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.

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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

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

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

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

HBR Editors blog, March 24 – How to Crack Companies’ Class Structure

How to Crack Companies’ Class Structure – Harvard Business Online’s HBR Editors’ Blog

How to Crack Companies’ Class Structure</blockquote
Posted by Steve Prokesch on March 24, 2008 9:01 AM

An invisible class structure is preventing companies from making the most of their employees’ talents.

By class structure I mean there’s a function or profession that considers itself and is perceived by all others to be the one that the organization values most. Everybody else is a de facto second- class citizen or worse.

By invisible I mean that everybody just accepts the class structure as a fact of life. Leaders do not consider either the price it exacts or how they might get rid of it.

What a shame! In an age when solving increasingly complex problems requires not just the input but also the robust interactions of multiple disciplines, a class structure is a formidable competitive disadvantage.

I first became conscious of this problem about 10 years ago, when I had the misfortune of becoming a second-class citizen for the first time. I was hired by an extremely affluent company, where one group indisputably ruled the kingdom: the salesmen. Even though this firm insisted on hiring “the best” for every function and paid everyone obscenely well, the vast majority of the salesmen had the attitude that they were the experts on everything. Everyone else, including yours truly, was “support staff”—or, as some of us dubbed ourselves, “window washers.” I felt I came nowhere close to making the contribution I could have made and plenty of others felt the same.

Admittedly this firm is an extreme case, but I’ve observed that organizations with class structures are the overwhelming norm. (Were Darwin still around, he undoubtedly would respond, “Duh! What did you expect?”)

Given that organizations need the best ideas of everyone and cross-disciplinary teamwork, leaders must do whatever they can to create classless organizations. Here’s a first crack at what the basic steps should include:

Perform a diagnosis. Go ask people in different disciplines which functions they perceive to be first and second class. I know of CEOs who have been shocked at what they’ve discovered.

Define a classless society: Make sure everyone understands that it means a meritocracy, not a democracy. People should know that they can talk to anyone in the organization and that their ideas will be welcomed and seriously considered but not necessarily accepted. There needs to be a decision-making hierarchy and advancement through its ranks obviously must depend on the possession of specific skills and experience and proof of talent.

Practice what you preach. Continually demonstrate in every setting that you personally value all functions and cross-disciplinary teamwork, that you respect anyone who offers constructive ideas, and that it’s okay for people to stick their noses into others’ businesses.

Don’t tolerate bad behavior.
Punish repeat offenders—even senior executives. Nothing gets the message across better than a few public hangings.</blockquote

March 26, 2008 Posted by | Leadership, Systems | | 1 Comment