The Sandwich

I have a pet hate – it is referring to middle managers as the “permafrost”, the communication blockers and other similar terms.  My reaction is that the derogatory language fails to recognize the challenges of being in the middle and that it is a simplistic generalization. 

However, leaders often feel that enthusiasm, innovation and “can do” spirit is too often evident at the top and bottom of their organisations, but not in the middle.  Even worse, that the middle layer seems to squash the best intentions of more junior people.

It is tough being in the middle.  You get the heat from the top in terms of performance expectations and demands, and you get the resistance and pushback from below.  Often, in the middle, you have better visibility of political and strategic issues that may be difficult to share with your teams and may require great diplomacy to navigate through with leadership.  It is a tough job.

It is sometimes easier to close down debate and discussion than it is to expose your teams to the ambiguity that exists in any large organization.  Your people want answers to questions like

  • “What do we want – profitability or growth”
  • “If we really care about customers why are we restricting choice?”
  • “Why are we sacrificing long-term health for short-term gains?”
  • “What is more important – the whole business or just our function/business unit?”

The answers to tensions like this are not straightforward, and middle managers do not have them.  So some might say best to avoid them than to debate them, best to keep your head down, focus on the expectations your manager has of you and deliver on that. 

But I think that is a mistake and it is borne from the assumption that as a manager you have to have all the answers.  You do not.  Closing down conversation is highly demotivating as it implicitly devalues the importance of people’s views, reduces clarity about what the organization is trying to achieve, suggests that teams cannot input to delivery of the company’s goals and makes people assume that the answers are out there but not available to them.

It is far better to encourage the team to talk about some of these types of tensions, to work with them on both sides of the arguments and to engage with them in the tough conversations that all leadership teams need to work through.  If managers adopt these conversation leadership behaviours they win the respect of both the people who work for them, for the honesty and respect they show their teams, and the leadership for demonstrating that they can create engaging cultures within their part of the organization. 

Mike Pounsford

Conversations at the Organisation Development Conference

I have just come back from the inaugural ODN Europe conference at which about 150 Organisation Development professionals from around Europe met at Prospero House in London for two days of learning and networking.  A huge “well done” to Kate Cowie and her colleagues for pulling this off.  It was a great two days.  I learned lots from people like Steve Chapman, Paul Taylor and Sarah Lewis and it was good to catch up with old friends from the NTL Institute.

I wanted to share two particular stand out memories.  One was Mee-Yan Cheung Judges key note presentation on day one.  She asked us to reflect on why we had got to where we have in our careers, what had driven us to this point and the future we wanted to create for ourselves.  As always with Mee-Yan she showed such passion and courage with her stories of taking on the establishment in her responses to those questions that she brought the enquiry to life.  Good questions to reflect on.

The second was Patricia Shaw who talked for an hour about the difference between real organisations and the models we create to try to explain and shape them.  She used the analogy of cut and artificial flowers and how in an instant we can tell the difference between the thing that once had life and that which never did.  Our models are like the artificial flower lacking the spirit or essence that makes real conversation and interaction with each other the special thing it is.  So in trying to stimulate Big Conversations we have to seek the precious dialogue we want to create and avoid manufacturing a spurious and cheap imitation of the magic that real living conversations can bring into people’s lives at work.

Now as I write about this I am struck at how hard it is to capture the magic of the conversations we had at our tables prompted by both these wonderful speakers.

Mike Pounsford

Control vs. leadership

Have you noticed how many people are talking about the importance of conversation in organisations today?

It came up again at a recent IABC event.  Kevin Murray, who wrote ‘The Language of Leaders’, talked about the need for leaders to inspire not through speeches and “podium moments” but through intimate conversations.

I think that given the pace of change, uncertainty, complexity and the transparency that all organisations face today, we have to start using ongoing conversations as ways of engaging people.

We need tools like Big Pictures, strategy maps, learning maps, online discussion forums, facilitated events and conferences.  And we need to develop conversational leadership within organisations.

So what does that look like? I think it means leaders and managers who have clarity around vision and who get up on a regular basis and walk the office or blog (internally) frequently –  making it a point to talk about current events in the context of the broader strategy.

It could be regular team sessions or meetings at which the team leader reminds people of the key strategy drivers and how the team supports them.  It might be ‘Listen In’ sessions where leaders and front-line people are invited and encouraged to talk about the business from their perspectives.  Good conversations need empathy and open minds; it could involve training managers to welcome divergent views and help their teams to come to a convergent perspective.  It also means knowing when to consult (“we have a problem without an obvious solution…”) and when not to (“we have a crisis and you need to act in this way – fast!”).

Conversational leadership means recognizing the value of conversation as an engagement approach, which means that we have to sacrifice some control in order to lead more effectively.

Mike Pounsford

Webs of human conversations

“An organisation’s results are determined through webs of human commitments, born in webs of human conversations.” – Fernando Flores

I love this quote because it says to me that the kinds of organisations we create and the way they perform are based on the conversations we have at work.  During these conversations we debate issues, agree courses of action, make promises, commitments, agree to deadlines and so on.

Leaders can shape the conversations by talking about what’s going on around the business and what’s coming up. To gain commitment they need to lead conversations that share opportunities and issues and invite people to contribute to the responses.

But one leader or one leadership team cannot do this with everyone.  We need to find ways to create these conversations throughout the business.  So every manager is able to converse about opportunities and issues relevant to the team, and link these conversations with company-wide issues and initiatives across department silos.

Organisations that foster a conversation culture can expect a more engaged workforce that has the confidence to highlight concerns and opportunities. People understand and respond to conversation in a way they don’t to balanced scorecards and performance targets.

This is because conversations reflect our reality; real life isn’t about a formal sit-down, PowerPoint presentations and metrics analysis. Real life and real work is about the promises we tacitly make in conversation, and the decisions we explicitly commit to. Promises are made through conversation – it’s as simple, and as powerful, as that.

Forget what you learned at school – try creative conversations

We are taught at school to think logically, in linear steps; if A then B.  We are encouraged to look for problems, to conduct ‘root-cause analysis’ of failings and problems.  To analyse and learn from past patterns and to provide clear explanations of what went wrong, and then to suggest the steps required to fix the problem and mitigate against similar issues in future.

But sometimes this does not work, and it’s boring.

It does not work because today’s problems are becoming increasingly complex, confusing and unexpected. Sometimes we need to create solutions for problems that are ill-defined. Sometimes, if we want to make leaps in our industry, we need to innovate to create progress.

Innovation might start with a problem, but may well start with an insight, the identification of an opportunity.

Open conversations can help develop these opportunities. Good questions, and even ‘stupid’ questions can lead people to a deeper understanding of issues, and better resolutions.

Leaders don’t have to know all the details to ask open questions:

  • “What would happen if we made it to work as badly as it possibly could?”
  • “How would you tackle this if it wasn’t time sensitive?”
  • “If we could start all over again, what would you build instead?”

Leading good conversations means asking more of people by asking the questions that can help create new ways of thinking. To focus on issues, try variants of the following:

  • “What do you imagine our Operating Executive thinks is the most valuable skill you have?”
    • “How would the engineering team approach this?”
    • “Before we faced this challenge, what was different about our company / your team?”
    • “If we were really successful, what would we see going on around here?”

To search for and test solutions:

  • “What do you imagine your colleagues need to hear to believe in this solution?”
  • “If we explained this new way forward to team leaders across the company, what might they latch on to as a concern?”
  • “What one piece of advice would you give to make sure this happens the way we’ve envisaged?”

Mike Pounsford