What leadership is – and what leaders do!

My website contains further resources that may be of interest …


Is leadership different from management?

There has been a long-running debate about this.

Most experts would say: Yes, but there is considerable overlap between the two, and an organisation needs both. Inspiring leaders must be balanced by someone with management skills who can convert the vision into action; and in today’s environment of constant change, an efficient manager may only mark time without someone who can raise people’s sights.

The features of each can be compared like this:

Management Leadership
Planning Vision
Systems Innovation
Improving today Shaping tomorrow
Organising the present Creating the future
Risk averse Risk taker
Doing Being
Head Heart
Controls Liberates
Efficiency Personal character

So a leader needs to juggle different demands. The most important thing is to make enough space to look to the future and not get bogged down in today’s detail.  Beyond this, there are well-documented actions that effective leaders take.

1) Building trust

Management writer Warren Bennis said: “Trust is the one quality that cannot be acquired, but must be earned…without it the leader can’t function”. If colleagues feel that their leader is not trustworthy, they will produce half-hearted performance, and some of the energy which they should be directing towards service users will instead be devoted to watching their backs.

A role model for values

One of the best ways for a leader – at any level – to build trust is to take the organization’s values seriously and to be a role model for them. Most values are published in the form of abstract nouns such as ‘integrity’; a leader must demonstrate what they mean by that. A litmus test is whether the leader is honest about mistakes. A leader who gets something wrong, acknowledges it openly and apologises will gain respect. But as Sally Dyson points out: “Trust is long in the building but short in the dismantling”.

Trust is two-way

A leader has to show trust in the members of their team – for instance by delegating a little further than they are totally confident about. The team members need to show that they have faith in their leader.

Every member of your team is a unique individual and the great challenge (and privilege) of leadership lies in getting to know each person in the round: not just in their work context but as a whole.

  • “Where there is no trust, sharing knowledge and learning becomes an impossible task. People will naturally continue to do their own thing in a low-trust environment, and maybe pick up the odd tip or idea, but the true potential of knowledge development and learning is only manifest with TEAMWORK, SHARING, and DISCLOSURE.” 
    Alastair Rylatt, “Learning Unlimited”.

Source: Warren Bennis, On Becoming a Leader, Arrow Business Books, Sally Dyson, COVER charity, Cass alumna.

2) Demonstrating courage

Charisma is sometimes regarded as a vital component of leadership. But it is neither realistic nor necessary to expect every leader to have the magnetic personality of Nelson Mandela, Geraldine Peacock or Winston Churchill. What is inescapable, however, is for a leader to be courageous.

Firm action

A clear opportunity for this comes when a leader takes over a team. Often one member of the team will have been ‘getting away with it’ under the previous leader – producing barely adequate performance, or being selfish rather than helping others, or indulging in harmful gossip. The leader must immediately show that they are not going to tolerate this. Firm action to bring the offender into line sends a clear message to the whole team.

You also need to be prepared to stand up and be counted on behalf of your team. If they are being unfairly treated by more senior management, it is up to you to intervene on their behalf.

Taking unpopular decisions

Leadership is not a popularity contest, and there will almost certainly be times when you have to take a decision which is unpopular but is in the best interests of those concerned in the long term.

An example is redundancy: decisions about cutting posts have to be made on objective grounds without sentiment entering in.  Having made the tough choices, you then deal with the casualties in the most compassionate possible way, going well beyond the legal requirements.

3) Challenging

Part of a leader’s job is to create a culture of teamwork but this does not mean a suffocatingly cosy relationship with no signs of dissent. Over time, an effective leader steadily raises the bar. The annual review of performance is a good time to take stock of how far the team members have travelled.

This does not mean endless pressure to perform; rather that the leader encourages individuals: “You can do it, I have confidence in you”.

Team meetings should be characterised by lively debate, with people’s views being challenged. But at the end of the discussion everyone must give firm commitment to the decision – you are not there to run an endless talking shop.

  • “Dissent needs to come out into the open so that trust can be nurtured.  Without proper discussion and debate and encouragement, people have a tendency to avoid such difficult but vital discussions or turn them into underground feuds.”
    a charity manager

Because by definition challenge pushes people beyond their previous boundaries, it needs to be balanced by support. If you get to know each member of your team as an individual, you will sense their boundaries and know how closely to watch how they are responding to the challenges.

4) Providing focus

In today’s seemingly chaotic environment it is only too easy for each person to lose track of priorities; a symptom to watch for is people constantly dealing with the urgent and endlessly postponing the important.


One of the greatest contributions a leader can make is to focus people on a small number of overriding priorities, and to show how one team making headway on these has a beneficial knock-on effect on other teams. The concept of the ‘one-minute manager’, constantly moving round, talking to people, lubricating the flow of information between departments, reflects this.

A manager in a distribution company was so passionate about his own project that he gave the instruction: “this project is so important, we can’t let things that are more important interfere with it!”


And now back to the long view. You need to raise people’s sights beyond today’s actions and provide a compelling vision which is worth striving for, but realistic. If you have consulted your people in the process of shaping the vision, it will be all the stronger: not your personal hobbyhorse but an aim worth pursuing energetically.

The ultimate test of a leader’s ability to provide focus is when a crisis arises – perhaps a crisis of funding, or a very public mistake.

You need to help people see this in perspective and show resilience. When Christine Gilbert was chief executive of Tower Hamlets Council, she called it “demonstrating unswerving commitment and confidence”.

5) Communicating effectively

There are more methods of communicating at work available to us than ever before. A survey showed over 30, in three broad groups: face to face, written, and using technology.

It is particularly tempting to go overboard on the hi-tech methods, but a good leader will strike a balance. It’s worth jotting down the pros and cons of each method: for instance emails are great for short and simple messages, but they can get submerged in the flood and you have to be careful that their tone doesn’t seem abrupt. If you have built trust within your team you will be able to reduce the number of messages which are copied to all and sundry.

Four dimensions to your communication methods

Consider your communication methods in four dimensions: downwards, upwards, across the organisation and externally. It is worth checking with key external stakeholders what are their preferred methods.


Communicating is about listening as well as talking. If you listen hard to what people find frustrating and take action to reduce these frustrations, your team’s morale will be boosted.


Meetings can take up a huge amount of valuable time.

  • Use a checklist for making your meetings short and sharp.
  • Any minutes which have been taken must be issued within 48 hours.
  • It may not be necessary for everyone to attend the whole meeting.
  • Colleagues can represent each other to keep the size of the meeting manageable.

Decisions and change

Consulting people before you take decisions can gain commitment – but make the boundaries of consultation absolutely clear: is your proposal open only to fine-tuning or are you willing to consider other options?

When you are putting across any kind of change, people will understand it better if you use more than one method but containing exactly the same message – and it is the ‘Why’ more than the ‘What’ which will influence people’s reactions.

My website contains further resources that may be of interest …


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Systemic Leadership – Part 3

My website contains further resources that may be of interest …


3.     Integrating the New Paradigms


Systemic leadership actively incorporates, integrates and practices the new ways of working – relating, influencing and leading.  It is a higher order of leadership, one that matches the complex complexity of the 21st Century.  In Part 3 we will explore eleven new competencies that flow from the four new ways of working.  A competency is the ability to learn new knowledge and/or skills and be able to apply them to a wide range of situations.

3.1    Competencies for a Highly-connected World

Each of the competencies we will now explore has a personal and organizational dimension.  This reflects the depth of transformation required for real change to happen.  In the spirit of drawing on analogy from the natural world, the relationship between the personal and organizational dimensions may be represented by the double helix in a DNA strand.  One strand is related to personal competencies, whilst the other strand is related to organizational competencies.  These two strands of competency combine to create a code that determines the nature and behaviour of the organization.

(a)       The ability to actively engage.

People make choices with regard to their engagement with change that include:

  • Withdrawal
  • Cynicism
  • Disenfranchisement
  • Feigned participation
  • Victim
  • Active engagement
  • Committed participation
  • Leader
  • Active change agent

On a personal level we have to develop an action-oriented mindset, i.e. one associated with the latter four engagements given above.  This requires the belief that our actions can make a difference (a key prerequisite of motivation) and therefore we should choose action over passivity.

On an organizational level we must start to learn how the system operates, what our role is within the system, who our allies are with respect to change, and where the leverage points are within the system that allow natural dynamics to bring about transformation.

(b)       The ability to collaborate.

On a personal level, collaboration requires the development of trust and authenticity.  When we trust others we share our thoughts and feelings because we believe they will not be held against us.  When others share their thoughts and feelings with us, they perceive us to be trustworthy and believe we will not hold their thoughts against them.  If we have relationships built on trust we will be more open and able to collaborate with others.

On an organizational level, this competency involves cultivating collaborative relationships and, in order to influence change, developing a network of individuals who will help influence the system in a desired direction.

(c)       The ability to continually learn.

On a personal level, this competency involves becoming an integrated learner, i.e. one who continually creates feedback loops between the domains of new knowledge, skills and daily practices in order to accelerate and inform learning and creativity.

On an organizational level, constant change requires groups to accelerate the sharing of new knowledge, skills and daily working practices in order to adapt to the changing conditions of their environment.  The purpose of continual learning is to survive and thrive within an ever changing environment.

(d)       The ability to hold diverse perspectives.

On a personal level, appreciating different perspectives is an essential prerequisite for a full understanding of highly-connected systems.  This appreciation has its foundation in our individual responses to diversity.  Do we value and respect difference?  Do we believe that diversity enhances and enriches our personal lives?  Individuals who thrive on diversity would seek it out and actively incorporate different perspectives, experiences and individuals into their lives and worldview.

On an organizational level, leveraging multiple perspectives is needed if the system is to benefit from the diversity that is inevitably present, rather than be restricted by the prejudices or fear often associated with diversity.  The ultimate aim of capitalising on diversity is to move from individual intelligence to collective wisdom.

(e)       The ability to express emotional maturity.

On a personal level, emotional maturity is the capacity to be attentive to what is happening around us and empathic with others, enabling us build relationships based on trust and authenticity.

On an organizational level, we must be aware that in a highly-connected world, emotions flow freely through the connections.  During periods of change, an organization can be swamped with emotional overload.  Collective emotional maturity allows organizations to deal productively with the emotions they propagate and, as a result, personal and organizational learning is accelerated.

(f)        The ability to engage with paradox.

On a personal level, seeking out paradoxes and living with them can prepare us for the jumps and leaps that are the natural dynamics of highly-connected systems.  Paradoxes often provide a way of seeing the non-linear nature of networks.

On an organizational level, optimising the relationship between opposites can help systems evolve.  For example, the tension between chaos and control can lead to new forms of innovation in an organization.  Optimising the tension between challenge and support can facilitate growth and development in individuals.  The tension between anxiety and boredom can facilitate learning.

(g)       The ability to make meaning.

On a personal level, what this search is, and how it is conducted, is highly individualistic.  The search for meaning has been a human pastime for at least five millennia.  Some argue that it is the inevitable consequence of a self-conscious brain.

On an organizational level, fostering communities that are organized around a shared sense of vision is critical for the leadership of a highly-connected system.  And communities of meaning in a highly-connected world can be created over great distances, e.g.  the development of ‘virtual universities’ that draw on expertise that would otherwise be impractical to draw together into one physical space.

(h)       The ability to see and understand patterns.

On a personal level, the ability to recognise the paradigm that provides the most powerful explanation of the dynamics of the system we are interested in is a critical competency.  This is about recognising the importance of context and understanding its effect on what we are seeing and on the interventions we may make when trying to influence the system.

On an organizational level, pattern recognition is the key.  In any situation there are multiple assumptions and paradigms that can be chosen to provide explanations as to what is happening and what needs to be done.  In a closed system, tradition ‘blinds’ insight.  Seeking and being open to new patterns is what is needed in a highly-connected world.

(i)         The ability to undergo profound change.

On a personal level, in order to facilitate deep organizational change we need first to develop the capacity for personal transformation.  Most people will not follow a leader who does not lead by example.  And we must overlay this with the recognition that all influencing relationships are two-way.  If we are asking others to be open to our influence, we must be open to being influenced by them.

On an organizational level, the transformation of an organization is the product of the transformations of the individuals within it.  In turn, the transformation of individuals is a product of the transformations of the organization.  An understanding of this feedback loop is essential for guided evolution – and revolution.

(j)         The ability to see and understand connections.

On a personal level, seeing connections within a highly-connected system is a core competency in facilitating effective influence.  People become ‘systems thinkers’ when they see and understand how their part of the organization fits with the whole system, when they see how the past effects the present and how the present effects the future.

On an organizational level, highly connected systems have emergent properties, i.e. are greater than the sum of their parts.  System dynamics looks at how the whole organization behaves, anticipates, understands and then engages with change.  Once individuals can see the connections within systems, they need to apply this knowledge to the organizational level by developing the capacity to leverage the dynamics of the connections to facilitate and influence change.

(k)       The ability to sustain effort.

On a personal level, this is about sustaining your personal balance.  Because highly-connected systems constantly change, and never shut down, we need to develop and conserve our energy and resources over the long term.  In finite games, we can come close to burn-out or injury because we know there will be a rest period between games.  In a highly-connected system there is no rest period – the action is non-stop.  Therefore we need to develop the competency of sustaining our own balance so we can maintain endurance over time.

On an organizational level, we need to develop the capacity to sustain the organization and its resources over time.  Resources include people, material and intellect.

3.2    Enriching the Meaning of Work

The practice of systemic leadership challenges us to formulate new assumptions that explain our world and the organizations we inhabit.  Applying these assumptions to our work leads us to adopt new roles within our organizations.  These new roles can be practiced from anywhere, not just through positions of authority.  The development and refinement of the eleven new competencies are necessary for the practice of systemic leadership, and with these competencies we can help our organizations transform themselves and increase their capacity to thrive within our increasingly connected world.

The ideas that have been introduced and explored in the preceding sections are not complete until each of us further develops them to our own individual and organizational contexts.

If not this, what?  If not now, when?  If not me, who?

Hock, D.W. (1996), System thinking. Keynote address presented at the Systems Thinking Conference, San Francisco.

My website contains further resources that may be of interest …


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An inspired speech from Paul Hawken

Paul Hawken is a renowned entrepreneur, visionary environmental activist, and author of many books.  He was presented with an honorary doctorate in May 2009, when he delivered this superb speech.

When I was invited to give this speech, I was asked if I could give a simple short talk that was “direct, naked, taut, honest, passionate, lean, shivering, startling, and graceful.” No pressure there.

Let’s begin with the startling part. Class of 2009: you are going to have to figure out what it means to be a human being on earth at a time when every living system is declining, and the rate of decline is accelerating. Kind of a mind-boggling situation… but not one peer-reviewed paper published in the last thirty years can refute that statement. Basically, civilization needs a new operating system, you are the programmers, and we need it within a few decades.

“…the earth needs a new operating system, you are the programmers, and we need it within a few decades.”

This planet came with a set of instructions, but we seem to have misplaced them. Important rules like don’t poison the water, soil, or air, don’t let the earth get overcrowded, and don’t touch the thermostat have been broken. Buckminster Fuller said that spaceship earth was so ingeniously designed that no one has a clue that we are on one, flying through the universe at a million miles per hour, with no need for seatbelts, lots of room in coach, and really good food—but all that is changing.

There is invisible writing on the back of the diploma you will receive, and in case you didn’t bring lemon juice to decode it, I can tell you what it says: You are Brilliant, and the Earth is Hiring. The earth couldn’t afford to send recruiters or limos to your school. It sent you rain, sunsets, ripe cherries, night blooming jasmine, and that unbelievably cute person you are dating. Take the hint. And here’s the deal: Forget that this task of planet-saving is not possible in the time required. Don’t be put off by people who know what is not possible. Do what needs to be done, and check to see if it was impossible only after you are done.

When asked if I am pessimistic or optimistic about the future, my answer is always the same: If you look at the science about what is happening on earth and aren’t pessimistic, you don’t understand the data. But if you meet the people who are working to restore this earth and the lives of the poor, and you aren’t optimistic, you haven’t got a pulse. What I see everywhere in the world are ordinary people willing to confront despair, power, and incalculable odds in order to restore some semblance of grace, justice, and beauty to this world. The poet Adrienne Rich wrote, “So much has been destroyed I have cast my lot with those who, age after age, perversely, with no extraordinary power, reconstitute the world.” There could be no better description. Humanity is coalescing. It is reconstituting the world, and the action is taking place in schoolrooms, farms, jungles, villages, campuses, companies, refuge camps, deserts, fisheries, and slums.


You join a multitude of caring people. No one knows how many groups and organizations are working on the most salient issues of our day: climate change, poverty, deforestation, peace, water, hunger, conservation, human rights, and more. This is the largest movement the world has ever seen. Rather than control, it seeks connection. Rather than dominance, it strives to disperse concentrations of power. Like Mercy Corps, it works behind the scenes and gets the job done. Large as it is, no one knows the true size of this movement. It provides hope, support, and meaning to billions of people in the world. Its clout resides in idea, not in force. It is made up of teachers, children, peasants, businesspeople, rappers, organic farmers, nuns, artists, government workers, fisherfolk, engineers, students, incorrigible writers, weeping Muslims, concerned mothers, poets, doctors without borders, grieving Christians, street musicians, the President of the United States of America, and as the writer David James Duncan would say, the Creator, the One who loves us all in such a huge way.

There is a rabbinical teaching that says if the world is ending and the Messiah arrives, first plant a tree, and then see if the story is true. Inspiration is not garnered from the litanies of what may befall us; it resides in humanity’s willingness to restore, redress, reform, rebuild, recover, reimagine, and reconsider. “One day you finally knew what you had to do, and began, though the voices around you kept shouting their bad advice,” is Mary Oliver’s description of moving away from the profane toward a deep sense of connectedness to the living world.

Millions of people are working on behalf of strangers, even if the evening news is usually about the death of strangers. This kindness of strangers has religious, even mythic origins, and very specific eighteenth-century roots. Abolitionists were the first people to create a national and global movement to defend the rights of those they did not know. Until that time, no group had filed a grievance except on behalf of itself. The founders of this movement were largely unknown — Granville Clark, Thomas Clarkson, Josiah Wedgwood — and their goal was ridiculous on the face of it: at that time three out of four people in the world were enslaved. Enslaving each other was what human beings had done for ages. And the abolitionist movement was greeted with incredulity. Conservative spokesmen ridiculed the abolitionists as liberals, progressives, do-gooders, meddlers, and activists. They were told they would ruin the economy and drive England into poverty. But for the first time in history a group of people organized themselves to help people they would never know, from whom they would never receive direct or indirect benefit. And today tens of millions of people do this every day. It is called the world of non-profits, civil society, schools, social entrepreneurship, non-governmental organizations, and companies who place social and environmental justice at the top of their strategic goals. The scope and scale of this effort is unparalleled in history.

“Working for the earth is not a way to get rich, it is a way to be rich.”

The living world is not “out there” somewhere, but in your heart. What do we know about life? In the words of biologist Janine Benyus, life creates the conditions that are conducive to life. I can think of no better motto for a future economy. We have tens of thousands of abandoned homes without people and tens of thousands of abandoned people without homes. We have failed bankers advising failed regulators on how to save failed assets. We are the only species on the planet without full employment. Brilliant. We have an economy that tells us that it is cheaper to destroy earth in real time rather than renew, restore, and sustain it. You can print money to bail out a bank but you can’t print life to bail out a planet. At present we are stealing the future, selling it in the present, and calling it gross domestic product. We can just as easily have an economy that is based on healing the future instead of stealing it. We can either create assets for the future or take the assets of the future. One is called restoration and the other exploitation. And whenever we exploit the earth we exploit people and cause untold suffering. Working for the earth is not a way to get rich, it is a way to be rich.

The first living cell came into being nearly 40 million centuries ago, and its direct descendants are in all of our bloodstreams. Literally you are breathing molecules this very second that were inhaled by Moses, Mother Teresa, and Bono. We are vastly interconnected. Our fates are inseparable. We are here because the dream of every cell is to become two cells. And dreams come true. In each of you are one quadrillion cells, 90 percent of which are not human cells. Your body is a community, and without those other microorganisms you would perish in hours. Each human cell has 400 billion molecules conducting millions of processes between trillions of atoms. The total cellular activity in one human body is staggering: one septillion actions at any one moment, a one with twenty-four zeros after it. In a millisecond, our body has undergone ten times more processes than there are stars in the universe, which is exactly what Charles Darwin foretold when he said science would discover that each living creature was a “little universe, formed of a host of self-propagating organisms, inconceivably minute and as numerous as the stars of heaven.”

“We are here because the dream of every cell is to become two cells.”

So I have two questions for you all: First, can you feel your body? Stop for a moment. Feel your body. One septillion activities going on simultaneously, and your body does this so well you are free to ignore it, and wonder instead when this speech will end. You can feel it. It is called life. This is who you are. Second question: who is in charge of your body? Who is managing those molecules? Hopefully not a political party. Life is creating the conditions that are conducive to life inside you, just as in all of nature. Our innate nature is to create the conditions that are conducive to life. What I want you to imagine is that collectively humanity is evincing a deep innate wisdom in coming together to heal the wounds and insults of the past.

Ralph Waldo Emerson once asked what we would do if the stars only came out once every thousand years. No one would sleep that night, of course. The world would create new religions overnight. We would be ecstatic, delirious, made rapturous by the glory of God. Instead, the stars come out every night and we watch television.

This extraordinary time when we are globally aware of each other and the multiple dangers that threaten civilization has never happened, not in a thousand years, not in ten thousand years. Each of us is as complex and beautiful as all the stars in the universe. We have done great things and we have gone way off course in terms of honoring creation. You are graduating to the most amazing, stupefying challenge ever bequested to any generation. The generations before you failed. They didn’t stay up all night. They got distracted and lost sight of the fact that life is a miracle every moment of your existence. Nature beckons you to be on her side. You couldn’t ask for a better boss. The most unrealistic person in the world is the cynic, not the dreamer. Hope only makes sense when it doesn’t make sense to be hopeful. This is your century. Take it and run as if your life depends on it.

Systemic Leadership – Part 2

My website contains further resources that may be of interest …


2.     Ways of Being in Organizations in the 21st Century


The growing role of technology in our lives, the impact of mass media and the drive towards a global economy, are all fuelling the rapid growth of our connections with the environment.

Part 2 will explore:

  • New ways of relating that are consistent with the increasing connectedness of the modern world;
  • New ways of influencing change that are consistent with the increasing complexity of the modern organization;
  • New ways of leading that are consistent with the increasing independence of the modern workforce;
  • New ways of working that draw on a progressive agenda that recognises the realities of our highly-connected world

2.1    New Ways of Relating

We take for granted the many highly-connected systems in our lives.  For me to visit a friend in Edinburgh with my family for the New Year celebrations last year, some of the systems upon which I depended included the internet over which I booked my flights, computer networks for airline ticketing, weather systems that would determine the speed and comfort of the flight, air traffic control systems that would ensure our safety, spaces available at the airport car parks, my car’s mechanical system, motorway and local traffic systems, my own – and my family’s – biological systems, the technical infrastructure systems such as electricity and water that support these other systems, and … this is to name but a few of the more obvious systems!  This illustrates the interdependences that need to work efficiently for me to ‘take for granted’ that I will be where I want to be (Edinburgh), when I want to be there (New Year’s Eve), with the people I want to be there with (my family).

Relating this to a ‘traditional’ tool of management, open systems theory describes how organizations consist of multiple systems with interdependent networks that cross the boundaries of what, increasingly loosely, defines the boundaries of the organization.  Drawn from the biological sciences, open systems theory emphasises connectivity.

In the connectivist’s world, it is useful to view organizations as webs of relationships and processes in order to understand, shape and effectively work with them.  Furthermore, we need to become skilled at:

(a)       Optimising relationships and connections;

(b)       Relational thinking;

(c)        Understanding emotional dynamics.

And to pull these together, we also need to …

(d)       Practice new ways of relating.

(a)       Optimising relationships and connections.

Virtually all organizations have a clear goal, often supported by an aspirational vision.  But as layers of organizational complexity develop, in the form of distinct work units and functions, the ‘message’ becomes corrupted by alternative views of the world drawn from local concerns.  Disharmony is frequently the result.  As a result, some effective leaders think of themselves as the conductors of an orchestra, with their task being to bring the component instruments of the orchestra back into harmony, and maintain the pace of activity set by the score from which they conduct.  Developing this analogy yet further, the requirement for some of the new organizations of the 21st Century will be to effectively improvise around a theme rather than follow a well-conducted score.  The implications for instrumentalists and conductor alike – regarding communication, empathy and a deeper connectedness – will be clear to any musician!

However, the reality for most people within most organizations is fragmentation, i.e. individuals are unaware of the overall vision, how they fit within it and, indeed, how the overall system functions.  But despite our naivety, what we do in our various positions affects the whole system in ways we little appreciate.  In our capacity to bring about or assist in organizational change, we need to wise-up to our role and influence by nurturing wider perspectives and a broader range of relationships.

Optimising relationships involves seeking and incorporating diverse ideas and perspectives, and formulating relationships based on trust and integrity.  In a connected world, these skills take on great importance.  Our value and effectiveness to an organization is directly proportional to the degree to which we engage with what the organization is trying to achieve as a whole, rather than taking the parochial view of what’s going on in our unit or division.

Becoming a facilitator of connections requires an increasing amount of time to be spent on developing and maintaining relationships with others.  In connected organizations, the relationships we build become the key sources of coordinated effort and, as such, should become a part of everyone’s daily working practice.  There are, of course, some key challenges to be met.  One is of making time available to develop and maintain appropriate relationships.  Added to this is the fact that it is often difficult to start opening channels of communication across organizational boundaries.  But the cost of not building relationships is one of being in a fragmented organization that drives our behaviours down increasingly short-sighted, unproductive, and unsatisfying paths as we become disjointed from the vision and frustrated by poor communications.

Remarkably, most organizations attempt to control, restrict, or manage information and knowledge.  This traditional approach maintains a hierarchy in which ‘management’ is differentiated from ‘workers’ in part by the knowledge and information they hold.  But continued attempts to control information is not only damaging to an organization’s ability to learn, but is also impossible to maintain.  Controlling information flows may appear possible when organization’s are viewed mechanistically, as linear causal chains.  But when viewed as complex networks (like the Internet) the only conclusion to be reached is that information is uncontrollable and necessary for the health of the system.

When an organization shares information and knowledge about the challenges it faces, the people within the organization are able to hold meaningful dialogues about these challenges, increasing their understanding of themselves and their roles.  This understanding can then become the basis of a shared culture that can effectively evolve in response to challenges.

(b)       Relational thinking.

In highly-connected systems, the distinction between independent and dependent variables becomes blurred.  We are used to linear causal chains of logic based on independent variables because these fit nicely into the structured hierarchies of the traditional organization.  But connected systems don’t work in this way.  In networks there are many variables in play at the same time and the impact of these variables cannot always be immediately seen for several reasons.

Firstly, there are too many variables.  The weather is a perfect example of this principle.  Many variables go into constructing a weather forecasting model and predictions are rarely more than a statement of what is likely rather than what will be.  This is not generally a problem for us as we have an appreciation of this complexity.  The same should be true of highly-connected systems.  As connections increase, the numbers of variables in play also increases, so the search for meaning and prediction based on single causality is no longer a relevant pursuit.

Strategic Planners have long come to terms with this fact, following the groundbreaking work of the Royal Dutch/Shell Group of Companies in the nineteen seventies and early eighties.  Their pioneering work with scenarios acknowledged the inadequacies of the traditional ‘two or three independent variables’ approach of those who worked with econometric models.  Shell established an approach that considered the relationships between multiple variables at play in their external business environment.  From this base, a holistic approach to strategy can be established, that seeks to understand the potency of a wide range of options that will contribute to the desired outcomes for the business.  However, this approach does require us to become intellectually and emotionally comfortable with ambiguity and uncertainty!

(c)       Understanding emotional dynamics.

Traditionally, emotions have had no place in organizations.  Work was a place of rationality.  Now words with emotional implications such as ambiguity, uncertainty, commitment, excitement and passion have found their way into organizational language.  We also talk about cynicism, fear and withdrawal as forces to be wiped out in organizations.  The people that demonstrate these behaviours are seen as a liability.

Highly-connected systems facilitate the spread of emotions within an organization because they do not restrict their connections to rational information – they spread everything, including the emotions of the people sharing the information.  And if there is little trust within a department or organization, everything becomes emotional.  This leads to rumour and increased crises.

Having a more emotionally intelligent workplace can dramatically increase our ability to productively collaborate with each other.  When individuals are emotionally intelligent, they have self-knowledge, can manage their own emotions, have empathy and are sensitive to group dynamics.  In highly-connected organizations where emotional content is flowing freely, we need to develop greater degrees of emotional intelligence in all employees.

(d)       Practice new ways of relating.

Based on the above, in order to meet the challenges of working with, and within, highly-connected organizations, the following agenda for action needs to be considered.

  • Promote a trusting environment where people can speak honestly about what they see and experience.
  • Develop your own emotional intelligence and help develop it in others.
  • Share information widely.
  • Engage in boundary-spanning activities.
  • Intentionally create new relationships.
  • Create relational instead of organizational charts.
  • Look for ‘families’ of solutions for interdependent problems (balance creative/divergent and critical/convergent thinking).
  • Learn to accept the complexities of highly-connected systems (and their attendant uncertainties).
2.2    New Ways of Influencing

Change in traditional, hierarchical organizations is seen to be ‘created’ by one or more individuals.  Change in highly-connected organizations is ‘influenced’.  A connected organization undergoes constant shifts as it evolves in response to changing circumstances within and without its blurred boundaries.  This is not to suggest that the occasional ‘revolution’ is out of place.  If evolution has not kept pace with the changing internal or external environment, radical change may be required to place the work unit or organization into its new niche.  But whether its evolution or revolution we are experiencing, the key to an effective response lies in:

(a)       Understanding the shifting dynamics of change

(b)       Adopting different approaches to change

(c)        Optimising our influence in a highly-connected world.

(a)       Understanding the shifting dynamics of change.

As discussed earlier (Section 1.2(d), ‘Organizations are always in dynamic flux’), the interconnected information age has changed our perception of time by increasing our sense of urgency and accelerating the need for an immediate response.  This sense of diminishing time to respond to change can cause stress and frustration.  Much of this frustration is founded in either the organization’s inflexibility, an individual’s inability to be open to change, or both.  Within traditional, hierarchical organizations, change involves top-down initiation, the use of positional power to ensure action and the fostering of dependency relationships.  A hierarchy assumes the source of intelligence is at the top of the organization and the people at the bottom of the organization are the receivers of information.

The dynamics of change in a highly-connected organization involve influencing change from multiple points using gentle nudges with ‘time-outs’ for the system to respond and mutually shape the direction.  Each person decides what information to draw on from a variety of sources available, and intelligence exists everywhere within the system – not just at the top of the organization.  The coordinating forces for such change are around shared values, vision and purpose.  No one wants to be told what to think or do.

Dynamics of change in traditional hierarchical organizations

  • Change is initiated at the top.
  • The source of intelligence comes from the top of the organization.
  • Change occurs through forcefully sustained progress towards a specific goal.

Dynamics of change in modern highly-connected organizations

  • Change is initiated from anywhere.
  • The source of intelligence exists throughout the organization.
  • Change occurs through a coordinated nudging and waiting by many people who share a vision.

Many people today work with the tension that is generated between these two sets of dynamics.  They work in traditional, hierarchical organizations but feel the effects of increasing connectivity as their organizations function increasingly as modern, highly-connected systems.  Our continuing challenge is to live with the tensions these two systems create whilst organizational structures adapt to the evolving realities of the 21st Century.

(b)       Adopting different approaches to change.

As suggested in the final paragraph of Section 1.4 (‘Living in Both Worlds’), one of the core competencies of systemic leadership is ‘paradigm cognition’ – the ability to recognise when different paradigms are most useful and shift thinking (modelling) and behaviour accordingly.  It is becoming increasingly important for us to recognise the underlying belief systems we have about change and intentionally map our change strategies to the context in which we are working.

There are three different ways we can approach and influence change at an organizational and individual level.  These are:

  • Making change – the traditional, hierarchical approach that assumes change can be predicted and controlled;
  • Surviving change – the approach triggered by the increase in interruptions, problems and crises in our day-to-day lives;
  • Organic change – the approach that challenges us to evolve beyond surviving rapid change to learning how to trigger natural change within highly-connected environments.

By way of some background to these approaches, today, work demands different abilities and skills for different contexts.  The organizing principles of ‘making change’ were effective in times of predictability.  Thereafter, as the environment became more turbulent, the organizing principles of ‘surviving change’ allowed us to react to the interruptions and surprises.  But now, as systems become more complex and dynamic, influencing the future through ‘organic change’ becomes critical.  The following table considers these three approaches to change with respect to focus, organizational values and how meaning is gained.

Making Change

Focus of change – Forcing or driving change through the system by positional power. Change comes from the top.

Organizational Values – Predictable and controlled change brought about by individuals who are enthusiastic about the organization’s goals. Develop long range plans and get buy-in.

Meaning-making – Found in predictable patterns and staying on purpose. Holding a clear belief in the ability to succeed. Mission statements.

Surviving Change

Focus of change – Surviving change that is forced upon us from external forces. Environmental scanning is a strategic tool to help protect the organization.

Organizational Values – Increase the organization’s capacity to survive. Constantly adjusting to environmental conditions. Developing individual ways to cope with change. ‘Do more with less’.

Meaning-making – Found in threats and opportunities that emerge as patterns in the largerpicture of the desired result. Strong belief that we can survive this.

Organic Change

Focus of change – Influencing the system through organic strategies. Increase organization’s readiness for change. Become a learning organization.

Organizational Values – New ways of relating, new ways of influencing, new ways leading. Do business differently, develop strategic partnerships.

Meaning-making – Found in relational thinking. Strong belief that collective iicture of the desired result will lead us to new ways of influencing the system. Integrated learning and perpetual innovation.

Given these approaches to change, the principle challenge for all of us is to learn as we go.  Organic change strategies are in their infancy and no one is yet the ‘expert’.  We must each rely on our own insights and inspiration.  Fortunately help is close to hand as, often when breaking new ground in thinking, it is helpful to use analogies.

There are many analogies available to us from the natural world.  One has already been used, that of ‘wet sand’.  Another is ‘birds on a wire’.  These are described below, but are only intended as a starting point for thinking about natural change strategies.  Beyond these, you may wish to look for your own examples in nature.

‘Wet sand’ demonstrates one of the properties of highly-connected systems.  When we stamp our foot down on wet sand it congeals and our foot is met with a hard surface.  However, when we gently place our foot down on wet sand, the sand slowly ‘accepts’ our foot and allows it to sink in.  Human networks have a similar response to force.  Kurt Lewin, in part, recognised this in the 1950’s and developed ‘Force Field Analysis’ to help us manage change.

‘Birds on a wire’ demonstrates another property of highly-connected systems.  Around Autumn, we can often see flocks of birds gathering on a telegraph or electricity wire.  If you pause to watch, you are likely to see an interesting ‘dance’ before they all leave to fly south.  The birds collect on the wire (or in a tree!) and after a while one or two birds take off.  The birds that are left flutter their wings but choose to stay in place.  The birds that took off fly in a wide circle and eventually come back and sit on the wire with the rest of the flock.  Time passes and again some birds take off, usually a few more this time.  The remaining birds ruffle their feathers but stay in place.  The flying birds return.  This process continues with time delays in between action, and each time a few more birds take off and return.  Eventually, when a critical mass of birds take off, the entire flock lifts off with them.  The behaviours that initially looked like failed attempts to get the flock moving were actually precursors of a large-scale change for the whole flock.  This image of movement can also be seen in human organizations.

(c)       Optimising our influence in a highly-connected world

A few guidelines can help each of us along our path of optimising our influence in a highly-connected world.  As with the two analogies given above, these are simply a starting point for each of us to develop further what works for us.

  • Be open to the system – our value within an open system is directly related to our connections.
  • Find diverse perspectives to help interpret what we see when we scan the larger environment – we must learn to see the patterns emerging from apparently random events.  We must ‘hear the message amongst the noise’.
  • Recruit people who have the ability to adapt to changing environments – this means looking for evidence of a track record of adapting to changing environments.
  • Enhance the resilience of staff and their working units – resilience is the ability to recover quickly from change and resume a sense of balance after being bent, stretched or compressed!
  • Learn creative and critical thinking – and know when to apply each.
  • Create a sunset clause for all programmes – define, in advance, the contingencies, life-cycles and defaults.
  • Find stability at the appropriate level – stability should be sought at the level of what we are aiming to achieve, and not at the level of how we do things.
  • Reward experimentation and innovation, not perfection – even if perfection were achieved, its value would soon be outstripped by the pace of change.

2.3    New Ways of Leading

Every week a new book is published that provides a new model of how to lead or structure organizations in order to increase their ability to react more effectively to the rapidly changing times we live in.  Recommendations include:

–           Becoming a learning organization

–           Implementing total quality improvement

–           Developing smart alliances

–           ‘Co-opetition’

–           Re-engineering the business

–           etc.

Synthesizing some of the ideas we have explored so far, leadership in a highly-connected system requires a shift in focus.  New ways of leading centre around:

(a)       Meaning making;

(b)       Facilitating the flow of energy;

(c)        New ways of relating to and influencing change;

(d)       Facilitating organizational learning;

(e)       Developing the capacities of others.

(a)       Meaning making.

Meaning making is the on-going process of helping people see the connection between their day-to-day work and a shared sense of purpose.  Just as a weighted keel provides stability to a yacht, meaning provides stability to an organization.  The creation of meaning is the attempt to provide a keel to a highly-connected organization.

(b)       Facilitating the flow of energy.

Energy should be generated by our activities, not consumed by them.  When we bring people together, we need to be conscious of how the energy flows.  If there is less energy at the end of a meeting than there was at the beginning, something is wrong with the group’s use of energy.  New ways of leading experiment with new organizational structures and processes to diminish the amount of wasted energy, and generate the maximum amount of new energy.

(c)       New ways of relating to and influencing change.

New ways of leading trigger change by using the natural dynamics of the system.  This was, substantially, the subject of Section 2.2, i.e. understanding the shifting dynamics of change, adopting different approaches to change, and optimising our influence in a highly-connected world.

(d)       Facilitating organizational learning.

The most intelligent adaptation of any organism or organization is to accelerate learning.  In order to thrive, an organization’s rate of learning has to be faster than the rate of change of its environment.  By way of an illustration, in addition to adopting its scenario and option planning approach to strategy, the Royal Dutch/Shell Group of Companies put a significant resource into accelerating corporate learning during the mid 1980’s, a time when major discontinuities in its business environment were underlining the need to live and thrive on uncertainty.  Their effort included:

  • Drawing together experts with a wide range of perspectives
  • Experimenting with computer conferencing via the embryonic World Wide Web
  • Widening the use of scenario thinking and option management
  • Learning how to learn

(e)       Developing the capacities of others.

In a highly-connected organization, one person cannot control the system, nor can one person fully understand it.  However, many people working towards a core purpose can influence the system at large in a common direction.  Therefore, models of collaborative, shared, or multilevel leadership become more important.  Developing the capacities of others becomes essential in building a ‘leader-rich’ organization.  Part 6 this Module will be concerned with this.

2.4    New Ways of Working

Drawing the points made in this Section together, we have a set of guidelines for action as follows:

Spend time articulating individual and organizational core values. The core values of an organization have more power to create alignment than any performance appraisal or goal setting process.  By exploring individual core values and seeing how these match up to the vision and mission of the organization, a natural shared meaning evolves.  Once this is in place, staff are equipped to self-organize their behaviour around their own and the organization’s values.

Facilitate learning conversations. A learning conversation is different to a debate or discussion.  It is a shared dialogue where different opinions are seen as an opportunity to gain a greater understanding of what everyone involved is thinking, feeling and perceiving.  This is a key strategy for generating the information and learning needed to guide the development of an organization.  And, furthermore, it increases the number of ways we formally and informally come together, reflect on what we are doing, what we are accomplishing, and what we are learning collectively.

See and influence patterns that emerge within the organization. Taking time to observe patterns that recur on different scales throughout the organization is a way of seeing how the organization is organizing itself.  As patterns are recognised and named, meanings and responses can be generated.  This requires us to get off the playing field and spend some time in the stand to see the emerging patterns that evolve from the dynamics of the system.

Develop and model a systems perspective. Each of us will do this differently.  ‘Activists’ and ‘pragmatists’ may apply systems thinking by practicing and talking with others who also share this perspective.  ‘Theorists’ and ‘reflectors’ may prefer further reading and research as a way of bringing these systems concepts into awareness and practice.  Awareness is the first stage of modelling a systems perspective.  The second stage involves playing with these concepts in our day-to-day work.  The more we understand and practice systems thinking, the more we will personally integrate the concepts.  This personal integration of a systems perspective can then be brought – through unconscious competence – to every meeting, conversation, or problem solving activity in which we are engaged.

Challenge others to see systems. Once we begin to see things in larger patterns and are comfortable with blurring our boundaries, our next role is to challenge others to explore systemic perspectives as a way of viewing organizations.  When colleagues use a ‘parts mentality’ in their work, we can challenge their assumptions.  By comparing the ‘parts mentality’ with an holistic perspective, we can see if the dialogue helps us see the bigger picture.

My website contains further resources that may be of interest …


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Recalibrating for Complexity – A neural perspective

Recalibrating for Complexity

Robert Ziegler, editor of the Oxford Leadership Journal, 2011.

Studies show that, 85 percent of the time, mothers across cultures prefer to hold babies on their left side. The easiest explanation – the predominance of right-handedness – is not borne out by investigation – left-handed mothers also tend to cradle babies on the left side. Instead, it is more a matter of hemispheric specialisation – the right brain in most mothers is specialised for emotional information, like crying and laughter. Because the left side of the body (and the left eye) are connected to the right side of the brain, the theory suggests that the left-to-right pathway is more often the most direct and reliable for sensing the baby’s needs.

Flash back a few thousand years to ancient Egypt. I am told that, in the carvings of the day, mothers are generally depicted cradling babies on the right side. Now there are many possible explanations for this fundamental shift in behaviour over a few thousand years, but here is my favourite, following on the hemispheric-specialisation line of thinking. My suspicion is that the ancient Egyptian women (and men, for that matter) were never taught to read, so the modern-day hemispheric specialisation never happened. Their brains were organised differently than ours.

Flash forward to 2011. Recent research suggests something very surprising – and this is no joke – that there are measurable and statistically significant differences in the brains of self-described conservatives and self-described progressives. Assuming the research survives scrutiny, it still leaves open the question of what causes what – does brain structure influence political choice, or do political choices affect brain structure?

Now, I am a big believer in the latter, broadly described as neural plasticity – the tendency of human brains to adapt to circumstances throughout our lifetimes. Scientific honesty obliges me to admit that neither of the above examples says much that is definitive about neural plasticity, one way or the other. Still, the likelihood that brains adapt their structure and function to conditions and training is very important to consider.

In particular, if literacy would have affected the ancient Egyptian’s hemispheric specialisation, what effect is modern complexity, turbocharged by the digital revolution, having on our brains? The question is both very important and very basic – if the speed and complexity of modern work were causing changes in your brain (and mind), wouldn’t you want to know about them?

No doubt, modern technology would make the ancient Egyptian’s head literally spin. And my guess is that the complexity of modern life is making our heads spin. On a personal level, so much of leading, managing or simply working in today’s society is about managing the complex web of interaction, communication and information flow that surrounds our lives.

So what do we mean by complexity? And is it a good thing or a bad thing? Both questions are critical for any leader or manager to address, but neither question is easy to tackle.

Complex systems do not behave like simple mechanical ones. In a complex system, big changes in conditions can yield negligible effects, and small changes in conditions can have transformative effects. Systems seem to have “a life of their own,” often surprising us. In fact, the world is complex, but not in the way that chess is complex or an automobile is complex. One improves performance in chess or car mechanics through deeper and deeper analysis – understanding the whole through understanding the parts. Complex systems defy such analysis – we can do our best to understand them, but in the end, we have to rely on some mixture of insight, intuition, imagination, rules of thumb and values. It is a different playing field with different rules. We all need to recalibrate our understanding and sensitivities so that we are more aligned with the non-mechanical realities that surround us.

Or perhaps our brains are already recalibrating for that complexity.


Systemic Leadership – Part 1

My website contains further resources that may be of interest …


A quiet revolution is happening in organizations.  As we move ever deeper into a connected world, it is the relationships between people and systems that is becoming the essential focus of our attention rather than the traditional approach of focusing on the people/systems themselves.  Systemic leadership integrates the traditional reductionist paradigm with the emergent connectivist paradigm in order to more effectively approach relationship challenges.  The systemic approach to leadership is essential for those who wish to influence complex organizations in rapidly changing environments.

1.     Understanding Organizations in the 21st Century

Have you noticed …

  • The management of change seems to be more problematic than it used to be?
  • The drivers of change are more complicated than they were in the past?
  • It is becoming increasingly difficult to draw practical advice from the overwhelming amount of information available?

These are all symptoms of living in a world of increasing complexity and of geometrically multiplying data.

During Part 1 we will:

  • Explore the Reductionist’s paradigm;
  • Explore the Connectivist’s paradigm;
  • Examine the new realities of work in contrast to traditional expectations;
  • Conclude that systemic leadership is “both/and”, and not “either/or”.

1.1    The Reductionist’s Paradigm

Our traditional view of the world is based on the reductionist paradigm.  In a reductionist’s world, the whole is the sum of its parts.  Take, as an illustration, the car.  The whole system that is a car is built up of parts in a rational, and highly researched way.  It can be taken apart and put back together again.  Parts can be replaced.  The traditional view of organizations is similar.  Organizations create departments or divisions (independent parts) that have responsibility for specific functions (like the parts of a car).  The Chief Executive, like the driver of a car, is expected to control the speed and direction of the organization.  The organization, like the car, has distinct boundaries that separate it from its outside environment, but is designed to access resources from the environment as well as contribute to it.

The key assumptions associated with a reductionist’s approach to organizations are as follows.

(a)       Organizations can be understood and managed from an ‘independent parts’ perspective.

The assumption here is that if something is not working there is a part of the organization that is defective and needs replacing or, at least, repairing.  Once it is replaced, the organization will, once again, function well.  This focus on an organization’s parts often leads to the false conclusion that the organization is no more than the sum of its parts.  Furthermore, traditional organizations list their physical and financial resources and assets in their annual reports as evidence of their overall strength.  Business convention, and the City, require this.

(b)       An organization’s boundaries with the outside world, and the boundaries within, need to be maintained.

The reductionist’s perspective leads to a maintenance of the boundaries both within the organization and between the organization and its outside world.  The ‘ivory tower’ reputation of some senior management teams is an indication of how some organizations are seen as separate and bounded within their own structure.  And a frequent criticism amongst employees is that ‘the right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing’ … departments don’t communicate with each other.

(c)       Linear chains of causality can be used to understand the dynamics of the organization.

The linear chains of causality that exist in machines and ‘assembly-line thinking’ further reinforce the reductionist’s approach.  It is assumed that A causes B causes C.  Much time is spent in organizations sorting out the reason why something has occurred in order to prevent it from happening again.  The people that are spending this time assume that straightforward causal chains can be identified, isolated and altered.

(d)       Change can be introduced incrementally within organizations.

New car designs usually evolve over time, with each year having some new variation over the previous years.  Only rarely is there a quantum, or revolutionary, shift.  And even then, much of the ‘established’ thinking is carried over into the new.  Traditional organizations also tend to change incrementally, remaining stable and predictable from year to year.  Of course, organizations may have periods of ‘revolution’, as we shall explore at a later stage of this module, but even during these times there is often a persistence and carry-over of some of the more deep-rooted aspects of the organization.

(e)       Organizations have ‘simple complexity’.

While we may acknowledge that many modern organizations are complex, the assumption is held that their dynamics and any associated problems can still be understood if enough time and information is brought to bear on a particular problem or issue.  Usually, effort is put into breaking down the component parts of the organization so they can be understood at their own level before reassembling the information to develop a complex understanding of what’s going on at the organizational level.

(f)        Organizations can be controlled from a key point.

Like the driver in a car, the Chief Executive is seen as an individual who can control the speed and direction of the organization.  The statement ‘change has to start at the top’ is evidence that this assumption is alive and well.

The characteristics of a reductionist’s worldview, as outlined above, drives the behaviour of many people working with or within organizations today.   As such, these people will:

  • Engage in incremental change;
  • Defend boundaries;
  • Participate in assumed linear causality;
  • Attempt to control the behaviour of individuals.

1.2    The Connectivist’s Paradigm

Our traditional view of the world is increasingly being challenged, across a wide front of disciplines, by the connectivist paradigm.  The connectivist’s world operates very differently from the reductionist’s world.  Where the car was used to illustrate reductionism, the Internet will now be used to illustrate connectivism.  The Internet exemplifies some of the paradoxes of complex systems, as well as some of the ways in which such systems maintain order.

The Internet has a basic structure within which individuals and organizations can operate.  This structure consists of:

  • Nodes and links …
  • With each node being the centre for a web of connections …
  • And each node having web-like connections with other nodes.

This structure is simple, and yet it has allowed for phenomenal flexibility and breathtaking evolution in the design and content of the World Wide Web.  Individuals can initiate change from anywhere within the system.  A person can easily set up a new web site to become a part of the Internet or subscribe to a service and have immediate access to, and influence over, topics of their choosing.  New information spreads rapidly, but understanding and consolidating knowledge becomes ever more challenging.  Search engines become another level of organizing as individuals develop their own search and sort criteria for information and, hence, create their own structure and meaning.  And the dynamics of the Internet are highly mobile.  A web site can go from a very few hits to 100,000 hits within a 24-hour period if its content is judged to be attractive and interesting through the informal communication networks of the web.  Within this basic structure there is constant change, creativity and innovation.

The most powerful people in the connectivist world are those that shape the system gradually and persistently, based on their knowledge, interests and personal agendas.  In the connectivist’s world, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts – as the Internet illustrates.

The key assumptions associated with the connectivist’s approach to organizations are as follows.

(a)       Organizations can only be understood from the perspective of the whole system.

Because organizations are complex webs of connections, we have to separate ourselves from them in order to be able to observe and understand them (we have to adopt a ‘meta’ position).  We have to remove ourselves from the playing field and go up into the stand in order to see the dynamics of the game.  And if you take the system apart (think back to our Internet illustration), you will find no meaningful discrete parts.  Indeed, as the deconstruction took place, you would observe a gradual loss of functionality rather than a sudden breakdown.  This is how human groups and organizations operate.

(b)       Organizations have connections that create blurred boundaries.

Links and connections span traditional boundaries and make it impossible to have distinct boundaries the way various machine parts have in, say, a car.  As commerce and industry has evolved, indeed, as nations have evolved, traditional boundaries have eroded.  Co-operative ventures and agreed interdependencies in activity chain developments are an increasing characteristic of our connected world.

(c)       Organizations behave in non-linear ways.

Unlike the linear causality of the reductionist paradigm, the vast number of connections within modern organizations create opportunities for discontinuous (revolutionary) change.  The kind of thinking that is required to understand and influence these systems is that of working back from the outcome to understand the web of connections that create and maintain the system.

(d)       Organizations are always in dynamic flux.

When many highly-connected variables are in play, high degrees of movement become a characteristic of the system(6).  And as the number of variables within the system increases, so we experience an ever-increasing speed of change.  We have all experienced this.  With the onset of networked computer systems (intranets and the Internet), email, voicemail, and cellular phones, we experience an increase in the number of requests for a response that, in turn, causes us to feel we are living in an increasingly ‘urgent’ world.

(e)       Organizations have complex complexity.

In contrast with the simple complexity of the reductionist worldview, the complex complexity of the connectivist’s worldview geometrically compounds the variables and unknowns we need to work with as leaders and decision-makers.  A connected system is never closed from outside influences and is always affected by variables that exist outside of its own departments, functions or social groups.  Our traditional mindset suggests that with persistence and good information we will be able to gather all the knowledge we need to make a good decision or solve problems.  Complex complexity means we need to become comfortable with ambiguity and uncertainty.  There will always be an element of continual learning and missing information in our decision-making and problem solving.

(f)        Organizations can be influenced but they can’t be controlled.

When the Internet pioneer Jon Postel died in 1998, his Financial Times obituary noted that he helped influence the development of the Internet by realising that no single person or entity could ‘control’ it:

“The Internet works because computer scientists all over the world are prepared to reach agreement on the best standards to adopt.  The process of reaching that agreement is managed by a relatively small number of people, of whom Postel was one.  Their power stems not from official status or governmental nomination, but from their ability to create a consensus.”

Consensus, in turn, stems from a shared purpose.  Due to their high degrees of connectivity, networks do not respond to force.  Indeed, they resist it.

By way of an illustration, we can consider the properties of wet sand.  Wet sand is composed of silicon and saline and, maybe surprisingly, it performs in a similar way to a network.  It resists the imprint of our foot when we stamp in the wet sand.  However, when we place our foot down and wait, the wet sand allows our foot to sink into it.  This capacity to ‘make an impression’ is akin to the influencing strategy that best works with individuals and groups, i.e. placing and waiting.

The characteristics of reductionism and connectivism discussed above can be summarised as follows:

The reductionist orientation                               The connectivist orientation

Parts perspective                                                 Whole system perspective

Distinct boundaries                                             Blurred boundaries

Linear causality                                                    Non-linear causality

Change incrementally                                        Dynamic flux

Simple complexity                                              Complex complexity

Can be controlled                                                Can be influenced

1.3    Competing Expectations and Realities

The reductionist-driven legacy of the early scientific and industrial ages, that so profoundly shaped our perspective on organizations, is still with us today.  As we began to develop machines that extended the capabilities of our bodies (the wheel, the steam engine, the internal combustion engine, the car) we also began to think in more machine-like ways and apply these mechanistic principles to our work, our organizations and ourselves.

But more appropriate to the 21st Century is an emerging worldview that moves away from mechanistic images of reductionism and adopts the organic images of connectivism.  The very real tension between these two worldviews becomes apparent when we contrast what is expected by tradition with the realities we experience.  Here are five examples of this tension.

(a)       Perfection is expected first time vs informed experimentation.

We are often expected to be – and are paid to be – ‘right first time’.  Consequently, we think of an idea, we plan it carefully, and we expect it to work out the first time we implement it.  That’s the way things ought to be … isn’t it?  Well, most of our experiences tell us differently!  We think of an idea, then we plan it and implement it the best we can.  On the first pass, it often looks more like informed experimentation.  There are things that we underestimated, factors we didn’t consider and surprises that occur.  Each time we try something new we learn from the experience and use that learning to problem-solve and refine the original idea.  Even though we intellectually understand the difference between perfection first time and the reality of experimentation, we often measure others and ourselves by the standard of perfection.  This is one of the fundamental tensions between expectations and reality.

(b)       Goals are predictable with complete certainty vs additional and new goals will always appear.

Each year, traditional performance management systems drive organizations to develop goals and objectives for the coming year, and then cascade these throughout the system.  Usually, a staff appraisal system is tied into this process.  Sometimes interim reviews take place in the form of supervision or 1-2-1’s.  That’s the way things ought to be … isn’t it?  In reality, surprising challenges present themselves almost continuously.  And responding to these challenges may be more important than achieving some of the goals identified in the formal performance management process.  This is a major dilemma.  Do we shift our attention to the new challenges, or work towards those goals and objectives against which our performance and pay will be measured (not forgetting that ‘what gets measured gets done’)?  The reality in goal setting is that the dynamic flux of a connected world creates situations that are more fluid than our goal setting systems would have us believe.

(c)       Control is expected vs absolute control is rare and cannot be maintained.

Most of management literature implies that managers should be able to control all the employees that report to them.  We talk of a manager’s ‘span of control’.  This form of control is necessary in order for the manager to deliver expected outcomes or products.  Managers are given authority and power over employees in order to ensure the appropriate levels of control are maintained.  That’s the way things ought to be … isn’t it?  In reality, absolute control over people is rare – even impossible.  Think of the numerous ways people can resist control when they put their minds to it.  While the illusion of control might exist for a period of time, it cannot be maintained over the longer term.  What is possible is influence (remember the wet sand!).

(d)       Single mindedness and efficiency are the standards of competence vs detours fuel creativity and innovation.

Single mindedness and efficiency are valued attributes in most staff appraisal systems.  We measure our effectiveness, in part, by how long it takes us to get to somewhere.  We complain about attending meetings, and the processes associated with making decisions because they rarely live up to our standards of single mindedness and efficiency.  That’s the way things ought to be … isn’t it?  The reality of human organizations is, again, very different.  Few people are truly single minded and efficient.  In meetings we watch the same conversation come up again and again.  This is because complex agendas are running.  Likewise, decision-making is fraught with the arguments that emanate from varying viewpoints.  On the other hand, humans are unsurpassed in their ability to be creative and innovate.  But they don’t accomplish this efficiently.

(e)       Predictability is assumed vs probabilities are the norm.

We believe that people’s behaviour in organizations should be predictable and rational.  That’s the way things ought to be … isn’t it?  But rarely do we have this sense of predictability.  We can see patterns that may indicate the probability of a future event, but we cannot predict what is going to happen.  This concept can be illustrated by weather systems.  We can accurately predict the weather for the next four hours, but not for the next four days.  General weather patterns give us some indication of what future weather will be like, but these patterns do not tell us what will happen on a specific day.  So it is with people in organizations – there is very little predictability beyond the immediate time frame.  Yet we still spend many hours trying to predict reactions and events.

These competing expectations and realities can be summarised as follows:

The way things ought to be      The way things actually are

Perfection is expected first time                                     Informed experimentation

Goals are predictable with complete certainty       Additional and new goals will always appear

Control is expected                                                             Absolute control is rare and cannot be maintained

Single mindedness and efficiency are the                  Detours fuel creativity and innovation

standards of competence

Predictability is assumed                                                 Probabilities are the norm

If the organization we are working with is more like ‘The ways things actually are’ instead of ‘The way things ought to be’, we are working with a connected system that will be more organic than mechanistic.

1.4    Living in Both Worlds

The paradigm of the reductionist world is one of truth, one single answer, one best way.  Reductionism proposes that there is always one best strategy, with the roots of this thinking being in:

(a)       Aristotlean logic which argues that a statement is either ‘true’ or ‘false’, and

(b)       Newtonian science which argues that physical systems are linear with simple complexity.

As alluded to earlier, this is the paradigm that, historically, has had the greatest influence on the world in which we grew up.  And, indeed, there are times in our highly-connected world when this paradigm is of great benefit.  The American space programme that placed a man on the moon was founded on Newtonian science.  Consequently, the connectivist paradigm does not supersede the reductionist paradigm, nor make it right or wrong – or less valuable.  It is just that the reductionist paradigm is valid for a narrowing range of 21st Century experiences.

So the reductionist and the connectivist worldviews are not mutually exclusive.  It is not necessary to choose between one and the other.  They both deserve a place in our toolkit.  But given that the connectivist worldview is, for many – the unfamiliar view, the remainder of this module focuses on connectivism.  And I hope it will become clear that practicing systemic leadership is about assessing the worth of operating from a reductionist point of view and a connectivist point of view within any given context, and then choosing accordingly.  Systemic leadership is “both/and” not “either/or”.

My website contains further resources that may be of interest …


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