Thanks to all at last night's Medical Suppliers forum - despite the late hour and the dreary weather, they offered bright and challenging questions and sparkling conversation after I'd presented. I promised the slides:
Thanks to all at last night's Medical Suppliers forum - despite the late hour and the dreary weather, they offered bright and challenging questions and sparkling conversation after I'd presented. I promised the slides:
An interesting looking article in the email from Strategy+Business: A Better Choosing Experience. As I'm still writing my Medinge piece on Branding and Complexity, it resonates strongly - I've been saying something similar for a few years now.
In essence, one way that people talk about a "brand" is as a shortcut to a decision. (Simon Anholt's phrase, if I recall correctly.) From that perspective, however, brand extensions work directly against the premise - if I want a chocolate bar for a snack, I'm often considering a Twix or a KitKat. (Just the right amount of biscuity crunch, as opposed to a Mars Bar or, God forbid, a Milky Way.) Twix or KitKat - a quick and simple decision depending on how I'm feeling in the moment.
But with extensions, I'm in much more confusing territory. I now have to consider KitKat Chunky, KitKat Dark chocolate, Twix Extra big, Twix light... Oh sod it, I'll have a Lion bar.
Extensions make sense if you think it's a way of taking your brand and making it more available to those poor folk who haven't bought from you before because you didn't offer a Chunky/Dark/Light version. Or of creating more opportunities for your loyal customers to give you more revenue by buying more varieties of your product. But that's only from the viewpoint of increasing revenue - and can run the risk of reducing it.
So what product extensions/service products should you not be offering?
I'm currently busy putting together a new talk for tomorrow night's Henley Business School Alumni Medical Suppliers Forum, editing an article and writing two others - one for Melcrum on how negativity and dissent make an organisation more healthy and another for the Medinge Journal on Branding and Complexity.
And I want to put up some reflections from last week's excellent The Big Push Back event at the Institute of Development Studies and the new paper from a group I hadn't come across before - the Institute for Strategic Dialogue.
But none of that is likely to happen today or tomorrow, I'm afraid. I will put up my slides after tomorrow night's presentation, however.
And to give you a head's up on future posts. I am putting together a series of reflections and observations on using Cognitive Edge's SenseMaker software suite - some practical thoughts on process and use, others on potential uses in areas like impact measurement, innovation, employee engagement, knowledge etc. In particular, I'll talk about how I see multiple uses of a single system getting in the way of its deployment - it's not uncommon for everyone to see use in it, but then being unable to decide who "owns" it.
There's also going to be a series of posts interspersed over the next few months, picking up on some of the material I talked about to the LGComms conference earlier. I focussed on one application of narrative, mentioning in passing how important it is in Strategy, Branding, Content, Vision, Knowledge and Leadership. Everyone attending had plenty of experience, but I've had one or two requests for more detail for each one - so that's going to be in the mix too in the coming months.
For now, though, I'm heading back to Keynote...
We've got the next meeting of the Cognitive Edge European network coming up on 15th October in Brussels.
We're looking for a good venue - all the hotels and meeting rooms in Brussels seem to be extortionately expensive. We want somewhere central, that's easy to reach from the train station, can hold between 20-30 people, preferably has wi-fi (free? - there will be plenty of bloggers and twitterers...).
From the ever-reliable xkcd blog. A lovely take on the ability of some people to make any new area of knowledge conform with minimal adjustment on their part to what they're already expert in.
It's why I love presenting the Cynefin framework to people and watching the reaction. Some like to justify why things are still complicated. Far more people have a look of sheer relief and joy - all the management theorists and the accountants have been telling them that their worlds are complicated and they just don't think enough about it. Now they have a model in which they can retort - "you just don't understand complexity..."
Sometimes it feels like an article pursues you around until you pay attention. (The truth, of course, is far more mundane - just that it is a piece that resonates among the various media sources I go to.) The latest examples is an article in The American Scholar, originally from an address at West Point military academy in October 2009.
I'd picked it up from the ether at some point a few months ago, then when I opened my latest copy of Utne Reader* last night.
I think it's highly relevant, although I don't agree with parts of it. I do, however, think that too often we've let ourselves and our organisations off the hook. Going along with getting things done, rather than challenging, answering questions rather than answering them. From the article:
So what I saw around me were great kids who had been trained to be world-class hoop jumpers. Any goal you set them, they could achieve. Any test you gave them, they could pass with flying colors. They were, as one of them put it herself, “excellent sheep.” I had no doubt that they would continue to jump through hoops and ace tests and go on to Harvard Business School, or Michigan Law School, or Johns Hopkins Medical School, or Goldman Sachs, or McKinsey consulting, or whatever. And this approach would indeed take them far in life. They would come back for their 25th reunion as a partner at White & Case, or an attending physician at Mass General, or an assistant secretary in the Department of State.
That is exactly what places like Yale mean when they talk about training leaders. Educating people who make a big name for themselves in the world, people with impressive titles, people the university can brag about. People who make it to the top. People who can climb the greasy pole of whatever hierarchy they decide to attach themselves to.
But I think there’s something desperately wrong, and even dangerous, about that idea.
In terms of things like the Cynefin model, it feels like we've fallen back into complicated. I've done courses in the past - very powerful courses - that encouraged me to "break out of the box" in order to get things done. To go for the big goal. To charge at top speed, to get creative. But rarely have they looked at things like how to decide whether the goal is appropriate, or whether we should be thinking about goals at all. (Great in some areas, not good in others is my view.)
...for too long we have been training leaders who only know how to keep the routine going. Who can answer questions, but don’t know how to ask them. Who can fulfill goals, but don’t know how to set them. Who think about how to get things done, but not whether they’re worth doing in the first place. What we have now are the greatest technocrats the world has ever seen, people who have been trained to be incredibly good at one specific thing, but who have no interest in anything beyond their area of exper tise. What we don’t have are leaders.
What we don’t have, in other words, are thinkers. People who can think for themselves. People who can formulate a new direction: for the country, for a corporation or a college, for the Army—a new way of doing things, a new way of looking at things. People, in other words, with vision.
And there is a great pressure in organisations not to ask difficult questions - not just from those above us, but also from peers, who are scared of what happens if we rock the boat. There is too an assumption that leaders and vision only become relevant at the higher echelons, that until we reach that point we should be focussed first on tasks and efficiency, then on expertise and experience, then on managing people. The problem too often is that, having taken years to go through these areas, we have become completely moulded into habits that do not allow for real leadership.
I do, however, take on the key point that Deresiewicz makes - it echoes a point I heard made at a lecture at Templeton College on Leadership in the public sector:
It was very easy to get taken over by the in-tray - in any worthwhile top job there's enough of it to fill virtually any number of hours - and simply spend oneself entirely in dealing with the urgent, complex, interesting and inportant things of which it is always full. You may then become essentially a problem-solver and a specific decision-taker. Fine, no doubt, but however good you are at it, it doesn't amount to leadership. Leadership is essentially about setting the agenda, not merely responding to it; about setting direction and style [in public service organisations]. And hardly anyone can do that without standing back and thinking. That needs time to spare; and for senior folk that usually doesn't just happen - it has to be planned and fought for.
Read the article - it's worth it. And then find a way to block out the diary properly - not just to leave it blank and find yourself in the office and therefore available and interrupted, but to really be able to step away and think in peace.**
*A great magazine I've been reading on and off for 15 years, since it was recommended in the first MBA text I was given: "The Art of the Long View". Sadly, all the MBA textbooks after that rather paled in comparison. As did the course.
**This exhortation is meant for myself more than anyone else...
One of the main planks to our client approach is that, as part of each project, we work with willing people in the client organisation to give them the skills to continue the work long after we've left. There are two reasons for doing this that matter - an attitude of not creating a dependency on us (or any external consultant) and also forcing Narrate to keep innovating.
It does, however, mean that we don't always know what's happened after we've left - particularly once the original project team have disbanded or moved on to other projects. This year we got a great surprise when we got a call from Informatology, an organisation that shares good practice in training, HR and similar areas. Informatology run a number of events, culminating each year with their conference. On one event - a Company Raid - they had been to see a government department to look at how it was dealing with Leadership.
The department had come to us to talk about leadership a few years ago, looking to "get its story together". It's not an uncommon request, and the first thing we need to do is to dig into that and find out what each client means by that phrase. Leadership had been tagged as an area for improvement and, in response, there had been workshops presenting the Professional Services for Government model of what leadership should be.
And then they'd carried out a survey on leadership to set a baseline, to benchmark and to test where work was needed.
And the message that had come back was that what was needed was increased visibility - not of people, but of decisions, particularly the tough decisions. And that, for all the nicely-balanced model, people still didn't know what they were expected to do.
Much of it was encouraging - particularly the recognition that there should be a diversity of what good leadership practice was.
So working with a multi-department group, we ran some anecdote circles based around the model. And, as part of it, we offered participants the chance to be trained in a lunch hour on how to run the circles themselves. Over two short periods, we ran six workshops and gathered over 300 stories about leadership - good, bad, team-focused, tough decisions, positive moments. All recorded and available for training, intranet, communications and other uses.
And we noticed that the managers we'd trained up were now straining at the leash to use the techniques themselves. To start projects off (gathering people's past experience early and create a shared group understanding. Instead of three months in, someone piping up, "You know, this happened on the last project I worked on..."). To finish projects neatly. And other uses.
Until earlier this year, we had no idea whether they'd gone ahead internally - or how far. Three years on, they're clearly still at it - and still talking about it.
That's a story I like to hear...
One of the areas where narrative research can make a real difference is the development world. Recent conversations with colleagues at the World Health Organisation and UNICEF have revolved around how to address complex environments and issues - and the central role that narrative must play in that, given the need to include context and attitude in evaluation and monitoring programmes.
As we've also seen, however, it can meet resistance from field experts. Results taken from the recipients of aid can show radical differences from the opinions of people who have a strong degree of professional status in their knowledge and analysis. And it takes a strong individual to be willing to take on new information that contradicts a long-held position.
Dennis Whittle of GlobalGiving recently ran a project with some Cognitive Edge network colleagues looking at development issues in Kenya. He sums up some of it in the Huffington Post: Dennis Whittle: If You Can Flip a Coin, Can You Be an Expert?. Having compared experts' predictions with emergent issues from the local recipients, he comments on what may lie in store with approaches like narrative research:
It will create an ongoing, iterative conversation between beneficiaries and experts about what is needed, what works and what doesn't, and what that implies about priorities and initiatives in subsequent rounds.
My instincts, from experiences last year, are that we need to find better ways of bringing the experts with us (while maintaining their independent viewpoints, the value of their expertise and - where appropriate - their challenge to ensure our approaches are rigorous and clean). If we can do that, the result will be better ways of working in developing areas, monitoring impact at the most appropriate level (not just the higher level that's easier to reach) and ways of building greater expertise and better judgment at every level - from the field up.
I've been a fan of Michael Chabon's writing since I read The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay in 2003 on holiday in Sicily. (I'd sneak away from the post-dinner political arguments with the excuse of putting the girls to bed, then sit outside in the evening warmth devouring the pages.) His latest, Manhood for Amateurs, is an entertaining and recognition-prompting series of essays and portraits of different stages of the male life. No, there are no expeditions to forests in hair shirts and poor sanitation in order to unite with the Wild Man, but there are nice observations on the double gender standards of parenting: standing in a supermarket queue when holding a small child prompts the comment, "You are such a good dad." Purely because said child wasn't crying/blue in the face/killing people. Whereas it's hard to imagine what a woman would have to do in a supermarket to prompt a similar comment...
A chapter on Lego, however, made me think of how we often work with new techniques and technologies. I'm not talking here about the vanilla Lego boxes (which seem to have all but disappeared) - the ones with a set ration of 4x2 pieces, 2x2 squares, a single basepiece, some long thin pieces and never enough roof pieces. Nor do I mean the scarily high-priced ones for grown-ups to make and display - a robotic dinosaur, a Ferrari or a Star Wars Cloud City. I'm talking about ones like the Police Truck and the castle Drawbridge.
First, we get the right equipment and the instructions and do it exactly the way some expert designed it. Then we take it apart and put it back in the toolbox. We may go back at some point and try to rebuild it, but when we can't quite find the right parts we substitute with others that come to hand in the box. It can take a bit of experience and trial and error before we can see what works and doesn't, but once we can see that something we originally thought essential isn't, we can start to be creative. At which point, it's like the spell is broken - what had been a right/wrong thing (i.e. there is only one way to build this) shifts to a rough framework around which we can improvise. (Try it with heads instead of battlements or with an unfeasible large chassis built out with standard blocks...) And from there it's a small jump to taking the initial building blocks and creating something new - often starting with a simple structure and adapting/evolving as we go.
And in organisations, our experience can be similar. Some people, of course, stick to what they've been taught in the first place, never deviating. Others can adapt a little, tweaking here and there. And then some of us get creative once we've got some experience under our belt, freely extrapolating and building new tools and processes to meet new needs. And - like any good post-instruction Lego creation - starting from something concrete, but ending up somewhere not exactly unexpected, but getting there in an unpredictable fashion...
After the recent success of the first day organised from within the Cognitive Edge European network, we're planning the next one. It will be in Brussels (venue to be confirmed) on 15th October 2010. All Cognitive Edge network members are welcome - the emphasis is less on theory, but on the practicalities of running projects, using the techniques and the SenseMaker software.
If you want to come along, please contact the Organiser Supreme: Anne Wilson at email@example.com
See you there?
Wednesday's session of The Future, Backwards was great. I played uber-facilitator, racing between the 8 separate groups, while Anne, Dick, Sally and Meg worked with two groups each more closely. That seemed to work pretty well - I walked miles, helped steer and got to see 4 distinctly different styles of facilitation taking place. And, as is always the case, we all sat back afterwards and said "I realise that I should have said X when I said Y..."
But some overall thoughts about the process:
Part of my time this year is being spent as an adviser to two organisations that are merging. I realised that it will make an interesting example to blog about it as I'm going along with the process - and material to reflect on later in the year.
So there's a new category to the blog - Merger process - into which I'll chuck all the relevant posts as I go along. But let's bring you up to speed first.
The story so far
About a year ago, as a result of a pending change in leadership, an organisation that I've been working with for a few years started examining options for the future. I'm on an advisory-style board, so much of the discussion took place at that level (or more accurately within sub-groups of the board) - with little communication to the (small-ish) workforce at that point, beyond that there would be a change in leadership and more news would follow later.
After exploring some options, there was a general consensus to take a fairly innovative new approach - to merge with another similar but larger organisation and share leadership for a trial period to explore a fully-fledged merger later on.
Thus began the start of discussions and negotiations between board, leadership and select local stakeholders. Mostly focussed on terms and conditions, fallback and monitoring plans for the trial period, and high-level organisational structure. I suspect that in this it is much like the high-level negotiations of most mergers.
For the staff, we arranged for them to meet the new leadership and appointed from within to find a deputy leader in the old organisation. But only did those after we concluded most other negotiations - so this was late in the day compared to when we'd started high-level conversations. (Driven in part by everyone's high respect for the old leader and wanting to let them finish without interference by the new team.)
Day One of the new, joint organisation was yesterday, Wednesday 1st September 2010.
We brought together the new joint workforce (who will for the most part continue to operate on separate sites and, as yet, will be largely independent of each other). They'd met briefly earlier in the Summer - an event which had started to create linkages, but had also exacerbated certain concerns.
My organisation, that had instigated the merger, is about a third of the size of the other in almost all measures - staff, budgets, etc. There was, therefore, a sense of "being taken over" - not necessarily the case, but an easy pattern to fall into.
So yesterday, we ran eight simultaneous The Future, Backwards sessions in the new organisation. We kept people in groups with others like them, maximising the difference between the groups, as we wanted to ensure the end results reflected as many different perspectives as possible. So we had groups for the new Leadership team, the advisory boards for each (old) organisation, different staff groups from the old organisation (but never mixing the old organisations).
The end results of that process were much of what I'd hoped for:
What fascinated me were some of the comments I overheard later:
"You can see why they feel more concerned about all of this - we're much bigger. We need to bear that in mind - they'll need more of the leadership time to help them through."
There was no hint of judgment or good/bad opinion in the conversations, just "clean" realisation of another viewpoint and what had driven it to that point.
After we'd viewed all the Future Backwards models, we regrouped everyone around functional roles and departments to start thinking a little about where to go next and what arose from the work thus far. As ever, I reached a little further than was realistic - people were so tired from the earlier work that we called that to a halt early.
But not before one group had started to play to come up with a new (informal) name for the joint organisation and not before every group had started to gel in ways they hadn't managed before.
It's early in the process - and late, in some ways - but it's an encouraging start. I'll blog more as time goes by and we get to the next stages, but it's been a powerful way to start the process of bringing two organisations together without territory fights and power posturing.