January 19, 2018

The subtlety is the point

Four business people in a discussionMany situations seem to require being focused and broad at the same time; being specialist as well as generalist.

That appears to be a contradiction, a dichotomy—one that needs very careful handling if a group of people is involved, and a considerable challenge to manage successfully.

If we suggest focusing an organisation, for example, in one or more particular areas, the people involved in the non-preferred areas are likely to resist because they feel threatened. But we possibly didn’t intend any real downside for them. It’s more that we hope to grow certain emerging strengths.

Alternatively, if we aim to keep everyone happy, we may fail to develop the concentration of effort necessary to achieve significant breakthroughs.

Chances are what we really require is a relative emphasis on certain areas that may yield superior returns on effort, not a major upheaval.

Our biggest challenge, in fact, may be to convey the subtlety of what we intend so that we don’t “frighten the horses” whose support we need. Managing the situation with the necessary sensitivity and spreading that ethos throughout the organisation could be harder than—and just as vital as—the actual choice of areas of focus.

In other words…

The subtlety is the point.

Much easier to shut down initiative than get it going

Group of colleagues

I think we underestimate this asymmetry.

The taking of initiative by team members can be a fragile thing. It’s much, much easier to shut it down than get it going in the first place. The truth is we really don’t need to worry that we can stop something if we need to do. That’s all too easy. The difficult part is switching people on in the first place. We need to nurture that.

It’s so easy to fall in to the trap of thinking we should be in control of what happens at all times. That may seem to be what’s expected of us, or so we think anyway. But that sucks the energy out of any initiative. The effort becomes just our energy then—ours alone. That’s a lot less than the energy of the group.

Instead, we need the art of the light touch and the continuance of trust.

Unless, that is, we believe a heroic, solo effort from ourselves is the right way—that we’ll somehow be stronger than a whole organisation full of people.

Most of the time, we won’t be.

It’s not so comfortable to allow something to happen and not be in full control, but for others to take and sustain initiative that’s the path we need to follow.

Threatening with help

Three senior managersIt’s a curious thing…

People can be remarkably resistant to help: I suppose we all are, depending on the subject. “Help” can take us into painful contemplation, addressing issues that we might prefer to avoid—or at least put off to another time.

Perhaps that’s why “threatening” someone or a group with help can be so effective. Suddenly, when there is a real possibility of someone else getting involved and perhaps setting the pace and the agenda—taking the initiative away—we find it within ourselves to make a start; to tackle the issues we need to tackle.

Sometimes, I’ve been the “help” that is threatened. I don’t think I’m that scary but, even so, some people would rather take the suggestion as a prompt to galvanise themselves into action—independently.

Where are you on this…

Are you the help that is threatened?

Or are you being threatened by help?

Or do you put your pride aside and accept additional expertise into what you’re doing?

Or maybe you’re a leader using the threat of help to get others to take action, even if that isn’t what you originally intended.

Whichever of these apply, it’s a powerful effect.

If you want people to listen…

Group of people listening…let them speak.

It’s quite simple really.

The days of talking at an audience and expecting them to take much of it on board are gone. Expectations have changed: People want a conversation. They want to be heard as well as to hear.

Sometimes we fear initiating a two-way conversation because we might not like what’s said.

The thing is…

The thoughts are there anyway. If we know what they are we are, we’re better off.

We can state up front we may not be able to act on all of what’s said.

People want to be heard. Then they might accept an alternative view. If they’re made to be silent, they probably won’t.


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The danger of creeping mediocrity

Run down houseIn owning and operating something complex, like a house, for instance, it’s easy to let small flaws grow into big ones. If we don’t deal with minor issues in a relentless way, eventually the whole entity is degraded.

It’s like that with a business or an organisation…

If we tolerate mediocrity, even in situations where the individual issue doesn’t matter very much, eventually we have a degraded organisation.

If we accept mediocrity in a business, eventually it’ll fail.

That doesn’t mean we should be paralysed by an attempt to achieve unattainable perfection. It does mean we should insist on the best possible—from ourselves and others.

How do you keep mediocrity at bay?

Overcoming ego

Four business people in a discussion

We all have an ego. We couldn’t function properly without one. We need our sense of separateness.

On the other hand…

Our ego can blind us to the feedback we need to receive in order to grow and to develop or make the right decision. Unfortunately, we tend to reject input that threatens to disrupt our independent identity.

Somehow we need to regulate that tendency in ourselves.

Perhaps that’s work enough, but we also need to deal with it in other people…

We need to find ways of presenting the information they need without them rejecting it out of hand, because their ego won’t let them accept it.

How do we get someone in a position of authority to hear what they need to hear? Often not an easy thing, especially if they’re unaware of the effect of their own ego—if they don’t have that wisdom.

What’s the best way to speak truth to power?

One is to build a deep enough relationship with the person that we can get the message across without it “landing in the ego” by communicating “heart-to-heart.” That takes time and patience, of course.

Another is to express the point in relation to a third party, as in “My friend John” had such and such experience and decided on a certain course of action.

A third is to use the structure, Feel-Felt-Found, as in: “I know you feel x. Person y felt that too. They found z worked out well.”

How do you tackle this challenge?

What’s your approach to get someone to hear what they need to hear?

How do you side-step the ego?


Discontinuous change vs. continuous adaptation

Discontinuous change vs. continuous adaptationOne philosophy of change in organisations starts from an assumption that structures, processes and systems are largely fixed at the outset—frozen, if you like. The approach then is to unfreeze the existing set-up, change it as required, developing whatever new structures and processes are needed, and then refreeze it again.

After that, we can fine-tune what we have for efficiency and profit.

That may work. It is an approach to discontinuous change.

The trouble is though that change is probably becoming too rapid for that. We may need to be unfrozen all the time, continuously evolving and making changes.

The question becomes how to instil continuous evolution, adaptation and growth, if that’s what we need; if our normal state needs to be evolution, not stability.

Developing our adaptability is a different kind of problem from implementing a change programme. It’s much more about initiative and self-organisation and inter-connection, for example, though we need to find ways of staying efficient and profitable as we evolve.

Perhaps large change programmes should lead to continuous adaptation—with no “refreezing.”

What do you think?

Top-down or bottom-up?

Balancing a baseball batWhich is the best way of running organisations?

Answer: Neither.

We need both, if we want the best results and an engaged team. Top-down for direction and accountability, bottom-up for energy and resilience and adaptability.

We need to keep the two in equilibrium, and that’s a bit like balancing a stick on our finger—not so hard if we concentrate, but let our mind wander and the stick is soon on the ground.

In many corporate organisations, the stick fell to the ground a long time ago, often on the side of autocratic top-down management, like some of the banks, but sometimes also on the side of excessively bottom-up arrangements with no coherence, like the Co-op in the UK perhaps, with its current difficulties.

So a function of leadership then…

Is to act, as if from outside the organisation, keeping the top-down and bottom-up in balance. Often we need to stimulate the bottom-up dynamic before we can event start.

How adept are you at acting in your organisation and on it at the same time?

Is the status quo better funded?

The Wright Brothers First FlightInertia is usually better resourced than change—better staffed, better financed, and better organised.

It’s usually easier to get paid to do something that reinforces the status quo than it is to do the radical work needed for an overhaul of the existing order.

Much of what we do collectively actually holds us back rather than takes us forward.


In a position of responsibility, how do we support the change agents on whom we depend for our future success?

Radical change might require radical support.

Why help is needed

Forest on a hillsideW. Edwards Deming said “Help must come from outside because a system is not capable of understanding itself.”

In other words, it can be hard to see the wood for the trees. This is true whether we’re talking about a single person or an organisation i.e. whether in coaching or consultancy.

What Deming didn’t say, but perhaps we might add, is that help must come from outside because people, and, therefore, organisations do what they do unconsciously. They’re not aware of the gap between what they’re doing and what they could be doing. If they were, they would be doing it already.

Unconscious competences aren’t always useful. Just because we’re good at something, doesn’t mean it’s the right choice.


From the outside, it can be very obvious what the system isn’t understanding about itself because (1) it doesn’t have perspective, and (2) what it needs is outside conscious awareness.

Benefit then in involving someone to bring perspective and stimulate realisation.