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A leader at work? I photographed this dung beetle working hard at recycling on an earlier trip to South Africa

A leader at work? I photographed this dung beetle working hard at recycling on an earlier trip to South Africa

Well, I’ve just returned from delivering two, three-day MBA Starter Workshops in Johannesburg, alongside a couple of Henley colleagues. Exhausting, but also what fun! I am – as always – amazed at the diversity of the group, and the range of reasons for being at Henley. Many have stories of adversity early in life, or in recent generations, and this is even more of a tribute to their belief in themselves and their determination to learn and grow. And the spirit to make a better country and continent.

The Starter workshop kind of divides in four areas, or themes. There is the “getting-to-know-you” element, and the faster this is done, the easier it is to get the intake to tune into how that diversity will be the key to the other three. Second comes the topic of Personal Development – discussed in one way or another elsewhere in this blog. There is always too much to say, too little time to say it and too few opportunities to check what impressions are, but we will return to the topic of awareness and reflection in later PD workshops with both the new Intakes, so I hope to follow this thread with them. Third comes the input on study skills and all the know-how needed actually to complete an MBA. The vehicle, or excuse, for talking about those things is (broadly) the topic of Leadership.  It’s not too much of a stretch to see how a discussion of the models, concepts and theories of leadership make for engaging interaction at the start of an MBA, but I’m keenly aware that I shy away from using the L-word in the Personal Development part of the Starter.

So, do I know what leadership is? Not really. I have an opinion, which is summed up most eloquently for me in the words of Lao Tzu in the Tao Te Ching:

“The great Tao flows everywhere, both to the left and to the right. It loves and nourishes all things, but does not lord it over them. And when good things are accomplished, it lays no claim to them.”

Leadership, if it is anything at all, arises from followership (and vice versa), and ought to be a spontaneous act. Hubris is not real leadership, though nearly all those we hold up as examples will find that this is what the stage they are standing on is constructed of.

(By the way, “Anganomkhankanyo” is Zulu for “I have no idea!”)

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For various reasons, one of which is a hole in a PD workshop that I’m currently trying to fill, I’ve been puzzling for a few weeks over the difference between creativity and innovation, and whether in fact there is one, and whether that matters.

I have come to the conclusion that there is and it does, at least as far as management practice is concerned.

Despite our modern management mantra of the only constant being change, what actually happens in most organisations is that despite things changing from time to time, on the whole they rather tend to remain unchanged. Radical change is the exception, not the rule. When there is radical change, in healthy environments its function is help to reach an agreed-upon new period of not-change.  It follows from this that periods of stability are necessary for change to mean anything. And vice versa, of course.

Change created internally just for the sake of stirring things up a bit is never a very satisfying experience and leaders who propose this are never very effective leaders. People, even if they don’t see through the leader-babble, will generally be more content in a status quo than in a time of renewal or upheaval (which is not quite the same as a period of growth). So senior management, leaders, must take responsibility for  the results of proliferating a cult of change and the stress it brings to employees and customers etc.

That said, every organisation does need to respond appropriately to what is happening in its internal and external environment. To do this, it must adapt or at least react to changes in either context. This is a slightly different view of managing change because it suggests that trying to do things differently  (or do new things) is necessary at one level in order to retain equilibrium at another.

Let’s stick with that second, healthy sort of change. Managers sometimes talk about “innovation” and “creativity” in the same breath, as if they were the same thing. At first glance there doesn’t seem to be much difference between them. Both terms refer to something new, some different result, and something other than what exists now. On closer inspection, I’d now like to suggest a few differences, however.

Innovation

Innovation is, by definition, purposive. That is, innovation is judged to be innovation by an observer.  Innovation starts with a reason and proceeds to a plan. What counts as innovation may not be a matter of creativity at all. More like an answer to a question set by and within the boundaries of the organisational system. A fairly well-controlled experiment, in fact.  Innovation is all about the product, and the relationship between the new thing and what exists now.

Innovation is undoubtedly very important, but will ultimately be counter-productive if what it generates is more rigid than what it replaces. And downright dangerous in the hands of someone who innovates for the sake of innovation.

Creativity

Creativity is not really purposive, but you can make the argument that it is purposeful. Purposeful means that it is deliberate but is  concerned (during the process) only with what is happening in the process, not with what it is for (the product). Creativity is chaotic, disruptive and unpredictable. It needs some element of the random invited in, otherwise it is not creative. Creativity doesn’t care too much where it is going while it is going there. It can’t, because caring about the end result would be a kind of mediation that would, by default, negate what was creative about the process in the first place.

Creativity is an attitude. The attitude required is that of complete acceptance of whatever happens, and bringing that into the mix to play with it. Creativity might be fun (but not necessarily so – the creative process is a very painful one for many), but must be playful. Innovation can be fun, but is not playful (too much is at stake to be that carefree).

Above all, creativity requires the accepting thinking of “yes, and…”, and not the diversionary thinking of “yes, but…”.

These are just some initial thoughts. The relevance to the Personal Development agenda is a little clearer, though I still haven’t worked out how to unleash creativity in the classroom on the MBA.

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Model for PD at Henley

Those of you reading this who also maintain a Twitter account probably already know that with a little thought and some clever connecting, you can access a whole range of contacts, ideas, knowledge and links related to your interests or career there. If you have included being active on Twitter in the category of ‘Personal Branding’ and make use of it professionally in conjunction with, for example, LinkedIn, then it probably pays for you to spend some time giving irection to the list of those you are following (whilst keeping track of a whole load of wacky topics, celebs and funny tweeters as well).

Twitter, the micro-blogging website where any post is limited to 140 characters in length (in case you’ve been in the back of beyond for the last 5 years) encourages further exploration in two ways. First by you searching for #hash-tag denoted words, and the second by you searching for and then following “@” named users.

I was thinking about the things that interest me on this blog, and I came up with four categories to make some recommendations to check out and perhaps follow. Any text below that is in quotation marks is just the verbatim description from that Tweeter’s description, other comments are my own.

A. MBA
There are way too many resources on Twitter catering to all aspects of the MBA to cover in four, so this would need further expansion in the future, but here are my ideas:

1. @econwhichMBA
“The official Economist account for news and insights for Which MBA”. The Economist has a sales boost in its MBA ranking system, and business schools do their best to be the best in the list.

2. @TopMBA
A useful source of information from the company that organises many MBA fairs and events around the world. Worth looking at their web site.

3. @businessbecause
A networking account for those at all stages of their MBA. A bit “hit and miss” on the content of its tweets, but often with interesting links to articles etc.

4. @sustainableMBA
Just one example, of many possible choices, of an account run by someone with an MBA. Included here because I think the interest in sustainable businesses is vital for the MBA in the future

B. Personal Development
This is a huge category, and difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff (often bland or folksy quotes or endlessly re-churned lists). Avoiding the mundane PD self-help/self-improvement types, here are four possibilities:

5. @_robin_sharma
Interesting take on PD, Robin is a widely read author (I mean that in both senses)

6. @paulocoelho
Writer. Read on.

7. @alanwattsdaily
Not him, obviously, since sadly Alan died in the 1970s, but a way to see his eloquence, Tweet by Tweet

8. @careerealism
“Because every job is temporary”, Career and Job Search Resource

C. Reflective practice, education and management learning

This is quite wide as well, and actually there aren’t too many people dedicated to reflection in learning on Twitter.

9. @edutopia
“Inspiration and information for what works in education” Covers all types of education, so have to pick and choose from their links

10. @presentationzen
Garr Reynolds, author of a book designed (beautifully) to guide people away from awful powerpoint. Worth combining with Nancy Duarte’s “Resonate” and “Slide:ology” books, which all MBAs should own.

11. @sirkenrobinson
He of the classic TED.com presentations…

12. @hansrosling
He of the legendary TED.com presentations…

D. Systems thinking, Gregory Bateson, constellations and related stuff…

Could go anywhere, and include anything…

13. @whittingtonjohn
John is an amazing constellation therapist and professional developer.

14. @norabateson
Gregory’s youngest daughter, film-maker, thinker… director of the film  www.anecologyofmind.com

15. @eckharttolle

Eckhart is, er, actually, he’s a bit hard to define. Not always my style, but worth looking into, so to speak

16. @carolinelucas

Britain’s first ever Green MP!

Happy hunting. If anyone can recommend any sites in any of the categories above that they think worthy of a mention, then add a comment below.

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The title of this post is explained at the end, so read on to find out – or skip to the bottom.

After a sprint through several Personal Development workshops in January, both at Henley and in several European countries, it’s perhaps time for a breather to see what needs to be noticed. A while ago I might have just said “time to reflect”, as a lot us do, as if the act of reflection was somehow predicated on a deliberate switch from one mode or model of thinking to another. I’m now no longer sure this is a helpful way to look at it. And even less sure that it’s truly accurate. I’m using some of this post as a space for ideas to work themselves around each other, and so want to ask whether there are any things to do with reflection about which one can be sure. The short list below covers some of what has been occurring to me lately:

1. It struck me the other day that the senses are not five in number but actually one, in sum. Our demarcation of one sense from another in perception is artificial. This makes perfect sense to me, though I think the idea would need expansion to convince anyone else. This means that reflection, like all perception, is actually a systemic process, not a systematic one. Unless we understand how systems work, we will never understand the function that reflection has in our learning. I think that the ideas of many of the seminal originators of reflection, in their own ways acknowledge this. But those complex ideas tend to become worn smooth over time by constant reproduction, reinterpretation and simplification by others.

2. What we call reflection is just our punctuation of what is actually a constant flow of experience. We can’t easily prevent ourselves doing this since we hold very dearly to the idea that conscious purpose is, to borrow Sellar and Yeatman’s memorable phrase, “a good thing”. The need to know “to what end?” drives many different varieties of and purposes for reflection, but in every case the process we use is much the same. While helpful in the short-term and therefore essential in formal learning among adults, ultimately our attachment to and affection for conscious purpose in reflection may be counter-productive and in error (right now, this is just a hunch!).

3. Two common denominators seem to anchor everyone’s experience of reflection. The first is that it involves some form of noticing a difference, and the second is that the difference noticed will relate in some way to “unfinished business”. I hope I will be able to expand on this (even explain it…) in future blog postings.

So, that’s my current bedside thinking and my rehearsal of big ideas. The workshops this month have been really fantastic to run. They have, I think, really hit the spot with their place in the curriculum, and are in tune with the collective experience of the intakes at that point. I think this makes all the difference. There are just some things that would be pointless to say at the start (unless one was planning to dump an “I told you so” on people later) but which are liberating to play with later on. For example, I’m glad we don’t start the MBA with lots of goal setting, but with a challenge to how people behave, think and see themselves. If you don’t get that bit right, then the planning would probably resemble the shape of the past, not the future. Also, talking about what “career” means doesn’t make much sense too early in the MBA. Generally, people who are in mid-career don’t need to make any decisions about career steps and goals until they have a certain vocabulary, fluency and confidence which is attained through hard work by about the mid-point. That is actually when career things tend to happen anyway. So I’m glad that the thoughtful approach seems to be paying off. Still, there are always ways in which this could be better, and I’m aware that there is more that is needed in order for the MBA experience to be something remarkable.

This month I was also able to start playing with application of ideas and thinking from the PhD for the first time. This is to a group which was less restricted than in the context of the MBA, and therefore a good challenge because that particular audience was not a captive one (the venue, Gam3 in Copenhagen was unusual too, and it’s worth checking out their web site to see why).

It went pretty much as I had hoped, though I talked more than I let them talk. I was left also wondering whether I could do such a thing without having PowerPoint blazing away in the background. I do try to use it as a graphic guide or creative prompt, and not as just a horribly magnified set of speaker notes, but even so. The best speakers on TED seem to be the ones who just, well, speak, and who hold the audience with the power of imagination and the eloquence of their choice of words. Have I become so entrenched in believing that “it is done this way” (and the PD workshops are no different – the tyranny of the slide pack is also part of the expectation of the group) that I may be missing something here…?

So, the title of this blog is my understanding of the Laws of Jante (10 rules set out originally in the 1930s in a novel by Aksel Sandemose), which amount to a cultural explanation of the collective attitude in Danish society toward the delicate relationship between the individual success and the group identity. “You’re not to think you are anything special” is the first of these, and they are deliberately written in a rather negative overtone. I don’t think this is the same as the English sentiment of not “acting above your station” because that’s an affirmation of a society with rigid class divides and appropriate behaviours at each level. The Danes are very protective, it seems, of everyone’s right to object to the idea of anyone else telling them what to think or behaving as if they were better than anyone else. I’m not sure if this means they like to “cut people down to size” who are “too big for their boots” (see how metaphor gets us from one idea to another without Passing Go…).

Anyway, I quite liked the atmosphere in Copenhagen, so they must be doing something right.

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For three reasons, it feels as though this particular point has a bit of a minefield to cross to reach you.

First, whenever we ask “what is the purpose of business?” (which by the way on most MBA courses is seldom), there is a temptation to throw back an answer that leaves us none the wiser. If the answer is “to make a profit”, or “grow”, or “create shareholder value”‘ then it would surely be a fairly easy task to continue the interrogation beyond this illusory end-game of naming  abstractions by asking “and what is the purpose of… (e.g. profit, etc.)”. If such a ‘thing’ as money were really the purpose of business, it would surely be, ultimately, a hollow one. Of course, a danger here is that the question may be mis-heard as “what’s the purpose of your business?”, thus restricting the response to one element of the system only and isolating the business or organisation from its environment. In ecology, the unit of survival is not the individual (or even the population) it is the organism and its environment. You can’t consider one without the other.

It has to be considered that there’s another possibility; that the purpose of business may be such a given, a taken-for-granted, or so lost in history that we are just unable to see it.

Secondly,  when we come to pose the question “what is Personal purpose?”, we are in danger of straying into areas of philosophy that have remained contentious for as long as this enormous question has been around. If this has eluded great thinkers, academics and learned scholars for millenia,  what chance have we got?

Thirdly, what do we mean when we say that two things should align? The dictionary offers three meanings for this word, “to arrange in a line or to be parallel”, “to move or adjust to be in proper relationship or orientation with”, and “to ally with a cause”. Which one is it?

So one element of the equation appears too concrete, another too abstract, and their constellation ambiguously either one of linear or relational arrangement (systemic or political). Yet if we are to take this whole Personal Development thing seriously in a management context, we have to find a way of making sense of it. Naturally, I think the preceding four principles of PD help frame an answer in the following ways:

1. Business, commerce, trade and the like are ideas that only exist in context of other things. The purpose of business is therefore a social matter, and its purpose cannot be decided at the level of the firm, by management or shareholders alone, nor in splendid isolation at the level of politicians and legislators. I would suggest that the purpose of business is not any end point or a thing at all but rather it is a process. What’s more, given that we’re all in this together (in a finitely-sized and resourced world), a sustainable process that concerns itself with social good. Anything else is just selfish and short-sighted. Of course, at the level of the organisation, the other answers (making money, creating wealth etc.) are important things but they only make sense when placed in service to this greater purpose.

2. Personal purpose is certainly experienced at the psychological level, emergent from (and part of) the social, and which I would suggest is the highest level of knowing available to us. We would need transcend the self in order to do away with the need to ask the question, so in the main we probably need to keep and open mind and keen eye on our beliefs about our purpose and see where we get. If the individual (psychologically, not biologically) is explained by values at the level of the social, then there must be a close relationship between our core values as experienced by us individually and the purpose of business (as outlined above).

3. Alignment is to be understood in terms of constellation, a matter of dynamic, relational positioning and repositioning of elements in a system.

In conclusion, then, this 5th principle, “Align your Personal purpose with the purpose of Business”, is not a call to toe the corporate line or slavishly put aside personal values in the pursuit of the company’s vision. It’s actually a challenge to think at another, higher, level, to begin to see the pattern of relationship that must necessarily be how these things are connected.

        “Warriors are not what you think of as warriors.  The warrior is not someone who fights, for no one has the right to take another life.  The warrior, for us, is the one who sacrifices himself for the good of others.  His task is to take care of the elderly, the defenseless, those who cannot provide for themselves, and above all, the children, the future of humanity.”  ~ attributed to Sitting Bull (with thanks to Finn Jackson for drawing my attention to this quote)

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With so much written about systems thinking in management and leadership over the last twenty years or so, people may feel that this principle is bordering on the cliché. “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts” is now almost a truism, and certainly the language of systemic thinking has been increasingly and uncontroversially used in discussions of Organisational Development, in certain views on Leadership, and in one guise or another in operations and production management for at least two decades, if not more.

I would argue, though, that this apparent application has been more one of vocabulary than of fundamental principles. What’s more, the appetite for the topic of complexity has frequently been faddish, second-hand and poorly thought-through; a handy bandwagon for those with a book to sell, a seminar to fill or a paper to publish. This is not a rant; it has always been so and probably (sadly) always will be. So let me explain how I think that a systemic view is essential to the nature of Reflection, Personal Development and for management practice, and in doing so argue that this is still a fairly radical, exciting idea.  

Thus, the fourth PD principle, and one which (I trust) follows logically from the first three, is “Practice Awareness of the whole, not the parts.”

Since the 1980s, the predominant interpretation of reflective learning in management has been via an analytic approach, of what many would call ‘the scientific method’ of measuring cause and effect, just redressed in the clothes of humanism. This is not new, nor is it always the useless thing to do. It is, in fact, the defining pattern of thought from Renaissance times to the present day, a process characterised by Russell Ackoff as a three step process of analysis;

1) take it apart,

2) try to understand what the parts do, and

3) assemble understanding of the parts into an understanding of the whole.

In modern business education it is the same – management is broken down into its parts because the assumption is that knowledge of the parts taken separately allows integration into an understanding of the whole.  Analysis permeates corporations, which are divided into parts, which are then aggregated into the running of the whole – an analytical process.  Business Schools also have curricula separated into parts, which vie with one another in silos of analysis, which occasionally leads to academics vigorously defending the grounds for their view, their models and their theories entirely in relation to the views, models and theories of other competing domains. People, too, are units for and of analysis. Their personalities, traits and characteristics can be measured, their roles assessed and their actions studied in isolation to see how they work.

By contrast, in systems thinking every system is contained in and defined by its function in a larger system. Explanations always lie outside the system, never inside it.  Where analysis takes you inside the system, synthetic thinking contrasts the three analytical steps by:

1) asking “what is this a part of?”,

2) then explaining  the behaviour of the containing whole, and finally

3) disaggregating understanding of the containing whole by explaining the role or function of what I’m trying to explain.

We tend to think of ourselves as individuals, more or less free agents operating more or less effectively, making conscious choices alongside others who are (more or less) in a similar situation of individual free-will and choice. In Personal Development, a systemic approach means setting aside, at least temporarily, certain parts of our training, thinking, or education. Where problems just seem to be repeating themselves, or a more piecemeal approach to change doesn’t resolve things, or the issue just isn’t clear, seeing PD from a systemic point of view can very liberating, with surprisingly rapid insights and results.

Elsewhere in this blog I have posted about systemic coaching, and I have come to the conclusion the basic principles underlying this approach work equally well when applied to Personal and Professional systems. This is easy to say and difficult to talk about since the dynamics that work within a system are best understood when experienced (phenomenologically) yourself.  The invisible ordering forces of a system or whole which are listed below (and the descriptors) are taken from John Whittington’s excellent new book on Systemic Coaching & Constellations:

Acknowledgement (this is the first principle of PD in my list, and here refers to “standing in the truth of the current situation”)

Time (“what comes first has a natural precedence over what follows”)

Place (“everyone, and everything, has a right to a different but unique ad respected place in the system”)

Exchange (“a dynamic balance of giving and receiving is required in systems”)

Seeing the order from the outside…?

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A couple in dialogue with nature in a rainforest pool in northern Queensland.

I’m fond of telling anyone who’ll listen not only that reflection is at the heart of Personal Development,  but also that “introspection is necessary but not sufficient” for reflection. This second assertion is prompted by observation and supported by deduction.

The observation is of the shyness exhibited by most MBAs when it comes to sharing thoughts and feelings with others in a learning context. Hardened managers who would not hesitate to chip (or butt) in with their views when it comes to business decisions turn deafeningly silent when it comes to surfacing assumptions about themselves in a collective setting. This silent tendency is even more pronounced, if that’s the right word, when the sharing requires those thoughts to be expressed in writing. This is despite an intellectual acceptance of three ideas; that telling others helps reveal our thinking to ourselves, that listening to others somehow provides a boundary and shape for our own thoughts, and that the process of writing (especially for publication to an audience) is a distillation and perhaps a transformation of our thoughts (when we speak we do not use exactly the same language structure as when we write). Anecdotally, when you have a situation where trust has been established between managers who are all committed to learning, the efficacy of dialogue for PD is very often apparent, with rapid results.

Nevertheless, these observations cannot easily explain why dialogue is a principle of PD. That explanation comes from a deduction, itself following on from the second principle (which spoke of the concept of difference), of what must necessarily be going on in dialogue, intrinsic to reflection and therefore part of the Personal Development process.

Whenever a second view or reference point is made available, and difference created, a new level is not just a possiblity but a logical necessity. Gregory Bateson used the example of binocular vision to illustrate this. On its own, each of our eyes is sensitive to information or sense data. But a single eye cannot see distance; this facility is a property of the information processed from both eyes. However, the fact that we can perceive depth in three dimensions is not simply a matter of addition. Binocular vision is at a logical level hierarchically above the levels represented by what each eye “sees” on its own. As Bateson pointed out, this is a sort of multiplication, “[in] principle, extra “depth” in some metaphoric sense is to be expected whenever the information for the two descriptions is differently collected or differently coded.” (Bateson, 1979: 70).

So it may be said that dialogue in reflection results in a depth not present in either person’s thoughts on their own. A ‘conversation’ is an idea one level removed from the individual sets of utterances that make it up. A dialogue is, then, a double description which is the relationship between components (remember that a relationship or difference between things is not a property of those things and has zero dimensions) and when we engage in a dialogue what results is a viewpoint that we could not have seen only from our introspection. At least, deductively, this is what out to be so and what we may then investigate.

The 1st principle

The 2nd principle

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