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We all need a Red Team in our Network

Red Team

Every day we are bombarded with data. So much that we simply cannot process it all, and even the fraction we can manage is inevitably at the mercy of our subjective bias. So when making decisions we all need a Red Team to keep us honest.

In 2016, a report by IBM Marketing Cloud revealed that 90% of data in the world had been created in the previous two years, with 2.5 quintillion bytes of data being produced every day. By some estimates the typical human now consumes 100 GB of data a day. That’s the equivalent of 20,000 songs or 200 hours of standard-definition video hitting your five senses every day. The problem is that while we have 21st century data, we still have prehistorical brains.

The challenge for leaders, managers and organisations is how to fight through the clutter and glean value from all this data in order to make better decisions. The technical answer is to develop an appropriate data infrastructure or framework, where information is shared across the business and doesn’t hide in silos. But the difficult part is establishing a culture of data to ensure that decisions are evidence based and driven by the data, rather than finger in the wind, gut feel and top-down decision making.

In broad terms the flow chart of turning data into something of value is this: data – information – knowledge – wisdom. Data is received by all our senses, but let’s confine ourselves to the text documents, emails, phone calls, Skype calls, images, videos and audio clips that we typically consume each day at work. From this we must first glean information, facts, theories, ideas and statistics, which we collect for reference and analysis in order to create knowledge, awareness or familiarity with a subject or situation, which if judiciously applied becomes wisdom, the ability to make sound judgements based on the knowledge you possess.

But no stage of this process is impartial or infallible. Even raw data is the result of assumptions and biases held by the gatherers of that data. But it gets even worse as we process the data. Fundamentally the problem is this: despite acres more data we are still using minds that are genetically very little different from those of our prehistorical forebears. Our ability to take in and sift through all this information remains as it was 70,000 years ago at the onset of the cognitive revolution.

Neuroscience now provides evidence for what we already suspected: we make decisions in a gut way, from somewhere deep within us and oddly before we even realise we have made a decision. We then use our cognitive abilities to rationalise our decisions and muster arguments so that we and others believe that they are based on factual data and logical thinking processes. Our sense of objectivity is an illusion. In truth, we interpret or ignore information in a way that confirms our subjective preconceptions.

Psychologists Daniel Kahneman, Paul Slovic, and Amos Tversky introduced the concept of psychological bias in the early 1970s, publishing their findings in the book ‘Judgement Under Uncertainty’. They describe psychological bias as the tendency to make decisions or take action in an illogical way. For example, subconsciously making selective use of data or, alternatively, feeling pressured to make a particular decision based upon the preconceptions of powerful colleagues. It is the opposite of objective, measured judgement and can lead to missed opportunities and poor decision making.

There are a variety of psychological biases, but basing decisions on our preconceptions is known as Confirmation Bias, which as described above, happens when we look for information that supports our existing beliefs and reject information that goes against what we believe. Good current examples include people’s attitude toward President Trump and Brexit. People in both camps, for or against, are largely fixed in their views and seek evidence to confirm those beliefs within a social echo chamber of like-minded people.

Even in the best of circumstances it’s hard to spot psychological bias in ourselves, because it often comes from subconscious thinking. We all like to think that we are objective and it is other people who suffer from the delusions of subjectivity. But that just isn’t true. Avoiding confirmation bias is therefore a matter of seeking ways to challenge what you think. One of the most powerful methods is to make major decisions with the support of other people. The problem here though is the social echo chamber: we prefer to make groups and teams in our own image, people who are like us.

That’s where the Red Team comes in. A Red Team is a group of people who challenge your point of view, because they are different from you and will offer dissenting views. You can also seek out information that challenges your opinions, or assign someone on your team to play “devil’s advocate” for major decisions. But the key is to identify people and sources you respect, but may not like – particularly when they tell you something you don’t want to hear.

In short, we have a better chance of making balanced decisions, which accommodate more of the relevant data and potential impacts, if we work with a diverse group of colleagues – a Red Team. People whose perspectives are diverse, whether this be through differences in gender, ethnicity, life experiences, expertise, thinking styles, hierarchical level in the organisation, or in a range of other ways. They might be irritate you, but pearls aren’t made without some grit in the oyster.

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Kipling, Hotdogs and the Mother of All Cock Ups

Assuming the door wasn't glass

It has been said that assumption is the mother of all cock ups. Well it may not be the mother, but it is certainly a close family member – like when you walk into a glass door that you assumed wasn’t there. The problem is that our brains are very adept at pattern-recognising and pattern-making. Creating mental models or heuristics (short cuts and rules of thumb) that generally allow us to function effectively despite the huge amount of sensory input with which our brains have to cope.

Short cuts enable us to rapidly sift and sort sensory information into useless or useful knowledge, according to whether it confirms or contradicts the patterns already embedded in our minds. The danger is that we can unconsciously misread the signals and lock onto patterns that aren’t actually there. In other words, much of our day to day functioning is based upon assumption not observation. Walking into glass doors can be painful and messy, so can poor decision making.

As US General Stanley McChrystal observed, when he summarized the difficult process of overcoming assumptions in the US military 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?”

Uncovering assumptions can lead to better decision making, but it can also lead to game changing innovation. Let’s take hot dogs as an example.

Every 4th of July about 40,000 people gather in Coney Island in the United States, and more than one million 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 hot dogs and buns within the set time.

What enabled a young man, weighing just 112lb, to consume nearly 8lb of bread and sausage, more than twice the amount of anyone before him?

Mr Kobayashi’s winning insight was not to assume that he must 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 dunking the bun in water with his other hand to make it easier to swallow. Neither of which is forbidden in the rules and water is provided. His breakthrough was to surface the mental shortcuts of the other competitors and do something different.

So was this just a ‘eureka moment’, a flash of insight after struggling relentlessly with the problem, or is there a technique to avoid jumping to conclusions? Well I don’t know about Mr Kobayashi, but the following method works pretty well.

First, count to ten and step back from the problem. Just like the amygdala hijack (see my previous article), most problems benefit from putting a bit of space between you and it. Essentially, we are trying to avoid the automatic leap of faith (assumption) from known recognised problem to known solution. Or the reverse. If I have a hammer everything looks like a nail!

Second, avoid self-limiting assumptions by getting a second opinion. But there is a caveat here. Paired or group solutions can be equally incomplete unless a diversity of knowledge and experience is represented. Homogenous groups tend to exist in echo chambers, congratulating themselves on all thinking the same and producing ideas that are nothing more than updated versions of existing thinking, which still leave their shared assumptions unquestioned.

The key here is to seek advice from people who are not like us. People who irritate you perhaps? If you like practical, detailed solutions, seek out those who like theories, models and the big picture. If you like quick decision making, seek out those who like more information before reaching a conclusion. And if you like logical, rational planning, seek out someone a little more off the wall.

Finally, try surfacing your own assumptions. Follow the advice of Rudyard Kipling (did you assume I was talking about Mr Kipling and his cakes?). Kipling famously kept six honest serving-men and used them to interrogate his problems and assumptions…

I KEEP six honest serving-men

 (They taught me all I knew);

Their names are What and Why and When

 And How and Where and Who.

Write down the problem and your thinking. Put the problem at the top of the page and write down your thoughts on the topic: What and Why and When and How and Where and Who. When you’ve filled as much of a page as you can, stop, go back and find the assumptions: what are you taking for granted?

An assumption is anything you don’t have actual proof for, an interpretation you’ve made of someone else’s motivations, or something implied by something you wrote. For example, Mr Kobayashi questioned the assumption of ‘How’ the hotdog should be eaten.

Write your assumptions on a separate piece of paper and then examine them to see where they might lead. Writing things down forces us to think more deeply about them, it also tends to widen our perspective beyond first conclusions.

Taken together, these three tactics will hopefully help you avoid the painful and messy results of assumption.

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No Plan Survives Contact with Reality: How to Implement Successful Strategies of Imperfection



“All the business of war, and indeed all the business of life, is to endeavour to find out what you don’t know by what you do; that’s what I called ‘guessing what was at the other side of the hill.”

Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington.

In warfare, business, and life in general we suffer from the same problem: we walk backwards into the future. Not knowing what is ahead of us we can only rely on our biased and imperfect memories of the past to guide us. Strategy and planning therefore are about using flawed knowledge to guess what’s on the other side of the hill and then preparing ourselves to meet it.

This article does not offer a simple panacea to this problem (sorry to disappoint you, but there isn’t one), but it does offer an approach that takes into account real world imperfections that allow us to design strategies that compensate for the limitations of not knowing. In short, success must incorporate imperfection.

The counterinsurgency operations undertaken in Iraq and Afghanistan, in which I played an extremely small part, both followed sound military doctrine born of hard won experience: underlining the importance of legitimate government; security for the populace; shared understanding; unity of effort; and long term commitment. Yet they proved inadequate to achieve generally agreed success.

The reasons for this are still debated, but include unarticulated assumptions, deviation from established doctrine, poor intelligence, and significant gaps in international capacity. More fundamentally, however, from the outset the problem was too narrowly defined, with the motivations of critical stakeholders poorly understood and the network of complex interdependencies grossly oversimplified. In dealing too narrowly with the problem, we always ran the risk of neglecting what was really important and instead addressing sub-problems that we could solve.

It was, in problem parlance, a wicked problem. While complex problems are those in which the problem solvers agree on what the problem is but can find no consensus on how to solve it, wicked problems have no agreed problem or solution. As such, they often involve the following key elements:

• Difficult to clearly define
• Socially complex and involve multiple stakeholders
• Many interdependencies and are often multi-causal
• Hardly ever the responsibility of one organisation
• Unstable and the problem keeps evolving
• Attempts to address them often lead to unforeseen consequences
• No clear solution and they may never be solved
• Solutions are not right or wrong, but rather better, worse or good enough

Wicked problems cannot be tackled by the traditional linear approach in which problems are defined, analysed and solved in sequential steps. It is easy to say what might be a highly desirable outcome, including which specific elements of the outcome are most sought after, but the more important questions are what will work when the desirable is not obtainable, and which elements are mutually supportive and which may actually undercut one another.

One of the key assumptions of traditional linear thinking is that if we can identify the problem, the problem will be solvable. In other words, there is an “assumption of implementation”: if we understand the problem and therefore identify the ‘right solution’ then successful implementation will happen naturally. This of course ignores problems of practice, the messy reality of what is actually on the other side of the hill.

Problems of practice require holistic rather than linear thinking: grasping the big picture and attempting to identify the full range of interrelationships between causal factors and policy objectives. But for those who work in large organisations it also requires an understanding of their structural limitations. For reasons of history and efficiency bureaucracies tend to be stove piped. Going ‘outside your lane’ is frowned upon and protecting the boundaries is often deemed a success. Importantly, resources follow bureaucratic lanes, and even when the need for a holistic solution is recognised, it is often the case that resources cannot be easily transferred to where they would have greatest impact.

Resolution of such problems therefore means devising a strategy that copes reasonably with the issue (the wicked problem itself) and halts enough of the antagonistic and destructive behaviours (bureaucracy and politics), in order to create a solution that is ‘good enough’. Nancy Roberts has identified three such approaches: authoritative, competitive, and collaborative.

Authoritative strategies involve putting problem solving into the hands of a few stakeholders who have the authority to define the problem and come up with the solution. This has the advantage of reducing problem complexity, as it eliminates many of the competing points of view, but has the disadvantage that those charged with solving the problem may not have an appreciation of all the perspectives needed to tackle the problem.

Competitive strategies attempt to solve wicked problems by pitting opposing points of view against each other, requiring parties that hold these views to come up with their preferred solutions. The advantage of this approach is that different solutions can be weighed up against each other and the best one chosen. The disadvantage is that this adversarial approach creates a confrontational environment in which knowledge sharing is discouraged. Consequently, the parties involved may not have an incentive to come up with the best possible solution.

Collaborative approaches are based on the assumption of win-win, aiming to engage all stakeholders in order to find the best possible solution for all. Typically this will involve meetings in which issues and ideas are discussed and a common approach is formulated. Alliances, partnerships and joint ventures are all variations of this theme.

The difficulties are that adding stakeholders increases transactional costs (more meetings, more people and more time to communicate and get agreement). As numbers grow so does the difficulty of achieving synergy. Skills of collaboration are often limited, especially in hierarchical organisations and systems, and they also take time and resources to acquire. Critically, dialogue can turn into debate and positions can harden, turning it into a protracted competitive conflict, and there is no guarantee that the outcome will be satisfactory for everyone.

The key to success is to blend authoritative, competitive and collaborative strategies, allowing greater flexibility and more effective approaches to achieving ‘good enough’ solutions (i.e. more good than bad practices). But it also requires problem solvers to understand:

• The full scale of the problem, without artificially limiting it.
• That while the ideal may be easy enough to understand, real world constraints make such resolutions highly improbable.
• The multifactor nature of wicked problems means that important stakeholders will have conflicting goals.
• That sensible goals are still required to give definition to the strategy. Without this, operations will have little strategic direction and guidance will be lacking for the employment of necessarily limited resources.
• That changes in approach can be as much a sign of success as of failure.

All this means there will be a critical role for leaders. Leaders who can elicit different solutions (competitive approach), get everyone around the table to agree a ‘good enough’ solution (collaborative approach), and then enforce it if necessary (authoritative approach). In every case, the ‘solutions’ should be adaptive but enduring, recognising the very different interests of the relevant stakeholders and expecting that the nature of the problem will change over time.

Even Wellington, a pre-eminent military leader, was not exempt. At a critical point in the battle of Waterloo, he observed that either night would have to fall, so he could safely withdraw, or the Prussian reinforcements had to arrive to save him from defeat. It was, he later admitted, “The nearest run thing you ever saw in your life.”

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Why Learning Organisations Fail


The literature on contemporary leadership and management is brimming with exhortations to learn and adapt. Laudable as this approach is, however, it is often flawed. First, in both business and public service, it is often based on an oversimplified understanding of learning, which confuses learning with training, ignoring the distinct value of education. Second, education (planned learning through reading, listening, observing, thinking and discussion) is often seen as inferior to action and hands on experience. Nobody has the time to sit back and think about what they do and how they could do it better, because they are too busy doing it.

This is not a plea for education for education’s sake however: it is a plea for a proper understanding of education and its place in organisational learning. An understanding which recognises that learning is a combination of education, training and experience, which work together synergistically: the whole being greater than the sum of the parts. A synergy, whose product, might fittingly be described as wisdom.

In the first place, it is important to note that training and education share a number of similar characteristics, not least of which is that they are both planned learning. Yet, for the purposes of clarity, it is useful to think of the two terms existing on a spectrum, with education at one end and training at the other. A colourful illustration of the difference is to ask a parent to consider their reaction to the provision of sex education in their child’s school, and then ask them to consider the provision of sex training…

Suffice it to say that training is concerned with the mechanics of how something is done, while education provides a broader understanding beyond the purely practical.

Training has narrow goals and concerns the right way to do something. It is a planned and systematic effort to modify or develop knowledge, skills and attitudes. Its purpose in the work situation is to enable an individual to acquire abilities in order that he or she can perform adequately a given job or task. Fundamentally, however, there is no choice about how it is done. Training is learning for a specific purpose or end. An individual can speak about being ‘well educated’ without specifying what they have learned, but to be ‘trained’ is to be trained to do or to be something specific.

So, while the benefits of intellectual development in support of specific tasks or functions is without doubt, a system based solely upon narrow functional expertise and uniformity is counter-productive in an environment that requires flexibility and adaptability.

Likewise, the benefit of hands on experience goes without question, but as Frederick the Great observed, if experience were all a great general needs, then the greatest would be the mules who carried the army’s baggage. Frederick’s point was that thought, and the faculty of reflection and learning, is what distinguishes people from beasts of burden: a mule who has carried a pack for ten campaigns will be no better tactician for it.

It is also well understood that humans construct an understanding of the world that is very different from the analogue flow of sensation the world presents to us. We package our experience into objects and events, assemble these into personal theories and propositions, and then use them to understand and deal with our real and imagined worlds. These personalised interpretations pick out some aspects of the situation and ignore others, allowing the same situation to be construed in multiple and often inaccurate ways.

Experience, therefore, cannot wholly replace education either. Without education individuals and organisations will not reap the full value of their combined experiences, and worse they may draw false conclusions. Some individuals, a brilliant few, may not require the benefits of formal education, their genius allowing them to escape the restricted perceptions of the majority, but to get the best out of the rest of us it is necessary to teach us how to think and give us the time and space to reflect on our experiences. This is not about telling us what to think, that is training or at worst indoctrination, but how to escape the bias, subjectivity, and bounded rationality of our environment.

Not wishing to get bogged down in definitions of education, for our purposes I will describe it as threefold. First, it is the means by which individuals are provided with the intellectual underpinning required of their position and specialisation (think of the difference between sex education and sex training). Second, it is an aspect of socialisation that initiates individuals into the prevailing culture. Third, and at the same time, it provides a healthy scepticism toward the proscriptive nature of training, the bounded rationality of experience, and the dogma of prevailing culture.

In short, education is pre-eminent in developing social power and insight; what the cognitive scientist Stephen Pinker has described as a counter to our ‘instinctive ways of thinking about the physical and social world.’ It is a capability that allows us to overcome our bias and prejudices, and look upon problems and situations with a forever new and untainted eye. Thereby enabling the flexibility of mind required to learn and adapt.

While it is through experience that our collective catalogue of ‘certainty’ grows, thus shaping the development of our training programmes, each positive experience only prepares us meet the same challenge next time, it doesn’t necessarily teach us to handle anything different. For most of us, it is only when we make mistakes or experience negative results that we learn and develop other courses of action. Yet, as Otto von Bismarck famously observed, “Only a fool learns from his own mistakes. The wise man learns from the mistakes of others,” and such vicarious experience is provided in large part by education (planned learning through reading, listening, observing, thinking and discussion).

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Leadership When Hierarchy Fails

Collapsing Hierarchy
Two seemingly unrelated stories have struck me over the past month: the continuing saga of the Harvey Weinstein sex abuse scandal and the publication of the report into the Grenfell Fire commissioned by Muslim Aid. For me, the thread connecting them is the threat and the opportunity posed to hierarchies in an increasingly complex and networked world.

According to Margaret Heffernen, a leading analyst of the sexual abuse scandal, the power of hierarchy kept the lid on sexual harassment, through confidentiality agreements, firing people, or ruining their reputations if they spoke out. In her opinion, when the lid came off it marked a fascinating moment in organisational history: the moment “when hierarchies fail.” And the cause of this failure, she believes, was networks. #MeToo spread through networks. It didn’t need permission or approval, it grew very fast and it was beyond anyone’s control.

The public inquiry into the Grenfell Fire is yet to conclude, but the report commissioned by Muslim Aid appears to confirm what many said at the time: voluntary organisations had to fill the void left by a lack of official direction and weak leadership by the local council. But the report also recognised that, in certain respects, the voluntary sector “came up short, with some systems, structures and approaches not fit for purpose”.

Coordinated action does not happen without leadership. Direction, however gentle or subtle is always required. But in a networked world leaders will not hold all the levers of power and will increasingly be asked to lead without formal/positional authority, across internal and external organisational boundaries. In which case, where does authority as a leader come from?

In his recent book, The Square and the Tower, Niall Ferguson identified a similar historical narrative, in which major changes, dating back to the Age of Discovery and the Reformation, could be understood as disruptive challenges posed to established hierarchies by networks. He also challenged the confident assumption that there is something inherently benign in network disruption of hierarchical order. In his view, networks are more likely to lead to an anarchic dystopia rather a collective utopia, so some form of hierarchy/structure is required to control and direct them. The frightening thing for hierarchies, however, is that networks like seem impossible to control and are not going away.

The secret of our success as a species resides in our ‘distributed cognition’ the collective brains of our communities. Ferguson suggests that our species should be known as Homo dictyous (network man), because our brains seem to have been built for networks. Our early ancestors were collaborative foragers and all that has happened, beginning with the invention of written language, is that new technologies have continued to facilitate our innate, ancient urge to network.

In trying to understand the inspirational community response to the Grenfell Fire residents spoke of how tight-knit their community was and how many different nationalities lived in the tower. Some suggested that the response may have its roots in the preparation each year for the Notting Hill carnival. Whatever its origins the power of networks was certainly apparent, both the physical connectivity of friends and neighbours, and the power of social media, to mobilise action. What was missing was anyone to lead and coordinate the relief effort, in other words a network leader. While a great deal was achieved, in the absence of network leadership, much time, effort and resources was wasted and misdirected.

It is perhaps not surprising therefore, that for most of recorded history hierarchies have dominated networks. The word hierarchy derives from ancient Greek, meaning ‘rule of a high priest’ and was first used to describe the heavenly orders of angels. The attraction of hierarchical order was that it made the exercise of power more efficient, centralising control and eliminating, or at least reducing, the need for time-consuming arguments about what to do, which might also degenerate into conflict.

Hierarchy however, and the bureaucracy it inevitably generates, is unsuited to complexity. On the one hand, as the physicist Yaneer Bar-Yam has argued, a group of individuals whose collective behaviour is controlled by a single individual cannot behave in a more complex way than the individual who is exercising control. On the other hand, complexity and bureaucracy are diametrically opposed. The essence of complexity is its unpredictability, while the essence of bureaucracy is its quest for calculability and safety, which too often means it becomes a prisoner of events that were not predicted.

So, if complexity is beyond the wit of a single individual and bureaucracy is procedurally unsuited, a new approach to leadership is required: one that mirrors the interactions and mechanisms of the network and derives its authority from something other than hierarchical position. Perhaps the true test of leadership, dating back to our early ancestors, is not how grand your title, but how far people are prepared to trust you, to be open and honest with you, and to challenge you.

Left to their own devices networks develop naturally through our search for knowledge and belonging. So network leadership begins by helping people make sense of their situation and clarify their goals. Clarification starts when someone steps forward and makes suggestions about how to fix or achieve something. Naturally, again, we tend to associate with and listen to people we trust, those who have earned our respect through their integrity, generosity and reciprocity. And let’s face it, leaders are going to have to be more trustworthy whether they like it or not, because networks (#MeToo) force greater transparency and openness.

Openness is also key for the process of clarification, because it depends on continually refining what our goals mean in practice through facilitated discussion and working through disagreements. Leaders must recognize and embrace the “obligation to dissent”, encouraging those around them to speak their minds, to bring attention to hypocrisy and misbehaviour, but also to poor ideas and plans.

Humility and integrity are a powerful combination in a networked world. Life is not always a competition and perhaps we should all care more for getting the job done than who gets the credit. Ultimately, in a world without hierarchy anyone can acquire the authority to be a leader.

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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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Networks: How to Achieve More with Less


Let’s be clear, we are not talking here about networking for personal ends, collecting business cards, followers on social media, or belonging to a nepotistic old boy’s network of mutual back scratching. Sadly, the President’s Club is an example of networks gone badly wrong, where abhorrent behaviour, driven by the worst aspects of human social psychology, outweighed the social mores of wider society.

What is worth noting however, is that men tend to network to get things done, while women generally network to learn. Both are necessary but neither is sufficient. At its worst, networking focused on doing leads to ill thought through actions that are needlessly repeated, while networking focused on learning becomes therapeutic rather than dynamic.

We live in a networked world in which wicked problems, from global warming to terrorism and inequality, flow through interlocking webs of connection, causing volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. Conversely, in science, technology, the environment and society, networks are becoming the paradigm with which to uncover the hidden architecture of complexity and the capacity for people, resources, and ideas to generate greater collective value. Fundamentally, networks provide a new lens through which to view organisations and communities, and a new language to help explain and act within them.

The term ‘wicked problems’ was originally coined in the 1970s to describe problems of social policy that did not lend themselves to solutions through a purely scientific-engineering approach, because they were characterised by incomplete or contradictory information, large numbers of people and divergent opinions, and the interconnected nature of these problems with other problems. It has since been applied to problems from pandemics and climate change to social inequality and business strategy.

In most organisations the conventional response to ‘wicked problems’ has been to sweat your assets; to demand that more and more be done with less and less. Yet however imaginative, there comes a point when there is no more money, your people are mentally exhausted and physical resources can be squeezed no further. The alternative is to recognise that nothing happens without networks. We exist within them and we work through them, but often without necessarily realising that we do.

The challenge of wicked problems is exacerbated in many organisations by the assumption that every problem fits neatly into one of the departments into which they have organised themselves: and no amount of structural readjustment will solve this. However construed, organisational silos and bureaucracies drive narrow departmental approaches to problems rather than create whole organisation solutions. By making networks explicit we can see that problems and risks are rarely confined to one department or directorate, and that the solution is to do less ourselves and more with and through others, by identifying synergies and avoiding duplication of effort.

The problem is perhaps most acute for public services and the voluntary sector, where success is often dependent on support and harmonisation with other organisations. To be effective, organisational efficiency must be complemented by action on the part of others in health, policing, housing and education. This requires more than simply the provision of discrete services, it necessitates community leadership to shape the places and organisations in which they serve.

But whether in an organisation or a community, our approach is to build upon the concepts of social network analysis and community asset mapping to uncover value: identifying and then connecting individuals, teams, groups and institutions in order to facilitate the exchange of resources, skills and knowledge, between those who have and those who need. In the absence of such understanding individual, group and organisational effort can be needlessly duplicated, squandered or under-utilised.

Before you can improve your network you need to understand it. Improved connectivity, whether in organisations or communities, starts with a network map, a visualisation of the elements in your network and the relationships between them. A network map shows the nodes and links in the network, where nodes can be people, groups, or organisations, and links reveal the relationships, information flows or transactions between them.

Map in hand, you are then able to help connect those who have with those who need, and target your own organisational resources more effectively and efficiently. In short, community network analysis allows organisations to target their finite resources to where the impact will be greatest and unlocking the conundrum of doing more with less.

None of this will happen, however, without leadership. Left to their own devices networks develop naturally through proximity and homophily: natural human inclinations to associate with people who are near us or like us. While such bonds often contribute to a group’s strength, they can also inhibit communication between groups. Direction, however gentle or subtle is always required. Formal, positional leadership will remain important, but in a networked world leaders will increasingly be asked to lead without positional authority, across internal and external organisational boundaries.

It requires leaders who can see across the whole organisation or community, and make the sum of the parts greater than the whole. Leaders who recognise that opportunities and threats do not come neatly parcelled to fit the department, division, or sector into which we have arranged ourselves. Leaders who take responsibility for problems other than their own and can lead outside the constraints of their positional authority. In short, leaders who recognise that connectivity is crucial to a sense of belonging and improved productivity in the organisations and communities in which we work and live.

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Understanding Your Business

BusinessContext (1)Whether you are taking on your first role as a manager, swatting up for a management position interview in a new business, or making the move from functional to general management, you will need to demonstrate that you understand the wider concerns of the business. As well as dealing with the day to day issues of your team you it is essential to rise above these parochial concerns and use that knowledge to engage, impress and perform. But where do you begin?

In our leadership programmes we ask the delegates to become a Shadow Executive Team, and the foundation for this exercise is that they must understand the business. We therefore set them some pre-work. First are some basic questions:

  • What are the goals of your organisation – its main aims, including why it was established, what it expects to achieve and whose needs and interests it intends to serve?
  • Who owns your organisation – who established it, who provides the main financial backing and who takes responsibility for its direction?
  • What sector is your organisation in – describe the industry or industries it is part of and other organisations in that sector, including competitors, partners, collaborators, or agencies?
  • How big is your organisation – staff numbers, size and number of premises, and in comparison to others in the sector.
  • On what scale does your organisation operate – the number and type of customers, and their geographical spread.
  • What’s the scope of your organisation’s activities – the breadth and range of products and services it offers.


Then we ask them to examine the environment in which their business exists. There a number of tools for doing this, but we use RESPECT analysis. An acronym for regulatory, economic, social, political, environmental, competitor and technological factors.

 Regulatory/Legal factors refer to national employment laws, international trade regulations and restrictions, monopolies and mergers’ rules, and consumer protection. This is particularly important at present with the regulatory uncertainty surrounding Brexit and in what form British access to the single market may continue.

 Economic factors represent the wider economy so may include economic growth rates, levels of employment and unemployment, costs of raw materials such as energy, petrol and steel, interest rates and monetary policies, exchange rates and inflation rates.

 Socio-cultural factors include demographics, age distribution, population growth rates, level of education, distribution of wealth and social classes, living conditions and lifestyle. An important consideration in this dimension is ethics and how individuals and organisations act when faced with moral dilemmas. In the business environment this includes corporate social responsibility and the growing interest in social purpose within business.

 Political factors refer to the stability of the political environment and the attitudes of political parties or movements. This may manifest itself in government tax policies, or government involvement in trading agreements. In short, how business friendly is the political climate?

 Environmental factors focus increasingly on the issue of sustainability, with businesses beginning to see sustainability as a competitive advantage, not simply compliance or a way to reduce costs. The forces driving this are resource scarcity, which threatens the viability of some businesses; demand from customers for eco-friendly and healthy solutions; regulators demanding greater sustainability from companies; and employees, who want their companies to care for the environment.

 Competitive factors provide an assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of current and potential competitors. Competitors may be organisations in a related product/market; organisations using related technologies; organisations already targeting your prime market segment, but with unrelated products; organisations from other geographical areas with similar products; or new start-ups, perhaps organized by former employees and/or managers.

 Technological factors refer to the rate of new inventions and development, changes in information and mobile technology, changes in internet and e-commerce or even mobile commerce, and government spending on research. The tendency here is to focus on technological developments in digital and internet-related areas, but it should also include materials development and new methods of manufacture, distribution and logistics.

Thinking broadly and deeply about their business helps our leadership delegates to think more strategically and align their team purpose with broader organisational goals. Hopefully, this analysis will help you do the same and ensure that you rise above the other candidates.

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Christmas Conversations

It’s Christmas, does your heart sink at the thought of interminable small talk with distant cousins and great aunts? If so, “Let us,” as Mark Twain suggested, “Make a special effort to stop communicating with each other, so we can have some conversation.” By conversation I mean an interaction between two or more people, in which thoughts, opinions, ideas and feelings are exchanged, within the informal boundaries of polite give and take.

If you’re struggling to get answer, treat the conversation as a journey, go from place to place, but
not necessarily with any particular destination in mind. Use open ended questions like: what did you get for Christmas? What did you think of the Queen’s Speech? What was pudding like? How did you knit those wonderful socks? Why did you do it that way, are there alternative sock designs… or perhaps colours?

Alternatively if you are battling to get a word in edge ways, try raising your hand. It worked in school after all. But if Great Aunt Jemima refuses to desist and continues to lack the power of conversation, but not the power of speech, console yourself with the words of the great Roman orator Marcus Tullius Cicero that “Silence is one of the great arts of conversation.”

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Why Corporate Social Responsibility is not enough

‘The purpose of business is business’’

Milton Friedman (1962)

In the last 20 years income inequality has risen with household wealth of the top 10 per cent of society now more than 100 times the wealth of the poorest 10 per cent;  The major institutions, such as central government and banks have been found wanting; trust is at an all time low and financial institutions are seen as a key part of the collapse. The big government institutions of the post war era seem unable to work; the NHS, Social Services and Benefits seem are political hot potatoes.  There is a growing need for change in the world.

The neat divisions of public, private and third sector are falling away. Charities are filling the gap left by failing public services.  The demographics of society are shifting as the ageing population become simultaneously more dependant and more socially active; with the availability of time, ability and a pension.  Young people, saddled with student debt and no hope of home ownership remain living with their parents, insecure and frustrated, with diminished job prospects.

Social media hold individuals and governments to account; this rise of the ‘connected society’ drives the need for better conversation rather than state control.  In this era of fiscal austerity, the moral volume is turned up.

To date some organisations have responded through Corporate Social Responsibility initiatives, each with a laudable purpose and demonstrating how organisations can improve their world.  In the new world order this is no longer enough.  Organisations are being challenged to rethink their essential purpose.  The narrowness of self interest and share holder value replaced with a wider social activism and moral purpose.

Corporate Social Responsibility is no longer relevant and instead is replaced with a new understanding of the world that drives the moral and social purpose of an organisation.  No longer is it enough to focus on our customers; it is about recognising the wider number of lives that we touch.

From customers to the lives we touch; from transactions to relationships;  from shareholder value to societal value; from short term profit to sustainable profit; from high street presence to community asset; from wealth creation to creation of the common wealth.

How will institutions redefine their role in rebuilding community, stimulating social activism and engagement for the next 100 years.

‘The purpose of business is to create shared value’

Michael Porter 2011

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