January 18, 2018

Wasting energy?

Three senior managersWe all like a bit of freedom—the chance to act on our own initiative. Much of the time that’s a good thing.

Recently, however, I’ve been noticing just how much energy can be wasted if everyone is pulling in different directions in an organisation, even if they’re acting with the best of intentions. The result can be a feeling of overload and not having enough resource. In reality, lots of energy is getting wasted in unaligned, incoherent activity, much of which cancels out.

Yes, the organisation may be short of resource—quite likely it is…

Or maybe it has enough resource, if its participants would agree to a little more alignment in what they do—to sacrifice a little autonomy in the interests of a sensible workload.

An important role for leaders then to stimulate a shared sense of purpose that leads to coherent, aligned activity.

Perhaps that means you.

Discerning patterns, seeing what’s going on

Barely readable street signsHave you ever noticed…?

If you can just faintly hear some music being played in a noisy place… If you know the piece of music, you can make it out, whereas if you don’t, you can’t. It’s just part of the noise.


If you know what some barely visible lettering says, you can read it, whereas if you have no knowledge of what’s written, you can’t decipher it.


If we have some idea of the patterns of behaviour we might expect to see in a situation or an organisation, we can make sense of what’s going on, even with little information. It can even be very obvious.

We might misread things, of course: We do need to be aware of that danger. We might see what we expect to see. But knowing what patterns might arise is a good start.

Contrary to what we usually assume—and as the first two examples show—our sensory experience is actually partly created. We fill in the gaps with what we already know.

What patterns are you looking out for? And how diverse are they? Enough to cover the true span of possibilities?

Is individual learning enough to deliver organizational learning?

You’ve heard it before. You might even have said it yourself…

“Training doesn’t work.”


“When I get back to the workplace, I find it very hard to apply what I’ve learned.”

These can be opposite sides of the same coin – a disconnect between individual learning and organizational learning.

The thing is…

We can train as many individuals as we like in new skills, but if the organization doesn’t learn anything, the organization’s overall behavior and performance won’t change.

So what has to happen for an organization to learn?

Peter Senge, a leading authority in this area, would say there needs to be a shared vision of a compelling future; shared models and understanding of how things work; unbiased dialogue; an understanding of the systemic and dynamic nature of things (in which cause and effect may be separated in both time and space); and personal acceptance of both responsibility for outcomes and the need to improve personal performance, which he calls “personal mastery”.

In balder terms, the leaders of the organization need to go on a learning journey together and take a critical mass of the workforce along with them.

Peter’s prescription shows why “gaming” the system can be so damaging to progress because it makes learning by the organization and the wider enterprise impossible. His conditions are not met when players manipulate things for their own ends. Examples are all around.

He also says that the key enabler of the conditions for organizational learning is the quality of the relationships amongst the participants.

So you might like this reminder…

Take care to distinguish between individual learning and organizational learning. If you want the latter to occur, you might need to deliver more than just the former.

And you might like to apply your skill in relationships to the organizational learning on which we all depend.

How strong is the connection between individual learning and organizational learning in your world?

Organizational performance – it’s all down to “the human condition” in the end, isn’t it?

“Isn’t it just the human condition?” my friend remarked. We were discussing the difficulty of getting organizations to understand the problems they face and our reluctance as leaders to accept that we may be causing our own difficulties.

“Yes” I replied, welcoming the agreement that complex management and leadership issues can be understood from a human and, in some ways, simpler if deeper perspective.

An unsaid “Not much we can do about that then” filled the silence.

Wait a minute though…

What really is meant by “the human condition?”

According to Wikipedia… it “encompasses the experiences of being human in a social, cultural, and personal context; the irreducible part of humanity that is inherent and not connected to gender, race, class, etc. — a search for purpose, sense of curiosity, the inevitability of isolation, fear of death, etc.”

What are the benefits of seeing the link to organizations?

Recognizing the link through the human character of leadership opens up a route to solving issues by working on our “human condition” – a complement to our usual left-brain, analytical, “professional” approach. There are ways to do that and they can produce quick results.

What if we notice the “nominalization” in the phrase itself?

Linguistics people would notice that “the human condition” is an abstract noun referring to on-going activity describable with verbs e.g. blaming others for our problems to protect our ego.

That in turn is a signpost to growth…

If we put problems down to “the human condition,” thinking “not much we can do about that then,” we disempower ourselves and miss that we can develop human wisdom in ourselves and others, and so improve results. Identifying the on-going processes in “the human condition” will help us influence them, and not be their victim.

Are you a victim of the human condition? You could be a master of it instead.

Is expertise in “the human condition” a vital part of leadership?

Where should our cash go – retaining people or training people?

How is it that organisations are content to go on spending £100ks or $100ks or more per month on salaries of people doing their jobs badly, but not a few £k or $k teaching them how to do their jobs well?

In recessionary times, many organisations cut “unnecessary” expenditure – such as external training and help – and conserve cash to meet on-going payroll of permanent staff. Now I’m all for keeping the team together, but this is nuts. We’re in a rapidly changing world and our people need to learn fast. What’s the point of paying people to do the job wrong, or even the wrong job? Then we really are wasting our money and piling up problems for the future.

There ain’t no magic bullets

Scottish Parliament ChamberGreat discussion with the team from Unipart led by John Neill, Group Chief Executive of the Unipart Group of Companies at the Business in the Parliament conference in Edinburgh (12 November 2010). John talked about the benefits of a largely employee-owned businesses making learning and development choices for the medium to long term, rather than to meet the short term pressures of the City.

The success of the “Unipart Way” is based on engaging people and taking them on learning journey.  Only 15% of our people are engaged, on average. Meanwhile we have a large productivity “gap” in both the private and public sectors, which, if closed even partly, would completely compensate for the forthcoming reductions in public spending.

Do we need a crisis to get change started? Not necessarily, according to John. Most important thing is to set out a compelling vision of how things can be. To influence others not yet on the journey, show them a working model. That overcomes the difficulty of understanding thing we are being told rather than shown.

Success take practice. An orchestra depends on the 10,000+ hours of work of the individual musicians (see Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers) to play Beethoven’s Ninth (or any other great work). So it is with other organisations. High performance needs a commitment to learning and effort applied to practice.

There ain’t no magic bullets.