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

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

People are noticing we were wrongly led – who and what now?

While various pundit produce a growing number of articles and papers on the causes of the world economic problems, one things is becoming very clear. We were led into the credit crunch and crisis of confidence.

I know this is a bold (!) statement. A very short explanation will suffice for now.

First, while we were led this leadership was not of the kind we currently recognise as such. The leadership was blind through sheer lack of the awareness among those at the top of various organisation. They simply failed to recognise that the multinational corporations they may be running or an ever increasing number of G-type groupings (G8, G20, EU etc) they belong to mean one thing – world is strongly interconnected! This matters far more than anyone has recognised so far. Some commentators are thus calling for systemic solutions or looking for systemic approaches. Surprisingly, these voices are still in great minority. They also seem to be coming from non-anglo-saxon world.

The failure to understand the need for a systemic perspective permeates the regulation as well. Basel I and Basel II are clear examples here from the banking sector.

The second characteristic of the crisis is easily explicable by Darwinian evolution. A growing chorus in the press, including the Financial Times, and in the UK Parliament is bringing up so far un-sayable fact that our corporate Boards are highly inbred and lack vigour, real talent and true diversity. In other words these large companies as they are now are a dying breed as much as dinosaurs were.

Add to this the third circumstance – that of the steadily declining education and bonus systems rewards for failure, and we have truly serious situation. Decisions are being made by people caught in the stampede of the press and TV stations hungry for instant action. Politicians make pronouncements about initiatives and policy changes that take far too long to start. When they are implemented, sheer complexity of the systems to be introduced (IT as well as human) overwhelms the capabilities of those charged to make it happen. Long standing dumbing down of education coupled with lack of transparency of the conditions for progress up the organisational ladders and supported by a totally warped reward system, make for a real witches brew!

However, the solutions proffered by our Governments do not appear to show that the politicians or their advisers have grasped these simple truths. They show little inclination to engage in serious thinking. All the summits in the world are no substitute for taking the strategic leadership stance to explore the situation for what it is – a mess of our own making that requires a different approach and totally different group of people to solve it! Same goes for HR Directors, for all their optimism and expanding role!

We are not talking about the whistleblowers. We are advocating leadership by Mavericks and Contrarians. It is clear that HR Departments and their function are very much behind the times. New skills and approaches that handle paradoxes, dilemmas and dynamic situations as well as people with capabilities to build relationships are needed and yet in very short supply! However, even under the conditions of threat, current powers that be along with those who put them there continue to follow the lemming route of more of the same just bigger.

This is neither desirable nor necessary. We need a new party and people with real courage. What next and how to go about it is the topic of a future post.

February 19, 2009 Posted by | diversity, Leadership, Strategy, Systems | , , , , , , , , | 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 Times Archive – what does the lecture from 10th January 1984 have to do with NHS Reform and constitution?

When I was doing my PhD in Artificial Intelligence it used to be said that ‘it takes 17 +/- 3 years’ for ideas or research to move from academia to marketplace.  It would seem that the same equation holds for the advanced ideas to be revisited again in the public life.  Trouble is that while in technology and IT we can see the impact of their implementation from the results in the marketplace, when it comes to UK Government (Labour as well as Conservative) and Civil Service of the day (Central / Whitehall as well as Local Government) it remains at the level of rhetoric.

So, the enclosed article summarises Norman’s ideas from as long ago as early 1980’s.  Now, almost 25 years later, one can quote major parts word for word and the reader could be forgiven for thinking they are newly written.  Try the two excerpts below:

Mr Norman Strauss behaves similarly with ideas, packing more into one lecture than others would use during a year. On occasion, there is a need for interpretation. That is, I believe true of his recent speech on constitutional reform.

It starts from the well-worn, but topical, theme that the complexity and difficulty of modern government are setting a task clearly beyond the current system. He therefore identifies, as I would, what is essentially a management problem in the broadest sense. “Productivity and efficiency can apply just as much to ideas about improving central government as they can to say, the health service.

and immediately after:

Norman Strauss’s worry is that information and technology seem to be outgrowing the competence of governments to manage them and at the same time to provide adequate satisfaction for citizens and maintain their trust. This is happening in an age when demands for information for knowledge and for participative democracy are becoming strident. Here is the first new twist in the argument. Mr Strauss believes that “some issues are now so complex that leaders must no longer be allowed to monopolise facts, knowledge and resources. This is especially true when higher standards of education coupled with the information revolution make it possible for those with special expertise, interests or insights to comment on what is happening and to do so for the wider benefit of society”.

In Mr Strauss’s view, this goes beyond freedom of information legislation, in suggesting a fundamental change in structures and organization. He sees the new technologies as giving the possibility for the government to make available not only the facts it possesses, but also insight into its thinking, analysis. decisions and strategy.

So, compare the above with the rather simplistic NHS Report changes and the laughably pedestrian, actually downright dangerous measures and one-dimensional, targets still applied for measuring progress in spite of the unprecedented technological advances. Yet, the powers that be are closed to listening. This applies as much to the professionals with vested interests however good their intentions, as it does to politicians in Government. Worse still, the Opposition is even more blinded having learnt nothing from the Thatcher years!

Any ideas?

And now, enjoy the full article.

Times 200184 Thatcher critic_Sir Douglas on Norman

One can only hope that Lord Darzi does not take Yes Minister he is bringing with him to Desert Island as the way things have to be!

July 3, 2008 Posted by | Civil Service Reform, Leadership, Strategy, Systems | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

FT 4th June 2008 – Good Leadership is a team sport and that team has to be ‘whole-minded’ says research | Management Blog | Column: the myth of the lonely leader

June 3, 2008
by Stefan Stern
Stefan Stern
Column: the myth of the lonely leader

It used to be the Ewings who livened up the boardrooms (and saloon bars) of Dallas, but these days the Rockefellers provide all the dynastic entertainment on offer. At ExxonMobil’s annual shareholders meeting in the Texan city last week, descendants of John D. Rockefeller, the founder of Exxon’s forebear Standard Oil, lobbied hard to force the company to split the joint role of chairman and chief executive – currently held by Rex Tillerson – in two.

Most shareholders demurred. They seemed happy enough with the company’s performance. As well they might be: ExxonMobil had record pre-tax profits of $40bn (£20bn, €26bn) last year, far outstripping all other leading US corporations. The share price, up by 10 per cent in the past 12 months, has shaken off the bearish sentiment that has afflicted other industrial stocks. It has not been a bad time to be in the oil business, of course. But management must be getting something right.

While the dispute over ExxonMobil’s strategic direction centred on the environment, in effect it constituted an attack on the current boss. Now, you might expect a Rockefeller to subscribe to the great man theory of history. But this theory, when applied to the leadership of businesses and organisations, distracts us from what we should really be thinking about. The personality of Mr Tillerson, and whether or not he should combine the roles of chair and CEO, is not the central point. The quality of the leadership team that surrounds him is what counts.

All of us – business people, financiers, analysts, journalists and PRs – are guilty of perpetuating the myth of the lonely leader, struggling single-handedly to drive the business on. I can only speak for my own trade here. As journalists we are taught to “tell the story through people”. So, if we want to report what a company is doing, who else should we write about if not the boss?

But as Lee Scott, chief executive of Wal-Mart, was honest enough to explain to this newspaper earlier this year: “I don’t run the company…as a CEO if you have to get up every morning and tell them what to do, then you’ve got the wrong people in the jobs.” Nor can Mr Tillerson simply over-ride the entire ExxonMobil board: 10 out of the 11 directors elected last week are non-executives.

Now there is new evidence that it is top teams rather than top bosses that matter most. Research commissioned by the UK-based consultancy Cognosis has shown that the effective development and execution of strategy has more to do with what senior executives succeed in conveying to the rest of the organisation than what leaders do and say alone.

Just over 1,000 senior managers from large businesses were asked by the research company YouGov to give their views on the strategic effectiveness of their organisation. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, the verdict was not all that positive. Under half felt that their leaders, leadership teams and organisational culture supported the effective development of strategy.

More surprising was the evidence, drawn from “regression analysis” of the survey findings, that leadership teams were four times as important as leaders in that process of developing strategy. “Leaders have only an indirect influence on creating a more strategically effective culture,” says Richard Brown, managing partner at Cognosis. The leader’s job is to “catalyse and orchestrate his or her top team”. It is then up to that team to influence the rest of the business.

So how, if you are the boss, do you make this process work? Try to build what Cognosis calls a “whole-minded” team around you. That is, balancing four key personality types (and approaches to strategy) as identified in a Myers-Briggs style analysis of your colleagues: those who are predominantly creative, collaborative, rational or practical.

According to the survey data, “whole-minded” teams are seen as significantly more effective. But there is good news for the leader who may be an essentially rational or practical kind of person. “Leaders don’t have to be whole-minded to assemble and lead whole-minded teams,” Mr Brown says. Getting buy-in from the rest of the business will be a lot easier, however, if the top team contains that mix of qualities that will help create a more convincing, and possibly even inspiring strategy.

The alternative is all too familiar: one-dimensional teams of executives all hired in the leader’s image, people who have got on in their careers by trying to be as much like their boss as possible. There is no mystery how this happens. “Leaders do tend to build leadership teams in their own image,” Mr Brown says. But this reinforces narrow-mindedness instead of building the “whole-mindedness” you need.

Do not expect to see any sudden or dramatic changes in the way we talk about business. The glossy magazines will not run out of CEOs eager to be photographed for the front cover. But, with their smart covers, those magazines are really reporting the myth and not the facts about how companies are run. Leadership, it turns out, is a team sport. Its tasks and duties are distributed far and wide among the ranks.

June 3rd, 2008 in Corporate governance, Leadership | Permalink

June 4, 2008 Posted by | Leadership, Strategy | , , , , | 2 Comments

Havas New Media lab – strategic leadership at the edge

Havas Forms Digital Media R&D Unit | paidContent:UK

Havas Forms Digital Media R&D UnitBy David Kaplan – Wed 13 Feb 2008 09:13 PM PST

Spanish ad holding company Havas is creating a digital media R&D division intended to synthesize the insights and capabilities of venture capitalists, agency executives, marketers and others whose roles intersect with digital media, InfluxBranding reported (via AgencySpy). Dubbed the Havas Media Lab, the unit will be headed by Umair Haque, a London-based Harvard Business School blogger who runs a consultancy called Bubblegeneration.

Writing on his blog, Haque is fairly vague about his vision, promising to post more details later. He did provide some reason for its existence: “The Lab happened because I don’t think any of the standard models – venture funds, corporates, firms, etc – can really make it happen (or else it would be happening).” He added that the unit will be made up of individuals with whom he has previously worked.

— Adweek: Haque’s promises of something new notwithstanding, just about all the other holding companies have started this kind of “futures planning” practice. Most prominent examples include Interpublic Group’s Futures Marketing Group, which which oversees the IPG Emerging Media Lab; WPP Group has WPP Digital, which manages new media investments for interactive shops like companies like Spot Runner, Invidi and Jumptap; and Publicis Groupe has Denuo, which guides start-ups it has a stake in on the appropriate ad models that fit their abilities.

March 25, 2008 Posted by | Leadership, Strategy | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment