking about them requires successive utilization of divergent and convergent multi-disciplinary thinking, together with abstraction, transduction and learning skills, if change is to be managed successfully.

So one can redefine governance as continuing ethos management from now to then; as eras are created and fashions and zeitgeists pass. Or, at its simplest, if what was promised in an election is to be delivered in office.

In retrospect, what President Obama and others failed to realise was that Health Care Systems’ Policy-making attacked far too many constituents’ views and value systems for fast decision-making that would stick. His decisiveness and need for control, his team’s skills and policy options, what future care would provide to whom, etc. all had to take account of the different ethos and value systems of a vast multitude of constituents that cut across and within all party lines.

In retrospect it was an elementary mistake to make for a team whose collective bandwidth had only previously practised on-the-fly policy-making, speech writing, opinion forming, multi-media broadcasting, perception and manipulation in one on one contests and debates; rather than governing a digital society in all its complex variety. He recognized this recently in a working meeting when he said something like “I want more people in this room around this table, with different opinions than you have provided here”. What he did not see is that he alone cannot take the decision of what they come up with round the table. Enlarge the assumed participants in increments of 5 and you will soon get to a number of those involved where you will agree that it is unworkable. A more rigourous option-generation and decision-making system is required. Put simply no single person can absorb enough new data to take rapid decisions on their own, without a process to aid them. And whatever it is, that degree of bandwidth, information processing, knowledge building and multi-disciplinarity is not a normal meeting.

Additionally, just adding to available inputs, by using the internet to allow fully open inward communication of external ideas and publishing them as “Wordle” diagrams will not do. The need is both to take in more inputs and to understand how to manage the contradictions, paradigms, systems of thought and analysis, complexities, alternative values, potential policy shifts and conflicts of opinion which their variety provides. Ultimately, I expect we will need to define another governmental separation of state power – beyond the executive, legislative and judiciary to become skilled in the on-going variety all of this. I know of no country or institution which does this well, so there is a pressing need to create one ab initio. We could call this fourth separation of power the “Plurality” – E pluribus unum; out of many, (ideas to) one.

Without such continuous, because institutionalized, organic thinking across all aspects of society, government ( and /or regulation ) will not be matched to the complexities of preventing the emergence of critical national and global problems that require urgent solving – if not first prevented in a “just in time” or “well before they become urgent” way.

The number of upset countries, distraught citizens, failing companies and failed leaders thrown up by the global financial crisis proves just how much such basic reappraisal of our bandwidth in governing, regulatory, organisational, structural, constitutional,institutional and leadership systems is still required.

Opposing opinions must be reconciled more effectively by institutions learning to practice higher order unifying concepts, such as ethos, so that all of the best available knowledge is properly evaluated and absorbed by the governing system, rather than “Wordled” or manipulated by dumb software.

True bi-partisanship has a multitude of faces whose opinion polarities must be subtly handled. A new ethos of health care that won broad acceptance, beyond the simplicities of the victorious ideology, was the only way to achieve this goal. And that task, as it turned out, tested the Democratic party’s governance well beyond the limits of its academic advice, bandwidth, competence, experience, culture and processes.

How can it recover without addressing the true complexities involved? Which academics, or businesses, or system engineers or researchers or citizens have bits of the answer; and who will focus this into a new governance vision?

According to Stafford Beer, it is ethos alone that can unite disparate policy functions, purposes, meanings and motivations clearly, to summate what an organisation, nation or political party stands for. In my view, good government is Ethos Management, and I suspect he would agree.

Perhaps the modern democratic state needs to be redesigned around these precepts if vision, policies, values and multiple motivations are to be captured in a distinctive ethos, enacted by a Viable System and coupled with the effective governance that leads to optimized citizen engagement and satisfaction for the majority, without alienating too many minorities. Then we could hope that we have at last created an organisation and operating culture, that is best suited, to carry out the ruling values, derived from the distinctive ethos, which summates the critical policies that citizens voted for. Yes we could!

– Posted by Norman Strauss
September 2, 2009 12:24 PM

Please let us have your comments. We would love to hear more views.


September 2, 2009 Posted by | Business thinkers, diversity, Knowledge, Strategy, Systems | , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Systems Thinking in Public Sector -has the time for application finally come?

It started with the Stefan Stern article in the Financial Times ‘Change the way you work’. However, failure of large systems, whether in financial services, public sector or industry, is not big news any more. Yet, little has been said about practical and long lasting ways to deal with this global and endemic problem. So, it is refreshing to read the following:

Systems thinking requires a profound shift in … the design and management of work,…reversing current norms to go from ‘push’ to ‘pull’, and placing the development of workers, individually and collectively, at its heart.”

If companies want to get better at what they do, then their people have to be able to learn. …
Working within a rigid framework that is designed to achieve imposed targets makes it almost impossible for employees to learn.

Then today The Times has article ‘New way’ thinker John Seddon aims at council targets’
While ‘systems thinking’ here is an interpreted version, the approach is clearly catching attention and strikes at the core of some burning issues by:

Mr Seddon advocates what he calls “systems thinking” — designing services entirely to meet the demands of local customers. …

Mr Seddon rejects the term “best practice”, replacing it with “better practice” because, he says, each problem requires its own solution. He believes that the focus on best practice has caused “the worst ideas from the private sector to be copied in the public”. …

“… I’m in the business of helping people to think,” he says bluntly.

In reply, Norman Strauss wrote the following comment also published in The Times:

Mr Seddon is right to champion systems thinking. The customer’s
appreciation systems ( my phrase ) are indeed the ultimate and proper
masters and arbiters of public services, their design, systems, processes,
products, people, costs and delivery.

However, care must be taken to ensure that learning systems, innovation
systems and service ecosystems are not driven by public opinion ab initio;
or nothing strikingly new will ever be envisioned, created, tested,
developed and produced again.

Major improvements and new demand technologies have to be created by
visionaries, made to work, and their purpose explained effectively, before
they can be best appreciated and needed by customers.

Progress does not come easily.

Simplistic targets can indeed prevent creativity, design and change. They
can kill commitment.

Researching present and future customer needs/demands cannot be done by
focus groups or surveys alone.

Customers cannot create major technological, scientific or industrial
breakthroughs. They can only comment on them once they have been
developed, communicated and used to create new demands.

The phrase alternative demand technologies says it all.

What all three items show is that the time of real application of systems thinking has come. The expertise needed to make this happen is not widely spread in spite of a growing number of knowledge workers in the workforce.

July 31, 2009 Posted by | Business thinkers, Civil Service Reform, Government, Letters, News, systems thinking, Vision | , , , , , | 2 Comments

Academic spat about the role of women managers/leaders in the current economic climate and the real influence

It is interesting to watch academic spats spill into the quality daily press especially when they go against the grain. Here we have three female professors, each from a different top 5 European Business School, responding to a male professor of a less well-known European Business School.

Let me start by saying that I totally agree with the starting position of Profs Herminia Ibarra, Lynda Gratton and Martha Maznevski where they register

dismay at the quality of debate on the role of women in the financial crisis. Specifically, we question the basis for current speculation that the meltdown might have been averted had more women been running the business world.

What I am surprised by is the lack of quality in their own argument, as I will show below.

Compare the titles: Soapbox: why women managers shine followed by Claims that women are inherently more cautious are deeply troubling. Now, let us look at the arguments and supporting data.

Prof. Michel Ferrary is the first author and uses statistical comparisons, namely his research on the correlation between French company stock index and percentage of women managers in the respective companies. He finishes with two questions about the conclusions one could draw about performances of feminised companies in different conditions. In turn, the letter authors Profs Herminia Ibarra, Lynda Gratton and Martha Maznevski offer no data whatsoever yet finish with strong admonition that one must

beware of perpetuating unfounded stereotypes along the way.

More surprisingly, they choose to interpret the closing question from Prof Ferrary’s comment as

speculations (that) also come with dangerous implications

and follow by restating it to serve as a proof of their main point:

we are deeply troubled by claims that women are inherently more risk-averse or cautious or prudent than men, and that this essential nature somehow makes women more suited to leading in a downturn

So their whole argument hinges on whether one agrees that

Several gender studies have pointed out that women behave and manage differently from men. They tend to be more risk-averse and to focus more on a long-term perspective. A larger proportion of female managers appears to balance the risk-taking behaviour of their male colleagues.

This is an area where a lot of the research has been done yet the letter writers offer no data at all. They could have consulted Prof. Deborah Kolb short note Are Women Really Risk-Averse of March 9 in the Washington Post for research results.

The conclusion is best summarised by Ms Jackie Orme in End of the ‘ego driven’ leader who simply states

What we most need is a greater mix of personal qualities in our leaders.

As for the future importance and position of women leaders it is not the professors who decide. Ms Sarah Best has a telling example

The FT has already told us (March 11) that, of the 50 people in the world who have the position, skills and contacts to see us through the financial and economic crisis, just five are women. Women taking a leadership position? I’m not sure, it all sounds very risky to me.

At the same time (March 8th) Washington Post Leadership blog has asked its Distinguished Panel of 20 Experts (five of them are women) to address the similar question Testosterone and the Crash — you can read all answers there. With statistics that show that only 2% of Fortune 500 CEOs are women and that median bonus for men in largest USA companies is 3 times larger than for women it is clear that anything they had to say was just wishful thinking. May be the last word should be with Professor Warren Bennis:

Unfortunately, the explanations for the crash have little to nothing to do with DNA or brain circuitry but have everything to do with the serious design flaws of its system, a system run amok for a whole bunch of reasons and like all system problems are multi-determined: group think, greed, sloppy and lax regulation, and close to zero transparency. Those are the problems and they are deep and there’s no silver bullet like testosterone — or lack of it — that can solve them.

March 14, 2009 Posted by | Business thinkers, diversity, Economics, Leadership, Letters | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

More calls for wisdom and integrity- Wall Street Journal and Peggy Noonan

As the time for inauguration of President-Elect Obama draws nearer, there are more reflections on the state of the nation in America and his task ahead. So, in her recent article in WSJ, columnist Peggy Noonan says:

The reigning ethos seems to be every man for himself.

An old friend in a position of some authority in Washington told me the other day, from out of nowhere, that a hard part of his job is that there’s no one to talk to. I didn’t understand at first. He’s surrounded by people, his whole life is one long interaction. He explained that he doesn’t have really thoughtful people to talk to in government, wise men, people taking the long view and going forth each day with a sense of deep time, and a sense of responsibility for the future. There’s no one to go to for advice.

He senses the absence too.

It’s a void that’s governing us.

She finishes with saying:

What a task President-elect Obama has ahead. He ran on a theme of change we can believe in, but already that seems old. Only six weeks after his election he faces a need more consequential and immediate. In January, in his inaugural, he may find himself addressing something bigger, and that is: Belief we can believe in. The return of confidence. The end of absence. The return of the suit inhabited by a person. The return of the person who will take responsibility, and lead.

Much as she seems to think that these are new challenges, they really are not. Though UK is by no means as large as USA, the scale of the undertaking faced by the incoming Thatcher Government in late 1970’s was much larger than that now laying ahead of President-Elect Obama. One of the main reasons for the difference is that almost all major countries in the world are affected by the current economic downturn in similar ways. So far it would appear that they have followed very similar routes to trying to find ways out. Yet, none seems to have taken on board the lessons that have been so successful in turning around UK economy and bringing the much needed ‘return of the person who will take responsibility, and lead’ Miss Noonan seeks above. What is required is neatly summed up by Norman Strauss in his article appropriately entitled “State of Mind that can Stop Decline”.

How do we make sure that leaders pay attention to the lessons of the past?

What sort of leadership across the society do we need now?

December 22, 2008 Posted by | Business thinkers, Government, Leadership, News, Strategy, US Elections08 | , , , , | Leave a comment

Management Issues, 14th March 2008 – Interview with Howard Gardner (re. introduction to Ethical Mind)

Common Voice: Howard Gardner

Common Voice: Howard Gardner
14 Mar 2008

Renowned worldwide for his theory of multiple intelligences, Howard Gardner was ranked #39 in the latest Thinkers 50 ranking of global business thinkers.

Gardner is the John H. and Elisabeth A. Hobbs professor of cognition and education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and adjunct professor of psychology at Harvard University.

Moving on from his multiple intelligence work, Gardner is now focusing on the future and “the cognitive abilities that will command a premium in the years ahead.” In the new technological and information age, he offers an insight into the qualities of thinking that will allow people to survive and prosper in the 21st century, both in work and life generally.

Des Dearlove talked to Gardner about his new book Five Minds for the Future.

There is a different approach to your subject material in the new book?
Yes, in the book Five Minds for the Future I’m writing less as a psychologist and more as a policy maker. All of these minds would have been important at other times, but I argue that these five are particularly important going forward.

You say these five ways of thinking will be even more important in the future. What’s changed?

There are three significant trends in the modern world which establish the background for these kinds of minds.

Number one: the importance of technology, particularly computers. Computers can do almost everything that human beings can, so the things we are going to value human beings for will be very different.

The second thing is globalisation. It is about understanding the interconnectivity of the world and the kinds of things that you need in order to be able to function in a world that was not nearly so interconnected 50 years ago.

And the third big change?
The third change has to do with diversity. We evolved as a species having contact with about 150 people, most of whom looked like us and were probably related to us.

Today, diversity stares you in the face in a way that was inconceivable when I was growing up. I hardly need to say this in a place like London, where you have millions of people, many from non-English backgrounds, and many with different religious and cultural backgrounds.

So there is a sense that we can be in contact with, and have influence on, everybody around the world and vice-versa.

And the five minds in the book are the ways of thinking that are best suited to this new world you are describing. What are the five minds?
Well the first three are the kinds of things that I have been talking about for a very long time: the disciplined mind, the synthesising mind and the creating mind.

The last two, though, have more to do with the human sphere: the respectful mind and the ethical mind. Over the last decade a lot of my research has focused on these two.

Could you explain a little more about each mind?
The disciplined mind is knowing something very well, being an expert in an art, or craft, or profession and keeping it up. That means being disciplined. If you don’t have a disciplined mind, you really don’t have a job at all, or you end up working for somebody who does.

The synthesising mind stems from the fact that we all are deluged with information. How do you decide what to pay attention to, what to ignore, how to put it together in a way that makes sense to you? How do you communicate your synthesis to other people? That’s probably the most distinctive mind, because I’ve given a label to something that people haven’t really talked about much before.

And the creative mind?
The third kind of mind, the creating mind, is basically coming up with something new that eventually affects how other people are and think. If it is “thinking outside the box” then the disciplined and synthesising minds provide the box and, for many people, that’s enough and you wouldn’t want everybody to be creative or the world would be too chaotic.

But for some cutting edge or eccentric few, it’s thinking and doing stuff that really ends up affecting a lot of other people.

And what of the remaining two minds, which your recent work has focused on more closely?
The respectful mind is very simple, and certainly goes back to pre-biblical, pre-literate times. Basically it means giving other people the benefit of the doubt, trying to know them, trying to understand them, not being too judgemental and being capable of forgiveness.

It begins at birth. Infants notice how other people treat one another and how they treat themselves. The reason it’s so acutely important nowadays is because of the diverse society we live in. My belief in the importance of the respectful mind has caused me to change my views about issues like whether women students in France should be allowed to wear the hijab.

Which leaves the ethical mind.
The last mind, the ethical mind, is one that I’ve been working on intensively for a decade plus, and it’s a little bit more technical to define.

The ethical mind is a mind that is capable of abstraction. And the ethical mind basically can think about oneself abstracting. So I’m not just Howard Gardner, but I’m Howard Gardner who is a journalist, an author, a lawyer, an engineer, whatever. I have a role occupationally and I’m also a citizen; I’m a citizen of my community, my city, my state, my region, my nation, the world.

The ethical mind asks, what are my responsibilities as a journalist, what are my responsibilities as a citizen of London, the UK, of the planet?

What relevance does the five minds concept have for organisations in the future – and does it apply more broadly than business?
My work has an ‘is’ aspect- what are the minds that will be at a premium in the future? It also has an ‘ought’ aspect – what sorts of minds should be cultivated?

Individuals involved in management need to think about their own minds, and the extent to which those minds embody discipline, synthesising capacity, creativity, respect and ethics. If they are lacking on these dimensions, what might they do to enhance them? How should they assemble teams, and can one person’s strength compensate for the weaknesses of others?

Could you give some examples with reference to some of the individual minds – and how they relate to a non-business organisation such as the UK’s National Health Service, for instance?
Respect and ethics are good examples. The NHS needs to understand and know how to deal with its diverse populations. Here, both respect and ethics become vital. Unless there is an atmosphere of respect, individuals will not trust one another and relations will deteriorate.

Ethics entails an understanding of responsibilities attendant to a specific role. It is vital for members of the NHS to behave in an ethical way, and to be able to assume that their peers will also behave ethically. And in those cases where ethical norms are clearly violated, the question of consequences looms large.

One cannot guarantee, of course, that patients will be respectful and/or ethical. But, to the extent that the NHS embodies these virtues in its own interactions with patients, the chances are enhanced that the patients will reciprocate.

You also talk about the concept of “good work.”
I define good work as work that is technically Excellent; personally Engaging; and carried out in an Ethical manner. When pressures are too great, any of the three “Es” can suffer.

So, for example, when physicians or nurses are asked to do too much, they become stressed, and risk burnout; the factor of engagement is undermined. Excellence can also be at risk.

Threats to ethics come from the overall ambience of a community. When a community comes to value money, power, or success, over all other priorities, then individuals have little incentive to be honest, responsible, or treat others with integrity.

And again, that also applies to non-business organisations?
Yes, a public sector or voluntary organisation should embrace a contrasting set of values, having to do with pride in services well rendered and in top results. But the spectre of monetary success is often very powerful, and unless it is counteracted by strong contrasting norms, it is likely to prevail.

What about the synthesising mind?
Nowadays, we are all inundated with information. The premium is to figure out what to pay attention to, what to ignore, how to organise it so that it makes sense to oneself, and then how to convey it so that it makes sense to others.

A fortunate few can figure out how to synthesise well, with little help from others. Most of us, however, need all the help we can get in synthesising. I think this is a particularly acute need in highly innovative fields such as IT and medical science – where information compounds at a feverish pace and lives may be at stake.

In a future world where the five minds are valued, nurtured and prevalent, how do you see work changing?
I would love to live in a world characterised by good work – work that is excellent, engaging, and carried out ethically. In such a world, one could count on service being delivered reliably, with care, and with expertise.

Obviously respect and ethics are essential for good work to be carried out. But only when practitioners have mastered their disciplines well, know how to synthesise, and can, when appropriate, come up with creative solutions to problems, will this become a reality for most organisations.

March 25, 2008 Posted by | Business thinkers | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment