Stephen Billing’s Blog

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Are You Using the Wrong Leadership Competencies?

Stephen Billing, September 28, 2009

The competencies required for leadership (if there is such a thing as competencies and leadership) are not to be found in the standard competency frameworks. If you are using a competency framework, it is likely to be wrong, therefore don’t give it much priority. 

The idea of competencies is that you will be able to identify necessary skills and define the steps required to acquire those skills. So, an important step in developing leaders is then to be smart enough to analyse the work of a manager or leader, or make use of the work of those who are smart enough to research and precook a set of skills for you. These skills are separated from the context in which the skills are used. Hence, strategic agility is said to be something that people can acquire by using strategic buzzwords, doing five year projections even though five year plans don’t happen as projected, or regularly reading strategy gurus and Harvard Business Review. These remedies are among those recommended in Lominger’s book FYI For Your Improvement, Fourth Edition, pp 344 – 348. (more…)


What Does it Mean to be Self Organising?

Stephen Billing, August 21, 2009

The concept of self-organisation is a very misunderstood topic when it comes to applying it to organisations.

Bas Reus is exploring what it means to say that humans are self-organising, over at His post outlines the development of his thinking in attempting to define self-orgnisation.

Arising from the study of complexity, the important thing about self-organisation is that the ordering of society (or people in organisations) occurs through local interaction in the absence of an overall blueprint or plan. As any top manager will tell you, you can’t just make a plan, tell others and then confidently expect that the plan will be followed. Instead, all sorts of unexpected things happen – people interpret things differently, they react to things in surprising ways and there are unintended consequences. This is what is meant by saying there is no overall blueprint or plan. (more…)


The Problem with Planned Change

Stephen Billing, August 5, 2009

Planned change models (so-called "n-step models" of which Kotter’s 8 step model is the most well known) assume that change can be controlled. By carrying out the steps the desired change will be manifested in the organisation. Because change is seen as predictable, the key lies in detailed planning.

Alvesson and Sveningsson in their book "Changing Organizational Culture" say that while this logic might explain the popularity of these approaches, these planned change models reveal little about how change emerges from interactions between those involved in the organisation. These models pay little attention to how people interpret the change efforts, nor how they relate to these based on their interests, backgrounds, jobs and how they will be affected by the change. (more…)


Recession (Surely it was Unplanned) Shows Uncomfortable Reality: Executives Cannot Predict the Future

Stephen Billing, August 1, 2009


"Approaches to leadership and management are still dominated by prescriptions – usually claimed as scientific – for top executives to choose the future direction of their organization. The global financial recession and the collapse of investment capitalism (surely not planned by anyone) make it quite clear that top executives are simply not able to choose future directions. Despite this, current management literature mostly continues to avoid the obvious – management’s inability to predict or control what will happen in the future. The key question now must be how we are to think about management if we take the uncertainty of organizational life seriously" – Ralph Stacey

The above lines from Ralph highlight a major disconnect between management literature’s formulaic attempts to provide prescriptions and recipes for controlling the future, and the reality that this is actually an impossible and fruitless pursuit. This blog is an attempt to help us to understand how to act when the future is uncertain and unpredictable. Acknowledging the unpredictability of the future is not a signal to be depressed. Rather it is a provocation to become aware of how you are thinking about the tasks of management and leadership in organisations so that your approaches and ways of thinking are more congruent with this reality.

Recipe attempts to control the future prevent you from seeing clearly what is going on around you, and mean that your responses to the uncertain world in which you work and live will be less effective.


Footnote: The quote above is taken from the "blurb" for the paperback version of Ralph Stacey’s latest book which has just been released. The book is called Complexity and Organizational Reality: Uncertainty and the Need to Rethink Management after the Collapse of Investment Capitalism. It’s not available on Amazon yet but you can get more info or the book itself here (thanks to Chris Rodgers for alerting me to this).


A Second Reason Why Thinking is a Social Process

Stephen Billing, June 20, 2009

I posted earlier about thinking being a silent conversation one has with oneself, and this is an inherently social way of viewing the process of thinking. It is inherently social because it is viewing thinking as a process of silent interaction.

There is another, less obvious way in which this view of thinking is radically social. It is in the make up of the participants in the silent conversation that consitutes thinking.

Who is talking to whom in this silent conversation I am having with myself? Who is doing the talking, and who are they talking to? Please bear with me and see if I can answer this question, drawing on George Herbert Mead and Ralph Stacey.

The answer is that different aspects of the self are talking to each other. "I" am talking to "me." The aspect doing the talking is "I" as the subject, doer or initiator of action.

The aspect being spoken to is "me" as the object, the recipient of the action.

The "I" as the subject doing the talking is the individual in the present moment responding to the "me."

Mead pointed out that as humans we have the capacity to take on the attitude of the other person. In other words, you can perform an imaginative feat in which you experience what it would be like to be in the other person’s place. Mead said that it is because we can imagine ourselves in the other person’s shoes that we have human consciousness.

You imagine yourself in the other person’s shoes based on your experience of many social interactions over time – the results you received from these interactions and what they meant to you. These imaginings are therefore socially based because of the social experience you have had. For example, I moved around a lot when I was growing up and so would often have to leave my friends behind and make new ones. If you were brought up by different parents or in a different culture you would have different experiences and so your view of what the other person would be making of you would be different.

Humans also have a tendency to generalise.

The "me" taking part in the silent conversation of thinking is a generalisation that represents your generalised view of what society thinks of you. Society in this case is that group of people whom you identify with.

In a process that utilises both our human tendency to generalise and also our capacity to take on the attitude of the other, we imagine what others think of us. Our imagining of what others think of us is the "me" that is participating in our silent conversation.

This conversation between "I" and "me" is never resolved. It is a conversation in which "I" am constantly responding, in the present moment, to "me." In other words I am constantly responding to the generalised view that I think others have of me.

There, simple eh?


The Social Activity of Learning

Stephen Billing, June 10, 2009


Having been critical in earlier posts of the concept of the learning organisation, I now want to explore instead what learning actually is. In previous posts I said that learning could not be understood as a property of individuals alone, because we cannot ignore the impact of social influences – learning is a social process.

And I also said that groups and organisations cannot learn – they do not have consciousness, minds nor bodies.

It is my contention, like Ralph Stacey’s, that learning is instead an activity of interdependent people. Ralph points out the inherently social nature of humans, the social nature of organising, and the social nature of learning.

As I have said earlier, an organisation is the thematically patterned activities of interdependent people, which constitute their closely interconnected individual and collective identities.

When I talk about thematically patterned activities of interdependent people, I am referring to the continually reiterated patterns of repetition that seem to have stability amongst the myriad interactions in power relationships. These repetitious patterns have meaning for us as people involved in the organisation. This might be what is often referred to as culture although I won’t go into culture here – it’s the subject of another discussion.

Human interaction is non-linear iterative process (i.e. myriads of interactions over time mean that you cannot map one to one causes with effects in human or organisational settings).

Because it is non-linear, "there is always the potential for small differences to be amplified into transformative shifts in identity," as Ralph says. In the same article he says "learning is the emerging transformation of inseparable individual and collective identities,’ and he goes on to say, "learning occurs as shifts in meaning and it is simultaneously individual and social."

In this way of thinking, learning is understood in terms of self organising communicative interaction and power relating, in which there is the potential for the transformation of identities.

What does this all mean? Well, think about computer based training. The theory was that people would sit down with a computer and learn stuff. Hence a plethora of "computer based training" in the nineties that was supposed to eliminate classroom-style training because people could do it at their desk, or in their down time and this would reduce down time and increase productivity. Sadly these promises have not been met.

Apart from limitations in the instructional design of such computer based training, I think the whole idea of computer based learning falls down because it ignores the fact that learning is a social activity of interdependent people. Without the social element of interaction, people do not learn well.

Teachers have known this for centuries, from the questions (i.e. interaction) of Socrates to the way good teachers in current times continue to involve their students in their learning, whether the teachers are teaching primary or secondary school, university, corporate trainers or good managers acting as coaches.


The Third of Three Fatal Flaws of Shared Values – Conflict

Stephen Billing, June 2, 2009

In the first post of this series (here) I said that the first fatal flaw of shared values was anthropomorphism. I argued that shared values means attributing the human characteristics values to organisations, which are things that are not human. The second fatal flaw of shared values is the danger of inclusion and exclusion from the group based on adherence or direct application of the values, regardless of the circumstances. This is the definition of a cult.

The third fatal flaw of shared values is that it ignores the inherent conflict in values as they are negotiated in specific circumstances. 

George Herbert Mead called these collective values cult values to remind us of the dangers of directly applying these values.

Even at the same time as a sense of value and contribution is provided by these cult values, the values have to particularised, that is to say their meaning has to be negotiated in particular individual, unique situations that occur every day in our corporate settings.

Take the value of "respect" as an example. Respect is commonly seen as a corporate value in many organisations. Does respect mean speaking up in opposition to your manager when you don’t agree in a team meeting, or does respect mean biting your tongue and raising your concern individually with you manager after the meeting? Or does respect mean not raising your concern at all? You can see that there are quite a few situational factors to be taken into account here in coming to understand the meaning of respect. In fact, the corporate value of respect does not have much meaning until it is considered in specific situations. The background and upbringing (culture) of the people concerned might make respect mean not disagreeing with important other people.  A political protocol might mean taking the person aside and discussing it with them privately afterward. A therapeutic approach would be to name and confront the issue immediately, at the time. So you can see that these quite valid parts of people’s identity mean that they will treat this value differently, according to their background, the situation itself, their professional training and skills, power relationships and what they care about.

Perhaps you also have a value called "Integrity." This value will inevitably be in conflict at times with the value of "Respect." The value of integrity may urge you to speak up in the team meeting while the value of respect may mean keeping quiet, depending on the factors outlined above.

This kind of conflict will always be present in organisational situations and is always being negotiated by its members. The "shared values" perspective glosses over this conflict amongst values and the requirement to functionalise or particularise cult values in individual situations. Functionalising or particularising cult values means determining what they mean in this particular situation and deciding how to act accordingly. It is fundamentally an ethical question and this is often overlooked in corporate values programmes.

The other thing often overlooked in corporate values programmes is the conflict amongst values that is inherent in any consideration of values. Completing paperwork for customer A, attending to customer B at the counter or answering customer C’s ringing telephone enquiry are the kind of day to day situation in which your people are particularising certain values, usually in a taken-for-granted way. If staff have to leave something undone (e.g. ringing phone, face to face customer, follow up paperwork from previous customer) they are weighing up many factors that are in conflict:

  • What happened last time I faced a similar situation?
  • What will my supervisor get least upset about?
  • What will they get most upset about?
  • What can I explain in an acceptable way?
  • What would my peers, parents or other important people do if they were in this situation?

Values are always in conflict as decisions have to be made about how to navigate the specifics of the situation and conflicting values. Having negotiated a situation once amongst competing values does not resolve the situation forever. In fact, the next situation also has to be negotiated as no two situations are ever exactly alike. The value of not keeping patients waiting more than four hours, for example, will always be in conflict with the value of treating the most seriously injured patients first when a nurse or doctor is deciding whether to treat someone with a broken ankle who has been waiting 3:59 hours, or someone who has just come in with gunshot wounds to the head. And the next time there is a patient who has been waiting nearly four hours and a seriously wounded person has just arrived, the conflict will have to be negotiated all over again.

The conflict between competing values is never resolved once and for all, it is always transcended as action in a particular moment, and then the tension or conflict is back in the next moment.


The Second of Three Fatal Flaws of Shared Values – Cultism

Stephen Billing, May 31, 2009

In the previous post (here) I said that the first fatal flaw of shared values was anthropomorphism. I argued that shared values means attributing human characteristics to things that are not human. Shared values means attributing the human characteristic of having a sense of purpose and values to something that is not human, i.e. an organisation.

The second fatal flaw is that shared values are a step towards turning the organisation into a cult. While this is a strong claim, let me explain.

Values projects focus on these values as things of meaning in themselves, in their own right. In other words, such values as respect, flexibility or openness are considered as having meaning and importance in their own right, regardless of the situation.
This means that they are presented as if they were context-free, without considering the context of individual specific circumstances.

This is important because cults are maintained by the leader presenting a picture of the future as an ideal state, in which all barriers and obstacles are removed. The actions of the members are driven by the values of the cult, and the application of the cult values is much more important than consideration of the intricacies of the individual situation to which those values are being applied. For example, perhaps the name of the leader must always be praised and never criticised. Most of us would recognise the cultishness of such a value. All values are cult values in this sense, and hence wars are fought over the values of some religions. The cult value of "thou shalt not kill" is overridden, in these cases, by "if you are not for our god, you are an enemy of god" or similar.

While these examples might sound extreme, they are nevertheless relevant to values in today’s organisations.

If these values are seen as overriding universal norms for those in the organisation, then continuing membership of the organisation is dependent on direct application of these values. In other words, if these values are universal norms, then you cannot remain a member of the group if you do not conform to the values. This is the normal definition of a cult – an idealised group that has values to which individuals must conform. If you criticise the leader (or if you resist certain sexual advances) you are expelled from the group.

If an individual should question the values then they will be ostracised as being selfish and they will be excluded from the group. This is very painful for all involved.

George Herbert Mead called these values cult values to remind us of the dangers of the collective idealism of these values.
In other words, shared values are a step towards turning the organisation into a cult. But this is not acknowledged in the glossy corporate literature.

The focus on the shared values diverts people’s attention from the ethics of their daily actions. In fact the enlarged personality experienced by people often justifies the terrible actions people take, such as polluting the local environment, Enron-style false accounting or what Hannah Arendt referred to as the banality of evil in Eichmann’s bureaucratic approach to implementing genocide.

This is the case, by the way, whether the values seem inherently good, or not. For example, the golden rule, “do unto other as you would have them do unto you" is an extremely valuable, useful and wise maxim. But what about if the other person does not want to be treated the way you do?

Then you are into conflict. Which is the third fatal flaw. Covered in the next post.


Corporate Values Exercises are Pointless – But What Actually Are Values Anyway?

Stephen Billing, May 27, 2009

 What is my problem with shared values? It is not just the futility of corporate values exercises, it is to do with the nature of values themselves.

In the debate about shared values on this site, David Gurteen and John Tropea have both tweeted about this to the "twitterverse" which has led quite a few people to comment here.

To summarise, I have said that it is a waste of time for organisations to try and define shared values. Many of the comments have agreed, for the reason that most shared values exercises are pretty pathetic. But most of those commenting still think that you can’t do without shared values because they are what bring the organisation together, otherwise those in the organisation would have nothing in common. Some have suggested going the way of having shared objectives or shared goals instead of shared values. What are your thoughts about this?

In my previous post I pointed to Karl Weick’s critique of the word "shared," saying that it is a problem word that seems to be suggesting a process of sharing, but actually describes an outcome – that of shared values. 

However, my critique of shared values is not really so much related to problems with the word "shared," nor problems relating to the processes used in organisations when they come up with the shared values that are written on the posters.

The problem I have with shared values stems from the imaginative, intense nature of human values.

Writing values on a poster assumes that the values of a group of people can be prescribed rationally by working them out. Either the coalition of the powerful or the involvement of a wider group of people are thought to lead to the rational prescription of the values of the organisation.

However, it makes no sense to come up with a set of rationally conceived values. By definition, values are not rational.

Values come from a deep sense of what it is right to do. They have an attractive, uplifting, unrestrictive sense of the ideal. There is something compelling about the values that we hold, and yet it is entirely voluntary that we commit to these values. Value commitments arise from key intense experiences that we have and give life meaning and purpose. So there is a sense of voluntary compulsion about the values that we hold. You cannot decree a sense of purpose in life.

Values are the highest expression of our free will, and are intensely personal. They are an intense idealisation of an imaginative turn on how life would be if there were no restrictions. Efforts to work out a group or organisation’s values cut right across the imaginative and experiential nature of values. This is why I say that you cannot work out the organisation’s values through a rational process in a workshop. 


What is an Organisation? – A Great Definition

Stephen Billing, May 23, 2009


Here is the best definition I have yet come across for what an organisation actually is. It comes from Ralph Stacey’s article Learning as an Activity of Interdependent People (unfortunately only available on subscription).

Ralph says that "an organisation is the thematically patterned activities of interdependent people, which constitute their closely interconnected individual and collective identities."

I think this says it elegantly and comprehensively.

First of all let’s take the idea of the patterned activities of interdependent people. So a person alone is not an organisation, it takes a number of people to make an organisation. The people are interdependent, which means that they rely on each other. They cannot achieve their own ends, nor can they achieve the ends of their group or organisation, without each other.

The activities of the interdependent people are interactions between them i.e. human interactions. These activities or interactions of interdependent people have thematic patterns. These patterns are the coherent population-wide evolving patterns that emerge from many interactions amongst people, without any overall blueprint or plan. By the way, this emergent process of patterning is what is known as self-organisation.

The themes of these patterns emerging from human interaction are the closely related themes of power relating, ideology and identity. Power relating is caused by something already mentioned – the fact that interdependent people have need of each other. Differences in distribution of power occur as a result of the different amount of need one person has for the other at a given time. In other words, if I need you more, for example if I want you to give me a job when there are dozens of other candidates, then the power balance will be tilted towards you. On the other hand if there are no other strong candidates then the power balance tilts towards me.

Now we round off the definition. Ideologies are our social beliefs that we gain through our experience of the world and our imagined or experienced view of what others think of us and our actions. Our ideologies or social beliefs are therefore influenced by our collective identities, that is to say the groups that we feel we belong to. Our collective identities also influence and are influenced by our individual identities.

Ralph’s explanation of what an organisation is points to the collective and individual identities that people have – we belong to groups and identify with them, while at the same time having a sense of being an individual self. The interaction between these interdependent people with individual and collective identities results in identifiable population-wide patterns. These patterns are themed in terms of shifting collective and individual identities, power relating, and ideology or social beliefs. 

Voila, brilliant. Thanks Ralph.