Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Seeing Change

One of the best tools in a leader’s toolbox is perspective. Leadership often comes with the privilege of being able to see the organization from more broad perspectives. While likely unfamiliar with important frontline details, leaders should be equipped with perspectives that include a wide range of aspects, as well as a view over time and a sense about the future.

Listening to Tim Keller recently (a talk on change that you can hear by using this link), I heard him say that growth and change cannot be seen, but only measured. While it may seem like we can literally watch our kids grow, for example, we really only know that they’ve grown by measurement and comparison over time. Likewise, an isolated snapshot of our organization alone cannot tell the story of growth, change and progress.

The idea that growth and change cannot be seen, but only measured, is an important leadership principle.

It is easy for us in any organization to go about our work with the misconception that we are not moving the ball forward. Are we making a difference today? Are today’s tasks doing anything to impact the big picture?

Leaders need to be continually about the work of sharing perspective. More than just telling people what it looks like from leadership’s point of view, leaders need to make opportunities to bring folk to points of broad perspective and help them see. Opportunities to share perspective take all sorts of shapes, including:
  • Reminding people of the past through storytelling and interviews of historical figures
  • Keeping track of meaningful metrics and reporting on progress clearly and regularly
  • Explaining how different parts of an organization are interrelated and symbiotic
  • Illustrating how sacrifices today are intended to produce tomorrow’s successes
  • Competently demonstrating an ability to see, synthesize, and interpret the broad perspective in ways that build confidence and trust throughout the organization

As a leader, it is easy for me to forget that I have the benefit of a unique perspective; not everyone sees what I see. It is both a matter of position and ability, vantage point and equipment, sightlines and skill. Good leaders remember that they have unique perspective and share it well.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Networks and Structures

I recently heard Ed Catmull, president of Pixar, reflect on a September 2008 article he wrote for the Harvard Business Review about fostering collective creativity. One of the key quotes from the interview went something like this, “we need people at Pixar to recognize that we are highly organized, but the organization structure and the communication structure are two different things.” I downloaded the article; here’s how he stated it in print: “Everyone must have the freedom to communicate with anyone. This means recognizing that the decision-making hierarchy and communication structure in organizations are two different things.”

I think this is something that I’ve always understood, but I know I will do well to better adopt and propagate this key concept. Organization structures and communication networks need to both be leveraged to their maximum potential in collective creativity and decision making.

The skilled leader will keep both the structures and the networks in harmonious tension. It is easy to err by failing on either side.

In my experience, we don’t need to do anything to create the communication networks; people talk. Our task is really to better acknowledge the networks and leverage them to their maximum potential; we can do more to enable the networks. Managers err when we build a culture that causes the networks to go underground, failing to acknowledge and encourage open communication. The extremes, with awful consequences, are those that attempt to forbid or punish open communication.

The opposite error is to fail to acknowledge the organization structure for decision making. We commonly forget that an open communication network does not negate what Catmull calls a “decision-making hierarchy.” Short circuiting, or even the perception of short circuiting, an organization structure generally results in chaos that includes poor decision making, bruised relationships, and damaged communication networks.

For a while now, we have adopted a vernacular for three stages of decision making:

  • discussion,
  • deliberation, and
  • decision.

I think it is helpful to think of these ideas in a simple matrix:

Collective creativity and sound decision making generally is best served by open discussion that may or may not involve the organizational structure. This is the early stage in the process characterized by brainstorming, floating of ideas, and what I often call swirl.

Deliberation ought to involve the networks and must consider the structure. This is the stage when operable plans come together. Productive deliberation should reflect the work of networks, and consider the structure in such a way that it results in a proposal that is actionable by the structure.

Decision, then, should be well informed by the networks via the previous stages, but entrusted to the organizational structure. The best decisions will include a feedback loop that demonstrates the value of the networks, especially when there is respectful disagreement.

If only it were this simple. Models like these are easily thrown by distrust and insecurity. Those in the communication networks may not be able to trust the organizational structure, even when open communication is enabled and thoroughly considered. Those in decision-making hierarchies may be so insecure that open communication is threatening, discouraged or disregarded. Then there are the added complications that might include legal constraints, confidentiality issues, and the various competing goals and perspectives of all involved. Nevertheless, sometimes a simple model like this helps, even in such complexities.