Strategic Leadership

for Leaders in an Uncertain World

Why oh why quality papers fall for sensational titles or are women still fair game?

I am really angry, sad and ready to pounce -all 3 at once due to media fueled attacks on professional women.

Latest in the line of summer games aimed at senior and professional women is the article in FT today (link coming later from computer). The title claims that WOMEN DAMAGE PROFIT of companies on whose Boards they sit (the print copy of FT has tthe same article on p.16 under the title Doubt cast on women in boardroom). When you read the article it says nothing of the sort. The researchers observe that women sit on the Boards of companies that HAVE lower profit and smaller market capitalization. There is no indication of whether the profits ACTUALLY fell since appointment of female directors or where they like that before they were brought on board. Similarly, we are not told if market capitalization was lower at the time of appointment. Boo to FT!

Since the beginning of the week Harriet Harman has been piloted from all sides. It started with a ridiculing her comment that more women at the top reaches in the banks would have made a difference to male driven competitiveness of winner takes all variety. It then moved onto her comment that Labour should have a woman in one of the top two jobs – hang on everyone, she was not asking for men to step aside and give both jobs to women for a change! That could have been noteworthy. When pens and daggers came out relating to Harman’s decision to get Rape Bill tightened, it all became too much, at least for me.

So, could all this be the result of mysogeny of journalist profession which according to Richard Reeves, Director of Demos, has the highest proportion of private school educated members of all professions -boys rebelling against a Headgirl.

Time to grow up me thinks.

PS. In the weekend FT Emma Jacobs rounds up on Harriet Harman critics in Sisterly suggestions cause hysteria. However, she conveniently forgets to mention her own paper and Brotherly uproar about female directors misreporting of the research.

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August 7, 2009 Posted by | diversity, Government, News, Style, Values | , , , , , , | 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

25 years on -and that from one of Tories leading thinkers

On Wednesday 20th May Daniel Finkelstein wrote a well argued article in the Times entitled Will the next Mr Speaker get the new era? He argues that large political parties arose in the era of mass media and that the information revolution is changing all that. The thesis is that the shift is thus from closed politics to open politics.

About time someone noticed. This is exactly what Norman Strauss argued 25 years ago, among other places in the Article “State of Mind that Can Stop Decline” He pointed out that government is not well designed for building a bridge from values to policies and legislation- as we so graphically see now! In the days well before Barack Obama went to his graduate studies at Harvard and much before Lord Layard from LSE recognised the need for lifting UK dismal levels of life satisfaction, Norman wrote:

Building a positive ‘can do’ altruistic ‘mental-welfare state’ is what modern politics should be about.

Any of the major parties doing anything about it? If not, why not?

July 6, 2009 Posted by | Government, Politics, Systems, Values | , , , , | Leave a comment

Learning Lessons from Iraq war- UK Government Inquiry

Sir John Chilcot (former senior Civil Servant) and 4 other officials, among them 2 historians, 1 ambassador (in Russia) and 1 member of House of Lords (responsible for judges appointment) will head an independent inquiry into the Iraq War to last a year- as announced by Gordon Brown, PM this afternoon in the Parliament.

All the comments I saw about this seem to miss the main point: Who among these 5 people is an expert on processes required to identify Lessons Learnt?

In addition, I wonder:
1. What support will the new Privy Cousellors have in doing this important job?
2. Why is this an ‘Inquiry’ rather than ‘Audit’?
3. Who will be responsible for putting LESSONS Learnt into practice?

Having worked in BP, where it was routine to carry out Large Projects Reviews so that Lessons Learnt can be applied in subsequent cases, I know that neither the process required to pinpoint them nor their later usage were easy or attempted by people without extensive experience in the actual domain nor without the deep familiarity of the process to be used. As it stands, I am deeply sceptical about the capacity of the appointed Committee to do the job they are tasked with so that results can be truly usable!

No wonder we, the knowledgeable public, are sceptical about the politicians and Government.

June 16, 2009 Posted by | Diplomacy, Government, Knowledge, Leadership | | Leave a comment

The politicians say they want to hear from public, but do they?

listening to discussion in BBC Newsnight and marveling at general lack of appreciation of the systems related issues. First, there are no systems experts in the Parliament or they are hiding! Second, BBC does not see it necessary to bring a systems expert into the studio to demystify current mess. As a control systems engineer and a systems thinking practitioner, I maintain time has come to bring in some graphic education to the media, politicians and public.

It is finally accepted that the problems are in the system itself. It is also accepted that those within the system itself are responsible for its structure. However the prescription for fixing it that involves quick changes of systems governance rules betrays a real lack of appreciation of how to effectively address the problems of bad behaviour and rules abuse. What we are seeing is Fixes that Fail systems archetype at play.

May 20, 2009 Posted by | Government | , , , , | Leave a comment

If you see what is required in good time why is it so difficult to open minds of opinion formers?

Those with the classical education know about the fate of Cassandra. For others suffice to say that by telling truth to power got her into deep trouble. This may not be so dangerous in our times, yet it is certainly not appreciated and most likely totally ignored.

Just follow the controversy brewing about Sir Gus O’Donnell’s comments reported in the Financial Times about the vacuum at the top of US Treasury civil service in times of real crisis. We can add to this the thoughtful follow up by Willem Buiter in his Maverecon blog post To the victor go the spoils: who answers the phone in the US Treasury? in the same paper who points out the costs The price of the US spoils system: the emasculation of US macroecononomic policy making. However, only two days earlier in the same paper two eminent USA professors have declared about the same situation that When a house is on fire, you put all your initial effort into putting it out.

Lets turn to the economic situation in UK. A day earlier in the same paper we have an article where Gillian Tett in Lost through destructive creation starts off with:

Six years ago, Ron den Braber was working at Royal Bank of Scotland in London when he became worried that the bank’s models were underestimating the risk of credit products. But when the Dutch statistical expert alerted his bosses to the problem, he faced so much disapproval that he eventually left.

“I started off saying things gently . . . but no one wanted to listen,” Mr den Braber recalls. The reason, he believes, lay in “groupthink . . . and pressure to get business done” – as well as a sheer lack of understanding about how the models worked.

Tales of that nature go some way to explaining how the west’s big banks brought themselves to their present plight and tipped the world into recession.

Now remember, this is the paper that has twice ignored the attempts by Norman Strauss to point out how these issues can be addressed at the fundamental level first in Q3 2008 and then in December 2008. Yet the Editors are willing to give space to the contributions like the most recent An unruly phenomenon in constant need of social control.

Let Cassandras have their say! Otherwise we will be indeed stuck with the closed circle of Future of Capitalism Top 50 leaders with no new face from another discipline, a young thinker or an old rebel among them framing the debate about all our futures!

PS I have just spotted a letter that fits some of the contrarian criteria Let a few uncomfortable truths appear on your pages, FT by Dr Roman Wolczuk. A case of synchronicity or?

March 12, 2009 Posted by | Civil Service Reform, Future of Capitalism, Government, Leadership, Letters, News, Politics, Strategy | , , , , , , , , | 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

Guardian 20 Jan 1984 – Why this Applies now to the Financial Crisis

Sometimes it requires a long time and a really deep crisis to get a previously unacknowledged practical proposals to gain currency in a new light. We suggest that the article Norman Strauss wrote in January 1984 provides just such example in the current global financial crisis. It specifically indicates:

– typical distinction between GOOD GOVERNANCE and GOOD Government

– more subtle distinction is between Systems as currently understood and the system dynamics over time = as they really are

– Trust is a Systems Issue which has to be treated as such.

In addition, it raises some fundamental questions like:

– How does governance relate to the dynamic  of the governing system?

– Is consensus system equilibrium and/or stasis?

– What is the relationship of breakdown and consensus/governance?

Incidentally, even high quality financial daily like Financial Times did not wish to recognise the root causes of the impending crisis nor engage in the discussion about ways to address it before it becomes as serious as it is now. How do we know? Well, by the enclosed letter remaining unpublished in spite of being submitted twice (first in January 2008 and then in April 2008). The point of the FT Au Contraire letter is that it was starting to apply at the frequency which regularly displayed the cracks that were beginning to undermine the current system and were accelerating it towards breakdown.

December 18, 2008 Posted by | Government, Leadership, Strategy, Systems | , , , | 1 Comment

The case for live wires in Whitehall- how far has it happened 25 years on?

Above we relate why The case for live wires in Whitehall is relevant today in the financial crisis. Simply, it would appear that little has changed in the Civil Service from those days almost 25 years ago! One needs only read Sue Cameron articles in FT, like Can-do civil servant in a world of wait-a-minute men and Tory cleansing of clipboard men to see that this is still a far of goal.

Yet, we are now in the grip of a crisis that affects UK at large and requires decision making capabilities in the Government and within Civil Service that far exceed those available. We do not have years to get this into place. And external consultants per se would not do. Ray of hope is that some Ministers like Lord Drayson recognise this you can hear his specific suggestions stated at NESTA on 4th December 2008. He emphasised the need for fast decision making, ability to take risks and need for taking responsibility by civil servants working in his Department.

May the real reforms begin.

December 18, 2008 Posted by | Civil Service Reform, Government, Innovation, Leadership | , , , , , , | Leave a comment