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Does Your Organisation Hide Social Echo Chambers?

Social Echo Chambers

Let’s be honest, it doesn’t matter which side of the fence you sit on, we were all surprised by the outcome of the EU referendum and Trump’s election as US president. Since then, there has been plenty of dinner table and pub conversation about both outcomes and extensive economic analysis but what does it tell us about human nature and the organisations we work in.

Our everyday experience shows that we are unlikely to be in regular contact with people who are different to ourselves; we tend to like people who like what we like and value what we value. Geographically we have seen the same story, to the point that the so called ‘post code’ lottery might more accurately be called the ‘like-minded, like-educated and like-paid’ lottery?

Similarly, in our virtual worlds Amazon ensures that we are stalked by the words ‘people like you…’ in an attempt to segment us by our buying habits. Social media has a similar amplifying effect. Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn make a virtue of connecting us to people ‘like us’. While providing content that we like, the same algorithms create virtual worlds where our values and beliefs go unchallenged, and run the risk of becoming a form of mathematically induced apartheid!

Early work on what we all now recognise as ‘groupthink’ showed that when we all agree there is a tendency to become more extreme in our views, what is known as the ‘shift to risk’. Today social media has created ‘social echo chambers’ that are the new virtual social divide in which we communicate with those who support, endorse and magnify our own world view. But is it the same in organisations and as leaders do we really know what is happening below the surface of organisational civility?

As a consultant, I share with my colleagues a dissatisfaction with how we understand organisations and the neatness of organisational charts. In reality, organisations are a constellation of informal networks that we have to manage, navigate and lead on a moment by moment basis, but help is at hand.

The emerging field of Social Network Analysis (SNA) provides an amazing way of understanding and representing this network of relationships. As Brexit and the US election illustrated, consciously or unconsciously, we tend to connect with people who resemble us. Of particular interest is how tightly interwoven our personal and professional networks can be. If you know Alan, Alan knows Michelle and Michelle knows you, the relationship is said to be transitive. High transitivity exists where individuals are deeply embedded within a single group, while low transitivity occurs among people who make contact with several groups who do not know each other. High transitivity can make for great teamwork, but poor receptiveness to new or different ideas.

At an organizational level, it is possible to make sense of social networks by mapping lines of communication, advice and trust in order to create a series of visual images, which we call ‘sociograms’. The sociograms are created by feeding the data from three simple questions into Network Visualization Software, which creates a 2D picture of the network of, with nodes (people) and ties (connections between them), and placing those who are more connected in the centre and those who are less connected at the periphery.

  • Communication networks reveal who talks to whom on a regular basis. Mapping communication networks can help identify gaps in information flow or inefficient use of resources.
  • Advice networks show the influential members in an organization who others depend on to solve problems or provide technical information. Because these networks show influential players in the day-to-day operations of a company, they are useful to examine when an organisation is considering routine changes.
  • Trust or support network shows the individuals we are most likely to share our thoughts, feelings and organizational intelligence with. Mapping trust networks can uncover both change blockers and change advocates.

Social network analysis not only facilitates the exchange of accurate information, about who has what, who needs what and who can do what, it also enables the exchange of ideas that can feed innovation. For example, identifying where dense network connections (high transitivity) may be stifling the spread of new ideas or where connections to other teams and departments are sparse or non-existent.

Sociograms provide a map that graphically depicts how relationships inside an organization really work. They can help to visualize and understand these flows of communication, advice and trust, showing where an organization is resilient and strong, where it is vulnerable and weak, and how the real network can help plan strategies for organizational change.

Brexit and the Trump election victory have already changed the UK and the US and their relationship with the world in unimagined ways. These unplanned disruptive changes came about, not solely as a result of poor political judgement, but because we individually failed to cross the social divide economically and educationally.  Critically we sought advice from people who were most likely to vote like ourselves rather than those with a different view.

Similar dangers lurk in organisations and leaders need to make more effort to understand and work with the invisible ‘social network’ to understand why information reaches some employees, but not others; why we struggle to generate new ideas; and why we fail to implement change.

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To team, or not to team, that is the question…

To Team or Not To Team

We are social animals. We have hunted and gathered in teams for most of our history. Beside the benefits of sharing the burden of survival and gaining insight, learning and knowledge, we also seek out teams for affection, affiliation, acknowledgement and personal self-worth. Even today, banishment or shunning is an important form of punishment in most social groups and organisations.

In the early 20th century mass manufacturing and bureaucracy briefly removed the necessity for teams, when scientific management tried to improve productivity by assigning specific tasks to individuals. But teams reappeared after the Second World War, epitomised by the efforts of William Edwards Deming in Japan, and have since become the basic building blocks of organisations. A shift that has been culturally reinforced, in the western world at least, through the encouragement of group work in schools and our love of team sports.

However, managers need to ask themselves whether teams are always the right answer, because building an efficient and effective team requires time and effort, and if done badly can lead to confusion, waste, delay and poor decision-making. Nor do teams and team working suit everyone. Introverts, who it is estimated make up 40% of the workforce, may loathe them. And while teams work best if their members have a strong common culture, this can easily degenerate into a ‘them and us’ mentality and groupthink, where teams become close minded, overestimate their capabilities, and suffer from pressures toward conformity.

I am not suggesting that we avoid teams, far from it, they allow us to achieve what cannot be done alone. But I am suggesting we pause for thought. Teams do not happen simply by being given the title. They are complex arenas of behaviour that need to be carefully nurtured if they are to achieve more than the sum of their parts.

So how do you know if a team is the right answer? Well start by asking yourself the following key question:

Do I need a working group or a team? In some cases work may be best left to individuals. In a working group the members work separately toward individual performance goals and, if they interact at all, it is only to share information and best practice in order to help each individual perform better within his or her area of responsibility. Beyond that there is no realistic or truly desired common purpose, performance goals, or joint work products. So, is there a significant performance need or opportunity that requires your group to become a team? It is important to be clear on this because investing time in team building may be detrimental to individual performance.

If the answer is still yes, I need a team, then the next step is to measure yourself against some sort of standard.

In their seminal work, The Wisdom of Teams, Katzenbach and Smith describe a real team as a small number of people with complementary skills who are committed to a common purpose, performance goals, and approach for which they hold themselves mutually accountable. And a high performing team as a group that meets all the conditions of a real team, and has members who are also deeply committed to one another’s personal growth and success. Let’s look at each attribute in turn

Small number. Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s boss, reputedly said that “If I see more than two pizzas for lunch, the team is too big.” More prosaically, Katzenbach and Smith identify teams as between 2 and 25 people, with the majority being less than 10. Larger groups will struggle to find the time and space to meet. They are also more likely to fall prey to groupthink and herd behaviours. And, if the going gets tough, will find it easier to revert to formal hierarchy, structure, policies and procedures.

Complementary skills. This refers not only to technical or functional expertise, but also to problem solving, decision-making skills and interpersonal skills, all of which allow the team to perform and function together. The key watch out is forming teams on the basis of personal compatibility, rather than skills. To be immunised against ‘groupthink’, teams need to contain ‘deviants’, those who are willing to ruffle feathers. Teams need productive conflict between different personalities and approaches. They need some grit in the oyster. A group where everyone gets on enjoys themselves is a party not a team.

Common purpose and performance goals. Teams develop direction, momentum, and commitment by working toward a shared purpose. Fundamentally, purpose gives teams a shared identity, keeping conflict constructive by providing a meaningful common standard against which to resolve clashes. Goals are an integral part of the purpose, transforming broad directives into specific and measureable objectives. They define the team’s work product, differentiating it from individual job objectives, but identifying how individuals can best contribute.

Committed to a common approach. This describes how teams will work together to accomplish their purpose: who will do particular jobs; how objectives will be set and adhered to; how the group will make and modify decisions; and when and how often they will meet. In addition there are social roles to be encouraged such as listening, challenging, supporting and integrating.

Mutual Accountability. This underpins commitment and trust, which is vital for any high performing team. By promising to hold ourselves accountable to the team’s goals we earn the right to express our views about all aspects of the team’s effort and have our views receive a fair and constructive hearing.

Still interested in forming a team? Then you need to get the basics right from the start.

Tuckman’s familiar team development model is useful here, describing the process in four stages: forming, storming, norming and performing. In the forming stage, be prepared for little work to get done and for team members to be overly polite with one another. At this stage team members will seek guidance from you on the team’s purpose, aims and objectives; the contribution expected from each of them; and the ground rules. This period is about helping people to understand why they are forming as a team, what will be expected of them and how they will work together. Expect to deal with the following typical questions:

• Why were we formed or why are we now being asked to be a team?
• What are we supposed to accomplish as a team?
• Whose idea was the formation of this team?
• Why was I asked to participate on this team?

They are also likely to want to know who the other members of the team are. What their roles and responsibilities will be? How are they going to find out each other’s capabilities and characteristics? And how they will be expected to work together as a team? They may ask the following questions:

• How will we arrive at decisions?
• How will we resolve disagreements?
• How will we increase our ability to take risks and maximise our creativity?
• Where, when and how will we meet (whole team, smaller groups, one-to-one)?
• How are we going to make ourselves accessible to each other?

As these questions are explored and debated be prepared to deal with challenges to your authority and inter-team squabbles. This is the storming stage and your role is to explain the boundaries, offer suggestions, arbitrate and ultimately make decisions, while keeping a lid on anarchy. It will be up to you to direct the traffic, in order to identify and establish goals, roles and relationships, lines of communication, likely barriers, and support mechanisms. Norming is when team roles become accepted, team feeling develops, and information is freely shared. And your ultimate goal is performing, when optimal levels of productivity are achieved.

But it’s not over yet. The challenge now is how does the team continue to be successful and not get into a rut? The answer is continuous improvement. Teams need to maintain clarity on purpose and performance; accountabilities and responsibilities; barriers and strategies to get around them; interpersonal issues; modifications to the problem solving and decision making; and intra/inter team communication, to name but a few. The bottom line is that the conversation around the team’s why, what and how is necessarily ongoing, reacting to and evolving with the team member’s environment, just as our species has always done.

Still want to form a team?

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Three Simple Questions to Breakdown Organisational Silos


One of the hottest political issues is how ‘open versus closed’ has transcended ‘left versus right’ as the key political division. Those who are ‘open’, so the argument goes, are in favour of immigration and free trade, and those who are ‘closed’ are in favour of tighter border controls and protection for domestic industries. Alternatively, they are described as citizens of somewhere (closed), rooted in nations and local communities, or citizens of nowhere (open), happy and able to live and work anywhere. Leaving aside the value laden descriptors both have value and these are fundamentally aspects of tribal identity.

Human and related species are guided by tribal instincts, which are essentially about survival: ‘families’ uniting with other ‘families’ for protection and to share the burden of providing food and shelter, but for humans the instinct doesn’t stop there. Among our primate cousins and our early ancestors, tribes did not grow much beyond a couple of hundred individuals in a shared physical space. Our species, however, underwent a cognitive revolution that enabled us to share intersubjective realities: the ability to share ideas, such as religions and political ideologies, that overcome the limitations of face to face contact and created ‘tribes’ consisting of thousands and ultimately millions of people spanning the globe.

But in both its primitive and more evolved version the downside of the tribal instinct is tribalism, when the behaviours and attitudes that stem from strong loyalty to one’s own tribe lead to the exaltation of the tribe above other tribes. At the very least this may mean we ignore their ideas and at an extreme can lead to racism, nationalism and ultimately genocide.

The same dynamics apply in organisations (though hopefully not to such an apocalyptic extent) and the same balance therefore needs to be struck between open and closed: the productivity of closely bonded teams and the openness to seek out new ideas from other groups. The question is how to do both? How to address the paradox of being both ‘closed’ and ‘open’, and therefore to be both efficient (doing things right) and effective (doing the right things).

In the first place, the distinction between ‘closed’ and ‘open’ can be examined using the concepts of bonding and bridging social capital. Social capital is the benefit accruing from the networks of relationships within which we live and work, with bonding social capital referring to the reduced transactional costs marked by reciprocity, trust, and cooperation in highly productive teams and organisations, and bridging social capital referring to the opportunities provided by new sources of information, perspectives, and innovation from outside the organisation or team.

Traditionally, organisations have tried to increase productivity by focusing on bonding social capital, building levels of trust through team working and identifying efficiency savings through techniques such as ‘lean’. The problem is that such approaches tend to be conducted within the constraints of hierarchical silos and savings become a zero sum game between the different departments and directorates fighting over reduced resources and thus working against any notion of cooperation, let alone collaboration.

An alternative approach is available however, borne of our greater understanding of social networks (the informal lateral and diagonal relationships that challenge our more formal understanding of organisations, epitomised by the hierarchical org chart). Focusing on networks helps us to understand the current state of connectivity and co-creation within and between sub-organisational tribes, identify where the gaps are, and then begin to bridge them.

The key is to scale up the attributes of high performing teams so that they extend across the organisation, binding the whole organisation together around a shared intersubjective reality. A shared understanding of the context, leading to the creation of a shared purpose and ultimately a sense of mutual accountability, which each department and team can then translate into its own objectives and priorities, which all link back to the shared purpose.

Great, so where do you begin: everywhere. Of course the organisation needs a guiding hand from the top to define the shared purpose and adopt a more networked approach, but if change is to happen, ultimately it has to happen at the top, the bottom, and the middle. Individual behaviour has to change in order to drive broader organisational change.

So how do we get people to change their behaviour: to value both closed and open, to focus on working with and through others rather than approaching tasks entirely through the narrow lens of my team, my department, my tribe. The simple answer is to change their targets. Imagine if, as part of their appraisal, everyone in the organisation had to provide evidence in support of the following three questions:

1. Give me an example of when you have successfully collaborated with an individual from another team or department to complete a shared objective.
2. Give me an example of an idea from outside your team or department that has improved the way you work.
3. Give me an example of when you shared your learning with those from another team or department.

As the Chinese proverb suggests: if you tell them, they’ll probably forget; if you educate and train them they might remember; but if you involve them they’ll not only understand, they’re also likely to do it.

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A Team’s Not a Team Without Trust



Trust is the confidence among team members that their peer’s intentions are good, and there is no need to be protective or careful around them. In essence, the team members are comfortable being vulnerable with one another in the conviction that their respective vulnerabilities will not be used against them, i.e. weaknesses, skill deficiencies, interpersonal shortcomings, mistakes, and requests for help. It is only when members feel truly comfortable with one another that they can focus their energy and attention on the task at hand, rather than being disingenuous or ‘political’ with one another.

However, like the familiar rhyming proverb ‘For Want of a Nail’, absence of trust goes something like this. In the absence of trust, there is a fear of honest dialogue, through fear of honest dialogue there is a lack of commitment to decisions, through lack of commitment to decisions, there is avoidance of accountability and through avoidance of accountability there is inattention to results. In short, why should I care if I didn’t agree in the first place (although I said nothing)?

Teams without trust conceal their weaknesses and mistakes from one another, hesitate to ask for help or provide constructive feedback, hesitate to offer help outside their own area of responsibility, jump to conclusions about the intentions and aptitudes of others, fail to recognise and tap into one another’s skills and experiences, and find reasons to avoid spending more time together.

In contrast trusting teams admit weaknesses and mistakes, ask for help, accept questions and input about their areas of responsibility, give one another the benefit of the doubt, take risks in offering feedback and assistance, appreciate and tap into one another’s skills and experiences, focus time and energy on important issues not office politics, and look forward to meetings and other opportunities to work together as a team.

Building Trust, however, requires shared experiences over time, multiple instances of follow-through and credibility, and an in-depth understanding of the unique attributes and contribution of team members. So how can you accelerate the process?

The role of the leader is critical. In the first instance, try loosening the reins. It is the leader’s job to initiate trust between management and employees. That entails gaining employees’ trust, but also conveying trust in them. Do this by delegating some of your tasks to them. But beware, giving up some control also means expanding your tolerance for mistakes. If mistakes happen, instead of taking swift corrective action, show staff how they can learn and grow from them.

Second, keep your promises. There’s nothing quite as powerful when it comes to building trust, as doing what you promised. When promises are met, other people can relax, safe in the conviction that they know what is expected and what they can expect. Holding each other to account and doing what you say you will is the foundation of trust. So creating an environment where promises are made and kept is important.

Third, demonstrate your own genuine vulnerability first. This requires that the leader risk losing face in front of the team, so that subordinates will take the same risks themselves. The leader must create an environment that doesn’t punish vulnerability and mistakes.

As well as exhibiting trust yourself, you might also like to try the following exercises:

• Personal Histories Exercise – members go round the table answering a short list of questions about themselves (number of siblings, where they grew up, favourite hobbies, first job, worst job). This helps team members to begin to relate to one another on a more personal basis, which encourages greater empathy and understanding.
• Roles and Responsibilities Exercise – members share the top three things everyone needs to know about their role; what they want from others, what don’t you want from others; what a good working day is like; and what a bad working day is like.
• Personality and Behavioural Preference Profiles, such as Insights or MBTI, to help people better understand themselves and their co-workers.
• Anonymous 360 Degree Feedback, which allows team members to identify strengths and areas for development without any repercussions.
• And if you’re feeling really brave try the Team Effectiveness Exercise, which requires team members to identify the single most important contribution that each of their peers makes to the team, as well as the one area that they must either improve upon or eliminate for the good of the team. All members then report their responses, focusing on one person at a time, usually beginning with the team leader.

As Ernest Hemingway observed, “The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them.”

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Three Ways to Unlock the Power of Informal Networks in Your Team

NetworkDespite what we know about networks and networking organisations still tend to be understood as simple, formal hierarchies, represented by an organisational chart or organogram. It is time to challenge this convenient fiction, which at best facilitates standard modes of production, handles easily anticipated problems, and illustrates linear reporting relationships. Crucially, it hides a far more subtle and informal network of relationships that comes into its own when the unexpected happens – which seems to be far more frequently these days!

Effective informal networks facilitate the exchange of accurate information around who has what, who can do what and who needs what. They also facilitate the exchange of ideas that can feed innovation. By visualising and analysing informal social networks managers can bring out the strengths in their networks; realign their formal structure to complement the informal; and rewire faulty networks to work with company goals. The three key networks you should consider are communication, advice and trust.

Communication networks provide information about news or events at work. Examination of communication networks can help diagnose inefficiency and low productivity, on the basis that workers are either spending too much time and energy working the rumour mill, instead of actually working. Or they hardly communicate at all, leading to errors, alienation, stress and poor morale.

Advice networks are about solving task related problems and obtaining technical information to perform one’s duties. Understanding advice networks can uncover routine conflicts, recurring disagreements over how things should be done, or the assumptions one should be operating by. Advice networks diagnose such disagreements by showing when there are contradictory sources of expertise, unused sources, or no sources at all.

Trust networks are associated with the sharing of confidential or ‘political’ information and the provision of support for one’s ideas and proposals. Analysing trust networks is particularly useful for diagnosing non-routine problems, such as failing change efforts. Non-routine situations necessarily involve uncertainty and the need to generate new ideas about what to do, how to do them and generating support for those ideas. The trust network can identify good candidates for bringing the organisation together to make change happen.

At PSA we develop 2D pictures of team and organisational networks using network visualisation software, by asking each team member to identify who they communicate with, seek advice from and trust on the basis of one simple question for each network. It is simple but very powerful. However, even without the software, it is still possible to do a preliminary analysis of your team’s informal networks by asking a few insightful questions.

In terms of communication you need to identify who the connectors are in your team or organisation? The extraverts who like to talk and gossip, those team members who know a lot of people and like to share what they know. Or simply those in a position to know what’s going on, like Personal Assistants, those on the front desk, or just those who spend a lot of time in the tea room! If you wanted everyone in your team to know something, who would you tell?

When considering advice you are generally looking for expert operators who have the skills, knowledge and experience that other people need. First identify what skills and knowledge your team needs to operate efficiently and effectively. Then, for each skill or aptitude identify the novices, the masters and the coaches (those who can teach what they know). You are then in a position to share all that knowledge and all those skills around the team, through group training or individual coaching. If you identify any critical skills or knowledge that reside in just one person you may want to consider an urgent download to someone else too.

Trust is the vaguest concept of the three, but it is also the most powerful, being the bedrock of high performing teams. It is also emotive, so we sometimes use the term support instead and always emphasise that this is not about a person being trustworthy or not, but a simple recognition that at work we know and get along with some people better than others, and this affects how efficiently and effectively we work together. So, in the first place, identify the key relationships in your team, why are they close? Consider how you might build better relationships among the rest of the team, do they simply need to get to know each other better. But a word of warning – beware cliques, closely knit groups who exclude others.

Whatever you discover, the time has come to make explicit what we know implicitly about how work gets done in teams and organisations. We need internal depth to our networking as well as external breadth.

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How to increase the flow of new ideas – and eat a lot of hotdogs!

Hot DogInnovation is critical in a knowledge economy, leading to new products, new methods and hopefully happy customers and organisational growth. According to PwC’s 2015 study on Global Innovation, U.S. companies spend $145 billion dollars on R&D each year. Yet, despite its importance, innovation is a difficult quality to cultivate both in individuals and in organizations. Here are three ideas to get you on the right track: curiosity, connection and the hot dog thing.


We share a number of basic drives and attributes with our primate cousins, but only humans (as far as we are aware) have looked up at the stars, wondered what they are and tried to find out. Curiosity sets us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom and, with recent concern about robots taking our jobs, it should console us to learn that curiosity also sets us apart from computers. Computers are smart, but none can yet be said to be curious. In addition, recent research suggests that curiosity is also good for your health. People who make a lifelong habit of reading and writing a lot slowed their rate of mental decline by a third compared to those who only do an average amount.

So how do we encourage curiosity in organisations?

In the first place give people permission to be curious. The most important thing to do when you want more creativity is to let people know they can. You have to expect some failures and you need to embrace these, so build a culture with no fear of failure. Second, implement a formal structure that allows ‘intrapreneurship’ to take place: 3M allow employees 15% of their working week to devote to personal projects. Finally, provide incentives. Design a career path for your ‘intrapreneurs’ and show how their ideas can boost their responsibilities and rewards within the company.


Future Work Skills 2020, a report compiled by the University of Phoenix Research Institute, argues that in the face of more complex, multifaceted problems ever-greater specialisation will be replaced by the need for individuals with blended skills. The ideal worker of the future will be ‘T-shaped’, with a deep understanding of one field, but able to converse in the language of a broader range of disciplines. This will require a sense of curiosity, a willingness to go on learning, and exposure to varied experiences and people.

In Frugal Innovation, Navi Radjou & Jaideep Prabhu propose that organisations should make external connections to generate new ideas and ways of doing things. In the first place they should engage more with their customers to identify innovative opportunities and encourage co-creation in the design, building and sale of products. They should also make innovative friends, an eclectic group of partners to challenge senior management thinking and encourage a continuous process of unlearning and relearning.

Internally, organisations could ask employees for their ideas and encourage them to contribute to the innovation dialogue with customers. A key activity will be to assemble a diverse workforce. Plenty of research shows that diverse teams devise the most innovative ideas. But above all, they must keep boundaries flexible and fluid, people need to be mixed together: rotate staff, create places and programmes where people from different teams collide and collude, use collaborative pay and incentives, and ensure that information flows and is interpreted correctly. This can be helped by those ‘T’ shaped workers, who are able to move between functions and explain what is happening in different departments.


Finally, the hotdogs. Every 4th of July 40,000 people go to Coney Island in the United States, and more than 1m tune in on ESPN, the sports cable channel, to watch men and women defy human digestive limits in a hot dog eating competition. Prior to 2001 the record was 25 hot dogs and buns in 10 minutes, but in that year Takeru Kobayashi, a young man from Japan, smashed the record consuming a staggering 53 dogs and buns. Mr Kobayashi’s winning insight was not to eat the hot dog and bun as you or I would, but to break the hot dogs in two and stuff them in his mouth with one hand, while his other hand dunked the bun in water to make it easier to swallow. This, coupled with shaking and gyrating, helped a 112lb man consume nearly 8lb of bread and sausage. The record, by the way, now stands at 70 dogs and buns.

Apart from making us feel slightly squeamish, it should also remind us to critically examine our assumptions and challenge our fundamental beliefs about a situation. The key here is to ask “Why?” not “What?” And with that in mind, I will leave you with the words of General Stanley McChrystal, who summarized the difficult process of adaptation and innovation the US military went through in the years following the 2003 invasion of Iraq:

When we first started, the question was, ‘Where is the enemy?’ That was the intelligence question. As we got smarter, we started to ask, ‘Who is the enemy?’ And we thought we were pretty clever. And then we realized that wasn’t the right question, and we asked, ‘What’s the enemy doing or trying to do?’ And it wasn’t until we got further along that we said, ‘Why are they the enemy?’

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MBTA ‘Management by Talking About…’

Graphic_02For the first blog of the New Year I’d like to reinvigorate an old idea. MBWA (Management by Walking Around) is rather taken for granted these days, as is often the case when a good idea becomes cliché. So to reinvigorate the importance of talking with your staff, I’d like to introduce MBTA, ‘Management by Talking About…’. Given that time is precious the emphasis here is on purposeful conversation and I want to offer four valuable conversations to have with your staff, rather than just chatting about the weekend football scores or last night’s TV.
When it comes to the importance of purposeful conversation I think Colonel Zinoviev Konstantin Provalov summed it very well. While commanding the Soviet Union’s 383rd ‘Miners’ Rifle Division at the beginning of the Second World War, he believed that:
‘Authority is gained through the sum of daily conversations. One has to speak to soldiers. A soldier must know his task and understand it. Authority isn’t cheap; it is hard won. Everyone wants to live – including heroes. But knowing that soldiers trust me, I know they will fulfil all my orders and risk their lives.’
Not a household name in Europe and America I admit, but he was awarded “Hero of the Soviet Union” in the early battles of 1941 and the quote has remained with me ever since I first read it, and was brought to mind recently while reading Richard Sennett’s’ excellent book ‘Together’. Sennett writes about ‘earned authority’ as one side of a ‘social triangle’ (the other sides being trust and cooperation), which he identifies as the key ingredient in successful organisations and communities.
Sennett takes authority to be power endowed with legitimacy, with legitimacy defined as voluntary obedience. In war this means that soldiers will follow orders to fight knowing that it may lead to their death. This is an extreme example, and in civil society legitimacy is better framed in terms of laws people obey just because they seem right. In organisations, therefore, the leadership test for legitimacy, and thereby authority, is: will your subordinates obey you even though they might get away with disobeying?
Like Provalov, Sennett argues that how a leader earns that legitimacy usually has more to do with small behaviours and exchanges than with any formal right or entitlement to rule. Earned authority concerns more than formal position or technical competence, it involves open dialogue with subordinates rather than rigid dictation to them. In other words, for authority to be legitimate, people who are asked to obey have to feel like they have a voice, that if they speak up, they will be heard. So how should you encourage them to speak up, what should you talk about? Here are a four suggestions for purposeful conversations.

  1. Ask employees for their feedback. Most companies ask customers for feedback about their products and services, but only a handful ask their employees the same questions. This is a missed opportunity. So in addition to asking your customers questions like “Was your problem solved?” and “Are we easy to work with?” ask your employees “Did you solve the problem?” and “Was it easy to access the tools and resources you needed to do it?”


  1. Make delegation easier – use conversations to establish trust. Delegating tasks to employees and then trusting them to make decisions for themselves can be difficult. It is easier to delegate to those you trust. You can build that trust by having conversations with your employees, observing them doing their daily jobs, and providing feedback. That way, when it comes time to delegate a task, you’ll better understand your employees’ strengths and weaknesses and know who is ready to take on more responsibility and who needs more experience or coaching.


  1. Make People on Your Team Feel Like They Belong. It is well known that fostering a sense of belonging helps reduce stress levels, and consequently improves physical health, emotional well-being, and performance. So build that sense of belonging by soliciting people’s input. Ask their opinion, and follow up with questions so they truly felt heard. Tell stories to show your own vulnerability and share your mistakes and successes. This will also help you connect emotionally.


  1. Determine whether a direct report is ready to be a manager? Measure their potential by gauging their interest in managing. Ask them what they believe management entails and what their approach would be in situations you are facing or have faced. Inquire about any experience they’ve had outside of work that could provide useful preparation. Have they been in charge of an athletic team or a group of volunteers? Seek out the opinions of their co-workers, who will have a unique perspective on whether the person is up to the task.

It may also be worth considering how widespread such conversations are in your organisation. How might other leaders do a better job of managing by having purposeful conversations? Why not have a wander around and find out.

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Leading Virtual Teams

cartoon_virtual_officeVirtual teams are increasingly a fact of organisational life, a part of our ever expanding socio-technical system.  While many teams operate with ‘mixed modality’, part virtual part face to face, virtual teams can be defined as work groups which have some core members who interact primarily through electronic means and are engaged in interdependent tasks.

On the positive side virtual teams are said help us surmount barriers of time and space; reduce office costs; increase productivity, because it allows individuals to focus with less distractions; are less likely to lead to groupthink; help attract a wider pool of job candidates; and are more environmentally friendly.

On the downside, however, some people fear being out of the loop; others can feel isolated; employers can feel a loss of control; and Yahoo famously decided that the habit of homeworking had slowed the firm down and made it harder to have serendipitous meetings that can give birth to new ideas.

So what does it take to make virtual teams work effectively? Here are four simple principles:

  1. Remember the basics. A virtual team is still a team, so arm yourself with a well-tested model of team effectiveness and use it to help structure your thinking. There are many models out there, just pick one that has served you well in the past. Being mindful about your team process is more important than which particular model you choose. Take that model and use it to assess how you’ve done, where you stand, and where you are going.


  1. Build Trust. Human factors, not technology, are key. Like any team, performance is built on the foundations of positive relationships and mutual trust. Get the team together physically early-on, if you can. Face-to-face communication is still better than virtual when it comes to building relationships and fostering trust. Then try to reconnect regularly (biannually or annually) if possible. If you can’t get your team together focus on doing some virtual team building instead. Start each meeting with a check-in, having each member take a couple of minutes to discuss what they are doing, what’s going well and what’s challenging. Regular virtual team-building exercises are another way to inject a bit more fun into the proceedings. Whatever you decide, use the time to help team members get to know each other better, personally and professionally.


  1. Create a set of guiding principles for how the team will work. Good leadership is still important, but good management is key, everything needs to be more explicit to avoid misunderstandings. Coordination among virtual teams is inherently more difficult because people are not co-located. So it’s important to focus more attention on the details of task design and the processes that will be used to complete them. Simplify work tasks, ideally so they are assigned to sub-groups of two or three team members. Make sure there is clarity about work processes, with specifics about who does what and when. Do “after-action reviews” to evaluate how things are going and identify process adjustments and training needs.


  1. Don’t forget one-to-one’s. One-to-one performance management and coaching interactions with team members are a fundamental part of making any team work. Make these interactions a regular part of the virtual team rhythm, using them not only to check status and provide feedback, but to keep members connected to overall aims and objectives, and to highlight their role in the team.
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Leadership Lessons of Lord Nelson

nelsonNext month sees the 211th anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar (21st October 1805), when twenty-seven British ships of the line, led by Admiral Lord Nelson aboard HMS Victory, defeated a combined fleet of thirty-three French and Spanish ships off the southwest coast of Spain, just west of Cape Trafalgar. The Franco-Spanish fleet lost twenty-two ships, without a single British vessel being lost. It was the most decisive naval battle of the Napoleonic Wars (1803–1815) and put an end to French plans to invade England.

The British victory spectacularly confirmed the naval supremacy that Britain had established during the eighteenth century and was achieved in part through Nelson’s departure from the prevailing naval tactical orthodoxy. Instead of engaging the enemy fleet in a single line, maximising fields of fire and target areas, Nelson divided his smaller force into two columns directed perpendicularly against the enemy fleet, with decisive results.

Nelson was shot by a French musketeer during the battle and died shortly after, becoming one of Britain’s greatest war heroes. He was also one of Britain’s greatest leaders and over 200 years since his death he still has much to teach us about the art of leadership. In this blog I am going to focus on three aspects of his leadership: creating a personal brand; participative leadership; and inspiring his subordinates.

Personal Brand

Nelson virtually invented the personal brand. People told stories about him: his courage during the amputation of his arm, the way he turned a blind eye at Copenhagen, and more salaciously his affair with Lady Hamilton. Yet he was also very diligent in carrying out his duties, he worked hard, in now widely used naval parlance, ‘to learn the ropes’, seeking out opportunities to improve his experience and get himself noticed. He also read widely in politics, history and literature, and spent time at home in reflection, learning, thinking and preparing for his next assignment. Furthermore, he quickly recognised that it’s not what you know and it’s not who you know that counts. It’s who knows what you know, which really matters. His uncle was already a senior officer in the Royal Navy when Nelson joined and he used his advocacy to good effect, but Nelson also took the opportunity to learn from other skilled mentors, such as Captain William Locker. Nelson served under him as a newly promoted lieutenant for only fifteen months, but his advice, wisdom and backing had a lasting effect.

Participative Leadership

Nelson was a very skilled participative leader. He knew instinctively how to build a team culture (his band of brothers) and this was an important part of his leadership style, which he based upon loyalty and trust. Nelson provided the framework, the overarching aims and objectives, but then gave away leadership when battle was joined. This style of leadership came to the fore at his victory at the Nile. As Captain Berry of HMS Vanguard observed:

“It had been his practice during the cruise, whenever the weather and circumstances would permit, to have his captains on board the Vanguard, where he would fully develop to them his own ideas of the different and best modes of attack, and such plans as he proposed to execute upon falling in with the enemy, whatever their position or situation might be, by day or by night. With the masterly ideas of their Admiral, therefore, on the subject of naval tactics, every one of the captains of his squadron was most thoroughly acquainted. Upon surveying the situation of the enemy, they could ascertain with precision what were the ideas and intentions of their commander, without aid of further instructions; by which means signals became almost unnecessary, much time was saved, and the attention of every captain could almost undistractedly be paid to the conduct of the ship.”

In short, Nelson delegated duties to competent men and let them get on with it. He explained goals and tasks clearly, and then did not interfere. He always supported his officers when they showed initiative and if things went wrong he defended them. He admired bold and decisive action in others as much as he followed this policy himself. He would rather mistakes were made occasionally than his men succumb to indecision and inactivity.


Inspiration is the action or power of stimulating the intellect or emotions in others through affection and communication. You may be effective through manipulative and unscrupulous means, but you will only be respected as a great leader if you aspire to great ideals, and practise them personally in the way you direct your organisation or team. Nelson was an advocate for the ‘we will’ rather than the ‘you will’ school of leadership, he presented himself as a role model.

Like all naval officers he employed formal sources of power: legitimate, reward based and coercive. But from this formal power Nelson also developed informal influence through his knowledge of the Navy, the workings of a ship and the demands of war. His reward power was limited in terms of cash and material benefits, but he never rationed praise and recognition. Nelson believed in public and profuse praise, openly acknowledging achievements. He assumed honour and recognition was as important to his crew as it was to him. Crucially, he was intrinsically motivated and this was infectious. It is difficult to inspire others if you’re not inspired yourself, so perhaps the key message to be a good leader is doing something that inspires you. Do you know what that is yet?

A lot more could be written about Nelson’s leadership style and I would be delighted to read your own thoughts and observations.

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Effective Meetings

3I am an introvert. That doesn’t mean I’m shy or afraid of what people might think of me: I’ve spent my career standing up in front of people. It just means that I tend to get my energy from quiet time, when I recharge my batteries, and I like time to think and reflect. You will not necessarily get the best out me by asking for my opinion at the drop of a whiteboard marker. I’m the sort of person who can leave a meeting thinking ‘I wish I’d said that.’

Meetings are most effective when they harness the unique insights of every member. So, when thinking about how to get the most out of meetings it’s worth considering if you have any introverts in your team. Conversely, it’s good to identify the extraverts too. Those who use talking as a way of focusing their thinking, and may leave a meeting thinking ‘I wish I hadn’t said that.’

The key is to give everyone the opportunity to speak their mind. In the first place make it clear that you want everyone’s opinion to be heard and they have permission to venture an ill-formed thought, without fear of being marked down or laughed out of the room. But setting clear ground rules is only the first step. You must follow through intentions with action and role model the behaviours you seek.

To allow introverts to contribute, send out the agenda and key documents a few days in advance. Also consider asking for everyone’s initial thoughts on the issue or issues before the meeting, then circulate them to all attendees. This helps to avoid anchoring and first speaker advantage, the tendency for social conformity to silence our individual beliefs and convictions.

Choose the running order deliberately. Either pick at random who will speak first or start with junior members first, this will help stop senior people dominating and again prevent anchoring. In the British Army’s Courts Martial System junior ranks always speak first during deliberations on the case in hand.

This can of course be rather daunting for some junior members of staff and for those of a more introverted nature, but to offset the personal cost of discord or looking foolish, encourage and reward their contributions. Welcome disagreement and good ideas, and make sure they get the credit for them. Chat to those who you think are too shy and explain the value of their input. At the end of the meeting, canvass the views of those who have not spoken. Ask them specifically how they feel about the issues discussed and have they anything they would like to add? After the meeting thank them and encourage them to speak more often.

Finally, and if you’re really feeling daring, try this for cutting short the digressions and long-winded rambling of the more effusive and extravert. Make clear in the ground rules that anyone is entitled to tap the table with their pen when they feel a colleague is going on a bit, and to keep tapping until they stop!

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