Monday, November 22, 2010

Place, experience, identity and belonging

Connections are strange things - they seem to come out of nowhere, but have importance to us and how we lead others.  A few weeks ago three unrelated things happened a few days apart that triggered me to recall two unrelated memories from my childhood. These stimulated some useful reflections on our behaviour as professionals and in which boat we should be. I attended a session on the use of multiple senses and poetry to influence perception at the ILA conference. I also attended a session on the power of place at that same conference on the same day. The following day, I went for a reflective walk around the Boston Common.

Whilst on this walk I recalled my enjoyment of the poem “Hist” as a child, which I also shared with my own children when they were in primary school. The poem describes a fearful journey at night “a mile or so across the Possum Park” (which as child I thought was Boston Park) and how terrified they were during the journey. Once nearing the other side and coming into the light again, their fear evaporated and their stories changed to how brave they were and how exciting the journey was. This stimulated me to think how often we don’t take that courageous journey out of fear. We don’t get on board that unknown boat to “somewhere else”, especially in a time when perceptions of risk kill many ideas before they can grow sufficient strength to survive attack by the change resistant power brokers eager to preserve their control and interests.

Updating that old poem to suit our current context might look like:
(with apologies to and inspiration from CJ Dennis)

Hist….. Hark,
The journey seems so dark
We SHOULD tread a new track across an unknown park
Step right, lead like you might
With egos aside and open minds
Deliver us into the light
Let’s together embark on an uncertain journey that takes us to a better place using all the knowledge we have and embrace the “sacrifices” this may entail. Because if we do not do so, the sacrifices will be much worse (and are already visible to those who CAN SEE). Please do not be afraid of the dark. Look for the inspiration and confidence that comes from leading by example and accepting that we must act for the future, whilst retain the best of what we already know (and this is not western dominated short term thinking!) The planet needs and is ready for true “advanced leadership”. Are you in the boat or on the bank?

Thursday, November 11, 2010

From Lead Gunners to Gun Leaders

In Australia the slang term “Gunner” is a derogatory term for someone who is always shooting off ideas but rarely does anything about them. It comes from their constant verbal shots of “I am gunner do this and they are gunner do that…”. The lead gunner wants to look good by spruiking ideas, but knows that attempting delivery of their “great idea” is a risk. It requires action and capability they are not confident about, so they have handy a list of complex barriers they use as a excuses for their lack of delivery and commitment. I often wonder what they see when reflecting (assuming they engage in genuine self challenge). Are they aware of their limitations, or blissfully in their own little “reality”.

Typical of the dry and not so subtle Australian sense of humour is you can buy such people a circular wall decoration called a “tuit”. This removes their excuse of “I’m gunner do it when I get a round to it”. In contrast, the slang term “Gun” applies to someone at the peak of their performance. A gun athlete wins the gold medal, they are the best and everyone knows it. A gun leader is a highly respected individual who delivers on sustainable promises. People trust them and are inspired by them.

I have observed lead gunner behaviours in many of today’s so called “leaders”. Many are fantastic at describing their vision or mission (assuming they know the difference). However, they have very little idea (or intention perhaps) of acting to convert these into reality. This is often driven by fear of the unknown and the unpredictability of the longer term future. The fact that we live in a complex world should be seen as a great advantage and source of opportunities for innovation, not an issue. However, it has resulted in many at the top (I refrain from saying leaders) making decisions that are short term focused to reduce risks and “optimise” short term gain. A better leadership approach is foster “collaborative opportunity before issues” (see earlier post). Although risks are important to decision making, the risk analysis needs to come after the creative interactions to generate a wide diversity of opportunities. This mindset of focusing on short term “risk free” actions for immediate benefit to the few is the action of gunners not leaders. Now more than ever we need genuine authentic leaders who think, behave and act in a sustainable manner. It is far easier to describe what a house is, than to build it. It is even more difficult to convert the newly constructed building into a home, which a family of people “own”, identify with and feel a sense of belonging and safety. Organisations often lack this sense of belonging, causing stress, a lack of loyalty and high employee churn. So back to our Lead gunners…

How do we encourage the decision makers to shed the gunner mentality and remove the barriers to realisation, rather than constantly talk about what is stopping them. “I can’t deliver this until….” echoes along the corridors of the top floor, along with “I wasn’t my fault, we couldn’t have known and this has never happened before”. Get over it! The world is complex and unpredictable. If you want the privileges of being a leader in such a world, deal with this - or get out of the way for someone who can! In fact, if you are a capable leader you will revel in the uncertainty and leverage the diversity and emergence whilst acting in a responsible manner. Such an approach will drive a positive performance spiral in your organisation and contribute to the “greater good” not to mention your reputation.

So, where are we going to find people who get this? Leaders accept the challenges and the responsibility of creating a shared vision which all members of their “tribe” want to willingly follow. Because, if they don’t have willing followers, they can hardly be leaders can they! So are you gunner join the typical leaderless or be a gun leader?

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Boundary riders for creative innovation

Boundary Spanning Leadership, a book by Chris Ernst and Donna Chrobot-Mason from the Center for Creative Leadership was released last week has been an immediate success. It is in fact, a good example of its own philosophies in that it draws on a wide range of ideas from many contexts to support the research on which it is based. It also leverages the impressive networks into which the CCL authors have within their circles of influence to promote the ideas it contains. They cleverly contrast the common perception of boundaries as barriers to progress with the less commonly applied definition as frontiers. This highlights an important aspect of our role as leaders is to challenge boundaries to forge new territories on the path a discovery pathway that drives innovation and performance. Although these principles may not seem new at first glance to some, what is unique about the book is the simple way in which these complex issues are simplified with a well structured pathway that clarifies how you can transform the concept of creative innovation into a reality. They provide interactive ways to engage people to participate, that is taking good theory and weaving a pragmatic process in place to deliver results.

I was attracted to this book because I often referred to myself as a “boundary rider”, explaining that my role has often been to solicit new options by drawing from a wide range of disciplines to stimulate conversations at the edge of people’s experiences and knowledge. I, as I am sure others like CCL and similar innovation consultants, have used such approaches for many years to make a difference for the people we interact with. The challenge we often have is when people ask what we do. It can be hard to define and mundane job titles do not do our work justice. This is what Chris and Donna have captured so well. They clarify some of the more creative elements and processes we deploy through a sharper focus and demonstrate why this creates value.

When being introduced to new people (even by some of my former bosses, clients and family members!), rather than tell them what I do my introducer often says, “He can explain what he does as I am not sure”. My replies vary depending on who it is and the context, but some of my favourites have been “I bend people’s minds” or “I am a boundary rider across multiple knowledge disciplines”. These statements are not meant to be arrogant or create a sense of superiority- they are meant to stimulate a creative conversation by offering something a little mysterious and intriguing. These responses invariably trigger another question and the exchange of good questions is always a more creative and fun two-way interaction to share knowledge than simply telling them answers (which like names are bit mundane and quickly forgotten).

Like my friend the Yak illustrated above, boundary riders are highly enthusiastic in what they do and if given a little freedom around emergent interactions and permission for the group to experience some small “mistakes” in a safe fail environment – the groups can create a lot of innovative outcomes whilst having a lot of fun along the way.