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Networks

PSA Guide to Leading Your Network

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We are delighted to announce the publication of the PSA Guide to Leading Your Network. The Guide is designed for experienced and first time, or aspiring, leader-managers and can used for individual reflection and development or in facilitated group workshops.

Its purpose is to help managers identify and make the most of the informal networks that inevitably exist within all teams and organisations. Not only will it help managers become better leaders and managers of their own team, it will also help make them better network leaders, able to work across team and departmental boundaries, bringing together constellations of talent to get things done.

Left to their own devices networks develop naturally at work through homophily and propinquity, natural human inclinations to associate with people who are like us (homophily) and/or near us (propinquity). While strengthening these bonds contributes to team efficiency it can inadvertently inhibit communication with other groups and lead to a lack of effectiveness.

In other words, closely bonded teams often do things right, but not always the right things. For best practice to be shared and innovation to flourish some of the most important ties are those that cut across groups: traversing teams, functions and departments. The key is to get a balance between both.

Effective networks facilitate the exchange of accurate information about who does what, who knows what, and who needs what, in order to enable greater productivity, but also feed innovation.

The Guide is designed to help managers understand, nurture and lead networks, which in turn will enable teams and organisations to:

· Better target scarce resources.

· Challenge the silo mentality.

· Restructure the formal organisation to complement the informal.

· ‘Rewire’ faulty networks to achieve goals.

· Deepen the quality of relationships among team members.

· Reduce transactional costs (micro-managing and second guessing) by deepening trust.

· And be more innovative.

If you would like to order copies please use the following web address https://www.mlruk.com/the-guide-to-leading-your-network

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5 Things Business Can Learn From Social Movements

 

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Business leaders talk about the need for greater collaboration, flexibility and initiative in today’s business environment. Now it seems to me that there are a lot of people involved with the Extinction Rebellion (XR) movement who are demonstrating exactly those qualities. Love them or loathe them we would do well to learn from them.

If you hadn’t noticed, XR is a socio-political movement which uses nonviolent resistance to protest against climate breakdown, biodiversity loss, ecological collapse and the risk of human extinction. In a series of ongoing actions it most recently occupied four sites in central London: Oxford Circus, Marble Arch, Waterloo Bridge and the area around Parliament Square, causing widespread disruption and immense publicity for its cause.

Citing inspiration from grassroots movements like Occupy, XR wants to rally support worldwide around a common sense of urgency to tackle climate breakdown. Now, Occupy talked about being leaderless, which makes no sense viewed through the lens of a hierarchy, but from a network perspective it makes perfect sense. It means, simply, that there are no positional or formal leaders.

There are leaders, but they are network leaders, naturally emerging from their environment and exhibiting leadership based on energy, expertise and initiative rather than any formal appointment. Traditional, hierarchical businesses may advocate that behaviour, but in reality they have a difficult time adjusting to it. For a network it’s natural and some businesses are catching on.

Business Networks

As the Internet reduces transaction and collaboration costs, we are beginning to see a change in the deep structure and architecture of most institutions in society. The monolithic, hierarchical organisation is beginning to falter against more lithe competitors.

Smart companies are finding that they innovate and perform better by creating networks or business webs. Using the Internet they open up and harness knowledge, resources and capabilities inside and outside their boundaries. They set a context for innovation and then invite their employees, customers, partners and other stakeholders to co-create their products and services. The new mantra is “focus on what you do best and partner to do the rest”.

The upshot is that these companies can innovate more quickly, more cheaply and more effectively by leveraging expertise they can’t afford full-time or otherwise would not have access to. This collaborative approach can lower costs and reduce risks, because you pay only for results and accelerate innovation by finding existing solutions.

In this new context, the traditional model of recruiting, managing and retaining employees is clearly outdated. The overriding factor today is engagement not employment. Organisations must build a positive presence in the minds of customers, partners, employees and the general public in order to forge long term, dynamic engagement. So how can the experience of social movements help?

5 Leadership Practices from Social Movements

A useful framework, by Marshall Ganz & Liz McKenna, can be found in the Blackwell Companion to Social Movements (edited by David A. Snow, et al). It explores social movement leadership through five interdependent practices: relationship building; narrative; strategy; structure and action.

Relationship building is key to any leadership endeavour, but this goes beyond mobilising individuals to join through transactions of resources and interest. Instead it encourages commitment to future engagement through the experience of shared values, which in turn builds collective capacity.

In network terms, it depends on strong (homogeneous) relational ties, which facilitate efficiency (doing things right) through trust, motivation, and commitment, and weak (heterogeneous) ties, which ensure effectiveness (doing the right things) by broadening access to knowledge, skills, and learning. In short, it counters the dark side of tightly bonded teams, which is ‘groupthink’.

Narrative is a powerful way to access, express, and cultivate emotional resources embedded in shared values: resources that are necessary to confront challenges with courage, resilience, and agency. Narrative not only articulates pathways from the world as it is to the world as it should be, but also sparks the motivation to act on it.

A good story, well told, can slip past the defences of the rational mind, pluck at our hearts and stir our souls. Human societies have flourished without the wheel, but none has existed without stories. We are storytelling animals; to be human is to tell stories. The ability to learn from vicarious experience through storytelling is thought to have provided an evolutionary advantage to our ancestors in terms of survival, the spread of innovation and the development of culture.

Strategy. While narrative engages the emotional brain, strategy engages the rational brain, drawing upon our cognitive resources for analysis, imagination and adaptation. Strategy is the practice of turning the resources you have into the power you need to get what you want. Given the highly uncertain environments in which social movements operate, successful strategy is an ongoing adaptive practice, something movement leaders do, rather than something they have neatly labelled in a file.

Additionally, because social movements often challenge actors with abundant traditional resources like wealth, status, expertise, and political power, their leaders must find ways to compensate through greater resourcefulness and agile responsiveness. This requires an integrated analysis of the big picture with highly particular knowledge of the specific context. This in turn requires strategic capacity to be widely distributed rather than concentrated in a strategy team that is removed from the rank-and-file implementation. High motivation, access to diverse sources of salient knowledge, and a commitment to learning facilitate this leadership practice.

Structure. There is a balance to be struck between the absence of structuring, where groups may act incoherently and sometimes at cross-purposes and an extremely hierarchical structure that centralises strategy in the hands of a few individuals, leading to an incapacity to respond with agility to threats and opportunities. The ideal is coordinated operations with decentralised control, a balance between efficiency, alignment and adaptability.

This requires a shared understanding of the environment and our place within it, alongside a shared sense of purpose – what we are trying to achieve and why. This requires leaders to create an ecosystem within the organisation and its environment that develops lateral as well as vertical ties to ensure shared understanding and purpose. Such systemic understanding and purpose then allows effective adaptation to emerging threats and opportunities by individuals and teams closest to the problem.

Action. To transform individual resources into collective power, relationships, stories, strategy and structure, must all be mobilised toward a common effort and then deployed through diverse tactics. For moments of protest to turn into powerful movements, tactical action must be strategic, focused, and well-executed.

Since most movements rely on people-based voluntary resources, learning how to secure sustained commitment of these resources while asking participants to take sometimes very costly tactical action is a key leadership challenge. Ineffective, disorganised, and poorly-executed actions undermine the sustained motivation necessary to keep the movement going forward.

Taken together, these five practices of social movements offer a useful way to analyse current business leadership and adapt to new forms more suited to a complex and fast paced world.

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Homophily and propinquity are shaping your organisation… whether you like it or not! Happy with that?

Social Network Analysis

Research indicates that at work more information and knowledge flows through informal social networks than through official organisational hierarchies and structures. This suggests that the formal structure of an organisation, as manifested in its organizational chart or organogram, gives little indication of how most work actually gets done, which further suggests that identifying and understanding these informal social networks would considerably improve organisational efficiency and effectiveness.

Social networks flourish at work as people connect around friendship groups, shared interests and work roles. Large organisations will have dozens if not hundreds of informal social networks: peer groups; communities of practice; sports clubs; or simply groups of like-minded people who go together for coffee. Left to their own devices these networks will develop naturally through homophily and propinquity, but not necessarily in the best interests of the business.

People like us and near us

Homophily is the the tendency for birds of a feather flock together, referring to the fact that, consciously or unconsciously, we tend to associate with people like us. Political social echo chambers are a prime example (see my November 2018 article). Propinquity, on the other hand, refers to the tendency for those close by to form a tie, to make a connection with those we are physically closest to (it’s just easier), which in the context of organisations means those we sit with.

While these naturally occurring bonds can contribute to team efficiency, through greater trust and understanding, they can also inhibit communication with other teams, because they become tribal and every other team sucks! For best practice to be shared and innovation to flourish we must also nourish those ties are those that cut across groups: traversing teams, functions and departments. The key is to get a balance between both.

Propinquity was examined in one of the early social network studies, which looked at collaboration between academics in universities. One of the startling conclusions was that they tended to collaborate most closely with those whose offices were thirty feet from their own! Perhaps confirming the old adage that universities are institutions connected by a shared central heating system!

I was able to confirm it myself a few years ago, when I was studying social interaction within an academic team. By chance they sat on two separate tables in an open plan office, and social network analysis confirmed that they were more likely to communicate with, seek advice from and trust, those who sat on the same table, despite the two tables being only a few dozen feet apart.

But universities are not alone in this. The spaces created for connection in Silicon Valley headquarters by the likes of Google and Facebook, and in the Crick Institute in London, are a response to exactly the same phenomena and are designed to force people from different parts of the organisation to collide and interact. And the reasons for doing so are not hard to find.

The benefits of greater social diversity

As the BBC article I posted earlier this month on LinkedIn, Crossing Divides: The friends who are good for your brain, points out, opening ourselves up to greater social diversity, mixing with, or listening to, people who are not “just like us”, is a simple but powerful way to force us out of habitual patterns of thought and stimulate creativity and innovation. And the more we do it the better we get at looking beyond the obvious, which is the hallmark of creative thinking. But this is not simply about innovation and creativity, as desirable as they undoubtedly are, it’s also about efficiency and effectiveness.

Working in an automotive manufacturing plant I used Social Network Analysis to examine the flow of work between the engineering, production, quality and supply teams. This identified key gaps in connection with regard to day to day communication, the sharing of advice, knowledge and expertise, and a lack of trust. Not trust in the sense of being unreliable or deceitful, but trust in the sense of being open with colleagues. The sort of trust and understanding among colleagues that reduces transactional costs, such as people double checking one another’s work.

The key action, the MD and his senior team decided, was to change the physical layout of the offices. Breaking down the partitions between separate functional offices and creating instead an open plan office, the layout of which mirrored the matrix structure of how the teams were meant to work, with functional teams in the horizontal rows and value streams of mixed teams in the vertical. The effects were quickly felt, with gains in both productivity and problem solving.

Connectors, Mavens and Salespeople

But nor is it just about breaking things up and creating places for teams and individuals to connect. Social Network Analysis also helps uncover the existing strengths in your informal networks, by identifying who among your staff has social capital. Essentially, social capital is an attribute of a person’s centrality to their networks and therefore their degree of influence within them. And influence is not always proportional to formal or positional authority.

There are two fundamental aspects of social networks: connection and contagion. Connection refers to a networks shape or structure, its topology – the arrangement of nodes and the ties or connections between them. Contagion, on the other hand, refers to the networks function or physiology, what, if anything, flows through and across the connections.

Being more central makes you more susceptible to whatever is flowing in the network, whether it be gossip, a new behaviour or germs. Network position is key. To increase the adoption of a particular behaviour in a network it is necessary to identify the hubs in the social network, those individuals who are central to the network and therefore have social capital, and target them. Modelling these social relationships, using Social Network Analysis, is like creating an index of social power.

Malcolm Gladwell offered a useful typology in this regard, referring in his book Tipping Point, to: Connectors, who are gregarious, intensely social, know the right people and therefore spread the message; Mavens, from the Yiddish meaning one who accumulates, who know lots of important stuff; and Salespeople who have the skills to persuade us when we are unconvinced of what we are hearing. They are energetic, enthusiastic, charming and likeable. Sometimes, one person exhibits two or three of these traits.

Social Physics

In short, Mavens are data banks who provide the message, connectors are the socially contagious who spread it, and salespeople are the ones that persuade us to believe it. Again, Social Network Analysis, using three simple questions around communication, advice and trust, allows us to create 2D visualisations that illuminate these social catalysts and uncover the hidden social capital that exists in all organisations.

As Alex Pentland, Professor at MIT and serial entrepreneur, observed in his book Social Physics: How Good Ideas Spread – The Lessons from a New Science:

By making group members more aware of the patterns of communication within and between groups we are improving their social intelligence, which leads to greater productivity and creative output. Managers need to visualize patterns of internal and external communication and take steps to make sure that ideas flow within and between all of their work groups.

 The challenge then is first to understand the informal social networks in your team or organisation. Then to identify the connectors, mavens and salespeople. And finally, to design and manage formal structures that harness the value of these informal groups and key individuals in order to better achieve collective goals.

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Networks of Moonshine and Steam

The Golen Boys

I was working with the Consumer Council for Water this month in the heart of Birmingham. Part of the city centre is a building site at present and consequently one of my favourite statues is missing. It used to stand outside the old Register Office on Broad Street and is a gilded bronze statue of three men, known locally as ‘The Golden Boys’ or ‘The Carpet Salesmen’ after the partially unrolled scrolls they hold between them. They are in fact James Watt, Matthew Boulton and William Murdoch, and they are examining the plans of a steam engine, which they are famous for improving and developing.

The three men were part of powerful network who lived and worked during the latter half of the 18th century, a crucible for change when the skills of technicians and mechanics were fusing with the observations and knowledge of natural philosophers. In Britain, it became fashionable to be an amateur inventor and form discussion groups in homes and coffee houses. People like James Watt, Matthew Boulton and William Murdoch were no longer happy to contemplate the world, they wanted to change it. Their curiosity and the new knowledge it spawned was both empowering and subversive, but while politicians feared political revolution they sought the rewards of industrial revolution.

As this year is the bicentenary of James Watt’s death (1736–1819) and the 250th anniversary of his patenting of the separate condenser, which would radically enhance steam power and was fundamental to the changes wrought by the Industrial Revolution, let’s follow his journey into that network.

Watt was a skilled technician and instrument maker, as well as a theoretician, who understood the principles of hydraulics and hydrostatics, and the application of mathematical theory, but above all Watt loved puzzles and was insatiably curious, and that curiosity was fed by a diverse and expanding network of entrepreneurs, manufacturers and academics.

Born in Greenock, Scotland, his father was a shipwright, ship owner and contractor, while his mother came from a distinguished family and was well-educated. He was brought up as a staunch Presbyterian, which encouraged a self-sufficient, questioning approach, in which learning was seen as the key to progress. Like a number of other great thinkers however, he attended school irregularly and was instead educated at home by his mother.

Sadly, in 1753, when he was seventeen, his mother died and his father’s health began to fail. Watt travelled to London to study instrument-making for a year, then returned to Scotland, to Glasgow, intent on setting up his own instrument-making business. However, because he had not served at least seven years as an apprentice, the Glasgow Guild of Hammermen (any artisans who used hammers) blocked his application, despite there being no other mathematical instrument-makers in Scotland.

Watt was saved by the professors of the University of Glasgow, who offered him the opportunity to set up a small workshop within the university. It was here, in 1761, four years after opening his shop, that he began to experiment with steam after his friend and mentor, Professor John Robison, called his attention to it.

The University had a broken model of the Newcomen Engine (the first practical device to use steam to drive a mechanical apparatus) which Watt volunteered to repair. Having fixed it, he found that it still barely worked and so he tinkered some more and after much experimentation he identified the problem: about 80% of the heat of the steam was consumed in heating the cylinder because the steam was condensed by an injected stream of cold water. His critical insight, which came in 1765, was to condense the steam in a separate chamber, apart from the piston, and to maintain the temperature of the cylinder at the same temperature as the injected steam.

He soon had a working model, but the problem then was how to produce a full-scale engine. The principal difficulty was in machining the piston and cylinder, which was beyond the skills of the local iron workers. Strapped for resources, Watt was forced to take up employment as a surveyor for eight years, before finally forming his hugely successful partnership with the manufacturer Matthew Boulton, who owned the Soho Manufactory near Birmingham.

When Watt moved from Glasgow to Birmingham in May 1774, bringing with him his imperfect cylinder, he finally had access to some of the best iron workers in the world and the difficulty of the manufacture of a large cylinder with a tightly fitting piston was solved. Critically, this partnership also brought access to a dinner club and informal learned society of prominent figures in the Midlands, which included industrialists, natural philosophers and intellectuals.

This group met regularly in Birmingham between 1765 and 1813. At first called the Lunar Circle, the name arising because they met during the full moon, as it made the journey home easier and safer in the absence of street lighting, by 1775 it had become known as the Lunar Society. As well as Boulton and Watt, membership included: Erasmus Darwin, physician, natural philosopher, slave-trade abolitionist, and grandfather of Charles Darwin; Josiah Wedgwood, potter and entrepreneur, who founded the Wedgwood Company, and was also grandfather to Charles Darwin; and Joseph Priestley, natural philosopher, chemist, multi-subject educator, and liberal political theorist.

While members local to Birmingham were in almost daily contact, those more distant were in correspondence at least weekly and therefore a more loosely defined group can also be identified, covering a much wider geographical area. These included James Hutton, the Scottish geologist and physician; Benjamin Franklin, polymath and one of the founding fathers of the United States; and Joseph Banks, botanist and patron of the natural sciences, who famously took part in Captain James Cook’s first voyage.

What set them apart, according to the social historian Jenny Uglow, was that ‘their passionate common exchange was of a type that would never be possible again, until today, with the fast, collaborative intimacy of the Internet.’

There is little doubt that this network of friends and colleagues were an important part of the Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution that encouraged scholars and craftspeople to apply new scientific thinking to mechanical and technological challenges. Like others of their generation they gradually incorporated science and reason into their worldview and contributed to the intellectual shifts that made British culture in particular highly receptive to new mechanical and financial ideas leading ultimately to the Industrial Revolution.

As John Stuart Mill observed in the following century, ‘It is hardly possible to overstate the value in the present state of human improvement of placing human beings in contact with other persons dissimilar to themselves, and with modes of thought and action unlike those with which they are familiar.’

And that is as true now as it ever was.

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A personal perspective on Network Leadership and why ‘restless persuasion’ matters, by Mike Peckham

Keep Persuading

Almost as long as I have been a consultant I have been told that the world is more uncertain, volatile and chaotic than it has ever been.  Thirty years ago in 1989 I can recall Tom Peters[i] invoking, indeed goading, us to ‘thrive on chaos’ and how everything was moving at an exponential rate.  Bennis and Nanus (1985)[ii] term VUCA or a world of volatilty, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity has been dusted off and is being used to describe the world we live in.  Indeed, there have been ever increasing challenges from management guru’s to face ‘wicked problems’ and to live in the ‘Age of Unreason’[iii] etc.  I have no doubt that if you are reading this you will be able to recant any number of book titles or aphorisms that broadly say the same thing.

The paradox for me is that if we have been saying this for at least the last 30 years, shouldn’t we just stop sensationalising it and say – ‘this is the business reality and move on’.  Business leaders today know that this is the case and don’t see anything other than the need to get on in a world that has a tempo and rhythm that they have adapted to.  The Hungarian scientist Hans Selye’s[iv] first used the term ‘general adaptation syndrome’ to identify three distinct stages as the body and brain adapt to stress, moving from alarm to resistance and ultimately, without adaptation, exhaustion.  In the long term, if we don’t adapt we become exhausted.  However, our bodies can become habituated to higher levels of stress. Arguably people working ‘in’ business have adapted but people working ‘on’ business are still in the stage of alarm and resistance?

Network leadership isn’t a response to a new business reality, it’s not a consultant inspired fad but an uncovering of a way of working that has existed below the surface of organisations as they struggle to make sense of how to act.  As our impatience grows and we push the world to speed up, to collapse boundaries and become more interconnected and interdependent it is imperative to know how to act.  Network leadership provides an answer.

David Goodhart’s (2017) book ‘The Road to Somewhere’ was the first to identify the tribal lines of the ‘anywheres’ and the ‘somewheres’.  The educated ‘anywheres’ dominate the social and cultural debate and are defined by their portable career and educational achievements, whilst the ‘somewheres’ are defined by the location they are rooted in.  The rise of political populism could represent the first two stages of the ‘general adaptation syndrome’ – alarm and resistance and a demand for heroic leaders to save the day.

The ‘heroic’ leadership model, in which we pin our hopes and aspirations on a single omniscient and omnipotent individual to lead the way, becomes problematic when the challenges are bigger than a single brain can cope with.  Network leadership is an alternative model that draws on a web of connections to get things done.  My understanding of network leadership is a result of working closely with hundreds of leaders across organisations globally, working closely with them through organisational change and upheaval and observing what enables them to act and mobilise those around them.

So how do I define and characterise ‘network leadership’?  Network Leadership is the ability and capacity to bring together people, ideas and resources to solve problems, create opportunities and deliver for a constituency.  Network Leaders recognise that they don’t know the answer but those around them do; that they don’t own all of the resources to deliver for their constituents but others within their network do; that their power comes from the ability to work across boundaries; to connect ideas with action and people with resources.  They are net contributors to their network in terms of connecting, energising and mobilising others to act.

In the overly simplistic characterisation of leadership styles, heroic leaders are defined by their sense of destination; the trinity of ‘vision, mission and values’ capture what they do, where we are going and how we will behave towards each other.  The network leader works in a more subtle way informed by purpose and belief; open to possibility and opportunity; working without authority but being influential; prepared to shift and reconfigure in order to deliver.

Network leadership is not to be confused with distributed leadership, it’s not diluting the authority of the leader across others but using singular authority to enlist others in their sense of purpose.  Network leaders have a mental ‘manifesto’ that describes what they believe in, what they stand for and what they are trying to achieve.  Mission, vision and values is replaced with manifesto thinking informed by a sense of restless persuasion.

Network leaders at the top use their power to bring people together from across, within and between organisations.  Assembling cross hierarchical groups to solve problems, re-forming them as a project unfolds; always being open to possibility and opportunity.

Network Leaders within organisations have an intuitive grasp of the social system within their organisation: how decisions are made, how resources are allocated and who determines who is listened too.  They are frequently the ‘go to’ people; the problem unlockers and are sought out for their advice.

Network leadership challenges the orthodoxy of the conventional schools of leadership by asking leaders to think about themselves in relation to others; inside and outside their organisation, over which they may have no authority; to ensure purpose and values are of equal importance and present in all they do.  ‘Restless persuasion’ is how network leadership is executed day to day.

[i] Peters, T., (1989), Thriving on Chaos: Handbook for a Management Revolution

[ii] Bennis, Warren; Nanus, Burt (1985). Leaders: Strategies for Taking Charge.

[iii] Handy, C., (1995), The Age of Unreason: New Thinking For A New World

[iv] Seyle. H., (1956) The Stress of Life. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1956, ISBN 978-0070562127

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Networks – How to Exploit Our External Brain

Networks Within and Without

Ethan Deviney was born without a cerebellum. The part of our brain that is found at the back of our head, where our skull curves down to meet our neck. It is a dense knot of brain tissue, which, while comprising only about a tenth of our brain’s volume, contains half of its cells. At 18 months Ethan was referred to a development specialist, because he was not sitting or crawling like his older brothers had done. The specialist found his cognitive development to be on track, as was his social and physical development, and his fine motor skills. But his gross motor skills, his ability to hold his body steady or to crawl were behind, as were his language abilities. It was not until his 4th birthday that a brain scan revealed his missing cerebellum.

The cerebellum is effectively a quality assessment centre or feedback hub. Electrical signals from the upper brain to initiate action in the body pass through the cerebellum on the way out and signals from the muscles on how the movement is progressing pass through it on the way back. This feedback loop allows us unconsciously to regulate our motor movements and the cerebellum thus coordinates voluntary movements such as posture, balance, coordination, and speech, resulting in smooth and balanced muscular activity. Effectively, it allows us to operate on autopilot and that was why Ethan was experiencing difficulty with his gross motor skills.

Despite the lack of cerebellum, however, Ethan is still able to stand, walk, run and jump. He does so rather awkwardly, but he does it and he is improving all the time. In part this is because his neural network is adjusting to compensate, other parts of his brain are pitching in to help, but the other key factor is the support provided by his family, who from a young age have repeatedly shown him how to walk and control his body. In effect, the lack of a portion of the network within is made up for by the support of a network of people without. Ethan and his support network are therefore a special case illustrating a broader principle: we all rely on an external support network to be who we are and do what we do.

The idea that being a person is actually something distributed beyond a specific body drives the work of Helene Mialet, a French philosopher and anthropologist. Her book “Hawking Incorporated” was an examination of the human and mechanical aids that supported the genius of the late Stephen Hawking. Her argument, supported by further work on people with diabetes, is that human beings are distributed across networks of our inner world, our social world, and man-made objects, but because such networked distribution is so fundamental to who we are it is hard to see these networks in action, except in exceptional circumstances.

Further work by Sam Haraway at the University of California has taken these ideas and applied them to sport, specifically the distributed network that supported the now discredited cyclist Lance Armstrong. Putting aside his disgrace, Armstrong consistently gave credit for his victories to others. Following his first Tour win in 1999, he took credit for only five percent of his success, the rest he attributed to his doctors, his team, his team director, his sponsors and his family.

On the one hand, Armstrong rode nearly the entire Tour de France in the slipstream of his teammates, whose role in the race was to shield him from the wind and supply him with food and water. This common race strategy allows team leaders to save energy for the decisive moments of the race, such as mountain-top finishes, that are extremely physically demanding. But his comment also recognises other actors: sponsors, physicians, and trainers, who do not participate in the competition itself. In other words, the notion of the single athlete is replaced by the “collective work” of their network. This does not mean that we lose sight of the individual but it recognises the individual as part of a distributed network.

Haraway uses the case of Lance Armstrong’s 1999-2005 Tour de France victories to reconfigure sport as a competition between actor-networks, involving a network of laboratories, materials, bodies, knowledge, institutions and sponsorships. But it also compels a rethinking of leadership and management which is also embedded in, networked with, and constituted through actor-networks. This line of thinking suggests that a key component of better performance as a leader-manager requires us to understand our own networks in order to develop and exploit them to greatest effect.

For the sake of argument let’s take four important actor-networks: communication, advice, ideas and trust, and use them to ask yourself some key questions.

Communication. Are you in or out of the loop? Communication networks provide information about news or events at work. If you are one of the last to know, then you need to grow your communication network. Identify who the connectors are in your team or organisation. The extraverts who like to talk and gossip. Those who know a lot of people and like to share what they know. Those in a position to know what’s going on, like Personal Assistants or those on the front desk, or simply those who spend a lot of time in the tea room or by the water cooler!

Advice. Do you have all the information you need to do your job? Advice networks are about solving task related problems and obtaining technical information to perform one’s duties. Here you are looking for expert operators who have the skills, knowledge and experience that you need. The next question to ask is do such sources exist, remembering that some may be hidden and some may be contradictory. Without this network you risk inefficiency – doing things wrong.

Ideas. Where do you get your ideas from, do you always go to the same people, those who look and think like you? Ideas from elsewhere feed both our own neural network as well as our social network with new ideas, providing the opportunity for insight and innovation. In network speak it is about leveraging the weak links that connect you to individuals, groups and teams outside of your immediate reference group or social echo chamber (see my November 2018 article on LinkedIn). Without this diverse network you risk ineffectiveness – doing the wrong things.

Trust. Where do you go for support? Who helps you get your energy back? Trust is not about a person being trustworthy or not (although that can be the case), 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. Trust networks also provide a safety net when we feel under pressure or just having a bad day. In this case, consider how you might build better relationships. But a word of warning: beware forming a clique, a closely knit group who exclude others and their ideas.

The stories of Ethan Deviney and Lance Armstrong help us recognise the individual as part of a distributed network, both within and without our physical body and brain. As the poet John Donne observed, “No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main…” Armed with that understanding we are then able to make explicit what we know implicitly and exploit it to greatest effect for ourselves, our teams, our organisations and our communities.

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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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What can you learn from Airbnb, Uber and eBay?

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Platform business models like Airbnb, Uber, and eBay are upending our conceptions of business, challenging the traditional linear business model as the only the only way of creating value. Today, how a business, public service or charity connects matters just as much as what it produces or provides.

It’s imperative to remember that a platform is a business model, not just a piece of technology. The mistake is conflating a platform with a mobile app or a website. But a platform isn’t just a piece of software, it’s a holistic business model that creates value by bringing consumers and producers together. As such, the platform model can be applied and adapted by any organisation aiming to create value, both internally (between teams and departments) and externally (in the communities they serve and throughout supply chains).

Platforms are not new, medieval marketplaces provided a ‘platform’ for exchange. Then as now, successful platforms facilitate exchanges that reduce the costs of doing business (both time and resources) and enable access to new ideas. The advent of connected technology has simply enabled platform businesses to vastly increase in scale. So platform design isn’t just about creating the underlying technology, it’s about understanding and creating the whole business and how it will create value.

Most organisations, private, public and third sector, are linear businesses, because their operations are well-described by the typical linear supply chain, inputs and outputs. In general, linear organisations create value in the form of goods or services and then sell them or provide them to someone downstream in their supply chain. This applies whether you are extracting and processing hydrocarbons, selling groceries, making cars, or providing education and social services.

A platform business model, on the other hand, creates value by facilitating exchanges between consumers and producers. Airbnb, Uber, and eBay don’t create and control inventory via a supply chain the way linear businesses do. While a linear business creates value by manufacturing products or services, platforms create value by building connections and facilitating transactions. To paraphrase an old adage: platforms don’t own the means of production, they create the means of connection.

Platforms come in a range of guises. They can be a marketplace for services (Task Rabbit); products (eBay); monetary payment (PayPal); investment (Kickstarter); social interaction (Facebook); communication (Skype); gaming interaction (Minecraft); sharing content, such as a photos or video (YouTube); or software development (GitHub). But they all rely on are four main activities, an examination of which provide clues as to how other organisations might benefit.

In order to flourish a platform business model must first, attract users to join; second, match them together; third, provide technology to facilitate the transaction; and fourth, establish rules that will govern the network in order to build trust and maintain quality.

For platform businesses connecting supply and demand is a chicken and egg conundrum. In order to gain network effects they must attract sufficient numbers of customers and producers. If there aren’t enough producers customers won’t visit the site, and if there aren’t enough customers, producers will stay away. Fortunately, this is not a problem for established businesses, public services or charities, which already have an internal and external audience.

The key then is to connect them. Every transaction needs a producer and consumer: those who have resources, skills, knowledge or experience and those who need them. Understanding your audience enables you to figure out how to maximize the connective value that you can provide. In the first case you need to identify who is in your network and what they have to offer, then you can begin to make the connections (see our January 2018 blog – How to Achieve More With Less). One of our Third Sector clients conducts a “What Matters” conversation with all its new customers to determine exactly what they want and explain what is available.

In order to maintain a degree of control, platform businesses determine their own rules and standards, in order to create the greatest value for multiple users and incentivise the right kind of growth. For example, Twitter’s 140-character limit for Tweets. For a public service or charity, access to the network might depend on adherence to certain health and safety regulations, and procedures for risk assessment. For a business supply chain it might be a quality standard.

With the major functions of the business model determined but not owned, the platform must then focus on creating value by building technology that will facilitate transactions between producers and consumers. In our terms, technology should be understood in its broadest sense, as anything that removes the barriers to transaction. Airbnb. For example, provides software that makes it easy to manage bookings, communication and payments. It also helps hosts to calculate their tax obligations from Airbnb income and provides them with insurance. For other organisations it could be the provision of an information hub; collaboration with other service providers to pool resources and gain economies of scale; offering services to other providers e.g. risk assessment; pre-empting problems by working more closely with your supply chain; or working internally to break down silos.

Most organisations, if they think about it, combine elements of the linear and platform models: they are owners of products and services, and important organisers of connection, but their focus is on the former rather than the latter. And it isn’t just about money, it’s about untapped capacity and value of all kinds, internally as much as externally. In both cases it is about creating an environment to get the most out of people, whether that be sharing ideas and best practice, or collaborating to gain economies of scale and avoid duplication of effort.

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Don’t Get Too Comfortable. It’s Not Good For You!

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As our website makes clear, we are guided by an understanding that we live in a hyper connected world and that neural networks are like social networks. While brain activity is made possible through connecting neurons (brain cells), social activity is made possible through connecting individuals. Both are stimulated by new ideas and perspectives, which in turn generate further ideas and perspectives. That’s how innovation happens.

Without new connections neural and social networks are in danger of withering and weakening or, paradoxically, strengthening to the point where they become rigid and unyielding. In a neural network we would describe this as habit formation, where a pattern of behaviour has become fixed, and in a social network as a social echo chamber, where the same ideas and attitudes are shared, regurgitated and thereby mutually reinforced. With no one to challenge our beliefs and assumptions the world comes to resemble the comfort and familiarity of our Facebook page. That’s not how innovation happens!

Habits and social echo chambers leave out indispensable features of innovation and creativity: flaws, failures, and frustrations. Without some grit in the oyster pearls will not grow. In ‘Black Box Thinking’, Matthew Syed describes an experiment that illustrates the point.

Charlan Nemeth, a psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley, and her colleagues, took 265 female undergraduates and randomly divided them into five-person teams. Each team was given the same task: to come up with ideas about how to reduce traffic congestion in the San Francisco Bay Area. These five-person teams were then assigned to one of three ways of working.

The first group were given the instruction to brainstorm, a technique that you will no doubt be familiar with. It is one of the most influential creativity techniques and is based on the free flow of ideas. In brainstorming the entire approach is to remove obstacles and minimize challenges. People are warned not to criticize each other, or point out the difficulties in each other’s suggestions.

The second group were given no guidelines at all: they were allowed to come up with ideas in any way they thought best.

But the third group were actively encouraged to point out the flaws in each other’s ideas. Their instructions read: “Most research and advice suggests that the best way to come up with good solutions is to come up with many solutions. Free-wheeling is welcome; don’t be afraid to say anything that comes to mind. However, in addition, most studies suggest that you should debate and even criticize each other’s ideas.”

The results speak for themselves. The groups with the dissent and criticize guidelines generated 25% more ideas than those who were simply brainstorming, or who had no instructions. Just as striking, when individuals were later asked to come up with more solutions for the traffic problem, those with the dissent guidelines generated twice as many new ideas as those who had been asked to brainstorm.

Further studies have shown that those who dissent rather than just brainstorm produce not just more ideas, but more productive and imaginative ideas. As Nemeth put it: “The basic finding is that the encouragement of debate, and even criticism if warranted, appears to stimulate more creative ideas. And cultures that permit and even encourage such expression of differing viewpoints may stimulate the most innovation.”

As Syed points out, the reason is not difficult to identify. The problem with brainstorming is not its insistence on free-wheeling or quick association. Rather, it is that when these ideas are not checked by feedback or criticism, they have nothing to respond to, like our habits and social echo chambers they exist in a vacuum: unexamined and unchallenged. “The value of criticism is that it surfaces problems. It brings difficulties to light and forces us to think afresh. When our assumptions are violated we are nudged into a new relationship with reality.”

Flaws, failures and frustrations are the grit in the oyster, helping us see our habits and social echo chambers for what they are: rigid, restrictive and potentially just plain wrong. New ideas and perspectives will only present themselves if we seek out and develop new neural and social connections that challenge our comfortable and habitual assumptions.

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Three Simple Questions to Breakdown Organisational Silos

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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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