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The End of Leadership Development: From the Factory to the Greenhouse

22 Jan

I have a radical hypothesis. Is it possible that the real reason why leadership development programs fail is because we don’t actually need them? Is it possible that we’ve inserted ourselves into a process that we have no business in? Traditional experts would like you to believe that there are all sorts of tactical reasons why our efforts to create better leaders fails (see here), but I’m starting to suspect that was once a small problem got a lot worse when the leadership development industry got created. Let me explain.

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Organizational boundaries are like glass. Employees can see right through them. They will stay only if its a good place to grow.

The best metaphor I can come up with for the future workplace is a greenhouse. Our current management model comes from the industrial revolution in which managers focused on improving the factory’s efficiency. Even today, many companies still focus on efficiency and logistics. They measure, measure, measure, and write reports and we analyze and predict. People are getting really excited about Big Data in HR and the truth is….it’s all bullshit (well it may be necessary, but it’s not sufficient). OK, maybe it’s not ALL bullshit, but it’s mostly bullshit. It’s rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. Sure that chair might be out of place and sure we might be about to measure the exact layout of the deck and the size of the chairs and come up with an optimum layout, but we would be missing the big problem…our ship is sinking.

The big problem for us is simply that human beings (and even more so social systems) are inherently chaotic and non-linear. Therefore, we simply cannot accurately predict or control how they will behave. No doubt you’ve heard, “a butterfly flaps its wings in New York and there is a hurricane in Japan,” or some variation. The point is simply that we shouldn’t blame the butterfly for the hurricane. In fact, there would be absolutely no way of ever making that connection empirically (see Nassim Taleb’s The Black Swan, 2006). And yet, people seem to have a real problem with acknowledging this in our work (known in philosophy as the problem of induction). Now, on a psychological level, we are all prone to make these inductive errors in judgment, but for precisely this reason we should be very careful about assuming the precision of our models. What does all of this mean for our work? Well, a few things.

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We can do lots of things, but we can’t make a plant grow. Only the right conditions and time can do that.

We don’t MAKE the plants grow. We simply set the conditions for them to grow and hopefully they grow. As Woody Allen said, “’Only God can make a tree,’ probably because it’s so hard to figure out how to get the bark on.” People are organic. Social systems are chaotic. Why in the world would we perpetuate the myth that we have any control over the learning or leadership process? It happens or it doesn’t happen, but we don’t micromanage it. All we can do is set the conditions for it to happen. We already know that most learning is informal and yet we keep pretending as if it wasn’t. Or if our little bit of formal learning (maybe 10%?) is actually really, really, really important. Managers, HR professionals, and learning “experts,” have been trying to interject themselves into the organic process because they want to get credit. If more people thought about this, then we could tackle the whole notion of corporate training and development in a completely new and more effective (and empowering way).

Think in terms of effectiveness not efficiency. I have come to hate the word “efficiency.” I used to think that effectiveness came first (you got something done) and then you worked on being efficient (you got the same thing done with less resources). It seems that most people still think this way (or at least the good ones, the bad ones don’t even realize the difference or the necessary sequence). The problem is that reality doesn’t work like that. At least not outside of highly structured mechanical systems (efficiency is important when you are talking about engineering problems, but organic systems are so focused on survival that they don’t have much time left over for discussions about efficiency). So, given this, I’d like to ban the word from our vocabulary. Certainly there is a lot of talk from the innovation and start-up community about “lean” approaches. I actually love these approaches, but by how I define the terms, they are actually focused on effectiveness not efficiency. In the real world, if you are playing the game to win, you never actually get a chance to move past effectiveness; the rules and the structures of social systems are never static or consistent.

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Individuals want exactly what they want. Can’t provide that kind of learning customization? We know. Instead focus on what you can provide.

There is a move towards extreme personalization. I’ve been noticing this trend for years, but this really jumped out at me when I was doing my mobile leadership development research. As organizations integrate more and more information and more and more users they risk becoming more and more depersonalized. If the employees are now in the driver seat, then it isn’t enough to say, “Hey 90% of employees liked this,” because the other 10% are going to feel left out. This means that we need to focus more on building conditions that allow a variety of different individuals to flourish. One of the biggest problems with competencies is that they aren’t personalized. We err on the side of the organization rather than the employee. We need to create learning platforms that allow for the greatest personalization not the greatest “efficiency” (which I shall henceforth call, “the E word”). The greenhouse will allow the greatest number of employee to flourish. They will still need pruning and some won’t make it, but that’s the whole point. We’ll have more energy to focus on the gardening and less on trying to make the plants grow (which only the Universe can do). This also has big implications for technology, but I won’t get into that here.

The problem of induction can be moderated by approaching learning and leadership from the greenhouse, not the factory. I’m seeing more and more talk about Big Data in HR and I think this is a good example of where I think we are going wrong. Fundamentally, we can’t predict or control people, but that doesn’t mean that we should double-down on the “mechanical, linear, conventional, positivist, quantification, measurement-obsessed” approach. I think we need to realize that the solution requires a new type of thinking (other than the one that got us into this mess). A type of thinking that not only recognizes that we don’t know, but that we CAN’T know.

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Big data is fascinating, but Moneyball approaches don’t apply to non-game systems. Even if they did, it’s not like baseball got rid of all their scouts.

Our models are always going to be hilariously inaccurate and yet we keep making predictions about hiring and performance (and almost everything in politics, finance, etc.) and we keep being wrong. I don’t think the solution is to keep coming up with new ways of predicting, but to take a sober look at our deep (and faulty) epistemological assumptions and move forward from there. We can make the situation better, but not by furthering the illusion that we have control (we don’t want that kind of responsibility anyway). This belief in turn actually makes us and our clients more vulnerable. In our lust for efficiency we seek out and destroy the types of redundancy and chaos that all organic systems need to survive and grow. The “Moneyball” approach might help with some small issues, but baseball still finds itself in the same situation it did before (Sabermetrics introduced a new tool, but didn’t solve the real problem). So, we can look at Big Data in HR and I’m sure we will learn some things. Awesome. There is no doubt that these analytics will become new standards, but while they may be necessary, they are not sufficient. Like the deckchairs, analytics isn’t going to solve the real problem. When we recognize that we can’t predict, we actually liberate ourselves. We have more energy and focus on the things that we can control.

We don’t make the plants grow and we don’t make someone a better leader. All we can do is set the conditions. Just because something can be learned doesn’t mean that it can be taught. Individuals have to figure things out for themselves. We should focus on providing the requisite structure and tools…and then leave well enough alone. I’m not advocating for nihilism, but a radical shift in how we think about our role in the change process.

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The world’s medical experts used to believe in bloodletting.

Did you know that the third leading cause of death in the United States, behind heart disease and cancer, is iatrogenesis? What is this horrible word? It means the preventable harm caused by medical treatment. Think about that for a second. That means that we are killing roughly 220,000 people a year in our attempts to make them better. In fact, some medical historians have claimed that our medical treatments have only recently starting saving more people than they were killing. And it makes me wonder if this kind of arrogance comes from a discipline whose first principle is “do no harm,” then what kind of harm can we perpetuate in leadership development when we don’t even have that Hippocratic foundation? Is it possible that we are actually making leadership problems worse? Is it possible that the solution to our leadership challenges is actually to get rid of leadership development?

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The Antilibrary – What We Don’t Know is More Valuable Than What We Do

26 Nov

The following selection comes from Nassim Taleb’s book The Black Swan.

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The writer Umberto Eco belongs to that small class of scholars who are encyclopedic, insightful, and non-dull. He is the owner of a large personal library (containing thirty thousand books), and separates visitors into two categories: those who react with “Wow! Signore professore dottore Eco, what a library you have! How many of these books have you read?” and the others – a very small minority – who get the point that a private library is not an ego-boosting appendage but a research tool. Read books are far less valuable than unread ones. The library should contain as much of what you do not know as your financial means, mortgage rates, and the currently right real-estate market allow you to put there. You will accumulate more knowledge and more books as you grow older, and the growing number of unread book on the shelves will look at you menacingly. Let us call this collection of unread books an antilibrary.

We tend to treat our knowledge as personal property to be protected and defended. It is an ornament that allows us to rise in the pecking order. So this tendency to offend Eco’s library sensibility by focusing on the known is a human bias that extends to our mental operations. People don’t walk around with anti-resumes telling you what they have not studied or experienced (it’s the job of their competitors to do that), but it would be nice if they did. Just as we need to stand library logic on its head, we will work on standing knowledge itself on its head.

-Nassim Taleb, The Black Swan, pg. 1.

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To the Heroes that Never Were

22 Nov

For all of our intelligence we human beings are hugely unfair. Worse still, we actually think that we are fair. Which means that we are also hugely ignorant. When combined these two facts set us up for some horrible injustices. One of our most obvious acts of  injustices is how we glorify the firefighters who rush into an apartment building to put out a fire, but we don’t even mention the landlord who replaced the batteries in the smoke detector – a device that prevented a manageable fire from growing so large that it needed the fire department. In short, we glorify the person who intervenes , but not the person who prevents and the obvious reason we do this is because we are never aware of the things that never happen. Our cultural myths around leaders and heroes are oriented around the person who dramatically saves the day, not the person who simply and cleverly manages the antecedents to the problem.

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This has two effects. First, we are encouraged to create problems to solve so that we can be the hero. After all, if there is no way for me to get credit for preventing something that never happened, then the social incentives are for me to let things go. Let things get bad so that I can put on my cape and mask and come to the rescue. It is a tragic self-fulfilling prophecy that the more we see the world according to the drama triangle (i.e. the hero, the villain, and the victim) the more evidence we find to support it. The impact of this simple and fundamental error in judgement on the overall effectiveness of an organization is profound. If your performance management system and your culture is geared only toward problem-solving and not problem-prevention (or polarity management), then you better believe that your people are unconsciously creating a lot of their own problems. After all, every hero needs a villain. This is a problem for all individual people, but when it comes to thinking about people working together in organizations, it suddenly becomes a much more pernicious and profound issue.

The second issue is that we completely miss the qualities in leaders that are ACTUALLY important. We are so distracted by the dramatic story-telling of the latest and greatest feat of Inc. Magazine’s CEO of the Year that we completely ignore the subtlety of true leadership. Given our fundamental human ignorance that orients us to reward intervention more than prevention, true leadership requires a strong internal compass that is not dependent upon the recognition of others. That is the only way to offset this blatantly unjust system. And this is more than just simply calling something “servant leadership” or “humility;” it gets down to how individuals experience the world. I’d like to suggest that, by definition, if you are striving to be recognized for your accomplishments then you are not just “a realist” or “a good salesperson;” you are also likely to be a bad leader. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t consider others or manage your brand or anything like that. What I am saying is that it is a matter of priority. Those things are important, but the MOST important factor is that a leader is driven clearly and consistently by his or her own values.

In the end, everyone knows that “…a pinch of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” so why do we rarely reward acts of prevention? We don’t reward them because our minds are not set up to understand them. We simply cannot see something that did not happen and therefore, all of the subtle acts of preventative heroism go unnoticed. The philosopher+businessman Nassim Taleb describes the problem in his book The Black Swan

Who gets rewarded , the central banker who avoids a recession or the one who comes to “correct” his predecessors’ faults and happens to be there during some economic recovery? Who is more valuable, the politician who avoids a war or the one who starts a new one (and is lucky enough to win)? (Prologue xxviii).

So today I’d like to publicly recognize (in my own small way) all of the heroes that never were. I can’t give you a medal or a bonus. I can’t put your name in the paper or on the cover of Inc. Magazine, but I can acknowledge that the world has been unfair to you. We have been ignorant and unjust. I can’t know exactly what the world would be like without your small acts of everyday leadership, but I can assume that I’d be worse off without them.

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Do Wild New Shit

16 Oct

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“Lewis and Clark were lost most of the time. If your idea of exploration is to always know where you are and to be inside your zone of competence, you don’t do wild new shit. You have to be confused, upset, think you’re stupid. If you’re not willing to do that, you can’t go outside the box.”     -Nathan Myhrvold

We could all use a little encouragement…

14 Oct

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The following letter was written by Albert Einstein’s father.

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13 April 1901

Professor Wilhelm Ostwald
University of Leipzig
Leipzig, Germany

Esteemed Herr Professor!

Please forgive a father who is so bold as to turn to you, esteemed Herr Professor, in the interest of his son.

I shall start by telling you that my son Albert is 22 years old, that … he feels profoundly unhappy with his present lack of position, and his idea that he has gone off the tracks with his career & is now out of touch gets more and more entrenched each day. In addition, he is oppressed by the thought that he is a burden on us, people of modest means….

I have taken the liberty of turning [to you] with the humble request to … write him, if possible, a few words of encouragement, so that he might recover his joy in living and working.

If, in addition, you could secure him an Assistant’s position for now or the next autumn, my gratitude would know no bounds….

I am also taking the liberty of mentioning that my son does not know anything about my unusual step.

I remain, highly esteemed Herr Professor,
your devoted

Hermann Einstein

—–

From The Collected Papers of Albert Einstein, Volume I. No answer from Professor Ostwald was ever received. Who in your life could use “a few words of encouragement?”

Do Things the Long, Hard, Stupid Way

6 Oct

Frank Chimero provides a great reminder that looking for short cuts is a sure sign that you’re doing it wrong.

 

Seven Tools for Personal Transformation

5 Apr

Evolution of a young plant

This is my shortlist of tools for personal transformation.

1.) Seek Truth
If we are interested in personal growth, then we must cultivate a love of truth, which means observing ourselves and learning that there is a difference between what we think and what we are (“the map is not the territory”). When we seek truth we stand outside of ourselves and evaluate our feelings, our relationships, and our assumptions. As we seek truth, we look for that small light peering through a crack in our stories and we scratch at it. As we learn to accept what is real in the present moment, we are more able to accept whatever arises in us, because we know that it is not the whole of us. While our automatic reactions can derail our search for the truth, acknowledging their presence brings us closer to the truth. When we are willing to be with the whole truth—whatever it is—we have more inner resources available to deal with whatever we are facing.

2.) “Not Doing”
The process of spiritual growth sometimes seems paradoxical because we speak of struggle and effort as well as of allowing, accepting, and letting go. The resolution of these apparent opposites lies in the concept of “not doing” or what I’ve previously called “radical acceptance.” Once we understand “not doing,” we see that the real struggle is to relax into greater awareness so that we can see the manifestations of our own shadows. By neither acting on our automatic impulses nor by suppressing them, we begin to understand what is causing them to arise. Not acting on our impulses creates openings through which we can catch glimpses of what we are really up to. Those glimpses often become some of our most important personal transformation lessons. At first, we may need to intentionally set aside time to practice “not doing,” but over time we may find this practice more fully integrating into our day-to-day way of being (as a friend of mine once said, “the point of basketball is not the timeouts”).

3.) Cultivate a Community
The more support we have for our personal development, the easier our process will be. If we are living or working in a dysfunctional environment (family, community, work, etc.), personal growth is not impossible, but it is more difficult. Most of us cannot leave our jobs or our families so easily, even if we are having difficulties with them, although we can seek out others who give us encouragement and act as witnesses to our growth. Beyond this, we can find groups, attend workshops, and put ourselves in situations that foster the other six tools listed here. Getting support also entails structuring our days in ways that leave room for the people that nurture us. It’s likely that you already have some people like this in your life, but if not then you can easily seek them out. Just remember that support comes to those who offer support (universal law of karma), so you’ll have to risk being vulnerable.

4.) Learn from Everything
Once we have involved ourselves in the process of personal growth, we understand that whatever is occurring in the present moment is what we need to deal with right now. And whatever is arising in our hearts or minds is the raw material that we can use for our growth. It’s common to flee from what we are actually facing into our imagination, romanticizing or dramatizing our situation, justifying ourselves, or escaping into distraction. Staying with our real experience of ourselves and our situation will teach us exactly what we need to know for growth. As we seek truth, we must also be willing to learn from it and develop a “learning orientation,” which means that we look for opportunities to  grow rather than opportunities to accomplish. When we learn from everything we’re free to take chances and make mistakes.

5.) Find Self Love
It has been said many times that we cannot love others if we do not love ourselves. But what does this mean? We usually think that it has something to do with having self-esteem. Perhaps, but one central aspect of a mature love of ourselves is caring about our growth sufficiently not to flee from the discomfort or pain of our actual condition. We must love ourselves enough not to abandon ourselves—and we abandon ourselves to the degree that we are not fully present to our own lives. When we are caught up in worry, fantasy, tension and anxiety, we become dissociated from our bodies and our feelings—and ultimately, from our true nature. True self love also entails a profound acceptance of ourselves—returning to being present and settling into ourselves as we actually are without attempting to change our experience. It is also aided by seeking the company of people who possess some degree of this quality themselves.

6.) Use Your Body
When we think about personal transformation is it easy to intellectualize it and get wrapped up in the changes that happen emotionally, but we must not forget that physical changes often accompany any changes that happen inside. Some people may start with physical work (exercise, diet, yoga) and find that other areas of their life get better, while others may find that as they do interior work, they are starting to feel better physically. The point is that our interiors (thoughts, emotions, beliefs, attitudes) and exteriors (neurons, brainwaves, cells, body) are linked to each other, so if we’re going to endeavor towards personal transformation then we must account for and activity engage the physical body.

7.) Have a Practice
Most transformational teachings stress the importance of some kind of intentional practice, be it spiritual (meditation, prayer, relaxation), physical (weight-lifting, running, yoga), or intellectual (reading, writing, Sudoku) or some combination of them. The important thing is to set aside some time each day to reestablish the scaffolding that you need to support your growth. Practice interferes with our deeply ingrained habits and gives us opportunities to wake up from our trance. Eventually, we understand that every time we engage in our practice we learn something new, and every time we neglect our practice we miss an opportunity to allow our lives to be transformed.

One major obstacles to personal transformation is the expectation that we attain results. The ego seizes on breakthroughs and wants to recreate them on demand, which often only furthers the illusion that we can control everything. The reality is that we are always growing and changing whether we want to or not. The key choice we have to make is whether we want to grow elegantly and intentionally or just get dragged along for the ride.