Monday, July 9, 2012

Fukushima: Cultural Explanations Aren't the Whole Story

On July 5th, the Japanese parliament (Diet) released the English version of a report by an independent investigative committee into the Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster.  The setting up of an independent investigative committee by the Diet was itself precedent breaking in Japan.

Surprisingly, the report was highly critical of certain aspects of Japanese culture.  The Commission’s chairman – Kiyoshi Kurokawa – said at a news conference at the Foreign Correspondent’s Club in Tokyo on July 6th that “reflexive obedience, reluctance to question authority, devotion to ‘sticking to the program,’ groupism and insularity” were root causes.  This cultural self-criticism is remarkable for its openness.  As Kurokawa san said at the press conference:

“We owe the world an explanation on how could this happen in Japan . . . The truth is very painful for us to admit, but it is difficult to grasp without intimate understanding of how our society works. That is why I am making an effort to explain this to the global community.”

He went on to explain that the “collective mind-set” that led to the Fukushima disaster wasn’t unique to the Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) or involved government agencies, but is also in workplaces throughout Japan.

One lesson from Fukushima is that we should develop greater awareness of how our own cultural orientations can become dysfunctional.  Every cultural orientation can be a positive force or negative force; they typically become negative when they are pushed to their extremes, are unquestioned, and are applied rigidly regardless of context.

Another lesson we should take from the Fukushima report is that though ‘culture’ is a deep and powerful force, we should not be satisfied with a purely cultural explanation of events.  We have to consider the role of other factors. For example:

Structural/Institutional Issues: The same agency that was tasked with promoting the use of nuclear power was also the agency regulating the safety of nuclear reactors. There were overlapping interests between the regulators and the industry.  The regulators also had no authority to implement any changes. What should have been a productive collaboration between government and industry - in the interests of the public - became a collusive relationship which prevented real oversight.  Regulators did set a deadline of 2009 for a safety evaluation based on new seismic standards, but TEPCO decided made the decision internally and unilaterally to push the deadline to January 2016.

Economic Interests: A number of systems failed because improvements were not made to the plant.  The plant was run for a profit, and retrofitting systems to meet new seismic standards was low on the priority list.

Political Interests: Japan has little in the way of its own energy resources and so after the oil crises in the 1970s, Japan decided to drive for greater energy independence.  Nuclear power was chosen to fulfill that goal. Bureaucrats and politicians had committed themselves to the view that nuclear plants were safe and became resistant to actively creating new regulations.

All I’m trying to say here – in too many words – is that situations tend to be complex, and any analysis should respect that complexity.  There are typically many forces at work, and while culture might influence how these forces manifest themselves, they are forces in their own right. I often hear ‘culture’ used in all-encompassing way - blaming or praising culture for everything under the sun. regardless of what structural, economic, political, and even psychological factors are at work.  I am not accusing Kurokawa san of making such a mistake.  His commission has done an excellent job of teasing out the many variables in the Fukushima disaster and revealing its complexity.  Culture is a tool to aid understanding, but it is only one tool among many.  The bad decisions taken before, during, and after the earthquake and tsunami cannot all be laid at the feet of culture – economic, structural, political, and  psychological factors must be given their due.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Global Leadership: What Is It?

Last week I spoke at a conference in Germany focused on the topic of global leadership.  What surprised me most was that none of the other presenters offered a definition of global leadership.  Is the concept now so commonplace that we all share a common understanding?  I don’t think so. Maybe I’m old fashioned in my view that we should define our terms.

One assumption that did seem to be shared by many was that when we talk about a global leader we refer to someone at a high level in an organization – someone at an executive level who has clear, global responsibilities.  In my view, this conception is too narrow.  The global and the local realms are becoming increasingly blurred.  When it comes to making the best decisions for the organization it is critical that leaders at all levels and locations have both a global and local mindset – that they see the local impact of global decisions and the global impact of local decisions.  The responsibility for anyone influencing and taking decisions should be to optimize results for the whole organization rather than promote global or local at the expense of the other.

The types of decisions made by different leaders will vary by level. Those at the top of the organization will be responsible for more strategic decisions while those in the middle will be focused on more tactical decisions.  Those at lower levels of leadership will be primarily responsible for operational decisions. What are the differences?

·         Strategic Decisions (Long-term): Concerned with deciding on the what?

·         Tactical Decisions (Medium term): Concerned with deciding on the how?

·         Operational Decisions (Short term): Concerned with deciding on how – right now?

Whatever the type of decision, the outcome should be beneficial to global and local interests.  And so, my definition of a global leader:
“Any individual or group taking responsibility for making decisions - strategic, tactical, and/or operational - that aim to optimize global and local results.”
Positional power is not a factor in this definition of global leadership, and neither is location.  Being given responsibility is also not a factor while taking responsibility is. 

From this perspective, most organizations will need a far greater number of global leaders than they currently have.    


Friday, May 25, 2012

Collaborating With ThinkLets

Do you know the term ThinkLets?
If you don’t, read on.

Before I define ThinkLets, let me step back to the field from where the concept emerged - Collaboration Engineering (CE).
In any collaboration there are certain patterns of deliberation/collaboration.  Although the language changes slightly among practitioners, CE identifies these patterns of collaboration as:

Diverge - moving from having fewer to having more concepts with which to work
Converge - moving from having many to a focus on a few concepts deemed worthy of more attention

Clarify - moving from less to more shared understanding of concepts and labels

Organize - deriving understanding of the relationships among concepts
Evaluate - increasing understanding of the instrumentality of concepts

Build Consensus– move from having less agreement among stakeholders to having more agreement among stakeholders
In the words of two of the pioneers of CE, Gert-Jan de Vreede and Robert O. Briggs, ThinkLets are “a means to express elementary processes to create patterns of group interaction in a predictable and repeatable way.” (1)  In other words, ThinkLets are re-usable and transferable collaboration activities for facilitating the creation of the collaboration patterns described above. 

The names of ThinkLets are descriptive of the pattern of collaboration to be generated. For example, ThinkLets for the Diverge pattern include: Leafhopper, Branchbuilder, and OneMinuteMadness. Each ThinkLet is documented in a format that includes: when to use and not to use the ThinkLet, an overview, inputs and outputs, setup, steps, insights, and success stories.
If you want to learn more about ThinkLets, I recommend ThinkLets: Building Blocks for Concerted Collaboration by Robert Briggs and Gert-jan de Vreede published by Colophon in 2009. It’s not available on Amazon but you can order it from Lulu

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Creativity, Control & Benign Structures

Creativity and control are often thought to be incompatible. But are they?  It depends on how these two terms are framed.  Look at the following:
Creativity: chaotic, wild woolly, haphazard, anarchic, incoherent

Control: power, domination, regimentation, subjection, repression

Framed in those extreme terms, they have nothing to offer one another.  Anyone who has been involved in creative activities, however, knows that some form of controlling limitation can be a great aid to the creative process.  The controlling limitation can be a strong vision, a required format, a theme, a problem, a limited amount of time, a framework or process, scarce resources, a set of ingredients, a script, and so on.  Unconstrained open-endedness can paralyze creativity. 

Film making is a highly creative and controlled process with the director working the tension.  Read what people say about Martin Scorcese’s style:
“. . . if Scorcese is one of film’s grand conductors . . . then there’s one important twist to the kind of orchestra he leads. It’s sometimes playing jazz. His leadership style is equal parts structure and improvisation, reverence, and irreverence.”

“Marty’s very, very prepared,” says Irwin Winkler a producer of several Scorcese films including Raging Bull. “He knows what he wants so he has the freedom of improvising . . . like a jazz musician.”
Many actors . . . credit this mix of structure and creative flexibility with his success as a leader on set.  “It was loose and methodical at the same time,” Ellen Burstyn says of the process. Of all the directors I’ve worked with, Marty is the best at providing an atmosphere where actors can do their best work.  He trusts actors, and involves them.”

Robert de Niro remembers a similar technique of finding ‘a structure for improvisation’, in Mean Streets as well as Raging Bull.”
“The freedom of expression Scorcese provides each member of his team acts in concert with, and toward the greater goal of, his vision.”

All quotes are from Martin Scorcese: Il maestro by Mary Pat Kelly, The Washington Post. February 24, 2011.
Francis Ford Coppola relies on theme as a controlling limitation.  He says, “When you make a movie, always try to discover what the theme of the movie is in one or two words.  Every time I made a film, I always knew what I thought the theme was, the core, in one word. In ‘The Godfather’ it was succession. In ‘The Conversation’ it was privacy. In ‘Apocalypse’ it was morality . . . Knowing the theme helps you make a decision when you’re not sure which way to go.”

Quote from Francis Ford Coppola: On Risk, Money, Craft & Collaboration by Ariston Anderson in The Washington Post, February 24, 2011.
Structure is a word often associated with forms of control. Organizational structure, for example, refers to how roles, governance, procedures, authority, decision-making, and other control mechanisms are configured – factors that limit or influence individual behaviors.  When looked at this way, structure and creativity would seem to be antithetical to one another.  Does this always need to be the case?

I recently came across some work –developed a couple of decades ago - by two academics at the University of Manchester – Susan Moger and  Tudor Rickards. Their work focuses on creative leadership in teams. In their model, the creative leader introduces structures (protocols) that facilitate the creativity of the team. They call these structures ‘benign structures’ – benign in the sense that they don’t impose structural impediments to creative development and systems change. They are not structures aimed at maintaining the status quo.  A benign structure can be a creativity technique. The technique will have codified and explicit protocols (rules), but they operate “to establish habits against habits” (a quote from S J. Parnes, co-founder of the International Center for Studies in Creativity).  Think of what Robert de Niro said about Scorcese’s technique of finding ‘a structure for improvisation’.
With collaborative creativity and innovation being very high on corporate agendas, I think the idea of ‘benign structures’ needs to be looked at anew.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Riding the Virtual Wave

 I am always sceptical of company sponsored research, especially when the results are extremely supportive of the company's line of business. That having been said, however, sometimes we just need to suspend our scepticism for a while and just look at the results.

Wrike is a social project management platform company that in December of 2011gathered input from 1,074 respondents. They represented organizations of all sizes, and they were asked about their current and expected work practices, particularly around virtual collaboration among remote teams.

Here are some of the main findings:
  • 83 percent said they are already spending at least a few hours a week working outside their office
  • Two thirds said they expect their offices to go fully virtual withi the next few years
  • 43 percent said they now work more virtually than they did just 2 or 3 years ago
  • The higher the position in the company, the more time the person spends working outside the office (Business owners - 30 percent, Executives - 20 hours, Managers - 10 hours)
  • 89 percent rated the opportunity to work remotely as an important fringe benefit. To work remotely respondents would be willing to:
          - forgo free meals offered by employees (78 percent)
          - forgo employer-paid cellphone plans (54 percent)
          - accept a reduction in paid vacation (31 percent)
          - accept a reduction in salary (25 percent)
  • Time savings, increased productivity, and the opportunity to focus on work rather than be distracted by office politics surfaced as the top three benefits of remote collaboration
  • 37 percent said a lack of direct communication is the biggest obstacle to efficient remote collaboration
  • 21 percent said hindered data accessibility was the biggest barrier
  • 19 percent identified poor visibility into colleagues activities as the main barrier
I don't know if all the respondents were US-based. It would be interesting to compare these results with workers in Europe, Asia, and South America.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Death to PowerPoint. Long Live PowerPoint

While reading Frank Frommer’s book How PowerPoint Makes You Stupid, New York: The New Press, 2012, I couldn’t help but wonder if perhaps the main arguments were available on a PowerPoint slide deck in SlideShare.  You see how corrupted I’ve become.

I’m not a great fan of PowerPoint, and for many of the reasons pointed out by Fromer, and earlier in a critique by Edward Tufte in The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint.  No technology is neutral, and PowerPoint can encourage:
  • The drive for efficiency (via shortcuts) over effectiveness
  • The view that a meeting means a presentation
  • Showmanship and salesmanship over content and problem-solving
  • The reduction of complexity into default and simplistic bullet points
  • Simplified text
  • Lazy and uncritical thinking
  • Decontextualization of data
  • Sloganeering and use of vague, empty language
I’ve witnessed all of these, and been guilty of some myself.

I was enjoying having my feelings about PowerPoint mirrored back to me, but found myself becoming resistant.  While Frommer’s arguments were compelling, I began to feel they were too strident, too one dimensional.  Not every problem in business or anywhere else needs a high degree of reflection, intense critical analysis, and prolonged debate. The challenge posed by PowerPoint lies as much in the lack of media literacy among managers as it does in the software.  When people find something convenient, they tend to overuse and abuse it, but that doesn’t negate all of its value.  Apart from finding the book overzealous in its condemnation, something else was troubling me.  I was feeling that there was a cultural defensiveness roiling beneath the logical arguments.  How else should we take a statement like this:

“A language of universal communication, the English language thus imposes its constraints and a specific mode of linguistic construction. The omission of some connecting words; the modification of word order, notably the inversion of nouns and adjectives; and morphological changes in some words,  notably words with the suffix – isation that have become relatively in  French, all demonstrate that this Anglo-American contamination is nothing new.” (my bold)
Franck Frommer is a French journalist, and having worked a very great deal with the French, I recognized certain cultural tendencies driving his arguments.

I have no wish to stereotype (a fixed perception with no room for individual variation), but in my experience, a French cultural tendency is to respect intellectual debate. Every problem is treated as being unique, and deserving of its own analysis and solution – anything else is superficial.  I once gave two groups – one French and one Japanese – 10 minutes to come up with 5 questions that they would like to ask the other group (to identify differences in their organizational cultures).  The Japanese group finished in 5 minutes; the French were still debating what precise questions to ask 45 minutes later.  I greatly respect the French cultural tendency to go deeply into issues, but I also respect the American drive for action.  Neither approach is appropriate all of the time.  Both can add value at different times under different circumstances.        

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Being Present in Your Collaborations: The Second Circle of Patsy Rodenburg

Serendipity can be a wonderful traveling companion, and on a recent journey she took me to meet Patsy Rodenburg (figuratively, of course).

Patsy is one of the most highly regarded voice coaches in the world, and has worked with actors like Judi Dench, Ian McKellen, and Daniel Day-Lewis. She is also an author of such books as Speaking Shakespeare, The Actor Speaks, and The Second Circle. One of the reasons I was drawn to her was that her ideas are not just relevant to the acting world, but to all us – in our relationships, our work collaborations, in our classrooms.

The central concept is presence (attentive energy), and we are always faced with the question, “To be present or not to be present?” We have a choice.  She says: “I actively discouraged behavior that in my observations, diminished energy: carelessness, slouching, shallow breathing, underpowered voice, uninformed thinking, mocking and cynicism – anything that seemed to drain the vital life force out of a human being and the group around that person.”

She eventually identified three circles of energy – ways human energy moves:
First Circle: This is energy moving inward (withdrawal) drawing energy to the self. If you are with someone who is in the First Circle, you feel alone, ignored, dismissed, unimportant; that person is just not with you in the moment. They are detached. When you are in the First Circle, you are not observant or perceptive of what is outside of yourself. At its best the First Circle energy is engaged in introspection and reflection, but often it is just sucks passion out of us, and others.

Third Circle: This is the opposite of the First Circle. This is energy forced outward. It is the energy of bluff and force, the energy of attracting attention. This energy lacks intimacy; it feels impersonal  – “. . . others feel they don’t really matter to you.”  Listening is not going on; those in the Third Circle look through people rather than at them.  They stay on the surface in their interactions with others.  Those in the Third Circle want to be felt and seen, not reduced and ignored.

Second Circle: People in this circle fully connect with the world; they are present, alert, and available to others. The energy is focused. “Two human beings present together experience intimacy and knowledge of one another.”  It is the circle of giving and taking of energy - “you touch and influence another person rather than impress or impose your will on them.” You hear and are heard; you notice details about others, and you acknowledge the feelings of others. The Second Circle “is a state of mind and body where confident, relaxed control allows us to establish intimacy and human connection where and when we want it.”

All of us can move between these circles, but we tend to have a habitual one. 
Collaborations will be more productive – and provide a better experience for all involved – if Second Circle interactions are encouraged and role-modeled.

Here is a link to a video of Patsy Rodenburg talking about the Second Circle, and I highly recommend her book The Second Circle: How to use positive energy for success in every situation if you want more detail and practical exercises.

Friday, February 24, 2012

A Paradox At the Heart of Collaboration

This week I picked up a new book called This Will Make You Smarter edited by John Brockman (New York: Harper Perenial, 2012). Who wouldn't pick up a book with that title. Mr. Brockman is the founder and publisher of the online science salon known as Anyone interested in ideas should subscribe.

The purpose of the book is to “give us better tools to think about the world,” and is guided by one question: What scientific concept would improve everybody’s cognitive toolkit? The book contains over 100 very short essays, and I’m sure I’ll be talking about many in future blogs.
Being interested in collaboration, one of the essays immediately caught my eye: Self-Serving Bias by David G. Myers who is a social psychologist at Hope College in Holland, MI.

What is the self-serving bias?  It is the tendency we have to take credit for success and deny responsibility for failure. It is a self-deceptive mechanism for protecting our egos. If we don’t achieve success we shift the blame from internal factors like attitudes, motivations, and disposition to external factors like my boss didn’t like me. As Prof. Myers reports:
In one College Board survey of 829,000 high-school seniors
  • 0 percent rated themselves below average in ‘ability to get along with others’, 60 percent rated themselves in the top 10 percent, and 25 percent rated themselves in the top 1 percent. Compared with our average peer, most of us see ourselves as more as more intelligent, better-looking, less prejudiced, more ethical, healthier, and likely to live longer.
  • Nine out of ten drivers rate themselves above average.
  • Ninty percent of college faculty rate themselves superior to their average colleague.
Does the self-serving bias – and related phenomena like illusory optimism, self-justification, and in-group bias - doom collaboration to a mythical status? It doesn’t help because it weakens or eliminates our own sense of responsibility, and encourages victimhood.  A desire to protect our egos can also result in self-handicapping – playing it safe to ensure success, however inconsequential and meaningless

Collaboration isn’t doomed, but it is a fragile creature requiring care. Like many challenging things in life, it is at heart a paradox: collaboration depends on the presence of confident individuals who share their talents openly, but who also have enough humility to recognize their own limitations and self-serving bias

Friday, February 17, 2012

Institute of the Future: Future Work Skills 2020

In a December 2011 report for the University of Phoenix Research Institute, the Institute for the Future investigated the key drivers influencing the world of work, as well as identify the proficiencies and abilities needed across different jobs and work settings (1). While 2020 was used as a prediction point, many of the skills are critical, right now.

Drivers are defined as “big disruptive shifts that are likely to reshape the future landscape.”  The six drivers they identified are:

·         Extreme Life Longevity
·         Rise of Smart Machines and Systems
·         Computational World
·         New Media Ecology
·         Superstructed Organizations (‘superstruct’ means creating new forms of organization that go beyond those with which we are familiar. For example, new structures emerging from application of social technologies)
·         Globally Connected World

Given these disruptive forces, 10 skills emerge as highly relevant to the productivity of the future workforce:

·         Sense-Making: Being capable of getting to the deeper meaning or significance of what is being communicated
·         Social Intelligence: Being capable of relating to others deeply and directly
·         Novel & Adaptive Thinking: Being capable of thinking and solution-generating outside of the norm to respond to unexpected and unique situations.
·         Cross-Cultural Competency: Being capable of operating in unfamiliar cultural settings, and utilizing differences for innovation.
·         Computational Thinking: Being capable of translating large amounts of data into useful abstract concepts, and to understand data-based reasoning.
·         New-Media Literacy: Being capable of leveraging new media forms to communicate persuasively.
·         Transdisciplinarity: Being capable of understanding concepts across different disciplines to solve multifaceted problems.
·         Design Mindset: Being capable of designing tasks, processes, and work environments to help produce the outcomes we want.
·         Cognitive Load Management: Being capable of filtering important information from the ‘noise’, and using new tools to expand our mental functioning abilities.
·         Virtual Collaboration: Being capable of working productively with others across virtual distances. 
 All of these skills resonate with my own thinking about the future workplace, but let me frame them a little differently. Playing and re-framing often helps me understand more clearly. I would have liked to see ‘play’ mentioned more explicitly in the list, but I assume it’s part of Novel & Adaptive Thinking.

I see five interdependent skill clusters. At the center would be Virtual Collaboration and spinning around this nucleus would be four electrons: Relationships, Data, Meaning, and Innovation.

Virtual Collaboration: The rapid development of collaboration technologies, along with the competitive need to leverage the knowledge and skills of a global talent pool, are pushing and pulling Virtual Collaboration onto center stage. New Media Literacy is a skill in its own right, but also a critical component of virtual collaboration.

Relationships: Highly productive collaboration within and across geographic, cultural and organizational borders will depend on high levels of Cross-Cultural Competency and Social Intelligence.  Technology will not be the differentiating success factor; the quality of the relationships enabled by the technology will make the difference.

Data: The increasingly massive amounts of data becoming available create high stress points for individuals and collaborative groups.  Finding patterns and filtering out the ‘noise’ are of great importance, and so Computational Thinking and Cognitive Load Management are essential to future work.

Meaning: In a highly complex world of multiple cultures and disciplines, superficial and one-dimensional thinking can lead to overly simplistic understandings and solutions. Real meaning and significance can be lost when we rush to impose what is familiar.  While simplicity can be a virtue, ‘simplistic’ never is. Avoiding dangerous over-simplification requires both Sense-Making and Transdisciplinarity.     

Innovation: In a hyper-competitive environment driven at Internet speeds, few innovations will have a very long shelf life. That doesn’t mean stop innovating, it means innovate faster or go obsolete. In creating and implementing the ‘new’, Novel & Adaptive Thinking and a Design Mindset are must-haves.

I’m a great fan of the Institute for the Future, and I hope they don’t mind me ‘playing’ with their work. to access the full report.