Uncertainty and leadership alignment

I’m re-reading the Susan Jeffers book Embracing Uncertainty to get a top-up dose of how to do it.   It’s a struggle right now, and this was highlighted for me as I read in the Economist on 2 May that smokers seem less likely than non-smokers to fall ill with Covid-19 and then I read in the New Scientist 23 May  smokers are actually at a higher risk of dying from Covid-19.   Which should I go with?  One/other, wait …  As I’m not a smoker it probably doesn’t matter either way(s) but the point is what we read one day/week is different the next day/week.

Uncertainty is the theme of the times and there are some who are better at living with it than others. ‘Scientists are accustomed to talking about ranges and living with uncertainty. The public might find that harder. As the first meeting of Sir David’s online committee got going, commenters were enthusiastic about “this effort to disseminate the science, rather than the spin”. But, once it became clear that the panellists had differing views and were not about to offer up a ready-packaged solution, the tone changed. “Please Mr Modeller!” went one comment. “Just answer the questions.”’ Economist:  Of white coats and grey suits

Those of us who are not scientists are often both uncomfortable with uncertainty and ill equipped to manage this, as behavioural scientists observe.   (If you want to know more on this, listen to a great podcast,  Behavioural Science in the Context of Great Uncertainty,  one in LSE’s public event series – COVID-19: The Policy Response.

And the Covid-19 pandemic is an unprecedented event in modern history, bringing with it a crisis of uncertainty. And yet, as Rebecca Knight author of a recent HBR article says, this crisis of uncertainty is ‘not necessarily unique. Similar to other crises, such as 9/11 and the global financial downturn, workers feel scared and worried.’  She quotes Paul Argenti, Professor of Corporate Communication as saying, ‘Uncertainty triggers fear. People are freaking out and wondering, ‘What does this mean for my company, my job, and my future?’”

Knight’s asserts that, ‘Your role [as leader] is to project confidence and strength.  Even though the situation is fast-moving and you don’t have perfect information, you need to be honest about what you know … task one is transparency …  explain to your team, here’s what we do know, here’s what we don’t know, and this is what we are doing to close that gap.’

And there’s the rub.  It maybe relatively easy for one leader (or manager) to be transparent and honest, but it is several degrees harder when a leadership team is involved.    I’ve been in many recent meetings and discussions where people are anxious about the lack of leadership team member alignment.  They’re seeing leaders who are not ‘joined-up’, not speaking with ‘one voice’, not behaving and acting as a united team, and not being able/willing to be transparent and honest about what they do and don’t know.

This despite the obviously  heightened craving for leadership team/executive team member alignment, which is, says Jack McGuiness, ‘when all members of the team work in sync to accomplish a common purpose.’ He explains further, ‘More specifically, an aligned leadership team debates well, proactively supports each other, is laser focused on what is most important, and is committed to learning and improving.’

Supporting the case for leadership team alignment, authors Paul J. H. Schoemaker, Steve Krupp and  Samantha Howland discuss a leader’s ability to align in their article in the Harvard Business Review, it is one of the  ‘six skills that, when mastered and used in concert, allow leaders to think strategically and navigate the unknown effectively’.  The six are:  the abilities to anticipate, challenge, interpret, decide, align, and learn.

On ‘align’ they say strategic leaders must be ‘adept at finding common ground and achieving buy-in among stakeholders who have disparate views and agendas. This requires active outreach. Success depends on proactive communication, trust building, and frequent engagement.’

Knowing what ‘success depends on’ and then developing them and deploying them means overcoming 5 attributes that, in my observation, hinder a leadership team member’s ability to align with other team members.

  • Looking fixedly through their own metaphor – unable to acknowledge there may be others (see the duck/rabbit image above).
  • Binary thinking.  On this see an article on the ‘brutal dilemma’ of lives versus livelihoods
  • Putting their own, or their business unit/organisation’s interests above the common good. (See this old but still relevant article Power an Politics in Organizational Life).
  • Not listening attentively and not questioning assumptions and not thinking ‘I may be wrong here’ (see the tool I mentioned last week on critical thinking)
  • Bringing one or more behavioural biases to bear.  On this one Tom Davenport wrote an excellent article, saying ‘Decision-making becomes most important in times of crisis, and this certainly is one of those times. But it also becomes more challenging, too, during periods of stress and most difficult when future outcomes are uncertain — which describes the current period as well. One reason is because cognitive decision biases are likely to appear in highly changeable, high-stress environments, influencing decisions in damaging ways.’ He then discusses 9 biases which he thinks are coming into play now.

However, because of the profound levels of uncertainty, even those with high level alignment skills  will find it challenging right now.  Which leaves me wondering whether the plea for ‘leadership alignment’ that I’m now hearing in various circles is remotely possible.  Is the only thing that a leadership team could be aligned on, a statement –  one on the lines of ‘We don’t know. Things are uncertain.’?

For many leaders saying ‘we don’t know’ feels risky.  And taking that risk is, in my experience, a necessary step.  Leaders are people too, like their workforce members, leaders are feeling the uncertainty.  Alongside this they can also feel and project the confidence and strength advocated by Knight.  Leaders (and workforce members) are not powerless in uncertainty.

Neither are organisation design and development practitioners.  We could, right now, be:

  • Creating the conditions for dissent/reflection, meaningful discussions and collaborative sensemaking, perhaps using techniques like Polarity Mapping that someone last week alerted me to, or the tool Adaptive Action that I mentioned, also last week.
  • Encouraging leadership team members to look at and overcome, individually and collectively, the attributes that are hindering alignment
  • Supporting them in developing the confidence to say ‘we don’t know and this is what we’re doing to work through things’.

How important do you think leadership team alignment is in these uncertain times?  What are you doing to encourage it if you think it is important?  Let me know.

Image: The duck-rabbit drawing was first used by American psychologist Joseph Jastrow in 1899 to make the point that perception is not only what one sees but also a mental activity

Covid-19, organisation design for next steps: toolkit

Someone emailed me saying he was helping an Exec team ‘bring coherence to their crisis response and recovery planning, using the opportunity to accelerate some of their future organisation design.’

This coincided with a discussion I was having, with some others, around the idea of simple, relevant toolkit that we could have available within a couple of days to help leaders do just that (‘bring coherence … design’ ).

I set to work using some of the tools and ideas we’d discussed.  Here’s the basic outline that I’ve sent to my colleagues to consider – my comments to them in italics:

Covid-19 design for next steps:  toolkit

Intro: (on the lines that I think we are all now becoming utterly familiar with) There is no going ‘back’ to as we were, the future is completely unknown and uncertain.  At this stage everyone – including leaders – must recognise, accept and be clear that in choosing current and future organisation designs there is no right answer that will ‘solve’ the problems or give us the opportunities this crisis presents.  (This is quite a step for people who want ‘the answer’ or certainty).  We simply have to to work for the good of all, learn as we go, be open to others views and experiences, and be comfortable in not having the answers.

Anyone working on designing their current and future organisation design, needs to be:

  1. Using collaborative strategies with multi-disciplinary teams
  2. Practicing holistic and systems thinking rather than linear or mono-dimensional thinking
  3. Redefining ‘success’ as no longer doing things in the right order, but rather doing enough of the right things at the same time.
  4. Identifying the many possible entry points for interventions, launching multiple parallel interventions and learning in ‘real time’ to ensure the appropriate sequence and mix of activities.
  5. Accepting that outcomes are not right or wrong. They are simply better/worse or good enough/not good enough. (The determination of outcome quality is not objective.)  (I’ve adapted this from some work I did on wicked problems).

To help you in your designing here are some immediately usable tools and resources.

There are six themes, each with two tools.

Each theme has a short description and each tool is presented in the same way:  Why this tool? How to use it (instructions).  What to do with the output. Links to relevant information/resources.  (For now, I’ve just sent you the theme descriptor, together with the tool names.  Once you’ve ok-ed the basic idea I’ll work up:  why this tool, the instructions, what to do with the output, relevant info sources. NOTE:  I have some of the tools – the non-hyperlinked ones, others will be developed from the hyperlinked info.)

Themes and tools

Operating context:   During uncertain times, it can feel like everything is uncertain or unstable.  These two tools will help you assess the context –organisational, societal, financial, etc. that are taking place due to Covid-19 and answer the questions What future outcomes do you have a fairly clear view of?  What outcomes are you not certain of at this time?  Where uncertainty lies, what do you know about the possible future outcomes?

Operating models (business, target):  It’s easy to rush into action trying to get things ‘back to normal’ or to the ‘new normal’.  Spending time to consider what’s been learned so far in response to Covid-19 – what’s worked well what hasn’t, what you’d like to keep that you’ve newly put into operation and also to reflect on your pre-Covid operating strengths and weaknesses.  Going ‘back’ no longer seems like a good option. (See, for example Move Fast and Try Not to Break Things.)   Consider carefully what your new operating model should be.

Value Chain mapping:  Principle 3 in the article 10 Principles of Organisation Design (Well worth reading. Will go in additional resources)  is ‘Fix the Structure Last not First’.  This is an instruction ignored by many as they head to re-jig the organisation chart.  A better approach is to map your value chain i.e. the set of activities that an organization carries out to create value for its customers.  The Covid 19 situation has probably seriously impacted it.  Use this map to examine all of your organisation’s key activities, and see how they’re connected. The way in which value chain activities are performed and the way the organisation is structured to perform the activities determines costs and affects outcomes.

Covid-19 redesigns offer an opportunity/challenge to rethink your value chain and structure to deliver it effectively and efficiently.  a good description of value chain analysis is here.

Restructures:  types of structures.  Determining your structure (aka organisation chart) means thinking about your value chain, business processes, culture you want to foster, etc.  Different structures ‘do’ different things e.g. encourage or discourage collaboration, enable quick or slow decision making, build silos or recognize interdependencies, etc.  Redrawing your organisation chart on the back of an envelope or after a brief discussion in a leadership team is neither a responsible approach to organisation design, nor is it likely to achieve the intended outcomes.

  • Tool 7: Structure comparisons
  • Tool 8: Questions to ask about structures (Both these tools are in my book. There’s a whole chapter in it on structures.)

Assessing your organisation design:  If you have arrived at a proposed design, or designs, then before rushing into it take the time to conduct a thorough impact analysis of the design(s) on the existing organisation to confirm whether your design solution(s) can be implemented effectively.   The impact analysis is not just a tick box exercise, it involves critical thinking on the proposals.

Leading organisation design:  It’s important leader of organisation design have honed skills in scepticism and critical thinking.   The infodemic on Covid-19 and its implications on our organisations and their operating context is hitting us hard and there’s no shortage of consultants offering advice.

This crisis has been/is being so profound that it has created, and is still creating, the necessity to think differently.  Leaders absolutely have to seize that opportunity.   There are two main mindsets we can navigate this crisis with: growth and fixed. Having a growth mindset is now an essential.

What’s your view on this quick toolkit for now.  Is it useful, relevant?  What tools are in your current Covid-19 organisation design toolkit?  Let me know.

Image: Systemic Design Toolkit

Organisation design for remote working

The Organisation Design Community recently launched a podcast series, Making Remote Work. So far they’ve recorded around 12 episodes and have invited one guest per episode.  I got an email from them earlier last week saying, ‘Now we are thinking of creating a panel as well (it is more engaging and conversations tend to flow better) and would love to have you as part of it if you would like to.’

The email continued, ‘Until now, on the podcast we’ve had only 2 [organisation design] practitioners, the others have all been academics. We have touched on various subjects – leadership, teamwork, coordination, cooperation, history of remote, negotiations, values, transparency. We have not yet touched on Organization Design for Remote Work. Would this be something you would like to talk about?’

Having replied with something on the lines of ‘Thanks for the invitation, yes, that would be great’, I’ve spent the last couple of days wondering about the phrase ‘remote work’.

It’s easy to think it’s about the common response to the current coronavirus pandemic.  Companies are asking employees to work from home, rather than going to an office or workplace.  As Dave Cook says in his article,’ Many of us have had little choice but to resort to remote working in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. It is just days since Google, Apple  and Twitter were making headlines by ordering their employees to work from home, but you could now say the same about lots of companies.’

Clearly, there is that forced aspect of remote work – additionally, there are other ways of considering the phrase ‘remote work’.  For example, it could refer to:

  • Work that is done in a specific physical workspace location but which is digitally delivered in real time e.g. telesurgery  or robotic surgery  or drone warfare.
  • Work done physically on a work site but where the workers are remote from their homes and families e.g. astronauts, or construction workers.
  • Work that is done in ‘virtual organisations’, designed to have no, or minimal, physical space but where the workers are doing a variety of jobs, physically remote from other workers, but linked through technologies.   These virtual organisation employees may or may not work from ‘home’, e.g. Uber drivers work from their cars,  while workers at social media management company Buffer, ‘a fully distributed team of 85 people living and working in 15 countries around the world, may work from home, coffee shop, …’
  • Working conditions and/or culture, on or off a physical site that promote a sense of feeling remote e.g. distance from frontline to leader, or lifestyle of garment maker to customer of garment.    This is sometimes reflected in the language of ‘HQ doesn’t understand what’s going on’ or ‘ivory tower executives’ or in pay scales – a recent UK example is the £54m bonus payment. (Ocado delivery drivers can expect to earn £21k per year, taking each one of them 2,570 years to earn the equivalent of £54m).

These are each very different types of ‘remote work’ but across them are some common themes where we could/should be designing.  The themes are:

Perceived, and felt, fairness – which could include the explicit design of pay systems, and the implicit value placed on workers by their organisations and societies.  It’s fairly obvious that in the current situation, typically the higher paid knowledge workers are working ‘remotely’, often from home and the lower paid frontline workers are keeping society’s oils wheeled in the day to day – caring for the sick, making food deliveries, serving in essential retail outlets.  An opportunity to address, is the divide between knowledge (remote) and front-line workers reinforced by pay differentials and perceived value to society.

Cultures of community and belonging – an HBR study conducted in 2017 of 1,100 employees found that remote workers feel shunned and left out whether that is the same now that more people are working remotely I don’t know, but given the explosion of articles on managing remote teams I suspect so.

Interpersonal interaction design – this may be a new area in organisation design  but I have seen many articles on issues of building trust and relationships  in an only on-line world – for example, this National Geographic one ‘Zoom fatigue is taxing the brain. Here’s why that happens.’ If more of us are going to be working online away from the day to day/face to face contact with colleagues then we need to think carefully about ways to replicate the value of this.

Designing for innovation and creativity – Look at the many articles on MIT’s building 20 for example  https://www.archdaily.com/353496/can-architecture-make-us-more-creative or why living in a city makes you more innovative and you’ll see that putting people randomly together fosters innovation and creativity.  An organisation design challenge for now is how to develop equivalent types of physical space that encourage this, whilst maintaining some of the norms of distancing we may be required to adopt. See the British Council for Offices briefing note on Covid-19 and a similar guidance note from the  British Retail Consortium.

System and process design – in a 25 April article The Economist notes that ‘The pandemic is liberating firms to experiment with radical new ideas.  Some of these will persist after the crisis passes.’   I’m seeing the systems and process redesigns they discuss happening in organisations I am working with.  I think these new designs will, as The Economist suggests, persist. They include:

Organisations being ‘forced to raise their corporate metabolism and overcome analysis paralysis’, this requires redesign of decision-making processes, delegation and authority levels, as well as changes to funding streams and budgetary controls.  They illustrate with the example of Sysco ‘a big American food-distribution firm [that] built and entirely new supply chain and billing system to server grocery stores in less than a week.’

Emboldening managers to change risk management systems in order to try out, at speed, risky new ideas ‘on larger groups of customers.’   Many organisations are swiftly designing and introducing rapid prototyping/testing systems for example Nike’s ‘deft digital pivot’ to online shared workouts or HP’s ‘acceleration of 3D as a service’.

Experimenting with new distribution channels– ‘Google has expanded the use of its Wing drones to deliver medicines and other necessities in rural Virginia’,  while Uber has rapidly expanded its Uber Eats delivery business.

Redesigning supply chains– COVID-19 has exposed the vulnerabilities of complex global supply chains built on lean manufacturing principles.

Command and control processes changing in ways as yet unclear – some aspects becoming much more authoritarian others becoming more open and transparent for example, investing in open-source software or engaging customers in open-innovation efforts.

How are you thinking about ‘remote’ and do you think the pandemic will change organisation designs and the way we design organisations?  Let me know.

Image:  Virtual team building activities

Normal or not?

‘Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.’  This Winston Churchill quote is just right for now.   We are not at the beginning of the end of the Covid-19 crisis.  It is going to be with us, perhaps for our lifetimes or longer, as other infectious illnesses are.

Virologist, Guido Vanham, in a World Economic Forum interview said,  ‘It [Covid-19] will probably never end, in the sense that this virus is clearly here to stay unless we eradicate it. And the only way to eradicate such a virus would be with a very effective vaccine that is delivered to every human being. We have done that with smallpox, but that’s the only example – and that has taken many years.’

So, I’m surprised by the number of meetings I’ve been in over the last couple of weeks in which people are talking about ‘going back to normal’, or ‘the next normal’ or ‘the new normal’, in ways suggesting that they are planning to ‘tweak’ their world view and their organisations a bit,  and in doing this things will be much the same as they were during 2019 or even up to early 2020.

This is a mistake.  We have had a wrenching global shock both individually and collectively.    Organisations are reeling from it, very few will be able to go back, or forward, to any form of ‘normal’ that looks anything like the pre Covid-19 crisis.

We know, and are experiencing, the  covid-19 pandemic, which, as the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) reports, ‘has led to society-wide lockdowns across the world, bringing all but commerce and services deemed most essential to a sudden halt, large portions of countries sheltering at home and unemployment spiking.’    As a result of the Covid-19 measures, the IMF, in its latest World Economic Outlook, forecasts the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.

To examine this forecast, in April this year, the EIU, launched the Global Business Barometer, which will be updated monthly. The launch survey was ‘Based on an initial online survey of 2,758 executives from 118 countries, fielded from March 26th to April 6th’.  Respondents were asked ‘questions ranging from their outlook on the global economy and investment plans to operational and risk management strategies.’ The findings make grim reading.

The EIU states, ‘the world is not going to suddenly spring back and continue as though nothing has happened. Forty percent of executives we surveyed answered it would take “less than a year” from the outbreak for their business to recover. That is cheering and we hope they are proven prescient. But 46% of those surveyed believe it will take between 1-2 years and 10% believe it will take 3-5 years. The former seems realistic, the latter disastrous.’

The EIU comments, ‘Few if any industries will be spared from the impact of covid-19 and the various policy responses to it. Some will be much harder hit than others. Tourism and travel is an obvious example, as is the consumer goods sector (outside of food and other essentials). With many factories shuttered across the globe, supply-chain disruptions and demand cratering, manufacturing is also forecast to experience significant pain in the short to medium-term.’

Leandro Herrero, in his inimitable way is clear ‘We need to feed-forward. Not feed-back. We don’t need a thermostat. We need a compass. Move North or East or West or South, but never back to normal. Because normal is not waiting for us.  …  The so called ‘new normal’ (this thing is sticky) is for creators, makers, builders. Not for decorators of the same old room. Not going back to the pot of paint to finish the ceiling, that was left behind.’

His is a call to move on from our paradigm of ‘normal’ that is not waiting for us.  Others suggest similarly.  For example, the UK Guardian notes,

‘The global impact of the coronavirus pandemic poses a fundamental question: is this one of those historic moments when the world changes permanently, when the balance of political and economic power shifts decisively, and when, for most people, in most countries, life is never quite the same again?

Put more simply, is this the end of the world as we know it? And, equally, could the crisis mark a new beginning?

Genuinely pivotal global moments, watersheds or turning points (pick your own terminology) are actually quite rare. Yet if the premise is correct – that there can be no return to the pre-Covid-19 era – then it poses many unsettling questions about the nature of the change, and whether it will be for better or worse.’

What I’m not seeing much of in my day-to-day work is organisational leaders consciously and reflectively discussing and debating these larger questions.  What I’m seeing is a bias to action to get things ‘back on track’, in much the same way as they were pre-Covid-19.

The numerous ‘R’ words from management consultants are not helpful in encouraging time for thought.  For the most part, they are based on a ‘normal’ management 3 – 5 step frameworks.  For example, McKinsey’s advice to leaders in early April was to think and act across 5 horizons: resolve, resilience, return reimagination and reform.

Now (May) they propose: recovering revenue, rebuilding operations, rethinking the organization, and accelerating the adoption of digital solutions.  (OK – no final ‘R’ word).

Bain – also in April – has Protect, Recover and Retool.  While Accenture’s advice for the Covid-19 crisis (that could have been given at any point in the last decade) is to ‘establish long-term strategies for greater resilience. Apply lessons learned … to create a systems and talent roadmap that better prepares your company for future disruptions.

  • Define long-term transformation strategies that prioritize and address antiquated applications, architectures and infrastructure, highly manual processes and underfunded cyber resilience.
  • Self-fund your transformation through small incremental programs that drive efficiency and free up capital.
  • Leverage ecosystem partners to shift to an asset-light model and mitigate vulnerable dependencies, choosing partners resilient to global risks.’

If we are reaching a turning point in containing the Covid-19 pandemic then it is time to recognise that this is as Churchill said, ‘perhaps the end of the beginning’ but the beginning of something that doesn’t relate to any prior ‘normal’.

Geoff Mulgan put the opportunity well in his piece How not to waste a crisis. He says:  ‘The next few months will bring intensive learning on how to manage the crisis, as well exit strategies. But we also need to start planning for the peace. What new methods can be adapted from the crisis? … What new ways of thinking has it thrown up?…  we should never waste a crisis. An incredible amount of thought, creativity and commitment is going into the responses around us right now. But how can we harness some of that for longer term [positive] impact?’

Similarly, economist Milton Friedman noted:

“Only a crisis – actual or perceived – produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes the politically inevitable.”

Do you think this is the end of the beginning and should we avoid any thinking about ‘normal’ as we have known it?   What ideas have you got lying around that will produce real change?  Let me know.

Image: Li Zhong: Mercury Company in Full Production, April 2020

 

Cathedral thinking – are we capable and willing?

In March’s Gardener’s World magazine Monty Don tells of the friends who introduced him to the concept of ‘cathedral thinking’.  He says, ‘You may be aware of this, but just in case you haven’t come across it before, the argument for cathedral thinking is that just as medieval cathedrals took hundreds of years to build  – involving generations of craftsmen devoting their entire lives to the task, despite having no chance of seeing the finished work – so we should plan and participate in work that benefits future generations and the world at large, rather than ourselves and our own narrow interests and lifespans.’

Monty Don has just planted a three-acre wood.  He explains, ‘We’ve called it George’s Wood because it is intended for him, my grandson – and his grandchildren – rather than my son and his wife, let alone Sarah or myself.’

Rightly, he asks the question how do you translate this benefit for future generations, if you don’t have 3 acres available to plant but simply a ‘normal (smallish) back garden attached to a normal (smallish) house’?

He proposes that we do this by ‘thinking and acting bigger than our lives, beyond the restrictions and constraints of our garden, our street and the limited world that inevitably we all inhabit.  … An awareness that we’re all connected and part of the bigger world is a huge liberation and means that sometimes we can think big – cathedral big – in our own backyards’.

The coronavirus pandemic offers us a unique opportunity to really think through how we want to approach the future – whether we want to take a short term, quarterly results perspective or the longer, cathedral, view, thinking big – armed with a moral compass pointing at what is good for society and what is the right thing to do.

My hope is that we aim for cathedral thinking,  going for the longer view and bigger thinking and this week I listened to four webinars with speakers expertly putting the case for just that.

The first was The upside of pestilence: how the virus will humanise our organisations, one in the excellent London Business School series ‘Leading through a pandemic’, the speakers were Dominic Houlder and Jules Goddard, co-authors of What Philosophy Can Teach You About Being a Better Leader.

They make the case for teaching leaders philosophy – ably debunking any suggestion that this is a ‘dispensable luxury’.  They remind us that Peter Drucker said, ‘Management is doing things right, leadership is doing the right thing’. In their view deciding what is right is a question of philosophy.

Their hope is that  effective leaders will use this crisis to develop resourceful humans – beyond human resources, building on three sources of capital:  physical capital – the sources of production, social capital – including trust, collective intelligence, reciprocity, genuine dialogue, and moral capital – meaningfulness, the conditions conducive to leading a fulfilled life, a sense of our own agency, a sense of purpose, a sense of identity and belonging.  They ask us to reflect, for our organisations, on the question, ‘how might the moral capital of the enterprise be measured and enhanced?’

The second was Radical Uncertainty: Decision-making for an unknowable future an LSE discussion with Mervyn King and John Kay, authors of a book with the same title.

They argue that contemporary approaches to dealing with uncertainty rely on a false understanding of our power to make predictions, leading to many of the problems we experience today. Nevertheless, we have to make decisions in conditions of radical uncertainty, where we can neither imagine all possible outcomes nor assign probabilities to future events. So, we crave certainties which cannot exist and invent knowledge we cannot have.  (Chapter 1 of their book opens with the Leo Tolstoy quote ‘All we can know is that we know nothing.  And that is the sum total of human wisdom’.)  They distinguish between puzzles (solvable) and mysteries (what we don’t know).  In their view, asking the question ‘what’s going on here?’ is not a simple or banal question but the start of a reflective process, starting from a premise that we don’t know and our models may not work.

The  third webinar, was Margaret Heffernan talking in the Jericho Chambers series ‘Life After the Virus’.  In this one – Uncharted: how to map the future together,  Margaret was talking with others on her message to ‘resist the false promises of technology and efficiency. Instead, mine our own creativity and humanity – give ourselves the capacity to create the futures we want and can believe in.’

In an opinion piece for Jericho Chambers, she talks specifically about cathedral projects, saying they ‘take more than a lifetime to complete … they are conceived in uncertainty’ She gives an example, ‘CERN is a modern cathedral project, even though it was designed to discover things that might not exist, using technology no one knew how to build, on a timescale that was impossible to define at budgets nobody knew how to draft. Mired in uncertainty, it both produced enormous breakthroughs in physics and has thrown off dozens of inherently unpredictable innovations, including the worldwide web. Not planned. Never predicted.’

I also heard Margaret speak with the RSA on ‘How to map the future together in this discussion she said,  ‘I would dearly, dearly love to think that this crisis will provoke, experimentation and openness to new ideas in a way that will enhance our democracy that is the best hope I can think of coming out of this.’ (She is a strong advocate of deliberative democracy).

The fourth was another Jericho Conversation Stakeholder v Shareholder Capitalism.  Panellists debated the question ‘Will a better, more responsible capitalism emerge from the crisis – or will the heat be on to return to “shareholder value” and the maximisation of profit and returns?’

The discussion is a useful mix of optimism and pessimism on what will come out of the crisis.  Panellists hoped that it would bring a better society and offered some thoughts on how this might be fanned into life – as Jane McCormick pointed out ‘none of us has all the answers. New partnerships and fresh thinking will be required – government, business and civil society working together’.

How are you and your organisation approaching the future – is it through ‘cathedral thinking’?  If not should it be and if so, how can we foster it?  Let me know.

Image: Quote from Antoine de Saint-Exupery Wartime Writings 1939-1944

Autonomy, mastery, purpose – a Covid-19 view

You’ve probably heard the phrase ‘Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose’, popularised by Dan Pink in his book Drive:  The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. (See the RSA Animate that summarises it).

He describes motivation as an outcome of three factors, autonomy – our desire to be self-directed/direct our own lives, mastery – our urge to get better at stuff, and purpose – having a clear reason for doing something and being able to make a contribution as you do it.   In the Animate he says ‘I think we are purpose maximisers, not only profit maximisers. I think the science shows that we care about mastery very deeply and that we want to be self-directed.’

The book is largely concerned with motivation at work and the performance cultures of carrot and stick.  In the Animate, Pink suggests that ‘if we get past the ideology of carrot and stick and look at the science, we can build organisations and work lives that make us better off. … It also has the promise of making our world just a little bit better.’   He points out that ‘We have moved on to a new, more creative plane – “heuristic”, rather than “algorithmic”. In other words, we need to be creative. But the trouble is that the old carrot-and-stick model doesn’t work when you want people to be creative.’

However, his thinking applies equally well to our current coronavirus situation.  In one interpretation of it, it has a strong element of carrot and stick.  The daily update I get from my local Council say firmly, each day, ‘Lockdown measures have been extended to keep ourselves, our loved ones and key workers safe. Please continue to stay at home, protect our NHS and save lives.’

The carrot here is staying locked down helps keep us safe (As Armando Iannucci put it in the latest Big Issue ‘we’ve turned our living rooms into an open prison’). The stick is the implication that if you buck the lockdown rules bad things will happen.

What effect does this carrot and stick situation have on our sense of motivation – even at the level of being motivated to get up in the morning?

Pink tells us to look at the science of autonomy, mastery and purpose to enable motivation, creativity and higher performance, it may be equally useful to look at the anecdote and story of it.  There are so many of these coming out now as we grapple, in our different ways with the situation.

Changing the order of Pink’s framework, I’ll begin with ‘purpose’.  Rather than feeling that we are in a ‘carrot and stick’ situation we could say that we had a common purpose aimed at containing the spread of the virus and stopping our health services becoming overwhelmed, and we subscribe to that purpose.  The Civil Society arm of United Nations, for example, believes ‘that our common purpose will lift us during this difficult time, and that we can learn from and build on each other’s efforts.’

Accepting (if we do) that as our common purpose, and that part of it is to also accept the controls that go with it, there are still choices we can make about our level of autonomy. Some of us will feel fearful and powerless, others will see an opportunity for growth and learning. (See graphic above).

We could, perhaps, reframe lockdown for ourselves and say our purpose in it is, for example, to ‘explore the gift of solitude’ which is what one of my friends – in the vulnerable category – described himself doing last week as he started his 12th week of self-isolation.  (There’s a book A History of Solitude, David Vincent coming out this week.)  An alternative purpose is to explore ‘the gift of togetherness’ – another of my friends said ‘I am lucky to have all my family here so we have a ready-made social group.’

Having an ability, circumstance and/or willingness to look for even small things that provide feelings of autonomy/self-direction and intrinsic motivation maybe hard to find in this situation.

We read heartbreaking stories of loss, mental health decline and surges in domestic violence.  Yet, as a counter balance there are abundant stories of people who are looking at areas where they can feel self-directed and it is worth looking to these for examples of learning and growth.

People who have a garden or balcony, are developing their gardening skills – maybe for the first time – and to the extent that seed suppliers are overwhelmed with demand. Others are baking (no flour or yeast in our local supermarket), while others are contributing amazing acts of kindness and compassion: look at the stories on this from the North East of England, for example.

That form of self-direction illustrates intrinsic motivation – pleasure gained from an activity, divorced from any further elements. It means liking the doing. (See an excellent paper Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation: Time for Expansion and Clarification.) It may be that for some people this period actually unlocks a new talent or skill – one that in the pre-covid-19 world remained latent and unexplored.  (In my case, I’m attempting to knit a lace pattern for the first time).

Pink talks about mastery as our urge to get better at stuff.  We’ve all seen masses of imaginative encouragement for that during this time – aimed at people and interests of all ages/types.   My grandsons are developing their footballing skills – they are fortunate to have a small back garden –  and are getting daily new activities from their football club.  Time Out published a list of 80 things to do at home, and there are daily new ideas coming from individuals and organisations of all types as they hone their online participation capability.   Now is the time/opportunity to try something you think you never knew you wanted to learn,  something you thought you might want to get learn or get better at or develop higher level capability.

Those hoping to maintain their high level skills are demonstrating their capacity to work against the odds: for example, Olympic athletes are improvising training at home (and sharing workouts if you want to have a go) and similarly ballet dancers are performing their routines in their homes..

What I’m wondering now, is how we can maintain the social imagination and creativity we are seeing in play.  We would gain from keeping it going as we gradually exit the tight lockdown conditions.  And how will we take forward into coming months and years what we have learned and grown, for our individual and collective betterment.

In Geoff Mulgan’s words.  Let’s ‘map out some of the possibility spaces for the next few decades: possible futures for care and health, democracy and property … describ­ing a future in which we can feel at home, and then using the power of that vision to catalyse action today to help us get there.’

How do you think we can do that?  Let me know.

Image: Thanks @ekaterinawilts  for sending me this image. I can’t track down the originator.

Let’s not future proof, part 2 (Prepare instead)

EODF Benelux, invited me to facilitate a session about one of my blogs as they are running, ‘Quarantine-inspiration-sessionsfor their members, saying In the following weeks we’d like to provide you with some inspiration and continue the conversation around the topic of futureproof organisations.’ They’ve invited me because I wrote a blog in December last year called ‘Let’s not future proof’, which struck a chord.

As a start, I’ve re-read my blog to see what I said.  In it I quoted from my book; ‘one of my five rules of thumb for designing is:

Stay alert to the future. The context is constantly shifting and this requires an alert, continuous and well-executed environmental scanning. Organisations should be aware that they may have to do design work at any point, so they should take steps to build or maintain a culture where change, innovation and forward thinking are welcomed.’

This is not ‘future-proofing’.   I extend the discussion about staying alert to the future, saying: ‘No company can accurately predict what the future will bring, but trend analysis, simulations, rapid prototyping, scenario planning, gaming, environmental scanning and a range of other techniques give clues on the context and the competitive environment. Organisations … that take the future seriously are less likely to be blindsided by events than organisations that are rooted in the present [or planning for a future they think they can predict].’  I’ve added the bit in brackets just now.

As you can see, I am fully in favour of taking the future seriously, but not trying to ‘future proof’.  The idea of ‘future proofing’ implies:

1.  A lack of ability to distinguish between complicated and complex.  David Snowden, Director of the Centre for Applied Complexity at The University of Wales and founder of Cognitive Edge is well known in organisation design and development circles for his work on complexity. Hear his TEDx talk here.   As he and others explain, organisations are not now complicated i.e. predictable,  they are complex i.e. unpredictable and they are functioning in broader complex, unpredictable systems.  (Be careful, because aspects of some organisations are complicated e.g. mass producing a component).

2.  A belief that the future can be predicted.  It can’t because we live in complexity.  (Read my blog on Futures and Horizon Scanning and/or read some of Philip Tetlock’s  work).   This is not to say that everything is unpredictable, it isn’t.  A train timetable is often predictable, but sometimes the train doesn’t turn up.  The immediate future is much more predictable than a more distant one.

Mervyn King and John Kay in their new book Radical Uncertainty: Decision-making for an Unknowable Future, talking about the 2007 – 2008 banking crisis, say ‘Because we live in a world of radical uncertainty, in which it is not possible to assess the probability or nature of any future crisis, the assessment of how robust and resilient the banking system should be is a matter of judgement’.  NOTE: There is some academic discussion on the relationship between complexity and radical uncertainty.  I’ve taken a view that radical uncertainty is a property inherent in complexity.

3.  A predisposition, coupled with inertia, to stick with the way we do things, instead of in Margaret Heffernan’s words ‘to free ourselves to explore the contours and landscapes of possibility.’  In her new book, Uncharted, she says, ‘we need to be bolder in our search, more penetrating in our enquiry, more energetic in our quest for discovery.’  She advocates experiments which are ‘what you do when you don’t know what you can do; they’re ideal for complex environments.’

An activity I often mention is Peter Drucker’s planned abandonment one.  In pre covid-19 times I have very rarely seen organisations do this, and nor have I been able to encourage them to do so.  Now we are in covid-19 times I’m seeing an amazing amount of unplanned abandonment. (I’m hoping that the unplanned abandonment will enable critical and reflective planned abandonment to emerge.)

If we take a view that organisations are inherently complex that is,  as Margaret Heffernan  says ‘they are non-linear and fluid, where small effects may produce disproportionate impacts’ and that decisions and choices are being made in conditions of radical uncertainty, then are there ways to help individuals and organisation develop in Mervyn King’s words ‘resilience and robustness of key systems [which are] an important element in coping with radical uncertainty? (Margaret Heffernan also talks about ‘robust’ organisations).

Well – the current covid-19 pandemic offers an opportunity to consider whether and how we could develop organisational resilience and robustness which will help us meet the emerging future in a state of better preparedness.

In blogs over the last four weeks (first one 16 March) I’ve written on what I am seeing of the impact of the coronavirus.  Each week unfolds new aspects that could feed into methods of developing robustness, resilience and preparedness, rather than attempting to future proof.  This week there are two:

Leadership:  I’ve been in several conversations about leadership in this situation – both national and organisational leadership. London Business School is offering a series of webinars on leading through a pandemic, but the discussions I’ve been in have been less to do with the pandemic and more to do with questions about leadership in complexity and radical uncertainty, recognising that for many organisations their leaders have been selected to handle complicated (more predictable) contexts and are ill equipped to understand, recognise and handle the volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous contexts in ways that help develop robust, resilient and prepared organisations.

The adjacent possible:  A second aspect this week that implies robustness, resilience and preparedness is that of ‘the adjacent possible’ (original theory developed by Stuart Kauffman).  Steven Johnson, in the WSJ,  describes it well: ‘The adjacent possible is a kind of shadow future, hovering on the edges of the present state of things, a map of all the ways in which the present can reinvent itself.’  In my interpretation this considers where an organisation’s next space could be that will keep it adapting.

I’m seeing a lot of examples of this right now. One is Silent Pool Distillers a small gin distilling company who, using similar ingredients to gin, are now producing hand sanitizers.  Head Distiller, Tom Hutchings, said ‘we saw that there was a lack of hand sanitiser, so we decided to put our equipment, alcohol and botanicals to good use by creating a couple of hundred bottles for locals.  But we’ve now got an additional 5,000 bottles in production. ’ The company is hoping to increase production to supply hospitals, care homes and medical centres. Silent Pool is one of many organisations I’ve read are moving into the adjacent possible – but, how many others could have had they been exploring the possibilities and developing skills and capabilities for the unknown?

To recap:  Aiming to future proof is folly.  Developing preparedness for an unknown future is sensible.  You can do this through a variety of means including: developing leaders comfortable with complexity and radical uncertainty, considering the adjacent possible, undertaking planned abandonment activity, participating in critical thinking in various future focused activities (for examples of some of these look at the IRISS Future Risk and Opportunity Toolkit)

What’s your view on the future proofing?  Can we proof ourself against the future? Is building robustness, resilience and preparedness just a different form of future proofing?  Let me know.

Image: The adjacent possible