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The Practice of Leadership in the Messy World of Organizations

Stephen Billing, October 24, 2012

I am reading an article by Jean-Louis Denis, Ann Langley and Linda Rouleau of Canada, entitled The Practice of Leadership in the Messy World of Organizations. It was published in Leadership journal in 2010.

They use some interesting narrative stories of leadership they draw from a long term study in health care, to posit four aspects of leadership as it is done – dynamic, collective, situated and dialectical.

By calling leadership dynamic, they are drawing attention to how leadership evolves over time in context. They identify substantive aspects as concrete structural change, symbolic aspects as the evolution of meaning over time, and the political aspects as being the evolution of the leadership roles themselves.

In talking about leadership as collective, they draw attention to how the leader works with not only their own top management team but also other groups, for example legislators, politicians, Boards and groups representing other interests. They draw on the concept of "leadership constellations" from Hodgson, Levinson and Zaleznik’s 1965 book The Executive Role Constellation. Isn’t the term constellation a great one? It makes me think of a galaxy of stars at the top of the organisation, leading the organisation on to its happy place. In the examples given of collective leadership, they give examples from their research of how leaders gained the trust of certain already existing powerful groups and were able to use these alliances to help them lead later changes that were highly contentious. The ability to lead collectively emerged over time as these relationships were established. They point to how the leaders fitted in with the existing groups initially, before beginning to influence and take charge, in a process of mutual accommodation and interdependence.

Leadership being situated means that you have to look at the broader context in which the leadership took place, as well as the micro-level detail of what the leader did. The authors point out that the micro-level effects of the leaders’ situated practices could not be understood without knowledge of the broader context in which they took place.

Talking about leadership as dialectic draws attention to the tensions or conflict that inevitably exist in leadership situations – the authors say that leaders are subject to unexpected forces for change including the consequences of their actions, practices, and decisions, and that they cannot control the patterns of power and interests in which they are operating, nor can they anticipate the context and outcomes of their decisions. This is one of the key premises behind the school of complex responsive processes that has influenced me greatly. You cannot know in advance what the impact of your actions will be in organisations. Whether or not your actions will be recognised as leadership and whether they will have beneficial effects for your objectives will not be known until after you take the action. 


Splitting Leadership and Management as a Social Defence

Stephen Billing, October 21, 2012

In a classic article published in Human Relations in 1990, James Krantz from Yale and Thomas Gilmore from Wharton consider the splitting of leadership and management to be a social defence against the anxiety of engaging directly in detail with the ambiguous difficulties of the organisation.

They are using the term "splitting" in a psychodynamic sense, where two aspects of a whole are divided off from each other and one aspect is idealised while the other is denigrated.

Managerialism is the exaltation of technique and method – tools, strategies and process are implemented into an organisation without regard to the specifics of the organisation. It is an elevation of technique over situation. An example is when new managers establish processes that they used in their last organisation. It also is apparent in the expectation that when people go on a management course they will come back transformed and everything will be better. Lean and six sigma would be ultimate examples of managerialism.

Hero leadership by contrast is the seeking of and investment of magic into a hero leader who will deliver the organisation from the problems it is facing. In the leadership literature, leadership is exalted / idealised – we are seen as needing good leadership for success in the future, while management is denigrated by comparison.

The reality is that you need both ends and means – both management and leadership are needed and it does not make much sense to separate them out and exalt one over the other. Krantz and Gilmore suggest that this is done as a defence against painful awareness of its challenges and responsibilities. 

There is a big difference, for example, between extolling the virtues of a technique like management by walking around as part of a recipe for success and its origins at Hewlett Packard as part of real relationships between managers and scientists.

What is being defended against? ask Krantz and Gilmore. Anxiety of an unknown and uncertain future, disruption to existing social defence mechanisms, painful feelings which arise from being in difficult situations. For example, it’s easier to champion customer service from high up in the organisation than it is in an interaction with a difficult aggressive customer.

Focusing on leadership vs management is a way of abstracting from the painful conflicts that face us in our everyday work in organisations. I would prefer to advocate that we look at and notice what is going on around us. Focus the discussion on what is going on, not on abstractions like what ought to be going on in leadership or management.



Certainty and Uncertainty in Change Projects

Stephen Billing, July 21, 2012

Certainty Uncertainty

Project management is founded on the premise that by planning, maintaining project schedules, establishing change request processes, having clear governance, and reporting on progress towards objectives, the desired future can be brought into being. It assumes fundamental certainty in the universe.

On the other hand, complexity science assumes fundamental uncertainty. 

Let’s consider for a moment the global financial crisis and large numbers of failed projects that are constantly cited in literature on project management. In a world based on certainty, these would be seen as failures to execute proper planning.

In a world based on uncertainty, it is no surprise that all the planning and project management in the world produces such uncertain results. 

What actually transpires in large projects is the result of the interplay of the intentions of the multiple players in those projects. These interactions are enabled and constrained in relationships of power amongst those in different positions in the organisation.

Instead of being certain about the results of your planning and governance, consider that what happens is the result of the interplay of interactions amongst many individuals – you cannot be certain of the response anyone will make to any action you take. 

We live in a world of uncertainty. This means that in change projects you must pay attention to the responses you are getting and work with them, they are just as important as your plans for the future. 

If you want your change plans to be more certain of success, pay more attention to the uncertainties of your everyday interactions with others.


Agendaless meetings, and the importance of casual conversations

Stephen Billing, February 25, 2010

In the previous post I pointed out the significance, for generating new ideas, of conversations with diverse people – people with different backgrounds, ways of looking at things, and professional affiliations, for example.

Any leader in an organisation, or entrepreneur has to engage in interactions with others in order to get a business going or keep it running. The entrepreneur or leader may have clear goals in mind, or may be in the process of shaping up his or her intentions, exploring different options and potential paths. Either way, it is through interactions with others that these plans take shape and are brought to fruition. The others that the entrepreneur is interacting with have their own intentions, goals and plans. The entrepreneur has to respond to these different goals and intentions, as they emerge in the course of these interactions with others.

Some of these interactions will take place during meetings that might be quite formal and have agendas that are known in advance, written down and followed quite closely during the meeting. Other important interactions will take place much more informally – sometimes in response to an unexpected opportunity, a chance meeting or as a result of a casual conversation over coffee. It is important for leaders and entrepreneurs to be looking for such opportunities and paying attention to what is going on.

A colleague (Diana Jones) told me the other day that there is quite a lot of interest in so-called agendaless meetings. Rightly so, in my opinion, because most interaction does take place in agendaless meetings, in more informal settings, and through casual conversation during which no formal agenda is ever put together.

But it would be for many people working in organisations, quite risky to get together a group of senior people to meet without having a formal agenda. At the same time, many would find this idea appealing, recognising the opportunity for generating ideas, relatively free flow of information and learning what people really think.

In such meetings, the traditional chairing skills and formal meeting procedure would not be very useful. What is important in such meetings is facilitation, such as making sure everyone has the opportunity to speak, handling conflict productively when it arises, listening to others, expressing your point of view, noticing the patterning of the conversation especially when something new happens, finding ways to take advantage of unexpected opportunities that arise.

Such informal "agendaless" meetings are given far less prominence in the leadership literature compared to the weight placed on presenting and chairing at meetings. This is somewhat strange given that, although leaders and entrepreneurs will have to chair formal meetings with agendas and follow meeting procedure, the bulk of their interactions take place outside such formal settings. And the formality of such settings can reduce the range of acceptable contributions that people make to the meeting.

If you are trying to generate new ideas, innovation or creativity, you actually want to stimulate a range of diverse input, rather than reducing the kinds of contributions that people make through formalising them.

Therefore, as a leader or entrepreneur, do pay attention to the casual conversations you are part of, and recognise how important they are to your results as a leader or entrepreneur. And consider convening some group interactions as "agendaless" meetings to see how you go. Of course, the term "agendaless" refers only to the lack of a formal agenda. There is no such thing as a truly "agendaless" meeting because all the participants will have their own intentions, interests and goals (or agendas) that they want to pursue. This comes with the territory of being a human working in an organisation.

Having a formal agenda doesn’t do away with the goals, interests and intentions of the participants. Such goals, interests and intentions of the participants are unlikely to make it onto the formal agenda of a meeting anyway.

To find more posts on this blog about formal and informal meetings, click here.


Innovation arises from the interaction of diverse agents

Stephen Billing, February 24, 2010

Entrepreneurship is often considered to involve the establishment of something new. So it is worth thinking about how new ideas come about in organisations.

It has long been thought that it takes a certain kind of person to come up with new ideas. The tortured artist mining the depths of an extraordinary imagination or artistic vision is one instance of this. Another is the model found in advertising agencies where the "creatives" are responsible for coming up with ideas according to the briefs developed and sold by the "suits".

So creative ideas have commonly been considered to be the domain of certain individuals who have a predisposition to creativity. For example, it is said that Einstein dreamt that he was riding a wave of light and this was a key part of his theory of relatively. Or Archimedes sitting in his bath shouting "eureka" when he realised his body mass was displacing the water. Or Newton coming up with the theory of gravity after being hit on the head while sitting under an apple tree.

While some individuals undoubtedly have greater facility for creativity than others, this does not reveal much about how it comes about that these new ideas are generated, apart from some mysterious faculty possessed by these creative people and not by others.

In studies of complexity, computer agents are programmed to interact with each other, over and over again. The computer can model countless iterations of populations of agents interacting with each other, which in the real world would take years or centuries to study. For example, patterns resembling the flocking of birds or the swarming of bees are able to be replicated, as are models of the rise and fall of populations of different species, as some species (i.e. types of agents) become populous and dominant for periods of time, often long periods of time, before they wane and die away. These patterns very much resemble the rise and fall of civilisations like the Greeks, Romans and even the British empire.

One of the most useful and interesting applications of this computer modeling of the complexity emerging from myriad interactions like this, is that the patterns that arise in the populations only change if the agents are different from each other. If the agents are the same, then the patterns repeat themselves. It is only if the agents are different from each other that new patterns emerge.

This is to suggest that it is from the interaction of diverse agents that novelty arises. Innovation or newness in these patterns, then, could be said to be a property of the interaction of diverse agents itself.

This provides an explanation for the innovative potential of multi-disciplinary teams, as long as the differences can be handled in ways that don’t blow the team apart through conflict.

This suggests that if you are an entrepreneur wanting to generate a new idea or establish or grow a business, you would do well to seek out interactions with others who are different from you in their backgrounds, professional history, experience, professional discipline, and approach. Seek mentors, directors and investors who think differently from you and have different world views. Seek employees who likewise have different backgrounds from you.

As an entrepreneur, it is from these multiple interactions and discussions you have with diverse others that you will generate new understanding and ideas that you can use to grow your business.


The Experience of Entrepreneurship

Stephen Billing, February 23, 2010

I think the main thing that distinguishes entrepreneurship from management or other forms of organisation is that with entrepreneurship a person takes the risk of bringing into being about an idea in a business form.

Much thinking about entrepreneurship focuses on the originality of the idea, and there are certainly plenty of examples of inventors or people with original ideas who create successful businesses.

For example, I am quite excited about the guy who has invented a jet pack that allows personal flight and am looking forward to the Jetson-age type of travel this might allow – no more traffic jams! Please hurry up and get this idea commercially perfected so that I can easily fly into Wellington city for my day’s work. Although I am also imagining mid air crashes and a whole set of new airborne traffic regulations.

However, I don’t think entrepreneurial flair is actually so much about the originality of the idea as it is about a combination of the idea and the execution. Richard Branson is an example of someone who would be seen as an entrepreneur, but not necessarily an inventor of new ideas.

I think about my own business, for example. I am a management consultant, and I am certainly not the first management consultant to exist in the world. In fact, I owe a great debt to other management consultants who have gone before me and have created a tradition in which I walk that has generated a market for the services I offer. Nevertheless I definitely offer these services in my own unique way.

So, what is it that is entrepreneurial about all this? One aspect is not working for an employer – being your own boss, and, so to speak, probably gaining the hardest boss of all. (more…)



Stephen Billing, January 18, 2010


I have had more than one situation recently in client organisations where a person "Angelica"  has had a problem with person "Boris" or something they have done. Angelica then emails or talks to Boris’s boss "Charlie," (and sometimes a range of other people) explaining the situation and seeking resolution.

It seems that this "dynamic of three people" frequently occurs in organisations, at all levels of seniority.

It is interesting to consider the effects of this in relationship terms. Angelica may have reached the point where she is so frustrated that this is the only option she can see to resolve an important organisational issue. "I am just being honest" or "I am saying what I honestly think" are common aspects of Angelica’s perspective in this situation.

Angelica’s boss Charlie has an opportunity to put a problem right. Angelica has contacted him, complaining about Boris or his actions. Charlie gets the chance to take some action with Boris to resolve the situation.

What action should Charlie the manager take?

One option for Charlie is to go to Boris, inform him of his transgression and work with Boris to remedy the situation. This is a very tempting option for many managers, as it enables them to be directly involved in solving an issue that perhaps could not otherwise be resolved. The manager is then very clear of his or her own contribution to resolving an issue that otherwise might not have a resolution.

I feel for all three participants in this situation. Consider Boris, who all too often is unaware that Angelica even has a problem with him. Seemingly out of the blue, Charlie is discussing an issue with Boris that Boris did not have any opportunity to attempt to resolve.

Another option for Charlie is to respond to Angelica by asking her to talk to Boris and see if they can resolve the issue prior to Charlie getting involved.

Then, at least Charlie only gets involved when Boris is aware that there is an issue and that Angelica and Boris have not been able to resolve the issue together.

And for Angelica, she would have reinforcement of the lesson that the first step in resolving an issue is with the person concerned, and then to go to the manager if resolution is not possible.

From a relationship perspective, I am interested in two aspects – the actions of Charlie the manager and the relationship between Angelica and Boris.

To me, Charlie the manager has to consider the relationship between Angelica and Boris and ensure they have made attempts to resolve the situation before becoming involved. Anything other response will make working with Angelica and Boris difficult in future, regardless of who is "at fault" in this situation.

Angelica’s very act of going to her manager Charlie will sour the relationship with Boris. So Angelica must be on very sure ground prior to approaching Charlie. Although by the time she has raised the issue with Charlie Angelica is so annoyed by what Boris has done that she is not thinking about the longer term relationship with Boris.

Now, Boris may (or may not) have been to blame for the original incident, but from the information provided by Angelica, Charlie wouldn’t be able to tell for certain, and this is commonly the case for managers like Charlie who are approached by staff members like Angelica – Charlie just doesn’t know how much of what he is told that he can reliably take action on.

So, if you are Angelica, try to resolve the issue with Boris before escalating to Charlie.

If you are Boris approaoched by Angelica, be grateful that Angelica has approached you before going to your boss, and work hard to resolve the issue. If you are Boris approached by Charlie, ask Charlie if he can give you some time to tlak to Angelica to attempt to resolve the issue (this happened to me once with a good result although Charlie was initially quite surprised at my request but quickly saw the logic of it).

If you are Charlie approached by Angelica, then encourage Angelica to discuss and resolve the issue with Charlie. If this is not possible from Angelica’s point of view  (i.e she thinks the situation is too far gone to raise it with Boris hersefl directly), offer to faciltate a discussion between tbe two.

Do not say that you’ll take it on and resolve it for her. If you do, you are not demonstrating that you are taking all the points of view seriously. That way lie monsters…

And that’s as prescriptive as I get!


Change Your Management Practices, Not Your Culture

Stephen Billing, January 3, 2010

I believe it makes more sense to change the management practices of your managers  than to launch a culture change initiative.



In Change Situations, Communication Efficiency Is Not the Same as Communication Effectiveness

Stephen Billing, December 16, 2009

In which I conclude that efficiency of communication may well work against effectiveness of communication in organisational change situations.

There is an old saw that says that efficiency (or management) is doing things right, with effectiveness (or leadership) being doing the right things. I am sure you have come across this before.

I’m not enamoured of this simplistic bromide, having wondered before on this blog whether is in fact such a thing as leadership. (Search on "leadership," or click on the "leadership" tags or categories to find the threads).

I started to ponder on what this might mean in relation to communication.

If we took the idea of efficient communication, what would it mean? Email is quite efficient – it’s just a matter of typing it and sending it. Twitter and text messages are even more efficient. In this sense, being efficient equates with being "less effort." And then it occurred to me, that this refers to less effort for the sender of the message.

I have a friend though, who regards a phone call as more efficient than a series of texts or emails, say when trying to schedule a meeting. So after a couple of texts or emails about suitable times, he’ll call, saying it’s easier that way. Perhaps he’s also thinking about the effectiveness of the communication – in a phone call he can get it resolved and get a commitment to a time, coming up with alternatives quickly based on the reaction of the other person.

What about effective communication? What would that be? I guess from the perspective of the sender receiver model of communication, you would say that effective communication would be that in which the receiver gets the same message as the receiver intended. So, effective communication has much more consideration of the receiver than the idea of efficient communication, which seems to be more related to the sender’s convenience.

Thinking about this idea of effective communication, I think it is not so much a matter of the accurate transmission of a message, as it is about understanding the response you have received.

In this way of thinking about it, effective communication would be achieved when the parties were satisfied that they had agreed on the meaning of the gesture and response involved.

In any one interaction, it might take several attempts to reach this point of both parties being satisfied that agreement on the meaning had been reached. Many of our interactions actually never reach this point – for example, I might go away from a fight with my partner convinced that he doesn’t understand me.

I think effective communication requires genuine attempts to understand each other, and so repeating yourself, paraphrasing and summarising are all used in the process of coming to understand the meaning of what you are negotiating. When people are coming to grips with proposals for organisational change, effective communication requires methods like paraphrasing, that employ redundancy or duplication, rather than efficient communicating of a message in the shortest time or least amount of effort possible.

Efficiency of communication and effectiveness of communication are certainly not the same thing in organisational change. Further, quests for efficiency in communication may well work against the effectiveness of your communication about change.


How do you Communicate an Unpopular Decision?

Stephen Billing, December 14, 2009

 Five steps to communicating an unpopular decision

How do you communicate something that is likely to be unpopular? For example, how do you tell your team that they are going to have to give something up because of a cost cutting measure that is going to be implemented?

I remember when I was a manager in a large corporate how, in the second half of the financial year we would regularly be told that our travel budget was being reduced by 25%, 50%, or once even 100%.  We got to expect it, and started to build it into our budget at the start of the year. No more travel for the rest of the year, even though you have staff and colleagues in Auckland and you live in Wellington, a 1 hour flight or 700km drive away. How are you supposed to keep a team going in those circumstances?

How do you break the news that there is going to be a review of the organisation’s structure and it may affect many people’s jobs?

How do you tell staff that you need to reduce the number of cars in the fleet, and that the pool cars have to go?

If you have a large number of people to tell, it is tempting to go for efficiency and send out an email – write it down once, send it out, job done.

It is readily apparent that such an approach is not really job done. You have to continue to work with these people, and so you cannot just do anything. You will need them in the future. If they think you’ve done the cowardly equivalent of dumping your girlfriend by text, then it’s likely you’ll get some unanticipated consequences – resistance perhaps, or ignoring the new policy. They decide they can’t trust you, thereby making it difficult to get anything done in future. (more…)