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Turning Heads (On)

16 July 2017

Turning Heads

Do people in your organisation look upward for instruction or outward for opportunity and inspiration? Many organisations have an inward and upward focus caused, at least in part, by the management systems that they have employed.

However, it is easy enough to turn heads back around, to get focus facing outward.

The Chief Operating Officer of a large airline one of my colleagues worked with saw this first hand when he decided that, rather than ask for management reports on customer service, he would routinely get on passenger flights and directly experience what it was like to be a customer.

This simple shift in his behaviour immediately changed the focus of teams reporting to him. Within a week, managers were spending their time differently too, perhaps not wanting the boss to spot something that they had not. They were talking about different problems and about new, previously invisible, opportunities. Within a month performance was improving markedly, both in reality and in the COOs management data. 

I think this story reveals a simple truth: Leadership in organisations happens when people demonstrate that what really matters is what really matters here.

...And by "people" I mean anyone - leadership by this definition is an activity not a role.

Turning Heads On

However, spending time with customers is not enough to demonstrate that what really matters, really matters and neither is adopting the old mantra of ‘management by walking around’. These things may turn heads around but they won’t always turn heads on.

Being effective means something more like ‘management by talking around’; supporting people to think about and discuss what really matters and how to achieve it more often, more easily and better, then to take action.

Despite the label, ‘management by talking around’ really means little talking and a good deal of listening, observing and asking questions. The focus is to help others to talk about what matters and how to achieve it, not to spend time convincing or educating them about what you think they should focus on.

This essential difference, shifts responsibility and ownership to teams of people operating in collaboration and co-production with each other. It is a shift that makes it possible to spot opportunities and to leverage them quickly in a way that simply is not possible when all eyes are looking upward for instruction or permission not outward for inspiration.

The Team Is The Star

Working in this way involves supporting individuals to consider what really matters and how to achieve it but it is not about individuals. To the same extent that a soccer team of eleven ‘fancy-dans’ each trying to beat the competition alone will never win the league (and will likely struggle to even get on with one another), individual excellence matters but not nearly as much as collective competence and team spirit.

‘Management by talking around’ is therefore about helping networks of people to rise above themselves in order to achieve more together in collaboration than any of them could in isolation. This means working with people in groups, helping them into habits of open, honest and collegiate discussion about what really matters, where individual excellence is supported but where collective excellence is both the focus and the expectation.

This approach creates a virtuous cycle too. When the measure of individual performance is contribution to the success of the network, reciprocity and collaboration grow because the limiting condition that drove individualistic behaviour is removed: “look great by being better than others” being replaced with “look great by being better with others”.

Effective Collaboration Relies On Structure

Like a meeting without an agenda, collaboration if left loose and freeform can be unfocussed and unproductive. This can create disengagement and frustration, actively eroding the purpose of collaborating in the first place. Too much structure or the wrong structure, however, can have the same effect, switching people off by constraining their opportunity to contribute freely or to talk about what they think matters most.

Achieving the right balance requires deliberate structure, carefully designed. There should be focus but still the opportunity for divergent thinking and an absolute requirement to avoid group-think, otherwise collaboration may be replaced by vanilla agreement.

Effective mechanisms for collaboration therefore provoke honest reflection; encourage perspectives and assumptions to be checked and challenged; value contributions from left-field; seek to understand what matters to those collaborating; but do all of this whilst keeping focus grounded in achieving something of purpose, not supporting collaboration for collaboration’s sake.

Using Statements To Provoke Shared Reflection

One of the most effective ways that I've found to achieve this sort of open, dynamic reflection is to use simple statements to provoke group discussion, for example, statements like:

  • We are working on the right things.
  • We are working on the right number of things.
  • We are working on things in the right way.
  • We are looking after everyone's needs.
  • We are making the most of everyone's strengths.

By bringing people together to reflect against such statements we can create environments in which differences of perspective surface and open the door to new understandings and shared actions.

It's this sort of logic that informs the Easier Inc. "Confirmation Canvas" approach - a simple but tried and trusted approach to helping teams and networks into habits of systematic, open and purposeful reflection.

Use of the canvas is straight-forward and helps to shift the role of management from one of being responsible for teams to one of creating responsibility within (and across) teams.

The canvas can be used as a one off exercise or embedded to become a new approach to governance and systematic performance coaching. The statements on the canvas can be tailored to context too, often co-produced by teams and networks themselves in order to focus in more detail on aspects of their work together that they know need most development.

Find our more about the Confirmation Canvas approach in the short explainer video below.


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